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What the World Needs Now Is Devo - June 28, 2018 - SF Weekly
SF Weekly

What the World Needs Now Is Devo

DEVO. Photo by Janet Macoska

“It’s such a punk story,” says Devo’s Jerry Casale.

He’s remembering the time in 1977 when the band thought they were about to be arrested at Iggy Pop’s house.

“We were playing the Starwood, which was like a competition for the Whisky a Go Go. Who shows up but Toni Basil, and she has brought Iggy Pop along. They were both already fans. Unbeknownst to us, they had started telling everybody about Devo. They’d even given a cassette to Neil Young.”

Shortly after that concert, the band found themselves hanging out with Pop at his beachside home in Malibu.

“There was a table full of every possible drug you could want,” Casale says with a laugh. “He was still mixing Lust for Life, and we went out there to jam with him and stay at his place.”

At some point during their stay, Pop’s then-girlfriend appeared, and the Stooges frontman whisked her away in a rented 1966 GTO Pontiac convertible, promising Casale he’d be back shortly.

“They went out the door,” Casale says, “and literally, like 15 minutes later, instead of him coming back, the cops come to the door because Iggy had managed to hit a phone pole on the PCH. He was taken in by the cops and his girlfriend was taken to a hospital. She turned out to be OK, but the cops came to the door to track him down. We were afraid, because we’re sitting there in this house full of pot and blow and everything else and the cops are beating on the door.”

It sounds like a typical rock ’n’ roll story of the era, and certainly Iggy Pop’s appetites and propensities have been well-documented. But … Devo?

 

What do you think of when you hear the name Devo?

For most culturally literate people, it’s an image of art rock geeks clad in yellow DuPont Tyvek suits. You may recall the band’s energy dome headwear: ziggerauts of bright red plastic inspired by the Bauhaus movement and Aztec temples. Certainly you’ll think of “Whip It” — a pinnacle of New Wave synthpop and Devo’s only song to ever crack the Top 40 charts.

However, for those who think Devo was simply a kitschy punchline for the late 1970s and early ’80s — yet another one-hit wonder in a period full of fleeting success and a bounty of future karaoke favorites — a history lesson is in order.

Over the course of a career that’s spanned nearly 50 years, the band has produced an array of acclaimed songs, art films, and confrontational live performances. Although they’ve struggled to find commercial success for many of their endeavors, the cultural significance of Devo has its fingerprints in everything from Nirvana to Pee-wee Herman. Far more than geeks with guitars, Devo is the continued embodiment of a theory that posits humankind is not evolving, but instead, moving backward. They are punk by definition — and they have the stories to prove it.

In fact, the band’s appearance this month at Oakland’s Burger Boogaloo — their first live show in four years — was made possible in part through the efforts of another highly beloved creator of subversive art. Director and perennial Boogaloo emcee John Waters wooed members Mark Mothersbaugh and Jerry Casale over the course of numerous emails, which ultimately led them to sign on to this special, one-off performance.

In separate interviews, Mothersbaugh and Casale both credit Waters as a kindred spirit, especially when Devo was first starting out.

“He gave us hope that maybe things don’t have to devolve,” Mothersbaugh says.

“He was a big inspiration to me back when I was still trapped in Ohio and Pink Flamingos came out,” Casale explains. “That movie was like a rallying cry for all of the disenfranchised people that weren’t mainstream, that were freaks, that felt like they were marginalized. I think growing up in Ohio when we did, we had much more in common with the Baltimore experience than the New York experience. So we resonated with that stuff immediately.”

DEVO. Photo by Bobbie Watson

The circumstances that first brought Mothersbaugh, Casale, and the rest of Devo together were anything but amusing. In the aftermath of the infamous Kent State shooting on May 4, 1970, then-student Casale recruited Mothersbaugh, Bob Lewis, Rod Reisman, Fred Weber, and his brother, Bob Casale (aka Bob 2), to form an agitprop group dedicated to subverting the politics and consumerism of the day.

While the tragedy at Kent State — where Jerry Casale and fellow student Lewis first toyed with the idea of de-evolution — can correctly be cited as the most direct impetus for Devo’s formation, the roots of the group that would one day become renegade electro-punk pioneers sprang from many far-flung seeds.

According to Mothersbaugh, fans have Burger King to thank as one of Devo’s earliest sources of inspiration.

“There was nobody writing songs about what happened in Berkeley or Chicago or Kent State or any of the other cities where there was violence from the government,” he says. “We were looking around wondering how we could change things. If you don’t do it by protesting, how do you do it?”

The answer came in the form of a 1974 Burger King campaign that aired extensively on both television and radio.

“They played Pachelbel’s Canon,” Mothersbaugh recalls, “which is one of the prettiest pieces of music ever written. It went [singing] ‘Hold the pickles, hold the lettuce. Special orders don’t upset us. All we ask is that you let us serve it your way.’ I remember thinking, ‘My God, that’s such an evil, manipulative way to sell hamburgers,’ but it was so successful.”

In a move the band would go on to repeat many times over, Devo borrowed from their enemies — in this case, the jingle-makers on Madison Avenue.

“They make people do things that are bad for them,” Mothersbaugh explains. “They make people buy things that they don’t need or shouldn’t eat. We asked ourselves how we could use those techniques. That’s part of how we got really interested in making ourselves a brand. We were trying to make it easy to understand what we were, but we also wanted to be like a burrowing earwig.”

To accomplish this goal, they embraced a manifesto of satirical social commentary and surrealist athletics. Their signature energy dome helmets came into play on the 1980 “Freedom of Choice” tour, following the adoption of the band’s “official” uniform: shiny plastic yellow suits that served in part as hazmat protection against a society charmed by rampant consumerism and political malfeasance.

 

As musicians, Devo experimented with unusual time signatures to create discordant pop songs that shared many attributes of ’80s New Wave  — synthesizers, electronic production — but situated them within a cerebral and punk ethos that was fiercely self-aware. While 1980’s “Whip It” may be the song most immediately associated with the group, they continued to release albums throughout the decade, and have periodically returned to the studio over the years for 1990’s Smooth Noodle Maps and 2010’s Something for Everybody.

Until Devo left Ohio for a Hollywood in 1977 — a move that would both temporarily thrust them into the mainstream while also giving the band its first taste of the shady machinations of major record labels — the outfit viewed music as but one of their many outlets for expression. Devo’s early work includes the song “Jocko Homo” and the film, The Complete Truth About De-Evolution

They also created a number of characters to populate the alternate reality that all of Devo’s work purports to exist within.

There was Booji Boy (pronounced “Boogie Boy”), a masked persona of Mothersbaugh that embodied an eerily infantile demeanor, as well as equally demented creations like General Boy, Rodney Rooter, and Daddy Know-It-All. Together they rallied against nefarious organizations like Big Entertainment and the Pilgrims — the latter a group of television pundits propped up by corporate interests that would later jump from fiction to fact thanks to networks like Fox News.

At the same time, pivotal musicians of the moment were also taking notice of Devo.

 

In 1978, Devo was preparing to record its first album, the iconic Q: Are We Not Men? A: We Are Devo!, in Germany. Both Bowie and Brian Eno were eager to produce the band — although Bowie would bow out to film Just a Gigolo — and they were awaiting the group in Cologne when they touched down. The problem? Jerry Casale wasn’t with them.

“When we recorded our first album, Jerry was coming from Akron, but the rest of us were coming from Los Angeles,” Mothersbaugh explains. “I remember we stopped in New York to change planes, and Jerry got out of the plane and got on a pay phone with somebody. He got into this argument with them, and we all boarded the plane.”

Casale ultimately missed the flight, which left the rest of Devo with a day to wait until he could rejoin them. With all the equipment set up in the studio and nothing to do, what can only be described as one of the most incredible jam sessions in history took place.

“Eno and Bowie and Holger Czukay from CAN and [Dieter] Moebius from Moebius and Roedelius were all there,” Mothersbaugh says, “so we jammed. We ran through Devo songs and then we just jammed. I was given that tape when we were leaving the country by Conny Plank, the engineer, who had recorded it on two-track. That’s down in the basement of Devo right now.”

Mothersbaugh says he’s never listened to the session. He’s open to seeing what Plank captured that day 40 years ago, but explains that in order to hear the tape it will need to be “baked” — a process by which the deterioration of the binders in a magnetic tape are temporarily repaired so that it can be copied over to a fresh source.

Among the other treasures still living in the Devo vaults are video recordings that director and frequent Devo collaborator Chuck Statler made, including the band’s 1974 performance at Kent State featuring Mark’s brother, Jim, on drums.

“I was Booji Boy and I played keyboards,” Mothersbaugh recalls. “Gerry was Chinaman and he was playing bass the whole night. It was probably the most radical we ever sounded. It was great, because we were opening up for a brand-new film that had just come out called Pink Flamingos. In honor of the movie, we ended the night playing ‘The Girl Can’t Help It.’ Booji Boy dropped his drawers and did a dance with a couple of scarves. He twirled little hankies around.”

While Burger Boogaloo may be the home for Devo’s latest Bay Area performance, the band has long held a special affinity for San Francisco. It was at the now defunct Mabuhay Gardens on Broadway in North Beach that Devo first caught the attention of Neil Young, who invited the band to appear in his 1982 film, Human Highway.

Devo was also in the area on Jan. 14, 1978, where they saw the final Sex Pistols performance (before the reunion two decades later) at San Francisco’s Winterland Ballroom.

“We saw it all go down,” Casale confirms.

“That was the first time we met the Sex Pistols, after their very last show,” Mothersbaugh adds. “They came over to this house we were staying at, which was an apartment where they were putting together Search & Destroy. I think it was the editor of Search & Destroy’s place, and he let us stay there. We’d sleep on stacks of Search & Destroy magazine. The Sex Pistols came over and we partied all night. That was the last time I ever saw Sid Vicious and Nancy.”

However, it would not be the last time Devo saw Sex Pistols’ frontman Johnny Rotten — or, at least, not the last time the two would share close quarters.

In perhaps the most ludicrous moment of Devo’s career — and the most visceral example of their frequent clashes with record labels that failed to understand their mission — Virgin Records founder Richard Branson flew Mothersbaugh and Jerry’s brother, Bob, to Jamaica a month after that infamous Winterland show to pitch them a radical idea.

According to Casale, Branson had recently “strong-armed” Devo into signing away their European territory rights to Virgin, leaving him more than a little suspicious about what the business mogul now had in mind.

“I was already put off by Richard Branson,” Casale says, “because of all the shaky, duplicitous things he had done with our Warner Brothers deal.”

So instead Mothersbaugh and Bob Casale made the trip, where they were housed in a fancy Kingston hotel and treated to, in Jerry’s words, “some really good Jamaican weed.” Then, while both Devo members were flying high, Branson unveiled his brilliant plan.

“[Branson] says he’s got Johnny Rotten a few rooms away, staying in the hotel,” Casale recalls, “and that he’s got reporters from Melody Maker and Sounds Magazine in another room, and that he wants to announce that Johnny Rotten will join Devo and be our lead singer.”

If Mothersbaugh and Bob Casale had not been profoundly stoned, the story of Devo may have ended that day. “They could’ve scuttled Devo right then and there after all of our hard work,” reflects Casale. Instead, the two men assumed Branson was joking and laughed the idea away.

“It was like the hot air balloon burst,” Casale laughs. “They had to spend the night there and fly back to Akron the next day. Richard was supremely bummed out.”

 

While Devo may have initially called it quits in 1990, the band has continued to reunite. In the meantime, Mothersbaugh and Casale have found new avenues to explore as well. Jerry remains hopeful that he can one day find the backing to bring one of Devo’s film projects that never materialized to life as a Broadway musical.

Built around Devo’s cast of characters and shadowy organizations, the story follows the band as they battle against the evil Universal Health Systems, who are trying to stop Devo from providing a low-cost cure to the epidemic disease ossobuco myelitis. (The ailment is fictitious, and somehow incorporates osso buco, an Italian dish of braised veal shank, and myelitis, an inflammation of the spinal cord.) There’s a Turkey Monkey and a monopolistic record company, and many of Devo’s most beloved songs throughout.

“If anybody should do a musical,” Casale says, “it’s Devo. It’s part and parcel of our original manifesto and concept.”


 
Meanwhile, Mothersbaugh has found success as the head of Mutato Muzika, the Los Angeles music production company he founded in 1989. In his work as a composer, he’s often collaborated with director Wes Anderson, and created music for the cult classic Pee-wee’s Playhouse and a number of other films, television series, video games, and commercials.

Yet Devo lives on — at least for now. Their warning call can be heard in the social media outrage and television pundits that race to document the latest evidence that humanity may, in fact, be devolving before our eyes.

“There’s no comfort in being able to say, ‘I told you so,’ ” Mothersbaugh says. “We talked about having a conscious choice in what happens to you in your life. We called it ‘conscious mutation.’ It was based on being aware of what’s happening to you and in your name. The only silver lining I can see with Trump is that I think he’s shown people that things do matter, and that there are choices. I’m just hoping he will be an inspiration for people to become active again. We needed a Nixon when I was a teenager. Maybe teenagers now need a Trump.”

Just as Devo was able to channel their outrage into one of the most creative, enduring art projects of the past 50 years, perhaps the similar pains now being inflicted on a new generation will lead a fresh wave of subversive artists to step forward. The world could use another Devo — the continuation of a movement that refuses to stick its head in the sand and wait for better days.

“It would be nice if the true punk spirit would live again,” Casale reflects. “We need art to again be an affirmation of life and values in the face of the corporate boot coming down and kicking you in the head.”

For now, however, the original band is ready to once more unleash their madness. Although Bob Casale sadly passed away in 2014, the rest of Devo will suit up and take the stage with the same fury that first led two Kent State students to recruit a few friends and create art from anguish.

Asked if Devo’s upcoming performance at Burger Boogaloo might be the beginning of a larger return for the band, Mothersbaugh is hesitant to look too far into what the future might hold.

“This is a one-off thing, absolutely,” he confirms. “As far as doing something beyond that? We’ll see what happens. I love creating music and creating art more than performing the same show over and over again, which is kind of what happened with Devo. If I was told that David Bowie was coming back for two hours today, and while he’s here, I could either hear a brand-new Bowie album that no one’s ever heard or he’ll play a Spiders from Mars show — the one that made me fall in love with him back in the ’70s — I would definitely want to hear the Spiders from Mars stuff, even though he’s probably bored with that show. So, that said, I’d be OK if we didn’t do this again.”

Devo, Saturday, June 30, 8:15 p.m., Mosswood Park, 3612 Webster St., Oakland. $169 (2-Day Pass), $125 (Saturday Only); burgerboogaloo.com.