By Phillip Ratliff
It was Friday and traffic coming out of Atlanta was baking in the late afternoon sun. I was in my new Fiat 500—a nimble and reasonably priced bucket of metal and plastic if there ever was one—creeping along the painted tarmac, under a web of ramps, past an expanse of construction dirt that makes Grady Hospital appear to be succumbing to the ravages of strip mining.
It took 20 minutes of maneuvering through traffic, but my Fiat and I were zipping at 80 mph toward the Magic City. Before me lay slightly more than two hours of interstate, bisected by Anniston, with its lovely Starbucks. Each segment represents about an hour. Experience has taught me that the two hours can be mind numbing, at best, and dangerously sleep inducing, at worse. Spent from workday tedium, I reached for my iPhone and fumbled for music.
Outwardly, my Fiat is a bubbly play-pretty straight off the shelves of Toys R Us. Inwardly, it is pure aggression. When I’m actually moving, I can feel the road beneath its trembling floorboard. The Fiat’s nerdy defiance suggested a peculiar sort of musical catalogue. Punk? Yes. The Fiat is an imp of a ride. But not just punk. My Fiat is also charming, even lovable. I needed a subcategory of punk, one that’s accessible, winsome, and just a wee bit geeky.
I started my playlist with the geekiest of punk bands, Devo. What made this music work so well in this particular environment? Devo’s rhythms are mechanical, almost robotic. Though the band’s synth lines are pervasive, this is Devo’s most guitar-driven period. Surely Devo’s anti-authoritarian lyrics add bite. Yet, Devo is approachable in a way that someone with prison tats and safety pin piercings isn’t. Most punk bands don’t wear matching outfits.
Many think of Devo as a one-hit novelty act from the early 80s. The so-called flowerpot hats bolster the popular suspicion. In fact, Devo had a good decade under the belts of their yellow jumpsuits when they released “Whip It.” For proof, check out their insanely entertaining cover of “Satisfaction,” performed on SNL in 1979. Or their live performances of “Smart Patrol/Mr. DNA,” “Mongoloid,” and “Uncontrollable Urge.” Note the audience responses, while you’re at it. Underneath the playful exterior, Devo was, in the minds of their early fans, revolutionaries.
Fifty miles later, I had moved across the state line and on to the ska punk band The Mighty Mighty Bosstones. Make no mistake: this music of the 1990s era phenom is more pop than punk, thanks mostly to catchy horn lines and earworm melodies. Their lyrics, though filled with post-modern recursions and goofy asides, speak no truth to power, topple no icons. But there’s intensity there. The Bosstones achieves the punk part of the “ska punk” genre via distorted guitar and front man Dicky Barrett’s vocal style, which vacillates between raspy singing and even raspier yelling. “The Impression That I Get” features one perfectly timed primal scream, repeated before each chorus. In his cover of “Detroit, Rock City,” Barrett shouts the entire song, executing not a single recognizable pitch.
I exited the interstate at Anniston and headed north for a cup of blonde roast. After a few swallows, I was feeling wide-eyed and indestructible again. Ten minutes later, I was back on I-20, bellowing along with the Beastie Boys’ “Sabotage.” (The I-20 trucking community no doubt enjoyed the sight.) I pulled up “Intergalactic,” with its oddly filtered spoken word passages, then “Brass Monkey,” with a squeaky sax riff that predates a similar device in “Thrift Shop” by almost three decades.
I get that the Beastie Boys are not without controversy. The genre’s purists are still put off by their shameless mockery of early hip hop tropes—backward hats, baggy pants, gold chains. The argument goes that hip hop is the language of African-American poverty and dissent. Children of New York intelligentsia have no right to use the musical lexicon to line their wallets and gripe about trivialities.
However, like many musical languages, philosophical motivations eventually divorce from the structural elements. Borrowing and repurposing have long precedence in music, past and present. Beethoven airlifted structures and devices from opera and dropped them into his late symphonies. Indeed, sampling and re-appropriating are essential to the language of hip hop itself.
That might strike some as undue rationalization about a band known for fighting for the right to party. The fact is, my ears like the Beastie Boys precisely for their lack of depth. There are really only two layers at play in their music, a punk-metal beat underpinning the rather ridiculous rhymes of three nebbishes.
I have better things to think about. The Birmingham skyline is coming into view, framed by my Fiat’s windshield. It’s a humble, scrappy skyline. The financial towers give the scene its height. The squat two- and three-story brick buildings provide density and rhythm. The spires of St. Paul’s and the Concord Center further the interest. It’s a beautifully composed image, like an establishing shot in a movie. I experience the warmth of this scene every time I approach Birmingham from this angle.
If my two-hour jaunt were a movie, my playlist would have given my movie its soundtrack. What do soundtracks accomplish? Why have them? They add a layer of sound to the purely visual aspects of cinema—that’s a sort of piling on of information on top of another type of information. But music also projects out, bringing an interior world to the surface. If I were my film’s protagonist, what would my playlist reveal about me? I have five more minutes of drive time and then I’m home. Maybe I’ll push the pause button and think on that.