DEVO: 6 Essentials

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DEVO: 6 Essentials

DEVO. Photo by George Rose/Getty Images.

Devo came tearing out of Ohio in the early '70s, with art students Jerry Casale and Mark Mothersbaugh at the helm. Taking their name from the concept of De-Evolution  – the idea that mankind is regressing rather than progressing – the band were blessed with brilliantly warped vision, blurring the lines between performance art and punk to create a brazen post-modern brand. Their mechanical, robotic sound echoed a dystopian obsession with technology, while their uniform jumpsuits, plastic hats – called ‘energy domes’ – and safety goggles, were a genius sweetener to the cutting themes at the core of their songs. 

By the time Devo played New York's famed Max’s Kansas City in November 1977, they had earned themselves a fan, perhaps the greatest fan a band could have – David Bowie. He introduced the five-piece onstage, declaring them “the band of the future”, and announced that he would be producing the group’s debut album. While the latter never did eventuate … legendary producer, Brian Eno stepped in while Bowie was tied up filming Just a Gigolo – Devo would indeed prove his first statement to be true. 

'[I Can't Get No] Satisfaction'

The release of their debut album, Q: Are We Not Men? A: We Are Devo! in 1978 came with this stilted, synth-driven take on the Rolling Stones' (I Can't Get No) Satisfaction – which they boldly described as less a cover, more a “correction”– challenging the Stones’ hedonistic interpretation of dissatisfaction by shining an uncomfortable spotlight on the disillusionment of dead-end jobs and a perceived inevitability of disappointment. 

'Beautiful World' 

While their hooky, synth-driven sound landed them square in the New Wave scene, their sharp-tongued critiques of consumerism in mainstream music made their particular brand of pop something of a Trojan horse... 

'Whip It'

Devo always approached their music videos as art, long before it was the norm. With a relentless appetite for satire, concepts like sex,  religion and political hysteria were all audited with such jagged wit that the band found themselves censored by MTV and rather misunderstood by the press. But it didn’t matter; Devo were marketing monoliths on their own. 

'Peek A Boo'

With an advertising spin, they laid the template for the sort of multimedia emphasis that has now become standard for the music artists of today. Theatrical stage shows, narrative-driven music videos and uniformed costumes all equated to creating a cast-iron image; so intriguing it practically sold itself. 

'Freedom of Choice'

Freedom of Choice appeared on Devo’s 1980 album of the same name. The philosophical cut included the line, "In ancient Rome there was a poem about a dog who had two bones. He picked at one, he licked the other, he went in circles 'till he dropped dead," resembling the Buridan paradox about the nature of freedom will. The concept was carried over to the single itself which had no defined A or B side, instead it came with instructions urging listeners to "Use your Freedom of Choice" in deciding which song is on which side. The cover and label included two empty checkboxes for the buyer to label either Freedom of Choice or Snowball to be the A or B side.

'Girl U Want'

Devo’s musical legacy more or less defines the pinnacle of 80s kitsch, but to label them a triumph of quirk would discount the true depth of substance and commentary at the heart of their work – as wildly original today as when they first formed half a decade ago.  

“…we decided to take the worst end of pop culture, like TV ads, televangelists, con men, all these people that were like, “You’re number one! Subscribe to my newspaper and you can become a star!” and take all that and subvert it. So that was the fun. The fun was playing a game with conformist mainstream culture.” Jerry Casale.


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