The Devolutionary Oath:
1. Be like your ancestors or be different. It doesn't matter.
2. Lay a million eggs or give birth to one.
3. Wear gaudy colors or avoid display. It's all the same.
4. The fittest shall survive yet the unfit may live.
5. We must repeat.
Devo started a joke which started the whole world crying. Okay, that isn't actually the case. What really happened was, Devo started a joke that eventually came true, a joke which reflected the outwardly vacant smile and repressed urges of the culture that produced them. Nowadays James Murphy may warble about 'North American Scum' to the delight of would-be ironists everywhere, but he's merely producing a comfortably numbed variant - minus the true horror - of the original manifesto originally developed by Ohio students Gerald Casale and Bob Lewis as far back as the late 1960s. Inspired partly by pseudo-scientific objections to Darwinism and, one suspects, partly by their own status in hometown Akron as sexually invisible egghead geeks, the manifesto of De-evolution is an ever-shifting collection of ideas, a satirical prism vital to the dissemination of Casale and Lewis’ cynical world view; Jungian psychology, Reichian Orgone theory, Crumb-esque sexual dementia, Church Of The SubGenius pranksterism all filter through, unified by the central idea that the human race has ceased to develop and is now sliding back towards its primitive origins. It isn't a world gone mad. It's a world gone stupid.
Devo started a joke which became serious at the precise moment Casale witnessed the murder of some of his fellow students by National Guardsmen at Kent State University on May 4, 1970, during a protest against the invasion of Cambodia launched by President Nixon on April 25. Four students were killed, nine were injured.
"It changed my life completely. That was the defining trauma. When you see people shot, when one bullet goes through a 19 year-old that you know, the hole, the exit wound that it leaves, all the screaming, the crying, the slow-motion like in 'Raging Bull'... within hours the university was closed. There were bands of deputised locals roving around in cars with shotguns. And the evening paper put out a false headline, 'Students have shot guardsmen'. So people were looking to kill students."
William Burroughs explained the concept of the 'Naked Lunch' as "the frozen moment when everyone sees what is on the end of every fork". The Kent State massacre would seem to have been Casale's own frozen moment.
"You watched a complete lie unfold. You watched the hatred. It was basically like a civil war. You've got to remember the people that shot the kids were the same age as the kids, they were national guardsmen, they were 19. And it was at the height of the protests over the Vietnam war, and the illegal extension of that war into Cambodia, without an act of congress, back when people were informed about their government and the constitution and they cared. Today obviously everybody just goes, 'Uh, give me my Frappucino and I'll put it in the cup holder of my SUV.' One lie after another, one cynical piece of misinformation after another, from this moronic junta that rules our world – nobody even turns their heads. It was a different world then. Ideas mattered, and the constitution seemed to matter to millions of Americans. It was real, it wasn't senseless killing, it was directed political hatred."
Casale and Lewis responded to this shocking absurdity with yet more absurdity. Fellow Kent State art student (and now highly successful soundtrack composer) Mark Mothersbaugh soon entered the fold, introducing the pair to the highly entertaining 1924 anti-evolutionary pamphlet ‘Jocko-Homo Heavenbound’ by one Doctor BH Shadduck. Devo was gradually reconfigured from a Dada-esque arts lab to a more focused audio-visual collective, adopting uniforms and embracing pop music as a possible means to an end.
“We were openly subversive in the beginning. But no-one was paying attention, that's the beauty of America – no-one pays attention at all. By the time it gained some kind of traction and got on the radar then certain people would write about it. As soon as we had any success we were viciously attacked as clowns and fascists and anti-humane. Completely misunderstood. People missed the irony and thought we were all for conformity.”
In 1974, Devo made ‘In The Beginning Was The End: The Complete Truth About De-Evolution’. Essentially an extended music video for two songs, ‘Secret Agent Man’ and ‘Jocko Homo’, the film introduced characters that embodied the concept of De-Evolution. Played by Mothersbaugh’s father Robert, General Boy symbolised 1950s-style paternal authority while his son Booji Boy, played by Mothersbaugh Jr in a plastic child mask, represented the tendency towards poop-playing regression Devo had observed in Western culture. An unmasked Mark in lab coat delivers a lecture to an audience of Jocko Homo (‘ape-men’) who later riot and stab Booji Boy to death. ‘In The Beginning...’ provided Devo with their first big messy splash, winning an award at the Ann Arbor Film Festival. This led to the vocal support of Iggy Pop and David Bowie, which in turn secured the band a deal with Warner Bros.
The film remains an uncomfortable experience. Not exactly funny and not quite serious, it aims for the guts of the audience and succeeds in inspiring a kind of creeping nausea. This queasiness is central to Devo’s aesthetic both musically and conceptually; satire exists to bring sickness to the surface, and songs like ‘Soo Bawlz’, ‘Be Stiff’, ‘Shrivel Up’, ‘Sloppy (I Saw My Baby Gettin’)’, ‘Penetration In The Centrefold’ and ‘Buttered Beauties’ act as conduits for the repressed urges of the American male. If Robert Crumb’s cartoons offered an exploded view of unfettered masculine sexuality reigning over its own uncensored kingdom, Devo’s frantic meditations on mongoloids, vaginal discharge, horny pre-teen mentally-handicapped girls and midgets who “play underneath... mama’s skirts all day” were their musical equivalent. And while their song structures tended towards an uptight jerkiness suggestive of a punishing, panicked bout of masturbation, the frequent squirts of analogue synth (especially dominant on the 4-track recordings collected on Rykodisc’s essential yet sadly deleted Hardcore Devo 74-77 compilations) are rudely redolent of bodily (mal)functions, the burp and squelch of messy sex, flatulence and diarrhea.
The synthetically-minded end of America’s noise underground owes a huge debt to Devo’s dirty-minded emissions. This band set the standard for angry male geek energy and prurient sexuality, and led some commentators to accuse the band of misogyny. It has to be said, they have a point - Devo songs often essay a gynecological curiosity that often spills over into cruelty, prodding and poking at the unfamiliar with a combination of lust and disgust. However Casale sees the band as victims, hapless undersexed outsiders without any hope of copping a feel, let alone subjugating the opposite sex. This seems disingenuous at first - as we all know, geeks can hate women too - but the perverse honesty of Devo’s sexual politics counts in their favour, and if it proves repellent, well... it is. What can you do?
“I don't think it was misogynistic at all. We were more like the Three Stooges, whenever they have girlfriends in one of their episodes they're being brow-beaten and pushed around and man-handled by the woman, you know, pussy whipped. We were passive males of tender tails in Ohio and we were on the short end of the stick when it came to women. What we noticed in culture though, was the complete hypocrisy where on the one hand sex is being sued to sell everything and on the other it's always being presented as bad.”
Something to be feared?
“Exactly. So when Mark wrote 'Penetration In The Centrefold' it was because some big magazine, like Penthouse or something had for the first time ever shown penetration in the centrefold. So he was like telling the news, he goes down to the store and… it was just reportage.”
“We used to put up these satirical and ironic statements that people took at face value, as serious manifestos. We said that ‘Rebellion and individuality is obsolete in corporate society’ and ‘Your mission is to fit in’. And they were like ‘Wow, these guys are fascists!’ You know, that's how Rolling Stone felt. Ridiculous. Clowns, Nazis, you know. While the real clowns and real Nazis were being put on the cover.”
Were the American rock critics a constant adversery?
“From the beginning, absolutely. They did not like what we were doing, it didn't fit in to the whole thing. All the radio programmers were like fake hippies who wore the satin jackets and were getting paid off in whores and cocaine and still liked The Eagles and just hated Devo.”
You mean you never got the opportunity to be paid off in whores or cocaine?
“No. We paid for our cocaine.”
At roughly the same time in England, Genesis P. Orridge and Cosey Fanni Tutti were launching their own offensive against the hypocrisy of decency, first as COUM Transmissions, then as Throbbing Gristle. It’s interesting to compare the two outfits. Like Devo, TG were lapsed hippies with an artsy background, they were inexorably drawn towards taboo subject matter, exhibited a love of synthetic texture and harboured a secret obsession with E-Z listening. They too, attracted accusations of fascism. It’s perhaps even more fascinating though to consider the ways in which the two groups diverged - brought up with pervasive American ideals of success, Devo briefly became the truly subversive pop group by way of their acute observation of such pop conventions as harmony, melody and damnably catchy toons. If this combination proved initially offputting to American ears, it quickly won the group a dedicated European following.
“Europe is where we first gained success. England got us in a big way right away, totally got the irony, the humour. Loved the performance quality of Devo and the multimedia quality. You know, the message was like ‘Ok we get it, great.’ and then they were on to the next thing. We actually probably lasted a little longer in terms of popularity in Germany, and believe it or not, Italy. Up to '84 we were very popular in Italy, so I think that in general the European audience was more informed, more sophisticated.”
But then, Europe was better prepared. There were obvious parallels between Devo and the streamlined epiphanies of Krautrock, especially Kraftwerk - the uniforms, the repetition, the steam-piston rhythms, the mannered, robotic method of playing - and no-one of great significance in America was using synths in such a goddamn European - or ‘faggy’, because in Europe we are all ‘fags’ - way. Devo’s 1978 debut album, Q: Are We Not Men? A: We Are Devo! was almost an honorary krautrock document, having been produced by Brian Eno at Conny Plank’s studio in Cologne. Although it’s now accepted as a post-punk cult classic, in truth it’s a little too clean, a little too Enossified, and as a result lacks the rough robotic energy and effluent electronic splurge of the band’s pre-Eno material. Casale and the band reputedly tried to convince Eno to perfectly replicate the sound of their demos, leading Eno to brand the band ‘anal’.
The Hornbyite drones of the mainstream music press will tell you that Q: Are We Not Men?... is the only truly essential Devo album, that Duty Now For The Future (1979), Freedom Of Choice (1980), New Traditionalists (1981), Oh, No! It’s Devo (1982) and Shout (1984) are little more the desperate splutterings of a novelty band outstaying their welcome, perhaps grudgefully admitting that motivational S&M anthem ‘Whip It’ from Freedom... is a pretty good tune. This news may shock some of our more sensitive readers, but guess what? They’re wrong. Over the course of these five albums, Devo dispensed with guitars in favour of gleaming, hi-definition (if frequently haywire) synthwork, while the lyrics swung wildly between pitch-black pessimism and pisstake perkiness. Post-debut Devo did not only give us ‘Whip It’, but also ‘Freedom Of Choice’, ‘Girl U Want’, ‘Gates Of Steel’, ‘Through Being Cool’, ‘Peek-A-Boo’ and ‘Beautiful World’. The latter, a bitterly poignant assault on the asinine positivity of the Reagan administration, is Devo at their angriest and most honest. It’s surprising and a little disappointing, then, that Casale considers the end of the true Devo to have taken place as early as 1978.
“I'm trying right now to make a feature film about us. It would start in 1974 and end in 1978 when we go on Saturday Night Live, and were a big hit that night. It's called ‘The Beginning Was The End’ and the way you watch the movie, you know that it’s over that night. That Devo, the real Devo, is over.”
So what was the Devo that came after that?
“Then you get to the corporate meat grinder, and all the things that come with it, both the good and bad. The pressures and the insanity, because basically your fate isn't your own any more. Because you can't really do that many things to control it.”
Of course, the news on every spud’s lips is that Devo are about to tour the UK for the first time in over fifteen years. Good news, right? A ‘legendary’ band returning to our shores, a chance to see something many of us were too young to experience the first time around. Yeah, great. Yawn. But wait - can this world really be as dumb as it seems? Could it be getting even dumber? And could it be that somehow Devo are more relevant now than ever? Maybe.
“Devo was a serious joke. We didn't even really believe things would get this bad. Now we see that we were unfortunately very right, beyond our expectations. De-evolution is real and we're all living in a de-evolved, corporate, futile world. Run by morons, and run by ideologues written by greed and religion of every stripe – it's not just the Muslims, it's our guys right here. They're itching for a fight because they're fundamentalist Christians. Your own guy Tony is in on that, and it's horror. A normal rational person that pays their bills, minds their own business has a high IQ just sits back in horror and watches the world be hijacked by morons and creeps. And pays the price. Nobody cares because there's a mass of sheep out there who are just consumer conformists, who have been turned into an audience. And they download ‘content’. And it's awful. And that's it. There's informed focus group who check an opinion poll and it's all moronic, a circus.”
Still, do we need another ‘legendary’ band clogging up the circuit? Not really. Fortunately Devo are hardly your average legends. Even when they’ve done the right thing, they’ve done it beautifully wrong, and as fellow Plan B writer Emily Bick remarked to me, they’re never going to be an easy hipster sell. Feel a bit queasy buying tickets for the nostalgia show? Good. It’s part of what it means to be Devo. And we’re all Devo.
“When I was in college, I would go and see John Lee Hooker or Howlin' Wolf and it was kind of like a war movie where I was scared but I loved every minute of it. It was intense and kind of threatening. But they were so good at what they did, and you couldn't believe they were doing it as grown men. I think when Devo walks on stage and can still do this stuff aggressively, it's kind of scary.”
Yes, Gerry. It sure is.