In their boiler suits and stepped hats, looking like employees of a particularly whimsical nuclear power facility, Devo have one of the most distinctive looks in pop – and some of the most distinctive songs. Nominated for induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame this year, they will be joining us to answer your questions.
Formed in Ohio in the early 1970s around two sets of brothers – Mark and Bob Mothersbaugh, and Gerald and Bob Casale – the group had been galvanised into action by the horror of the 1970 Kent State massacre of student protesters: “We were pissed off, and we wanted to take the energy that comes from that anger and channel it,” said early member Bob Lewis.
What emerged was a band whose absurdist humour and theatricality poked fun at a conformist America that was, per their name, devolving rather than improving. Playing confrontational gigs and making odd, ambitious music videos, they were a cult curiosity until the patronage of David Bowie and Iggy Pop helped them get signed to Warner Bros, with Brian Eno producing their 1978 debut album Q: Are We Not Men? A: We Are Devo! Their twitchy, tautly funky cover of the Rolling Stones’ (I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction was even more pent-up than the original, and a performance of it on Saturday Night Live sent them nationwide.
Songs such as Jocko Homo and their cover of Johnny Rivers’ Secret Agent Man further grew their popularity, but they truly went overground – without sacrificing any of their surreality – with 1980 single Whip It, a blend of synth-pop and surf-rock which reached the US Top 20. It was the Devo project in glorious miniature: satirising America’s violence, emotional repression and brutal cult of productivity via joyous pop music.
The accompanying album Freedom of Choice went platinum and the follow-up New Traditionalists – for which the band all adopted JFK’s hairdo – was a hit. They also appeared in Neil Young’s film oddity Human Highway, though some flop albums and waning popularity later in the decade led them to split in 1991.
Frontman Mark Mothersbaugh’s sparky sense of humour helped him segue into music for children’s shows such as Rugrats, then film scores for Wes Anderson (Bottle Rocket, Rushmore, The Royal Tenenbaums, and The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou), and even dipped into the Marvel universe with his score for Thor: Ragnarok (featuring such orchestral works as Devil’s Anus).
Devo re-formed for concerts in 1996 and have frequently toured in the years since, and released one further album, 2010’s Something for Everybody. In May, the band are hoping it’s third time lucky after two previous nominations for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
Mark Mothersbaugh and founding bassist Gerald Casale – who have strongly condemned Putin’s actions in Ukraine and are donating next month’s Devo royalties to humanitarian charities working in the country – are joining us to answer your questions about their madcap career. Post them in the comments below, and we’ll publish their answers in the 15 April edition of our Film & Music section, plus online.