I did not know that Devo was founded in the aftermath of the Kent State massacre.
With campus shut down until the fall and nowhere to go, Casale and friends would decamp to the Akron home of Mark Mothersbaugh, a part-time Kent State art student whose graffiti art had caught Casale’s attention. Parsing through the aftermath, the pair began collaborating, drawing on Dada and other Interwar art movements to create bizarro, disconcerting takes on agitprop posters, 50s ad graphics, and religious pamphlets. They also started playing music—Casale on bass, Mothersbaugh vocalizing over an early Moog synth—hoping to capture the sound of things falling apart.
Even before the shootings, Casale says he’d felt American society regressing. He even had a name for the phenomenon—“devolution,” or “devo” for short—an art and literature concept he’d conceived with classmate and poet Bob Lewis, who also played in the band for a brief stint. It was a response, Casale says, to the failed promise of utopian progress peddled by post-WWII politicians and consumer culture. But what began as an in-joke, fodder for late night discussions and Casale’s graduate work as an art student, took on a new gravity and urgency in the wake of the Kent State shootings.
I did not know anything about the band’s history, but I did figure out that they were all about subversion and highlighting the malignant influence of all-consuming capitalism on the country. It’s nice to see it spelled out. Although it’s not as if Devo was ever subtle.
No one talked about brands in the 1970s in the way the word is used today. Brands were limited to Cheerios or Levis or Marlboros. Other than The Who making a joke on their Who Sell Out LP, and Captain Beefheart on Safe as Milk, there wasn’t even a nod to the irony of “rebellious” rock acts being part of the mainstream, corporate, commercial grind. I was quite aware of that disparity from the beginning. We knew that rebellion and its various poses (leather, chains, long hair) was obsolete and cornpone. We played with that conflicted duality in all that we presented, musically and visually, because that was central to the whole concept. There was nothing we did that was not on purpose. Nothing that I could not articulate. We were a a self-proclaimed canary in a coal mine warning people about the emerging dangers of technology as a god to be worshipped, rather than as a tool to be exploited, and the centralized Corporate Feudal State that seemed to be barreling full speed ahead.
Our brand was real freedom, rather than freedom as an advertising campaign where the consumer was told how to be free. We were performance artists when there was not a label for that either. We were pioneers who got scalped. We were roundly criticized and called “sell-outs” by the rock press for creating self-designed merchandise. We were attacked by preeminent music critic, Robert Hilburn, for integrating film with our live show, where characters and objects were in sync with our musical, theatrical performance. He said, “If we wanted videos, we could go to an arcade. Rock ‘n’ roll or stay home Devo!” Maybe we should have stayed home. But then no one would agree that De-evolution is real as they readily do today.
They were prescient, but they could do nothing to stop the forces of de-evolution. And now we live in the Age of Trump.