When they were Kent State University students in the late 1960s, Gerald Casale and Bob Lewis developed the sarcastic theory that mankind was de-evolving rather than evolving. They surely never dreamed that Devo, the band they named after the concept, would still be touring more than 50 years later. One might even argue that the continued relevance of Devo’s wit, perspective, and distinctive musical sound disproves their original theory. There may be hope for mankind yet!
After the Kent State massacre in 1970, Casale and Lewis doubled down on their view of backwards evolution and wanted more ways to express it beyond writing and visual art. Casale had recently met Mark Mothersbaugh, a fellow experimental songwriter. Devo formed over the next few years; through several personnel switches and Lewis taking a behind-the-scenes role, they settled into a quintet that included Casale and his brother Bob, Mothersbaugh and his brother Bob, and drummer Alan Myers (who replaced Mothersbaugh’s other brother, Jim).
As often happens to bands that take a while to hit the big time, the casual fan who likes the two or three best-selling singles tends to have a skewed understanding of the group and its motivation. In the early years, Devo was there to stir things up. They riled up the audience, sometimes purposely alienating them. Festival management sometimes felt the need to unplug their amps and throw them out. What eventually captured the early MTV audience as pure fun and silliness started out as dark humor reflecting a disappointing world.
Their sophistication and innovation caught the attention of some big names after they made an award-winning indie short called The Truth About De-Evolution. David Bowie took notice in 1975; he made good on his promise to advocate for the band with Warner Brothers, where they were signed. Another film opportunity arose in 1977, when Neil Young asked Devo to appear in his movie Human Highway; that was also Mark Mothersbaugh’s debut as a film-score composer, a role he has now played countless times for both cinema and TV shows.
Although Young’s movie did not get released until 1982, it turned out to be perfect timing for the band. The reason? MTV started broadcasting in 1981. All eyes were on Devo. They were simply made for MTV. They had started creating music videos in the early 1970s, not so much for promotion as to add another artistic aspect to their songs.
Their 1978 debut with Warner Brothers presented them with an appropriately arcane, nerdy title. Q: Are We Not Men? A: We Are Devo! was produced by Brian Eno, the British composer, programmer, and former synth player with Roxy Music, who at the time was celebrated for his experimental atmospheric album Ambient 1: Music for Airports. Critics were somewhat baffled; unlike some approaches to new wave that used synths to intensify emotions, Devo took things in the opposite direction. They sounded robotic and emotionally distant.
Except for a cover of the Rolling Stones’ “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction,” the whole album is by M. Mothersbaugh, with and without other band members. “Come Back Jonee,” a single that didn’t chart, sports an instrumental style as inspired by early rock and roll as it is new wave.
Despite Eno’s presence, these early tracks use Bob Mothersbaugh’s electric guitar as if Devo were a standard rock band. This is hardly a synth-fest. The same cannot be said for their second album, Duty Now for the Future, released in 1979. Ironically, the producer for this one was Ken Smith, known for his imaginative yet much more mainstream engineering work with Elton John and the Beatles.
While the new album’s biggest single was “Secret Agent Man,” a synthesized reimagining of the well-known funk-inspired song, that track is kind of a sonic outlier. “S.I.B. (Swelling Itchy Brain),” on the other hand, represents what would come to be the standard Devo sound: electronic blips and twirls, monotonal melody, and high-strung rhythm.
With the release of the single “Whip It” and its associated album, 1980’s Freedom of Choice, Devo’s fortunes changed. They went from being niche weirdos to reflecting the cynical zeitgeist of early 1980s America. And, since they came with ready-made videos and a distinctive visual style (Day-Glo polyester jumpsuits, ziggurat-shaped plastic hats, shades), they were a marketer’s dream.
By the time they released New Traditionalists in 1981, Devo was a hot commodity. Musically, they were continuing down the path toward an all-synth sound world. This record marks the first time they used drum machines; the technological advance allowing the use of real drums as programmable samples had only been available for about six months when they started work on the album. As for the public’s reaction, that love-at-first-hearing engendered by “Whip It” did not turn out to be a lasting affair. The album did decently, reaching No. 23 in the US, but none of the singles came close to the success of “Whip It.”
“Going Under” is a good example of both the programmed drum sound and dark humor characteristic of Devo’s songwriting. The one-note melody and the cover photo showing the men with plastic hair both contribute to the message that this music is written by androids to comment on the human condition.
Devo was not immune to the lackluster reviews and a public that didn’t understand them. They tried to popularize their sound on Oh, No! It’s Devo in 1982 by hiring producer Roy Thomas Baker, best known for his work with Queen in the 1970s, but sales did not improve. Two years later, they released Shout to the worst reviews they’d ever seen. Critics especially objected to the overuse of the Fairlight CMI digital sampling synthesizer, viewing the ability to pre-program elements of songs as a cop-out that led to lazy songwriting. Nobody seemed to listen to the words. The only song anyone praised was the cover of Jimi Hendrix’s “Are You Experienced.” Warner Brothers dropped them, and Alan Myers quit.
But the record is not quite as hopeless as its history suggests. “Puppet Boy,” taking on the issues of free will and individual freedom, uses some of the best elements of synth pop, carrying its serious message on energetic keyboard lines that rise and fall like a carnival ride.
There was some hope in 1987 when the band signed a deal with Enigma Records, and David Kendrick, formerly of Sparks, agreed to replace Myers on drums. But 1988’s self-produced Total Devo went nowhere commercially. Smooth Noodle Maps, released in 1990, did even worse, in part because Enigma Records was in the middle of going under and couldn’t support the tour.
It seemed like the last gasp for Devo, and they were ready for the split. Mark and Bob Mothersbaugh were both doing a lot of composing for other projects, and Gerald Casale was making a name for himself directing music videos. For the next six years, except for some individual tracks commissioned for film scores, there was no Devo.
The band regrouped in 1996 to join some collective tours. Between the growth of 1970s – and eventually 1980s – nostalgia and the rise of the internet, the era of Devo was returning. Soon it was stronger than ever, largely fueled by fans who had not even been born when the band started out.
They released Something for Everybody 2010, a full 20 years after Smooth Noodle Maps. Warner Brothers took them back into the fold. The lineup was the Casale brothers, the Mothersbaugh brothers, and drummer Josh Freese. They have not made an album since then, but they continue to do occasional live shows.
Are Devo musicians? Are they computers? Are they a bit of both? The song “Human Rocket,” wryly tinged with heavy metal and country rock, addresses this inscrutable question.
Header image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons/C Michael Stewart.