Devo is a band whose name refers to the “de-evolution” of man. It also could describe the many different states the group has experienced throughout the years. Since its formation in 1973 in Akron, OH this electronic, New Wave, post-punk, synth group has included no fewer than 17 different musicians. In addition to releasing nine studio albums, the group has served up a variety of videos, soundtracks, film appearances, documentaries, and tours.
They’ve managed to remain in the public eye through enigmatic appearances at various fairs and concerts. There’s even been three considerations for induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
In 1973, brothers Mark and Bob Mothersbaugh, with Gerald and Bob Casale joined Alan Myers to form the first version of Devo. The members attended Kent State around the time of the famous campus massacre. That event led to their embracing the idea that man was “de-evolving” into a lower form, with a loss of individual thoughts, and into a group-think mindset swayed by marketing and government messaging. From their formation until around 1978 the band released several singles, including “Mongoloid” and “Jocko Homo” in 1977.
The lineup changed periodically and often included Jim Mothersbaugh and Bob Lewis. During this time the group was an early adopter of filming music videos, releasing films of their live concerts – creating videos for “Secret Agent Man” and “Jocko Homo.” When their film The Truth About De-Evolution was recognized at the Ann Arbor Film Festival, David Bowie approached Warner Music urging them to sign Devo to a contract. A syncopated and “mechanical” cover of the Rolling Stones’ “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction” garnered some critical notice, and this song, plus the previous two would form the foundation of their first album Q: Are We Not Men? A: We Are Devo!, produced by Brian Eno (Roxy Music). Devo would perform both “Satisfaction” and “Jocko Homo” on their appearance as musical guests in 1978 on Saturday Night Live further gaining the group notoriety.
In the early to mid-1980s, Devo released the albums Freedom of Choice, New Traditionalist, Oh No, It’s Devo!, and Shout. Freedom of Choice included radio hits “Whip It” and “Girl U Want.” The former became a Billboard Top 40 hit. Videos for both received high rotation on nascent MTV. Along with contributing a cover of “Working in the Coal Mine” for the animated rock music film Heavy Metal, the band opened for Tony Basil on her Word of Mouth debut album tour. During this decade, Alan Myers left the band to be replaced by David Kendricks (Sparks). In 1988, Devo released Total Devo, went on a world tour, and released the live album Now it Can be Told: Devo at the Palace.
The band released Smooth Noodle Maps in 1990, and this, along with the albums that followed, were not commercial successes. Midway through their tour for this latest album, both the tour and their label, Enigma Records, went bankrupt. And while they released a few demos and live albums, the band officially broke up in 1991.
After performing a reunion concert in 1996 at the Sundance Film Festival, Devo would reunite periodically to perform at other events and festivals with an ever-rotating lineup. Finally, in late 2007, Devo released what’s become their final album, Something for Everybody. While they would not reunite for any additional albums to date, in August 2012 they did release the single “Don’t Roof Rack Me, Bro (Seamus Unleashed).” It was based on a story told by then-presidential candidate Mitt Romney regarding taking vacations and strapping their dog Seamus in a cage to the roof of the family car.
Subsequently, both former drummer Alan Myers and original member Bob Casale passed away. The remaining members toured in 2014 as a quartet, added Josh Hager on keyboard and drum, and even Fred Armisen on drums at the Burger Boogaloo festival in Oakland in 2018. In 2023 Devo announced that they would reunite with drummer Jeff Friedl for a farewell tour.
Their final studio album, Something for Everybody (2010), is classic Devo but sounds interestingly contemporary, given some of the 80s-styled releases from bands such as The Weeknd. Mark Mothersbaugh and Gerald Casale put together a solid, true-to-Devo release; the first song, “Fresh,” makes that clear. Synth baseline, staccato singing, with a screeching backing guitar is exactly what you would want and expect.
And so follows the rest of the LP, “What We Do” could be a Trent Reznor instrumental if not for the comical vocal styling, but with stinging lyrics such as:
What we do is what we do/What we do is what we do
What we do is what we do…/It’s all the same, there’s nothing new…
Gaming, praying, believing, maintaining/Texting, electing, rejecting, infecting…
Don’t do what I do/Just do what I say…
…and so on, evoking the rote lifestyle that technology has not done much to improve. Don’t Shoot (I’m A Man) is an earworm-worthy commentary on living the daily grind and wishing for the simplicity of “swinging from the trees” once again. “Mind Games” laments the confusing nature of love. “Human Rocket” is only a slightly veiled commentary on the destructive nature of man (“…cocked and loaded since the dawn of time”). “Sumthin” sounds like a cross between Devo and the B-52s; a catchy, simple-and-hooky-guitar. To me, it’s one of the best songs on the album.
“Later is Now” could have been on any of the releases by Devo in the 1980s. “No Place Like Home” sounds like something that Disney might have created for some commentary on our destruction playing at some FutureWorld pavilion, with lyrics like
If we should all just disappear/The skies and waters will clear in a world without us
And there’s no place like home./There’s no place like home…/To return to.
The album concludes with the multi-synth-layered “March On”, urging that the only way to deal with the human condition is just to continue plodding along into the future and hoping for the best.
If you’re a fan of Devo and grew up on synth bass, power chords, and catchy guitar hooks, and long for all that and the snarky social commentary, this delivers exactly what you need. It’s a great resolution to 50 years of Devo, which is to say, this is a good album.
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