He/She/It’s Still Devo:
Gerald Casale Still Has a Rhyme That Comes With a Riddle
Ohio in the 1960s and ‘70s would probably have been THE definition of mainstream America. Largely blue collar with a speed of life not as hip as Los Angeles or as hectic as New York, one can only imagine any pollster using local behavior as a definition of a norm. Into this Norman Rockwell existence, however, there was an undercurrent of weirdos that began forming bands spouting Dadaist lyrics and churning out radical sounding music. Rocket From the Tombs. The Cramps. The Styrenes. Tin Huey. Pere Ubu. Rubber City Rebels. Devo. As Gerald Casale of Devo notes, “When you’re in a place culturally and geographically that’s a black hole, that’s usually when the creative types are most motivated ‘cause it’s do or die. I think that was our case because it was so overwhelming that your only responses were either get creative or commit suicide. So we got creative.”
The concept of Devo began in the minds of Kent State students Bob Lewis and Gerald Casale in the late 1960s. Using the influences of Ghoulardi blowing up model cars with firecrackers on TV, musical acts like Captain Beefheart and Frank Zappa and the educational freedoms being espoused at Kent, the duo formulated their concept of de-evolution, which challenged that man was no longer progressing but was, in fact, de-evolving, with the absurdity of modern life serving as proof. The duo met Mark Mothersbaugh around 1970 and formed a musical act called “The Sextet Devo” (which also included Gerald’s brother Bob) to perform at the Kent State performing arts festival in 1973. The band shuffled members over a period of several years before settling in 1976 on what came to be known as the classic line-up of Devo: brothers Gerald and Bob Casale, brothers Mark and Bob Mothersbaugh, and Alan Myers.
After releasing a debut 45 on their own Booji Boy label (“When we were working in Mark’s apartment on the single, we didn’t have a ‘g’ in the Letraset letters we had left, so we spelled it with a ‘j,’” notes Gerald) and an EP on England’s upstart Stiff Records, the band signed to Warner Bros. Records. Though David Bowie had been tapped to produce them, scheduling conflicts meant that Brian Eno ended up producing their debut album, Q: Are We Not Men? A: We Are Devo!, released in 1978. Though championed by college radio, the band was limited to club appearances, though an October 1978 appearance on Saturday Night Live introduced Devo to a larger, mostly unappreciative audience. Several days after that airing, I remember a fellow Peachtree High School student approaching me to ask, “You like that punk rock shit? Like Devo?”
1979 saw the release of Devo’s sophomore album, Duty Now for the Future, recently reissued on CD and, unlike other recent colored vinyl Devo reissues, black vinyl. “Duty Now is a serious record and we thought it should do its duty and be black,” opines Jerry. Duty Now was seen by many, unfairly I think, as a lesser record. Local critic Bill King of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution chose Devo’s cover of “Secret Agent Man” to be one of the worst releases of the year.
1980 became Devo’s breakthrough year thanks to the release of what many consider their finest album, Freedom of Choice, and a genuine hit single, “Whip It.” When Devo performed on ABC’s Fridays in May of 1980, an ad ran promoting the next day on-sale for a Devo concert at the Fox Theatre in August. After a few weeks of noticing the show was not being listed in the AJC’s concert calendar, I wrote Bill King a letter asking why, to which he replied in print with some smartass comment. Nonetheless, I had my first mention in a paper and Devo were in the concert calendar! Musically, at this point Devo was one of the most powerful live acts going. I’ve often wondered why folks felt so threatened by this band. One listen to the bootleg of their Central Park show from this tour reveals them to be a complete monster. Come to think of it, those folks SHOULD have been threatened.
Unfortunately, this may have been the peak of Devo’s artistry. The 1981 follow-up, New Traditionalists, seemed a decent enough release at the time, but a listen to the recent reissue of the album shows it be have not aged as well as the three preceding albums. More synthesizer-based than its predecessors, it signaled the direction Devo would choose to go on the remainder of their albums from the decade.
After the releases of Oh, No! It’s Devo (1982) and Shout (1984), drummer Alan Myers, a highly underrated cog in the band’s sound, left the group citing creative deprivation. The band soldiered on with Total Devo (1988) and Smooth Noodle Maps (1990) but few paid attention to these inferior albums and Devo effectively vanished.
Mark Mothersbaugh formed Mutato Muzika, a commercial music production company that created music for television (notably Rugrats) as well as other ventures. Gerald Casale settled in directing commercials for, among others, Miller Lite (nine total), Mrs. Butterworth (four), Tang and a Super Mario Brothers video game, but surprisingly enough, not the Target commercials using Devo songs. “That would have made sense, but I didn’t do those,” notes Casale.
Though the band periodically played live shows, including Lollapalooza dates and an appearance at 2005’s Music Midtown, the closest the world got to new Devo material was through Devo 2.0, a collaboration between the band and Disney which featured the band playing old songs and two new songs with children singing the vocals. Bizarrely enough, Devo 2.0 was actually entertaining though we shouldn’t expect new releases. As Casale puts it, “the kids are all grown up now and not allowed to do the songs. I think the girl grew breasts.” (Note: there were several girls among the kids, so the band obviously gave this a minimum amount of attention.)
In 2007, the band released a downloadable new song, “Watch Us Work It,” which has been used in a Dell commercial. Rumors began swirling about new material as well as rumors of Mark killing the project. Which begins the laborious process that leads us to Devo’s first new album in twenty years, Something for Everybody.
“Once we got a commitment from Mark that he would collaborate after not wishing to for twenty years, we just got back down to the business of being Devo and did what we did and wrote about 32 songs in a year and a half period,” recalls Gerald.
The band, in typical Devo fashion, did something unexpected and submitted the work to market research. “We started with a small set of focus groups here and there by using the ad agency Mother. We then whittled that down to sixteen or seventeen songs through that process and actually produced them. 40,000 fans then took the song study on the Club Devo website and chose their favorite twelve out of those,” quips Casale.
One would think that having fans select your album tracks might create problems if the choices did not mirror band opinion. “Not really,” notes Gerald. “All the songs that we finished we liked. Were there some surprises as to what the fans liked as opposed to what we liked? Yeah, a couple of times, but that’s why the new CD is only 88% focus group-approved. The sequence on iTunes was determined by the order of the votes the fans gave them. The CD has two different songs and a different track order because we sequenced it to an order we felt musically flowed.”
Something for Everybody, while not a great album, is decent enough. Initially, I thought it resembled most Devo post-New Traditionalists, but repeated listens allow it to grow on you. In 2009, Devo did a tour where on differing nights they would play Are We Not Men? and Freedom of Choice in their entirety. While that thought led my expectations to hope new material would be more like those albums, it at least retains some of the spirit of those releases while improving somewhat on their later synth-reliant material.
“It’s something old, something new, something borrowed, something blue. We couldn’t help but drop in old elements. Frankly it wouldn’t have worked for us to try to be something else,” notes Casale. “Too many bands that haven’t been active in a while come back and try to imitate some contemporary hit style and it seems sad. ‘Hey, let’s sound like MGMT,’ you know. That would have been a joke so we just stuck to being ourselves.”
Casale has noticed a number of new bands that obviously were paying attention to Devo’s old records.
“I’ve been encouraged by the music scene in the last three or four years in terms of the kind of music that started happening. Oddly enough it sounded like the music I liked to begin with. I would read interviews with James Murphy of LCD Soundsystem or Al Doyle of Hot Chip where they would reference Devo as their big influence. It totally made sense and it was heartening. Besides those guys I like the Ting Tings, MSTRKRFT, the Kills, Passion Pit. There’s a lot of good stuff out there.”
The title song, “Something for Everybody,” is both a description of the process by which the songs were selected as well as a statement on our political system. “Yeah, it acknowledges the mess we’re in is bigger than any front man,” opines Gerald. “A politician is basically an MC or song-and-dance man for the corporation, whose butt is so owned by such powerful forces that operate behind the scenes that all he can do is sell the brand ‘America’ to the public.”
“No Place Like Home” is one of my favorites on the new release, partially because of its deviance from Devo’s usual sound. “No Place Like Home” is Devo’s first ballad. “If I didn’t do a ballad now I might be missing my last chance on earth to do one,” muses Jerry. “So I said, I’m gonna really sing this one and not use a Devo voice.”
Devo are currently on a tour that will bring them to Chastain Park on July 28th. As would be expected, the band sprinkles in new selections with the “hits” in customary Devo style. This tour will suffer some, thanks to a record company decision. For its 1982 tour, the band played to videos synchronized behind them so that the performance was enhanced by reactions to the video elements. Gerald had worked on several videos in a similar approach for the new tour only to have Warners veto it. A money decision? “We don’t know,” says Casale. “They are kind of not honoring their relationship to us partners there.”
And after the tour? Devo are set to be on the 100th episode of Futurama portraying “mutant rights activists.” After that? “We’ll have to see how this record goes,” muses Casale. “If we get blown off and it doesn’t go anywhere, maybe we’ll just take it as a hint.”
But how will the 2012 doomsday scenarios affect this?
“You know what it is,” smirks Jerry. “Everybody wants there to be all this end-of-the-world type stuff and the real 2012 disaster will probably be just another oil spill.”
Considering that most such scenarios as posed on cable TV have been written by science fiction writers who are emphasizing many things the Mayans never did, can one get more Devo than creating hysteria by imagining a future that can’t occur because it’s based on something that never happened?
“That is Devo,” agrees Gerald.
Wouldn’t this have been easier if Devo had just been a blues band?
“We are a blues band,” laughs Casale. “Our songs are sad.”
Photo by Joshua Dalsimer.