Perfect Sound Forever

DEVO


Their De-evolution during the 1980's
by Spenser Thompson


Production companies filmed a bunch of TV shows in the L.A. neighborhood I grew up in. Agnes Avenue was lined with trees on both sides. Chris Elliot rides his bike through it in the opening of Get a Life, throwing a newspaper towards a colonial-style house – its lawn kept purposely empty for the next shoot. Although more modest, and not used for TV backgrounds, my home had a white picket fence. The neighborhood sits in the aptly named Studio City, where a cluster of CBS sound stages line Radford Avenue. Everything from Get Smart to Gilligan's Island to A Different World was filmed there.


We once saw Mary Tyler Moore in a Mercedes two-door up on Radford. Her license plate read "MTM ME" or something like it. At the end of Radford was Du-Pars restaurant: a valley institution which opened in 1947 and was featured in Valley Girl. It was a pancakes and waffle house with pies-in-the-sky, drab booths, and older waitresses with doily hats that called you ‘hon.'m There were star sightings there: my mom saw Peter Faulk at the counter, dining alone. My father, a musician who wrote four Space Age Pop records from about 1958-1960, ran into the director of the San Francisco Symphony, Michael Tilson Thomas.


The story of Devo's de-evolution is an L.A. story Pic: Soundstage in my neighborhood.

If I had a free period in high school, I would drive home and watch Devo's The Men Who Make the Music. The VHS started with parts of a mid-1970's video, introduced by the subtitle "The Beginning Was the End," and shows Devo emerging from a real beater of an American car in industrial Akron, Ohio. A dissonant, blinding Moog sequence starts repeating with a drunk, electronic beat behind it. Booji Boy, singer Mark Mothersbaugh in a baby mask, comes out last clutching a synth. Entering steel doors they arrive in a basement, and present the "first" MTV video six years early: weird cut-aways to someone dancing in a JFK mask and monkeys paddling people someone in the ass -- accompanied by guitarist Bob I's warbling through a mutated "Secret Agent Man." Later on the video compilation, "the boys" play "Wiggly World" live, backed by drummer Alan Myer's inventive and rockin' patterns.

In my reverie, I think Devo wraps up the best of 20th-century modernism – the Duchamp-to-Warhol vector -- that spits out the absurd chess-game of the former and the detached glamor of the latter. Devo wasn't exactly Kraftwerk or punk, nerd-dom or cool, LA or New York, entertainment or hi-art. Devo was somewhere in the cracks and fittingly came from the middle of the country.


Film: The Beginning Was the End: The Truth about De-Evolution

As Mikael, who introduced me to their music, put it in a I-don't-want-to-think about it anymore tone: "I am not sure if Devo are artists pretending to be nerds or nerds pretending to be artists." They Might Be Giants they were not. Sonic Youth they were not. Devo was an enigma that could not be "figured out" but also demanded to be decoded. Consciously borrowing from Timothy Leary's devilish strategies were telling me to say and do certain things. Be Like Your Ancestors or Be Different, It Don't Matter. Wear Gaudy Colors or Avoid Display. We Must Repeat.

And the Beginning was the end.

The Men Who Make the Music ends with credits with a Muzak version of "Whip It," created by Mark Mothersbaugh, playing in the background. Later released on Music for Insomniacs, which I bought on cassette via the fan club, was a sleepy, winking versions of Devo. What better way to comment – predict? – Devo's move from Left Bank Avant-garde-ness to the Elevator or waiting room. Jerry predicted the bands de-evolution with glee in 1978 interview at Georgetown University and many times after. Music for Insomniacs was a successful move into post-postmodern territory, but too soon for me.

How could tru-Devo come after that?


Siesta Mode (1984-1987)

Somewhat parallel to the years between Shout and Total Devo (1984-1988), the "alternative" music category, then called college rock – and epitomized by the sleepy R.E.M. – had oozed forth. Stipe's music was an alternative to Springsteen but ... conservative. In 1986, there had been not a peep from Devo since Shout. In teenage time, with no internet, and only Devo-free KROQ, that's a long time. One spring morning, I was at home at 8 a.m. when my phone rang. It was Mikael calling from a payphone.' I just met Mark Mothersbaugh in Du-pars and he's here now!! He gave me the Devo salute!!' Wow. I found a postcard from the Devo fan club, a picture of the band at something described as the "Dapper Tubers Party," and drove over. I found the 36-year-old Mark at a two-seat table and gushed that I had been a fan since I was twelve years old.

"You are making me feel old."

He was being totally nice! Mark wrote on my postcard: "Don't forget us. Devo Phase two in 1987."

Devo was going to wake up from Siesta Mode – as Mark later called it in an interview – and we were in on the secret! Art History class was starting at 9, so I drove 2 miles up Ventura to my tawny private school --Harvard High. Risking appearing like a nerd (and actually talking at school), I told the one "musician guy" in our class, who by drumming on his knee through ripped jeans, what happened. He was kind but indifferent, telling me that ran into Vince Neil at the newsstand in Tarzana.

I guess LA serves up the stars we need to see.


Du-Pars in Studio City

I hated Harvard-Westlake, which at that point was just Harvard: an all-boys school (collared shirts mandatory!) that had not yet merged with its Radcliffe (Westlake). Many were the sons of CEOS and Hollywood luminaries (the Zanuchs), and one was the son of the supermarket chain down the street. Others became members of the Billionaires Boys Club and one is LA's mayor. My dad's scoring of 1000 commercials up until about 1980 bought me my ticket. Now unemployed, he played a lot of melancholy Gershwin, Kern, and Rogers & Hart tunes on the piano and, rarely, Sondheim ("Send in the Clowns") whose sentimentality I hated.


Jerry Casale at far left and Mark in one of his impossibly cool get-ups.

A champion of R.E.M. at Harvard High had 10 limos at birthday party, a coke nail, and out-of-nowhere turn as class president. Nerds were down with Oingo Boingo, and Grateful Dead began its renaissance. The popular jock boys like Red Hot Chili Peppers and the cool boys at Harvard High listened to Bauhaus. Harvard had one real music arbiter, an actual nice kid in a peacoat who was into Cocteau Twins. He didn't like Devo.

Other than the drummer at Harvard and its music arbiter, I instinctively hid under a rock about my Devotion at Harvard. The word "f**" was thrown around dozens of times a day for the most minor cultural infractions. Being a wizard on the fencing team, I was in the "gay wad" camp. Jerry Casale, the other half of Devo's creative core, quipped that being a Devo fan could get you beat up was not true among my peers. They were protecting their Ivy and UC dreams (fencing got me into an Ivy).

At the cooler private school in the valley, Oakwood, Mikael went up against Elvis Costello obsessives. He showed me a photograph of a drunk Devo-hating classmate with an Energy Dome surreptitiously placed on his head. It wasn't a Devo fan punching out a Dead Boys fan in Akron (It happened!), but the private-school parallel. Another Elvis booster at Oakwood – Adam Goldberg – came to intellectual blows with Mikael at times. Adam dreamed of walking up to Elvis and saying: "Thank you for making my adolescence a little more bearable." When Adam cast Elvis in his dream-project movie, he must have said as much.

Moon Unit Zappa was at Oakwood contemporaneously, and used her peers as fodder for her dad's Valley Girl song. The other Zappa kids were there, one rumored to having boiled the family cat.


Gestation Period (1972-1978) (The Beginning that was the End)

Famous rock figures have a familiar arc: death of drummers (Bonham, Moon), battles with record companies for creative freedom (Prince), drug problems (all), a big hit, and finally, and most deadly, inter-band lawsuits (Smiths, Dead Kennedys, Oasis, and so on). Being devolved and backwards, Devo did these things in reverse! More or less. Drummer Alan passed decades after he left the band, and, second hand, I heard there was a lawsuit about who owned the Devo idea soon after the gestation period ended. The beginning was the end: so I present a backwards timeline.

The Beginning Was the End: Devo Timeline, In Reverse

Resurrection and Redemption (1998-)
Artistic Prison (1990-1998)
Devo's Devolution (1988-1990)
Siesta Mode (1984-1987)
Dropping the Bomb in LA (1978-1984)
Gestation Period in Akron (1972-1978)

The definitive Devo book was penned by Jade Dellinger, an art curator. In an email exchange, he told me that Jerry said his book should begin or end with the SNL appearance when Devo birthed their mutant baby out of its gestation. Their devolved version of the Rolling Stones' "Satisfaction" ended punk in the same way Hendrix's Stars and Stripes Forever, for me, ended rock in the 1960's.


Siesta Mode (1984-1988)

Mikael brought home a pair of girls from the Hollywood bowl named Mora and Marissa, still in their work T-Shirts. Mora pointed to the Shout! poster and declared "Mark Witherspoon"! Fantastic. In that moment Siesta Mode began. Mark Witherspoon was a boxer.

By 1986, versus 1976, isolation caused by Devotion showed that you were not as cool as other kids--or were secretly much cooler! What would time tell? Yet, there were strange, jerky visions of the Devo dream during the Siesta -- and before the Du-pars run-in. It was LA. A girl I dated -- a former child star who had been nominated for a major industry award but anguished that she failed to become a "starlet" -- saw him "all the time" near Sweetser and Sunset. Bob I was spotted by Mikael's brother at guitar center on Sunset playing "Blockhead." Mark, we heard second-hand, was seen shopping "all the time" at Fred Segal on Sunset and Santa Monica.


Was that where he was getting the ultra-cool getups he was wearing in the LA Weekly? Mark's name was often bolded in its La De Da section, an "underground" version of the society page. At art openings and other exclusive events, he was pictured with a beautiful woman called Nancey Ferguson who had a jet-black pageboy haircut. She or they were connected to children in a band called Visiting himself. During the Siesta, Mark was creating visual art and had a New York show, featuring glow in the dark paintings, at the Psychedelic Solution.


Via Mutato Visual

Another Siesta apparition: a mysterious deck of playing cards with Mark on each one was discovered by Mikael Tower on Sunset. My Struggle, was there on the counter, an "autobiography" of Mark. I couldn't make head nor tail of it (and I fancied myself pretty smart). Written during the Gestation Period, it was not nu-Devo music anyway. Aside from the deep Devo sleep, my true discomfort was that I had missed ever seeing Devo play live. I was not there when Devo played the Santa Monica Civic in 1980 – which seats 3,000 – in 1980. A 12-year-old Mikael saw them (with his mom).


Dropping the Bomb in LA (1978-1984)

Dorothy, I don't think we're in Akron anymore.

The end of the Gestation Period was accompanied by a move to Los Angeles. LA's KROQ interviewed Devo and they played in Hollywood (see The Men Who Make the Music). The station became influential nationally, having the power to break bands before MTV and chain radio companies. The soul of the station, DJ Rodney Bingenheimer, despite his velvet rope, psychedelic rock roots, called Devo "godhead." There was even a cover album called Devotees organized in part by a KROQ jock, Jed the Fish.

Devo's first two records on Warner Brothers are the mutant potatoes grown in Akron. Q: Are We Not Men, A: We Are Devo has the cover of "Satisfaction," "Mongoloid" and the eponymous song that drives home de-evolution. The follow-up, Duty Now for the Future has "Smart Patrol/Mr. DNA" on it, which I call Devo's Magnum Opus because it is a long two-parter that brings together the weirdness, ability to rock, Mark's keyboard madness, and the Idea of Devo together. The live version makes a bigger impact with yellow suits ripped off half way through, revealing black shorts and shirts with DEVO in white lettering.


The thrill of victory: "Too Much Paranoias" in 1977.

For me, Devo's devolution didn't abruptly start when Freedom of Choice (with "Whip It"), the third Warner's LP, was released in 1980. I'll count myself among the artistic wing of Devotees, but I still don't see the de-evolution really take off at that time. I asked Jade Dellinger, who wrote a penetrating and well-researched book about Devo, about the Freedom of Choice divide. The album's concept, called Golden Energy, was there in the Gestation Period, but no songs were written. Was Freedom of Choice about wanting to be rock stars or a kind of cynical artistic suicide? Dellinger says:

I think "Whip It' and "Girl U Want" were conscious efforts toward broader acceptance and radio play, but, as with everything DEVO, nothing was to be taken at face-value. Given the political climate in the United States during FoC's release, an album concept, costumes and imagery that referenced Reichian orgone accumulators (the "energy dome") and the writing of Frankfurt-born psychoanalyst Erich Fromm ("Escape from Freedom") could not have been more timely or appropriate.
Yes, it was 1980! Devo reacted to the shootings at their Kent State alma mater and bloated ‘70's rock but had shinier foils of Regan and Springsteen's "Born in the USA." Of all things, the Rolling Stones were still alive and coming back strong. Devo had new foils. The nerds at Harvard were solving Rubix cubes in less than a minute and the aesthetic just fit.

The tongue-twisting-titled New Traditionalists (1981), starts with Jerry's gleeful voice: "RACE... OF.... DOOM....!" followed by pesticide-like spray of synth. Quite a way to start the follow-up to a gold record! The next song is the bouncy triplet-bop of "Through Being Cool." The two songs are whiplash and a milestone in de-evolution. In a moment of physical de-evolution, according to Dellinger's book, the tape it was recorded on began to deteriorate and Warner's wouldn't pay for a re-recording. "Nutra" sounds a bit muffled, an analog recording in Devo's increasingly digital world.

Oh No, It's Devo! (1982) had zero push from Warner's, and I happened to find it by accident in a record store near Santa Barbara. At times it sounds like "Mark's album," in its odd symmetricity and introversion. The wonderfully bizarre Speed Racer voiced by a series of trippy cartoon characters sounds new, accompanied "hits" only Devo could make like Explosions and Peek-a-boo. Ahead of their times again, their interactions with live video on stage often would get "Out of Sync" (actually an Oh No It's Devo song title) with the music.


Devo's De-Evolution (1984-1990)

If we hurt the ones we love, here we go.

It was probably in a dentist office that I found a one- or two- sentence notice in the innocuous People magazine that Devo was working on the "Somewhere Suite" building on the Sondheim tune of the same name. That did not sound good, at all.

Shout! came out the next year (1984) and thankfully, no showtunes. ‘Benedict' said the album's opening blare of synthetic trumpet as the clarion call. But to what, anymore? The record showed signs of age as much as de-evolution: band member's kids on the cover, a Hendrix Cover, and a guitar-quotation of "Day Tripper." Mikael said "the technology caught up with Devo" on Shout, with its sampling.

Devo ain't stupid. The prediction of the band's devolution would come true. Devo's first album has a song called "Shrivel Up." Age is finding out everything applies to you including death and de-evolution.

When Devo awoke exactly 20 years after the Georgetown interview, they assembled a group of "digital cartoons" entitled Total Devo (1988). Had the band devolved or gotten bad? Or "bad bad." Or "bad bad bad"...? Devo's attempted comeback in 1988 with Total Devo may not be the worst comeback in rock – Guns and Roses and Led Zeppelin often make these lists -- but most... AWKWARD....

"Devo just might change your life," said the radio ad on KROQ in LA. They hired the most straight-ahead pitchman voice-over artist they could. Fellow spuds and I bombarded the phone-request line to the point where the DJ said on-air: "We know it's the same people." Mark showed up at KROQ for an interview with Jed the Fish, who was my favorite DJ because he would comment on the actual musical content of songs. In the interview, Jerry promised that Devo again could "get the brains and the hips going at the same time." OK. Good. At one point Jerry says, "We're normal now."

What?!

Devo was deviating from the precious image of a fanbase fanatic, yes; but de-evolution, the not-so-hot-kind was happening.

Devo's trick was to start with a concept and somehow deliver quality, meaningful entertainment out of it. Total Devo's concept, I think, was to have songs emulate the various stages of the band's progress. The picture on the cover showed the various members – and a new guy -- in the various get-ups from each record--JFK plastic hair, the toilet-bowl-esque Spudring and so on. Releasing it on every format (DAT too!) was part of the concept that did not materialize.

"Happy Guy" reminds me of Freedom of Choice, but the big statement song of the record "Some Things Never Change" was a statement song sounding like it had been intended to win over alternative radio by sounding like Depeche Mode (whose "Route 66" cover was #1 song of 1988 on LA's KROQ). "Disco Dancer" is Devo's disembodied moment – that has a hip-hop DJ fill in the middle of it. What? NWA was to hit the cover of the LA Weekly the following year. The video depicts Mark carrying a disco ball around with determination, but to what end? Appearing on MTV's pump or dump, the audience vote was a dump. Jerry was livid and blamed a lack of "set up" as the problem.

Total Devo's best moments come from a confessional Mark, who talks about giving in to "spinning the wheel" of fate, cashing in his chips and "letting the games begin." Drugs? Looking back in "Agitated," Mark tells us that he was "chosen in a random way to be a singing dancing fool." A peculiar thing to happen to a particularly brilliant introvert.

See part 2 of the article


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