By Jim Schutze
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By Lauren Drewes Daniels
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If our culture survives long enough for Devo to get its due, the HBO biopic will open with a hectic re-creation of the May 4, 1970, Kent State University shootings, in which the Ohio National Guard killed four anti-war protesters. Then: Cut to an artists' loft, where a couple of Kent State students are whipping up the kind of savvy spectacle then unknown to pop culture (but for a Peter Sellers movie or two) while their hippie friends look on and shake their heads in pity.
At this point, the typical year-2020 viewer will be asking himself--or rather the Wikipedia-brand implant in his shoulder--Did people really dance and sing like robots in chemical protection suits with flower pots on their heads as a response to the Kent State shootings?
Devo did. And in so doing, leaders Jerry Casale and Mark Mothersbaugh prefigured post-punk half a decade before the likes of Gang of Four ever thought to mock industrial society with a dance beat. A quarter-century and a Swiffer commercial later, Devo has come out of its fitful semi-retirement to play Dallas for the first time since 1990.
According to Casale, it was the Kent State victims, two of whom he knew personally, that vaulted him and Mothersbaugh into the grim future and prompted the two friends to start a band, along with original lead guitarist Bob Lewis. "Until then, I was of my time and more influenced by the prevailing hippie spirit," says Casale from his home in Santa Monica, California. "That just snapped me. It was no more Mr. Nice Guy after that."
But Devo didn't play protest music, exactly. "It was distilled and abstracted from a direct political response, because that will get you nowhere," explains Casale, who may have been derailed from his professorial track by the shootings but can still lecture. "You can see that today, the ineffectiveness of protests and how the 24/7 news cycles can just completely control the masses' perception of who's protesting: Dismiss it, bracket it, label it, get rid of its power."
In contrast to Neil Young's sanctimonious "Ohio," Devo portrayed brutality with music that evoked machines and stupidity with lyrics that were, well, stupid. And this was all under the banner of de-evolution, a theory they borrowed from fringe anthropology but developed into a simple philosophy: Things get worse. "Monkey men all in business suit, teachers and critics all dance the poot," Mothersbaugh sang in "Jocko Homo." Casale went a few flights lower on the food chain in "I'm a Potato": "De-evolution, self-execution, I'm a potato and I'm soooo hip."
Devolutionists though they may have been, Casale and Mothersbaugh were also further ahead of their time than is often acknowledged. Take for example "Mechanical Man" or "Jocko Homo"; both were conceived before punk (as we're taught to know it) existed but made implicit connections between body and machine, guitar and synthesizer, much like the English post-punk bands that would later toss punk's rage into the irony bin.
Why it is that Devo preceded Wire and Gang of Four, but is taken less seriously than those bands, is not the greatest mystery of pop cultural history. The short answer is that despite being dedicated enough to its craft to attract studio maestro Brian Eno to produce its '78 debut, Devo was really, really silly, as the world would discover with 1980's massive radio hit "Whip It." That song's concept may have been the modern obsession with control, but the execution was proudly goofy and mind-devouringly infectious.
"We kind of made a decision to embrace the infantile that's in everybody," says Casale. "Whenever people said, 'God, that's so stupid, I can't believe you're gonna do that in front of people,' that would only encourage us. You think it's stupid? Well, you're gonna get more of it, then."
The other explanation for the seeming credibility gap between Devo and its less colorful English counterparts is that Devo was vigorously commercial. The band both embraced and satirized consumer culture, running its own line of merch (including prosthetic pompadours) and making the brashest videos of MTV's formative years. And by 1982's Oh, No! It's Devo, Mothersbaugh's synth experimentation had attained a sleekness that fit right in next to conceptual lightweights such as the Human League.
Always near the dividing line between art and commerce, the two would eventually drift to the other side: Mothersbaugh, who mainly scores films these days, has contributed theme songs to kids' shows such as Rugrats, while Casale has directed music videos for bands such as Foo Fighters and A Perfect Circle, along with tons of commercials.
This intimacy with commerce has afforded Devo the opportunity to "sell out" its legacy with an unusual degree of collusion. When Disney approached the band about retooling its music for kids, for example, Casale assumed the reins and produced the audio and video content of Dev2.0, a giddy Devo tribute band made up of tweeners, for an audience of 4-to-8-year-olds. Much harder to miss, though, is the Swiffer commercial, featuring a woman jerking around the living room to the slightly altered tones of "Whip It." Devo re-recorded the song but had nothing else to do with the ad, which Casale critiques like a director, rather than an artist who's just seen his band's most famous song co-opted in the name of state-of-the-art housecleaning: "It's just aesthetically offensive," he says. "It's got everything a commercial that turns people off has."