The CBGB Music and Film Festival is currently underway in New York City and... nobody really cares. It is, arguably, the least essential cultural event in NYC. This is because CBGB currently exists merely as a brand—a business venture that sells t-shirts at Hot Topic to aging hipsters and curious teenagers. CBGB’s relevancy in the cultural canon was already over long before the actual building was closed and transformed into a John Varvatos clothing store in 2006. All of this is not take away from the important influence Hilly Kristal’s club had on basically every important rock record that has been released since 1977, but CBGB’s contemporary existence is a prime example of how our culture is rapidly de-evolving. So, perhaps it’s highly appropriate that Devo will be headlining the festival on Sunday, with a free concert in, of all places, Times Square. It’s as if the band is performing at the Ground Zero of where they told us we were all heading. I doubt Billy Idol’s set will be met with the same irony.
Devo has a legacy that toes the line between people who know better and people who have no clue. Several weeks ago, the band opened for Arcade Fire in Chicago. While I’m sure Win Butler would probably profess to be their biggest fan, it seemed like an odd fit to have the most un-pretentious band in the world “open” for an increasingly self-important commodity. I can’t be certain, but I’d wager most Arcade Fire fans viewed it as a novelty, much like the cover songs Win Butler & Co. have been dubiously dumping into their sets in every city. Recently, I was having a conversation with a friend about the 33&1/3 book series. I listed off the artists featured in the series, acts as disparate as The Beatles, Radiohead, Kayne West, and Neil Young. I also excitedly talked about the forthcoming edition on Devo, which focuses on their 1980 album Freedom of Choice. The mere mention of Devo caused my friend to nearly convulse as he screamed through his guffaws, “Devo?! How can you go from talking about music legends to talking about One-Hit-Wonders?!” I spared him a conversation on Carl Wilson’s brilliant tome on Celine Dion, but I digress—it was a teachable moment for me, a nearly life-long Devo fan.
My fandom began with general curiosity after seeing the music video for “Whip It” on VH-1’s nostalgic series The Big ‘80s when I was 9 or 10. Seeing it for the first time blew my mind, especially considering the video was most likely sandwiched between some uninspiring fare from Billy Ocean and Cutting Crew. Considering I was born just after Devo’s most prolific and high-profile period, it’s likely that “Whip It” was the entry point for many fellow Spuds from my generation. It’s probably the only Devo song your parents know and maybe, MAYBE, like.
Anyway, that curiosity carried over into my teen years, when I purchased the Devo anthology Pioneers Who Got Scalped from a Barnes & Noble (the mind boggles). Granted, I now recognize that the compilation hardly scratches the surface of Devo’s genius (it would be at least a good 10 years before I discovered Hardcore Devo), but it was an important part of my music education, if not only for the extensive liner notes that acted as part Devo biography and part creedo for the theory of De-evolution. Back in the halcyon days of high school, though, I found myself living in a generation overly occupied with the “messages” coming from portly fellows in red baseball caps, screaming about their (privileged) white boy rage. I recognized that for many of my peers, my fascination with Devo at the time was maybe a bit passé. I was a bitter teenager, though, who desperately wanted to share the truth about De-evolution with anybody clutching their copy of Kid Rock’s American Badass. But that would have probably been beside the point. Devo was never here to save the masses from De-evolution, but rather to spread awareness of its inevitable grasp on society. If people didn’t get that, they simply weren’t going to be convinced by Devo’s highbrow-art-in-lowbrow-presentation aesthetic. Even after you remove the visual art and the hypersexual political agenda of Devo, at their core they were (and still are) some of the absolute best songwriters and musicians to emerge in the last 35 years. Oh hell, let’s go for hyperbole: Gervald V. Casale and Mark Mothersbaugh are the Lennon/McCartney of American post-punk rock and new wave.
Still, Devo’s legacy often falls somewhere between those who know better—that Devo were a groundbreaking act—and those who say, “Oh yeah, ‘Whip It’ is such a great ‘80s song,” and regard the band as quirky One-Hit-Wonders. Either way, at least the band is often celebrated rather than reviled, even when the honors bestowed upon them are dubious at best. But outside of Devo’s legacy in the mainstream, there is a serious cult of Devotees (or Spuds) that, frankly, don’t give a shit about what other people think—good or bad—about the band. To them, Devo is a way of life. That sounds about as gooey as melting Kraft single, but it’s the truth. It witnessed this firsthand when I trekked out to Cleveland this past August for DEVOtional 2014.
Just over a 100 fans gathered in the Beachland Ballroom & Tavern—a mid-size rock venue with a line-up of acts as diverse as Bob Mould, Shonen Knife and Los Lobos all performing there in fall ‘14—on August 15-16th for DEVOtional ’14. It was akin to a miniature ComicCon, with majority of the attendees engaging in some form of Devo cosplay, which involved everything from simply donning an Energy Dome to hyper-authenticity in dressing-up as characters from some of Devo’s more obscure, latter-period music videos (i.e., back-up-flight-attendant-dancers from the Total Devo-era). These people were super committed and the entire event had a very cult-like feel to it—we were there to worship at the altar of Devo (or, the Church of the Subgenius). I just wore a blazer and a few Devo buttons, which was hardly a commitment. I felt a little out of place, but not unwelcomed. I’m just glad people recognized my Stiff Records t-shirt.
Anyway, towards the end of the second day there was a Q&A with Devo co-founder Gerald "Jerry" Casale. Although he appeared very gracious to be surrounded by a room full of Spuds, he peppered a lot of his answers with vitriol for his collaborators and colleagues. The first question during the Q&A, and I’m paraphrasing, “Of all of the artists you have collaborated with over the years, who did you have the most fun working with?” was met with some confusion on Casale’s part. He could not think of one collaborator he enjoyed working with and thus spent a good ten minutes talking shit about Foo Fighters, Rush, and Soundgarden, all of whom he directed music videos for. Frankly, it was awesome to hear him dish dirt on such holier-than-thou rock acts (particularly his description of Neal Peart being a real dick), but it also projected an image that Casale is not the easiest artist to work with. Another question posed to him, “Devo’s sound changed following 1981’s New Traditionalists, focusing more on sampling and less on guitars and drums. What brought about the change?” Casale placed the blame squarely on Mothersbaugh, claiming everything Devo did post-1981 was lacking “funk” and “soul” and alluded to the fact that he felt the material they released in that period was of lesser-quality than their preceding albums. There was one album during that period, though, that still defined Devo and effectively bookended their most artistically successful period.
I was not even a twinkle in the eye of either of my parents when Oh No! It’s Devo was released in 1982. However, I wish I could have been somewhere between the ages of 18-34 when it was initially released to the record-buying public. It had been 2 years since the mainstream tastes of society briefly caught on with Devo through “Whip It” and had seemed to just as quickly dismiss them as another tired pop-rock gimmick in a decade that was already front-loaded with them. I would like to think I would have been one of the smart ones, who recognized the band for what they were.
Oh No! It’s Devo is one of the more polarizing albums amongst many DEVOtees. A fascinating aspect of Devo’s musical direction was that there was a subtle EVOlution to their sound, where every album progressively added more synths and samples, while the guitars slowly receded to the background. Oh No! It’s Devo is Devo’s first full-fledged synthpop record. An argument could be made that Devo is often remembered as being purely a synthpop act, however, their biggest hit is highly reliant on an iconic guitar riff and features just the slightest synth augmentation.
The DEVOtional event brought one deep cut into the spotlight, “Out of Sync,” as it was covered by several acts during the weekend’s festivities. I highlight this song because its so accessible and it lends itself to myriad of interpretations. It’s a rather simple pop song that has the type of quality that made Devo highly competitive with their contemporaries at the time. This is the sort of song I’m sure Ric Ocasek would’ve been salivating over:
Of course, it’s Devo’s trademark absurdity that helps make this an essential record. The single “Peek-A-Boo!” with its sinister laughter in the chorus, is downright creepy as fuck. It’s also the type of song that only Devo could do, in that it strikes this balance between unapologetic pop sensibility and manic humor. It pushes that proverbial envelope in ways that other acts certainly weren’t doing then and haven’t since.
The second single from Oh No! It’s Devo, “That’s Good,” also pushes that proverbial envelope, particularly with its music video. The image of a krinkle-cut French fry ramming into a doughnut’s hole, followed a quick cut to a writhing woman, was too much for censors and “That’s Good” wound up being one of the first music videos banned from MTV. Strange situation… as the censors seemingly had no problem with the S&M imagery in the insanely popular “Whip It” music video…
In a 2009 interview with the NME during South by Southwest, Jerry Casale described Oh No! It’s Devo as a response to critics calling Devo “fascists” and “clowns,” therefore, the album is their imagining of what music made by fascist clowns sounds like. While there’s certainly that element to this record, particularly in the aforementioned songs, Oh No! It’s Devo may be Devo’s most consistent and fun record. There is no denying the importance of the classic trio that make up their first albums (1978’s Q: Are We Not Men? A: We Are Devo!, 1979’s Duty Now For The Future, and 1980’s Freedom of Choice), but it would be unfair not to consider Oh No! It’s Devo as good, or even better. Devo would lose their way a little bit in the following years: 1984’s Shout had some fun moments and an inspiring cover of Jimi Hendrix’s “Are U Experienced?” but ultimately felt a little flat, while 1988’s Total Devo seemed to stray too far from the band’s strongest qualities as it dared to be kind of… bland. 1990’s Smooth Noodle Maps sounded more like an obligation than an inspired new record and, not surprisingly, signaled the end of Devo for several years. 2010’s Something For Everybody was easily the best Devo album since 1982, but it also sometimes groaned under the massive weight of nostalgia. In the end, Oh No! It's Devo functions as an unconventional entry point into Devo's body of work. Sometimes it's far more fascinating to start from the middle and work your way around and this record is the perfect way for a novice to do just that.
Perhaps there’s more to come from Devo in the next few years, apart from the occasional tour. Jerry Casale didn’t seem too optimistic about new material when the question was posed to him at DEVOtional ’14, but then again, stranger things have happened. The poetic nature of Devo performing for free in the most commercialized district in the U.S. might be enough to get them back in the studio. Or, de-evolution has become way more real than even Devo could have ever anticipated and they have nothing more to say.
 Devo’s first EP, B Stff EP, was released on Stiff Records, a British indie label famous for establishing punk and new wave acts like The Damned, Elvis Costello, and Nick Lowe (who was also the unofficial in-house producer of the label).