This week brings with it the reissue of Devo's music video collection, Devo: The Complete Truth About De-Evolution, which offers, via bonus extras, insights on the band's classic videos. And it marks a rather sweet moment for Devo lead singer Mark Mothersbaugh. For years, he's been one of Hollywood's more succesful TV and film score composers, with fan favorites such as Rushmore, Enlightened, Catfish, and most recently, The Lego Movie, on his massive resume. But his work with music and visuals began during the band's early years, setting the template for his second career. Mothersbaugh recently shared some of his fondest memories of those early videos with Rolling Stone. - John Gentile
"Jocko Homo was the title of a crackpot anti-evolutionist pamphlet from the Twenties by B. H. Shadduck, who was a preacher in Ohio," Mothersbaugh explains. "I got it from an art teacher at Kent State. In the beginning, we were greeted with outright hostility."
The video for "Jocko-Homo" features Mothersbaugh's dad, who played the part of General Boy. "My dad did a stand in and he ended up being in a lot of our videos in the early days and co-wrote lyrics on some songs with us," he says. "He turned out to be an artist in the closet."
"When I first wrote it, I sent it to Uganda for [President] Idi Amin to be his new theme song," Mothersbaugh recalls. "It had lyrics like, 'I come down the river to kill many people!' I sent it to him and, of course, I never got any answer back. So we decided that it could be our corporate anthem."
One of the trademarks of Devo videos, as seen in 'Devo Corporate Anthem," would become their fashion choices. "I think that the different Devo outfits were iconic because we were visual artists before we became musicians," he says. "[Devo co-founder] Jerry [Casale] and I always worked hard on stage shows and costumes. Sometimes our song ideas came from videos. We always used our outfits to sort of cross the barrier of language."
"I thought it was the quintessential rock song," Mothersbaugh states. "In those days, to do a song cover, you had to get permission from the artist. So [Devo co-founder] Gerald Casale and I went to the Rolling Stones' manager's office in Manhattan and Mick Jagger came in and he just kind of looked at us. We put the record on the turntable, and after about 30 seconds, he jumps up and starts dancing around to it. Then he said to us, [in a British accent] 'That's my favorite version of this song!' To us, even that he was in the same room was pretty overwhelming."
Still, Devo approached their videos as art long before bands were doing so. "They weren't just commercial advertisements to get on MTV," Mothersbaugh says. "We thought sound and vision was going to bury rock & roll and that we were apart of something brand new that was much bigger than rock & roll."
"Neil Young paid for our cowboy outfits," Mothersbaugh says about Devo's attire in 'Come Back Jonee.' "He had asked us to be in his movie, Human Highway. Part of the trade was he bought us cowboy boots and cowboy hats."
"For Human Highway, Neil Young wanted us to be his nightmare," Mothersbaugh says. "He said, 'You need to be some sort of characters.' We said, 'let us be waste disposers.' We would dump the waste in the creeks or something. So we were riding on the waste disposal truck. The footage came out of the movie. Part of the deal was he said that we could have that for the video."
"None of the music has anything do with the original song," Mothersbaugh says. "I totally rewrote everything else. There was no MTV in those days, so, for the video, there was nothing we could do with it except put a sheet up in a club and show it. We rented a 16mm projector from the Akron library. So, people were like, 'Well, there's this weird band . . . they play a film and then . . . they come out and play the same song!'"
"I think there are two sides to Devo and this video works with that," Mothersbaugh says. "I think there is a side of us that was very optimistic, but at the same time, we were inspired by a crazy Yugoslavian anthropologist. His studies are from a book called The Beginning Was the End: Knowledge Can Be Eaten- How Man Came Into Being Through Cannibalism. His theory was that Homo Sapiens wiped out Neanderthal man by eating them all. That is, we descended from an inane brain eating species of ape and have created religion and science to justify the shame of being unnatural."
"The baby in this video was such a sweet kid," Mothersbaugh recalls. "She was the first Devo baby. That's [guitarist] Bob 1's oldest daughter. These days, she’s doing okay despite being in that movie. It took us a few times to get her to cry. We wanted her to cry, but she was so happy. It was terrible! We had to irritate her to get her to cry."
"The dance to this song evolved by itself in a basement," Mothersbaugh says. "When you have five guys on stage and they all look like waste control workers, we would go into organized movements. We couldn't really dance, but it was effective at what we could do – be stiff. Now, there are Japanese bands that are tribute bands that do our material better than we ever did. Their audience looks like we wished our audience did. The kids are organized and doing aerobic movements. That was what we were dreaming of in Ohio in 1975."