Mar 292007
 


The great thing about Devo was that you didn’t have to listen to their music to love them. Their appearance on Saturday Night Live, where they performed “Satisfaction” and “Jocko Homo”, complete with the coordinated robot moves, the Booji Boy routine, the yellow HazMat jumpsuits, and a fuzz box mounted directly on one of the guitar players’ guitar, was the atom bomb of the rock ‘n roll age as we knew it. With that appearance, the release of their album, and their spectacular, absurd videos, they launched the eventual MTV/hip-hop-era attack on the value of Brill Building-based song structure, the blues tradition in rock, and perhaps music itself.

Did anyone really listen to a Devo song for the song itself? Sure they had some catchy songs and put a minimalist, repetitive spin on the classics, but without the arch theories and choreographed stage and video presentations what are they but Neil Young’s Trans? Lord knows a generation of rock nerds has wasted time trying to defend the merits of that album the way that generation’s rock nerd big brothers wasted time defending the merits of The Beach Boys’ Love You album, but that’s neither here nor there.

Try turning down the volume on a Devo video someday – turn it all the way down – and tell me if the images onscreen aren’t just as powerful and the song isn’t just as good. Try listening to a Devo record with the volume turned all the way down. Just look at the album cover and read an old interview with Mark Mothersbaugh about the philosophy of de-evolution. The album is just as good as if you had it cranked up.

Turn down the sound to the following video before watching, and see if you can calculate how little enjoyment you lose.

In the decades that would follow the appearance of Devo, the music itself would become secondary, then tertiary to the marketing campaign, the video, the overall buzz. Justin Timberlake puts out a new album, pop culture feature stories and cover shots are booked, the little girls understand, old white guys at laptops hammer out praise using ’00s hipster lingo, and JT videotapes himself live at the GRAMMYS! This is the onanistic world Devo imagined and helped usher in. They accepted our necessary de-evolution and aided nature in having her way.

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  15 Responses to “Music That’s Better with the Sound Turned Off: Devo”

  1. You’re a fool. Devo’s 1st 4 albums and their earlier material make for fine listening without accompanying videos. There’s very little “non-traditional” about the pop-song structures on Freedom of Choice and New Traditionalists, for example.

    Also, Love You is a brilliant album. Don’t get me started on that one.

    I can’t speak for Trans as I’ve never heard it. Also, it’s unfair to compare Devo to that album as Neil recorded it partly because of his well-documented love for Devo.

  2. KingEd

    A “fool”? That’s a little harsh, ain’t it man? First of all, I was giving Devo props for making music that was good even if you didn’t listen to it. Few can do that without crawling across the floor in a slinky dress to drink milk out of a cat’s bowl.

    Secondly, why shouldn’t I get you started on discussing the brilliance of this Loe You album. Did this come out after Freedom of Choice? I lost track of Devo’s actually releases around that time. Oh wait – duh! (maybe I am an idiot) – you’re talking about that bad Beach Boys album, aren’t you?

    Finally, what could be more fair than comparing Devo to an album they inspired? Do me a favor, the day you get your hands on a copy of Trans, try turning down the sound and tell me if it sounds half as good as any Devo album with the sound turned all the way down.

    I hope we’re just having a misunderstanding, except for our differences of opinion over that Beach Boys album.

  3. A “fool”? That’s a little harsh, ain’t it man? First of all, I was giving Devo props for making music that was good even if you didn’t listen to it. Few can do that without crawling across the floor in a slinky dress to drink milk out of a cat’s bowl.

    Sorry about that. It was indeed a bit harsh. I should’ve clarified that I didn’t mean that in a personal way. Obviously it’s your right to dislike or like anything you wish. But when I read your post, I had to just shrug my shoulders since it seemed to be backhanded praise. I mean, I have a friend who used to watch Stryper videos with the volume down in the record store he owned at a certain time of the afternoon just because they were so funny. You seem to be implying something similar with Devo and yeah, they’re one of my favorite bands ever, so I can’t help but to be a bit too sensitive. So again, sorry about that Ed.

    Secondly, why shouldn’t I get you started on discussing the brilliance of this Loe You album. Did this come out after Freedom of Choice? I lost track of Devo’s actually releases around that time. Oh wait – duh! (maybe I am an idiot) – you’re talking about that bad Beach Boys album, aren’t you?

    Love You came out in 1977 and Freedom of Choice came out in 1980 and yeah, I was referring to the Beach Boys album in question. It may be my favorite album of theirs. No, I’m not kidding. It’s funny, ridiculously catchy and a perfect representation of Brian Wilson’s admittedly stagnant mental state at that time. So yes, I like it partially because of its bizarreness, goofiness and what not, but it also has some really memorable straightforward ballads like “The Night was So Young”. Then again, I’m also a huge Beach Boys nerd and I think it’s one of those albums where you have to be into the artist in question to really “get it” if you know what I mean. Otherwise, I can understand why people would dislike it as the production values aren’t nearly up to snuff with their better-regarded ’60s stuff, for example.

    I hope we’re just having a misunderstanding, except for our differences of opinion over that Beach Boys album.

    I hope so, too! I don’t mean to offend here.

  4. hrrundivbakshi

    Mr. Mod: we need a full-on, 360-degree, collective gripe/praisefest/healing session on this controversial “Love You” album. And get The Accuser out of his f*cking basement to join in, will you? That guy is starting to scare me. Is it true he’s stopped bathing?

  5. Mr. Moderator

    I don’t know that I’ve ever heard that album. Do you own it digitally, Hrrundi or Matt? If so, contact me offlist, and I can direct you to a place that will store the tracks for me to upload here and have just that day. Meanwhile, I look forward to the healing process that Matt seems to have initiated with Ed. Let’s stick together, lads.

    As for The Accuser, I spoke to him the other day. I would be lying if I said he sent regards, but he was in fine spirits. I’m hopeful that he will one day rejoin our cause. Here’s hoping that TastyBassLee gets back in the fold too!

  6. KingEd

    Ah, I wasn’t really offended, Matt. Just wondering why you had to start out that way. Wait a sentence or two to call me a foolnext time, will ya? What I reacted to was thinking you thought I was dissing Devo. I like their music OK, but it’s the whole package that makes them more than a new wave novelty act, in my opinion. I think The Back Office illustrated my views better than I did myself.

  7. saturnismine

    Ed you fool!!!

    this is right…on…the friggin….money (so’s the back office bit).

    it made me pull out my copy of “are we not men” and stare at the cover while turning the sound down.

    kidding…

    i agree with you about their visual aspect. they were even more disturbing looking at the time than they appear now. and their image was the visual analog of their early sound.

    i liked the first album so much better than the others, however. it shows how underrated they are as guitarists. they really went for something different on guitar when it was still a primary part of their sound. but as their records became slicker and the 70s turned into the 80s and the key-tar was invented, they forgot about some of the compelling ways that they challenged the limits of the six stringed instrument.

    thanks for the reminder of devo’s awesomeness….

  8. BigSteve

    i liked the first album so much better than the others, however. it shows how underrated they are as guitarists. they really went for something different on guitar when it was still a primary part of their sound. but as their records became slicker and the 70s turned into the 80s and the key-tar was invented, they forgot about some of the compelling ways that they challenged the limits of the six stringed instrument.

    They also had a way of using weird time signatures or repetitions in odd (i.e., not divisible by 2) numbers that didn’t give off a showoffy muso vibe. Instead the rhythms left the listener feeling off-balance and wondering ‘is that smart or dumb?’

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