Who They Are: A conceptual art-rock band formed in Akron, Ohio, in the early 1970s, blending strikingly experimental yet accessible music with stellar pre-MTV-era visuals, all designed to advance their prescient social theory of “de-evolution,” wherein humanity has begun to regress, rather than evolve, in these sad modern times. Those social elements were framed around and in the aftermath of the Kent State shootings; stalwart member Gerald Casale and early member/manager Bob Lewis worked on the basic parameters for their group’s philosophy while students at that university, then expanded and enhanced the concept through the highly surrealistic lens added by fellow Kent student Mark Mothersbaugh. Fluid early membership eventually stabilized around the group’s classic line-up, with Lewis departing, Mothersbaugh and Casale being joined by their brothers, both named Bob (the Mothersbaugh sibling became “Bob 1,” the Casale brother “Bob 2”), and drummer Alan Myers. After a high-profile creative bidding war involving a variety of would-be labels and producers, the group issued its debut album in 1978, and by 1980 were placing highly on global charts with their breakthrough pop hit, “Whip It.” The classic line-up continued with diminishing commercial and critical success until 1986, when Myers departed. After a pair of albums with ex-Sparks drummer David Kendrick, the group went on a long recording hiatus, finally re-emerging in 2010 with their (as of now) final studio project, Something For Everybody, with Josh Freese on drums. Myers died in 2013, and Bob 2 died in 2014. Bob 2 has since been replaced by Josh Hager for subsequent live shows; I guess this makes him “Josh 2” to Freese’s “Josh 1.” Throughout Devo’s later career, Mark Mothersbaugh has emerged as a go-to soundtrack composer and creator for a vast list of television, video and feature film projects through his Mutato Muzika studio. I’m always happy to see his name appear in opening credits, as I know fine sounds will follow.
When I First Heard Them: I can answer this question down to the exact date: October 14, 1978. Devo appeared on Saturday Night Live that evening, and their performance was one of the most incredible, mind-warping things I have ever seen on television. They played two songs from their debut album, Q: Are We Not Men? A: We Are Devo!, that night, along with some bits from their short film The Truth About De-Evolution, and I was fascinated, thrilled, appalled and legitimately frightened by what I saw, knowing nothing about them in advance of that unexpected breach in my cultural consciousness. When I went to the local mall record store the next day and discovered that their debut album had been produced by Brian Eno, who I already loved, I was sold, hooked, converted and convicted on behalf of their cause. (This was not a popular position with my peers, but what else is new, then or now?) Over the next couple of years, various Devo video bits emerged via HBO’s Video Jukebox and other late-night outlets of those quaint pre-MTV days, and Devo’s video deconstruction of the Rolling Stones’ “Satisfaction” (which they’d played on that SNL performance) was another strange-to-disturbing visual highlight of the late ’70s for me. I post videos of those two transformative SNL performances below, and I recommend you watch them now. I still marvel at the insectoid, twitchy choreography, the technology, the use of film, and the wonders of Mark’s guitar on “Satisfaction,” with pedals and God knows what else taped all over it. It’s still a massively other-worldly moment.
Why I Love Them: They make delightfully strange music, for sure, but it’s almost always anchored in killer hooks and melodies that leave your brain singing words that it probably shouldn’t, over and over and over again. I also always tend to love groups which see their creative bodies of work as being something greater than their albums or singles, so Devo’s pioneering video work, and deeply-elucidated philosophical approaches have always appealed to me, as they make me think while I’m tapping my toes and humming their tunes. Given the ways that our Nation’s politics, social interactions, mass media, entertainment, and artistic arcs have curved in recent decades, I have to say that Devo’s early insistence that we were collectively regressing rather than growing was pretty spot on in many ways. The great film Idiocracy has become a verbal short-cut to describe the phenomenon, but Devo beat Mike Judge to the post on this particular front, and The Truth About De-Evolution could and should have become the cultural rubric that we cite when we want to decry a world where vapid influencers, dishonest racists and rightists, plasticine film stars, and “famous because they’re famous” cultural personas shape and shame the culture within which we are so often forced to swim today. As is the case with Kraftwerk, I have also always appreciated Devo’s advanced technological prowess in the studio and on-stage; their early ’80s albums featured Fairlight CMI and Synclavier II electronic musical instruments and various vocal processing applications and sequencing/sampling synths that were rare and precious and close to sci-fi in their time, even if they might sound quaint and dated today. As digital and computerized as their music could be, they recognized the importance of the big guitar moment in their songs, and Bob 1 has been a deeply under-appreciated soloist and rhythmic engine for their work over the years. At bottom line, Devo are smart in a generally stupid idiom, pointing out the ways we were stupid in smart fashion, all atop beats you can dance to. Not many other acts can claim success in hitting so many marks in so many ways with such success. (Note: In my Top Ten lists, I normally just post links to studio versions of the songs I select, but given Devo’s strong video skills, I share their own visuals below when they are available).
#10. “Come Back Jonee,” from Q: Are We Not Men? A: We Are Devo! (1978)
#9. “Please Baby Please,” from Something for Everybody (2010)
#8. “Through Being Cool,” from New Traditionalists (1981)
#7. “That’s Good,” from Oh, No! It’s Devo (1982)
#6. “Race of Doom,” from New Traditionalists (1981)
#5. “Gates of Steel,” from Freedom of Choice (1980)
#4. “Enough Said,” from New Traditionalists (1981)
#3. “Fresh!,” from Something for Everybody (2010)
#2. “Beautiful World,” from New Traditionalists (1981)
#1. “Jocko Homo,” from Q: Are We Not Men? A: We Are Devo! (1978)