“I don’t think Devo would have hatched in a major city,” the group’s Jerry Casale says, looking back on the art-rockers’ early history in a excited tone. “We were surrounded by an anti-intellectual culture and antagonistic people in Ohio. By the time we came up on the radar of the tastemakers, our aesthetic was fully formed.”
“I look at early pictures of us now and think, ‘I can see why people could be really attracted to Devo,'” says Mark Mothersbaugh, who sounds somewhat more reserved. “I can also see why so many people were angry with us or frightened of us.”
The musicians have been parsing their history lately because they recently created two new books that chronicle the collective’s history through personal, archival photos and commentary from them and their bandmates. One, Unmasked, focuses on how the group unwittingly became hitmakers surrounded by the likes of David Bowie, Brian Eno, the Rolling Stones, Neil Young and Johnny Rotten, among others, while touting their quack theory of “devolution” and dressing up in masks and outlandish outfits.
The other, The Brand, zooms in on all the memorabilia and propaganda surrounding Devo — press clippings (including a fascinating interview they did with William S. Burroughs), images of their art-deco “energy dome” hats, pictures of their many masks (like the “Booji Boy” character, which is pronounced “Boogie Boy” and looks like a man-baby), insights about their music videos and photos from their concert spectacles. The books come packaged opposite each other so each reads inward toward each other (the center spread says “You must flip it”). When taken in together they show how Devo created their own universe.
The band decided to assemble the books now while they still had their history at their fingertips. “As record companies closed down and people moved around from graphics shops, we’d see all of our assets floating all over the place,” Mothersbaugh says. “It seemed like a good idea to go ahead and collect all of this stuff while we could.”
“We’ve been presented a lot of book proposals, but they were silly and cheap, throwaway things,” Casale says. “We felt Devo needed something more substantial, since there was some heft to the ideas and concepts behind Devo. And Devo was a multi-platform idea always. It wasn’t just about style. It took a long time, but we’re happy we persisted.”
When the two musicians look through the tomes, they laugh at both the sheer silliness of it all and how much they had to struggle to get their ideas in front of people. To them, the books show how they stuck to their vision. “Because we never got to do the Devo movie or the Devo musical with all the character in the alternate world we created,” Casale says, “this book reflects the body of work that we did get to do.”
There’s a picture in Unmasked of Jerry with a giant collection of masks. I imagine lots of people were staring at you in those.
Jerry Casale: [Laughs] Yeah, exactly. People either felt sorry for us or hated us or wanted to do us harm. Mark and I would go to these novelty shops and look for the creepiest masks we could find. We’d develop these alter-ego characters to amuse ourselves. We certainly couldn’t participate in the prevailing social life — which was people getting drunk on cheap beer in bars and swallowing Quaaludes and complaining about their “straps,” which were their girlfriends, not letting them do things. It was depressing and horrific to us. We felt like aliens.
There’s a photo of Mark as Booji Boy from 1977 and it’s horrific.
Casale: It’s grotesque. An adult human baby? People were creeped out by it, no doubt about it, and that’s what we were looking for.
Mark Mothersbaugh: I’ve gone through about 35, 40 of those. The original Booji Boy masks are all deteriorated, because they were made out of latex that was not meant to stand the test of time. I still have a number of them and they all look like something you’d see if you opened up a tomb in Egypt and took the wrapping off the mummy’s face.
Mark, what did your folks think of Devo?
Mothersbaugh: There was a time when I left Kent State, and my dad goes, “You only have two classes to take and you’ll get your degree.” And I said, “Dad, I know what I’m doing with my life and I don’t need a degree.” It was at the very beginning of Devo, and it was my two brothers and Jerry and I and he goes, “Well, it’s bad enough you’re ruining your own life, but to take your brothers with you, that’s unforgiveable.” He was really pissed off. And then six or eight months later, we asked him if he would be General Boy and, oh, my God, he was a total closet artist waiting for a chance to be onstage. He loved being General Boy and getting fan mail and talking about his take on devolution, which was crazier than ours.
What was your version of devolution theory in a nutshell?
Casale: It was that we all devolved from a long line of cannibalistic apes. The unintended consequences of this cannibalism mutated them from primates to a hairless ape with a big brain and a big head that then developed a kind of consciousness and put them on a harmony with nature. And then they had to try to subjugate all of nature to justify their species. We thought, “You know what? That kind of explains everything.” If you take that even as a joke and apply it to your local town and your high school, it makes as much sense as anything.
What do you remember about writing “Jocko Homo”?
Mothersbaugh: That was the theme song for Devo in a way — “Are we not men? We are Devo!” I loved old sci-fi movies, and it was influenced by one called Island of Lost Souls. It had a doctor operating on jungle animals in an attempt to evolve them, but it never quite worked. When the mutants got all confused and were not sure what to do, the doctor would stand up on a rock and crack a whip and go, “What is the law?” They’d go, “Not to walk on all fours. Are we not men?” And he’d crack the whip, “What is the law?” “Not to spill blood. Are we not men?” Between that and the Jocko Homo pamphlet that was written by Reverend Shadduck — he was a virulent opponent to evolution and Darwinism — it became a combination of those things. Also, it wasn’t not noticed by us that “Jocko Homo” was Latin for “Monkey Man,” which is a super great Rolling Stones song, too.
Your first hit was a cover of “Satisfaction.”
Mothersbaugh: I feel like Mick Jagger is one of the underrated lyricists of his generation. “Satisfaction” has some of the best ever lyrics written for rock & roll. There are so many other great things about the Rolling Stones that perhaps people don’t give him enough credit.
In the book, you had a great story about meeting Mick Jagger, and he listened to your “Satisfaction” and he said he loved it because his manager told him to say that. Did you ever run into him again?
Mothersbaugh: Oh, my God, yeah. About three years later, we were recording at the Power Station and they were remixing old songs downstairs. And this old guy with a big, fat sweater and gray hair came upstairs and said, “Would someone here play synthesizer on a song for my band?” And I look at him and it was Charlie Watts. So I went downstairs and there was more marijuana than I’d ever seen in my life. Everybody got super stoned. And there was a vocoder that we’d borrowed from Bob Moog to use on the album. I didn’t have a microphone with a quarter-inch jack for it, so I got Mick to put a set of headphones on sideway so one of the earpieces was over his mouth. He sang into it while I played notes on a keyboard into the vocoder.
What song was it?
Mothersbaugh: “Worried About You.” They’d recorded it in, like, 1968 and were like, “Well, let’s add a synth track on it.” The next day, they played it for Keith Richards and he later told my brother, “Who played that synthesizer part? I’m gonna stab him!” [Laughs] So Keith hated it, but there’s a little of it still in the fadeout and that’s about it.
When you were starting out, would you begin sets with “Satisfaction” so people thought you were doing a covers set?
Mothersbaugh: Yeah, but it would be after the third or fourth song where we’d announce, “OK, here’s a song by Foghat called ‘Mongoloid.’ And then there’d be somebody that was, like, an out-of-work rubber worker because that was right when all the rubber companies decided to move out of Akron and they’d go, “All right, that’s it.” They’d slam their beer down and come up onstage. The next thing you know, we’d be in a brawl. You don’t make fun of Foghat [laughs].
Casale: We would be met with anywhere from open-mouthed silence to catcalls and threats. I think one of the finest moments of the early days was the famous Halloween performance for a local radio station where we opened for Sun Ra. We booked ourselves as a covers band to get the gig. And I go, “Here’s one by Bad Company.” And we started with “Be Stiff.” And right away, they’re like, “Wait a minute, that wasn’t Bad Company. Hey … ” So by the third song they’re starting to scream at us. So we change out set list and go straight to “Jocko Homo.” And Mark goes out into the audience, “Are we not men?” and holds out the microphone, and of course the first guy — dressed in a Frankenstein outfit — grabs him and goes, “No. You’re a fucking asshole!”
Mark wiggles away and jumps back onstage. “Are we not men?” “You guys are fucking queers.” And then the beer bottles start flying at us, and we had to retreat. We changed into our regular street clothes, got some seafood and came back in the front door just like partygoers. Nobody even recognized us, because they’d only seen us in the Devo outfits with the plastic masks. So we smoked pot and watched Sun Ra. It was a great night. We were so proud of ourselves.
There are a few pictures of you with Brian Eno, who produced your first album, Q: Are We Not Men? and David Bowie. You wrote that Eno added a lot of synth parts to your songs but that you took them off the final record. Have you ever gone back and listened to what he added?
Casale: No. We really should listen to them again. Here we were with this brutalist, industrial aesthetic and songs we’d lived with for up to three or four years, and he’s suddenly adding harmonies and very pretty synth string sounds, and we’re like, “That’s not Devo. What’s he doing?” Nobody wanted to offend him — he’s Brian Eno, and we respect and love him — and when the mixes started, Mark and I would have our hands on the faders and bring that stuff down. But it would be interesting to hear it again and see if it wasn’t as jarring as it seemed. I mean, he is on “Uncontrollable Urge” singing harmonies during the chorus.
Mothersbaugh: The stuff that stayed is really amazing. He found a tape loop of chanting natives from Indonesia that we put in. And he put this one effect on “Too Much Paranoias” where the music stops at first and then there’s a bucket effect of feedback that rolls down a hill; it’s an amazing sound. But we were sensitive at the time, because there were something like seven or eight bootleg Devo albums already available, so we really wanted to do our definitive version, and we did worry about how much of the David and Brian tracks made it on the record so we turned things off. If I ever run into Brian, I’m going to ask him if he would want to mix it and say, “You can do what you were planning on doing back in 1978 if you want.”
Around that time, you saw the Sex Pistols’ final concert at the Winterland. What were your impressions of that?
Mothersbaugh: I was really happy ’cause I’d never seen them. And it wasn’t long after that [Virgin Records founder] Richard Branson called me up and flew me and Bob Casale down to Jamaica because he had talked to Johnny Rotten, who had said he wanted to join Devo after the Pistols broke up. I remember going, “He should have his own band; he shouldn’t be in our band.” [Laughs] So we didn’t do it. Maybe we should have done it for one day and let him do a photo shoot at the beach in Jamaica and then he could have gone to Ohio and said, “Oh, it’s colder than London over here.”
There’s a picture of the original energy dome in the book. Do you still keep a lot of those in your house?
Casale: The original inspiration for the energy dome was a fixture in my grade school in Ohio. It was a ceiling fixture made out of white milk glass. They remodeled the school and this guy went there and managed to get one of the ceiling fixtures they were going to throw out. I bought it and he shipped it to me. When we turned that design into a hat, the sides had to be tapered, not straight up and down like art deco, so it would stay on your head.
Since you mentioned art deco, I think it’s funny that you originally wanted Devo to be pronounced like “deco.”
Casale: It was a joke — “art Deh-vo” — ’cause deco was an art movement. When we came out to California, it was like, “Hey, Dee-vo.” And they put the emphasis on the “de-” and we started laughing and said, “We’re just gonna be ‘Dee-vo’ instead of ‘Deh-vo.'” [Laughs] And that was more keeping with the devolution anyway.
The book doesn’t feature many of your videos, but of course “Whip It” is in there. What do you recall about making that?
Casale: The reason why we made the video that way was because every DJ we encountered was like, “Hey guys, whip it.” And they’d make the jerkoff move. And at first, I was trying to tell them, “No, no. It was inspired by Thomas Pynchon.” And their faces would drop and lose interest immediately, bummed out. So we thought, “Let’s do exactly what they profanely think this was all about.” Mark and I collected lots of novelty stuff and quack books, and I found a men’s magazine from the Fifties or Sixties with a feature about a guy who was a Hollywood stuntman. He left the business and bought a dude ranch in Arizona. His wife was a stripper in the local clubs on Sunset Boulevard so when people would stay at the dude ranch, he had this routine where he whipped his wife’s clothes off in the corral as entertainment. They developed this act and whipped her down to her underwear. The article had pictures and the whole thing. We went, “OK, we’re gonna do this.” There’s so many politically incorrect things in that video, it’s hard to count.
How did life change after “Whip It”?
Mothersbaugh: Before it, the record company ignored us. Then “Whip It” came and they made millions of dollars and they’re like, “Oh, these weirdos can actually make money.” So it became a thing where they started interfering and going, “Hey, if there’s anything you guys need, we’ll help you. Just write another ‘Whip It.'” On the next record, New Traditionalists, we did a cover of “Working in the Coal Mine,” the Lee Dorsey song. And Warner Bros. said, “Knock that one off. That’s not good.” We’re like, “Well, but we like this.” Then we got a call from the movie Heavy Metal, and they said, “Hey, we’d like Devo to be our outer-space lounge band,” and we gave them “Working in the Coal Mine.” And the movie came out, and wouldn’t you know it, with all these heavy-metal bands, the one song that went onto the charts was Devo’s “Working in the Coal Mine.” So Warner Bros. panicked and they’re like, “What are we doing? We don’t have ‘Working in the Coal Mine’ on the album.” And they pressed a single and stuck it inside as a freebie in the first 100,000 or something. We felt very misunderstood the whole time we were at that label.
Your Oh, No! It’s Devo album had a song on it, “I Desire,” with lyrics by John Hinckley Jr., who shot Ronald Reagan to impress Jodie Foster. How did that happen?
Mothersbaugh: They were printing his love letters and poems to Jodie Foster in the National Enquirer, and we were reading them going, “Wow, these are pretty great. If he hadn’t shot the president, people might think differently about him.” It was like, “I pledge alliance to the fact that your love is all that matters.” I love that one. Anyhow, he shouldn’t have shot anybody, though.
Did you ever hear from him again?
Casale: He wrote us a letter and that was it [laughs]. We heard he was quite proud of it. But I think he completely didn’t understand that what we did was invert it. We knew how nuts he was, of course, and the third verse I added clearly turns the mirror on the psycho.
Mothersbaugh: Before we put it out, Jodie Foster wanted to hear it. So she came over to the studio and we explained to her that while it had his verses from the National Enquirer, we wrote a third verse that talks about the dangers of obsession and obsessive love and it turns the song around. I think she figured, “Well, this song’s so weird, nothing’s ever going to happen with it,” and she said, “OK, you guys can put it on the record.” [Laughs] The only people that seemed to care were the FBI. They called us up with threatening remarks like, “Well, you know his fans are gonna be your fans, and his fans all want to kill him.” We were like, “Oh, that’s great.”
You also met William S. Burroughs, and in the book you wrote that he gave you lyrics that you never recorded. What were they like?
Casale: We spent an afternoon with him for an interview and a month later, he sent us lyrics called “Get on the Stick.” He explained in the letter that accompanied the lyrics that a “stick” was something an ex-con had to have — like a legitimate-looking job or something — to throw the cops off his trail. And so the lyrics are all like, “Get on the stick/Do the trick.” It was kind of a “Whip It” parody.
Mothersbaugh: If you thought “Whip It” was our take on Thomas Pynchon, then this would be [Burroughs] doing his take on Devo.
Casale: I thought he was a very — what’s the word — ominous, threatening figure. You were impressed by him. We thought we were so informed and radical. He’d look at you and in that William Burroughs, slow, low drawl, go, “You know, Gerald, the real problem is there’s just too many humans on this fucking planet. We need a plague to fix this.” And you’re like, “Oh, all right, Mr. Burroughs.” [Laughs] You felt like such a stupid kid after that. We were in his bunker in New York, and he’s got this cane and he pulls it apart and shows you that it has a long, stiletto knife in it and he shows you his guns, and you realize what a lightweight you are.
Mothersbaugh: Maybe we should finish that song. I think that would be a good idea before we stick a fork in it once and for all. He’d probably be pissed that we didn’t do it when he was alive so he could collect some royalties [laughs].
Speaking of lyrics, there’s a nice General Boy tribute in the book, with a song he supposedly wrote on display. Did your dad write those, Mark?
Mothersbaugh: My dad did co-write a song with us called “Enough Said” [on New Traditionalists]. When we recorded it, he went crazy and started writing lyrics every day. And then he hired a Country & Western band that played in a club in Akron to record them for him, and he would send them to me just to show us what they were supposed to sound like. We were like, “Oh, shit.” I’d love to find that tape again. There should be a General Boy album.
Mark, you wrote in the book that there were all sorts of things you weren’t able to pull off. What types of things would those be?
Mothersbaugh: At one time, I was fascinated with these rubber bondage suits you could get in England. There was something called “wallowing,” which sounds ridiculous, but it was a sex fetish. It consisted of mostly older English people wearing a gas mask and some sort of rubber clothing and rubber wading boots. They’d go out into a bog and take pictures of themselves in mud and maybe the lady of the house would be topless. So I became interested in the clothes and mail-ordered some stuff. That’s what I wore in the “Doctor Detroit” video. I was thinking, “What if I could attach the air hoses to those suits and when we got onstage, we could change shapes while we were performing, a bit like Lou Ferrigno used to do on TV.” Nobody ever took me serious enough for it to happen. We did get some kind of lame version of it in the “Are U X-perienced?” video where I’ve got some sort of prosthetic on my shoulders and butt and they inflate to the rhythm of the music, like in a Popeye cartoon. It just looked totally unnatural. “But first … are you experienced?”
It’s been a while since you did your Something for Everybody album in 2010, and it’s also been a while since you toured. Why is that?
Mothersbaugh: It’s my fault we don’t tour. Jerry would be the first to tell you. I love writing music.
Casale: Until Mark changes his mind about playing shows, there’s nothing happening. We get offers constantly. The money being offered is obscenely good. And I love playing. I wish we’d at least do a “The Beginning Was Really the End” tour, like a farewell. I think it would be smarter than just fading away. At least we could die with our boots on.
Mark, you got into writing soundtracks in the Eighties with Pee-wee’s Playhouse and turned that into a career. Was that part of the reason why you’ve gotten less into touring?
Mothersbaugh: Yes, it was much more exciting than singing the same songs for eight months in a row. We still did tours every year, but I started getting tinnitus. I was reading, though, that somebody thinks they have a cure for tinnitus. Maybe I can start all over again and be like an alcoholic getting a new liver. I wouldn’t mind doing another tour to be honest with you. If we planned it ahead of time and did it right, I would like it to be kind of a wrap-up. I’m hoping we can do a “Stick a Fork in It” tour — but I don’t mean the band. We’ll see what happens.
What do you hope people get out of this book?
Mothersbaugh: I hope people look at it and say, “Devo was right.”