One word – four letters. DEVO. A band who contorted pop music into brilliant new shapes; a band whose name alone stands for a self-created world unlike no other. Conceived as an art project in and around Akron and Kent, Ohio, the infamous shootings at Kent State University – in which a number of unarmed protesting students were shot – is cited as the true starting point for DEVO, who officially began in 1972. Named after the process of de-evolution in which species are believed to regress into more primitive forms, DEVO’s dada influenced approach to music was similarly inverted and iconoclastic, showing little respect for rock tradition or heritage. Legend has it that one club in their hometown of Akron paid them double to stop playing. Early line-ups were fluid before they settled on the popular line-up of Mark Mothersbaugh, Bob Mothersbaugh, Gerald Casale, Bob Casale and Alan Myers.
Punk before punk really existed, DEVO were confrontational and playful, continually challenging preconceptions about music, art, performance, culture, composition and consumption. Wearing matching uniforms (boiler suits, the ‘Utopian Boy Scout’ look), sunglasses, plastic wigs (modelled on JFK) and the iconic ‘Energy Dome’ headgear – and, early on, helmets to deflect beer bottles – they came armed with keytars and electronic drums and as such were everything that hairy, earnest, masculine 70s rock was not.
A futuristic collision of sci-fi synths, odd 7/8 timings, punk rock economy and memorable slogans, DEVO’s 1976 debut single ‘Mongoloid’ was like an aural manifesto for future generations as to how much outlandish fun pop music could be. It was like nothing that had gone before and spawned a legion of followers. Once their short film The Truth About De-Evolution was seen by Iggy Pop and David Bowie, who declared them “the band of the future!”, they promptly secured a record contract with Warner Bros. Produced by Brian Eno, DEVO’s 1978 debut album Q: Are We Not Men? A: We Are Devo! remains a touchstone release in modern music. Frightened and baffled by ideas that toyed with notions of dehumanization, consumerism and conformity, Rolling Stone desperately deemed the band fascists. But those in the know knew.
DEVO’s third album Freedom of Choice (1980) was their mainstream breakthrough and the single ‘Whip It’ was their first bona fide hit. Abandoning drums for machines and an electro direction, 1981’s New Traditionalists album also enjoyed critical and commercial success as the band’s rise converged with that of MTV. By now DEVO’s music had transcended their ironic/intellectual/art beginnings and attracted a wider crowd; this was pop subversion at the highest level. They remained productive for the rest of the decade, until Smooth Noodle Maps (1990) marked their split. In their absence, DEVO’s reputation and legacy grew, thanks in no small part to all manner of soundtrack work, side projects and occasional shows. In 2010 they returned with their first new album in two decades, the acclaimed Something For Everybody.
Challenging, visionary iconoclastic, satirical, unique and fun, it is hard not to underestimate the impact that DEVO have had on pop culture. Musical outliers, they created their own one-band milieu and occupied it. They remain one of the most important and influential bands that America has ever produced.