The state we’re in
In the 70s Devo’s subversive pop was deriding stupid America but 30 years on, David Pollock finds that their message is as relevant as ever
Anyone whose knowledge or memories of Devo encompass their being an irony-splattered gag band whose fancy dress sense of humour was accompanied by some truly great pop songs might wish to adjust their radar. Described by one of their founders, Gerald Casale, as ‘the house band on the Titanic’, the quintet from Akron, Ohio (variously described as pop, punk, post-punk, art-rock and new wave, they were all of these and none at the same time) have always been harbingers of doom at heart.
Formed in 1972 by the creative core of art students Casale and Mark Mothersbaugh, their most popular line-up would consist of the pair’s respective brothers Bob and Bob (‘the Bobs’), and drummer Alan Myers. The band’s formation and naming came from the concept of de-evolution, which Casale describes as ‘refuting the whole idea that there was some sort of linear progress and things were getting better, that humans were evolving. What we saw was that things were going the other way, that it appeared things were de-evolving and people were getting dumber.
‘People don’t process information the same way any more’, he continues. ‘Their reasoning abilities seem to be gone, and they respond like children to soundbites and sparkly things, voodoo and monsters in the closet. So everybody’s living in fear, and repeating mindless, manipulative soundbites that they hear on the 24/7 cable news cycle, spouted over and over like propaganda. Reasonable people that believe in rational humanism are on the run.’
So that’s what Devo are all about. And you probably thought ‘Whip It’ was a lighthearted, MTV-friendly ditty about S&M, huh? How about a veiled comment on US foreign policy? ‘Crack that whip’ indeed.
‘And we thought (the Nixon administration) was as bad as things could get at the time!’ says Casale. ‘Boy, were we wrong. It’s always been the same in terms of the conflict between reasonable, rational people and psychotic morons, who, over the years, have really gotten stronger. There was always a substance behind our style, a definitive anger at injustice, and an acute awareness of the tragedy of the human condition.’
For a band who were early favourites of MTV and who have sufficient history as to hear their music paraphrased on The Simpsons, the theory behind Devo seems even more relevant today. Lest we forgot, of course, the likes of ‘Whip It’, ‘Mongoloid’, ‘Jocko Homo’ and ‘Girl U Want’ are perfect, precise party songs, yet might the band not seek to follow up this long-awaited European jaunt with some new tracks? Mark Mothersbaugh - who wrote the soundtracks to Rugrats and all of Wes Anderson’s films - seems thus far happy to reel out the hits, but Casale is keen to talk him back into the studio.
‘At our best, we were an embodiment and a reflection on the state of things,’ he muses. ‘We were like Kiss with brains. I think we inspired people to think about things, we energised them creatively and stimulated their brains, the way a good film, a good book, or a good teacher can. And obviously Kiss just wanted to party and screw, which was an easier sell, because then nothing has to change.’
Carling Academy, Glasgow, Sun 24 Jun