INTERVIEWS, REVIEWS & RELATED ARTICLES
Mojo AUGUST 2010 - by Andrew Perry
THE DESCENT OF MAN
Loved by Bowie and Iggy, post-punk antagonists Devo went from heroes to zeros in just twelve months. Now they're back. "We were right all along," they tell Andrew Perry.
November 1977. Devo are playing Max's Kansas City, weirding out the New York punk set with their twitchy robo-attack and lyrics about mongoloids and de-evolution. As they wind up their first set of the evening to baffled applause, a gaunt figure strides after them into the dressing room. An hour or so later, Devo return to the stage, and David Bowie (for it is he) takes the microphone to introduce them.
"He goes, 'This is the band of the future!'," frontman Mark Mothersbaugh recalls today, "and, 'I'm going to produce them this winter in Tokyo.' We're like, Wow, we're sleeping in a van, we don't have apartments at home, Tokyo'll be just fine!"
In the end, Bowie's accomplice at Max's that night, Brian Eno, produced Devo, out of his own pocket, at Conny Plank's studio near Cologne in early '78. They'd hang with Bowie, who took the train over from Berlin on weekends, between shoots for the Just A Gigolo movie, and on one occasion the band jammed for three hours with Bowie, Eno and Can's Holger Czukay.
During those whirlwind months, Devo's hipster credential's were immaculate. Neil Young cast them as an all-singin', all-dancin' nuclear waste disposal tean in his Human Highway movie. Burt Bacharach invited Mothersbaugh over for a writing session, Iggy Pop shacked up with them in Los Angeles and Richard Branson flew them to Jamaica in an effort to get John Lydon, freshly liberated from The Sex Pistols, to replace Mothersbaugh as their singer.
Yet by the end of 1978 the public were fiercely divided over Devo. For a fanatical few, they were visionaries, lampooning man's slump into capitalism and moronic slovenliness with steely veracity For others, they were new wave clowns with decent tunes. The UK music press loathed them for their cynicism. There were fractious interviews in which Mothersbaugh and 'chief strategist'/bassist Gerald Casale came across as anything but grinning fools. Even Eno daubed them "the most anally retentive band I've ever worked with".
For the ensuing twelve years, Devo were freakish outsiders who enjoyed one brief canter in the mainstream after their Whip It video became a staple on the fledgling MTV. Since their dissolution in 1990, however, their sound has come to seem prescient of '90s dance, and today's synth-heavy indie-rock.
Now, the post-punk era's most baffling collective have returned with their first record in two decades, unsettlingly entitled Something For Everybody. Their latest motto? "De-Evolution: A Prophesy Fulfilled".
When Devo landed in Britain in 1978 at the height of new wave, they may as well have arrived from Mars. They came, in fact, from Akron, Ohio, North America's heavily-industrialised rubber capital. Their mission was bizarre, even for a rock band: to refute Darwin's Theory of Evolution - the very bedrock of modern science - on grounds that Man was regressing, not evolving.
On the cover of their Eno-produced debut, Q: Are We Not Men? A: We Are Devo!, Mothersbaugh remonstrated at you in white lab coat, rubber gloves and swimming goggles. On the reverse, three shades-wearing gents with stockings on their heads barked back. These were scenes derived from a twelve-minute movie from 1975, In The Beginning Was The End: The Truth About De-Evolution, in which Mothersbaugh mimed Devo's manifesto song, Jocko Homo, to a medical class: "They tell us that we lost our tails / Evolving up from little snails / I say it's all just wind and sails!"
The movie, which won the Best Short Film award at the 1976 Ann Arbor Film Festival, was soon seen on America's independent cinema circuit, and thus Devo's infamy rose. The ideas contained therein, however, were not fired off by frustrated teenage punks, but stretched back to the final days of the hippy movement.
Mothersbaugh had met Casale in 1969, while studying at Kent State University, ten miles from Akron. "[Gerry] saw some stickers I'd printed up of astronauts holding a potato, and an astronaut puking on the moon," remembers Mothersbaugh. "I'd been sticking them on fire hydrants, glass bookcases and portraits of school presidents. He looked me up. He was a couple of years older, but we started working together as visual artists."
Their world was turned upside down, when, in April 1970, the Ohio National Guard opened fire on anti-Vietnam protesters at Kent State, killing four, and wounding nine. Casale witnessed the shootings. "It was the day I stopped being a hippy," he says.
"It wouldn't be overly dramatic to say the shootings were Devo's starting point," adds Mothersbaugh. "School was closed for four months, so Gerry would come over to my house, and we'd write music, and talk about politics, technology, Ohio's crumbling industry. Our conclusion was that technology wasn't inherently bad, the problem was the human mind."
Together, Mothersbaugh, Casale and friends formulated their philosophy, based on an anti-evolutionary pamphlet from 1924 by one B.H. Shadduck, titled Jocko Homo Heavenbound. "We were talking about all this for years," says Casale, "then someone found a Wonder Woman comic, [where] a mad scientist had this chamber, where he pulls the lever and turns a guy into a monkey. The lever went from 'Evolution' to 'Devolution'. We thought, That's it, there's the word for it."
Mothersbaugh and Casale made their public debut at Kent State's Creative Arts Festival in '73. The band, provisionally titled Sextet Devo, was fleshed out with their own brothers, plus a hired drummer and singer. "It was hard to get people to be in the band with us," Mothersbaugh admits.
YouTube clips suggest proto-Devo was pitched between Roxy Music, Soft Machine and improvised theatre. By day, Casale worked in a janitorial supply store where, in a catalogue, he saw a uniform tailor-made for Devo: A suit made of plastic-coated paper. Cost: Five dollars.
"We wanted to present a unified force," Casale explains. "We thought that had more power; it was sexy, in a different way."
They also dreamt of opening Club Devo, Akron's answer to Warhol's Factory, fitted out with sinks and plumbing fixtures from Casale's catalogues. "From the beginning, the whole idea of Devo was multi-media," he says. "We originally intended to make a feature film, with hired actors, and stories about the devolved world. The music would drive the film, and if it succeeded, we thought we could send out half-a-dozen Devos around the country to play - a franchise like the Blue Man Group."
For a year or so, they attempted to pass themselves off as a covers band on Ohio's bar circuit but were trapped in a pitiful economy, so Mark and Gerry opened up their own graphic design company. Stumping up three thousand dollars, they made The Truth About De-Evolution with fellow Kent State alumni Chuck Statler, who had become an ad director in Minneapolis. By spring '77, after winning their Ann Arbor award, they landed gigs at CBGB and Max's. They demo'd about twenty songs, including such lost delights as I'm A Potato (And I'm So Hip), and Midget. When Iggy Pop's solo tour passed through Cleveland, Devo passed their demos on to Bowie. Against all odds, he and Iggy became somewhat obsessed.
Conny Plank's studio in rural Neunkirchen was the hub of Krautrock's hi-tech activity, home of Neu! 75 and Kraftwerk's Autobahn. Iggy and Bowie were certainly monitoring this site of future-sounds while making The Idiot and Low in Berlin, while their pal Eno cut numerous records there in the mid-'70s. When Bowie's film commitments ruled him out of producing Devo, Eno set about recording their debut album himself.
On paper, both parties shared much, from their similar names downwards. In keeping with their chemical-plant garb, Devo developed a robotic sound, with human spasms. Following on from Jocko Homo, their repertoire highlighted sundry aspects of man's decline, such as sappy romance, religious supplication, burger cuisine and rock'n'roll heroism, riffs stolen from I Wanna Hold Your Hand, and a mechanical reading of The Rolling Stones' Satisfaction - '60s pop mangled according to de-evolutionary logic. So very Eno... surely. Mark Mothersbaugh recently found a photograph of himself and Eno standing by a lake in Neunkirchen, holding hands. Such bonhomie, he concedes, was not representative of the album sessions.
"We came in knowing what we wanted the record to sound like, before he got involved," says Mothersbaugh. "He wrote all sorts of synthesizer tracks, and did tape loops, and sang vocals on every single song. When it came to the final mix, we'd all be standing in the studio, then just as the mix would start, one of us would reach over, and just slowly slide down the fader on the Brian Eno track, and the mix would proceed without his input. We'd be looking straight ahead, acting like nothing happened, and I could feel his eyeballs going into the side of my head, like, 'What the fuck are you doing?'"
Mothersbaugh told Eno that the producer's lyrics were "daft". He also stole a blank card from Eno's 'oblique strategies' pack, drew a rat on it, and stuck it in a mousetrap in the corner of the studio. "I thought they were silly," he says, "like fortune cookies, but I wish I hadn't done that. We were very insular, because right from the beginning, people didn't get what we were saying. Our early gigs ended as confrontations and fist fights, so that always gave us reason to be defensive."
Mothersbaugh is contrite because the band were able to shop around for a deal with a ready-made, Eno-franked LP, signing long-term to Warners for AMerica, and Virgin in the UK. But Devo were still commercially doomed. A legal tangle over Transatlantic rights left Warners out of pocket and less keen to promote their new act. Warners also had to shell out when the band's own college buddy and road manager, Bob Lewis, sued them for his part in establishing De-evolutionary theory.
Branson's legendary gambit, meanwhile, to supplant Mothersbaugh with Lydon, suggests he had little faith in the band's longevity. Q: Are We Not Men? A: We Are Devo! - its title based on the monkey-man chant from Island Of Lost Souls, the 1933 adaptation of H.G. Wells' Island Of Dr Moreau - reached Number 12 in the UK charts, but, after initial Bowie-related hype, Devo were soon viewed with disdain, Sounds asserting that the album "breaks about as much new ground as The Darts' It's Raining".
Even in the pre-political correctness times, the song Mongoloid felt just too near the knuckle, especially from an apparently comic rock band, who wore flowerpots (AKA "energy domes") on their heads, and often appeared wrapped in latex, wearing dildos, baby masks and fake breasts.
"Touring England, people were spitting all over us," remembers Casale. "We were glad we were wearing yellow plastic suits, which you just throw away after the show. At Eric's in liverpool there was a metal mesh, floor-to-ceiling on a wooden frame, between you and the audience. We started our set, and they all smashed themselves against the fence as hard as they could, yanking it back and forth like monkeys, and hawking and screaming. Wow!, we thought, this looks like a Devo movie. This is de-evolution!"
At some shows, Devo created more antagonism by appearing as their own support act, Christian Rock band Dove (The Band Of Love). They were flying way over people's heads, and their career suffered. Their next two albums dramatically under-performed until, in 1981, Whip It - one of their most deviant ditties - was picked up by radio in florida, and became a US hit. "MTV was experimenting in three cities," says Casale, "and we had made five videos by that point. They begged us to let them have our videos because they didn't have any content. Then as soon as they went national, they tied their playlist to Top 40 radio, and canned Devo. After that, the three-musketeers camaraderie of 'one for all and all for one' started to erode. You had all the evil little weasels coming up and going, 'You're really the band, why don't you just do a solo record?' Then drugs entered the picture. Mark would be with his girlfriend doing ecstasy, while I was at concerts and parties doing cocaine. Those two states of mind don't blend well.
"I started directing videos for other bands, but we got enticed into this deal with Enigma Records, a huge mistake. Mark was disinterested after that. If you have a two-cylinder bike, and one of the cylinders isn't working, you're not going anywhere."
In the long run, Devo - the band, the sound, the philosophy - was indestructible. Mothersbaugh applied his talents to writing music for TV, adverts and films including Pee-Wee's Playhouse, The Rugrats, and Wes Anderson movies. His company, Mutato Muzika, employed Devo's Bob Casale and Bob Mothersbaugh, and after a few frosty years, he and Casale buried the hatchet. Devo started playing occasional shows circa '95 and producing ads for Dell computers, and Honda. Momentum towards a comeback record has been gradual, but unstoppable.
"You couldn't pick a worse time," says Casale with a chuckle, "with the economic meltdown, the implosion of the record business, and no new viable business model to replace it. People feel like they shouldn't have to pay for music, everything's on an iPod shuffler, content is meaningless..."
De-Evolution: A Prophesy Fulfilled?
Mothersbaugh smiles: "It's a bittersweet thing to have to say but it seems like the last thirty-five years have proved our theories to be, unfortunately, right on the money."