Looking back on a masterwork of minimalist thought and situationist action
The 2023 model of Devo that’s currently traversing North America is not your grandparents’ Devo.
It’s not even the 1978 model that released the classic Q: Are We Not Men? A: We Are Devo! 45 years ago today. That’s not a complaint by any means, but a note that when Devo first rolled out of some darkened rubber factory in Akron some years before that, there was more intent to provoke than to entertain, to create a situationist environment designed to elicit a love-hate reaction – without a whole lot of concern which side of that line any individual audience member might fall on.
While Devo didn’t actually start to make inroads until they decided to shift gears and segue into the quirky lane of the burgeoning new wave highway, the band emerged from surprisingly dark environs – Kent State University, at the time when Ohio governor James Rhodes ordered the murders of four students at Kent State University in 1970. Mark Mothersbaugh was there. He saw a lot of what went down and digested it, coming away with a sense of disgust at the vile actions of the oligarchy and a sense of disappointment at the impotence of the so-called counter-culture.
In a sense, Devo, at its onset, was sort of an artsy analog to Detroit’s MC5. The theory of de-evolution, which Americans have proven to be correct in the decades since, wasn’t exactly a call to take it to the streets, but it was a knowing recognition of the societal split that was to come.
At first, Devo was less a band than a collective of sorts: Sure, they played oddball gigs, opening for Sun Ra, with whom they shared a surprising amount of musical DNA. That gig, booked by a rock station that was just making its way from semi-freeform to all-Springsteen-all-the-time, got ugly enough that the quintet resorted to playing the signature tune “Jocko Homo” for nearly 30 minutes, until the power was cut. Mothersbaugh told the Guardian that back in the early days, he “Wanted the sounds you’d hear in the background while a reporter was telling you the US air force was dropping bombs on a jungle in Vietnam. I was looking for what our version of those sounds would be.”
Early gigs did spotlight a few songs that would become concert staples – “Be Stiff,” for instance, but those who caught them in 1974 were just as likely to hear Devo take on things like “Here Comes Peter Cottontail” (exactly what you think) or “Mr. Jingeling” (their take on the theme song for the titular character, a local department store’s cut-rate take on Santa, also known as “the keeper of the keys”).
I was lucky enough to come along early in the game. I’ve always attributed my musical evolution to a series of happy accidents – and this was one of the very first ones. As an early-blooming 13-year-old punk rock fan, I found out about Hideo’s Discodrome – The Drome – the only real outpost of out-there music in Cleveland, way across town, and I visited every time I saved up allowance/chore $. Took the Rapid out there to buy a few singles on this day and saw Devo was actually playing live – a shock to me, since I never thought bands could play in record stores. The bigger jolt came when the show actually started, with Mark Mothersbaugh in Booji Boy gear, singing castrati vocals from inside a giant crib while the band played some of the strangest, scariest stuff I’d ever heard. Yeah, scary. Devo was a lot darker then, pushing the De-Evolution angle in a uniquely Northeast Ohio way – full of post-industrial angst and an acceptance of the beauty of defeat. Thousands of shows later, this is still in my top ten, burned into my psyche and imprinted on my DNA forever.
Naturally, I bought a copy of the band’s self-released single, “Jocko Homo”/”Mongoloid,” two slices of disturbed and disturbing psychodrama, stuffed, sausage-like, into casings of regimented rhythm and guitars out of the Captain Beefheart playbook. Wore the thing out quickly, and was thrilled to see both songs on Are We Not Men? A: We Are Devo!, when it was released the following year.
Reflecting on those songs, Mothersbaugh told Pitchfork, “I formed Devo with Jerry (Casale); we were thinking about de-evolution. After the shootings at Kent State, we realized that rebellion wasn’t the way to change things anymore. Once the government gets irritated enough, they just lock you up or kill you. There’s no such thing as democracy—it’s all just corporations and the ebb and flow of capitalism. We were thinking, ‘God, the way it’s going, we could have a movie star or a sports guy as president. People are getting stupider.’”
For some reason, that philosophy, which the band wore on its collective sleeve, appealed to a major, highly-devolved corporation enough to snag Devo a multi-album deal and a trip to Cologne, Germany to record what would become their debut album with Brian Eno – who helped them get the deal in the first place. It turned out to be a less-than-fortuitous match: Eno tried applying his oblique strategies to songs put together in ways that were anything but oblique. Gerald Casale would later express regrets about the quintet’s unwillingness to accept the synth augmentations Eno proposed – flourishes that would echo in their later recordings – but the finished Q: Are We Not Men? A: We Are Devo! is pretty much a masterwork of minimalist thought and situationist action.
The songs are rife with the disillusioned rust belt ethic that also imbued fellow Ohioans like Pere Ubu: “Mongoloid” (politically incorrect nomenclature noted) told the tale of an under-the-radar “spud” who managed to go undetected in the straight world because “he wore a hat and he had a job.” The storyline was spurred along by guitar scratch and skittering percussion, not much in the way of keeping the beat in an old school manner. Similarly, “Smart Patrol,” probably the most regimented, nearly militaristic, track on the album, found Mothersbaugh embracing life beyond Devo – a lifetime of being common stock who worked around the clock to “put the poles in the holes.”
There’s a lot of factory worker angst to be had in these 31 short, sharp minutes, but there’s also a good bit of psychodrama. Freudians will certainly get their kicks from “Uncontrollable Urge,” a hyperspeed ode to some combination of sexual frustration and onanistic release. Mothersbaugh dives even deeper into the o-mind on “Too Much Paranoias,” a naggingly familiar sounding song that was inspired by a very unlikely musical influence. The frontman told Pitchfork “I remember watching commercials at that time, and the one that really caught my attention was a Burger King commercial where they took Pachelbel’s Canon—one of the most beautiful pieces of music ever written—and turned it into, ‘Hold the pickle, hold the lettuce/Special orders don’t upset us/All we ask is that you let us serve it your way.’
“The campaign was so successful, we thought, What if we presented our ideas in a way that could burrow into mainstream music? We wanted to be subversive. We thought of Devo like an earwig. I liked the idea of using rock’n’roll to get into people’s heads. Pretty early on in Devo, I wrote a song called ‘Too Much Paranoias,’ where I ranted, ‘Hold the pickles, hold the lettuce!’ I hope Burger King didn’t mind.”
The set’s most remembered track may be the de facto theme song “Jocko Homo,” which incorporates the album title and the oft-repeated hook “we must repeat, D-E-V-O,” which they wedged into millions of middle American brains during a legendary 1978 Saturday Night Live appearance – procured by admirer and future collaborator Neil Young’s manager Elliott Roberts. Devo made sure the outside world got a glimpse inside their universe – by introducing the performance themselves, via a cryptic filmed interlude featuring Booji Boy, his dad General Boy and an oblique reference to “The Chinaman.”
While the album performed middlingly on the charts, peaking in the 70s, and received a muted critical response (there were a lot of “novelty band” accusations, notably from Rolling Stone, but an Album of the Year nod from Trouser Press), it ensconced Devo in the consciousness of the regular record buying spud, who’d go on to make them an instantly recognizable entity for decades to come. No one could have imagined flowerpot hat merch being marketable 45 years on, but there’s no disputing the way Devo tapped into the zeitgeist, and managed to help head off de-evolution just a little bit over the years.