Devo

TrackAlbum
Gut Feeling / (Slap Your Mammy)Q: Are We Not Men? A: We Are Devo!
Girl U WantFreedom Of Choice
Pink PussycatDuty Now For The Future
Whip ItFreedom Of Choice
Smart Patrol / Mr DNADuty Now For The Future
Peek-A-Boo!Oh No! It's Devo
Beautiful WorldNew Traditionalists
MongoloidQ: Are We Not Men? A: We Are Devo!
What We DoSomething For Everybody
(I Can't Get No) SatisfactionQ: Are We Not Men? A: We Are Devo!

spotify-logo-primary-horizontal-dark-background-rgb-sm

 

Contributor: Matt Roberts

The other night I had a discussion with a friend about Devo, in which I asserted that they were a punk band. The basis of his opposition was that the music was too rigid, electronic and new wave. Also the uniforms got in the way for him. I’m happy to concede those points, but I would point to any other outfit that is considered punk and ask them to consider their ‘uniforms’ and rigid song structures. For a non-conformist genre, punk sure developed a defined style, like most other genres!

I still consider Devo to be punk, given that I consider punk not to be a musical style, but a philosophical stance. We’ll get to the music in a second, but as far as their image and artistic vision is concerned, Devo were non-conformist at their very heart. The fact that their music is now considered pure 80s schlock is, to me, a by-product of the world catching up to them, not the other way around.

My history with Devo begins with “Countdown” (Australian music program of the 70s and 80s), as did a lot of my musical discoveries. Whip It got played on a regular basis upon its release, and its full-tilt weirdness in opposition to everything else at the time was a breath of fresh air. The first single I bought with my own money was Beautiful World in 1981. The odd message of the song (“It’s a beautiful world, for you, it’s not for me”) over the poppy electro made sense by not making sense to me (c’mon, give me a break, I was ten!). Over the years, I’ve not lost my love for them, and they somehow seem more relevant now than at the time. A resurgence in the last couple of years has helped to bring them back to the forefront of the ‘most played’ lists in my collection.

At the heart of Devo lies the ‘concept of de-evolution’ (ergo the name) – the idea that instead of continuing to evolve, mankind has actually begun to regress, as evidenced by the dysfunction and herd mentality of American society. This concept has continued throughout their career and underpins everything they do. I’ve always seen this as being part of their vision; the dystopian image, rather than what I think some people see it as, the goofy guys with the flowerpots. Since Devo have always been pioneers in the visual arts (some say they invented the music video), they always manage to hold a mirror up to society – showing the ugly as everyday, the uncool as cool, and the outsider as everyman. Devo were, perhaps, one of the most subversive acts to continuously hit the charts.

 

The band started in the early 70s, but began gaining traction in 1976 when the short film, The Truth About De-Evolution (see above trailer), won a prize at the Ann Arbor Film Festival, which caught the attention of Warner Music and David Bowie, who was set to produce their first album. Previous commitments prevented him from doing so, but this paved the way for Brian Eno, who ended up producing Q: Are We Not Men? A: We Are Devo!, which includes their cover of the Rolling Stones’ Satisfaction, rendered so angular and quirky that even after all these years I still have trouble finding the first beat of the bar until they hit the pre-chorus.

 

The “Devo aren’t punk” argument falls flat on its face when considering those first few albums. Non-conformist, quirky, jerky, with no real concern for your melodic yearnings but heavy on excitement and nervous energy – sounds pretty punk to me. Just because the electronics were at the forefront makes it no less punk. Where does Suicide stand if that were the case? And any nihilism is replaced by a heavy dose of irony and detachment. Just have a listen to Mongoloid and tell me it doesn’t have punk written all over it.

From the outset, Devo always considered the visual. Each new album produced a new uniform and theme to go with it. Most people would remember the ‘flower pots’ (officially dubbed ‘energy domes’) but the matching overalls and ‘Kennedy’ hairdo’s of the New Traditionalists era were a standout. In a world of videos showing day-glo, green screen utopias, Devo plastered the screen with odd, subversive imagery. Without watching it, what comes to mind when you think of break-out hit, Whip It? It’s Mark Mothersbaugh with the whip right? Did you remember the beer-guzzling cowboys? What about the cross-eyed Asian lady with a gun? Did it occur to you that the lady who looks like Grace Jones might be there under duress? Each whip crack removed a piece of her clothing and she ends up shaking and maybe crying.

 

Or 1981’s Through Being Cool, in which a bunch of shell suited youngsters play laser tag and end up taking their weapons out onto the street, deleting the elderly and laughing about it.

 

The visual style they produced has continued throughout their career to delight and confuse. As their official site mentions, some just didn’t get it, finding:

Devo’s sound, imagery, and material threatening; Rolling Stone, for example, called the group fascists. But such criticism missed the point: Devo dramatized conformity, emotional repression, and dehumanization in order to attack them, not to pay tribute to them.”
(clubdevo.com – the official Devo site)

It’s occurred to me more than once that Devo’s visual style owes a lot to the Church of the Subgenius. The slightly retro dystopia they portrayed certainly brings Bob to mind. Even the cover to Q: Are We Not Men? A: We Are Devo! brings up comparisons.

 

Devo really hit their stride with 1980’s Freedom Of Choice (Whip It/Girl U Want) and 1981’s New Traditionalists (Through Being Cool/ Beautiful World). Constant touring ensured they remained in fighting fit condition and the strength of these two albums in particular saw them move internationally, particularly here in Australia, where “Countdown” showed their clips on a regular basis. By this time, they had moved into an almost pure electronic sound, ditching the odd meter changes and sloppy timing but none of the bite. The next album, Oh No! It’s Devo, might have been a backlash against that, retaining the electronics, but delivering a slightly more sinister tone, as evidenced in Peek-A-Boo!.

Even though Devo certainly developed a recognisable sound, their output hasn’t been uniformly brilliant. Let’s face it, Devo put out some duds. 1984’s Shout was not terrific, and 1990’s Smooth Noodle Maps was a bit of a stinker. They both seem to be ‘contractual obligation’ albums. Retaining the sound, but seeming to consist of Devo-like tracks that had no punch or zazz! The commercial non-success that these albums enjoyed probably had a lot to do with their demise at the beginning of the Nineties.

Smooth Noodle Maps would be their last album for twenty years, and during the long break while they waited for the rest of the world to catch up, members went on to other careers, most noticeably Mark Mothersbaugh, who has soundtracked many hours of TV (“Pee-Wee’s Playhouse”, “Rugrats” and “Yo Gabba Gabba”), video games and some feature film work, and continues to this day.

Even though they had toured previously, most noticeably on the Lollapalooza 96/97 tours, I think Devo had probably been seen as a nostalgia act up until they surprised us by releasing a new studio album, 2010’s Something For Everybody. Quite a few live albums (including my favourite, Now It Can Be Told – Devo At The Palace 88) had been peppered throughout the gap but on Something… Devo sounded revitalised and seemingly full of pep. I really enjoyed it. The single, What We Do, was great, but the album as a whole was worthwhile. No, it didn’t return to the early quirk of Are We Not Men? but, well… it was better than Smooth Noodle Maps.

Punk? Yes. But a lot more on top.

 

 

 

Devo Official Website

Devo Obsesso – A Gathering of Devotees

1984 Pioneer Laserdisc demo with Devo

Devo’s alter egos, the Christian band, Dove – The Band Of Love, who would sometimes open for Devo

Devo biography (iTunes)

Matt Roberts is a musician, audio engineer and graphic artist from Sydney, Australia with a blinding love of all things sound. His tastes are catholic, ranging from Esperanza Spalding to Slayer and everywhere in between. He writes angular pop and rock, crafts and remixes many varieties of electronic music, and fronts a Frank Zappa tribute act called Petulant Frenzy. More about Matt here and catch up with Petulant Frenzy here.

TopperPost #438

3 Comments

  1. Glenn Smith
    Apr 24, 2015

    What a list, the songs you’ve picked are the perfect Devo soundtrack, Pink Pussycat, Peek A Boo, Girl U Want, just amazing. Beautiful World is dark, it has a strange feel, sung I think by Gerald? And with regard to punk, they are the epitome of punk, these guys were students at Kent State, I think one of the Casales witnessed the campus shootings, and they took on the the aesthetic of the punk from that moment, boiler suits and short haircuts in the era of Seals and Croft, doesn’t get more punk than that. And those videos, man they book mark the era, the weird heads, the anonymity, popping out of the doughnuts in Freedom of Choice (where did they find those denim pants suits too..). I can remember being seriously shocked by the film clip to Satisfaction, what the hell is this? And that weird arrangement, unbelievable. Scorsese knew what he was doing when he stuck it on the Casino soundtrack. The perfect punk coda to the whole thing is Mark Mothersbaugh popping up on Yo Gabba Gabba! doing weird and wonderful drawings, brilliant. Great list, would not change a song – are we not pleased!

  2. David Lewis
    Apr 24, 2015

    Glenn pretty much said it. I’d add that if uniforms aren’t punk, then the Ramones are the best boy band to ever strap on a pair of boots! 😉 great list.

  3. Calvin Rydbom
    Apr 24, 2015

    Not Punk? Little background here but my current book deals with Akron in the second half of the 20th Century. And along the way it’s turned into another book down the road on the Akron Music Scene, which will spend a good deal of time on the late 70s and early 80s Punk Scene. Which in around 1980 caused NME to refer to Akron as the new Liverpool, a bit of hyperbole but you get the point. Mark Mothersbaugh often ran the sound at The Crypt in Akron, which was the Midwest’s premier, and perhaps only Punk Bar in the mid-late 1970s. Devo, The Rubber City Rebels, and The Bizarros kind of co ran the place. Pere Ubu, the Dead Boys, everyone played there. It was a Punk bar and Devo was front and center.
    There is a great movie on the Akron Punk Scene called “It’s Everything, and Then It’s Gone” available on YouTube. A member of the Rebels told me there wasn’t an Akron Sound they all followed. They were just a bunch of bands who were tired of the Corporate Rock Sound and each band created something different.
    Devo was Punk.

Submit a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

↓