By Ian McQuaid
“The enemy is at the gate, and the enemy is the human mind itself, or lack of it “
There are bands who grunt a career out of being really dumb. Devo aren’t one of them. They’re the archest of art school pranksters, all wrapped up in parodying Western culture with affection and despair. When founder and director Gerald Casale likens them to the house band on the Titanic, playing as the ship goes down, he’s spot on— they never head for the life boats because they love the old girl too much. The magic of Devo lies in the contradictions—that a group of educated, self consciously intellectual musicians and non musicians, sticking career-long to a high concept that’s entirely bleak in its interpretation of a world going to shit- that they can make song after song of bizarro art pop that’s pure funtimes, without ever losing sight of the ideas that shaped them, is incredible. Still, if the ship’s sinking, you may as well party....
The core of this contradiction lies largely in the make up of the group. The foundations of Devo were laid at Kent State University in the late 60s. The college had swelled suddenly and massively, rising from 8,000 students to 20,000 in the space of a few years, necessitating the hiring of a new body of staff. This meant that the campus thrummed with cutting edge thought, as early Devo member Bob Lewis eulogises in his
"Prominent were Charles Swanson, an art history professor who studied at Black Mountain with Buckminster Fuller, Charles Olson, Robert Duncan, Ed Dorn and John Cage, and Robert Bertholf...who brought an unparalleled group of artists to Kent State: Robert Duncan, Harvey Bialy, Allen Ginsberg, Gary Snyder, Robert Creely... International musical groups like the Blues Project, the Animals, Jeff Beck, Small Faces, Captain Beefheart, Buffalo Springfield etc. played at nearby venues... The art department was vibrant and alive with people like J. Charles Walker, Robert Culley and Richard Myers, an experimental film-maker who brought the Kent Film Festival to the campus, exposing the students to film-making from around the world. ... In poetry classes we were taught by people who had been in Black Mountain with Charles Olson, when objectivist poetry was being forged. We read Kesey and Pynchon, Farina and Barth." 1
Lewis reports this time as a golden age that was horribly shattered by the fatal shootings at the 1970 Kent State protests. 4 unarmed students were purposely mowed down by the National Guard after a few days of student Vietnam protests that threatened to spill into a full blown riot. With 2 of the killed being friends of Lewis, and a media that falsely justified the shootings with fabrications about guardsmen having been wounded or killed, he and fellow student Gerald Casale abandoned all pretence of hippy ideology. Instead they combined theory and multi-media practice with scathing critiques of a society that they felt had reached its peak and could now only devolve into a Neanderthal state, albeit one jumbled with whirring, flashing computerised Gods.
It was with the addition of highly gifted musician Mark Mothersbaugh that the band took off. However, Lewis asserts that “Devo could and would have existed in some form with or without Mark Mothersbaugh; without Gerry Casale there would be no Devo.”3 He maintains that Mothersbaugh has less of an artist’s direction, and has always been more interested in pushing pop songs and kitsch rather than concepts—but this conflicting dynamic is the heart of what made Devo so great— subversive messages married to irresistible melodies – odd time sequences with hyper catchy hooks – all of this allowed them to glory in the MTV assisted fame of the 80s without compromising their strange and cynical ethos.
Casale explicates this - “We saw subversion as the most successful form of change, so we always had an attraction to loaded phrases that you can reshape and subvert to fit your own needs.”4
The MTV fame was pay off for the art school film grounding. Before the rest of the world had woken up to the terrifying all conquering power of the promo clip, Devo were strapping on the energy domes and delivering videos that combined bondage imagery with colours for kids, or 50s mondo rockarama goodtime footage with the hyper sinister plastic faced Booji Boy character (Whip It! and Beautiful World respectively). Even if you didn’t pick up on exactly why, there was no way you could leave these visual treats without feeling unsettled. It seems startling that so much of their video work hasn’t been superseded by a new pretender- as things stand they are still one of the only acts to lay claim to pop video genius. Check out the Wikipedia list of Devo video characters (the fact that someone has felt compelled to sling together a list in the first place speaks volumes) featuring bands like The Cumberbuns- “A Latin lounge music group, the Cumberbuns produced one album, We Are Degenero with the song Softcore Mutations“5 It’s this madcap and creepingly sinister attention to detail that seperates Devo from the hordes of imitators. And much as there is a current vogue for unit shifters such as Lady Gaga and Katy Perry to try and ape this kind of gleeful surrealism, they have none of the underlying conceptual drive and sly subversion, leaving only vapid posturing, and yet more reason for Casale to state--
“We're inspired by reality, because the world is so ridiculous and stupid. DE-EVOLUTION IS REAL.”
1 read the entire essay at http://devo.devaluate.com/Devolution.pdf
2 As quoted in Babylons Burning – Clinton Heylin – Penguin - 2008
3 Again, from Bob Lewis’s ‘Some Thoughts ON Devo’ – to be fair, a lot of this bitterness towards Mothersbaugh has roots in the 1978 court case the Lewsi took-and won- against the band, after they somewhat snottily refused to acknowledge he had any role what so ever in the creation of ‘Devolution Philosophy’