DEVO: The Concept Career that Proved De-Evolution is Real

Devo's Mark Mothersbaugh on stage at The Moore Theater - photo by Bridget Christian

Devo’s Mark Mothersbaugh on stage at The Moore Theater – photo by Bridget Christian

Making a concept album is hard. Can you imagine making a concept career, though? One where every choice over years or even decades has to be in-line with one original idea? The Residents almost pulled it off before taking their masks off a few years ago. I think DEVO are the only ones to truly do it.

To be sure, everything I’m about to write will look like the biggest back-handed compliment ever. All I can say to that is that DEVO have thrown plenty of shade in their time, including making some of the same points about themselves in hindsight that I’ll make here.

The Concept:

DEVO is short for “De-evolution”, the concept that humans are actually Devolving instead of evolving i.e. we’re getting worse, not better. It wasn’t the band’s original idea-they adopted it as their own ethos from a 1924 religious pamphlet called Jocko-Homo Heavenbound by Rev. BH Shadduck (you’ll recognize “Jocko Homo” as a song off the first DEVO album). Shadduck published his anti-evolution screed as a reponse to Darwin’s Theory of Evolution. When DEVO founders Mark Mothersbaugh and Gerald Casale met at Kent State in the early 70s, Casale was already talking about ‘de-evolution’, but Mothersbaugh had an actual copy of Shadduck’s book.

And so DEVO was born: a bunch of super smart dudes trying hard to prove how stupid everything and everyone was, and doing it in the snidest, most sarcastic and cynical ways possible. DEVO’s early films and videos all made use of Shadduck’s text and imagery. Of course, Shadduck’s argument was based on religious rage, while the band’s argument was a tongue-in-cheek acknowledgement that texts like Shadduck’s were in fact easy proof of our backsliding. Years later in interviews, Casale would cite incidents like the O.J. Simpson trial and the 1970 shooting at their alma matter, Kent State, as more proof that humans don’t quite get it, or actually get it less and less as time goes on. (The Kent State shooting was a defining incident in the formation of the band).

So How Does it Apply to the Band?

DEVO’s career arc matches up nicely with homo sapiens’ via the devolution theory. In the beginning was the end: chaos, stumbling, grumbling, archaic knowledge and execution. The first DEVO shows were more art performance than music performance. The songs were half-formed or not even formed- mere ragged jams. The band wears monkey masks. Nobody takes them seriously, except in their ability to discomfort and disrupt, which is the whole point.

Then come the first two albums: Are We Not Men? and Duty Now For The Future. Sure, this band is still a little raw and their punk roots are still showing, but they are learning fast, and quickly becoming models of technical execution. ‘Look what humans in bands can do!’ They created fire live- blowing away people in Max’s Kansas City on an early New York trip. Bowie and Eno are talking about producing them (Eno actually does). Everyone wants a piece of the shit-hot DEVO because they are doing things that no other band is doing, no other HUMANS are doing. They are literally breaking the mold.

Freedom of Choice- here’s the so-called peak of the band’s brilliance, the epoch in human history when we are all felating ourselves over how clever we are. Freedom of Choice is a concept album in its own way- Gerry Casale barely plays real bass on it- it’s all syncopated synths (though still played by real humans), and this is where Alan Myers earns his nickname as ‘The Human Metronome’. DEVO has achieved Machine Perfection- there’s not a note out of place or a rhythm that hiccups even the slightest. The band has achieved The Singularity! But in the beginning really was the end…

…Because it’s all downhill for DEVO from here- the spark that made us crawl out of the primordial ooze and create fire- that shit is gone, and replaced by rote repetition that shows us how little we evolve when we no longer have to. An album is called “Oh No, It’s DEVO!”. Songs are given names like “Stuck in a Loop”. At least one member of the band has grown pony-tail. Freedom of Choice’s refreshing technical perfection is driven into the ground mercilessly. The band is now as unique and inspiring as a Slurpee machine at a 7-11. Not long after, Mark Mothersbaugh will be making ads for Burger King that have subliminal messages in them. Are you really going to tell me that this band didn’t know it was getting worse, didn’t know that they themselves were devolving?

And where does their subsequent reunion and new material fit into the continuum? Where it should: DEVO are now all middle-aged and bloated, a few of them have sadly even passed on, and they exist as a novelty act that both questions pop culture (the song ‘Don’t Tase Me, Bro’ comes to mind) and subsists on it (the Target commercial they did a few years back comes to mind). Is this all mean to say? Probably, but refer to original conceit: that DEVO made the argument that we get worse over time, and that they were pretty big assholes in their time and this is only their own cynicism used against them.

No, they can’t admit it full-on, because no one wants to admit they have sucked or ever will suck. And my point is not to invalidate anything DEVO has done, but the opposite: the bad validates the good in this theory of Devolution. DEVO’s career is perfect (and mostly brilliant, in case it seems like I’m being too harsh).The proof is in the evolutionary pudding- the ethos the band built their career on would actually be fully formed and complete if they just said it outright: “We started off new, exciting, and smart, but eventually-by nature or by CHOICE-we backslid into complacency and dumbed-down ideas. Why? Because we’re all DEVO, fuckwit. What did you expect?”

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