When I was a kid, Devo’s Greatest Hits was my favorite CD. Both my parents had a copy and I can remember always asking them to play it while I bounced around the living room. It was bright and catchy and funny – I thought it was kid’s music then. Two thoughts I can clearly remember – one, hearing the original “Satisfaction” on the radio and telling my Mom “they copied Devo!”, and two, confusion upon hearing that “Whip It” was the hit that everyone knew – I could never figure out why it was that song instead of another. I remember poring through the CD booklet, looking at the funny-sounding titles of albums that I would probably never hear – titles like “Duty Now for the Future”, “Oh, No! It’s Devo!”, and “Q: Are We Not Men? A: We Are Devo!”. I remember that there was only one song from an album called Shout! and wondered if it was some kind of hidden masterpiece. I didn’t think I’d ever find out – to me Devo were something from the past, a band my parents knew, that you may see on VH1’s “classic video hour” or in Spin magazine for some reason.
Fast forward about a decade; I just started going to college in Green Bay. I had gotten into Devo in a big way; after a record store clerk convinced me to buy Q: Are We Not Men? (maybe the best recommendation I ever got from one), I was totally obsessed. I remember hearing my roommate sing to himself, “Is it on? Is it off? Re-ply!” – I got him hooked too. I bought the DVD and loved it – who knew they were so dark? So how astonishing was it a couple years later I would find out that they were going to be playing right here in Green Bay?
This was long before there was any inkling that they’d be recording new material. They looked like the aging rockers we all knew they were; Mark sported a head of wiry gray hair and both the Casales looked rather paunchy (Bob1 on the other hand didn’t look like he aged at all). I really did not know what to expect, but to put it mildly they killed it. I was not really keen on Devo’s original replacement for Alan Myers but here we had Josh Freese who did really well. As I recall every song besides “That’s Good” was from their first four albums, and if you know Devo’s history you know that this is good thing. You think of Devo as a synth-heavy band but here you had a bass player, a drummer, and two guitarists to go with just one synthesizer. Maybe in a studio context they sound mechanical, but here they really rocked, and with energy to spare. I remember running around the couch at the age of 10 to the sounds of “Gates of Steel” and “Gut Feeling” – no way I’d have believed you if you’d had told me I’d get to actually see them play a decade later.
Devo is a band that’s endured. They’re remembered as being an 80’s band even though most of their best work came in the 70’s; 1981’s New Traditionalists is probably the last album of theirs that I thought was really good. It turns out that Shout! wasn’t a hidden gem at all – there are some decent tunes on it, but now it just sounds like a band that really wanted to get out of its contract. The next two Devo albums were Total Devo and Smooth Noodle Maps – those were actually worse, and are so obscure that even the fans didn’t know they existed. They were so terminally uncool at that point that even the two volumes of Hardcore Devo went ignored, even though they contained some of the most creative and incredible music that band ever put out. As they put it on the live album Now It Can Be Told, “It takes COURAGE to be a Devo fan these days! There’s people out there that just don’t think Devo is COOL anymore!” And yet people kept discovering them; maybe their big hit “Whip It” is synonymous with VH1 junk like I Love the 80’s, but the fans still remembered how good they used to be. Ten years after their last recording, their music was still in commercials (stripped of all the irony), they were getting covered regularly, and Mark Mothersbaugh’s name was everywhere. When I bought Q: Are We Not Men? it seemed like Devo was actually cool again. The show I went to was packed. When they announced a new album in 2010, it was big news. Not bad for a one-hit wonder.
There’s a lot to say about Devo’s subversiveness – they had wrote catchy songs and wore wacky costumes, but they had a real message, and famously were not afraid to piss people off. They were not a novelty band, but clearly reveled in being treated like one. You could dislike them, but you couldn’t forget about them. From a musical point of view they were astounding – they made the complicated look simple, and despite the dozens of covers out there nobody could play quite like them. Their influence is all over the place today; not just with synthpop revivalists, but also among progressive bands like Cardiacs and Chrome Hoof. Hell you still hear people talk about how mindblowing it was to see these guys do “Satisfaction” on SNL back in 1978. Losing two members of the band in an eight month span has been rough; both were reminders that they were truly a one-of-a-kind act. Rest in peace, Bob. We’ll miss you.