Unpublished, probably 1979

Ducks Deluxe Matter Tonight

Ducks Deluxe is a British bar band: about as British, that is, as the Rolling Stones or Brinsley Schwarz. Which is to say they've devoted their spare time to digesting all those bits and pieces of America's distant rock 'n roll past, like Chuck Berry and Eddie Cochran and the whole cultural cornucopia associated with it. And in two albums, one slightly lobotomized for its U.S. debut in 1974 and the other deemed by RCA unsuitable even to be released stateside, they have pretty well demonstrated their mastery of the idiom. And a whole lot more.

They are neoclassical rock 'n rollers, self-conscious primitives. Their task is to recoup the fundamental energy invested in rock 'n roll, the energy of an industrialized, motorized society and the energy of the people who work it. And they seek out rock 'n roll's archetypal voice, perhaps best realized in Bob Dylan's most furiously driven work. But they also got the smarts. They know where they come from, and what's been happening all these years. They are no 50s-revival band: they are completely contemporary.

They cultivate crudeness for its own simle beauty, yet insist on their own timely consciousness. The members of Ducks Deluxe are born rock fans: they find beauty and take pride in that loud and raucous music, and are convinced of its aptitude to the real world. But they have a reasoned sense of their actions: more than any band I can think of they eschew the tendency to mythmongering. They seem driven to create a sound that perfectly exemplifies their sense of the world, a sensibility grounded in the language of rock 'n roll.

The result is impressive. Their two albums contain some of the most powerful, satisfying music tis rock fan has ever heard. But they also strike my fancy for a few reasons so simple they may not even hvae occurred to the group. Still it is interesting how little support RCA gave their albums, full of fast rockers with surefire hooks, how a band that can play rings around almost any group extant couldn't get concert dates and was forced to disband. (Latest word is that they're back together again, with a new EP I haven't heard yet.) Especially interesting given the industry brouhaha over Bruce Springsteen, a sanitary throwback to the days when rock was raunch, which implicitly acknowledges a market for Ducks wile simultaneously attempting to confuse it.

The difference is in the relation between myth and irony, between taking a history and ridding it of its contrariness, commodifying it into a tidy little souvenir, and grasping a living history full of its complexity and contradiction. In a situation where popular culture is being degraded and destroyed at corporate whim, that is a difference that matters. Aside from rollicking good fun, Ducks Deluxe is a band of extraordinary subtlety and irony. What they offer is neither slick nor readily identifiable: rather than catering to a simplified emotion, they preserve the natural complexity of their situations. they invite close, engaged listening without being abstract or paradoxical about it. And since listening is what really matters in music, they have a lot to say. Which seems to be pretty well in opposition to contemporary industry standards.

Their first album, Ducks Deluxe, was an American extravaganza. Produced by Dave Bloxham, it stretched rock 'n roll through every facet of America's popular inheritance, ranging from fast rockers like "Don't Mind Rockin' Tonight" and the raver "Fireball" to the slow and thick "Who Put the Bomp" and the Dylanish "West Texas Trucking Board." The U.S. edition omitted the soft rocker, "I Got You," and spun the album into a strong side and a weak one, the latter collecting a brace of rather listless covers ("Nervous Breakdown," an Edie Cochran tune, and Bobby Womack's "It's All Over Now") and winding down with a couple plain weirdos, the bluesy "Falling for That Woman" and the jazz-tinged "Too Hot to Handle." But the British version spread the whole batch out, so that the oddities gained strength and meaning from their context -- at least you didn't just stick to side one, getting only half the story -- and even the covers made sense.

The second album, taking a Chuck Berry line, "Taxi to the Terminal Zone," out of context for a title, is occasionally available as an import. Dave Edmunds produced, trading in a bit of the first album's diversity for an extra shot of get up and go. High spots include "Rio Grande" and "It Doesn't Matter Tonight," an astonishing pair of complex sexual potboilers. "My My Music" is a virtual rock 'n roll manifesto; "Woman of the Man" an anti-Eagles answer song that is much more than clever, and a right decent song to boot. A remake of the Flamin Groovies' classic "Teenage Head" is a sparing homage to primitivist punkdom. And then there's "Paris 9," which tests the very limits of the title's terminal zone, and will give your speakers a good run for the money as well.

And hopefully there'll still be more to come. Ducks are masters of America's most prototypical music, masters of rock 'n roll. And they have added their own intelligence and conviction to it. We need bands like Ducks Deluxe; we need their intelligence as well as their strength. And we need to garner our own strength and intelligence. As they put it in one song, "it's a dirty business, sir." It's no mean trick to live with that knowledge.

Archaeological notes: May 10, 2002

Retyped from an unedited manuscript. This was the last piece I tried to write for the Voice, at least until 1995.