When the new wave floodgates opened in the mid-’70s, all sorts of strange things flowed out. From Akron, Ohio came five neurotic overachievers (the Mothersbaugh and Casale brothers on guitars and bass, plus drummer Alan Myers) armed with an ambitious and effective robotic sound, and a carefully contrived (but intentionally inarticulate) theory about the de-evolutionary state of things to come. Beginning with a pair of groundbreaking 1977 singles on the group’s own Booji Boy label, the efficiently organized quintet delivered itself encased in a self-willed pseudo-culture, with industrial uniforms, loopy graphics, promotional films, lingo, merchandise, etc. Whether sharp social commentators on the breakdown of modern life or just canny media marketers selling a total pop package (a distinction that was soon revealed to be essentially meaningless), the spudboys quickly won a revered place in rock’s brave new world, serving as a major influence for many.
Produced with energetic precision by Brian Eno, Devo’s first album is the most concentrated presentation of the band’s nebulous theories. “Jocko Homo,” “Mongoloid” and “Shrivel Up” employ a cold, assembly-line jerkiness to drive home their defeatist attitudes and post-modern morality. The same nervous energy fuels more emotional messages like “Uncontrollable Urge,” “Gut Feeling,” “Sloppy (I Saw My Baby Gettin’),” the science-fiction paranoia of “Space Junk” and a hilariously high-strung (and de-sexed) version of the Rolling Stones’ “Satisfaction,” with a mechanical-sounding drum beat that would frizz Charlie Watts’ hair. (The 2009 reissue includes a live reprise of the album, recorded at London’s HMV forum in May of that year. It’s an energetic, well-recorded performance, but not essential. The Devo-Lux Edition combines the debut album with Freedom of Choice and the Dev-o Live EP, adds a DVD of the London performance and a DVD of the band’s videos, and tosses in a 7″ single of “Jocko Homo” / “Mongoloid.” Devo’s UK label also issued the album as a picture disc.)
Be Stiff collects Devo’s two indie 45s — four tunes that had been re-recorded for Are We Not Men? — and the third single, done for Stiff.
The second full-length album, Duty Now for the Future (produced by Ken Scott), doesn’t score as many bull’s-eyes as the first, but includes two Devo anthems of malaise, “Blockhead” and “S.I.B. (Swelling Itching Brain).” Amid disturbing signs of portentousness, Devo turns their bemused eyes to the mating ritual on “Strange Pursuit,” “Triumph of the Will” and “Pink Pussycat.” (The 1995 reissue on Henry Rollins’ Infinite Zero imprint adds the B-sides “Soo Bawlz” and “Penetration in the Centerfold.” The 2010 edition includes those songs plus the Stiff version of “Be Stiff,” a track featuring General Boy and a live version of “Secret Agent Man.” The Collectables reissue contains no bonus tracks.)
Devotees is a compilation of goofball cover versions, parodies and tributes to Devo submitted to KROQ-FM in Los Angeles by a motley amateur assortment of late-’70s local musicmakers.
The self-produced Freedom of Choice is the band’s most evocative pairing of words and music. Setting aside metaphysical foofaraw, the flowerpot-wearing fivesome contrast choppy keyboard licks (“Girl U Want,” “It’s Not Right,” “Snowball”) and ironic but unalienated perceptions (“Gates of Steel,” “Planet Earth,” “Freedom of Choice”). With the timely complicity of the recently launched MTV, their tolerance was rewarded with a subversive hit single from the LP, “Whip It.” (The 2009 reissue appends the six songs from the Dev-o Live EP.)
Issued to milk the single’s success, Dev-o Live is thoroughly redundant. Five of the six songs, including you-know-what and an instrumental version of “Freedom of Choice,” are from the preceding LP; only “Be Stiff” is new to album buyers. Hardly a jamming band, Devo live sounds just like Devo in the studio, except maybe a bit sloppier. (Rhino Handmade took an odd approach to expanding the EP: the label began with the original six songs, then appended 16 tracks from the same August 1980 show at the Warfield Theatre in San Francisco — including repeats of those six songs.)
For fans who want more live material from this period, Devo Live 1980 is a DualDisc of the group’s August 1980 show in Petaluma, CA — the night after the concert featured on Dev-o Live. One side of the disc features audio of most of the show’s songs; the other is a DVD of the complete performance. The mix is a bit muddy, and the abrupt cuts between songs detract from the live setting.
Devo’s been soft-pedaling their philosophy (on record, at least) since Freedom of Choice‘s breakthrough. Musically they’re still held back by a stunted sense of melody, although the dance-rock movement created a favorable climate for a rhythmic orientation and probably led to Devo’s increasing emphasis on a whomping beat. Unfortunately, the conducive atmosphere coincided with reduced artistic ambition; Devo has never made another album half as good as any of the first three.
New Traditionalists has a couple of attention-getting songs (“Love Without Anger,” “Going Under,” the extraordinarily attractive “Beautiful World”) and, for early birds, a bonus 45 of Lee Dorsey’s “Working in the Coal Mine.” Most of it, though, is clinical-sounding laissez-faire techno-dance stuff, less-than-compelling lyrics set to a metronomic 4/4 beat. (The 2010 WEA reissue adds six bonus tracks, including a demo of “Psychology of Desire” and the E-Z Listening version of “Beautiful World”; curiously, “Working in the Coal Mine” is MIA from this version.)
After wobbling through that uneven effort, Devo went straight to the dogs. Oh, No! It’s Devo, pointlessly produced by Roy Thomas Baker, failed to slow the creative slide; the mocking optimism of “That’s Good” and the nonsense lyrics of “Peek-a-Boo!” are the sole songs worth recalling from it. (The 1995 Infinite Zero rerelease adds the B-side “Find Out,” the studio outtake “Part of You” and four remixes.)
Shout‘s only memorable contribution is a version of the Jimi Hendrix oldie “Are You Experienced?” Songwriters Mark Mothersbaugh (guitar/keyboards) and Gerald Casale (bass/keyboards) are evidently going through a dry spell of drought proportions, substituting clichés for the razor-sharp observations that used to keep Devo intriguing as well as danceable. Was Devo succumbing to its own devolution? (The 1995 Infinite Zero reissue adds the B-side “Growing Pains” and the E-Z Listening version of “Shout.” The Collectables reissue includes no bonus tracks.)
Little was heard from the group proper for years after Shout, although Casale and the Mothersbaughs remained active, writing and performing music for films and television (including Pee-wee’s Playhouse; in ’90, Mark M. reached prime time with the theme to Davis Rules, eventually becoming the go-to composer for new cartoon series on Nickelodeon) and producing outside projects. Their recording studio in Los Angeles (where the group relocated in the early ’80s) has also been busy. Under the Devo banner, however, the only music to surface during this era was the woefully mistitled E-Z Listening Disc — an hour-plus CD containing the group’s smugly straightfaced (and barely recognizable) schlocky instrumental remakes of nineteen Devo songs — originally available on the mail-order-only E-Z Listening cassettes.
Returning to active duty in the late ’80s, the group made the self-produced Total Devo, the most notable aspect of which (besides the replacement of drummer Alan Myers by ex-Gleaming Spire/Spark David Kendrick) is its simultaneous four-format release: LP, cassette, CD and digital audio tape (DAT). Otherwise, it’s little more than a timid and bland imitation of the countless bands Devo inspired. Lost and confused, Devo attempts to sound like Human League, sings of being a “Disco Dancer” with far too little irony and essays a witless cover of “Don’t Be Cruel” that reveals a rather profound absence of humor. (The release of a “Disco Dancer” 12-inch with “3 Ivan Ivan remixes unavailable elsewhere” underscores just how far the once-visionary group has fallen.) The 1994 reissue on Restless includes remixes of “Disco Dancer,” “Baby Doll” and “Agitated.”
Dead in the water and sinking fast, Devo cast out Now It Can Be Told, a three-sided live album recorded in Los Angeles at the end of 1988. Lackluster, impotent performances turn what should have been a holding action into a total waste of time. Kendrick’s unimaginatively routine drumming derails “Gut Feeling” and “Satisfaction,” while a drastically revised arrangement of “Jocko Homo” turns it into an annoyingly slow, acoustic sway.
The appearance of a song called “Devo Has Feelings Too” on Smooth Noodle Maps might have promised some sort of cathartic statement about the group’s mental state, but the lyrics add nothing to the title. Still, the keyboard-heavy album gets back to muscular techno-dance music with less ambition and more success. Although the hi-NRG bounce of “When We Do It” is as numbingly bad as anything in Devo’s past, Smooth Noodle Maps is not without its moments. Maybe it’s the result of reduced expectations, but “Post Post-Modern Man” and “Spin the Wheel” have some of the melodic freshness and enthusiasm (if not the ironic intelligence) long absent from Devo’s records. But why cover “Morning Dew” in sequencers and rhythm machines? (The 1994 reissue on Restless appends three remixes of “Post Post-Modern Man.”)
The home-brew 4-track recordings (many of songs that have never surfaced in any other authorized form) from the band’s formative years that comprise the two volumes of Hardcore demonstrate how strong a stylistic foundation Devo had constructed before revealing itself to the world. Besides the Booji Boy versions of “Satisfaction,” “Mongoloid,” “Jocko Homo” and “Social Fools” and a few half-baked duds, these frequently fascinating documents reveal such intriguing castoffs as the lyrically twisted “Uglatto” (Gene Vincent meets Marc Bolan in the next century), “Stop Look and Listen,” the home recordings of “Be Stiff,” “Clockout” and “Working in the Coal Mine,” the boogie-happy “I’m a Potato” and “Buttered Beauties.” Recombo DNA picks up the home recording thread from there, offering two CDs of less revelatory demos that the band recorded during its years on Warner and Enigma.
Devo Live: The Mongoloid Years presents four-track recordings from three early gigs in reverse order: a November 1977 set at Max’s Kansas City in New York, a December 1976 opening set for the Dead Boys at The Crypt in Akron and an October 1975 Cleveland show. The sound quality is unsurprisingly amateurish throughout, but the band is in tight, thrilling form at the New York and Akron shows. Devo’s style and instrumental attack already are well worked-out at this stage, and the band handily wins over its audiences. (An unlisted performance of “Timing X,” from the Akron gig, is particularly impressive.) The four tracks from the Cleveland show are sloppier, but they stand alongside the Stooges’ Metallic K.O. and Suicide’s 23 Minutes Over Brussels as one of the most confrontational live recordings money can buy. The group (then a quartet, with Jim Mothersbaugh on drums) was hired to play a Halloween party for WMMS-FM. In his rambling introduction, emcee Murray Saul promises the guests, “It’s gonna be the craziest party anybody ever went to.” He’s not kidding. The crowd was clearly unprepared for Devo’s bizarre performance art and home-grown abrasive electronic sound. During a drawn-out rendition of “Jocko Homo,” the partygoers start booing and commandeering the microphones to insult the musicians; one threatens to “beat the shit out of you assholes.” At the end of “I Need a Chick,” amidst the sound of flying beer cans, the promoter yanks the plug and throws the band off stage. Any Devo fan who doesn’t already have a copy needs to seek one out.
Serving as both a reminder of Devo’s past greatness and the evident futility of its continued existence, a matching pair of compilations was issued at the end of 1990. Rather than assemble one full-fledged retrospective, the band created two halves that don’t add up to much, for real fans or casual spuds. Cherrypicking the early albums, finding the few good bits in the later ones and then adding on some token representatives of albums that contain nothing of merit, Greatest Hits (the titular reference obviously isn’t strictly commercial) gathers up sixteen tunes, from “Jocko Homo” and “Satisfaction” through a remixed version of Shout‘s “Here to Go.” Except for the overly generous inclusion of three tracks from Oh, No!, the selection isn’t bad, but anyone owning the first four albums can skip this package without missing anything significant.
For slightly more serious Devophiles, Greatest Misses puts together early LP tracks (some of which — “Blockhead,” “S.I.B.,” “Devo Corporate Anthem” — could rationally have replaced later stinkers on the Hits volume), such artifacts as the Booji Boy singles of “Be Stiff” and “Mechanical Man” (a minute shorter than the version on Hardcore) and a rude 1979 UK B-side, “Penetration in the Centerfold.” The standard stuff is nice but redundant, and most of the rarities aren’t rare enough (a couple of them are on Hardcore) to make this record a necessity.
The UK compilation Hot Potatoes: The Best of Devo omits “Smart Patrol/Mr. DNA” and the remix of “Here to Go” from the American Greatest Hits, but replaces them with five worthwhile album cuts, the “Be Stiff” single, and a remix of “Whip It,” resulting in a stronger sampler. The 1999 Greatest Hits, on the other hand, is a budget job that gets half of its ten selections from the Enigma albums. The Essentials and Whip It and Other Hits are similarly skimpy compilations, but at least neither one wastes the listener’s time or money with weak song selections (even if the latter does take half its tracks from Freedom of Choice).
Devo’s first six Warner Bros. releases were reissued on two-for-one CDs (in non-consecutive pairings) in the UK in 1993. The Are We Not Men?/Dev-o Live disc includes three studio B-sides; “Working in the Coal Mine” is tacked onto the Duty Now/New Traditionalists CD; the Oh No, It’s Devo!/Freedom of Choice disc appends a remix of “Peek-a-Boo!” Sound quality and packaging on these imports won’t impress a discerning shopper.
The Japanese This Is the Devo Box packages all seven Warner releases (with Dev-o Live presented in the expanded version originally released on Rhino Handmade). The four-CD Collectables Classics gathers Duty Now, New Traditionalists, Oh No, It’s Devo! and Shout into one package. Neither box set includes any B-sides, outtakes or other bonuses.
In a joint venture with software developer InScape, Devo created the computer game Adventures of the Smart Patrol in 1996. The accompanying soundtrack CD includes two new Devo tunes (the synth-surf instrumental “Smart Patrol Theme” and “That’s What He Said”), new versions of “U Got Me Bugged” and “Mechanical Man,” the four-track demo version of “Jocko Homo” from Hardcore Vol. 1 and four more familiar Devo recordings. It also offers two songs by outside contributors: Scott Orsi’s soundbite-riddled “The Spirit of JFK” and Brian Applegate’s juvenile (but funny) “34C.”
The Pioneers Who Got Scalped is a two-disc anthology of Devo’s recordings on both Warners and Enigma. About a third of the 50 tracks are presented here on CD for the first time, although most will be familiar to collectors. The extras include a dance mix of the Doctor Detroit theme, “It Takes a Worried Man” (a folk song popularized by Pete Seeger, which the band covered for inclusion in the Neil Young film Human Highway), a cover of Nine Inch Nails’ “Head Like a Hole” (from the Supercop soundtrack) and a studio version of the concert favorite “The Words Get Stuck in My Throat.” This certainly is the most comprehensive overview of Devo’s work to date, but as such, it documents the group’s decline as clearly as its achievements. And the self-pity implicit in the title — and presented blatantly in the cover art (showing the band members tied to stakes, as a crowd of men in suits hurls tomahawks at them) — underscores Devo’s unwillingness to acknowledge its own role in that decline.
Far removed from his work in Devo, Mark Mothersbaugh’s two Muzik for Insomniaks releases consist of simple synthesizer instrumentals selected from what is evidently a massive cache of similar works. (One presumes the titles’ sleeplessness refers more to the artist than the listener.) That many of these peppy exercises basically sound alike — some on Volume 1 pointedly suggest Asian musical styles and others take a jazzy turn, but none would sound awfully out of place accompanying the Pee-wee’s Playhouse credits — isn’t really a hindrance, although two volumes is really one too many. Most of Mothersbaugh’s non-verbal haikus are pleasant and relaxing, with enough compositional backbone to warrant attention. Each volume ends with an audio index: a brief snippet of each track.
In the liner notes (which include several creepy drawings and warped Christmas stories), Mark M. describes Joyeux Mutato as being intended “for anyone who has ever been traumatized by the Christmas season.” From this, listeners might expect the music to carry a sarcastic, even vengeful tone — and titles like “Jingle$, Jingle$, Jingle$,” “Only 12 Shopping Days Left” and “I Don’t Have a Christmas Tree (Soylent Night)” would back that up. But nearly all of Joyeux Mutato‘s songs deliver the sense of light-hearted uplift and warmth that (ideally) the holidays ought to bring, while retaining just a touch of the Devo spirit. “Blue Joy” is a sparkling synth-and-chimes take on “Joy to the World”; “You Better Watch Out” is a Leslied organ-driven variation on “Santa Claus Is Coming to Town.” Songs like “Bell Boy,” “Happy Woodchopper,” “Only 12 Shopping Days Left,” “Peace and Goodwill” and “Let There Be Snow” are derived from slightly less obvious sources, but all exhibit a similarly warm, playful spirit. Only “I Don’t Have a Christmas Tree (Soylent Night),” a cut-and-paste built around a country-style recording of “Silent Night,” displays the sort of sardonic humor that one might expect. Don’t be fooled, folks: the Scrooge act is just a put-on.
Devo returned to semi-active duty in the mid-’90s with sporadic concert tours, usually with Josh Freese on drums. (Rather than coming up with a new look, as it had for each tour during the ’80s, the group stuck with the tried-and-true yellow coveralls and red energy-dome hats — thus signaling its status as a nostalgia act.) Before recording any new material under its own name, though, the group undertook a couple of side projects. First, the Mothersbaugh brothers and Bob Casale chose to revive their pre-Devo band, the Wipeouters. (Josh Mancell, an in-house musician at Devo’s studio, sat in on drums.) P’Twaaang!!! offers 13 landlocked surf numbers with a distinctive twist. The band lays a familiar raga guitar line over spooky electronics in “Wounded Surfer”; “Rocket-ful of Power” combines the “Peter Gunn” guitar riff with “Wipeout”-style drum rolls; “Nubbie Boardsmen” and the title track bring the ever-popular Farfisa organ sound; “Ravin’ Surf” presents an effective blend of surf-rock and techno. The similarly electronics-enhanced “Twist ‘n’ Launch” (which includes a ukulele break), “Luna Goona Park” (“Do the swim while chopping down corn on the cob” — so that’s what the ho-dads from Ohio do) and “Rocket Power Theme” (from the animated series on Nickelodeon) sound the most Devoesque, thanks to Mark M.’s identifiable warble. Although not without its dull spots — “Wedgie Wipeout” is basically a limp rewrite of “Walk Don’t Run” — P’Twaaang!!! is pretty entertaining. More importantly, it illuminates how much their early apprenticeship in surf-rock influenced the musicians’ future strange pursuit. (The reissue’s cover art makes it clear who the Wipeouters really are.)
Shortly thereafter, Jerry Casale donned a turban and assumed the persona of “Jihad Jerry,” an Iranian expat declaring war on stupidity. Following a three-song download sampler, Jerry and the Evildoers — actually Devo with Freese on drums — released the full-length Mine Is Not a Holy War (which includes remixes of all three sampler songs, along with remakes of three early Devo tunes and a cover of the Yardbirds’ “He’s Always There”). Generally, it’s a pretty good Devo album, with a more natural-sounding rhythm section and female backing singers chiming in on the choruses — and a few refreshing twists to the music. The remixed “Beehive” sounds like Devo’s take on classic Chicago blues; Jerry’s self-introduction “What’s in a Name?” (essentially the title track) and “All She Wrote” are surprisingly funky. On the downside, “I Been Refused” (one of the Devo remakes) lifts too much of the guitar line from Lenny Kravitz’s “Are You Gonna Go My Way” for its own good, and “If the Shoe Fits,” a non-topical swipe at George W. Bush (“Hey, what’s up / You little putz / Man, you really suck / I said hey, what’s up / You stupid schmuck”), is just clumsy. After Mine Is Not a Holy War‘s release, JJ & the Evildoers started performing as Devo’s opening act. (This wasn’t the first time Devo did such double-duty on tour. In the early ’80s, the group sometimes opened for itself as Dove, The Band of Love, playing lounge versions of its own songs.) The joke went over like a rotten potato. Post-9/11 American audiences weren’t too receptive to a faux-Iranian frontman named Jihad Jerry, and the project was shelved.
These side projects, along with continued touring, began the spudboys’ re-energizing process. It still would be another two years before the release of any new Devo material (the single “Watch Us Work It,” which found its widest audience as a Dell jingle) and another two years after that before a new full-length album, Something for Everybody, finally hit the racks. (The band also unveiled a new look…although the iconic energy dome is a prominent feature in the album art.) Title notwithstanding, this album is aimed at Devo’s most mainstream fans — the ones who loved “Whip It,” “Beautiful World,” “Working in the Coal Mine” and “That’s Good,” but never bothered to dig back into the band’s earlier work. Nothing here will surprise anyone even casually familiar with Devo. Indeed, the group comes right out and admits, “What we do / Is what we do / It’s all the same / There’s nothing new.” The leadoff track, “Fresh,” revisits the imagery of “Girl U Want”: “Something in the air / Is telling me to go there…It’s calling from around the corner / Waiting just outside of town / Trailing vapor, sweet and tangy / Daring me to track it down.” The title “Don’t Shoot (I’m a Man)” is a motif that Devo was using back when General Boy was appearing in its videos. Only the occasional lyrical reference, such as “I got my GPS working” (in the robot-boogie number “Please Baby Please”) and the 2009 catch-phrase “Don’t tase me, bro” (which pops up in “Don’t Shoot”), offers any hint that Devo didn’t complete Something for Everybody in the ’80s and leave it in the vaults for a couple decades. That said, the tunes are solid, and the quintet plays them with all the enthusiasm, vigor and focus that were missing from most of its post-Freedom of Choice recordings. The songwriting sags a bit in the second half: “Step Up” (“Listen up, y’all / It’s D-E-V-O”) sounds awfully rote from a band that had 20 years to come up with it, and “Cameo,” an ode to a dance-floor-monopolizing “native American” — complete with startlingly cliché “woo-woo-woo”s — is just stupid. But the disc ends strong with “Later Is Now,” the mournful, piano-centered “No Place Like Home” and the anthemic “March On.” (The deluxe version appends four tracks, including “Watch Us Work It.”)
In 2006, Devo undertook a project for the Disney network: playing the music behind a mixed-gender quintet, ranging in age from 9 to 13, cavorting and lip-synching in videos while wearing the red energy domes. Dev2.0 offers perky renditions of ten Devo classics, plus two new songs — one of which, “The Winner,” is a remake of Jihad Jerry’s “If the Shoe Fits” with completely different lyrics. (The package includes a DVD of the young pre-fab band’s videos, all directed by Jerry C.) A brilliant post-post-modern statement? An attempt to introduce Devo’s music to a new generation? A blatant money-making move from a band that’s never been shy about merchandising? Regardless, Dev2.0, like any album, deserves to be judged on its artistic merits. Which is easy, because it has none. It’s simply a collection of musically predictable remakes sung by a 13-year-old girl (who actually sounds pretty bored). Devo brings no imagination or flair to its performances here, while the lyrics are sanitized to keep the messages positive and the images kiddie-safe. The line “A boy with a gun” in “Big Mess” is changed to “A girl having fun,” the admonition “Eliminate the ninnies and the twits” in “Through Being Cool” is replaced with “Eliminate the time you waste in cliques,” and so on. “Girl U Want” is reworked thoroughly and presented here as “Boy U Want” — because it’s far too suggestive for a girl to sing a song about a desirable girl, don’t you know. And every trace of irony is blanched out of the lyrics to “Freedom of Choice” and “Beautiful World.” (On the other hand, although “Uncontrollable Urge” is remade as a song about bingeing on junk food, the line “Got an urge I wanna purge” remains intact. Irony is where you find it.) Disney chose not to follow up on this dismal product; the kiddie band’s singer and guitarist expressed their disappointment in an interview, saying they were done with musical pursuits. Burned-out, disillusioned victims of the heartless record business before even finishing middle school: now that’s de-evolution.