Booji Boy, crooner?
There are fewer musical sub-genres considered so across the board lame as muzak. Even other questionable genres and sub-genres, like Christian rock or vanity albums (IE. a record made by Bruce Willis or Solo Cup heiress Dora Hall), have a fan base. Muzak, or as it was more quaintly known “elevator music”, were the instrumental nuggets associated with portals of American consumerist Hell. Elevators, waiting rooms, the dentist’s office, assorted department stores your parents or grandparents would shop at and being put on hold were just a few of the key places that one would be assaulted by the tepid, non-threatening notes of muzak. Whether it was something originally created to be as inoffensive as possible or golden hits and oldies watered down to a level of being barely recognizable pre-chewed, pre-digested musical pablum, it was a format that was inescapable by the mid to late 1970s. So who better to subvert arguably the most hated form of music in America and make it not only great, but mind-blowingly brilliant than the pioneers who got scalped themselves, than DEVO?
In 1981, the band behind the energy domes released two cassette tapes via their official fan club, the still-thriving and operating Club DEVO, featuring “muzak” versions of some of their better (and lesser) known songs. Whether you were a member or smart enough to purchase their then current New Traditionalists album which included an order form. The original description read as “Muzak versions of your favorite DEVO tunes performed by DEVO at a rare casual moment. Mutated versions of DEVO classics, “Whip It,” “Mongoloid,” and many others round out this limited edition collectors item.”
These tracks were enough of a hot commodity among both DEVO fans and the curious alike to warrant bootlegs available both via vinyl (some of which are still warranting figures up to $200 online) and even apparently an 8-track tape. It was released to the general public in 1987 via a CD from Rykodisc, which combined both tapes. For a band that has built a legacy of coloring outside the lines and mixing commentary on the fallacies and foibles of American culture with sounds and images that are often surreal, this album is a strange artifact, even for the most hardcore spud.
Each song is a contained sonic world that ranges from schmaltz to eerie to just downright whimsical. Some tracks are easily identifiable, like the versions of “Space Junk” and “Gates of Steel.” The vast majority have been beautifully mutated into something almost wholly new. A few have the resonation of Lawrence Welk after taking four hits of strong Orange Sunshine acid and going on an exotic animal wrestling exhibition (“Come Back Jonee,” “Girl U Want”). The E-Z Listening version of “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction” actually sounds akin to a live rehearsal of The Residents brilliant cover of the hoary old Rolling Stones chestnut. A lot of the tracks have a cinematic flair, whether it is the eeriness of “Mongoloid” (the E-Z version of it would be amazing in a horror film), the “made-for-TV detective film from Mars” feel of “S.I.B.” or the wistful end credits vibe of “Pity You.” (Seriously, any of you filmmakers out there please feel free to take notes and utilize these songs. You will be better off for it.)
The Rykodisc release of E-Z Listening has been out-of-print for several years, but thanks to those resurrectors of worthy past culture, Futurismo, it’s back in a beautifully formatted, ultra-swanky two disc or LP box set. There’s even a special edition that comes with a DEVO smoking jacket and cocktail drink stir.
It’s a fitting edition of what was a novelty to some, but a beautiful release of sonic Dada that brings whimsy, lightness, shadowy sinister and all of those elements that have seen DEVO counted among the greatest American artists—musically or conceptually—to have emerged out of the post-baby boom era.
The absolute stand-out here is undoubtedly the muzaky version of “Whip It.” Everything that is right in this world is included in this piece of music, actually leveling it above the great (though sadly overplayed-to-Hell) original. It’ll make you want to start flipping off of walls Spazz Attack-style, though you might want to wear a helmet and gird your loins first before doing so.
A live “Girl U Want” over EZ on the 1982 tour:
Take an EZ listen to what Mark Mothersaugh claims is his favorite DEVO album: