Mark Mothersbaugh is best known as the singer for new wave legends Devo, and has expanded his creative output through film scoring, visual arts and even designing his own line of eyewear. In his Guest DJ set, he talks about discovering The Beatles, how Captain Beefheart rocked his world and the lessons he learned about subversion from an unlikely source. Mark created an original score for In & Of Itself, a critically-acclaimed show currently running at the Geffen Playhouse.
Hosted by Eric J. Lawrence.
- The Buggs - "Mersey Mercy"
- Captain Beefheart - "The Blimp"
- "Pachelbel's Canon"
- Nino Rota - "Madeja - Primadeja"
- Perrey & Kingsley - "The Unidentified Flying Object"
Eric J. Lawrence: Hi, I’m Eric J. Lawrence, and I’m here with Mark Mothersbaugh. He first entered the public consciousness as the bespectacled lead singer of new wave legends, Devo, but he’s also since ventured into the realms of film scoring, visual arts and even designing his own line of eyewear.
We’re thrilled to have him here today to talk about some of the songs that inspired him over the years, as part of KCRW’s Guest DJ Project. Mark, thank you so much for coming down.
Mark Mothersbaugh: It’s a treat to be here.
EJL: Well, what’s the first song you got for us?
MM: Well, the first song I have for us is from the very first album I ever bought. And what had happened was, there were 5 kids in our family and the way my dad kept chaos to a minimum at dinnertime, is he would set a little portable black and white TV on the table and we’d all kinda watch Ed Sullivan.
This was 1964 and just happened to be one night I remember Ed Sullivan comes on and goes, “and now from Liverpool, the Beatles!” and this band played and it gave me goosebumps.
I then ventured out to Woolworth’s to buy a Beatles record. And I got to Woolworth’s and had never bought a record before and I was kinda shocked that albums were like $6.98 in those days. And I was like, “Wow.” And I’m looking at this one and it’s got the four Beatles on it, you know, just their heads, but then I found a version of the same album that was only a $1.99. It had the four heads; I just grabbed it and bought it. I got the $1.99 Beatles record.
I went home and I put it on and the first song started and I go, “No, that’s not what I heard.” Then the second song came on and I go, “That’s not what I heard on TV.” Then the third, and I kept going through them all and by the time I got to the last song, I’m kind of really upset because they’re like singing these stupid lyrics and then all the sudden it goes into a chorus that goes (SINGS) “You got me bug, bug, bug, bug. Hey little lady bug, I’m in love with you.” And I thought, “That’s the worst song I’ve ever heard.”
And then I went back to look at the cover to try to figure out how I got the wrong album and then I realized I bought an album by a group called The Buggs and it said they were doing the Liverpool sound and they weren’t really The Beatles.
EJL: Well here it is, one of the most inspirational rock forgeries -- The Buggs with “Mersey Mercy.”
Song: The Buggs -- “Mersey Mercy”
EJL: That was The Buggs with “Mersey Mercy” from the Beetle Beat. It was picked by our guest Mark Mothersbaugh. What’s the next track you got for us?
MM: Okay, so I’m trying to remember the year. Well, I was still at my parents’ house, I know that. I hadn’t figured out how to move out yet.
But I got this album, it was awesome. And I thought after this album came out that all other albums would be meaningless and that the whole course of music was changing overnight because of this album. It was called Trout Mask Replica and the artist was named Captain Beefheart.
It didn’t change everything in music, but a lot of people have cited that album as being inspirational to them. But I picked a song off that record called “The Blimp” because when Devo started recording, the first song we did that was a cover was, “Secret Agent Man,” and we put it in a little film that we had made. And at the beginning of the song, Booji Boy, who is my alter ego, he plays a synth solo that he ends with an homage to "The Blimp." He quotes the melody to it. So I’ve always loved that song and it has a place in my heart that way.
EJL: Well here it is, one of the most legendary, difficult records from Captain Beefheart, Trout Mask Replica with "The Blimp."
Song: Captain Beefheart – “The Blimp”
EJL: That was Captain Beefheart with “The Blimp” as selected by our guest, Mark Mothersbaugh. What’s the next track you got for us?
MM: The next track is another one that relates to early Devo. You know Jerry and Bob and I were all of the age and around at Kent State during the shootings. It was an amazing period of the school before that. The art department was incredible energy and very creative and we had teachers that were very interesting and doing kind of far reaching things and you know, we felt empowered.
We thought we were gonna help end the war on Vietnam. And after the shooting -- that happened in May, the school reopened in September -- and everything was different. It wasn’t the same energy anymore. It was like everybody that had felt inspired and everybody that felt like they had something to contribute, they kind of shut down and we were surprised. We thought people were going to come back twice as angry and instead we came back to a school where everybody went, “Oh that was a little too much for me.”
We, Jerry Casale, and my brother Bob and I, we were thinking, well how do you change things? If it’s not by rebellion, how do you do it? I had a day job painting apartments at the time, a part time job, so I was listening to the radio as I was painting a wall in a house in Akron and you know, everybody is familiar with Pachelbel’s Canon, one of the most beautiful pieces of music ever written, you know. But the music started up on the radio, just an AM station, and there were lyrics now to it and they went,
“Hold the pickle; hold the lettuce, special orders don’t upset us, all we ask that you let us serve it your way.” And I was like, “Oh my god, that’s awesome.” I couldn’t believe it.
That was like the most subversive thing I’d ever heard. And we had been trying to figure how do you change things? Who does change things? We realized, oh it’s Madison Avenue. They get people to buy things they shouldn’t buy; they get people to eat things they shouldn’t eat, they got people to drive things they shouldn’t drive and they do it happily!
We realized it was kind of manipulative energy that was thought provoking and made us think, well okay, we could be the Akron, Ohio version of The Residents and we could always be in Akron and put a record out every year and a hundred people would buy it, or we could go right into the belly of the beast and we could see just how strong the Devo aesthetic was, how powerful our philosophy and our politics were. So we chose the latter and we loaded up an Econoline van and drove out to Los Angeles.
EJL: And we have Pachelbel’s Canon to thank for it.
MM: It was a contributing factor.
Song: Pachelbel’s Canon
EJL: That was a jingle that our guest Mark Mothersbaugh brought in for us. What’s the next track you've got for us?
MM: So at the same time I was at Kent State in 1969, the shootings hadn’t happened yet. I was finding out about all sorts of things that I didn’t know existed before in the world. I sat in a classroom and screened a movie called Satyricon, I’d never heard about before. Somebody recommended that I go see it so I’m like, “Well alright, I’m gonna check this out.”
And the movie is probably Fellini’s most amazing movie he ever did. It’s certainly, in some ways, his most bold film. There’s almost no dialogue in the whole thing and the music for it is very abstract. I just love the music for it, so pretty much anything on the soundtrack you could pick out and it’s an example of the earliest inspirations for later on a career in film scoring.
Song: Nino Rota -- "Madeja - Primadeja"
EJL: I know a lot of folks these days that are involved in film scoring have had a history like yourself in performing pop music. People like Danny Elfman, Hans Zimmer, even Philip Glass played in a pop band for a while. How has that informed your film work?
MM: You know there’s pluses and minuses, but I see that a lot of people that come out of school for training and come out to LA and want to be composers end up kind getting relegated to orchestrators. There’s a couple reasons that are totally unfair, including people want to buy a brand, you know, branding is really important, but part of it is that I see that happens is that in school they don’t really put much of an emphasis on melody. And I think when you’re in a band that is something that you have done. And, you know, different periods of filmmaking there’s more of an independent side to it and in bands you’re kind of used to working in that genre, and that kind of thing, where "Okay, we’re gonna score the film in a garage, we can do it." As opposed to, "In a garage? I can’t get enough violin players in there." So, I think it’s got pluses and cons.
EJL: Well here it is, Nino Rota’s classic soundtrack to the film Satyricon.
Song: Nino Rota – “Madeja – Primadeja”
EJL: That was Nino Rota with the soundtrack to Satyricon selected by our guest, Mark Mothersbaugh. What’s the next track you got for us?
MM: The next track is by a couple of electronic artists named Perrey and Kingsley and they were around in like the mid 60’s- late 60’s. But this album, I got it from a gallery owner named Ray Packard. He had a gallery in Akron, Ohio and in 1975, he put on my first show as a visual artist, but while we were there he said, “Hey have you ever heard of this album?”
It was called The In Sound From Way Out. And he played me this record and it was incredible because it was a combination of, on one hand very kind of kitschy, silly Manhattan cocktail party music with like a harpsicord, a bass and a drum and it’d be going, dun dun doo doo doo doo doo duma dum doo doo doodoo doo doo dun, BUT what they were about, they were tape manipulators. And so they would put a piece of music on a piece of audio tape, slide it over the tape head by hand, so instead of playing the song normally, it would go bwamp meowp bup bwomp and then they meticulously cut all those pieces of tape together and made rhythm tracks that went bwamp bwamp bwamp bum bum guddunk gudomp.
Song: Perrey and Kingsley – "The Unidentified Flying Object"
EJL: That was Perrey and Kingsley with some selections from The In Sound From Way Out, as selected by our guest Mark Mothersbaugh. Well Mark, I want to thank you so much for coming down and joining us here at KCRW.com.
MM: Well, it’s been delightful.