DEVO: The Brand/DEVO: Unmasked
DEVO: The Brand
“We joked that we were like the Flintstones meets the Jetsons.” When considered for a moment this merger would be both visual and ideological. How could such disparate groups of people, or families, coexist? Also, what would it look like? An idea of the answer is found in the new pair of Devo books: Devo: The Brand and Devo: Unmasked. It is here that Mark Mothersbaugh makes the above recollection. These two books are actually combined, each starting from opposite ends, and together they present the two main facets of Devo: their audio/visual output (The Brand) and their history (Unmasked). The guides for both books are Mothersbaugh, his brother Bob 1 (fellow Devo lifer Bob Mothersbaugh, Jr.), and Devo co-founder Gerald Casale. Together they provide a visual autobiography.
Devo started out as both and audio band and a visual group. There has never been a separation. They were making videos, both short and long form, years before MTV, and continued up to and beyond the death of Bob 2 (Casale) in 2014. If the video portion of their visual impact was removed one was left with their discography to look at. Devo: The Brand includes all of their LPs, 45s, picture discs, inserts, ads, magazine appearances, promotional photos and more.
For those who achieved musical maturation during Devo’s rise, the inclusion of magazine articles from such periodicals as Trouser Press, New Musical Express and Sounds are especially interesting. These contemporary forays into what Devo was doing revel a journalistic attempt (and often success) to interpret their A/V thrust.
Devo was always a visual unit, with a unified sound. Clean edges, hard stops, and a somewhat saccharine sound lent to a whole that was worth much more than their individual parts. Yet Devo could stand alone on any ingredient. Remove the music and the visuals stood strong, and so on. A Sounds article from 1978 revels their nascent approach: “Devo’s chosen image: A corporate unit – Devo – with the individual members and their history unimportant, for instance no picture were to be taken of them without their Devo suits. It made sense: the main strength of Devo as a phenomenon so far has been their consistent, brilliant presentation of the group as a total package.”
Years later after the success of “Whip It” and their popular red Energy Domes headgear, their almost robotic visual still held strong. Looking back on a photo of five Energy Domes covering the heads of five band members, Gerald Casale remarks, “I thought it was the ultimate in anonymity and group presentation. Forget about the cult of personality and how a person looks: here’s five floating red discs.” Elsewhere he comments, “The Idea was nothing less than to present an impenetrable group skin and control perception by design and instruction… Before Devo was a band it was an art movement: Art Devo. That’s why it was originally pronounced Devo like Art Deco.”
Despite their grouping in the New Wave, Devo was more rock…with a little punk. Certainly they put more effort into their whole gestalt than most punks or New Wavers. Heck, the first two songs on their first album, “Uncontrollable Urge” and “Satisfaction” were pastiches to The Beatles and the Rolling Stones. Devo: Unmasked points this out, noting that “they chose to open their first album with a mutation of the introductory riff of ‘I Want To Hold Your Hand.’”
We are reminded that Devo started from very humble beginnings, specifically working class Akron, Ohio. It was against this fairly black-and-white backdrop that the colors of Devo flourished. Oh, that and murder. “For me it starts with the killing of students at Kent State University on May 4, 1970,” says Casale. “I was there.”
Up to and through 2014, Devo was always looked at askance from those who thought they knew better. This was nothing new. “We were telling it like it was in the late 1970s, and for the most part no one was listening,” says Casale. “When they did, it resulted in attacks and dismissals of our dystopian vision. When you try to change the world, you make mistakes, no matter how smart you might be.”
Both books, attached in the middle and with their (faux?) leather binding, are beautiful, and for vinyl and/or ephemera collectors the visual bounty is endless. The Unmasked portion takes a historical approach and includes interactions with Toni Basil, John Lennon, Iggy Pop, Jim Jarmusch, David Lynch, David Bowie, Brian Eno, Robert Fripp, Mick Jagger, Neil Young, Gary Numan, Buckminster Fuller and Timothy Leary. The story of Johnny Rotten wanting to join Devo is classic. Many frames from the film that is Devo’s history are noteworthy. Their 1983 ad campaign for Honda scooters is illuminating. “The idea of doing a commercial where we ‘Express Your Individuality’ on five bikes that are exactly the same, while dressed identically, was awesome,” writes Mothersbaugh. “The commercial theme was “Choose a scooter that best expresses your individuality’ because they had different kinds of scooters. But we’re all on the exact same one! We loved it that there was no choice.”
Get this book. And yes, when you get to the end of a book and the next page is the last page of the other book, upside-down, it does say “YOU MUST FLIP IT.”