Recently, we lost a visionary when Bob Casale Jr of Devo died. Casale was an integral part of the band that only a few years ago had made an almost invisible yet underappreciated return to rock and roll including a main stage appearance at Lollapalooza. Though this incarnation sans Casale barely moved the needle of public opinion, there was time when they shook the of music world at its core foundational beleifs. They broke the template of what a rock band says, does and even wears.
And they sounded damn good doing it. It’s a fine art of walking the thin line between novelty act and progressive inventors of new directions in music. Devo did it in spades all while wearing upside down gardening vases for hats. And its high time they are recognized for their impact and how they turned general silliness into high art.
Certainly Mark Mothersbaugh, the musical brainchild behind the Akron Ohio misfits, has certainly garnered the respect from music aficionados of all shapes for dozens of movie soundtracks and TV theme songs including one of the best ever for “The Adventures Of Pete and Pete.” (A lost favorite from Nickelodeon.) But it’s the first three albums and their accompanying video stories that now deserve their day.
The band was mission and music together. They were pioneers in the integrating video with audio to deliver their message. Their music was “the sound of things falling apart.” And in the late 1980s for most of suburbia it appeared that world was collapsing as well. Ronald Reagan and Gorbachev were at each other’s throats in the final throes of the Cold War. Reagan emerged as victor on the geopolitical front but back at home his think tank puppeteers were losing an ancient battle. Science was finally winning the war for the minds of school children when the conservatives blinked and invented something called Intelligent Design when their evolution battle was lost.
Into this came DEVO. D –E V-O sing it. The devolution of sound. It was rock deconstructed as man regressed. Listen to ‘Working in a Coal Mine” and “Satisfaction” and you’ll hear rock that’s raw, truthful jangly and poppy. It’s sarcasm with a twist of so what. We know it’s judgmental to pass on an acquaintance because he doesn’t smoke the same cigarettes as you but when Devo shouts it at us we get it. We see the arcane sentiment, the ridiculousness of it all. We should like the Russians right because we are men and so are they.
Devo explores the outsider as normal or even exceptional. In “Mongoloid” they sing “He was a mongoloid, a mongoloid but he was happier than you and me.” A creature so vile and ostracized yet inner happiness is found in oneself. The characters in DEVO songs are confused at the apprehension of people to just coexist. Stealing the line from the movie “The Islnd Of Doctor Maoreau”- The band’s epic debut “Are We Not Men? …We are Devo” asks the question in ignorance much like Oliver Twist seeking more porridge. No one ever told him you couldn’t ask for more. Are we not men? Each and every one of us?
Devo was short lived because their points were well taken and besides I think they ran out of costumes. Art and commerce had been melded. In today’s terms the band would have had a billion YouTube views of their mind bending videos of Boogie boys and hazmat suited drummers. A trail of ridiculousness where sublime emerged.
Punk was wearing thin. Tshirts and lack of musicianship as a badge of honor had run its course. The world didn’t know where to turn so Mothersbaugh and Casale created Devo on the eight day and in all their absurdity, knowledge surfaced. Things needed to break before they could be put back together. Devo was intelligent by design.