Everything literally changed in my high school’s Chemistry class’ infamous back row’s musical discussions during the Fall of 1978. You see, upon an unsuspecting group of teenagers was thrust a little band of five apparently nerdy rock anti-gods from Akron, Ohio, when Devo were the musical guest on the Saturday Night Live episode that was hosted by the great Fred Willard. That’s right! I said “Devo!”
If there was one band that was prepared to be on television in the post-David Bowie/KISS/Village People days, it was Devo. This band of art students burst out of Kent State, first to sign with England’s pioneering independent recording label Stiff Records. Then, they were signed by Warner Brothers in the States. But, Devo was more than a band with performance art tendencies. You see, we had that with KISS or The Tubes. What Devo did is took the whole performance art aspect to its completion by developing their theory of “De-evolution”, where man had developed so far that they were regressing, or devolving, back into man’s unsophisticated self after giving into marketing slogans designed to replace a true education. So, when you are a teenager and fancy yourself to be a little smarter than most of society, you seek out others like you. That is why we were all in the back row of that first (AND second) year of Chemistry.
Of course, this band of renaissance men and women, many of us jocks who really did not fit into the classic jock mode, while others were strong in the arts, all banded together with humor with a touch of cynicism in a class that was much more difficult than any chemistry class during my teaching years. Anyway, this group fell in love with Devo that weekend, and all we could do for several weeks was to reenact Devo’s performances in the hallways before school and between classes, (for the guys) in the locker room before and after practices, and at lunch. Who knew that this little new wave band with a great gimmick would move a coterie of teenagers to the point that many of us continue to be fans of the band to this day.
Devo’s first album, Q: Are We Not Men? A: We Are Devo, hooked us all. It is a nearly perfect combination of Kraftwerk’s synthesizer work set to David Bowie’s energetic Berlin Trilogy’s angular music. But, to us, the early Gen X-er, it was sarcastic heaven with a rocking dance beat. The album’s classic tracks included the anthemic “Uncontrollable Urge” and “Jocko Homo”. But the song that separate Devo from their peers was how they dismantled one of the Baby Boomers’ sacred cows, “Satisfaction”. Yes, I am talking about The Rolling Stones’ classic 1965 hit, considered to be one of the five greatest tunes of all time, according to Rolling Stone‘s Top 500 Songs of All-Time. What Devo did was to reset the lyrics to a herky-jerky beat of synthesizers and other mechanical-sounding instruments, all the while lead singer Mark Motherspaugh sang the lyrics like Don Pardo used to read his commercials on the air. In other words, Devo had taken the sexual tension out of the song and turned it into an exercise of advertisement, like it would read on today’s Craig’s List. Sure, the joke is more realistic today than in 1978, but that’s what made Devo so great. They were well ahead of Main Street, America.
Although the band never commercially lived up to the promise of their first album, Devo continue to do a great job parodying the Eighties and the whole Reagan Era, though the jokes fell upon deaf ears. In 1980, Devo scored their biggest hit when “Whip It” hit the Top Twenty. Once again, the song was taken solely as a comment on sex, but it was also a message about advertisement once again. If Devo had begun their careers ten years ago, everyone would be in on the joke, and they’d be more popular today. Instead, they are true visionaries.
Fortunately, for me, I got to see them “In Concert” via a 3-D closed circuit television broadcast to the big theater on my college’s campus. No other band had tried this before, and this was during the Fall of 1982. Only a small portion of the concert was in 3-D, during which Devo performed a couple of songs, while throwing things at the camera trying to make their audiences duck. The rest of the concert was the traditional 2-D thing, but at least Devo made the experiment. Now, movies are being released often in 3-D.
Up to the mid-Eighties, Devo was still making compelling music. In 1980, they released Freedom of Choice which contained “Whip It”, followed by New Traditionalists in 1981, where they became one of the first groups to skewer Reaganomics, and, in 1982, they released Oh, No! It’s Devo. After that, their creative juices dried up. After five or so more years of releasing lackluster albums, Devo made a triumphant return in 2010, when they released Something for Everyone. On that album, the band brought in a group of their fans to listen to their new music and vote for their favorite songs. The songs that made it on that album had received the most votes, which meant that the band had finally succumbed to de-evolution themselves. Surprisingly, the album was inspired and more successful than any of their albums since Oh, No! It’s Devo.
Since getting back together, the band has released an album of outtakes from the Something for Everyone sessions, called Something Else for Everyone, which displayed how inspired the band was during that session. Then, in 2013, Devo followed up that album with a live album from their 1981 New Traditionalists Tour called Live 1981 Seattle, which was a hugely successful tour, both for artistry and attendance. Finally, at the end of 2013, Devo released a double-CD collection of their outtakes from their early years entitled Hardcore Devo. If you are a fan of the band, you really need these in your collection.
To me, Devo does not represent a nostalgia trip. No, they still sound relevant and fresh, just like they originally did nearly 40 years ago. Wow! That number seems staggering. Oh well, nerds never age. We were preserved through those Dungeons and Dragons youth spells.