What's round on the end and high in the middle?
Maybe it is the yellow jumpsuits. Maybe it is the plastic hairpieces. Maybe it is the inverted red flowerpot helmets, or the surgical masks, or the ongoing and open visual struggle between conformity and individuality. Whatever the case, something caused Devo, one of the most influential, underrated, and unique bands of the latter part of the twentieth century to be overlooked by the mainstream musical crowd.
I think this lack of recognition can be blamed on two things: Devo's innovations, both in concept and in execution, are now so firmly embedded in pop culture that one cannot imagine a time when they didn't exist; and the fact that a lot of people don't want deep truths about life delivered to them in a pop song by five guys with flowerpots on their heads.
Devo was an unusual band from near Akron, Ohio that formed in 1974. Over the years, they released a number of albums and had a handful of minor mainstream hits, most notably the song Whip It in 1980. But in a subtle way, the group managed to truly permeate pop culture, providing a huge influence on the music of much of the 1980s and 1990s and in pop culture in general, adding more while largely underneath the radar than most people realize.
Devo were/are a quintet, consisting of Mark Mothersbaugh on vocals, keyboards, and guitar; Jerry Casale on vocals, bass, and keyboards; Bob Mothersbaugh (sometimes called Bob I) on lead guitar and vocals; Bob Casale (sometimes called Bob II) on rhythm guitar, keyboards, and vocals; and Alan Myers on the drums, at least throughout their most successful years.
To say that their earliest days were unsuccessful is an understatement; they were often literally jeered from the stage during some of their earliest shows in 1975 and 1976. But something during this time gelled within the group: maybe it was the influence of one too many listens to Captain Beefheart, or an all-night repetition or two of some of the better Mothers of Invention stuff, or perhaps even an alien abduction involving a subconscious fusion with Sgt. Pepper, The Ramones, Kraftwerk, and The Banana Splits. Mark Mothersbaugh will never reveal the actual truth behind the de-evolution, but during 1976, the band began to really hone their craft and image down to a fine musical and witty point on the mean streets of Akron.
1976 was noteworthy for the group for another reason; their original drummer, Jim Mothersbaugh (yes, the mysterious third Mothersbaugh brother) left the band to persue a "real" career outside of a band that he thought was going nowhere; after some searching of the greater Akron area, another drummer, Alan Myers, was found and added to the lineup.
The ideas that were yet to come were still floating around in the minds of the band members, though, and so in 1977, the group took a chance and formed their own record label, Booji Boy. On this label, they released a single, Jocko Homo, a song that would go on to be one of their signatures. This song, in lyrical form, describes a world view that is unusual to say the least: people are devolving (i.e., de-evolving) and many of them have regressed into spuds, which to Devo are the people who don't bother to think anymore, in other words, the lowest form of life. The major progenitor of this devolution is television and corporate-produced pop culture.
This song, along with its excellent b-side, Mongoloid became fair-sized underground hits in 1977, and the group almost overnight went from being booed out of venues to being one of the hottest acts in Ohio. They followed this success with a second single featuring a sexually frustrated cover of the Rolling Stones' (I Can't Get No} Satisfaction, which was again an underground hit. It wasn't long before record labels came calling, and the first was Stiff Records, a minor UK label, who released the band's third single, Be Stiff, to both American and British audiences.
This single caught the attention of several influential British musicians, most notably David Bowie and Brian Eno. Bowie convinced Warner Bros. to sign the group and by the end of a whirlwind 1977, the group found themselves in the studio with Brian Eno producing their first album and David Bowie observing the affairs. The album was released in the fall of 1978 and was surprisingly successful; appearances on several national television programs followed the album, including an appearance as the musical guests on Saturday Night Live. In the wake of the success of the album (and to a smaller degree, of the popularity of the re-release of the single for (I Can't Get No} Satisfaction), Warner Bros. was itching for a follow up album, and Devo was ready with a large backlog of songs written over the past three years.
Devo's second album on Warner Bros. came out in the summer of 1979, entitled Duty Now For The Future. It featured, among others, a cover of the 1966 Johnny Rivers classic Secret Agent Man, which became more a song of paranoia than anything when covered by the devolutionary five.
Their commercial peak was yet to come, however, and it arrived with their 1980 album Freedom of Choice. It was a big departure for a band who previously had been best known for their eccentric guitar work; this disc was laden with synthesizers. It had three charting singles: Girl U Want, the title track, and their most prevalent mainstream hit, Whip It. Aided by a colorful video depicting the band in a mixture of country and s&m themes, this song cracked the top twenty in the US during the fall of 1980, bringing the group to the peak of their commercial success. The video itself was a staple of the earliest years of MTV. The album itself went platinum.
Early 1981 saw Devo at their commercial peak with an audience clamoring for more, so an EP was released, Dev-o Live to tide the fans over for the mini-onslaught of Devo that was to come that year. In the summer, the film Heavy Metal was released, and on the soundtrack was a cover of Lee Dorsey's 1966 single, Working In The Coal Mine, which became the group's second most successful single. When the fall brought the newest Devo album, New Traditionalists, this single was often packaged along with it, spurring on album sales.
The new album quickly made it clear how Devo felt about their newfound popularity: the opener, Through Being Cool, accused their fad-seeking johnny-come-lately fanbase of being "ninnies' and "twits." It also contained one of Devo's last hits, Beautiful World, a very poignant song that takes an amazing twist at the very end of the song with two simple words: "Not me," changing the whole focus of the song. Ironically, this song is currently being used in a commercial for the chainstore Target, advertising the very things this song spoke out against.
The band's next album, released in 1982, was not the hit that Warner Bros. expected. Oh No! It's Devo!, featuring the band members' heads attached to potatoes floating over a desert on the cover, was far from a commercial success, barely charting and not producing any singles of note, either. The band had returned to a style similar to their earliest days, shying away from heavy synthesizers that had marked their period of commercial success. It began to appear that Devo was gone for good, but they still had one hit left in them, which appeared in 1983: Theme From Dr. Detroit was the title track from Dan Aykroyd's film about a college professor turned pimp; the song may be the most memorable thing from the film.
Devo's last album on Warner Bros. appeared in 1984. Shout! was met with little fanfare, only receiving notice for a bizarre cover of the Jimi Hendrix classic Are You Experienced?. The group released two more largely forgettable albums, 1988s Total Devo and 1990s Smoothnoodlemaps, before calling it a career.
What made Devo so interesting, then? Their influence on music and on pop culture in general can be noted in several ways. Their biggest contribution was simply showing that pop music didn't have to have obvious lyrics and guitar-laden sounds; the group experimented greatly with electronic elements in music and were one of the earliest successful pioneers with melding the new electronic sounds with pop music. Their themes were unusual, too; most songs didn't tell the tale of the frustrated geek, and most songs didn't take an antisocial worldview, either. They contributed through their videos, elevating them to an art form before MTV was even born; watch the clips from such songs as Whip It, Beautiful World, and Love Without Anger and consider that these clips are more than twenty years old and you'll quickly realize how much of a visual and musical impact the group has had over the years.
Devo deserves a place beside The Beatles, Kraftwerk, and Nirvana in terms of how their presence and prevalence have changed not only popular music, but pop culture in general.
What's round on the end and high in the middle?