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.