Joe Ely, like his late compadre Joe Strummer, has something of the eternal juvenile delinquent about him. It’s not just the pompadour or sly look plastered on his face, but a persistent desire to break rules and trespass outside his home turf.
“B4 84” isn’t a new album, but unearthed demos from a period in 1982-83 when Ely was without a band, out of sorts and looking for a new direction. The 8-bit cover art and liner notes from Apple Computer’s own Steve Wozniak bely the hook this album hangs upon; it was recorded with an Apple IIe using some new and experimental components way back when.
There’s a strong twinge of nostalgia for me here. The Apple IIe was the first computer I ever touched, way back in Kindergarten when we were all given “how the future will work lessons” on the big beige boxes. The production is also charming retro, even if it was cutting edge at the time. Lots of old rootsy types like Ely tried hard to adapt to the synthy landscape of the 80’s. Neil Young got sued for not sounding like himself precisely for putting out “Everybody’s Rockin'” and “Trans”, a rockabilly and a synth record, respectively. Ely, somehow, manages to split the difference between those two 80’s trends and come out with something that here in the far off future of 2014, still sounds and feels good.
Part of the reason for this success is that a lot 80’s pop is about reviving old style of music with new technology, like the Bangles sweetened up garage rock, Elvis Costello’s British Invasion updates, the Smiths nods to Elvis and yeah, the Stray Cats doing a hair-spray version of rockabilly. Ely is at home in all those styles because he grew up with them, they’re not sounds learned from records, but part of his musical DNA. His (relative) age was a benefit to him as he sat alone in Austin, plinking around with his computer. A juvenile delinquent programming himself a roadhouse band.
The songs on this album ended up being demos for the album “High Res,” which has never been released in the US. We may not know exactly what that album sounds like, but it’s hard to imagine big label interference improving “Imagine Houston” which uses drum machines, synthy sounds and lyrics about a chrome moon to approach something like down home cyber punk. This album might also have my favorite version of “Cool Rockin’ Loretta” on it, which is improved by the chilly silicon instrumentation contrasting the smoldering songwriting.
Contrast the electronic instrumentation here, which still sounds fresh and vital, with the cheesy synth horn sections of “Happy Songs from Rattlesnake Gulch.” I’m inclined to make an argument that progress ain’t always progress, but I was a child in the 80’s and these sounds will always sound like the future to me; a future so hot and bright I was going to need mirrored shades and fingerless gloves to grasp it. In a certain respect, country music is all about nostalgia. Nostalgia for lost loves, faraway homes, and simpler times. By embracing the future and nostalgia at once, Joe Ely managed to presage Daft Punk by a few decades, without sacrificing humanity or grit.