"What's round on the end and high in the middle? O-HI-O."

Akron's finest export. They devolved from a conceptual garage band (produced by Brian Eno and, later, Ken Scott) that incorporated synthesizers to an aimless synth-pop band that incorporated the sound of treading water (first sign of suck: a snot-nosed 12-year-old guitar student raving about his brand new copy of Freedom of Choice; Devo had gone from idiosyncratic to puerile in two steps - Whip This, ya bastids).

Ahhh, Devo. One of the finest musical accomplishments of the 80s, in my own humble opinion. Mixing the robotic bleeps and bloops of synthesizers with an energetic rock and roll sound and even elements of punk, Devo was a monstrous amagalm of epic proportions. They were a musical B2 bomber with the cargo hold filled to capacity. What did it contain, you ask? The theory of de-evolution.

A good description of Devo's theme, if you can pin one down, is this: the plight of the individual in an increasingly mechanized world and the symbiotic relationship between rational thought and irrational lust (from the historic booklet included with the new anthology, Pioneers Who Got Scalped, out on Rhino Records). The group, like many other great rock and roll bands, was full of marvelous contradictions. They stressed the importance of individuality and non-conformism, yet they all dressed the same. It was impossible to figure them out at the time, and in many ways it still is.

The greatest tragedy of the Devo saga is that their later works are completely lacking in substance as compared to their brilliant early accomplishments. They lost the all-important element of angry, hormonally-charged rock and roll and became bogged down by corny, ineffective synth sounds. Where once the synthesizer had been a tool used to enhance their sound and help to cement their vision and imagery into their music by adding a cold, robotic ingredient, it was now simply an overwhelming, cliched engine powering an outdated vehicle.

However, we will always have their early work. Anthems like "Jocko Homo", "Be Stiff", "Smart Patrol / Mr. DNA", "Beautiful World", and even the breakthrough smash (and actually rather brilliant song) "Whip It" will continue to play on the stereos of spudheads around the world as we remember the glory of a once-mighty force in the battle against a quickly approaching unsympathetic future.

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?

In 1973, at Kent State's Creative Arts Festival, six men peformed a show that was the genesis of something that would change music as we knew it, but not for a while. The show was avant-garde performance art, and totally Devo. This was Sextet Devo, the germ of what would become Devo.

The Devo story really goes back to 1966, and the artistic machinations of Gerald V. Casale, and Bob Lewis. One of a group of artists at Kent State, Gerald Casale, and Bob Lewis played about with a theory concerning devolution, drawing upon varied external sources, including a religious pamphlet entitled Jocko Homo-Heavenbound! (which would be called Devo's Old Testament). They grouped up with Mark Mothersbaugh, and toyed with the artistic value of devolution. When National Guardsmen shot four students in 1970, Gerald Casale's joke theory became concrete. Devo become real. Three years later, Sextet Devo took the stage in front of a shocked and confused audience.

Over the next five years, Devo had a shift of lineup changes, dropping from a Sextet, to a quartet (mostly Mothersbaughs), then to a quintet. They honed their sound and visual identiy. They calmed the dissonance of their early shows into a slick synthesized rock & roll. They made films to provide their sounds with a visual element. Then, they signed to Warner Brothers, and that was truely the beginning of the end.

To tell the full story of Devo would take a book, two books, perhaps, as the one book that is out manages to compress Devo post 1980 into merely a few chapters. Neverless, it is an interesting read. Devo was more than a band, they were artists. They played with philosophy, and with sound. To think of Devo as just the guys who did Whip It, sells them far too short. Grab a copy of Q: Are We Not Men? A: We Are Devo!, put it in your CD player, and listen. This is the important sound of things falling about.

We're all Devo!

Devo Discography of Major releases:
1978: Q: Are We Not Men? A: We Are Devo!
1979: Duty Now For The Future
1980: Freedom Of Choice
1980: Dev-O Live
1981: New Traditionalists
1982: Oh, No! It's Devo!
1984: Shout
1987: E-Z Listening Disc
1988: Total Devo
1989: Now It Can Be Told: Devo At The Palace 12/9/88
1990: Smooth Noodle Maps
1991: Hardcore Devo Volume 1
1992: Hardcore Devo Volume 2
1992: Devo Live: The Mongoloid Years
1996: The Adventures Of The Smart Patrol (Soundtrack)
2000: Pioneers Who Got Scalped: The Anthology
2000: Recombo DNA

Devo Videography:
Music Videos:
1975 - The Truth About De-Evolution
1978 - Satisfaction
1978 - Come Back Jonee
1979 - Devo Corporate Anthem
1979 - The Day My Baby Gave Me A Surprise
1979 - Worried Man (Part of the film Human Highway)
1980 - Girl U Want
1980 - Freedom Of Choice
1980 - Whip It
1981 - Through Being Cool
1981 - Love Without Anger
1981 - Beautiful World
1982 - Time Out For Fun
1982 - Peek-A-Boo
1982 - That's Good
1983 - Theme From Doctor Detroit
1984 - Are You Experienced?
1988 - Disco Dancer
1990 - Post Post-Modern Man
1990 - Post Post-Modern Man (Rocky Schenk Remix)
1996 - That's What He Said
2001 - Go Monkey Go

Home Video:
1979 - The Men Who Make The Music
1985 - We're All Devo!
1993 - The Complete Truth About De-Evolution (Laserdisc)
2003 - The Complete Truth About De-Evolution (DVD)
2004 - Devo Live

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