Sporting an original tongue-in-cheek world view proclaiming man to be in a state of genetic and cultural "de-evolution," Devo made the unlikely step from novelty act to real contender —an ironic new wave version of Kiss, whose marketing was as important as its music. The group exploited film and video from the beginning of its career, yet was never sufficiently pop-oriented to earn much play on MTV. Indeed, when Devo proved unable to follow up its one big hit, 1980's "Whip It," the group faded from view, and its smart-alecky view of America as a happy-faced toxic-waste dump eventually found expression in the (dysfunctional) sitcom world of The Simpsons.
The details of the members' pre-Devo existence were intentionally obscured as part of their automatonlike image. (They always performed in uniform, favoring futuristic yet sturdy ensembles that featured yellow reactor-attendant suits, overturned red flowerpots for hats, and roller-derby style protective gear.) Mark Mothersbaugh and Jerry Casale met while studying art at Kent State University. Neither was musical, so to build their band, the two recruited their "Bob I" and "Bob II" brothers and drummer Alan Myers and produced a 10-minute video clip entitled The Truth About De-Evolution, which won a prize at the Ann Arbor Film Festival in 1975. They followed up with club dates.
In summer 1977 Devo released its first single, "Jocko Homo" b/w "Mongoloid," on its own Booji Boy Records. The infantile robot Booji was the group's corporate mascot, and was often featured in videos and concerts. Devo's cutting-edge status was confirmed when David Bowie introduced the band at its New York debut, at Max's Kansas City. In early 1978 its second single, a syncopated version of the Rolling Stones' "Satisfaction," increased the band's growing cult and garnered the group a record deal with Warner Bros.
Q: Are We Not Men? A: We Are Devo!, produced by Brian Eno, was released in fall 1978, and the group hit the road in earnest. Freedom of Choice provided Devo's 1980 commercial breakthrough by eventually going platinum with the million-selling single, "Whip It." Devo continued to revive rock chestnuts with noteworthy success. The group covered Johnny Rivers' "Secret Agent Man" in 1980 and received substantial airplay in mid-1981 with a hiccuppy rendition of Lee Dorsey's "Working in the Coalmine." The group also changed its identity: Clad in leisure suits and crooning born-again lounge music, Devo occasionally opened its own concerts disguised as Dove, the Band of Love.
Neither New Traditionalists nor Oh No! It's Devo produced a hit single. (Devo's last charting single was "Theme from Doctor Detroit" [#59, 1983], for the Dan Aykroyd comedy film.) The band lost its Warner Bros. contract and disappeared for four years. Mark Mothersbaugh began composing and producing music for commercials and television shows, including CBS' Pee Wee's Playhouse, Nickelodeon's Rugrats, and MTV's Liquid Television. He also scored the '90s videogame Crash Bandicoot (and three unreleased Devo tunes ended up on the videogame Interstate '82).
With Alan Myers replaced by David Kendrick, Devo re-formed for Total Devo (1988), which barely charted. A subsequent tour of small halls and large clubs, with no expensive high-tech theatrics, yielded the live album Now It Can Be Told. Devo's next studio album, Smooth Noodle Maps, failed to chart at all, and the band once again vanished —just as its songs began being covered by alternative-rock bands (Nirvana with "Turnaround"; Soundgarden and Superchunk with "Girl U Want"). In 1992 two bands —L.A.'s Clawhammer and Chicago's Honeywagon —emerged, playing nothing but Devo songs (echoing the 1980 Rhino collection KROQ Devotees Album). By then Rykodisc had begun issuing archival live and studio Devo tracks, including the E-Z Listening Disc (originally available only through Devo's fan club), on which the band recorded Muzak versions of its own songs.
Devo reunited in 1991 for a 30-city European tour, and again for several dates on the 1996 and 1997 Lollapalooza tours. Jerry Casale continued to direct the occasional music video, such as the Foo Fighters' "I'll Stick Around." Mark Mothersbaugh and Bob Casale produced 2000's Heroes & Villains, an album of music inspired by Cartoon Network's Powerpuff Girls, with Devo's "Go Monkey Go" plus tracks by David Byrne, Frank Black, and Shonen Knife.
This biography originally appeared in The Rolling Stone Encyclopedia of Rock & Roll (Simon & Schuster, 2001).
To read the new issue of Rolling Stone online, plus the entire RS archive: Click Here
CULTURE 14 Gonzo Masterpieces
Picks From Around the Web
blog comments powered by Disqus