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The perplexing yet enduring political music of Devo

Over the years, Devo has been labeled as punk, industrial and rock, or broad brushed with the tag New Wave. But what makes the band interesting is an underlying manifesto behind the music

Devo pioneered electronic and futuristic music in the 1970s when the zeitgeist in American music was quite different. Photo: Sanjoy Narayan
Devo pioneered electronic and futuristic music in the 1970s when the zeitgeist in American music was quite different. Photo: Sanjoy Narayan

One Saturday evening in the middle of August, Devo were headlining at the Flow Festival, a large urban music and arts festival that is held annually in Helsinki. Devo, a band originally from the mid-western state of Ohio, was formed in 1973 and are currently on a sprawling worldwide farewell tour. The average age of the five current members of the band is around 65, but the three original members who founded the band and are its core are much older. Gerald Casale (lead vocals, bass guitar, bass synthesizer) is 75; Mark Mothersbaugh (lead vocals, keyboards, guitar) is 73; and his brother, Bob Mothersbaugh (guitar, vocals) is 71.

In Helsinki the summer sun was still shining high when Devo walked onto the stage and launched into their first song, Don’t Shoot (I’m A Man), which is themed on the band’s perception of life in “the post-9/11 American police state”. As the hook-laden synth line whipped up a frenzy, the crowd, almost entirely made up of Finns, and whose average age I would peg at around 25-30, began dancing wildly. I’m not sure how many amóng the bobbing heads and swinging bodies were aware of Devo’s genesis and the philosophy behind their music.

Before the first song, as is the band’s common practice, they screened a short video, a satire, showing a character named Rodney Ethan Rooter, a parody of a record company executive, who professes that he sees Devo only as a tool for marketing and cares little for their music. All of it, the videos, the songs and their lyrics, and the matching industrial hazmat suits and domed plastic hats that the band wears allude to the origins and raison d'etre of the band, something that many younger fans or those who came late to their music might not know.

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Devo’s music can leave many critics and listeners perplexed. Over the years, they have been labeled as punk, industrial and rock, or broad brushed with the tag New Wave. While it is true that their sound features a strongly synth-driven pop style with doses of harsh, mechanical industrial sounds, there is an underlying manifesto behind Devo’s music.

It all began back in May 1970 when Mark Mothersbaugh and Casale, while they were students at Ohio’s Kent State University, witnessed shootings by the National Guard to disperse a rally against the presence of US defence forces in Vietnam and Cambodia. Four unarmed students were killed and more injured. It was the pivotal moment for the formation of the band, which took its name from the philosophy of “de-evolution” espoused by Casale and Motherbaugh and which referred to how humans are devolving backwards instead of evolving. The idea—of how American society as also people elsewhere, were displaying elements of herd mentality and regressing instead of progressing—was floated initially as a joke by them but after the Kent State incident, it manifested itself in the formation of Devo.

Devo would become hugely influential as a band but not initially. Their early low-paid gigs, in small bars and venues, were often booed (once, the story goes, organisers offered them $50 to not play and go home). But soon, their brand of music, the theatrics on stage (uniformed costumes, and regimented style of playing), and their lyrics, which were often provocative and sharply satirical, caught the attention of other famous musicians of the time, such as Neil Young and David Bowie. Bowie once introduced them as the “band of the future” and Young invited them to collaborate on his 1982 film, Human Highway, which he co-directed under a pseudonym, Bernard Shakey. 

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Devo pioneered electronic and futuristic music in the 1970s when the zeitgeist in American music was quite different (psychedelic guitar rock, and back-to-the-roots Americana were in vogue). Influenced by Europe’s post-WWII Dadaism and its overt political tones, Devo challenged the idea of progress and consumerism. In later years, they influenced bands such as Nirvana, Pearl Jam, and Arcade Fire.

Yet, in their early days, many didn’t get the satire and irony that the band deployed.

In the song Whip It, which eventually became a hit, Devo mocked the false optimism and violence of American culture, using the metaphor of whipping as a solution to any problem. Its chorus: “When a problem comes along/ You must whip it/ Before the cream sets out too long/ You must whip it/ When something's going wrong/ You must whip it.” When it first came out, audiences wrongly interpreted it to be about masturbation.

At Flow, by the time Devo launched into Whip It, the crowd was a sea of bobbing Nordic heads, frenziedly dancing to the band. Their setlist that Saturday included all their best-known tracks, including Devo’s version of the Rolling Stones’ hit (I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction. The story goes that when they had first played it for Mick Jagger, he sat sullenly sipping red wine. The band thought he was angry but then Jagger sprang up and broke into his rooster-man dance, saying: “I like it; I like it!”

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That evening, Devo ended their gig by playing their Corporate Anthem, an instrumental piece that reflects Devo's vision of a society that is dehumanised and controlled by corporate interests. As the band left the stage and the crowd dispersed, I headed home with a playlist on my headphones: all nine of their studio albums.

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