I love music. My parent’s had records and a victrola when I was a kid. There was a piano in our house. It’s still there. I should have been more vocal about wanting lessons on piano and guitar. I was the youngest of three boys. I wanted to be a rock musician.
In my childhood anything expressed in an artful way or generally non-conformist method was simply called weird. Unfortunately this allowed truly visionary artists like Lou Reed, David Bowie, Iggy Pop, and Pattie Smith to slip past me. Then there was Devo.
A group who dressed alike to make a point about conformity, consumerism, and politics. I saw them on Saturday Night Live. I was not buying records yet. In matching jumpsuits with the name of the group in bold block letters they seemed so….weird. There is that blanket word of dismissal again!
Following decades where I listened to every major rock group on the planet I re-discovered the aforementioned artists like they were new. I found out why their look and sound seemed so outside the norms.
After decades of dominance by the guitar then electric guitar Devo’s music placed the guitar outside the groove. Replacing it with the new technology of the synthesizer. The synth would be at the core of this music. The recording industry labeled this sound New Wave or Post-Punk. I do not think Devo were ever really pigeonholed by their fans.
Thanks to David Bowie and Iggy Pop, the group from Akron, Ohio who met at Kent State University where they were students got signed by Warner Brothers records.
In early 1970, Bob Lewis and Gerald Casale formed the idea of the “devolution” of the human race after Casale’s friend Jeffrey Miller was killed by Ohio National Guardsmen firing on a student demonstration..
They believed that succumbing to a group think mentality the culture was de-evolving. Hence the name Devo.
I began listening to the 6 records the band made with Warners because of Record Store Day 2019. Each year the music industry’s record labels put out a list of titles to feature as exclusives to celebrate independent record stores around the world.
Warner Bros decided to issue a box set of all 6 Devo albums on color vinyl. I have been listening to the digital versions of each release. These are new records to me. I must admit after being such a static listener of guitar oriented music the sounds made by this group were fresh. I literally fell back in love with the pure joy of finding something that excitited my ears, my mind, and my heart.
The first 2 records have been my focus for now. I think it stood out with their approach to their art. Appearing like aliens from The Twilight Zone sent to observe life on earth, the music of Devo satirized our conception of gender, power, and work. I argue they were presenting a sneak peak of the future.
If you missed it like I did you were doomed to just go along with the crowd. Arguably most of us did just that in the 1980s. Punk or Metalhead? Freedom of Choice or conformity of a new tradition? Each record raised these questions of what direction society might take.
The title of their debut had the audacity to be a Q & A. Seen below are the first 4 albums on the Warner Bros label. A fem but masculine male framed in the whiteness of golf, a straight laced image. The answer was a defiant No, We Are DEVO.
Challenging our norms right from the start with songs like “Mongoloid” and “Jocko Homo”. The first of these two songs was about a man with Downs Syndrome who fit into society because he “wore a hat, had a job, and brought home the bacon”. A theoretical critique describing how those who might be perceived as different must find a way to fit into the proscribed norms of the day.
The latter song title refers to de-evolution. Humans are ape men. The call and response track is anthemic. The band’s artful delivery back in the 1970s were often seen as a new form of fascism or clowning or both. But I think Devo was being clever in presenting their satire and opinions as a new form of music that a listener could find on their own terms. The questions are interesting. We may never have all the answers. But we have in our hands this unique artform.
On “Freedom Of Choice”, seen below the third record from left to right included “Whip It” which became their biggest hit, peaking at #14 in America. The song is a sincere cynical laugh at the cockeyed optimism of Americans. All our problems can be solved if we just simply whip them. The whip is a loaded symbol of repression and brutality used here as the over simplification of universal problem solver.
Making fun of all the self-help tropes of the day (still in use today) are the lyrics:
Try to detect it
Listening to their music for the first time (except “Whip It”) I could understand what they were trying to say. In a lot of ways we were getting the future in preview. A world where a selected group would make the majority feel like the world is beautiful and we just need to conform to be happy.
Devo made videos at a time before the launch of MTV. Their clip for “Mongoloid” made use of stock footage to create the first video that used the art technique of collage. I would argue that this is part of what makes Devo a worthy candidate for the Museum Of Modern Art as well as the Rock N Roll Hall Of Fame. The latter institution failed to induct them again this past year.
To see Devo’s videos go to their Official YouTube Channel:
Devo in my opinion were a kind of prologue to our new century. Their theory of Devolution is seen in the ‘smart’ screens that have us in their grip daily. Societal behaviors are changing. We have regressed into a culture of looking down, sticking to the tribe, and thinking we just have to be optimistic all the time.
- Paul Vermeersch: A brief history of Devo, Part 1, October 21, 2014, retrieved August 4, 2015