The Units | History of The Units: The Early Years (1977-1983)
Most Likely To: appeal to the de-evolved.
It’s the innovators and trailblazers that history tends to give all the glory, and that is likely the proper order of things. However, there’s something to be said for the followers and the early adaptors. They don’t come up with the idea for the wheel, but they find new and different ways to use it. Every schoolchild knows that George Washington Carver invented the peanut, but it took the good folks at Planter’s to think of slapping a top hat and monocle on it.
Which brings us to The Units. The Bay Area band was one of the earliest American post-punk outfits, and they studied Devo like seminarians study the Bible. And while many of the earliest tracks on this compilation are little more than slavish imitations of the Ohio based trailblazers, eventually The Units found ways to play with the Devo sound that Devo themselves never got around to.
The Early Years posits 1977 as the starting date for the band, and while I have no doubt that is true, they never officially released anything until 1979. God only knows what they were actually doing in 1977, but it would be miraculous indeed if vocalist Randy Dunagan sounded quite so much like Mark Mothersbaugh a year before Q: Are We Not Men was released, but whatever. It’s no skin off my nose if they want to present themselves as being further ahead of the curve than they actually were.
But anyhow, while The Units started out sounding a lot like Devo, they didn’t remain a mere imitation. On songs like “High Pressure Days” and “ I Night,” they kick Devo’s ass at their own game by carrying the energy of early Devo songs such as “Uncontrollable Urge” and “Come Back Jonee” into a totally electronic landscape, a trick the Boojie Boys never managed to pull off themselves. When Devo completely abandoned traditional instruments for synthesizers they sacrificed the manic energy of their earlier work, but The Units didn’t make that same trade-off – they went electronic but never robotic.
Eventually, other influences began to make their way into The Units music. On songs like “Contemporary Emotions” and “Cowboy,” Devo is elbowed aside in favor of Gary Numan and Ultravox, while “Tight Fit” shows they’d heard a Phillip Glass recording or three and “Zombo” echoes Kraftwerk’s mellower moments.
They never completely evolved past de-evolution, but the tracks here from Digital Stimulation, their debut long-player, showed that with songs like “Go” and the title track, The Units were able to concoct a sound that sounded like all their influences simultaneously without sounding exactly like any of them–a neat accomplishment for anyone, be they leaders or followers.
The Units recorded one more full-length album after Digital Stimulation that never saw release and a couple of EPs, then receded to the status of historical footnote – an early band in the American New Wave but ultimately too obscure to be considered influential. Still, as this compilation shows, they’re an asterisk that’s worth the jump to the bottom of the page to read about.