Devo is sort of the rock equivalent of Kurt Vonnegut, taking off from premises it only half understands. These guys synthesize trenchant experimental trends into a hodgepodge that’s compelling only to those without the intellectual vigor to penetrate the band’s surface pose to find the real pose underneath. Like the rest of the No Wave to which they’re appended as a kind of accessible doppelgänger, Devo’s funkless chubs have very few new ideas—most of the concepts on their second album, Duty Now for the Future, have been recycled from Frank Zappa, the Yardbirds and other Sixties avant-gardists — and the handful of original notions they do try to express are mostly lame or fraudulent. As rock & roll, this sort of stuff is a horror show that dispenses with backbeat, melody and raw emotion — i.e., all the things that ever made rock worthwhile.
“Strange Pursuit,” for instance, is built on a guitar riff at least as old as the Mothers of Invention’s Absolutely Free. There’s a stock Zappa line surrounded by banal lifts from the kind of psychedelia that people stopped fiddling with after Jimi Hendrix emerged to point the way to a productive use of distortion and power. “Devo Corporate Anthem,” like most of the group’s attempts to preach and philosophize, means to be ominous but finally sounds like a lift from the Masterpiece Theatre theme. This band wants to pass itself off as a specter of the multinational future of a society ruled by corporate technology, yet its manipulation of high-tech resources is so clumsy that the end result is finally a lot less scary than the simple arrogance of standard British rockers like Queen.
What Devo, like most No Wavers, apparently doesn’t understand is that inspired amateurism works only when the players aspire to something better: both Steve Jones of the Sex Pistols and the more anonymous guitar genius of Count Five’s “Psychotic Reaction” were audibly straining against their limitations as musicians. Devo celebrates those limitations and leaves us stuck with them, which is aggravating. If these characters are so smart, how come they can’t establish a groove?
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Because they aren’t that smart. Like wiseass rockers from the Mothers to Sparks, Devo picks easy targets (“Blockhead”), regurgitates slogans and clichés (“Triumph of the Will,” for a really choice — or rank — example) without thinking much about their meaning, and generally shows contempt and disdain for anyone not as glib as the group is. To say that this critic despises Devo does not go nearly far enough. When I finish typing this, I’m taking a hammer to Duty Now for the Future, lest it corrupt anyone dumb or innocent enough to take it seriously. Shards sent on request.