This article originally appeared in the October 1988 issue of SPIN.
“In the first film we ever made, called In the Beginning Was the End,” says Devo‘s Jerry Casale, “what we were saying was that built into anybody’s energy, anybody’s organized push to make it, is their own demise. We were laughing at ourselves and saying that about the outside world at the same time. It wasn’t a matter of being cynical—it was a matter of a sense of humor as part of the creativity.”
In 1977, into a scene of look-alike, talk-alike, sound-alike musical revolution came D-E-V-O form O-H-I-O, newly-arrived spudboys from the cultural wasteland of Akron. “We sounded different, we looked different, we said different things,” Casale says now, dressed in the band’s latest uniform. “We weren’t coming from the accepted mythology of rock’n’roll where it’s about conspicuous consumption, depraved sexuality and throwing TV sets out of windows.”
They arrived in Los Angeles and almost immediately gathered the groundswell of popularity that would culminate in a record deal. Claiming to be ordinary spuds—just like you and me—they brought with them from the Midwest the concept of de-evolution. While attending Kent State University as art students, Casale and his creative partner Mark Mothersbaugh had come across a charmingly cracked theory that man had evolved from brain-eating apes. Devo introduced this theory in the lyrics of “Jocko Homo”:
In the beginning now
God made man
But he used a monkey to do it
Apes in the plan
And we’re all here to prove it
Devo had looked around and seen the world de-evolving into something more primitive. They developed that theory into a critique of technology gone awry. Curiously enough, their concept seemed made-to-order for the same system Devo was indicting. If it was impossible to tell which part of their project was hook and which part was bait, it would be simple enough in the end to decide who got swallowed.
Their plan had called for Devo to engage the music industry on their own terms and make conceptual art in—or out of—the process. “We wrapped ourselves in yellow plastic like McDonald’s cheeseburgers from the very beginning,” Mothersbaugh said. “We liked to cross the line between art and outright advertising. We made fun of it by being both subversive and being part of it all and just climbing right into the middle of it all.”
Casale sees it differently—the band’s two leaders rarely share the same opinions. “The mythology the press preferred to present about Devo is that we were incredibly clever, incredibly devious, incredibly deliberate and self-aware and that we were playing a game on the music business, hoodwinking them, playing a prank on them. Now, of course, that has its inevitable backlash.”
Considerations of any backlash would come later. Devo was succeeding; their plan seemed perfect. They had gotten a multi-album contract with Warner Brothers. Overnight, everyone seemed to know how to use the word Devo as both a noun and a verb. From the skateboard parks of Southern California to the punk clubs of New York, fans were immersed in the Devo mystique.
Devo bridged the gap between punk and new wave without compromising in the direction of either camp. Even those with no interest in the music got the word—if you were different somehow, somebody would probably call you too Devo, or Devo-ed out—as the band rode what appeared to be an impeccably timed media blitz.
Through an odd, almost heretical association with Neil Young—the star they had once called “the Godfather of Granola”—they signed with one of the largest, most prestigious management companies in the business, Elliott Roberts’ Lookout Management. Not only were they recording with a company that could devote almost unlimited resources to the success of their records, but they were represented by the management firm that handled the likes of Bob Dylan, Neil Young and Crosby, Stills, and Nash.
The first album sold half a million copies. the second, Duty Now for the Future, sold less than half as many. Devo was in danger of being seen as one-hit wonders, as a novelty act that had shot its wad. Everybody knew the name, the way they know a corporate brand name like Ford or Toyota, but the new record was selling like an Edsel. Now, in the song “Smart Patrol,” the band sang:
Afraid nobody around here
Understands my potato
I think I’m only a spudboy
Looking for a real tomato
We’re the smart patrol
Nowhere to go
The spudboys had evolved into the smart patrol nobody was able to understand and they were already discouraged.
Then, with the release of Freedom of Choice, came the airplay and sales the band had expected. the single “Whip It” was sweeping the dance scene. Devo had always made short movies to accompany their songs, but now there was a market for song-length videos and “Whip It” was perfect. Album sales jumped up to 1.1 million. Devo was back in command.
Commercial endorsements filtered in and again technology seemed to play into the band’s hands. At the time their commercials for Honda scooters first aired, Devo seemed to be challenging yet another rock’n’roll taboo. Association with corporate commercialism—outside of the industry itself, of course—was typically deemed vile and somehow fascist. Once Devo pointed the way, however, rock stars who would never have consented to appearing in a commercial began clamoring for a little airtime of their own.
The commercials ran their course eventually and almost as suddenly as they had become a household word, Devo disappeared. The cause? It seemed to stem from everywhere and from nowhere at the same time. It was the band, it was management, it was the record company’s fault. Or it was personalities in conflict, or drugs, or the powers behind the scene. That any one person is at fault seems unlikely, but it is apparent that the cause revealed themselves from the very beginning. In the beginning, precisely as Devo has predicted, was the end.
“All we were trying to do was keep a kernel of what we stared out with and not do the wrong things,” says Casale today. “And what it looks like to the outside world, the way the media wanted to report it, is that we were ad men fro mAkron pulling a hoax on the world.” The smart patrol had outsmarted everyone, even themselves. Like a McDonald’s marketing campaign, they had coordinated every aspect of the sale of their product.
Their Club Devo marketed their industrial spill clean-up uniforms, their Energy Dome flowerpot hats, their plastic-form New Frontier wigs. They had consciously changed their look every album. They tried new ideas and experimented with new concepts, never letting the old ones grow stale from over-exposure. They attempted to fit into the corporate structure like an artfully molded plastic marble cornerstone, but when things went wrong, they attempted one more change—went perhaps one de-evolved step too far. They tried to change their story to one of innocents misunderstood.
What happened to Devo? Billy Gerber, who handed Devo’s day-to-day management problems for Lookout, placed the blame not on anybody’s misinterpretation of what the band was about, but on the members themselves. When the band first came to Los Angeles, “They did everything themselves, which is mistake number one. They didn’t trust any lawyers, they didn’t trust any managers and they didn’t trust any record companies. They thought they knew everything they needed to know about that.”
“It’s not that easy to warm up to them,” says Les Schwartz, a former Warner Brothers publicist who worked with the band, “and with a record company that prides itself on how great they are and on what they can do for a band, when they are confronted with a band such as Devo that comes complete with a package, with an art concept—’Here’s our art, here’s our concept, here’s what we want for publicity; you don’t tell us, we’ll tell you what we want’—I think that puts a lot of people off. So I think early on that might have been a sore point.”
“If this is your own only thing in life,” Casale says, “you don’t want to throw it down the drain, or entrust it to somebody else, or treat it lightly, because all you have then is regrets.” Of Devo’s two philosophers, Casale is the purist; while Mothersbaugh’s inclinations lean toward adaption—and to solo projects of his own—Casale is inclined toward keeping the Devo concept rigorous and uncompromising. Articulate and extraordinarily intelligent as he expounds on Devo in the plush surroundings of a Santa Monica restaurant he brings to mind the words to “Red Eye”:
Only go around once
Gotta quench that thirst
Gotta grab that gusto
Gotta get there first
“If you do something half-assed, you’ll end up saying, ‘Wow, we should have done this and we should had done that.’ So in that sense maybe Devo didn’t do anything wrong. They just did what they did as well as they could”—Casale tends to speak often of “they,” meaning the record company, the management, the fans, or simply anyone who is not of the Devo inner circle—”and it got us as far as we got. If anything, what we did allowed Devo to be wrong on all kinds of levels. By trying to do something different and having it pretty complex you up the possibility of being totally misunderstood.”
Mothersbaugh’s home is nestled slightly above smog level in the Hollywood Hills, just a winding map-of-the-stars trip down into Hollywood from the top of the world. It’s exactly where a rock star might live. Seated at a desk decorated only by a computer and photos of his girlfriend’s band, he looks back at Devo’s methods with some reluctance. “This is the one topic you can really get me on because if I have regrets, it’s Devo business really. It’s the way Devo business transpired.”
“We’d hear all the horror stories of other bands being split up,” he says, owlish behind thick glasses, “and we said, ‘We’ll never let that happen to us.’ And we heard about bands getting fleeced b their record companies, and we said, ‘that won’t happen to us because we know better.'”
Gerber sees it somewhat differently than the Devo leaders. “The things that they did wrong really had to do with their preoccupation with being paranoid about everyone. The fact of the matter is you have to take a chance on people. And you want to take the most educated risk you can. So, you should interview a lot of people, find out as much as you can about certain representatives before you sign a contract with somebody, because when you do, it’s binding. And that person is gonna be commissioning your income for a long time.”
There are still more views. “they had a really anti-rock stance when they came out,” says Genral Jackett, a former member of the band. “It was almost as soon as they signed the papers to become legitimate and have records, they flip-flopped into totally losing the whole thing that started Devo. It was obvious the idea was no longer what was important, but becoming big rock stars was.”
As ever, the truth lies buried among opinions. Designed to mesh with the mechanisms of the music business, Devo was soon struggling to keep from being consumed by the corporate machinery. Their concept was rapidly devolving into a game of Us vs. Them, of Devo against the world. Casale appreciates the irony of how quickly the Smart Patrol began looking silly. “Of course we were hoping that Devo would be commercial…but that was not the guiding force of the motivation at first. First it was to do what we did really well and then do it smart enough or take good care of yourself enough to try to make money.”
By now, some said Devo was a difficult band to work with. Typically—and this was especially ironic for a group that had established itself as an option to the usual rock’n’roll stupidity—there was talk of a cocaine problem. “I have been around musicians who have drug problems and I know what it’s like,” Mothersbaugh says angrily. “Anybody that was involved in rock’n’roll…at some time experimented with drugs. But the difference between having a drug problems and drying something or messing around with it for six months is pretty different.”
“If anybody in Devo ever did drugs,” Casale says in disgust, “it was like a light experimentation and never in any way figured into anything that made any difference, and certainly we’re not even talking about a fraction of the use of all the people who ran our business.”
Their fourth album, New Traditionalists, seemed to prove the theory of de-evolution all by itself. The master tape started to disintegrate; they were losing the outside tracks and the high-frequency range. Looking back, Jerry feels the record company was less than sympathetic, but it’s difficult not to consider how it must have looked to Warner Brothers. They had signed Devo partly because the band had come across as high-tech wizards, wiser about the dangers of advanced technology than mere mortals. It was all something of a joke, but nobody found it very funny.
There was more going wrong than the sound of things falling apart. Devo’s last album on Warners was being readied for release when the relationship between the band and its management began to unravel. One week before the album was scheduled to hit stores, Gerber and Roberts decided to go their separate ways. The band was left in a management crunch at a critical moment.
Mothersbaugh suddenly discovered that it didn’t even matter how the new record sounded. “I got a call from Les Schwartz the week our album was going to come out. He said, ‘Mark, there’s something really wrong over here. There’s this vice-resident, ‘Russ Thyret, and…we had a meeting on how to handle all the strategy for your album and this guy said, ‘Fuck this band—fuck these guys. I don’t want any of my people working on this album.'”
“Les said, ‘He’s pissed at you guys. What’d you guys do?’ I said, ‘I don’t even know who he is.’ “I asked Jerry and he didn’t know who the guy was. We asked around and he had some ax to grind against the band. Something to do with business dealings, but neither of us had ever talked to him. I still to this day have never spoken to Russ Thyret. I know who he is now. I know he’s a vice president up there, but I have no idea why we never got anyone who would talk to us.”
(Thyret declined to be interviewed for this article. Bob Merlis, vice president of Publicity at Warner Brothers Records, said, “It’s definitely not the way we do business. We don’t blackball artists. We try to maximize the sale of records whatever the length of the contract, whatever the problems are. Every artist wants his, her or their record to be the number one priority of the promotion department. Obviously, that’s not possible. There’s only one number one, just like there is on the charts, but I’m not aware of any attempt from out promotion department to torpedo any Devo projects at a time in their career with Warner Brothers.”)
Now Lookout was telling the band to leave Warner Brothers. Mothersbaugh said, “Our management at the time, Elliott Roberts, was saying, ‘C’mon, leave these guys. You’ve got a contract that says you make another $350,000 just to leave. So let’s go! I’ll get you a recording deal with somebody else. I can get you a deal tomorrow.’ I said, ‘Are you sure we should be doing this?’ Management made the decision, really. They said, ‘You get off this label.’ So we did.”
“Whatever happened,” says Schwartz, “I really don’t think it had anything to do with Devo. I think it all had more to do with Elliott Roberts and Russ Thyret more than Russ Thyret and Devo. I dare say that Devo was not one of Russ Thyret’s favorite bands.”
“I had suggested to Elliott, ‘Hey, Why don’t we just take less money?’ Casale says. ‘Show them that we’re not out to take money from them, we’re sorry the album’s not selling either, and even though we don’t see eye-to-eye on why, let’s do this in good faith.’ Like ‘Hey, let’s just take less money and do another record. And Elliott said, ‘No, no, no, that’s not the problem. You’re just scratching the surface there. They just don’t want to deal with it.'” (Roberts and Lookout Management reused repeated requests to comment.)
Devo had believed they were too smart, too self-contained to be sucked in by the usual games of the business of rock’n’roll. All the same, the music mass-merchandising machine had processed, digitized and was now spitting out the user-friendly likes of Devo. It had taken them years to get where they were and now Lookout was promising them a new deal with a new record label—and saying it wouldn’t happen overnight. If they hadn’t been in so desperate a position, maybe Devo would have been too smart and too self-contained to listen. As it was, it would be four years before they put out their next record.
There’s a new Devo album, Total Devo, on Enigma Records, an independent label of the sort willing to take risks on music with an experimental edge, on bands who may never sell enough units to justify an interest by the major labels. One song, “Some Things Never Change,” says:
Small minds play at some big time games
And everybody else pays
Make no mistake they’re on the take
They like to keep it that way
Admittedly, Total Devo doesn’t sound as racially different as the first few records did. The world has done a lot of catching up with Devo, in a lot of different ways. Synthesized drumming, for instance, is an industry standard these days and nearly everyone wants to become an identity-less corporate cog.
“Nothing that we said seems radical to most people now,” Casale says. “As a matter of fact, most of it has come to pass. This slightly intellectual ironic joke about the world devolving has a kernel of truth to it. Things we liked then, that were more information-oriented, more like Japanese culture, that we encountered 10 years ago, are now being shared by lots of very normal people. Now it seems like we’re in time.”
Mothersbaugh figures the advantages of everybody being more like Devo are numerous. “I think it’s maybe more subversive now that we do fit in better.” He is inclined toward a curious sort of optimism anyway. Active with all manner of solo projects, from black-lite artworks to small press poetry to incidental music for Pee-wee’s Playhouse, he’s also the only member of Devo who came out of their big adventure with the record industry with enough money to own his own home. He’s pleased that their new label is committed to the band, and while Enigma, has limited resources he feels they’re on Devo’s side. “Something picked me and something picked our band to be who we are. We’re just fulfilling a genetic imperative.”
Even as he and Casale speak, it’s difficult not to hear another imperative pounding away—”We must repeat; D-E-V-O; we must repeat…” It’s difficult to forget Casale saying, “Maybe Devo didn’t do something wrong.”
Maybe some things never change. If the two-pronged intellectual leadership of the band still isn’t in sync on what exactly happened, if they still haven’t figured out why they suspect an executive at their record company of stalling their entire career—or even figured out what his job at the record company is—who else can ever say for certain. It is, to quote one of their earliest songs, a wiggly world. Maybe we must repeat—at least until we get it right. “There’s no one way to do things,” Mothersbaugh says. “There’s no one way to skin a potato.”