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.
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.
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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.
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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.
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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.