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Innovative nerdy new wave had its roots in DEVO inspirators ENO, KRAFTWERK and half of SPARKS, but this Akron, Ohio-formed quintet brewed an element of irony into the mix. Unlike their Ohio State rivals, DEAD BOYS and PERE UBU, DEVO’s experimental goofball graph was engineered by jerky, robo-dance touches and not merely brain-numbing punk-rock, marking them out themselves as precursors to the likes of THEY MIGHT BE GIANTS, The B-52s and OINGO BOINGO.
Formed in 1972 by vocalist/keyboard-player Mark Mothersbaugh and his Kent State art school buddy on bass/vocals, Jerry Casale, the pair almost immediately enlisted the help of respective brothers, Bob Mothersbaugh (lead guitar) and Bob Casale (rhythm guitar); drummer Alan Myers completed the line-up when taking over from another Mothersbaugh: Jim.
Developing their original concept and moniker from the regressive/repressive state of technology and mankind in the theory of “de-evolution” – early readings were implanted through the book, The Beginning Was The End: Knowledge Can Be Eaten – DEVO would struggle at first to gain tolerance from the not-so-gullible music industry. It was clear America wasn’t ready for pseudo-type musicians performing on bespoke synths and ad-hoc toy instruments, in the attire and guise of potatoes and other “lowly” vegetables. Then, toward the end of ‘76, their experimental flick, The Truth About De-Evolution, was premiered at the Ann Arbor film festival, an event which was witnessed by Messrs BOWIE and IGGY.
Fast forward a year but not yet ready to release records for their new masters, Warner Brothers, DEVO delivered a couple of homemade/DIY singles under the umbrella of Mark’s “Booji Boy” alter-ego. With the advent and onset of punk and new wave, the double-A sided `Mongoloid’ & `Jocko Homo’, and a manic, electro-fied re-working of The ROLLING STONES’ `(I Can’t Get Me No) Satisfaction’ (flipped with `Sloppy (I Saw My Baby Getting)’), were duly re-pressed due to popular demand; the platters becoming minor chart entries in Britain when heavily imported (early ’78) through leading indie outlet, Stiff Records.
After a seminal third non-LP oddity `Be Stiff’ also entered the UK Top 75, the flowerpot-headed, potato-faced futurists secured a deal with Virgin Records (through Warner Bros.) and continued to inject some quirky humour into the po-faced new wave movement via a fourth minor hit 45, `Come Back Jonee’. This bunch of boiler-suited weirdos (embracing The RESIDENTS terminally skewed vision) unleashed their BRIAN ENO-produced and inspiringly titled debut set, Q: ARE WE NOT MEN? A: WE ARE DEVO! (1978) {*9}, to a confused but appreciative audience who helped propel the record into the British Top 20. Only bubbling under the 75 mark in their homeland, many pundits pigeonholed the quintet in with TALKING HEADS (ENO’s other protege), despite the appearance of mischievous meisterworks `Space Junk’, `Praying Hands’, `Uncontrollable Urge’ (plus the punk-y minute `(Slap Your Mammy)’), in among the aforementioned fermenting 45s.
Their Top 50 follow-up set, however, DUTY NOW FOR THE FUTURE (1979) {*7}, suffered a slight backlash in comparison, the novelty wearing thin without the impact of a hit single by way of relative flops, `The Day My Baby Gave Me A Surprize’ and a playful reading of the JOHNNY RIVERS smash, `Secret Agent Man’. Still, if they’d picked the white-collar sharp and satirical whoop of effective album cuts, `Clockout’ and `Wiggly World’ (or even `Smart Patrol – Mr. DNA’), as single fodder, maybe bigger chart traps would’ve been laid.
1980’s FREEDOM OF CHOICE {*6}, just might’ve suffered a similar fate, but for a freak US Top 20 single, `Whip It’. The geek-friendly `Girl U Want’ deserved similar results when released in Britain, but by now the joke was wearing thin on the fickle and flighty post-punk brigade ready for another genre swing-ball. `Gates Of Steel’, the title track, and its derivative synthetic cousins were easy on the ear; almost ready-made for a Japanese audience willing to pursue the simplistic melodies (rather than the irony) of tracks, `Cold War’ and `Planet Earth’. The need then for concert medley/mini-set, DEV-O LIVE (1981) {*4}, was baffling, but at least one was aware some screaming kids were still enthralled.
Another to reach the Top 50, fourth album proper NEW TRADITIONALISTS (1981) {*6} looked to the future in typically perverse aplomb by way of their angst-y, KRAFTWERK/“Showroom Dummies” approach – at least on the glossy sleeve photo-shoot. Rather than stay within the fringes of rock, minimalist mirrorball-pop was the order of the day on many of the cuts on board, the exceptions to the rule: `Through Being Cool’, `Beautiful World’ and `Race Of Doom’; not included on the set was their Top 50 re-take of LEE DORSEY’s `Working In A Coal Mine’, spooned from the animated movie, Heavy Metal.
In a year that saw DEVO contributing their services to choreographer, TONI BASIL, on her debut solo album, “Word Of Mouth”, OH, NO! IT’S DEVO (1982) {*6} maintained their Top 50 status – at least Stateside. Produced by CARS knob-twiddler, Roy Thomas Baker, the record had its moments in generic pop ditties, `Peek-a-boo!’ and `Time Out For Fun’, although novelty new wave was grating on the masses.
SHOUT (1984) {*3} confirmed their fall from grace; the 80s misfiring for the deluxe DEVO, who seemed on a mission to awaken fans of the derivative OMD, The HUMAN LEAGUE and THOMAS DOLBY; the trying tag-on take of JIMI HENDRIX’s `Are You Experienced?’ might well’ve shook the bones of the guitar legend himself.
Having disbanded in the middle of the decade, DEVO – with new drummer David Kendrick – re-formed in 1988, signing to Enigma Records for a non-event of an album, TOTAL DEVO (1988) {*3}; opener `Baby Doll’ was used in the film, Tapeheads. NOW IT CAN BE TOLD: DEVO AT THE PALACE 12/9/88 (1989) {*5} – featuring an unwarranted stripped-down version of `Jocko Homo’ – was almost bootleg in quality, but at least fans could hark back a decade to when DEVO were necessary. Although the single `Post Post-Modern Man’ was worthy enough for release, 1990’s studio follow-up SMOOTH NOODLE MAPS {*3} suffered further backlash. Their days of inspired innovation now behind them, the legacy of DEVO was nevertheless plundered to unusual effect when SOUNDGARDEN, SUPERCHUNK and even ROBERT PALMER!!! covered their 1980 classic, `Girl U Want’.
MARK MOTHERSBAUGH, meanwhile, followed similar jerky-pop new wave composer, DANNY ELFMAN (ex-OINGO BOINGO), into the world of celluloid and movie scores; Mark has since completed numerous works including the “Rugrats” series.
And just when one though DEVO were buried among the other “Hot Potatoes” (the name of their compilation set of ’93), Warner Brothers unleashed their comeback set, SOMETHING FOR EVERYBODY (2010) {*7}. Ex-VANDALS drummer, Josh Freese, had long been a member of their on/off touring band, and he was in full flow (and probably the difference) on this infectious US Top 30 return to form. Whether it was also down to the BIRD AND THE BEE mainman-cum-producer, Greg Kurstin, was another plus, but the likes of choice cuts `Fresh’, the bouncy `What We Do’ and `Don’t Shoot (I’m A Man)’, proudly put the DEVO manifesto back on the musical agenda.
Sadly, Casale (aka “Bob 2”) died of sudden heart failure on February 17, 2014. In honour of their long-standing rhythm guitarist/keyboardist, DEVO duly went on the road to perform their formative years material; their resounding concert of June 28, 2014, at the Fox Theater in Oakland, California, was dispatched early the following year as HARDCORE DEVO LIVE! {*7}.
© MC Strong 1994-2006/GRD / rev-up MCS Dec2012-Sep2018

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