Wednesday, September 28, 2011

The Devo Post, Part Two

Before I continue with my Devo retrospective, I should make a couple of notes. First of all, Devo was never merely a band, it was really a performance art group, which combined music and visuals in a deadpan, satirical critique of modern consumer culture (writing this, I had to shed a tear for a Devo/Poly Styrene collaboration that should have taken place, but never did). I also have to note that Mark Mothersbaugh's and Jerry Casale's brothers were both named Bob, and were credited as Bob 1 and Bob 2 on the third album's cover. Jim Mothersbaugh was also a member of the band's original lineup, but left the band and was replaced by drummer Alan Meyers. Can't be leaving out these members of the band... wouldn't be fair.

With that out of the way, I can move on the Devo's third album, Freedom of Choice, which featured a cover shot of the band wearing their now-iconic ziggurat-shaped headgear. The album is best known for the band's top-forty hit Whip It. Whip It was inspired by Thomas Pynchon's parodies of Horatio Alger/Dale Carnegie self-help slogans, and the lyrics are cracked versions of such "you can do it" exhortations:

When a problem comes along, you must whip it,
Before the cream sits out too long, you must whip it.
When something's going wrong you must whip it.


The song was widely misinterpreted as having a sadomasochistic or masturbatory theme, and the band played up the S&M angle in the video (embedding disabled), which received heavy airplay on an obscure cable T.V. channel.

Girl U Want was apparently inspired by The Knack's My Sharona. The video for Girl U Want (check out "General Boy's" cameo) is a send-up of 1950's and 1960's T.V. performances, complete with screaming female fans (Outkast's video for Hey Ya mines similar territory). Here's an alternate "spaghetti western" take on the song, which I had never heard until today:





The title track of the album (embedding disabled), while seemingly a straightforward number, has a pessimistic punchline (a feature also found in the at-first-glance optimistic Beautiful World). For an interesting early take on the song, here's a version I'd never heard before today (writing these posts has been a revelation!):





My personal favorite track on the album is Gates of Steel, co-written by two members of Akron band Chi-Pig, which mines some of the same territory that inspired Jocko Homo:

The beginning was the end,
Of everything now.
The ape regards his tail,
He's stuck on it.
He repeats until he fails,
Half a goon and half a god.
A man's not made of steel.


Half a goon and half a god, what a succinct description of the human condition. Here's a live version of Gates of Steel:





The whole album is terrific, but I figured I'd post the highlights, for brevity's sake.

New Traditionalists was the follow-up to Freedom of Choice- for the album cover, the band traded in its ziggurat hats for plastic pompadours, which I always took to be a sendup of corporate icons Ronald Reagan and Big Boy.

Beautiful World, at first blush, seems uncharacteristically optimistic for a Devo song, but its true meaning becomes clear at the end of the song, and the video (which prominently features our old friend Booji Boy) makes the true intent explicit:





Through Being Cool was featured on the soundtrack of the Canadian cult cartoon classic Heavy Metal in a scene in which a prematurely silver dominatrix/avenging heroine encounters some nasty mutants in a nasty mutant bar (warning: clip contains some graphic cartoon violence towards the end):





The video for Love Without Anger was directed by Church of the Subgenius founder, the Reverend Ivan Stang, and prominently features a picture of J.R. "Bob" Dobbs:





Devo did a cover of Alan Toussaint's Working in a Coal Mine, which was released as a 7" single





My favorite track on the album is Jerkin' Back and Forth, another song which could be misinterpreted as a masturbatory reference, though it's really about a relationship gone wrong (which could lead to self-gratification, I suppose):





The next album, Oh No, It's Devo, is less satirical than their previous albums, and contains such synth-pop exemplars as That's Good:





and Peek-a-Boo:





These songs, while entertaining, lack the subversive punch of earlier material- they seem to be Kraftwerk parodies, not subversive takes on American society.

Around the same time, the band recorded a theme song for the largely forgotten movie Doctor Detroit:





It just hit me- Gerald Casale was involved in video production, and the video for Doctor Detroit is a small "snapshot" of his endeavors in this field. The videos for That's Good and Peek-a-Boo employed the bluescreen technique portrayed in the Doctor Detroit video.

The follow-up album Shout was not a successful release, its most memorable track was a mutated cover of Dzimi Hendriks' experimental Are You Experienced?. The video was directed by Ivan Stang:





I have to confess that Devo fell off my map after Are You Experienced, although they released albums Total Devo (featuring songs Some Things Never Change and Disco Dancer) and Smooth Noodle Maps (featuring Post Post Modern Man and a cover of Morning Dew by Bonnie Dobson.

Smooth Noodle Maps was the last studio album by Devo before they went on a six-year hiatus. The band reformed recently and has been touring, and put out an album in 2010. The band also produced a children's cover band Dev2.0 (of course, the darker elements of Devo's music have been stripped out) in conjunction with (eep!) Disney. My one major beef with the project (besides the Disney connection) is that the band members are too conventionally cute (they should have gotten some cute mutants, cutants, to play in the band). Still, if they warp some 4 to 8 year old minds, it's a worthwhile project:





I'll just finish off my Devo retrospective with a video of a single off the 2010 album:





A video of a recent performance of classic Mr DNA:





And, finally, the first part of a 1995 interview with Gerald V. Casale:





Quite an extensive body of work for a "one hit wonder", no?

12 comments:

fish said...

It was the moment I saw Devo on SNL in 1978 that I realized how insulated I had been from the broad world of awesome music. The radio playing Led Zep and Ozzy on continuous loop would never satisfy again after that.

Big Bad Bald Bastard said...

There's always one defining moment in the development of one's musical taste- for me, it was hearing Enola Gay on the legendary WLIR while playing with the tuner on the little transistor radio I'd gotten as a present.

ifthethunderdontgetya™³²®© said...

I was in collage in 1978, which is when I was exposed via peer group to the Ramones, Sex Pistols, Classh, and Devo, and the local punk scene (as well as the Grateful Dead, at the same time).

I still clung to my Led Zeppelin, but absorbed all the new stuff.
~

Big Bad Bald Bastard said...

I still clung to my Led Zeppelin, but absorbed all the new stuff.

I think the main problem with commercial radio is that it's so balkanized- they play such a narrow range of music. I prefer a mix of stuff, so college radio is pretty much what I listen to these days.

ifthethunderdontgetya™³²®© said...

If only strike out worked in blooger, I'd have use that on 'guns and religion' followed by Led Zeppelin.

By the way, BBBB, that was a darned good Devo roundup.
~

zombie rotten mcdonald said...

That new Devo album is pretty good, actually. Updated sound, but still clearly Devo.

Also, teh Animated Geeks also did Girl U Want.

zombie rotten mcdonald said...

I also like the messed up color on the Girl U Want video. Just like 60s color tvs!

I have a double disc called Recombo DNA, a collection of outtakes, alternate takes, different versions and oddball live bits.

Laura said...

Ahhhh... that Disney/Devo video.
Oh well, I guess even Devo has bills to pay, right? :P

I now have learned TONS about Devo. THank you. :)

I remember that Cartoon "Heavy Metal". CBC played it a few times (in the late evening-of course) and I caught some of it here and there. I remember that scene in the bar and thinking to myself... "I hope that if I ever get into a bar fight, in my bare bum, someone will give me a hand. At least so I don't have to bend over and pick up my knife!!"

Thanks again for all of the info. These were awesome posts!

((Hugs))
Laura

vacuumslayer said...

I always thought the score Mark Mothersbaugh wrote for "Bottlerocket" was great.

Big Bad Bald Bastard said...

I loved writing these posts- great excuse for listening to some primo music!

Oh well, I guess even Devo has bills to pay, right

The way the music business screws over artists, that's a safe bet!

I always thought the score Mark Mothersbaugh wrote for "Bottlerocket" was great.

M.M. is the go-to guy for quirky soundtrack work.

Johnny Pez said...

It was the Doors that did it for me. One too many listens to "Break On Through", and I swore off AOR forever.

Another Kiwi said...

Student radio when I were a lad changed my music head. You gots to listen to everything.
I recently attended an 80's costume party with and energy dome on my head.
Capcha is "freak". I know I am what are you?