Mar 292007

I’m stepping out from behind the door of The Back Office, this one time. And yeah, I know, “the computer guy likes Devo”, ha ha ha. In my highschool there were freaks (outcast, tough kid, pot smokers), geeks (outcast, wimpy-smart kids), and jocks. I was a geek for sure (albeit a film-making, pot-smoking one.) We had an overlap outcast thing with the freaks and oddly our groups coupled more than once. When punk emerged, I felt a place for myself as both an outcast and a geek. And if you look at early Talking Heads, XTC, Modern Lovers, and others, the scene originally had a place for the outcast, arty, geeks.

But unlike Talking Heads, XTC, et al, Devo was more than a band. They were a satirical pop-art piece: aural, visual, conceptual. The whole is better than the sum of the parts. No argument. But that doesn’t mean they didn’t put out some cool tunes that stand up and more than perform their duty now for the future.

[As a disclaimer I need to mention that the atom bomb they dropped October 14, 1978 on Saturday Night Live changed my life. It is the single most important event in my musical journey. I was a 7th grade lad growing up in Phoenix in the days where if you weren’t over 57, didn’t play golf and drink something brown on the rocks you had little to do – movies, TV or listen to one of the two radio stations that played “Double Vision” incessantly.]


The SNL version isn’t on YouTube! (Fuck you, NBC, or whoever owns you this week) but it looked and sounded an awful lot like this:

“There’s more than this!”
“There is weirdness!, Wonderfully, fun, wild weirdness!”
“There may be a place for me… somewhere.”

Point is, I’m a bit biased. But Devo was THE gateway band for me. They directly led to Elvis Costello, Talking Heads, and other weird wildness. What a wonderful lifelong journey they so solidly launched.

And before we argue the merits of the tunes allow me to give you some Devo background that will tune your energy dome properly for the discussion.

Devo didn’t suddenly appear on SNL in 1978. The concept of Devolution, or later “De-evolution” (in short that our society/culture is getting more and more stupid), was created to support a body of surrealist/satirical artworks by late-60s Kent State students Gerald Casale and Bob Lewis.

By 1973 they had morphed the art concept into a band. This is their first live appearance as The Sextet Devo at Kent State in 1973. As you can see, the interest in costume and imagery is involved from the get go. As is a rudimentary looking synthesizer. (Moog?)

In 1975, they shot a short film, The Truth About De-Evolution, which won the Ann Arbor Film Festival and the interest of Iggy and Bowie. The film was essentially the following two clips, tied together, with an intro and ending that aren’t on YouTube.

This, and other, films were made pre-Eno/record label and have a rougher, darker, tenser, DIY quality than their later vids.

OK, this is probably the best point to get this out of the way. Sidebar: The Residents. I know you were thinking it. And yes, I might agree that Devo was a K-Mart Residents. But the flip of that coin might just as well be that Devo was The Residents with a beat that you can dance to, and all that that implies. And as much as I love The Residents (for many of the same reasons I love Devo) I don’t think there is a single Residents album (maybe, maybe Tunes of Two Cities) that I could tolerate from beginning to end.

Case in point: Here’s The Residents’ cover of “Satisfaction” followed by an early Devo version. I’m not at all saying The Residents’ version sucks. Au contraire; I love it but also find it nearly unlistenable.

“Satisfaction”, Residents

“Satisfaction”, Devo

In 1975, Devo were hired to open for Sun-Ra under the guise that they were a Bad Company cover band. If this isn’t great art in and of itself… They were bombarded with beer bottles and physical threats. Here’s how that gig ended. About halfway thru the mp3 you can hear someone start to unplug the instruments and then a funny verbal exchange.

Sun-Ra Fight

During 1976, they toured with the Dead Boys and famously got into a fistfight with Cheetah Chrome while screaming “Are We Not Men? You’re Not Men!” in his face.

From that tour…

“Clockout”, Devo

OK. Cred established, so back to my personal timeline please. Thank you. OK so KaBoom, yadayadayada, I buy the first album and it changes my life. I won’t spin stuff from that album here, because all Devo fans have it and all Devo dissers have heard it. I’ll get back to discussing it, but let’s move on.

After having a local Phoenix club tell my dad that “No, you can’t bring your 14-year-old son here to see Devo,” I wait until 1979. I bike down to Circle Records, bike back and am paralyzed by the seething satire and fuzzed-out grooves that came out of their much maligned, but fucking cool as hell second effort Duty Now for the Future. On the downside (in hindsight) there’s too much synth but at the time Devo was at the vanguard of the synth-pop thing and it rang much cooler than it does now. But on the upside, I hear anger, an unrelenting tension and a sneer that I missed in the first overly crafted album.

“Devo is fueled by anger and frustration over The Captain and Tennille,” Gerald Casale.

Work your way thru the synth heavy opening and enjoy…

“Wiggly World”

This one has appropriate synth and a bitchin’ minimalist solo that surprisingly starts to take off before we return to the slithering surreal portrait of an everyday idiot. Probably my favorite Devo song.

“Block Head”

Or this one, that suddenly breaks in and out of the tension with a startlingly pretty “popcorny” synth melody.

“The Day My Baby Gave Me A Surprise”

And they can gun-it too.

“Pink Pussy Cat”

After I got this disc, I almost never listened to the first one again. Not that I didn’t like it. I did. I just liked this one loads better. These were mostly songs written at the same time as the first album but sadly, due to a rougher weirder production quality, this one was a commercial bomb. Talk of Devo being a one-off novelty band was the word. Warner Bros. explained to them about the economics of what makes money. This friction is displayed in one of their (not very good) films of the period where big corporate “Daddy Know-It-All” and agent “Rod Rooter” try to convince the spuds to put the yellow suits back on. (YouTube it, it’s there.)

“40 shows later, we finally bend over and bed down with Bugs Bunny. Any stories we may have heard about the business quickly pale in the face of the byzantine horror of actual experience. Even though we fight the good fight, Devo’s heretical question ‘Are We Not Men?’ is forever transmuted by the sublime irony of becoming part of the corporate feudal state,” Gerald Casale.

All of this goes down just as MTV springs up.

And we get Freedom of Choice in 1980. This would be the last new Devo release that I could listen to. The production isn’t as cold as Eno’s but it isn’t as weird and gritty as the previous release either. It is more pop, but I can still hear the sneer and the groove here and there.

Get past the Go-Go’s opening and twist away those…

“Gates Of Steel”

And the oft covered…

“Girl U Want”.

But that was it for me. I gave up after that. Until, I saw this in an experimental film class in college.

Woah! To this day, my favorite “music video” though I call it a “short film” in my head. Not only the visuals but man I didn’t remember “Mongoloid” sounding that cool? There’s that languid, fuzzy sneer that I dug so much on the second LP. Hmmmm. That riff, filtered thru the Dave Davies ripped speaker, sounds waaaaay cooler. To this day I rank it up there with and consider it in the same family as “Can’t Explain” and “Do Ya”. (I said the riff! Not the song.) Turns out, there was a version recorded before the first album was released. Now referred to as the Booji Boy version.

This brings me to the core of my argument: Brian Eno ruined Devo…musically. Commercially, wow, way to go Brian! He bleached the sound, made it more mechanical devo-id of soul. The soulless sound enhanced the overall concept, made it more obvious, novel, and hence profitable. OK, point made. De-evolution. I get it. Cool. HazMat suits. Cool. Don’t get me wrong, I love the package and like that album because of the role it plays in their overall art…

But Eno dry-cleaned what I most appreciated musically and set the band on a road that was destined to be a cul-de-sac.
Here’s back-to-back “Mongoloid”: Booji Boy vs Eno:

“Mongoloid (Booji Boy)”

“Mongoloid (Eno)”

Check out some more pre-Eno stuff, from as far back as 1974. Not only groovier, grittier, but also weirder. Eno! You fuck!

“Auto Modown”

“Be Stiff” for Stiff Records

“Stop Look and Listen”

“Gut Feeling”

So long story short. Are they the greatest band in the world? No. Are they better appreciated as an art piece than a 5 piece. Yes. Did they record some cool songs that stand up? Absolutely. Should they be respected as more than a novelty band? Absolutely. Are they better enjoyed with the sound turned up? Of course.

And why should you care? Well, for one, I’m certain this forum wouldn’t exist today if I hadn’t taken a dose of Devo.

Thank you for your attention.


  12 Responses to “Gut Feeling: My Evolution as a Devo-tee, or How Brian Eno Sucked The Punk Out Of Devo”

  1. hrrundivbakshi

    Hey, Office Boy — that Devo retrospective kicked ass! And understand that I never really got into the band as a youngster. You opened my eyes here, and I shall investigate further. I love that “Blockhead” number.

  2. I have to completely agree with Hrrundi here, your write-up was amazing and although I read it cover to cover from my inbox before I hit the hallowed Hall for song-goodness, I will definitely be checking out more as well. Thanks Back Office Guy!

  3. BigSteve

    I like my Devo with as little theory in it as possible. Rock music is just not a good method for espousing socio-political theory. It can embody it maybe.

    In simplified form, their theory is not much different than the Stooges, but even their early rough tracks show no signs of ever achieving the enormous agrressive stupidity of the Stooges. I think the first album strikes a pretty good balances between rocking and robotic.

    Once the song concepts get too detailed it doesn’t really work. The Mr. DNA song is kind of fun, but it certainly doesn’t convey whatever it is they’re trying to convey. But singing about uncontrollable urges in a robotic way works perfectly, as long as you don’t think about it too much. We’re toos tupid to think that much anyway, aren’t we?

  4. Mr. Moderator

    Great piece, The Back Office! However, I’m still trying to figure out if it refutes or supports Ed’s piece.

  5. mwall

    I think The Back Office defines an important problem that Rocktown Hall has never really come to terms with. We’re living in an age in which art is often multi-media, mixing music with film or dance, visual art with poetry, etc. Judging a multi-media artwork simply on the quality of one of its media is wrong-headed, not to mention full of the kind of look-backism that has just been recently decried around here. If I understand The Back Office, thinking of Devo simply in terms of the music just plain misses the point.

    That said, I’m not sure I’m ready to back Devo as my idea of what great multi-media art can be; they’re more like one note in that realm too.

    By the way, am I alone in noting that somewhere around 80% of contemporary American movies can be followed perfectly without listening to anything any of the characters is saying? In too many movies, the picture tells the whole story.

  6. Mr. Moderator

    I think The Back Office defines an important problem that Rocktown Hall has never really come to terms with. We’re living in an age in which art is often multi-media, mixing music with film or dance, visual art with poetry, etc. Judging a multi-media artwork simply on the quality of one of its media is wrong-headed, not to mention full of the kind of look-backism that has just been recently decried around here.

    I think the new, improved RTH site (despite what I’ve heard from every mothers’ basement) does address this issue. There are added angles to examine the music, including that of no media other than the sound of each of us typing away.

  7. Thanks for the great post. You wouldn’t be able to send me a cd-r with that pre-Eno stuff, would you? As far as I know, it’s never been released (not even on Recombo DNA), though a neighbor of mine has a vinyl boot of it. I bought a bunch of records from her recently, but she didn’t wanna give that one up (and understandably so). Before that, I had no idea these versions even existed and I have both Hardcore Volumes and some early singles as well. And Fritz, “Blockhead” is possibly my favorite Devo song. Oh and I also prefer Duty Now for the Future to the debut, though I know we’re in the minority there.

  8. mwall

    I hear you, Mr. Mod. I didn’t mean in terms of the look of the site, which I like a lot. I meant in terms of how we evaluate the value of a piece of art. Too often I feel like people have been dismissive of anything that’s not essentially “the music itself,” thinking of it as an unnecessary add-on or distraction. That’s valid as a way of judging music, for sure, but sometimes the music isn’t the whole issue.

  9. Mr. Moderator

    I hear you, too, Mark – and I was being a little tongue-in-cheek to boot. I do think that we’ve used this forum to see and hear things in a slightly new light now and then, as much as we like to think we’re all about the music, man. Point taken, and I agree that this Devo issue forces us to deal with all that surrounds the music.

  10. In another RTH Context, I once detailed my Devo experience. In short, sometime in 1977 I read something about them that sounded interesting and bought the Jocko Homo/Mongoloid single. I remember sitting in my bedroom with my head in front of ther stereo listening to it and looking at the cheesy incomprehensible art work showing the band performing in gym shorts and stocking masks. What really caught my attention was the weird minor key garage drone of Mongoloid, the Beefheart drum pattern of Jocko Homo and best of all the repetitions of “Are We Not Men? We are Devo!” with the minimalist, shifting melody and rhythm. Not to mention the most , well just the most unpredictable synthesizer sound I’ve ever heard. It seemed so perfect.

    A few months later, I saw them at the Hot Club. They were great. Still really rudimentary in presentation, but making up for it in the actual weirdness content. I remember them having the little basketball outfits and the knee pads, which were functional because much of the choreography involved sudden plunges onto the knees and slides across the stage. As great as it was, however, it just seemed like the more I experienced them, the more, explicit their intent became and the more the weird little mystery that held so much appeal at first slipped away.

    Satisfaction came out on Stiff (They had done it live when I saw them.) and it was great and clever but it was just too clear what it was about.

    I got their album and liked plenty of it, but the versions of songs from that first single just were not the same. Jocko Homo lost the amazing synthesizer sound, screwed up the minimalist call and response somehow, and lost the stupid, irrelevant, “OHIO” pun bridge that somehow made the whole thing less didactic and more, well, FUN.

    I lost the string there, never buying anything else as it came out and seeing them only once in the late 80s at an art opening in NY that a friend of mine curated which included some Mothersbaugh art.

    I will say that a few years back I got the Anthology “Pioneers Who Got Scalped” mostly because it included the Booji Boy version of that first single and so that I would have at least a retrospective of the band which I loved for a moment in time and still can look back and feel the reason why. We grew apart, but sometimes that happens. Listening to that anthology has made me aware of some other highlights that I missed along the way (for example I find Gates of Steel to be somehow deeply emotionally compelling) but I don’t regret our years apart.

  11. The Back Office

    Hey berlyant- None of this is bootleg but a lot is now out of print. iTunes has Greatest Misses which has a handful of Booji Boy releases. The Mongoloid, Be Stiff and Satisfaction versions here are from that. That and the not so hot Mechanical Man are all I bought from iTunes. Automodown and Stop Look and Listen are from Hardcore Vol. 1 and The live stuff is from Devo Live (The Mongoloid Years.) Hardcore and Live are out of print.

    I actually had lost my versions of all this stuff so I had to pay scalper’s prices for those two discs to use here. But I’m not a collector so they are both actually on eBay right now. Hardcore ends in 2 hours. And Live ends tomorrow. If anyone is interested you can search for them on eBay.

    But if you just want the tunes- email me offlist.

  12. I’ve got both Hardcore volumes and Live: The Mongoloid Years as well. I also have a few early singles. I recently downloaded the “Be Stiff” EP and the Recombo DNA set that since I’m not sure if Rhino Handmade is still making it. I’ve also got the Pioneers Who Got Scalped anthology, which has some early rarities on it as well. I was looking for a specific bootleg which just contains early versions of songs that ended up on their 1st album that are different from the early single versions as well. They’re almost so raw-sounding that they may as well be live from what I remember, though I can’t remember the name of the boot. Anyway thanks for the offer, though it sounds like I already have what you’ve got.

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