Last updated: 11/15/2010 10:00:00 AM
One of new wave's most innovative and (for a time) successful bands, Devo was also perhaps one of its most misunderstood. Formed in Akron, OH, in 1972 by Kent State art students Jerry Casale and Mark Mothersbaugh, Devo took its name from their concept of "de-evolution" -- the idea that instead of evolving, mankind has actually regressed, as evidenced by the dysfunction and herd mentality of American society. Their music echoed this view of society as rigid, repressive, and mechanical, with appropriate touches -- jerky, robotic rhythms; an obsession with technology and electronics (the group was among the first non-prog rock bands to make the synthesizer a core element); often atonal melodies and chord progressions -- all of which were filtered through the perspectives of geeky misfits. Devo became a cult sensation, helped in part by their concurrent emphasis on highly stylized visuals, and briefly broke through to the mainstream with the smash single "Whip It," whose accompanying video was made a staple by the fledgling MTV network. Sometimes resembling a less forbidding version of the Residents, Devo's simple, basic electronic pop sound proved very influential, but it was also somewhat limited, and as other bands began expanding on the group's ideas, Devo seemed unable to keep pace. After a series of largely uninteresting albums, the band called it quits early in the '90s, and Casale and Mothersbaugh concentrated on other projects.
Gerald Casale and Mark Mothersbaugh both attended art school at Kent State University at the outset of the 1970s. With friend Bob Lewis, who joined an early version of Devo and later became their manager, the theory of de-evolution was developed with the aid of a book entitled The Beginning Was the End: Knowledge Can Be Eaten, which held that mankind had evolved from mutant, brain-eating apes. The trio adapted the theory to fit their view of American society as a rigid, dichotomized instrument of repression which ensured that its members behaved like clones, marching through life with mechanical, assembly-line precision and no tolerance for ambiguity. The whole concept was treated as an elaborate joke until Casale witnessed the infamous National Guard killings of student protesters at the university; suddenly there seemed to be a legitimate point to be made. The first incarnation of Devo was formed in earnest in 1972, with Casale (bass), Mark Mothersbaugh (vocals), and Mark's brothers Bob (lead guitar) and Jim, who played homemade electronic drums. Jerry's brother Bob joined as an additional guitarist, and Jim left the band to be replaced by Alan Myers. The group honed its sound and approach for several years (a period chronicled on Rykodisc's Hardcore compilations of home recordings), releasing a few singles on its own Booji Boy label and inventing more bizarre concepts: Mothersbaugh dressed in a baby-faced mask as Booji Boy (pronounced "boogie boy"), a symbol of infantile regression; there were recurring images of the potato as a lowly vegetable without individuality; the band's costumes presented them as identical clones with processed hair; and all sorts of sonic experiments were performed on records, using real and homemade synthesizers as well as toys, space heaters, toasters, and other objects. Devo's big break came with its score for the short film The Truth About De-Evolution, which won a prize at the 1976 Ann Arbor Film Festival; when the film was seen by David Bowie and Iggy Pop, they were impressed enough to secure the group a contract with Warner Bros.
Recorded under the auspices of pioneering producer Brian Eno, Q: Are We Not Men? A: We Are Devo! was seen as a call to arms by some and became an underground hit. Others found Devo's sound, imagery, and material threatening; Rolling Stone, for example, called the group fascists. But such criticism missed the point: Devo dramatized conformity, emotional repression, and dehumanization in order to attack them, not to pay tribute to them.
While 1979's Duty Now for the Future was another strong effort, the band broke through to the mainstream with 1980's Freedom of Choice, which contained the gold-selling single "Whip It" and represented a peak in their sometimes erratic songwriting. The video for "Whip It" became an MTV smash, juxtaposing the band's low-budget futuristic look against a down-home farm setting and hints of S&M. However, Devo's commercial success proved to be short-lived. 1981's New Traditionalists was darker and more serious, not what the public wanted from a band widely perceived as a novelty act, and Devo somehow seemed to be running out of new ideas. Problems plagued the band as well: Bob Lewis successfully sued for theft of intellectual property after a tape of Mothersbaugh was found acknowledging Lewis' role in creating de-evolution philosophy, and the sessions for 1982's Oh, No! It's Devo were marred by an ill-considered attempt to use poetry written by would-be Ronald Reagan assassin John Hinckley, Jr. as lyrical material.
As the '80s wore on, Devo found itself relegated to cult status and critical indifference, not at all helped by the lower quality of albums like 1984's Shout and 1988's Total Devo. With the band's shift toward electronic drums, Alan Myers had departed in 1986, to be replaced by ex-Sparks and Gleaming Spires drummer David Kendrick. Devo recorded another album of new material, Smooth Noodle Maps, in 1990, after which its members began to concentrate on other projects. Mark Mothersbaugh moved into composing for commercials and soundtracks, writing theme music for MTV's Liquid Television, Nickelodeon's Rugrats, Pee-Wee's Playhouse, and the Jonathan Winters sitcom Davis Rules. He also played keyboards with the Rolling Stones, programmed synthesizers for Sheena Easton, and sang backup with Debbie Harry. Buoyed by this success, Mothersbaugh opened a profitable production company called Mutato Muzika, which employed his fellow Devo bandmates. Jerry Casale, meanwhile, who directed most of the band's videos, directed video clips for the Foo Fighters' "I'll Stick Around" and Soundgarden's "Blow Up the Outside World." No reunions were expected, but as Devo's legend grew and other bands acknowledged their influence (Nirvana covered "Turnaround," while "Girl U Want" has been recorded by Soundgarden, Superchunk, and even Robert Palmer), their minimalistic electro-pop was finally given new exposure on six dates of the 1996 Lollapalooza tour, to enthusiastic fan response.
The following year, Devo released a CD-ROM game (The Adventures of the Smart Patrol) and accompanying music soundtrack, in addition to playing selected dates on the Lollapalooza tour. 2000 saw the release of a pair of double-disc Devo anthologies: the first was the half-hits/half-rarities Pioneers Who Got Scalped: The Anthology (on Rhino), while the second was the limited-edition mail-order release Recombo DNA (on Rhino's Handmade label), the latter of which was comprised solely of previously unreleased demos. In 2001, the Mothersbaugh and Casale brothers reunited under the name the Wipeouters for a one-off surf release, P Twaaang. Expectedly, there was no supporting tour, as the bandmembers returned back to their full-time jobs at Mutato Muzika. ~ Steve Huey & Greg Prato, All Music Guide