Reviewed on this page:
Q: Are We Not Men? A: We Are Devo! - Duty Now For The Future - Freedom
Of Choice - New Traditionalists - Oh No! It's Devo - Total Devo
I was into Devo when I was a 13-year old Atari-playing nerd, and living proof that you could enjoy their improbably catchy, lurching
mock rock without any understanding of their ironic or subversive intent... but it sure helps.
In the late 1960s, Kent State students Gerald Casale, Bob Lewis and Mark Mothersbaugh formed a half-serious theory of "de-evolution,"
holding that modern society was degenerating into mindless conformity and preprocessed Madison Avenue rhetoric. After the 1970 massacre at
their alma mater, they started to take the theory a little more seriously, and began to develop music and art around the theme, calling themselves
Devo. Their short film "The Truth About De-Evolution" was shown at an Ann Arbor film festival in 1976,
attracting the attention of Iggy Pop and soon leading to a record deal.
Releasing their debut album at the height of the New Wave, Devo made a big splash with
their matching futuristic costumes, multimedia presentation, and detached, disdainful view of the world
- all of which led Rolling Stone to call the band "fascist." (Funny, though: the magazine slobbered all
over the swastika-wearing Mötley Crüe and similar acts.)
Success seemed to take the band by surprise, and after their first album it was hard to tell whether they were making fun of consumer
culture or just embracing it. You sometimes hear that the Cars said everything they had to say on their debut, but
that criticism truly applies to these guys.
The hit single "Whip It" was their commercial peak; subsequent sales shriveled until they called it quits in 1990.
Mothersbaugh began steadily scoring for TV and movies, and exhaustively documenting the band's creative period - which has made the
discography somewhat confusing. They've played a few reunion gigs over the years, reformed for a 2007 tour, and cranked out a new song, "Watch Us Work It," for a computer commercial.
The Planet Earth fan site is informative and frequently updated.
And the Bob Lewis interview, in which he describes the events that led up
to his 1978 lawsuit against the band for theft of intellectual property, is fascinating.
1970 (according to Bob Lewis): Gerald Casale, bass; Bob Lewis, slide guitar; Peter Greg, guitar.
1972 and subsequent: Mark Mothersbaugh, keyboards, lead vocals;
Gerald Casale, bass; Bob Lewis, manager, philosophy;
Bob Mothersbaugh (Bob 1) and Bob Casale (Bob 2), guitar; Jim Mothersbaugh, drums. Jim left circa 1974, replaced by Alan Myers.
Lewis fired 1978. Myers left 1986, replaced by David Kendrick. Band dissolved, 1990.
Hardcore Devo Vol. 1: 74-77 (rec. 1974-77, rel. 1990)
Demos recorded when Devo was more performance art than music group, including rough versions of some early hits.
Hardcore Devo Vol. 2: 1974-1977 (rec. 1974-1977, rel. 1991)
More basement demos. The gynophobia that runs all through the band's catalog is more overt here, with tunes like "Baby Talkin' Bitches" and
"I Need A Chick." I will point out that naked fear was an honest and valid response to 70s feminism, completely unlike the dismissal,
derision and mischaracterization that made up mainstream male reactions.
Devo Live: The Mongoloid Years (rec. 1975-1977, rel. 1992)
Goes from their first-ever live show - where the audience turned off their power and threatened to beat them up - to a relatively
polished 1977 NYC gig.
Q: Are We Not Men? A: We Are Devo! (1978)
The one where they're wearing yellow jumpsuits.
Definitely not a good album - weirdly trebly, some ideas underdeveloped and others overexplored, shrieked vocals - just a great one.
Each track articulates a piece of the band's dystopic world view: a girl is killed by falling debris in "Space Junk";
the herky-jerky cover of "(I Can't Get No) Satisfaction" fits the song's imprisoned-in-consumerism theme better than the Stones' original;
"Come Back Jonee" is a biting parody of every "kid becomes rock star" anthem.
The piece de resistance/statement of purpose "Jocko Homo" ties it all together.
In this context, all the disconnected themes, song fragments and breakdowns just add to the alienation.
But the amazing thing is how improbably catchy the whole thing is: surf guitar riffing ("Praying Hands"); stuttering New Wave crunch
("Uncontrollable Urge"); punk rave-ups ("Slap Your Mammy"); goofy synth noises ("Sloppy"); and just plain rock and roll ("Mongoloid").
Drummer Alan Myers deserves more credit than he's gotten, because the interlocking rhythms are crucial in keeping this crazy machine rolling
forward. Produced by Brian Eno.
Duty Now For The Future (1979)
I don't think the damage Kraftwerk did to our culture has been adequately assessed. Their mid-70s robotic, primitive synth instrumentals
made a huge impression on music cognoscenti, essentially undoing all that Stevie Wonder had done to
make synthesizers musically expressive. The Kraftwerk influence basically ruins Devo's sophomore effort, which is loaded with
repetitive, mechanical keyboard lines which sound like they were performed on a child's toy ("Timing X") replacing the debut's guitars
(I've read a more mundane explanation, that one of the Bobs was essentially banished for de-evolutionary behavior, and that's why the record lacks guitars.)
The album is dismally unambitious and toothless: where "Satisfaction" had been a New Wave declaration of war, the surf-rock
resurrection of "Secret Agent Man" is about as clever and meaningful as rubber vomit. In
several places lead vocalist Mark Mothersbaugh doesn't even attempt to sing on key ("Clockout"), and many of the lyrics are
lame ("Pink Pussycat"). There are a couple of effective, economical rockers ("Wiggly World"), "Smart Patrol/Mr. DNA"
has interesting synth/guitar layering, and there are hints of the debut's nerdy nerve, but if you listen to this first, you probably won't
continue. Rereleased in 1994 with bonus tracks. (DBW)
Freedom Of Choice (1980)
The one where they're wearing red flowerpots, and the band's commercial high point.
The awkward Akronians dropped the silly experiments, held the keyboards in check, and wound up with an uptempo, enjoyable, largely catchy
album. Each track is built around a snappy drumbeat, one synth keeps time while another
matches riffs with a rhythm guitar and Mothersbaugh wails - plus nice touches of syncopation and sound effects thrown in.
The best example is the hit single "Whip It," but the title track is just as good - sardonic "people are sheep" social comment and all - and the opening "Girl U Want" would have sounded just fine
on, say, a Cars album. Unfortunately, on side two the formula gets a bit stale, with too many opaque tunes ("Mr. B's Ballroom")
though there's still decent material like "That's Pep!" (with a meter-shifting riff) and "Planet Earth."
Produced by Robert Margouleff.
Dev-O Live (1981)
A six-track EP. Rereleased in 1999 with a zillion extra tracks. (DBW)
New Traditionalists (1981)
The one where they're wearing rubber hair. By this point the band had completely lost its reason for being, focusing mostly on romance themes
("Love Without Anger"), with the few social comments being obvious and easy to ignore (the anti-arms race "Race Of Doom," the sarcastic
"Beautiful World") - the driving "Jerking Back And Forth" is probably about mass media or something, but it's so vague it doesn't matter.
That said, much of the record is effective upbeat New Wave ("Through Being Cool"): the guitars have disappeared again, but the synths
are playing actual music rather than Duty Now's practical jokes.
Much of the percussion is programmed ("Going Under"), but it's not yet overwhelming or mindless.
Still, when the hooks aren't good, you're just listening to droning keyboard mush ("Soft Things" indeed).
Self-produced; some CD versions have the contemporaneous hit single "Working In The Coal Mine" and a couple of other bonus tracks.
Oh No! It's Devo (1982)
The one where they're wearing white plastic collarpieces and brown jumpsuits. The synths and drum programming have become overbearing
again, and this time they're not even idiosyncratic: just the same sort of Thomas Dolby-style synth-pop that was dominating the charts ("Time Out For Fun").
"Peek-A-Boo" was the annoying single; "That's Good" is in the same ironic vein as "Beautiful World" but less tuneful.
The one big effort to be confrontational is "I Desire," with lyrics by Jodie Foster admirer John Hinckley.
There is some offbeat humor ("Speed Racer"), but still, "Big Mess" is my favorite track on the album, and I'd hesitate to play even that for a non-fan.
Produced by Roy Thomas Baker.
In 1983, Devo contributed the "Theme from Doctor Detroit." (DBW)
Supposedly even more listless and less inventive than Oh No!. With a cover of "Are You Experienced?" The last record with Alan Myers on drums; he was replaced by David Kendrick in 1987.
E-Z Listening Disc (1987)
Yep, the band recorded Muzak versions of their hits.
Total Devo (1988)
Bizarrely, breath-takingly, brain-batteringly bad.
Well, "The Shadow" isn't that bad, with good dynamics and a healthy dramatic sense, but the rest is:
lifeless, hermetic dance-pop that you won't want to dance to ("Disco Dancer," my butt).
Every tune is based on relentlessly repetitive drum programming ("Some Things Never Change") with equally unsubtle keyboards.
"Disco Dancer" sports funk-style rhythm guitar, but it's as dry as the rest.
There's another lamebrained cover, "Don't Be Cruel."
The lyrics are either absolute drivel ("Baby Doll") or a pathetic echo of past social comments ("Happy Guy").
Even more uncharacterically, a couple of tracks feature vapid female backing vocals ("Plain Truth"), and unlike Oh No!,
there's not even a sense of humor.
Now It Can Be Told (Devo At The Palace 12/9/88) (1989)
Like it says; each era gets equal treatment, from "Jocko Homo" to "Baby Doll."
Smooth Noodle Maps (1990)
The last album of new material, with a cover of Tim Rose's "Morning Dew."
Adventures Of The Smart Patrol (1996)
Mostly previously released material, with a couple of new cuts (title track). Also this year Devo contributed two tracks to the Supercop
Recombo DNA (2000)
A 2-CD collection of outtakes and live material.
P'Twaaaang!!! (The Wipeouters: 2001)
Supposedly the Wipeouters were a surf-rock outfit formed in 1967 by Mothersbaugh and the two Bobs, and this is new recordings of songs
written in that era. But I'm pretty sure Mark just made up the backstory.
A fourth Bob - Gerald and Bob's father Robert Jim Casale - handles bass guitar on one track, joined by Gerald.
Mine Is Not A Holy War (Jihad Jerry & The Evildoers: 2006)
Jerry Casale's new project features Mark and the two Bobs. Titles include "Army Girls Gone Wild."
Don't click until I signal.