True Facts about DEVO

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.


  1. FossilFishy (NOBODY, and proud of it!) says

    I’m still only a spud boy looking for a real tomato… could be worse l suppose.

  2. says

    The original 45 version of Jocko Homo has a short “O-HI-O” refrain that I’m told isn’t on the album.

    Here’s a 1984 (at least that’s when I first saw it, at a con) video by DEVO, “R U Experienced?” This not only encapsulates the experience of the 1960s quite neatly, but may have been one of the (if not ‘the’) first uses of morphing in a video.

    Synopsis: A straight-ass labcoat with Ken hair is ambushed by a green smoke that changes him to a dazed, snotty hippie in hip-huggers. He’s found by his associates, and the green smoke turns them freaky too. Then a room full of blonde teeny-boppers worship Jimi Hendrix, until he hops back into his coffin. The whole thing is watched on TV by a couple of wholesome little kids who show delight when the TV starts throwing things into the room.

    I also like the fact that they realized early on that someday, somebody was going to record Muzak versions of their songs, so they decided they might as well get the money from it and recorded their own E-Z listening album.

  3. says

    Ah, yes, infiltrating and subverting. Such an effective way to undermine things.

    Alan: And you’re still working for Beaverbrook?

    Peter: Well, yes, I’m still working for the Beaver, if work’s the right word. Don’t get me wrong, Alan, I haven’t changed, working on the paper hasn’t altered my outlook. You and I in the old day always used to think alike on most things. Well, it’s just the same now — you name any issue and I’ll agree with you on it. Just because my name’s at the top of the column you mustn’t think I have any connection with it, it’s just that I think he does a grand job of work, and if I ever have to write anything on him, every now and then I am forced to write something, I always ring him up afterwards and apologize… or get my secretary to. You’ve met the wife, got a lovely little house now down in East Grinstead, two little kids, you’ve got to fight for it. We go for holidays in Germany, drink a stein with the people, I like the people. I’m working on the novel, you know. One day that novel’s going to come out and blast the lid off the whole filthy business — name names, show up Fleet Street for what it really is; a really accurate novel about all those people. Bit if you’re going to write a really accurate novel, you’ve got to join the people you’re writing about… for a while, anyway. I’m going through a sort of research period at the moment. There are about ten of us on the paper: young, progressive, liberal people who don’t believe a word we’re writing. And whenever the old man has a party — a cocktail party — we all gather together down the far end of the room, and drink as much as we can — we really knock it back — we drink and drink and drink. We’re trying to break him from within. Then — quite openly, behind our hands — we snigger at him.

  4. gijoel says

    I saw them twenty years ago when they head lined Livid. My only complaint was that they didn’t do ‘Freedom of Choice”.