To the average cultural consumer, Devo remains that quirky band with funny red hats—a New Wave novelty relegated to 80s Night karaoke. But its aims were always different.
“In the 1970s, we knew that rebellion and its various poses (leather, chains, long hair) was obsolete and cornpone,” Devo bassist and co-founder Gerald Casale told me in a recent interview. “We played with that conflicted duality in all that we presented, musically and visually, because that was central to the whole concept. There was nothing we did that was not on purpose.”
Behind the radio ubiquity of “Whip It,” Devo’s members were pioneering art punks who essentially invented the music video, and shaped the outputs of everyone from Neil Young to Radiohead and 'The Simpsons' to Martin Scorsese.
When the five art school misfits from Akron, Ohio hit the national scene with their Brian Eno-produced debut, Q: Are We Not Men? A: We Are Devo!, which turns 40 this week, no one was really sure what to make of them. They hardly looked or acted like rock stars, as the world had come to know them. Laden with irony, Devo sported yellow Tyvek suits and 3D glasses; their delivery was deadpan and frenetic; and their avant-garde sound, fusing punk urgency with electronic experimentation, was accompanied by surrealist films, artwork, and manifestos that co-opted the logic of advertising to satirize and subvert American consumer culture.
Television audiences scratched their heads; critics largely dismissed them; even their own labels discouraged them. In the malaise of post-60s cultural disillusionment and rock ‘n’ roll hedonism, there was no precedent for a band like Devo. That’s in part because it always saw itself as a multidisciplinary performance art project, than just a band. Formed in the wake of the 1970 Kent State massacre, Devo arrived with an acerbic wit, sharp aesthetic, and a philosophy called “devolution,” a charged socio-political concept that posited mankind as regressing, rather than evolving.
Though certain crowds got what they were doing—notably, David Bowie and Iggy Pop, who would procure Devo a record deal after seeing the band’s short film, The Truth About Devolution—It wouldn’t be until “Whip It” that Devo managed to infiltrate the mainstream. Even then, most people still got it all wrong, believing (thanks in part to its BDSM-inflected video) it to be about sadomasochism and/or masturbation, rather than the Gravity’s Rainbow-inspired satire of American conformity that it was. Devo, of course, was mostly fine with such misinterpretations—not only did they help sell records, but they helped prove its point.
Half a century after its inception, Devo’s story, and its subtle critiques of corporate monoculture, technological worship, and geopolitical hysteria, play out like a canary in the coal mine of Trump’s America. They tried to tell us, but we didn’t listen: Devolution is real.
So you want to get into: Essential, Platonic Ideal Devo?
Devo was brilliant, not just for its paradigm-busting subversiveness, but for its ability to craft objectively powerful songs that mutated post-punk rhythms, uncharted electronic frontiers, and subtle social critiques into something riveting, and even beautiful. These tracks are a good place to start. They’re perhaps Devo’s most accessible recordings, not for their conventionality, but for how each seamlessly integrates the above three elements while showcasing the band’s creative breadth, from the erratic, deconstructed cover of The Rolling Stones’ “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction,” to the damning call-to-arms of “Freedom of Choice,” to the nervy punk bait-and-switch of “Gut Feeling/Slap Your Mammy.”
Playlist: “Gut Feeling/Slap Your Mammy” / “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction” / “Mongoloid” / “Uncontrollable Urge” / “Freedom of Choice” / “Gates of Steel” / “Girl U Want”
So you want to get into: Bizarro Agitprop Punk Devo?
Devo’s music can’t be cleaved from its art and films, which co-opted Interwar art movements like Dadaism, Futurist propaganda, and the logic of advertising.
“Our brand was real freedom, rather than freedom as an advertising campaign where the consumer was told how to be free,” Casale told me. “We were performance artists when there was not a label for that either.”
Devo itself crystalized as a fictional band in the 1975 Chuck Statler absurdist short, The Truth About Devolution, and the attention the film received provoked the band to take the project even further. The band’s films and live shows were confrontational and controversial, theatrical affairs featuring rubber novelty masks, taboo sexual innuendo, and characters with names like “Booji Boy” (pronounced “boogie boy”), Devo’s freakish, infantile adult mascot, and his father “General Boy,” a mentally unstable military officer who claimed to be abducted by aliens. This bizarro reality would form the infrastructure of Devo’s career, and its early music outputs in particular. These jittery, often dissonant tracks, like the Island of Dr. Moreau-influenced “Jocko Homo,” would highlight the band’s central dichotomy of high and low culture, laden with ramshackle, sci-fi synths, primitive, gritty guitar work, and the complex philosophy at the heart of the project.
Playlist: “Jocko Homo” / “Too Much Paranoias” / “Smart Patrol/Mr. DNA” / "Devo Corporate Anthem" / "Clockout" / “General Boy Visits Apocalypse Now” / "Be Stiff (Booji Boy Version)" / “Puppet Boy”
So you want to get into: Synth Genius Devo?
Devo’s use of synthesizers is so embedded in the DNA of pop music at this point, that’s it’s easy to forget the band helped pioneer it. “Whip It” would be one of the earlier hit pop songs to use synths as a lead instrument in place of guitar, its melody an uncanny but visceral facsimile of mainstream convention—unfamiliar, futuristic, and seductive. Devo took the technological innovations of Kraftwerk, Bob Moog, and others, and poured them over primal rock rhythms, resulting in a sound that used unfamiliar instruments in familiar ways, and vice-versa.
Following its debut, the band would move away from its more obscure, guitar-based origins to work that leaned increasingly heavily on analog synths and a more lushly orchestrated, melodic pop sound (several cuts of which would, ironically, go on to be used in commercials). That shift in sound, and Devo’s own entanglement in the corporate world, remains divisive among its fanbase. But this sound would underscore the band’s complicated spiritual relationship with technological innovation. It would also re-contextualize a new arsenal of instruments for a pop audience, wielding synths as both eerie, dissonant sound effects and dancefloor-ready sugar to help the anti-establishment medicine go down. The resulting songs would be alternately disturbing and beautiful, ranging from the rote instrumental absurdity of “Devo Corporate Anthem” to the arthouse of “Big Mess” to the infectious technopop of “Whip It.”
Playlist: “Whip It” / “Snowball" / "Strange Pursuits” / “Big Mess” / “Wiggly World” / "Here to Go (Go Mix Version)" / "Going Under” / "Time Out for Fun"
So you want to get into: Sinister, Uncanny Valley Pop Devo?
Devo’s goal was never to stay left of the dial; it was to infiltrate the whole machine, Trojan Horse-style, and that meant also producing a brand of commercially palatable (or, at the very least, familiar) pop-influenced tracks to help deliver its message. For every overtly dissonant, deconstructed “Satisfaction,” there would be tracks that were a little too polished, a little too catchy, with something sinister inevitably going on beneath the surface. Some, like “Working in the Coal Mine,” could be downright hokey, playing on post-war commercial ditties to distort Lee Dorsey’s 1966 original into an eerie capitalist commentary. Others, like “Beautiful World,” would go on to be used in actual commercials; that Target executives seemed to completely overlook the fact that the song’s platitudinous optimism was belied by look-the-other-way horror only served to drive home its point.
Playlist: “Beautiful World” / "Come Back Jonee" / “Jerkin Back ‘N’ Forth” / “Working in the Coal Mine” / “Through Being Cool” / “Peek-A-Boo” / “Fresh”
Andrea Domanick is through being cool. Follow her on Twitter.