Devo: five great moments

Bob Casale, the guitarist of the American new wave pioneers, has died. In tribute, a longtime fan picks five key moments from his career

Bob Casale: a life in pictures

Like many groups who came to prominence in 1977 and 78, Devo had been around in various forms for several years. Beginning in the comparative isolation of Ohio – where, as a student, co-founder Gerald Casale had witnessed the 1970 Kent State shootings – Devo were fully formed, with several recordings and a whole aesthetic ready to go, by the time they played New York in the summer of 1977.

On the strength of those shows – and with the endorsement of Iggy Pop and David Bowie – Devo signed a contract with Warner Music (Virgin in the UK) and began to create a rapid and successful sequence of recordings that culminated with Whip It, which reached No 14 in the US in spring 1980. Admirably suited to the MTV age, Devo were – for many young Americans – the first new wave band of any consequence. But their super-stylised image of black humour, dazzling visuals and catchy synth-pop hooks caught the attention of weirdos and outcasts everywhere.

Jocko Homo

As an intro to their early shows, Devo would play a 10-minute video titled In the Beginning Was the End: The Truth About De-Evolution, which let audiences know what they were in for. Made in 1976 and directed by Chuck Statler, it placed the band – wearing face masks and uniform boiler suits – in various post-industrial locations, set to harsh analogue synthesiser tones. Deliberately robotic, kitsch, wickedly funny: no one had seen anything like it before.

There were two performances, both interspersed with surreal, devolved scenarios: a killer version of Johnny Rivers’ 1966 hit Secret Agent Man, and this, an early version of their first single and mission statement, Jocko Homo. You can get a flavour of the film from the Booji Boy segment at the opening, while the writhing human maggots give a foretaste of the audience rapture to come.

Reading on mobile? Click here to view Jocko Homo video

Gut Feeling/ Slap Your Mammy live in NYC, 1977

Videotaped at Max’s Kansas City nightclub in summer, this version of Gut Feeling – with its extended intro – gives a good idea of Devo’s psychedelic delirium, best heard on the much-bootlegged live show from San Francisco’s Mabuhay Gardens taped later that summer. Devo had punk energy, but they were not afraid to experiment: a tough rhythm section enabled the synth and lead guitar to spiral off – not a general punk trait.

Despite the VHS frazzle, you get the essential strangeness: the uniforms and robotic stances work against the wildness of the music, just as the underlying emotion cuts through the group’s avowed distance and satire. The audience just stand there. A few people start to twitch during the more uptempo Slap Your Mammy, but that would change.

Reading on mobile? Click here to view Gut Feeling/Slap Your Mammy video

The Day My Baby Gave Me a Surprise

The first single from 1979’s Duty Now for the Future album featured new uniforms, melodic synth textures and a song that mixes a super-catchy pop chorus with unsettling subject matter. Two years into their ascent, Devo become a super-confident, well-drilled machine bringing the future to an qualifiedly enthusiastic German TV audience. Wonderful record; not a hit.

Reading on mobile? Click here to view The Day My Baby Gave Me a Surprise video

Whip It

In the infamous promo for the group’s best known song, from 1980, everything comes together: the band uniforms – those ziggurat hats! – kitsch visuals that teeter on the edge of bad taste (something that never worried Devo), and a relentless synth-pop dancer. I love how the band plays against the repetition to work up an incredible tension: this one still cuts it on the dancefloor.

Hey Hey My My (Into the Black), with Neil Young

Almost 10 minutes of Devo and Neil Young, in Trans mode, with a sleeveless Never Mind the Bollocks T-shirt, jamming on the Rust Never Sleeps classic (taken from Young’s 1982 film Human Highway). Mark Mothersbaugh sings in his Booji Boy mask from within a cot and adds weird synth noises, while the rest of the group rock out. Bob Casale carries the riff, as Neil plays against the synth, building up a mountain of noise before he manically starts assaulting Booji Boy’s instrument. Everyone has a good time. You wish they’d done more together.


Jon Savage

The GuardianTramp

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