I was over at MyVinylDreams yesterday, and djjedready had posted a Siouxsie + The Banshees 12″ of “Peek-A-Boo” that I wanted to comment on and then it struck me: DEVO had a single with the same title! You don’t suppose…? Could it be overdue for another virtual smackdown in The Monk’s Squared Circle Of Pain®? It’s been two years since we had one here at PPM and Covid-19 or not, it’s time for some smack talk.
While there had been several songs titled “Peek-A Boo” for our purposes, we’ll consign ourselves to the New Wave/Post-Punk bands we’re all about. DEVO got there first in 1982 with the lead off single from their make-or-break fifth album, “Oh No! It’s DEVO!”
While DEVO’s third album had yielded a hit with “Whip It,” their follow up, “New Traditionalists” had done donuts in the parking lot of album sales. The “DEVO-goes-Zoom” appeal of “Through Being Cool” failed to connect with the fickle teen market who had taken to “Whip it.” Big guns had been brought in. The album was produced by Hot Shot Producer® Roy Thomas Baker; maker of hits! But to these ears it sounded just like DEVO had since 1980. Increasingly synthetic with walloping dance beats and guitars and drums being edged out by machines. No different than from the last album, which DEVO self-produced at far lower cost than RTB, I’m sure.
DEVO may have held the producer at bay since there’s none of his penchant for stacked harmonies to show for his work here. The biggest sonic distinction here was the hard, flat, synthetic beats that were like a sock in the jaw. The songs weird chorus was of a guttural pirate [as seen in the video] shouting “Ha! Ha! Ha! Ha!” followed by Mark’s exhortation of “Peek-A-Boo!” The latter as run through a synth for some rubbery distortion.
The band were really couching their songs of social dissonance in as bouncy and ironic a sonic setting as possible. Gerald Casale was on record as saying that the song, which used infantile metaphor, was about noting the shadowy underbelly that society demands we keep well hidden. The performance of this tune was very much a “digital cartoon” as the cover blurb of their 1988 album, “Total DEVO” would later claim. I did like the synth riff that called attention to the dark aspects of the theme like a warning claxon in our midst. It’s certainly a typical example of “high DEVO.” Here’s the band performing it live in the Great White North a [gulp!] decade ago.
Six years later, Siouxsie + The Banshees released the lead off single from their 1988 album “Peepshow,” in the completely unique “Peek-A-Boo.” That album probably got its name from this rather amazing song that examined the power dynamic between dancer and gazer at an actual peepshow. If the subject matter was far darker than the pop chart norm, then don’t tell the chart police because the song hit number 16 in the UK and was the band’s first charting single in the Billboard Hot 100 at number 53. But if the subject matter here was unusual, the song itself went much further off the map.
The song was begun a year prior as the band took brass and drum elements from their version of John Cale’s “Gun” and began manipulating them in a sampler…backwards. Laying a foundation that sounded like a fife and rum corps from hell. Their producer was the “game for anything” Mike Hedges, who had already worked with The Associates at their most florid, so the rulebook was duly jettisoned up front.
The forwards and backwards elements of the song almost meshed to attain a shambolic chaos crackling with vitality as the conventional elements of the song, like bass and guitar were pared down to the bone to achieve something extraordinary this time. Drummer Budgie added a second thunderous drum track going forward, over the whole thing and the wheezing accordion from Martin McCarrick added the odd cherry on the top of this dazzling single. When they had finished making this one obviously, it was destined for much more than B-side status. Why not enjoy this alternative student film version of the video with directrix Helen Pearce cutting a fairly competent figure as a Siouxie impersonator?
As much as I love those Spuds, they were no match for the SATB juggernaut having a late-in-the-game burst of extreme creativity with their own “Peek-A-Boo.” The latter is one of the most distinctive singles that the band ever issued and I’m still astonished that it charted as high as it did in America. What were we doing right back then?
Also, when I was researching this post, I made the astonishing discovery that the “Silver Dollar Mix” as released in the UK on 12″ and on the 2002 “Best Of ” 2xCD was an 8:12 edit of the full monty 9:58 North American “Silver Dollar Mix” that was played in full on the US 12″ and even the Canadian 12″ and CD5 from our friends in the Great White North!
New Traditionalist was NOT the album I wanted from Devo after Freedom Of Choice. It was more likely the album the record company wanted – has always been my way of thinking. But Oh, No! It’s Devo was really where I got off the bus. I remember being in an NYC disco for some event and Peek-A-Boo was dropped by the DJ causing a gaggle of big hair young ladies to throw their shoulder bags down on in a pile on the dance floor and throw shapes around in a circle…I still shake my head in disgust 40 yrs later. Listening to the track out of that context, which isn’t so easy, it has some very good elements and some rather forgettable elements. In the end, if I compare Peek-A-Boo to say the next single Good Thing, it’s high art.
Now as for Siouxsie And The Banshee’s song of the same name, I will admit to also being thrown off my chair upon first hearing. Not because it wasn’t a good, no great song, it was just so happy sounding. It took a few listens to get into the song lyrics to see that the sweet and fun aspects of the song were just a nectar to capture listeners with. As a massive fan, it was obvious to these ears that there was something familiar about the song. The band teased that it was a reverse processing of elements of another track and although I would never say I knew it was Gun, I did think it felt a kin to the work on Through The Listening Glass. Peek-A-Boo was the first taste of the maturing SATB. They were expanding their sound but kept their cache and held true to their roots on those last albums.
I have a soft spot for New Traditionalists, party because I find Beautiful World such a devastating song.
Agree though that SatB win hands down here. It was as if they were working hard to turn things upside down and inside out to replace the hungry creativity of their early to mid period with something different. Certainly they outpaced their contemporaries who were struggling at the time with the all pervading late 80s malaise.
My love for them deepens with each passing year, a band that never patronised or under estimated their audience.
SimonH – I really liked “New Traditionalists.” I’m a sucker for “Pity You” as well as “Race Of Doom.” And I’d say that “Beautiful World” was DEVO’s best song. Not their most arresting number, but the one that put across their theme the strongest.
Agree, the lyric makes me think of the Kafka quote re there being an infinite amount of hope in the universe… just ‘not for us’!
And let us not forget “Going Under” which is all but a manifesto for disillusioned suburban youth.
JT – Too right there, pally!
DEVO sounded with the start of OH NO… really like a bad cover version of themselves. It was all too clear they where struggling under pressure and even their irony was dull making fun of themselves then imho. And ‘Peak A Boo’ wasn’t even the worst track on the Album.
Siouxsie & The Banshees really surprised me, especially after the lame ‘Song From The Edge Of The World’ and build up to one of their best Albums, the addition of Martin McCarrick from the Mambas and Willing Sinners and Mike Hedges whose work is not to underestimate did help for sure.
I almost always find myself in alone in my love of Song From The Edge Of The World. It is completely over the top and, IMO not to be taken too seriously. On top of that, it has to be the 7:35 Columbus Mix! – all full of layers of Jon Klein’s slicing guitars, Martin McCarrick’s synths and piano favored by another Mike behind the mixing deck, producer Mike Thorne. I love Siouxsie’s dispassionate vocals as well. It may have been just a stop gap single, but it made an impact with me.
Echorich, you aren’t alone, I love it as well!
I read somewhere that their view of the track is coloured by a very tense recording process, with quite a bit of band/producer conflict.
SimonH – I only recently heard that the band had a problem with it. I have the 12″ but the “Columbus Mix” is also on the 2xCD “Best Of Siouxsie + The Banshees” that has the 2nd disc of 12″ mixes. I need to give it a spin and report back with my findings as I think I listened to it once. The vinyl? Never.
“Oh No It’s Devo” may very well be my favourite album by them – great straightforward and catchy synthpop with substance. The songs I like less are “Speed racer” and “Peek-a-boo” – the former a bit too silly, the latter jarring and less effective (and I think it was a huge mistake to release it as a first single instead of, say, “That’s good”). Otherwise it’s the album by them I return to on a very regular basis, may be their peak for me. The preceding two are as solid – but “Oh No” has that bright and aggressive synthetic sound I dig so much. Roy Baker trying for the new 1980s sound, which he will take further with two similar albums from the next year – lesser one by Espionage and a great one by The World.
Haven’t heard the Siouxsie song so not in a position to comment.
Ok-made me listen. I *love* the SATB version and loved it when it came out. I really didn’t pay too much to the lyrics but the music and their style were awesome back then. Again, so different from the normal US mainstream sound. Meh on the DEVO version.
Break-have Tix to OMD in Brighton and a plans to see Blondie two days before….will send pics 😉🙂
Bridget – Yeah, SATB walk all over the DEVO track. So you got OMD tix to coincide with your Blondie trip! Excellent. I have tix for a show on the 23rd in Raleigh, NC that we are definitely not attending!