No, Really! An Appreciation of the Artistic Legacy of Devo
At long last, have the times finally caught up to Devo?
Most people are only aware of 1970s and 80s band Devo—if at all-- from their hit “Whip It,” a kitschy New Wave dance song that reached #14 on the Billboard Hot 100 in the fall of 1980 and became a staple of the early MTV playlist. Yet the high-concept, quirky New Wave band has had a quiet but powerful impact over the past 35 years in film, music video, and the visual arts. A new documentary film in production, Are We Not Men?, will highlight the influence and legacy of the band and its members on the course of art and music over the past three decades.
From their inception as a local Akron, Ohio band in the early 1970s, Devo incorporated film, video, costumes, masks, characters, and visual imagery into their performances as social critique and an expression of their band concept, the theory of “de-evolution.” The theory was developed in the late 1960s as a tongue-in-cheek art project while the founding band members were students at Kent State University. De-evolution posits that mankind has peaked in the evolutionary process and is beginning to regress as a species, as evidenced by the banality, crassness, and mediocrity in Western culture. Examples of unthinking conformity, an abundance of bad ideas, poor design choices, cookie-cutter suburbanization, and dysfunctional social interaction were highlighted in their music, lyrics, and stagecraft to substantiate their provocative theory.
In 1973, the first incarnation of the band played at the Kent State University performing arts festival. New members were added to the band before an encore performance at the 1974 Creative Arts Festival, also at Kent State. Soon, the band began playing gigs in the area and putting out records on their own label, with self-designed cover artwork. The live shows were part concert, part performance art pieces featuring recurring characters such as the masked Booji Boy, The General, and The Chinaman. The band members wore dystopian industrial uniforms and safety equipment evocative of the heavy industry and dehumanizing manufacturing facilities around their native Akron.
The Truth About De-Evolution
In May 1976, director Chuck Statler made a short film based on the music, characters, and imagery of the early live Devo shows. Part music video-- several years before the advent of MTV-- and part art film, The Truth About De-Evolution set many of the standards for the music video form, especially in its use of editing, challenging video images, and incorporating the music into a larger storyline. Clips from the film were soon seamlessly incorporated into the band’s live performances, providing a depth to their lyrics, instrumentation, and stage performance. The Truth About De-Evolution won a major prize at the Ann Arbor Film Festival in 1977, and helped the band secure dates at premier venues outside the Cleveland-Akron area.
On May 23-24, 1977, the band performed at New York’s famed CGBG’s, the Punk/New Wave Mecca that launched the careers of Blondie, Talking Heads, Patti Smith, The Ramones, Television, and many other artists. Neil Young approached the band later in 1977 about working together on a concept film he was making called Human Highway. The collaboration between Devo and Young resulted in the title of his double live 1979 album, “Rust Never Sleeps.”
Jocko Homo from 1977 film The Truth About De-Evolution
The band’s wider exposure resulted in release of an EP on the UK’s Stiff Records label, home of Elvis Costello, Nick Lowe, Ian Dury, and many other New Wave acts. The 1977 release included early versions of “Mongoloid,” and “Jocko Homo,” plus the New Wave classic “Be Stiff.”
Soon after the Stiff EP, David Bowie and Iggy Pop became fans of the band and lobbied Warner Brothers to sign Devo to a contract, suggesting their close friend Brian Eno to produce their first album. “Q: Are We Not Men? A: We Are Devo!” was recorded in Germany over the winter of 1977-78, and released in fall 1978, with Eno-produced versions of the band’s performance set and an iconic album cover based on an altered illustration of golfer Chi Chi Rodriguez.
“Q: Are We Not Men” received mixed reviews from most publications at the time, and peaked at #78 on the US Billboard Album Chart, #12 on the British Chart. In the years since, however, the album has become lauded as one of the best albums of the 1970s, ranking at #89 on Pitchfork’s Top 100 Albums of the 1970s, rating 4 ½ stars from Allmusic.com, and ranking at #442 on Rolling Stone Magazine’s Top 500 Albums of All Time. The Devo version of the Rolling Stones classic “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction” was featured prominently in Martin Scorsese’s Casino (1995). The record was the first major album by another artist produced by Brian Eno. Two months after finishing the Devo album, Eno began a longtime collaboration with Talking Heads, and he later became the producer for U2 during their most successful period.
Between 1979 and 1982, Devo produced four long-playing albums: “Duty Now For The Future” (1979), “Freedom of Choice” (1980), “New Traditionalists” (1981), and “Oh No! It’s Devo” (1982). They also had two songs on the soundtrack for the film Heavy Metal (1981), provided the backing band and three songs on Toni Basil’s “Word of Mouth” (1982) (known for her #1 worldwide hit “Mickey”), and background vocals on Jermaine Jackson’s 1982 hit “Let Me Tickle Your Fancy” (#18 on the Billboard Hot 100, #5 R&B).
Human Highway (1983)
In 1983, Neil Young’s film Human Highway was finally released after four years in production. It featured a sizable contribution from Devo, especially the magnificent remake of the Pete Seeger folk music standard, “Worried Man.” The film starred Dean Stockwell, Dennis Hopper, and Neil Young.
Also in 1983, Devo members Mark Mothersbaugh and Gerry Casale wrote and performed the soundtrack for the movie Doctor Detroit, starring Dan Ackroyd. The theme from the film peaked at #59 on the Billboard Hot 100 charts, but it was the beginning of the transition of the group members into film and television soundtracks.
Pee Wee’s Playhouse (1986-1990)
Devo’s Mark Mothersbaugh began his considerable television and motion picture soundtrack career by providing the theme and incidental music for the popular CBS TV show, “Pee Wee’s Playhouse.” The show vaulted co-creator and actor Phil Hartman into stardom and a slot on “Saturday Night Live,” and resulted in two “Pee Wee” films scored by Danny Elfman.
After establishing himself as a prominent composer for film, television, and video games, Mark Mothersbaugh founded the full-service music production company Mutato Muzika in 1989. Often employing other Devo members, Mothersbaugh runs the company out of a West Hollywood building designed by prominent Brazilian architect Oscar Niemeyer (planner and designer of the Brazilian capital of Brasilia).
Mothersbaugh’s success with “Pee Wee” was followed by a contract to provide music for the popular Nickelodeon children’s show “Rugrats” from 1991-2004. Other children's TV shows followed: "Beakman's World," "Santo Bugito," and "Clifford the Big Red Dog."
His work on film soundtracks took off in the mid 1990s, with an impressive array of films from silly to serious: It's Pat (1994), Happy Gilmore (1996), Bottle Rocket (1996), Rushmore (1998), 200 Cigarettes (1999), The Royal Tenenbaums (2001), The Life Aquatic with Steve Zizou (2004), Lords of Dogtown (2005), Nick and Nora’s Infinite Playlist (2008), Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs (2009), Safe (2011), and many others.
Mark Mothersbaugh, in addition to his considerable musical soundtrack work, still produces a prodigious amount of visual artwork as part of his Mutato collective. His stunning work in the area of collage art has been exhibited in shows around the country to great acclaim, and is available for sale at MutatoVisual.com.
In spite of skepticism (and even some harsh ridicule in some quarters) when Devo burst on the popular scene in 1978, the band had a well-defined and profound social criticism in embedded in the meaning of their music and message. For the mainstream of American society that was unaffected by the creeping banality of late 1970s culture, it was a message that failed to connect. For those that recognized it, they had a powerful message.
In August 1977, I walked into a record store in a Richmond, Virginia mall and bought a copy of Iggy Pop’s “Lust for Life” album, and got a quizzical, semi-disgusted look from the cashier. By 2002, the title track from the “bizarre” Iggy Pop album I bought that prompted cockeyed looks was being used to sell cruise ship vacations on the Tee Vee.
There are hundreds of examples of artists that achieve immediate, temporary, or short-lived success and believe that their adulation is deserved. And there are hundreds of examples of geniuses who weren’t recognized or appreciated in their time. Some people accept immediate success as proof of their genius; some who don’t achieve success give up; some persist against popular criticism; and still others misdiagnose their genius. Of these, the greatest, longest lasting, and most meaningful are those that persist. Devo is one of these.