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Q. Are We Not Subversive? A. We are Devo!

March 26, 2010

Few bands can claim the cult following of Devo. Forming at Ohio’s Kent State University around the tragic days of 1970, Gerald Casale and Bob Lewis sought to combine their art-school visual aesthetic with a genre-bending proto-punk that forecasted the New Wave that was to become ubiquitous a decade later. After a few lineup tweaks, Devo caught the attention of the film-festival circuit with their post-modern approach to the traditional performance movie, juxtaposing imagery that sought to enhance the audience’s interpretation of their accompanying compositions. When an audacious television network invited the band to submit their short films for broadcast, Devo jumped at the chance.

In the early years of MTV, Devo became stars as “Whip It”, “Freedom of Choice” and “Girl U Want” entered heavy rotation. (Unfortunately, titling their song “Girl U Want” was false advertising – it did not sound anything like Prince). Instead of expensive haircuts, yacht debauchery, and roller-skates (Bowie – we’re looking at you here), Devo cracked the British-dominant playlist of MTV with satires of game shows and subtle screeds against the powers that be.

Well aware that video might kill the radio star, Devo sought to subvert the image-over-substance paradigm shift brought upon by MTV, all while simultaneously benefitting from it. For a band that is subject to some hard-core fanboy Devotion, one will not often hear of the contradictions and – dare I say, intellectual dishonesty and laziness – of such a “subversive” band.  As Casale once said, “Don’t be tricked by what you see, you got two ways to go.”

“That’s Good” – But is it, really?

In 1982, they released their fifth album, serendipitously titled Oh, No! It’s Devo. The previous record, New Traditionalists, was led by the claustrophobic, uber-repetitive single “Beautiful World”, whose generic up-tempo synth-pop serves as the New Wave equivalent to the cock-rock of Billy Squier, sans the halter-top dance sequence. “Beautiful World” adenoidally delivers three minutes of lyrics that even Barney the Dinosaur would find too infantile, climaxing with the oh-so-revolutionary coda of “It’s a beautiful world for you…not me”. (One must assume that the American power structure was soiling themselves with fear from the possibility of a rowdy insurrection, led by millions of angry comrades, fresh from the plastic haberdasher.)

While their sonic ambition began to deteriorate, the videos for New Traditionalists still maintained a compelling edge, assuring continued MTV support. However, as more artists began utilizing the new media, Devo no longer had the airwaves all to themselves.

For all you fans of standardized college-placement exams, here’s a sample SAT analogy:

Devo : Early ’80s MTV ::

a)    Phil Collins : Late ’80s VH-1 (before they excised the hyphen)

b)    Hootie and the Blowfish : Wal-Mart’s T-Shirt section, circa 1995

c)    Ridiculously funny myths that omit the subject’s Mel-Gibsonesque insanity : Chuck Norris Facts

d)    Tony Danza : Made-for-TV movies about garbage picking field goal kicking Philadelphia phenomena

e)    All of the above

During the late 1970s, Devo were the kind of collective that would be too busy pioneering media formats to be concerned with the whims of an upstart cable channel. If their new sound was any indication, those days were history. Gerald Casale, one of the main songwriters, made statements of frustration that resembled the rants of cultural killjoys like Pat Boone from a few decades previous, mad as gosh-darn heck that the new sounds had pushed out “good” music. “[MTV’s] playlist was suddenly based solely on what was already a radio hit, it had nothing to do with how good or innovative the video was”, he said. I exercised my “Freedom of Choice” to find out what really happened (cue cool sound effect, like glass breaking ‘n shite). Simon Reynolds’ book Rip It Up and Start Again offers more insight into the atrophy that befell upon Devo as the decade reached adolescence:

As American rockers grabbed hold of videos and synths, Devo – original homegrown pioneers of synth rock and video pop – found it harder to get on MTV… The crunch came with a single “That’s Good.” Neither tune nor the promo was Devo’s finest hour. It was one of three same-looking and sounding video singles from…Oh, No! It’s Devo, all shot on the same unattractively carpeted soundstage, in more or less the same outfits with the same camera angles. The only things that vary are the animations on the blue-screen backdrop.

“That’s Good”, known largely to skater kids because of its use during the “Ramp Locals” scene in Thrashin’, starring a young Josh Brolin as hotshot skater Corey Webster (“Cabriolet – It’s Hungarian for ‘fast car’”), represents the precipitous fall of a band once ambitious enough to invent their own philosophy of existence.

[Brief aside – was the ending of Milk a multi-layered treatise on the dying dream that California represents? First of all, there’s the actual event that inspired the film  – and before you cry “spoiler alert”, grab a history book about the Harvey Milk / Dan White incident (Texans, do it sooner rather than later). Beyond the Prop 6/Prop 8 parallel, Gus Van Zant cast the two actors most closely associated with the mid-1980s subculture they portrayed on the big screen: Jeff Spicoli (Penn), representing the surfers, and skateboard hero Corey Webster (Brolin).]

By this time, Devo relegated themselves to vomiting up paint-by-numbers pap that sounded like the musical background to a Dianetics commercial (first Scientologist rapper – L.L. Ron Hubbard – ooh, that was bad, I’m sorry). Music video was undertaking a radical transformation in 1983, as directors like Kevin Godley and Lol Crème (yes, his name actually is Lol, hope he doesn’t use email) employed complicated narratives and cinematographic tricks that were light-years past the here-we-go-again “lip-synched performances with inserted images” that you’ve seen a million times. Instead of channeling the initiative that made them visionaries in the previous decade, they tried to compensate for their intellectual laziness with shock value (somewhere, a young Marilyn Manson was taking notes). “That’s Good” pretends to be a grand statement against consumerism, or so we should assume, since singer Casale reaches in his pocket and pulls out a credit card near the end of the first verse. After the removal of said card (which was NOT signed on the back – don’t complain if Sav-A-Lot won’t complete the transaction for upside-down flower-pots), the video cuts away from the band for a controversial animation that repeats during each refrain of the song – a cartoon French fry “screwing” an iced donut.

You heard me!

If Matt Groening tried to explain the meaning of Homer Simpson to an actual Homer Simpson, he would still have to “dumb it down” to approach the not-even-single entendre (logarithmic entendre? Entendre’s second-derivative?) represented in this video.

This episode of lewd food was immediately followed by a brief clip of a half-naked woman playing what can only be described as coital charades. It is ironic that Devo’s move to toss aside their creative principles for mass appeal, and exploit titillating sexual imagery – all while pretending to criticize it –resulted in their most brutal artistic failure. According to Reynolds, MTV claimed that they avoided the video because of the aforementioned sequences (“You can have the French fry, you can have the donut, but you can’t have both”, the band was told, hopefully – but not likely, by Martha Quinn, JJ Jackson, Alan Hunter, Mark Goodman and Nina Blackwood ALL IN UNISON), but in reality, Devo had been usurped in an art form they once owned.

While Devo’s thrust for commercial success appeared empty and cynical, several bands in the early 1980s proved that producing a hit record and video did not require a wholesale abandonment of an artists’ philosophical underpinnings. As Jess Harvell of Pitchfork said, “If punk meant anyone could be in a band, then that band could be a pop band, right? And if you had interesting ideas, why not shoot for the widest possible audience?” In 1982, ABC crashed the charts with their clever examination of romance and its wounded linguistics, The Lexicon of Love. Most notable was Scritti Politti, featuring Welsh songwriter Green Gartside. With similar roots as Devo, Scritti began as a DIY post-punk collective, albeit more outwardly Marxist. All residents of the squat were considered “part of the band”, and all expenses were listed on the record sleeve. By 1980, Gartside had tired of punk’s puritan streak, pushing the band’s music towards the gestating hip-hop, funk and reggae from across the pond. Sid Snugs of Associated Content points out that Gartside held the “utopian” idea that these challenging new sounds were compatible with mainstream success (for context, MTV’s Video Music Awards did not feature a “Best Rap Video” until 1989). The album Cupid and Psyche ’85 was as far from his punk roots as one could ever imagine, but his lyrical deconstruction of modern relationships brought Jacques Derrida into the unthinkable realm of Top-40 radio. Musically, Cupid and Psyche ’85 was the pointillist sibling of the Jackson family, serving as a bridge between “Don’t Stop Till You Get Enough” and “When I Think Of You”, while serving as what Harvell calls “A meta-critique of [Gartside’s] own relationship with black music, pop music and the love song.” While Devo were groping for commercial success by casting aside the complicated, jagged creations that originally brought them into relevance, Scritti was utilizing the possibilities afforded to them by technology, boom bap, and French philosophy to explore new artistic territory. In 1982, when “Whip It” landed at #23 on the Billboard charts, Scritti’s first attempt (Songs To Remember) failed to crack the US Top 200. Three years later, Scritti’s “Perfect Way” hit #11 in the states, as Gartside awaited a future of collaborations with Shabba Ranks and Mos Def, not to mention the awesome honor of having a song (“Perfect Way”) covered by Miles Davis.

In addition to being hypocrites, Devo are also whiners. MTV’s new playlists, which featured envelope-pushing clips from Michael Jackson, Prince, Madonna, Cyndi Lauper, The Police, and ZZ Top, did not sit well with Casale. “MTV is now the Home Shopping Network for record companies – instead of showing the bands with innovative videos, they pushed the bands with expensive, bloated videos.” (Apparently, Devo is the masculine noun form of diva.) Hey Casale – I am sure that “Beat It” would have been just as memorable if MJ replaced the intricate choreography with cartoons of fornicating food, but lay off The Police – I doubt your crappy carpets could handle 1,000 candles without going recreating the Great White disaster on that soundstage. As the decade came to a close, Mark Mothersbaugh saw the writing on the wall, beginning a second career as a creator of music for television and film, most notably Pee Wee’s Playhouse and most of Wes Anderson’s oeuvre. Gerald Casale took the skills he wasn’t using in Devo videos and became a noted director of promo clips for other groups. As for Devo proper, they were sadly last seen marketing a kids’ version of their band, “Devo 2.0”, via the Disney Channel, while suing McDonalds for a Happy Meal toy that appears to resemble their (trademarked?) look, “energy domes” and all.

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4 Comments
  1. March 26, 2010 8:41 pm

    Don’t forget Mothersbaugh’s current gig as the purveyor of “Mark’s Magic Pictures” on Nickelodeon’s “Yo Gabba Gabba.”

    http://farm3.static.flickr.com/2315/2228128626_2034e7dcfe.jpg?v=0

    Truthfully though, Mothersbaugh is a helluva movie score composer.

  2. July 2, 2014 2:51 am

    Cazare Varna

    Highly descriptive article, I enjoyed that bit.
    Will there be a part 2?

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