It's easy to forget how many different sounds a musical act can move through. Often bands become associated with a style that's drastically different from the music they made when starting out — see, for a particularly potent example, Devo. Most people remember Devo (if they remember Devo at all) for “Whip It,” a goofy 1980 MTV hit with a video in which various pieces of clothing get whipped off their wearers. The band members wore “energy domes” — basically ziggurat-shaped red pots — on their heads, and their black shirts and shorts contrasted sharply with the chipper cowboys and Western setting of the video. The song itself sounds mechanical, alien, silly. One can easily miss that it's a biting satire of git-'er-done machismo, because it's such an iconic, now quaint-seeming artifact of 1980s New Wave. But “Whip It” came out of Devo's third album for Warner Bros., 1980's Freedom of Choice. By that point, the band had evolved significantly from its original sound — and not necessarily for the better.
Before energy domes and MTV, Devo was a band of disillusioned, sexually frustrated art students and proto-punks from Akron, Ohio. The name Devo came from Mark Mothersbaugh and Jerry Casale, based on an idea that human evolution was on a course of ignoble “devolution” rather than gradual improvement. The theory was originally a half-baked joke, but after Casale witnessed the Kent State shootings in 1970 — in which National Guard troops killed four college students and wounded nine — he and Mothersbaugh instantly lost their Aquarian idealism. They no longer felt certain of any fundamental goodness in the human world. Instead, they viewed society as a stifling, brutal force for conformity, violence, and self-subjugation, and they set out to critique it with a rock 'n' roll band they filled out with their brothers.
That fierce, combative spirit courses through Hardcore, a two-volume reissue of demos recorded by Devo between 1974 and 1978. Recently released by local archival label Superior Viaduct, Hardcore shows a band whose cynicism is raw and direct, in contrast to the easy-to-miss satire of the “Whip It” era. The four-track recordings are primitive, and the songs are spare, abrasive, and frequently challenging. Many of them are also excellent: Hardcore contains early versions of “Jocko Homo,” “Mongoloid,” and the band's cover of “Satisfaction,” all of which would make it — albeit in more smoothed-out, less-threatening forms — to the band's Brian Eno-produced 1978 Warner Bros. debut. It's easy to feel that the early versions of these songs are superior; even Devo's members tend to think so.
“I personally do miss the raw, politically incorrect, confrontational, performance-art aspects to the collective Devo 'soul,'” says Jerry Casale by email. “Those shifts away from that are inevitable with age and success, but regrettable artistically.” This is partly why the band mounted a short run of live shows to celebrate and perform the Hardcore-era music in a few cities. (The tour, which stops in Oakland this weekend, is dedicated to the memory of guitarist Bob Casale, aka Bob 2, who died suddenly of heart failure in February at the age of 61.)
The most interesting songs on Hardcore are the ones that didn't make it to Devo's next phase. Volume 1 begins amid the burbling synthesizers of “Mechanical Man”: A robotic voice slowly intones, “I'm a mechanical man … I'm a two-plus-two-equals-four-kind of man” while a guitar and bass dance in mischievous circles, and synths squirt primitive electronic noise. “Auto Modown” is a serrated blues-rock number — much of the Hardcore material finds the band borrowing blues structures and rhythms — but with synthesizers barking over what becomes a satisfying groove. With its thumping verse beat, parts of “Social Fools” recall early disco; “Midget” sounds like disillusioned R&B. The second volume is even weirder: There's the spooky surf-rock of “Bamboo Bimbo,” the start-stop punk of “Can U Take It?”, the barbershop-pop of “Goo Goo Itch.” The image painted is of a band utterly untethered to any particular form or expectation — and of a heretofore unseen bridge between loose, blues-dominated '70s rock and stiff, synth-heavy '80s New Wave.
But if the Hardcore collection sheds new light on Devo's later, tamer sounds, it also airs some less-than-flattering aspects of the band's early days. There's a strain of post-adolescent sexual angst here that, depending on your interpretation of certain lyrics, borders on chauvinism. “I found a girl with a pretty face / I tied a rope around her waist … Just push a button — retractable cord / I pull her back when I get bored,” goes “The Rope Song,” about a woman who, at least according to the narrator, is “exactly where she wants to be.” Then there's “I Need a Chick,” in which Casale's lyrics seem to leave little room for ambiguity: “I need a chick to suck my dick / I need a dog to lick my hog … There's no hole for my pole / I'd fuck a mink stole.” Over email, he says the song was intentionally “crude and transgressive,” and that it was “ahead of its time,” foreshadowing the explicit sexuality that rap and urban pop has since placed on the radio. “Base carnality meets spirituality beyond Christian guilt,” Casale writes. “Trent Reznor's 'Closer' comes to mind.”
That's not a great explanation. But we should be careful before presuming too much sincerity in the lyrics of early Devo — just as one should with “Whip It.” As the Hardcore reissue shows, this is a band that routinely meant the opposite, or something close to the opposite, of what it said — a band whose mockery of conformity and prevailing values was frequently mistaken, later in its career, for their fervent espousal. (A Rolling Stone review of the band's debut album notoriously accused its members of being “fascists.”) Devo was more complex than the average rock or New Wave group, which may be part of the reason it's remembered largely — and unfairly — as a novelty act. Hardcore shows the thrilling, experimental origins of Devo's satire, and in so doing, reminds us that the way we remember things is often not how they were at all.