Devo: Sixties Idealists or Nazis and Clowns?
Someone wanted to know where your home is,” the waitress said to Mark Mothersbaugh.
“I don’t have a home,” Mothersbaugh replied softly, peering at the woman through dark glasses, his short brown hair askew so that he looked like a young Dr. Strangelove.
“I told them I thought it was Mars,” said the waitress, trying to stifle a less-than-charitable laugh.
“Mars,” said Mothersbaugh slowly. “I wish I came from Mars. That’s where I’d like to go, anyway.”
Mark Mothersbaugh, of course, isn’t from Mars. He’s from Devo. He writes songs, sings, plays synthesizers and, together with bassist-songwriter Jerry Casale, is the brains behind the band responsible for adding the phrase “whip it good” to our vocabulary.
Mothersbaugh was surprisingly good-natured about the waitress’ ribbing. He’s apparently used to that kind of thing now. And it was less of a hassle than the fans who come up to him and ask, pointblank, “Why did you sell out?”
“That makes me feel worse than anything, ’cause I don’t know what to say,” Mothersbaugh said recently while eating dinner at a gourmet health-food restaurant in Beverly Hills. “I try to tell them that it wasn’t our fault, that we were just doing what we wanted to do and somehow people ended up buying it.”
In fact, Devo have been woefully misunderstood. Until “Whip It” became one of the biggest singles of 1980, Devo had meager record sales; their mix of Fifties sci-fisound effects, mechanized rock & roll and offbeat image—five yellow jump-suited industrial ants leaping about the stage in unison—was not well received by the mainstream rock audience. And while the public mostly ignored them, the critics were picking at Devo like vultures going after a dying cow.
“There’s nothing older than yesterday’s futurism,” wrote Lester Bangs in the Village Voice. “Freedom of Choice [Devo’s third album, which contains “Whip It”] is so pathetic you almost feel sorry for them, but it was their choice to be geeks from the beginning, and there was never any reason to suppose that their routine wasn’t a scam.” Chris Morris, reviewing a Devo concert for Rolling Stone, wrote, “Regrettably missing from the evening’s music was the sense that Devo have anything in the least to say.” He added, “Devo’s show bore all the orgiastic earmarks of a Nuremberg rally for spud boys.”
“Well, obviously, we’re Nazis and clowns,” said Jerry Casale. “They’re all right, all those people. They’re all right on it. We’re assholes. Everything they accuse us of is true. We’re subhuman idiots who threaten them.” After taking a deep breath, he continued, “You know, really, on the largest level, who cares?”
It seems that Mothersbaugh does, for one. “There are people who buy or don’t buy records because of the critics,” he said, his resentment obvious. “They call us fascists because we represent something scary to them. It’s like all these ‘Me Generation’ people whose politics are, ‘I want to take as many drugs and consume as much energy and own two condos and big recreational vehicles and take up as much space for myself as I can.’ They don’t want to be concerned about how they relate to other people on the planet and their responsibility to other people on the planet. Those kinds of people are upset by Devo politics. Because if there’s a politic behind what we do, it’s people being aware of their responsibility to other people.”
Despite the group’s reputation for theatrics a la silly red plastic hats that look like art-deco flowerpots, Devo has an idealistic bent that is rooted in Sixties activism. Casale and Mothersbaugh met while they were both art students at Kent State University, in Ohio. “I saw Allison Krause from about thirty feet away after the guardsmen blew away about half her torso,” Casale has said. “That day was devo. It might have been the most devo day of my life.”
The Kent State debacle was just another bit of evidence for Casale and Mothersbaugh. Evidence that mankind was on a steady, downhill plunge. Evidence that they had been gathering since they were kids growing up in Akron, Ohio, a vast wasteland of malls and tire factories, fast-food restaurants and K-Marts. That was an inherited reality that nauseated Casale and Mothersbaugh. As they sing on their new album, New Traditionalists, “I know a place where dreams get crushed, hopes are smashed but that ain’t much.”
“They really think the world could be so much better than it is,” confided a close friend of the band’s. “And they’re distraught at all times over the situation that people are ignorant and don’t respond to the information that they’ve been given.”
To say that these guys are distraught, troubled by the condition of the world, is to understate the case. They are freaked out. They sincerely believe that their songs are imparting important information, and they view the critical attacks that have been aimed at them as a conspiracy of sorts. On Devo’s four albums, the group weds minimalist electronics, robot rhythms and android vocals, satirizing, perhaps, a mechanized, plasticized, programmed and subdued society. “Things are fucked up,” explained Mothersbaugh. As if dissecting an alien species, he continued, “They believe in love, they believe in anger, they believe in jealousy….”
“They believe in God,” Casale added solemnly. “We’re interested in new traditions.” Hence, the title of their new LP. “Well, we were making some kind of play – turnaround – on the word tradition and what it’s come to mean. The traditions that started a couple of hundred years ago. The industrial traditions. The kind of fundamentalist religious traditions. Traditions based on a certain kind of world. A lot of people are operating under fear of God. All those traditions operating behind every TV station and family in America. The kinds of things that Reagan stirred up with his posters of Reagan country and bygone America, where there’re seven icons of the past surrounding his head: Mount Rushmore, a wooden covered bridge and a wheat field and a church steeple….I mean,he should have just had the apple pie and mom and the baby and all the rest of it, and a couple of crucifixes and a Ku Klux Klan outfit as well.
“So we are just using traditions as a springboard and saying what we represent is new traditions. Rethinking the order of things. Which, in my opinion, is what’s valid about Devo. We’ve taken all the same information that everyone has and everyone is affected by and assumes to be true and reshuffled it to make a new picture.”
“Use information instead of emotions to make decisions,” added Mothersbaugh. “A lot of people make decisions based on paranoia, hatred, selfishness and love.
“If anything, if we were to reduce it to some cliche, we’ve always represented Spock’s attitude toward the world. Not Dr. Spock, Mr. Spock. A kind of world citizen.”
Casale and Mothersbaugh claim they have always felt like outsiders. “I never had a good time,” said Casale of his childhood. “It was that simple.”
“I always knew something was wrong,” said Mothersbaugh.
“‘Cause of how horrible people were,” continued Casale. “The kids in my class. The teachers. The local scene. What you might get beat up for. You’d try to leave school, and the greasers would stand on the corner with a bicycle chain or something and make you pay them a nickle to pass. Playing Mafia. And you would not even believe it. It just seemed too ridiculous. By the time you got to high school, most of the kids you knew were wearing madras shorts and trying to be caddies. And you just always felt uneasy. Like at a party you don’t want to be at. You just feel bad.”
It was nearly a decade ago – 1972 – when Devo formed in Akron. Mothersbaugh and Casale enlisted their brothers, guitarists Bob Casale (Bob I) and Bob Mothersbaugh (Bob II), along with drummer Alan Myers. In their hometown, audiences threw things at Devo. “I was always, from the beginning, prepared for a negative response, ’cause we certainly got it,” said Casale. “We never did this to be popular. Beer bottles were thrown at us, and people were screaming ‘Play Bad Company’ as far back as 1974. And to come in the face of a thing [rock & roll] that’s based on expendable idols and mythological worship with a group of pretty much provincial middle-class guys who didn’t have big drug habits or didn’t have long manes of hair and codpieces, you know, and didn’t talk about drinkin’ and balling’ and losing your girl—I didn’t really expect that we’d be popular. I thought, if anything, we’d be popular. I thought, if anything, we’d be popular because there were likeminded people all over the world in little pockets here and there who would respond to it once they were given a chance to find it in front of them.”
In 1976, Devo released a single on their own label, Booji Boy Records. The song was “Jocko Homo,” and it succinctly summed up the basic Devo creed:
They tell us that
We lost our tails
From little snails
I say it’s all
Just wind in sails
Are we not men?
We Are Devo!
We’re pinheads now
We are not whole
We’re pinheads all
Are we not men?
“Jocko Homo” was an underground hit in America and Europe, and by 1978, they were signed to Warner Bros.
That same year, Devo relocated to Los Angeles so that they could “be in touch with our careers.” Their careers got a big boost last year with the success of “Whip It.” Yet Casale maintains that Devo’s one and only hit was misunderstood. “The only reason that they played us on the radio, unfortunately, is there was a song, ‘Whip It’, that could be mistaken for sadomasochism and masturbation,” he said, adding sarcastically, “two popular themes in America. But we’re not proud. We’ll take it any way we can get it.”
“We thought of ‘Whip It’ as people pulling together and whipping the problem,” explained Mothersbaugh earnestly.
It was getting late, and Casale and Mothersbaugh were tired of trying to explain Devo. “People need an alien shot that would put them one step removed from the world totally but at the same time keep them lucid and pump their adrenaline so that they would just have total observation of the human condition,” said Casale, rising from his chair. “It would be fantastic. They wouldn’t do ninety percent of all the shit they were doing. They’d never do it again. They’d be too embarrassed and too humiliated.”
Then Casale and Mothersbaugh put on their dark glasses and walked off into the muggy L.A. night.
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