Long before they became New Wave icons with their 1980 hit "Whip It" and even before they shocked America with a surreal performance on Saturday Night Live in 1978, Devo were just a bunch of nerds recording incredibly bizarre and subversive songs in various basements across their native Akron. "The songs were incredibly whacked-out," says Devo bassist Jerry Casale. "At the time we made them, we weren't focused on any kind of commerciality at all."
The songs eventually came out on the 1990 collection Hardcore Devo, but only the most devoted fans are familiar with songs like "I'm A Potato" and "I Need A Chick." (Sample lyric from the latter song: "I need a chick to suck my dick/I need a dog to lick my hog.") "We weren't thinking about an audience when we wrote 'I Need A Chick,'' says Casale. "It was just an honest declaration of pain and need."
Nearly all of these songs haven't been touched in any capacity since 1977, around the time that Devo began crafting a stage show that essentially endured (with some slight modifications) through last year. "At the end of our last tour we started talking about abandoning everything and doing a tour that was purely artistic," says Casale. "We thought it would be cool to revisit the old basement recordings. The thought was, 'What if we we play songs we haven't played in 35 years for a crowd that never heard them except on old basement recordings?'"
The tour was in the early planning stages when Bob Casale, Devo rhythm guitarist and Jerry's brother, died suddenly of heart failure in February. "It was a horrific shock and an explosion in the Devo universe," says Casale. "For a month or so, nobody talked about anything. But then we realized we can still do it and make it a memorial to Bob and raise money for his family. He died without a will and life insurance. Devo hadn't been playing many gigs when he died, so his finances were pretty depleted. We've also raised money for his family through an online donation drive."
The original idea was to bring the show to art galleries. "Logistically, it just wasn't possible," says Casale. "That takes a year of planning because galleries are booked up way in advance. We had to settle for a traditional way of playing in regular venues."
The tour kicks off June 18th in Baltimore and runs through July 2nd in Austin. The group has no idea how crowds will react to Devo concerts without famous songs like "Whip It" and "Girl U Want." "It might create the early Devo experience of people yelling at us and walking out," says Casale. "It will really jolt us back into the past."
Longtime Devo drummer Josh Freese will be behind the kit, but nobody has been brought in to replace Bob Casale. "We decided to leave it raw and stripped down," says Casale. "We were kind of White Stripes-ish and Black Keys-ish before those guys were out of diapers. We're very familiar with how to play stripped-down, primitive stuff. I think it'll make it more powerful in a way because you'll hear each of the parts."
Devo recorded at least 40 songs during their early basement era. "We've isolated it down to 25 for the show," says Casale. "We're going to start rehearsing soon and get it down beyond that. We just want to see which ones are the most fun to play. We're definitely going to play 'Mechanical Man,' though."
Unlike recent tours, the group will not take the stage in their trademark red energy domes or yellow jumpsuits. "We're going to shock people with our outfits," says Casale. "We may just dress in street clothes and possibly, as happened in real life, a friend will interrupt us with yellow jumpsuits. That's what happened in real life. I bought them through an industrial catalog. One night we were rehearsing and a friend rang the doorbell and brought them down to the basement. We tried them on in front of each other, so we might try them on onstage."
The shows will mark the first Devo gigs without Bob Casale. "We don't really know what it'll be like to play without him," says Casale. "And we're subjecting ourselves to a very strange situation on purpose. It'll be cathartic for the fans to see us play, and the shows will be cathartic confrontations. That's what it means to be in Devo in the first place."