vulture lists

13 Delightfully Bizarre High-Concept Bands

Last week, Devo released their new “party album,” Something for Everybody. Remember Devo? A long time ago, they wrote art-rock songs about how society was devolving and mankind was regressing. Well, here we are in the future, and Devo’s worst fears have been realized: Our rock stars are making out with monkeys and all our cats are illiterate. That Devo — so smart! In order to properly honor their genius, we’re looking back on other high-concept acts who were way ahead of their time. Liberal-arts grad students, start your dissertations.

The concept: On albums like 1978’s The Man-Machine and 1981’s Computer World, German electronic-music pioneers Ralf Hütter and Florian Schneider suggested that industrial progress would eventually turn the whole human race into robots. Since then, they’ve gotten considerably less warm-blooded themselves: On tour, they often get electronically-controlled mannequins to play them onstage. The conflict: It’s 2010, and the human race is mostly mortal — with the possible exception of Betty White. But wait … : Considering that robots have already taken over Beyoncé, Christina Aguilera, and Fergie, it’s only a matter of time before all of us get cyborg-ified. To which we say, “Whoo Hoo!” Or as our robot overlords put it, “1001001!”
The concept: Record producer Jacques Morali created this quintet as the ultimate macho-man fantasy band. But with a police officer, a biker, a cowboy, a Native American, and a construction worker, they were also no different from the people in your neighborhood — if your neighborhood was located directly between an S&M bar and the world’s gayest disco. The conflict: Ironically, their hit “YMCA,” a tribute to their favorite hot spot for gay cruising, has become a staple at straight weddings. But wait … : Five wholesome dudes in leather doing synchronized dancing? They certainly made way for these guys and these guys.
The concept: Rap-metalheads and sad clowns Violent J and Shaggy 2 Dope claimed that a “dark carnival” visited them one night, warned them that the end of the world was nigh, and begged them to reveal the signs of the apocalypse through a series of fortune-telling joker cards. Of course, these “joker cards” also doubled as albums, and the music foretold of a not-too-distant future where ICP drank 40s and watched Sanford and Son reruns. Prophetic! The conflict: Caught up in the darkness of the “dark carnival,” ICP’s crazy face-painted fans, the Juggalos, have allegedly been inspired to commit matricide and stab people outside of Wendy’s. But wait … : When ICP claimed they could see into the future, they weren’t kidding. On 2000’s “Tilt a Whirl,” they sang, “We ain’t never, ever, ever gonna die, motherfucker.” A decade later, they still ain’t never, ever, ever died. Coincidence? We think not.
The concept: Founded in 1973, this L.A. punk band claimed they hailed from the planet of Plutonium, and in order to prove their alien heritage, they wore antennae, silver bodysuits, and moon boots, and dressed up their stage sets like B-movie spacecraft. Best of all, they even spoke in their own alien dialect both on and offstage, even rechristening their guitarist Ygarr Ygarrist. The conflict: Unable to control puny human brains, Zolar X were kicked off Fox’s reality show The Next Great American Band. Ygarrgh! But wait … : They tried to warn us that aliens were taking on human form, but we didn’t listen. Now it’s too late for Wayne Coyne, Lady Gaga, and Al Gore.
The concept: Back in 1996, San Francisco–based singer-guitarist Jay Vance built every member of this heavy-metal band out of bike chains, John Deere gearshifts, and other flotsam and jetsam. Members include DRMBOT 0110 (a severed doll’s head that plays drums), The Ape Which Hath No Name (a stuffed gorilla that plays tambourine), The Son of the Ape Which Hath No Name (a smaller stuffed gorilla who plays cymbals), and the Headless Hornsmen (a brass section played by decapitated robots). Vance now claims he’s a “human slave” to the ‘bots, who’ve implanted a microchip in his brain that forces him to humiliate himself. The conflict: Maybe the concept worked a little too well. Even offstage, Vance only responds to “JBOT” and responds to questions like, “How’s it goin’, man?” with lengthy descriptions of how he’s endured robot-administered torture. Either the dude never breaks character, or he’s one screw short of a fully-functioning homo sapien thought-machine. But wait … : A microchip that makes musicians humiliate themselves? That would certainly explain Kanye West.
The concept: Wearing powdered wigs and singing from the perspective of eighteenth-century British aristocrats, this Boston quartet have been spoofing rock stars’ rich-kid aspirations since the mid-nineties with punk anthems like “I’ve Got My Asscot ‘N’ My Dickie,” “We’re Finished With Finishing School,” and “Let Them Eat Rock.” The conflict: It’s hard to be truly punk rock when you’re wearing velvet knickers. But wait … : Proving that they were always politically astute, singer-guitarist Lord Rockingham (Ted Widmer) left the band in 1997 to become a speechwriter for Bill Clinton.
The concept: Back in the mid-eighties, when R.E.M. were putting Athens, Georgia’s music scene on the map, Southern Culture singer-guitarist Rick Miller heard a D.J. call R.E.M. “the sound of the New South.” From that moment on, his rockabilly-loving band parodied the idea of “the New South” in songs like “White Trash,” “Too Much Pork for Just One Fork,” and “Daddy Was a Preacher, But Mama Was a Go-Go Girl.” During shows, SCOTS even threw fried chicken and banana pudding at the crowd, all in the name of satire (and deliciousness). The conflict: As they picked up die-hard fans across the Bible Belt and beyond, one question grew increasingly urgent: When proud, fried-chicken-eating, sons-of-preacher-men are singing along, does your music stop being ironic? But wait … : If Kid Rock wasn’t a Detroit-born, Confederate flag–sporting, “Sweet Home Alabama”–singing dude, we’d be sure that Rick Miller made him up.
The concept: New York rapper Daniel Dumile’s backstory could make a Marvel comic book. More than a decade ago, he formed the hip-hop group KMD with his brother D.J. Subbroc, but when Subroc was killed in a car accident, Dumile retreated underground, living “damn near homeless, walking the streets of Manhattan, sleeping on benches.” When he finally returned to freestyling in clubs around the city, he wore an iron mask to conceal his identity, calling himself MF for “metal-face.” The conflict: Erratic performances have given rise to rumors that it’s not Dumile at all behind the mask. But wait … : At a time when every rapper’s got an overblown origin story (shot 50 times! former crack-slinger turned billionare!, etc.), Doom’s actually feels heroic.
The concept: Performing in astronaut costumes and singing about Philip K Dick and The Man from U.N.C.L.E., these Alabama space rockers have always been psyched about vintage sci-fi. But in 1998, they pulled a futuristic trick of their own when they began sending a group of “Alpha Clones” (actually MOA playing in character) out on the road. The idea was so successful that they did it a second time, this time sending out “Gamma Clones,” an all-female group masquerading as Man or Astro-Man? The conflict: The Gamma Clones made the band’s name confusing, but Man or Astro-Man or Really Hot Chick? didn’t have the same ring to it. But wait … : At a time when Auto-Tune, live lip-syncing, and face-concealing costumes are standard, does it really matter if the band itself is actually onstage? Clones just make more sense. We suspect that, if we could rip off Justin Beiber’s flesh, we might find Hal 9000.
The concept: After spending time as a psychiatric patient at Bellevue Hospital, rapper Kool Keith reinvented himself as Dr. Octagon, a time-traveling, space-alien gynecologist and surgeon from Jupiter. A true medical professional, he boasts in his songs about treating such conditions as chimpanzee acne and moosebumps. The conflict: With so many Kool Keith aliases (including Dr. Dooom, Black Elvis, Keith Korg, Poppa Large, Rhythm X, and Mr. Nogatco), you begin to wonder what’s so special about Dr. Octagon. But wait … : The most awesomely out-there character Keith has ever played has always been himself.
The concept: Illustrated by Tank Girl creator Jamie Hewlett, with music written by Blur front man Damon Albarn, this cartoon rap-pop group also happens to be the best all-simian band ever. Sucks for you, Lancelot Link and the Evolution Revolution. The conflict: It’s hard to play live when your band doesn’t actually exist. But wait … : With hits like theirs, does it really matter?
The concept: An entire band devoted to bad taste. All dolled up in what looked like Toxic Avenger costumes, these thrash-metal shock rockers pushed taboos to their limit with albums like 1993’s This Toilet Earth and frequently sprayed fans with “bodily fluids” (often made from seaweed extract) in concert. Fun fact: They were nominated for a Best Long-Form Video Grammy for 1993’s “Phallus in Wonderland,” but they lost to Annie Lennox. The conflict: They’re sometimes too revolting for their own good. While auditioning for Relativity Records, dancer-singer Slymenstra Hymen exploded a blood capsule in her codpiece and bled all over the office chairs. A&R reps don’t always go for that sort of thing. But wait … : Scoff if you like, but creating a space for the likes of Slipknot and Lordi is no mean feat.
The concept: Putting the “high” in high-concept, these funk legends invented their own (totally bananas) psychedelic mythology: Working for the intergalactic hero Dr. Funkenstein, a divine alien prophet named Starchild drives his mothership down to Earth to bring the Funk — a cure for life’s ills — to all of humanity. But first, Starchild must fight his nemesis, Sir Nose Devoid of Funk, who wants to stop Funketelechy from, er, funkinating, because … sound of bong burbling um … what were we talking about again? The conflict: Visionary front man George Clinton Parliament has occasionally seemed too stoned to follow his own complicated plotline. But wait … : If the Funk had never been beamed down to this planet, we’d never have Outkast or Gnarls Barkley. One small step for Starchild was a giant, platform-booted stomp for mankind.
13 Delightfully Bizarre High-Concept Bands