Sharps & Flats

Devo cracked a thousand whips at art-world pretense. In the end, the one-note joke leveled the world's greatest dance music for nerds.

Published May 31, 2000 7:00PM (EDT)

In January 1979, Trouser Press magazine posed the following question: "DEVO: Future of Rock or Total Crock?" Twenty-one years later, Rhino records makes a case for the former, with a two-disc overview of Devo that anoints the pride of Akron, Ohio, as "one of the most important and influential bands of the last 25 years."

To a generation that came of musical age with the Red Hot Chili Peppers and Nirvana, to say nothing of teens weaned on the Spice Girls and the Backstreet Boys, such a claim may seem so overblown as to be comical. After all, what is Devo known for these days other than that silly "Whip It" video and a herky-jerky cover of the Stones' "Satisfaction"?

Some history, then. Devo was birthed in the early 1970s by Kent State art students Jerry Casale and Mark Mothersbaugh. The band started as an elaborate joke, riffing on the notion that human beings had regressed, or de-evolved, rather than evolved (the notion of de-evolution was borrowed from -- what else? -- a Wonder Woman comic book). When the National Guard killed students protesting the Vietnam War the idea became more serious: "It was below tragedy," Casale said. "More absurd and ugly. It showed human beings at their worst. It was real Devo."

By 1972, Casale and Mothersbaugh had drafted their younger brothers (Bob-1 and Bob-2) for the project. The band took cues from an obscure pseudo-science text, "The Beginning Was the End: Knowledge Can Be Eaten," that held that mankind had evolved from brain-eating apes that were running amok and generally fermenting insanity.

Using the culinarily challenged apes as a jumping-off point, Devo expanded their philosophy to encompass a wholesale damnation of American society, decrying the repression of an industrial world that forced people into knee-jerk conformity and rid them of ambiguity or individuality. Sexuality suffered as well, natch. By the time of Devo's first, Brian Eno-produced album ("Q. Are We Not Men? A: We Are Devo"), a full-scale leftist, romantic, Freudian worldview was folded into a frenetic, and often hilarious, mythology. There was Booji Boy (pronounced "boogie"), matching costumes and plastic hairpieces, and omnipresent potatoes, or spuds, all of which were supposed to say something about base conformity.

And then there was the music: a funked-up, pared-down sound that used synthesizers as versatile weapons, whipping out mechanized beats sharp enough to cut metal. The band's first album, combined with earlier material they had put out on their own Booji Boy label, remains Devo's best. Riffing on hyper-glazed donuts and extra-mentholated cigarettes, referencing "The Island of Dr. Moreau" and Leni Riefenstahl, crying out in fury that "I'm tired of the soup du jour" and "I'm not a wanker or a banker," Devo, with its epileptic rhythms and buzz-saw guitars, made wondrous dance music for nerds. It was, in one oft-repeated phrase, "the important sound of things falling apart."

"Pioneers" includes some long-unavailable singles from this era (such as the, um, potent "Be Stiff," one of many odes alternately celebrating and bemoaning sexual frustration); for the most part, however, the band's early output is ably offered up by Rykodisc's two "Hardcore" collections.

If the Devo of the late-1970s seemed so chock-full of ideas that at times it was hard to take it all in, the band suffered the opposite problem in the 1980s, faltering musically and hatching lame plans. There were internal squabbles -- one-time member and manager Bob Lewis successfully sued the band for theft of intellectual property because of his role in creating the de-evolution worldview -- and poorly thought-out stunts, such as one effort to set poetry written by John Hinckley to music. Indeed, Devo, born of serious, even ardent, impulses, seemed to get mired trying to navigate a path between irony and earnestness.

Was the commercial art world still shit, as Casale had implied in college by wearing an enema bag to gallery openings? If so, what did it mean that Devo had graduated to the big leagues, supported by Warner Bros.? Could the band still send up the culture that was nurturing them with commercial success and artistic opportunities? Unlike Talking Heads and Kraftwerk, two other bands born in the 1970s who successfully transplanted ideas from the art world into popular music, Devo was never able to navigate this divide, bottoming out as soon as they began to be taken seriously.

Most of the second disc of "Pioneers" is made up of music from this less-gloried era. Covers of well-known pop hits, once a central component of Devo's arsenal, begin to sound tired (e.g. "Itsy Bitsy Teenie Weenie Yellow Polka-Dot Bikini," from the soundtrack of -- what else? -- "Revenge of the Nerds II: Nerds in Paradise"). Even less successful were the efforts of a re-grouped Devo in the 1990s, represented by five tracks here, mainly offerings from movies like "Supercop" and the Rodney Dangerfield vehicle "Meet Wally Sparks." On these songs, Mothersbaugh sounds like the Hollywood hack he has become: He now spends his time writing for Nickelodeon and doing soundtracks for indie-leaning films like "Rushmore." In what is either an ultimate irony or a sign that things have come full circle, he's now working on the music for TV's "The Mister Potato Head Show."

Instead of a career retrospective, Devo would have been better served by letting fans put together their own two-disc collection on the Internet. As Mothersbaugh sang in "Too Much Paranoias" (1978), a collage of ad-age catchphrases set against a ferocious crack of drum und skronk, "Hold the pickles hold the lettuce/Special orders don't upset us/All we ask is that you let us serve it your way."

By Seth Mnookin

Seth Mnookin is the co-director of the Graduate Program in Science Writing at MIT and he blogs at the Public Library of Science. His most recent book is "The Panic Virus: The True Story of the Vaccine-Autism Controversy" (Simon & Schuster). His Twitter handle is @sethmnookin.

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