Devo and Neil Young
Devo Saw the Future, But That Was Then
By Eli Attie
Special to The Washington Post
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Within the sprawling rock canon, new-wave iconoclasts Devo stand out for a great many things: wearing plastic pompadours and hazardous-waste suits that wouldn't have cleared the wardrobe department of a Godzilla movie. Wriggling around in thick sheets of rubber for a confused and bemused audience on "Saturday Night Live." Scoring a bona fide Top 40 hit with a song ("Whip It") inspired by the proprietor of a dude ranch who liked to bullwhip the clothing off of his wife. As frontman Mark Mothersbaugh explains on Devo's new DVD compilation, "The Complete Truth About De-Evolution," defending his band from various charges of sexism and nihilism and just plain silliness: "We never made anyone look stupider than ourselves."
The truth is, Devo are significant for more than their avant-stupidity -- for more, even, than its stripped-down techno-pop and love of kitsch science fiction. In their decidedly high-concept, low-rent way, these musicians set out to deform and even demolish rock itself.
Consider the band's rendering of the Rolling Stones' "(I Can't Get No) Satisfaction," that yearning, groping opus of teenage longing. By 1978, when Devo recorded their debut album, such prurient subject matter had become a tired rock cliche. So Devo turned the song completely on its head -- delivering a performance so robotic, so utterly lacking in sensuality or any flesh-and-blood intention that the cliche was all that remained. It can be seen as a turning point in rock: the moment the earnestness melted into irony, the moment the swagger turned to self-consciousness and scrutiny.
In the late 1970s, with corporate culture finally crushing the counterculture, with wanton consumerism on the rise, Devo may have been the first rock band to abandon rock's signature poses, to surrender the very idea of rebellion -- to stop trying to change the world, and simply mock it instead.
It's no coincidence that Devo came together in the early '70s at Ohio's Kent State University, where Nixon-era Vietnam protests had culminated in the fatal shooting of four students by the National Guard. Jerry Casale, Mothersbaugh's creative partner in Devo, not only witnessed the shootings (as did future Pretender Chrissie Hynde, who coincidentally played in a college band with members of Devo), but two of Casale's friends were among the casualties.
"Until then," Casale has recalled, "I was a hippie. I thought, the world is essentially good." Casale claims that the idea of devolution -- that man is regressing, not progressing -- began to take root that very day.
Though it may have seemed like so much goofing around, this was quite a shift in the rock paradigm. Such '60s-era performers as Neil Young, who sang of Kent State in his anthem "Ohio" (and who, ironically, took Devo as the inspiration for his album and film "Rust Never Sleeps"), may have found in the shootings a reason for genuine outcry, for heartfelt emotional objection. Devo turned away from this flower-strewn ideal, pretending to embrace authority and conformity instead of challenging it. As Mothersbaugh says dryly, the band members were "fulfilling our genetic imperative of selling more product so that all the [record company] executives could go on vacation. . . . We were chosen for it." While Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young were searching for peace, love and understanding, Devo celebrated nuclear mutation, heralding a future where everyone wore the same triangular plastic hats.
What is remarkable, especially for a band that existed at the very dawn of the video age, is that Devo's deeper message was carried mostly by their visuals -- in contrast to their generally pointless lyrics ("mongoloid he was a mongoloid / one chromosome too many" was typical). For this reason, the band's videos are essential to any full appreciation. That's not to say that its politics were heavy-handed. From the nuclear-waste workers frolicking in glowing red suits in "Worried Man" to the Barbie and Ken dolls ritualistically dismantling each other in "Love Without Anger," the band revels in sheer absurdity, even while advancing a more intelligible agenda.
In the video for "Girl U Want," curtains part to reveal a fat teenager trying desperately to sip a milkshake while strapped to a vibrating, undulating fat-reducing machine. A commentary on the media's mixed messages? Probably. But on the DVD's commentary track, Mothersbaugh chalks it up to nonsensical abandon: "We were trying to think of: What would a hundred screaming little teeny girls really get excited about?"
Though you might not know it from this DVD compilation, which offers scant discussion of the band's actual music, Devo broke substantial musical ground as well. Of course they borrowed heavily from proto-absurdists such as the Fugs, Captain Beefheart, and the Residents (who, in fact, preceded Devo with their own creepy, noir version of "Satisfaction"). They also built upon the work of German techno-pioneers such as Can and Kraftwerk, recording the first Devo album with producer Brian Eno in Can's recording studios.
What was unique was Devo's fusion of comedy, technology and real pop melody. There's a reason songs like "Beautiful World" and "The Day My Baby Gave Me a Surprise" are still worth hearing, far beyond the polemics and the campy antics. But inevitably, for a band that cared more about ideas than execution, Devo's music did not keep up with its manifestos. By the mid-'80s, when mechanistic synth-pop had become a genre unto itself, Devo was little more than a novelty act.
Band members admit that declining relevance and record sales forced them into the very corporate compromises they had set out to parody -- such as one ill-fated record company decision to shoehorn a Playboy Playmate into one of Devo's videos. "We ended up being like the proverbial photographer that's studying Bowery bums," Casale says. "He becomes a bartender and starts dispensing drinks until he becomes a drunken fool himself." It's fitting that both Casale and Mothersbaugh -- sometimes with the help of their former band mates -- have built successful careers scoring TV commercials and television shows.
This was the conundrum of Devo: Rather than hurling Molotov cocktails at the establishment from some angry campus quadrangle, they chose the more subtle weapon of satire, and they brandished it from the comfort of a major-label record deal. They deserve some measure of credit for that. Just as the majors were consolidating their hold on the music industry, Devo offered an extreme vision of uniformity, of corporate rigidity and mass-media domination. When their record company told them they had to put a bar code on their second album, for instance, they plastered bar codes all over the cover and made it a motif. In this age of prepackaged boy bands and digitally corrected performances, it's hard not to find prophecy in that.
But make no mistake, those record company executives were indeed taking the money and going on vacation. Like the iconoclastic filmmakers of the '70s, quickly swallowed up by Hollywood's studio system, or like every significant protest politician from William Jennings Bryan to Pat Buchanan, soon co-opted by the major parties' own platforms, Devo pried open a tiny window. And it quickly slammed down on their hands.
In the end, it's a problem that belongs to rock itself -- which is, let's face it, built on deep contradiction: the notion of popular subversion, of mass-marketed rebellion, of art you can hum along to for 31/2 minutes. Devo had an impact because they lived at that very point of conflict -- like trying to drink a milkshake while strapped to a fat-reducing machine. Laugh all you want, roll those cameras until they're out of film. You'll be lucky to get one little sip.
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