DEVO: The Good, The Bad, And The Mutated

I have been a DEVO fan- a “DEVOtee”, if you will- for a very long time. 35 years ago, I was witnessing the video for “Whip It” for the first time, on the brand-new cable channel MTV. I knew a lot of spoiled kids.

When a good time turns around.

When a good time turns around.

It’s not one of my favorite DEVO singles, but I appreciate its historical importance. Even today, it sounds truly weird. However, it came to be so closely linked with DEVO and their visual style, eventually it was the only song anyone brought up. 

See, DEVO forged a brilliant concept; the idea that mankind is evolving backwards, or “devolving”. Their early albums fleshed out a satirical parallel world, where they were a force of intellectual rebellion against the “ninnies and the twits”. They attracted the attention of Andy Warhol and David Bowie with their onstage antics in yellow Tyvek jumpsuits. What audiences assumed were upside-down pots on their heads were actually specially-made domes that they claimed recirculated energy expended during performances. And perform they did, on more than one continent.

But DEVO would come to embody devolution in a way they hadn’t intended. Their solemn vow to reduce the prominence of electric guitar in rock became an albatross around their spud-ringed necks. Like many of their 1980s contemporaries, DEVO slowly found themselves bound by synthesizers and drums that telegraphed their brand and era with their tone. Alan Myers, the drummer during DEVO’s heyday, left in the mid-80s after tiring of the Linn drums he had to play. By 1990, as noted by Pat Moriarty, DEVO totally sucked.

Accepting this is part of being a DEVO fan. It’s a natural part of devolution.

So, in the spirit of devolution, I’m going to start things off here with the very worst DEVO song. It’s not the most recent, as DEVO has experienced a proper resurrection in the past fifteen years. And I’m not going to mention DEVO 2.0, which is a known practical joke by founders Mark Mothersbaugh and Gerald V. Casale. Disney wanted to release a DEVO album sung by kids, and Mark and Jerry submitted the most banal, insulting versions of their songs they could fathom. To their astonishment, Disney bought every one.

The worst DEVO song ever is “Pink Jazz Trancers”, from 1990’s Smoothnoodlemaps. If you can stand this, you can stand any other DEVO song with ease. Even “U Got Me Bugged”. (Which is included in the old DEVO video game, the worst DEVO thing ever.)

It’s not even on YouTube by itself. 

“Stuck In A Loop” is the only track on that album I consider decent. Smoothnoodlemaps was recorded A-A-D, which means it sounds incredible, even though it sucks. When you listen to “Pink Jazz Trancers”, note how as the bridge begins, it’s like Mothersbaugh hit the “demo” button on his keyboard.

Total DEVO came before this, in 1988, on the brittle Enigma label. It was the first album in four years, after Shout, on Warner Brothers. During this hiatus Alan Myers left the group, and was replaced with drummer David Kendrick of Sparks. This means that Total DEVO had its own unique production sound, more in line with other, currently-popular synth groups.

If Total DEVO had a decent song, it would have to be “I’d Cry If You Died”.

Here’s the thing; even while DEVO was plopping out subpar LPs, they were taking good care of their core fans. They released an expanded CD of their “easy-listening” cassettes (originally mail-order only), with sumptuous inner booklet. They put out two collections- one of “Greatest Hits”, one “Greatest Misses”, with bonuses to make each desirable.

They released the best bunch of their “old” music you could want, as three discs: Hardcore I, II and Live. A listener who glibly disparages DEVO has never heard these discs. In the early 1970s, these guys were on par with The Stooges or Velvet Underground. We’ll get into that towards the end, though.

Shout (1984), the final album with the “True DEVO” lineup, isn’t as bad as people suggest. “C’mon” is aptly titled.

I was nineteen and courting college girls when I was into this, so it’s hard for me not to like it. Your mileage, and whether you have fond memories of nights on Tybee Island, may vary.

DEVO was also contributing tracks to movies like Revenge of the Nerds II: Nerds In Paradise and Doctor Detroit in the mid-80s. The less said about them the better.

In 1982, DEVO cut Oh, No! It’s DEVO, its title inspired by the now-jaded reactions to their output. This album includes the controversial yet boring “That’s Good”, banned from MTV for juxtaposing cartoons of a french fry penetrating a donut with footage of a sweaty, nude blonde (shown shoulders-up riding an unseen person or object). For my money, the best track on this effort is the creepy, driving “Deep Sleep”.

Although it lacks guitars, it still “sounds DEVO”. They didn’t do vocal harmonies often, which is a shame; they do it beautifully.

And how hilarious is that album cover? (Those are the “spudrings” they wore on tour for this release.)

I cannot omit my favorite cut: the uproarious “Speed Racer”.

In 1981, DEVO dropped what is most likely their finest album: New Traditionalists. The LP came with a poster that I still have framed on my wall, and a 45 of “Workin’ In A Coalmine”. That song and “Through Being Cool” were featured on the soundtrack of Heavy Metal. I’ve probably heard this song over ten quadrillion times. I am it, and it is I.

If I hadn’t lauded “Beautiful World” in another article, I’d have to mention it here. Instead I must tell you of “Love Without Anger”, and how it introduced me to the Church of the SubGenius when I was in the fifth grade.

See  following video. When was the last time you saw something on MTV that was even a fraction as weird as this? Is that not a total shame?

When you see weird stuff on TV, your mind struggles to process it, for it is by nature unfamiliarThat’s what “weird” is. During this struggle, your mind expands, as you look at things from differing perspectives. Weirdness is healthy and good for you. I should know. I’ve been told I’m weird, by people less healthy than myself.

When you see people dancing in sync on TV, you are hypnotized into a mental null-state. They show pictures of food, you get hungry. You are the electric sheep that androids dream of.

DEVO released Freedomofchoice, their most popular album, in 1980. This is from whence “Whip It” sprang, and where the “energy domes” became a trademark. It’s also DEVO with heavy guitar, which, despite protestations, is the best DEVO.

Like Jerry, Mark had a brother named Bob. Bob Casale (RIP) played bass, and Bob Mothersbaugh played guitar like no one before or since. A Bob M solo was a rare gift. That terrific gutsy growl so crucial to classic DEVO tunes like “Gates of Steel”; that was all Bob.

As for synthesizers, they had their place, of course; it wouldn’t be DEVO without them. I’m convinced that the inspiration behind “Snowball” was the racket a dot-matrix printer makes, transcribed into beautiful music.

1979 was a gigantic year for DEVO.

None other than Neil Young invited DEVO to contribute a song (and cameo) to his wacko movie The Human Highway. For whatever reason, it would go on to be the only thing anyone recalled about Young’s film. I tried to track it down for years, and when I finally saw it, the best part was- you guessed it.

That clip contains part of DEVO’s movie, with predatory producer Rodney Ethan Rooter and his daughter Donut (played by Laraine Newman). You’re not supposed to like them. That’s the way it used to be with villains. Who fucking decided to make villains likable, anyway?

That video and song go perfectly together. In essence, it’s a great DEVO song with a top-notch video directed by Neil Young. Bob M’s guitar work and solo are stellar, and I love the glowing skulls in sync with Mark’s keyboard stings. I have no idea what Booji Boy* says at the very end; I think it’s “they’ll go boom”.

(*I took my middle name from Booji Boy’s father, General Boy. For real, folks.)

Duty Now For The Future, DEVO’s second album, dropped in 1979.

You know, 1979. The peak of American culture.

Think of the movies in theaters that year. Actually- don’t. It will only make you depressed.

DNFTF is my favorite proper DEVO album. Every song on it is great; there ain’t a dud in the bunch. It’s as raw as Iggy Pop. The cover is speckled with UPC codes as a statement about corporate art and product.

The band portrait was perforated and removable, in case the UPC codes bothered you. Hey kids: there was a time when UPC codes WEREN'T on everything!

The band portrait was perforated and removable, in case the UPC codes bothered you. Hey kids: there was a time when UPC codes WEREN’T on everything!

The album begins with the Rollerball-inspired instrumental “DEVO Corporate Anthem”, introducing the frenetic “Clockout”. After this comes another instrumental, “Timing X”. Witness the miracles this band was capable of.

That’s fingers on keys you’re hearing at the start; no computers or patches. Then the rest of the band joins Mark at his precise tempo. They proved themselves with that one track.

Everything in between is brilliant, but I’m skipping ahead to “Smart Patrol/Mr. DNA”. If you thought the Residents were the undefeated kings of weird, get a load of this.

Bob M tears the roof of the place with his guitar solo; cycling through tones and rhythms, whipping like a lasso. Honestly, that’s one of the best solos I’ve ever heard. Bob was in a class all his own; he’s what made “Secret Agent Man” equal to their cover of “Satisfaction”.

Which brings me to DEVO’s debut album, a little yellow record from 1978 called Q: Are We Not Men? A: We Are DEVO!

Produced by Brian Eno.

This is the boat DEVO rode in on; it was all downhill from here. Every single song is flawless, beginning to end. It is stupefying in its genius. Rock records aren’t supposed to be this smart, or this good. Make no mistake, DEVO raised the bar for both punk and new wave with this single record. And, they raised it so high, even they couldn’t reach it afterwards.

All you can do is gaze upon it with awe, as I do, and crack up at how the golfer on the cover kinda looks like Barack Obama.

It's actually Chi Chi Rodriguez.

It’s actually Chi Chi Rodriguez.

Right from the start this album grabs you by the collar, with “Uncontrollable Urge”. In concert, they would perform this song while pogoing up and down. They were one of the first bands that got kids to pogo. They even had a crazy dancer; a skinny-tie weirdo with shock-orange hair who’d flip onto his back and convulse, called “Spazz Attack”. This band from Akron, Ohio was as influential as the Ramones, or The Clash.

Bob M’s guitar on “Gut Feeling” is so phenomenal, it’s made it into major Wes Anderson movies. Mark’s voice has the appropriate squawk and urgency, and you can actually hear Bob Casale’s bass enough to fully appreciate it. Alan’s drums, too; the man was far from a slouch as a drummer. (RIP.)

“Sloppy (I Saw My Baby Gettin’)” spins like a maniacal dervish, a tornado of Bob’s guitar and Mark’s barking vocals. Again, the thing wouldn’t even get off the ground without the solid rhythm section that was Bob C and Alan. The album closes with the sublimely ghoulish “Shrivel-Up”. If you’re not careful, it can keep you awake at night. It’s old-school, sci-fi-novel terror, “pooty-poo-poo” and all. Listen to how Bob M’s guitar goes “uh-oh”:

This is what this oddball quintet was capable of, with the right production aegis. On their own, they got lost after the money rolled in.

Before they were signed to Warner Brothers, they were even scrappier. This is the era depicted on the Hardcore (72-77) releases.

Yes, DEVO was a band as far back as ’72. Mark and Jerry were students at Kent State when the National Guard fired on protesters, and killed 4. Years ago, I read a piece that Jerry wrote, describing the experience of seeing a girl he knew at school with an exit wound in her back. If you find Jerry Casale to be “too political”, blame that particularly shitty moment in history.

Everything on the Hardcore DEVO releases is worth listening to, even the stuff that’s not so great. It’s the sonic proof that these guys were even more ahead of their time than you realized. You can hear the seeds of what they would later become, in “Fountain of Filth”:

On Hardcore DEVO Live, you bear witness to actual recorded history; DEVO being kicked off stage while opening for Sun Ra.

DEVO had been hired for the gig as a practical joke, legends say, by a radio station, who supplied nitrous oxide for the Halloween 1975 event. This and other chemical refreshments were heavily abused by the master of ceremonies, one of many radio guys called “Murray the K”. Murray introduces DEVO with their correct original pronunciation (“de-VOE”), then proceeds to honk and blather nonsense as the drugs take hold. After a lengthy performance of the vulgar ditty “I Need A Chick”, the venue has emptied and the promoters literally pull the plug.

If you listen closely, you can hear DEVO fighting every step of the way. The house was cleared when Sun Ra took the stage.

DEVO has well earned their place as one of the greatest and most innovative rock bands of all time, despite their later disappointments. That’s the way it is when you create an iconic brand- you can only tell if you’ve strayed from your true path in hindsight.

That’s the truth about de-evolution.

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Filed under Bad Influences, Faint Signals, Nostalgic Obsessions, Thousand Listen Club, Unfairly Maligned