What’s Most Impressive about Q: Are We Not Men? A: We Are Devo! is its authority: Devo presents their dissociated, chillingly cerebral music as a definitive restatement of rock & roll’s aims and boundaries in the Seventies. The band’s cover version of “Satisfaction,” for instance, with its melody line almost completely erased and the lyrics delivered in a yelping, droogy chant to mechanical rhythms, at first comes across as an intentional travesty, a typical New Wave rejection of the oldfart generation. But what Devo is really doing is reshaping the old message into their own terminology — claiming one of the greatest anthems of the Sixties, with all its wealth of emotional associations, for their own time. It’s a startling gesture, yet a surprisingly convincing one.
The same could be said for the whole album. The primitive guitar work and pulsing beat suggest a gamut of early Sixties borrowings, but the group is also reminiscent (the vocals especially) of some of the artier New Wave bands such as Wire or the B-52s. Yet all of these influences are flattened into an arid, deliberately fragmented science-fiction landscape. There’s not an ounce of feeling anywhere, and the only commitment is to the distancing aesthetic of the puton.
I suspect, though, that in adopting this style, Devo would argue that they’re simply being good journalists — that the futuristic deadpan comedy of their stance reflects the current pop-culture reality. “Too Much Paranoias” for example, starts out as a mocking, jarring little ode to dread that’s genuinely frightening, then turns into an overt joke in which the chief villain is apparently a McDonald’s hamburger (“Hold the pickles hold the lettuce,” in a spasmodic shriek), but the joke is equally scary. And the group’s attitude remains poker-faced throughout. In the lobotomized anthems that end side one, “Mongoloid” (a sort of bastard cousin to the Ramones’ “Pinhead,” with a great, stuttering guitar line) and “Jocko Homo,” it’s impossible to tell whether these guys are satirizing robotlike regimentation or glorifying it. The answer seems to be that there isn’t any difference.
Brian Eno’s production is the perfect complement to Devo’s music. Eno thickens the band’s stop-and-go rhythms with crisp, sharp layers of percussive sound, full of jagged edges and eerie effects that whip in and out of phase at dizzying speeds. On every cut, Devo seems to know exactly what they want and how to achieve it almost effortlessly. Such apparently random strategies as the “What Goes On”-style organ in “Mongoloid” or the neat-Byrds-like guitar intro to “Gut Feeling” coalesce into a barbed, dislocated texture that draws you in even while it sets your nerves on edge.
Though the group’s abstract-expressionistic patterns of sound are closely related to Eno’s own brand of experimentation (not to mention the recent work of David Bowie, who was once slated to produce this LP) and to a host of other art rockers, Devo lacks most of Eno’s warmth and much of Bowie’s flair for mechanized melodrama. For all its idiosyncrasies, the music here is utterly impersonal. This Ohio band either treats humanity as just another junky, mass-cult artifact to be summarily disposed of, or else ignores it completely. Q: Are We Not Men? A: We Are Devo! is a brittle, small masterpiece of Seventies pop irony, but its shriveling, icecold absurdism might not define the Seventies as much as jump the gun on the Eighties.