Gates of Steel was a 1980 song performed by the New Wave band Devo. It was written by Mark Mothersbaugh and appeared on the band's successful 1980 album Freedom of Choice. It also later appeared on their career retrospective, 2000's Pioneers Who Got Scalped. The lyrics are as follows.
Twist away the gates of steel
Unlock the secret voice
Give in to ancient noise
Take a chance a brand new dance
Twist away the gates of steel
Twist away now twist and shout
The earth it moves too slow
But the earth is all we know
We pay to play the human way
Twist away the gates of steel
A man is real not made of steel
The beginning was the end (of everything now)
The ape regards his tail (he's stuck on it)
Repeats until he fails
Half a goon and half a god
A man's not made of steel
A man is real that's how he feels
Devo was undoubtedly on the geekier edge of the New Wave movement of the late 1970s/early 1980s. Wearing goggles and plastic domes upon their heads, spouting quotes and intelligent lyrics about de-evolution and wearing identical costumes down to the same boot size, Devo was (and still is) a band for the ages.
Most of their albums are loaded with new wave synth pop and guitar rock, some of it good, some of it bad. However, the cylinders really clicked on their 1980 album Freedom of Choice, which contained a handful of truly great songs, including their only mainstream hit, Whip It. But it was another track on that album that made the best point and would go on to become one of the favorites of Devo's fandom.
Gates of Steel isn't anything splashy. It has a nice hook and a metallic-sounding synthesizer, but nothing jumps out at first. It isn't until the desperate sounding vocals of frontman Mark Mothersbaugh cut in after the hook has had a chance to establish itself that really makes the song musically shine. But what the song said in its lyrics, whether intentionally or not, makes it a anthem for the ages. This song sums up mankind's ongoing battle with technology and its role in society in a single three minute new wave pop song, saying technology itself is not a means to an end, but that it is the people underneath, refusing to conform, that really make the world a better place.
In a world buried in television, mass marketing, multimedia hoo-hah, corporate music, and technological shackles that make the world seem free but in actuality enslave us, Mothersbaugh's desperation comes through loud and clear. His voice, wavering and full of fear of unknown technological nightmares, carries with it the idea of hope, that we don't truly have to be shackled. And with that pearl of musical wisdom he provides another: the answer is, of course, inside us.
"Break away the gates of steel / unlock the secret voice" he shouts in a voice of pain drowning in technology. Fight the power, reject the tech; it's Public Enemy and Fight Club and Falling Down all rolled up into a giant ball of technological rejection, stuck together in a three minute pop song. Find the answer within you; don't let the technology blind you as to where all the great things in the world came from. Every great thing in this world came from the soul of another person, and locked inside of every one of us is the ability to create something great as well.
One could also look at this song as though society itself were the steel that is shackling us. Society holds us in place, forces us to conform to certain standards or be labeled as antisocial. If we don't conform, we'll be rejected, left to our own ends without that necessary shared human contact that we all desire on some level. So, do we give in to this pressure, or do we reject it and throw aside the gates of steel? Obviously, the song says "reject society and look inside yourself," but that's why this song seems to be an antisocial person's anthem. It's a decision everyone has to make for themselves.
But we can't forget the past, now, can we? Where did we come from; what was there before us; what can we learn from that? "Twist away now, twist and shout," Mothersbaugh intones, summoning the ghost of The Beatles and, well, the entire musical history of America, not just in pop music, but in how it's all evolved and changed over the years. In fact, I like to think that this line is in fact pointing straight at The Beatles. The Beatles utterly rejected their teenybopper image and went their own way, following their own muses. What happened? The world followed them, and music hasn't been the same since.
Gates of Steel, in yet another perspective, deals directly with sexual frustration. Having desires that one cannot express is much like being stuck behind a gate of steel, with only sexual release able to twist away the figurative gate. On the flipside, impotence is a major fear among males, which is again seen as a sign of sexual failure. Repetitive attempts at sexual fulfillment and failure at this fulfillment can make someone feel very depressed ("repeats until he fails, half a goon and half a god, a man's not made of steel").
This song tackles a lot of issues that music frequently deals with. Societal rejection and antisocial feelings are among the greatest themes in music, and one only has to look as far as Radiohead's OK Computer, Grandaddy's The Sophtware Slump, or Hendrix's Are You Experienced? to see amazing examples of music dealing with technology and how pervasive and dominating it has become. This wonderful unknown song, hidden on an album better than twenty years old, touches upon both issues very cleverly, sliding them on top of a metallic synth sound with a catchy hook. In the end, it makes for one amazing pop song.
Really, when you get down to it, rejecting the rules of society and authority (and a borderline disturbing amount of pent-up sexual frustration) were the primary themes in Devo's music. Gates of Steel perhaps summarizes the themes, tied up together in a catchy little pop song with a nice hook that most people will never hear.