Rip It Up SEPTEMBER 1979 - by Murray Cammick


Chuck Berry may still be ringing a bell with Johnny B. Goode, Johnny Lydon's PiL may deal death to disco, and Charlie Daniels' fiddlin' Johnny may be lickin' the Devil down in Georgia - but for Devo, Johnny is dead! Killed in a Datsun.

Jonee went to the pawnshop
Bought himself a guitar
Now he's gonna go far
Jonee jumped in his Datsun
Drove out on the expressway
Went head on into a semi
His guitar is all that's left now

In a stroke, Devo debunk the rock 'n' roll myth of little Johnny making it big in the big city. Come Back, Jonee, on their debut album, is punctuated by mad Berry-esque guitar breaks. The track closes with a desperate chorus of "Jonee, Jonee, Jonee, Jonee" as inflated and hollow a melodrama as The Shangri-Las' Leader Of The Pack.


Let's look at Devo's 'Johnny makes good' rise to fame - from 'Rubber City' Akron, Ohio, to the Burbank, California, offices of Warner Bros. Records. Deep in sunny Burbank, Jerry Casale and Mark Mothersbaugh stand by for telephone conversation with Barry Jenkin and myself.

Akron is an industrial city. The principal radio stations play country and western. On a four track tape machine in their basement, Devo produced their first singles, Jocko Homo,/Mongoloid (1976) and Satisfaction/Sloppy (I Saw My Baby Gettin') (1977). They released the records on their own label, Booji Boy, in the USA and on Stiff Records (1978) in the UK.

How did Devo connect with a UK label?

"When we were in New York," says Jerry, "people from Stiff heard the recordings, liked them, and wanted to distribute them in England."

Why did Devo stop distributing their own records in the USA and sign with Warners and manager Elliot Roberts, who also manages Neil Young and Joni Mitchell?

"You'd never be able to tour or record an album on that level. You have to have a record label and you have to have a manager."


Bowie was keen to produce Devo's debut but it didn't happen. Jerry says, "We were all set to go with David and we had been with him in New York, talked with him and made arrangements to go to Germany. He was doing this film (Just A Gigolo) and the film schedule became too demanding. We would have had to wait too long to record.

"In the meantime, Brian Eno heard us in New York at Max's Kansas City and agreed to do it (Q: Are We Not Men? A: We Are Devo!) with us in Germany. It significantly changes things to have a producer. Brian Eno certainly didn't mean to distort anything but all that artistic mentality working all in one room, it tends to blend together."

For their second album Devo considered David's Tony Visconti and Donna's Giorgio Moroder, but settled on Beatles and Bowie man Ken Scott.

Mark breaks silence on the topic of Duty Now For The Future. "I like the second album."

"I don't think that's what he asked you," says Jerry, who calls the third album Devo's "secret weapon". This time it will be produced by the group.


Gone is the lonesome shack among the evergreens. Today Johnny lives in a world falling apart. As we listened half-way around the world, Jerry Casale explained the Theory Of De-Evolution.

"In fact, the world is not better off. It's possibly worse off. Things have got about as organised and developed as they are able to get and they are unwinding and devolving and the quality of life is going down and people are more and more dependent on more and more things and less and less in control."

What are Devo doing about it?

"By being examples of it and using it as a basis for creating, we feel we are interfering with it."

Are we Johnnys and Janets really as faceless, cool, dependent, estranged as Devo suggests? Certainly, there's not a Johnny Travolta or an Olivia Newton-Johnny among them. What do we do? Dress in Devo clothes, form Devo bands, become Devo clones? Do they want imitation?

"No," says Jerry, firmly.

Are they pleased to see fans copying their dress.

"There's nothing wrong with it."

Are Devo trying to counter De-Evolution?

"No," says Jerry, "we're merely trying to harness it."


Are Devo's visuals and costumes important?

"I see our visual art as contributing a lot to the band. We're trying to project the group and not the individual, show similarities over differences. We're not trying to promote glamorous faces, which we are not."

Jerry told BAM (Bay Area Mag) writer Regan McMahon, "Except for make-up and costumes, Kiss could be anyone. That's not true of Devo. No matter what we wear, we are Devo."

He sees their music as the essential factor separating Devo from other bands.

"We're valid," he says. That sort of answer cancels out a lot of questioning. Are there other people in the creative arts with whom Devo identify?

"I see certain similarities in aesthetics or attitudes or whatever with david Lynch, the guy who did Eraserhead, and some stuff that Werner herzog did. I've seen graphic artists that are very Devo-like - and the band the Human League in England.

"We have lots of things we'd like to do, so we'd like to continue to exist so we can do them. Our goals are intrinsically motivated. If we could do it without a hit, we'd do it."


A four gig tour of Japan brought 8,700 Japanese Devo-tees to Tokyo's Budokan.

"They loved us," laughs Jerry. "All I need say is that we may be the next Cheap Trick in Japan."

What did the Japanese representatives of one of the most rapidly evolved/devolved societies in the world like about the Akronites?

"It's the purity of it, the primitive purity of it, the beat, the movement and the look - what pop music's all about. It certainly wasn't the words."

There is talk of Devo touring new Zealand and Australia after their next Japanese sojourn. So far, costs have rules out a Down Under trip.


Is radio or television the more important medium for Devo?

"Television," is Jerry's immediate reply. He is not optimistic about sweeping changes in what he sees as stagnant radio programming.

"Radio merely responds to what's going on. If that. It always takes them a long time. They're reticent. I don't see radio as important, except as an oppressive force."

Who devises Devo video?

"We work together with Chuck Statler, the guy who shoots it. We co-direct it, draw the story boards and editing plans and pick the costumes."

What guests would they have on a Devo TV special?

"Well, Jesus, lots of people. It's a question of whether they'd come on the show. We'd like to have some politicians and some heads of corporations. It seems like a fantasy. They'd never come on - would they? Who does that leave us with? Performers, comedians and musicians.

"Maybe we'd have some film-makers show pieces of new films and let them talk. That's no big deal, but we'd like to do that.

"And," Jerry adds, "we'd have some actual fans."


A final question: what do Devo think of dico?

Jerry has done most of the talking, but this one is for Mark.

"Disco is like a beautiful girl with a nice body but no brains."


Devo may be self-important and pointedly obscure, but who else alerted us to the dangers of Space Junk, a year before it became the major matter of the moment for the world's news media, and Skylab plunged on to the sandy wastes of Western Australia?

Oooh walk and talk about space junk
It smashed my baby's head
And now my Sally's dead

(With a name like Sally you know she'd have to be beaned in an alley. Devo run true to form)

She was walking all alone
Down in the street in the alley
Her name was Sally
Where will their Soviet Sputnik fall?
India, Venezuela in tex-ass, Kans-ass

Vocalist Mark Mothersbaugh exaggerates the ass. Of course, the Queen of England would say arse (Not her majesty! - Ed.).

It's humour, in word and music, that saves Devo. But can Devo save the world?

Stay tuned.