Mojo Special Limited Edition JANUARY 2005 - by Andy Fyfe


Their quirky image and ideology may have dated but Devo's jerky, irregular pop sounds oddly timeless.

Devo's involvement in any kind of futurist movement is ironic given that they were almost entirely obsessed with the past and how it had led to the present. What Devo did have in common with their electro-pop brethren, though, was a rigid adherence to a high concept.

Formed in 1972 in Akron, Ohio by brothers Mark, Bob and Jim Mothersbaugh and their friend Jerry Casale, they nailed their colours of Oscar Kiss Maerth's crackpot anthropology text The Beginning Was The End. Maerth, citing divine inspiration instead of hard facts, claimed man was descended from mutant sex-crazed apes that evolved through a diet of primate brain.The group turned this into their own philosophy of De-Evolution which held that their country was going backwards as the blind pursuit of individual freedom turned it into a conforming, homogenised society. This they expressed by wearing flower-pot hats, boiler suits and dressing as potatoes, deemed the least individual of all vegetables.

Not everyone got them. Finding lyrical inspiration in such difficult areas as the disabled being patronised and isolated rather than accepted for their differences (Mongoloid) and Roman parables about dogs dying of confusion about which bone to eat first (Freedom Of Choice), titles such as Jocko Homo and their insistence on wearing uniforms led Rolling Stone magazine to label them fascists. Devo themselves sometimes struggled under the weight of their concept.

Devolution [sic] is a big idea about the way things are, casale attempted to explain to Sound's Jon Savage in 1978. Everyone has a big idea about the way things are, whether they admit it or not: a lot of people's ideas masquerade themselves as non-ideas which we find the most dishonest. Devo just has the biggest idea that allows everybody to discover things, which is exactly what other ideas don't allow other ideas begin by ignoring what's there so their idea doesn't account for the whole picture.And when the premise is wrong everything else that follows os sick. Got it?

Devo's break came when David Bowie saw their nine-minute short film, The Truth About De-Evolution, and brokered them a deal with warners.By now Jim Mothersbaugh had left, replaced by casale's brother, Bob. Their Eno-produced debut Q: Are We Not Men? A: We Are Devo! in 1978, had few conventional keyboards, let alone synthesizers, and it wasn't until 1979's follow-up Duty Now For The Future, that they moved away from jerky new wave to jerky synth-pop. Freedom Of Choice (1980) finally fully embraced digital technology, and videos for two of the album's singles - the title track and Whip It - camped in the newly launched MTV's play-list.

It was their commercial peak. Fourth album New Traditionalists revealed a bleakness at their heart and Devo were already root-bound by their original concept. Needing new inspiration for 1982's Oh No! It's Devo, they turned to the poetry of John Hinckley Jr - would-be assassin of Ronald Reagan - for lyrics. The idea was ditched but with Cars' producer Roy Thomas Baker on board the sound became indistinguishable from the myriad synth-pop acts they had inspired and Devo split after 1990's tame Smooth Noodle Maps.

Mark Mothersbaugh has subsequently found lucrative work supplying music for film (Devo split after 1990's tame The Royal Tenenbaums, Rugrats) and video games (Crash Bandicoots) and employs both of Devo's Bobs at his Mutato Muzika production company. Jerry Casale, the leader when it came to Devo's visual concept, moved into video full-time, his credits including Foo Fighters' I'll Stick Around. An invitation to play Lollapalooza in 1996 led to occasional live appearances, minus Casale, but while echoes of Freedom Of Choice and the debut can be found in acts from Franz Ferdinand to Interpol, a flowerpot hat-derived revolution now seems a quaint idea from a much sillier era.