Tag Archives: Devo

Devo – Shout (1984)

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The nifty thing about Devo’s discography is that it follows this fairly straight downward trajectory, consistent with the band’s overarching message of de-evolution.  In an earlier post, I singled out New Traditionalists as the turning point, the moment where the band started losing touch with the elements that made them stand out, perhaps at the behest of Warner Brothers, who were suddenly seeing dollar signs reflecting off those goofy red hats.  But it wasn’t until Shout that the band made an album that just sucked, one that even the diehards had trouble defending.  It is the very definition of a disaster album – it drew awful reviews, it sold poorly, all of the singles flopped, and it got Devo dropped from Warner before they could even tour.  It even wound up convincing drummer extraordinaire Alan Myers to finally quit the band.  To this day Gerald Casale shivers when you mention it, recently remarking that the recording sessions were “too painful to talk about”.
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New Traditionalists, Part 1

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“We’re through being cool”.  What an odd way for Devo to begin their fourth album.  Devo were always about as far away from cool as you could get.  Over the last four years, they’d been through their jumpsuit phase, their squareglasses phase, their reverse flowerpot phase, and now the rubber hair phase.  After this, they’d travel around in potato sacks and put clowns in their videos.  These guys were not exactly trendsetters.

In my R.I.P. note to Bob2, I noted that New Traditionalists was their last album that I thought was really good.  Sort of ironic (but not really) that Devo themselves would wind up devolving.  Their debut Q: Are We Not Men?  A: We Are Devo? is one of my favorite albums ever; it’s been in my personal top ten for a decade now.  The following two albums were also great, particularly Freedom of Choice, which is just a big ol’ pile of hooky synth riffs set against tricky rhythms and boinky guitar figures.  On New Traditionalists, all the elements that would sink the band start to come into place – sequenced bass riffs, an overreliance on synthesizers, and drum machines (not a bad thing in themselves, but Alan Myers was a New Wave drum god and probably the band’s most talented instrumentalist).  This was unusual given the album’s release year of 1981 – this sort of garbage wouldn’t ruin pop music until like 1986.  It would certainly ruin Devo – I can get behind the awfully funny Oh, No! It’s Devo, but not the funnily awful Shout! (“Great sentence!”, I can hear you thinking.  All in a day’s work here at Critter Jams).

New Traditionalists, on the other hand, winds up mostly intact.  It’s still got the excellent hooks, the vocal harmonies, and the sarcastic lyricism that marks the band’s best work.  You get the sense that they still had some vision here; after this it was a little unclear whether or not they even wanted to be a band anymore.  I’ve always thought that Weird Al’s “Dare to be Stupid” was better than anything the group did from here on out, if that gives you a sense of things. But here you still get to hear what the band really does best – depressing sentiment spread amongst jumpy, perfectly catchy melodies.  Devo were one year away from a major hit and constant MTV exposure (a byproduct of the fact that they were the only act that actually made videos regularly back then), but they weren’t quite satisfied.  Despite their rather abrupt rise to fame they didn’t really make any money; instead all it brought them was a constant tour schedule and less creative control, as Warner Brothers was constantly breathing down their necks for a follow up hit.  The songs here reflect a growing discontent – songs like “Through Being Cool” and “Beautiful World” are all sarcasm, while other songs reflect the possibility of nuclear war (“Race of Doom”) or the hopelessness of relationships (“Love Without Anger).  “Going Under” has that “I know a place where dreams get crushed” line, and their cover of “Working in a Coalmine” (not actually on the album, but rather on a bonus 7 inch) implies that they saw themselves as little more than worker bees at that point.  That’s pretty fuckin’ Devo.

Of course, Devo never did let their lyrical themes get in the way of the music – despite an overall softening of their sound, giving way to disco rhythms (“Pity You”) and vocoders (“Soft Things”), the songs are still good, even outside the hits – that run in the middle with “Going Under”, “Race of Doom”, and “Love Without Anger” was always one of my favorite stretches of Devo music.  The good news is that the recent reissue cleans up the sound greatly and gives it a little bit of punch, which the original album lacked.  It does have some bonus tracks, though what it’s missing is rather suspect – “Working in a Coalmine” is not included, even though it was a bonus on the original, 1981 issue, and it’s missing “Mecha-Mania Boy” which is perhaps their greatest B-side.  Both were bonus tracks on the 1997 Infinite Zero release, so I can’t fathom why they’d skip ’em here.  At least you get “Modern Life”, which may be an unfinished track, but good luck getting it out of your head regardless.  With some track substitutions, this could’ve been on par with those first three albums, which, by the way, are really freakin’ great.  But everyone knows that.

R.I.P. Bob Casale of DEVO

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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.