The Truth About Devo, America's Most Misunderstood Band
Over 40 years ago, David Bowie called Devo "the band of the future." What he didn't realize is just how bleak that future would be—and how right Devo would be about it.
On May 4, 1970, the Ohio National Guard opened fire on a crowd of unarmed Kent State University students protesting the US military bombing of Cambodia. An art student named Gerald Casale was there among the chaos, running to escape the miasma of tear gas and bullets as two of his friends, Alison Krause and Jeffrey Miller, succumbed to gunshots from an M-1 rifle. The incident, which left a total of four dead and nine injured, would go down in history as a cultural loss of innocence, a particularly harrowing example of American political and social unrest during the Vietnam War. It also marked the birth of Devo, the band and multi-disciplinary project that Casale would start with a cast of friends impacted by the shooting in the months that followed.
“In the spring of 1970, I was what might be described as a smart, politically aware hippie,” Casale, who was drafted but obtained a medical deferment, would later tell Noisey. “May 4, 1970 changed all of that in the nanosecond of gunfire. I was traumatized beyond description. It probably qualified as a nervous breakdown. NO MORE MR. NICE GUY!!"
With campus shut down until the fall and nowhere to go, Casale and friends would decamp to the Akron home of Mark Mothersbaugh, a part-time Kent State art student whose graffiti art had caught Casale’s attention. Parsing through the aftermath, the pair began collaborating, drawing on Dada and other Interwar art movements to create bizarro, disconcerting takes on agitprop posters, 50s ad graphics, and religious pamphlets. They also started playing music—Casale on bass, Mothersbaugh vocalizing over an early Moog synth—hoping to capture the sound of things falling apart.
Even before the shootings, Casale says he’d felt American society regressing. He even had a name for the phenomenon—“devolution,” or “devo” for short—an art and literature concept he’d conceived with classmate and poet Bob Lewis, who also played in the band for a brief stint. It was a response, Casale says, to the failed promise of utopian progress peddled by post-WWII politicians and consumer culture. But what began as an in-joke, fodder for late night discussions and Casale’s graduate work as an art student, took on a new gravity and urgency in the wake of the Kent State shootings.
“When they shot and killed people for protesting, we were like, ‘Wow, I guess you can’t really change things like that, because if it gets too real they’re going to stop you,’” Mothersbaugh writes in the forward to Devo: The Brand / Devo Unmasked, a new double book and retrospective penned with Casale featuring never-before-seen photos, artwork, and revelations from their personal archives. “So how do you change things? Subversion: that’s how. Who does it best? Madison Avenue; they get people to buy things that are bad for them every day...That’s what we wanted to do, use subversion to sell people things that they don’t know they want.”
Though Devo’s synth-heavy sound and driving hooks often see the band billed as a New Wave act, the group occupies a more singular place in pop music’s trajectory, fusing the radical electronic experimentation of Kraftwerk and Bob Moog with punk’s wiry intensity. Some tracks, like “Whip It” and “Beautiful World,” were pop Trojan horses, with their deadpan critiques of American conformity and consumerism subverting infectious riffs and rhythms. Others, like the band’s deconstructed 1978 rendition of The Rolling Stone’s “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction,” would be more overtly confrontational—less a cover than a “correction,” as the band described it, bewildering Mick Jagger and television audiences alike with its clanking, mechanical samples and Mothersbaugh’s arhythmic yelps.
As Devo settled into a five person act—rounded out by Alan Myers on drums and two Bobs (Bob Mothersbaugh, Mark’s brother, on guitar, and Bob Casale, Gerald’s brother, on rhythm guitar and keyboard)—it started earning attention beyond its core Midwestern fanbase. Co-opting the logic of advertising, they laid the template for the multimedia emphasis that’s de rigeur for musical artists today, with theatrical live shows, narrative music videos, custom merchandise, substantive talking points, wild costumes, and branding, branding, branding. Devo wielded them to lampoon everything from sex to religion to the corporate culture supporting the band itself, eventually earning the band the censorship of MTV, the scorn of the press, and, according the group, the ire of its record label, Warner Brothers.
By the time Devo played New York's Max’s Kansas City in November 1977, though, it had earned a fan in David Bowie. Introducing them onstage, he’d declare Devo “the band of the future,” and announce that he’d be producing the group’s debut album in Tokyo that winter.
The latter would never really come to pass—those duties would go to Brian Eno in Cologne, after Bowie got tied up filming Just a Gigolo, though Bowie did end up helping out on weekends. But Devo would indeed prove to be the band of the future. What Bowie didn’t realize is just how bleak that future might be.
Today, Devo’s mainstream legacy doubles as shorthand for 80s New Wave quirk—a group of synth-addled weirdos in red Ziggurat hats, yellow Tyvek suits, and a novelty hit, 1980’s “Whip It,” to their name. But to dismiss Devo as nostalgia compilation fodder is to overlook a body of work that feels prescient in both style and substance, rife with critiques of consumerism, right-wing ascendance, Midwestern paternalism, corporate monoculture, and geopolitical hysteria. Nearly 50 years later, the band’s story plays out like an uncanny harbinger of today’s post-Trump surreality—something Mothersbaugh sees flashes of in even the most unexpected corners of contemporary life.
"The devolution of humans, you know, it’s continuing,” Mothersbaugh says. “We were pessimistic, but not this pessimistic. We didn't think it was going to move this fast.”
“I was at a birthday party earlier this year for some little kids, and they had this clown that the kids were all picking on,” othersbaugh, now a composer for filmmakers like Wes Anderson and Phil Lord, recalls at his LA studio on a recent summer afternoon. “He said to one of the little girls, ‘What do you want to be when you grow up?’ And she goes, ‘Rich!’ And then they all went, ‘Yeah!’— and started high-fiving each other.”
As he replays the moment, Mothersbaugh’s eyes widen. Almost half a century after Kent State, he still looks bewildered. “The devolution of humans, you know, it’s continuing,” he says. “We were pessimistic, but not this pessimistic. We didn't think it was going to move this fast.”
To celebrate the 40th anniversary of Devo’s debut album, Q: Are We Not Men? A: We Are Devo!, we sat down with Casale, now a director and composer, and Mothersbaugh to discuss Devo: The Brand / Devo Unmasked, the band’s complicated legacy, and what Devo as a project might look like had the group formed today. What follows features rare photos and art from the book, and combines interviews with the artists conducted on separate occasions. It has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Noisey: The shape of Devo has always straddled a kind of dichotomy. Was that part of the intention of making this a double book?
Gerald Casale: Yes, the book was supposed to be even more of a dichotomy. We did elevate the mundane. And the profane. Because we liked this whole idea of fusing what we called the “high” and the “low” Devo. Because the high end would be, you know, the history of Dada, surrealism, expressionism, and the breakdown of narrative form like with Fitzgerald and other novelists and the existentialists. I was an English major and an art major, so I saw it at all. But then that's historical and pretentious. So we'd ask ourselves, what would the Dadaists do now? And we decided that would be to take the worst end of pop culture, like TV ads, televangelists, con men, all these people that were like, “You’re number one! Subscribe to my newspaper and you can become a star!”, and subvert it. So that was the fun. The fun was playing a game with conformist mainstream culture.
It feels like people don't necessarily recognize that having fun with those conceptions would be the most effective way to take them on. Do you think that’s something that's being lost?
Casale: Yeah, irony and satire have been lost in this fascist swing to the right, because now we have a society that we kind of warned about. It went worse than we thought. In other words, even my worst fears have been exceeded. And it's not funny anymore.
Do you think Devo’s tack, or a modern day version of that, can still be effective?
Casale: I don't. At least when we were doing what we did, the creative space wasn't suffocated. That is, if you were doing something really well, you reached an audience. You had a voice and the marketplace couldn't crush it. The best acts got signed. That's not true today. You could be doing something great, and you could do it for ten years, and nobody's gonna know about it except some group of friends. It's really scary.
Or you could go viral.
Casale: And then it gets eaten up. For instance, my favorite thing in the last two months was Childish Gambino's "This is America." When I watched it, I was downright jealous. I thought, "Why didn't I direct that?" in the first 20 seconds, when he just shoots the guy in the back of the head and keeps dancing. It's like, fuck, this is real art. This is, "Stand up and listen, motherfucker." There was substance there, and it was original and amazing, you know, and then it's gone.
How did the Kent State shooting change you?
Casale: In the four years leading to the killings at Kent State on May 4, 1970, my political awareness had been growing in leaps and bounds. In 1967, a plethora of writers and politicians began attacking the validity of the Vietnam War.
In the spring of 1970, I was what might be described as a smart, politically aware hippie. May 4th, 1970 changed all of that in the nanosecond of gunfire. I saw the blood running out of Jeffrey Miller and Allison Krause from their exit wounds in the noonday sun. I was closer to the gas-masked National Guardsmen than they were, but the Guard shot over the heads of the crowd I was in and killed and wounded students behind us. Later, I would theorize that I lucked out, because the Guard was made up of guys the same age as myself. They might have not had the guts to shoot at students so close to them that they could see our faces clearly. They hated us because there was a cultural civil war going on. But they were teenagers too. In the next two years, I realized that the system was rotten to the core. That everything I believed was an illusion.
How did Devo's subversion end up taking the form of a brand, rather than something else? That's something that hadn't really been seen before, in music or otherwise.
Casale: No one talked about brands in the 1970s in the way the word is used today. Brands were limited to Cheerios or Levis or Marlboros. Other than The Who making a joke on their Who Sell Out LP, and Captain Beefheart on Safe as Milk, there wasn’t even a nod to the irony of “rebellious” rock acts being part of the mainstream, corporate, commercial grind. I was quite aware of that disparity from the beginning. We knew that rebellion and its various poses (leather, chains, long hair) was obsolete and cornpone. We played with that conflicted duality in all that we presented, musically and visually, because that was central to the whole concept. There was nothing we did that was not on purpose. Nothing that I could not articulate. We were a a self-proclaimed canary in a coal mine warning people about the emerging dangers of technology as a god to be worshipped, rather than as a tool to be exploited, and the centralized Corporate Feudal State that seemed to be barreling full speed ahead.
Our brand was real freedom, rather than freedom as an advertising campaign where the consumer was told how to be free. We were performance artists when there was not a label for that either. We were pioneers who got scalped. We were roundly criticized and called "sell-outs" by the rock press for creating self-designed merchandise. We were attacked by preeminent music critic, Robert Hilburn, for integrating film with our live show, where characters and objects were in sync with our musical, theatrical performance. He said, “If we wanted videos, we could go to an arcade. Rock 'n' roll or stay home Devo!” Maybe we should have stayed home. But then no one would agree that De-evolution is real as they readily do today.
"We played with that conflicted duality in all that we presented, musically and visually, because that was central to the whole concept," Casale says. "There was nothing we did that was not on purpose."
Devo has been misunderstood throughout its career, but the band hasn’t acknowledged very much about it until now. Why come forth with that now, after so long?
Casale: We thought maybe this book will give people an idea of what the Devo gestalt was about. Because of the gatekeepers and the labels and the typical rock writers, we were so truncated, so trivialized, so dumbed down to one little thing. This was a chance to maybe remind people that there was something more to Devo before our legacy is completely destroyed.
Do you feel like it was heading that way?
Casale: Yeah, it's been heading that way. At least we were the answer to a question on “Jeopardy” two weeks ago. Something to do with the red hats I designed, because even people that’ve never bought a Devo record know that hat. It's always about “Whip It,” you know? When we did Freedom of Choice, that was just a song on the record. It isn't like we focused on that, or liked that more than anything else at all. In fact, naming the album Freedom of Choice was on purpose, because Mark and I liked “Freedom of Choice,” the song. And, you know, that got passed over completely, which is so perfect.
Mark Mothersbaugh: Part of the reason [we hadn't said much] is because that was something that always was vexing to us. Our record company, we felt, never understood us. They marketed us as "those wacky clowns." But we were art and literature students. So with the book, we thought it would be fun to show how people reacted to us. Some people really got it, and there were a lot of people who, it was upsetting to them. I think Rolling Stone, the first time they wrote about us, it said something like, “They call this rock and roll? There's a couple songs that don't even have real drums, and there's two songs that don't even have a guitar!” And they're like, putting a bunch of exclamation points, "It doesn't have guitarsI It's not rock and roll!" They were certainly not wrong. We never called ourselves rock and roll. Other people did. When I was in school, I fell in love with all the art movements in Europe between World War I and World War II. That's the time I wished I was alive. I wish I could have lived in Paris, or Berlin, or Munich, or Vienna between the wars, just because there was so much intellectual activity going on in the art world.
That's in part what inspired you and Devo to start making films, right?
Mothersbaugh: We thought what we were making was always a multimedia concept. We didn't even want to look like a band. It was bad enough that we had to play in clubs. We tried to play at museums or other locations, and even in those days, we were already thinking we should pitch a circus tent and go city to city performing in that. Just so we're not in the same venues.
"The first time they wrote about us, Rolling Stone said, 'They call this rock and roll? It doesn't have guitars! It's not rock and roll!'" Mothersbaugh says. "They were certainly not wrong. We never called ourselves rock and roll."
Why didn't you want to be associated with those venues?
Mothersbaugh: Because we thought rock and roll was dead already. We thought rock and roll had been used up, and it was intellectually vapid, and there was no reason for it to continue. We were thinking that we were working towards a new medium, which we thought was laser discs, but it became film and music mixed together. And we thought, well that's going to kill all of the rock dinosaurs. They're all going to die because none of them can make films. They don't know how to do art; they only know music. We were sure that all the Tom Pettys and bands like that, they were all just going to fall away, and it would be artists who would take over pop music. That's where we were trying to go.
But early on at Warner Brothers, we realized they had no concept of what we were, why we were doing what we did, and they didn't care. We were in our first marketing meeting where they said, “OK, here's our plan for Devo. We're going to do life-sized cut outs of you guys because you look so weird, you know, in your yellow suits, and we're going to put them in every big record store.” And that was it. We said, “Could we have that money to make a film about one of the songs?” And they go, “What will we do with that? What? What are you talking about? That's the stupidest idea we've ever heard.” That was their response. Before we even had a record, we had a film, and we thought that they understood that. It was a constant battle with the record companies the whole time, where they didn't get anything we did. And so the idea of having an “unmasked” side of Devo in a book really appealed to us to be able to talk about some of that, and to some extent, we do.
How did those fraught relationships influence how the project evolved? You had this platform that's supposed to help support art and support music, but it was actually making you prey to the system you were trying to subvert.
Mothersbaugh: It became a thing where we were constantly trying to double think everything, overthink everything. We’d think, what could we give them, so they're happy and they promote the record? We'd watch somebody like Prince or Tom Petty do an album, and they’d instantly throw all this money into it, and we never got anything. We’d always just be sitting there and doing things on a minimal budget. So it just made us try to figure out, how do you trick the people that don't understand what you're doing into being on your side? That was what we were trying to do after the first album.
How did you guys think about and approach that?
Mothersbaugh: We kept trying to figure out, how do we give them a song that they can maybe put on the radio? We were a totally different kind of band. We decided early on, well, they give us a $100,000, what are we gonna do with it? And we go, well, let's pay each band member the same amount of money a Los Angeles school teacher gets. We did that so that we'd have money for our art experimentation and for our music experimentation and so we could make those films independently, and didn't have to depend upon Warner Brothers to finance things for us.
"We knew we were stepping into a sewer. We didn't know how bad it stunk."
Did you know what you were getting yourselves into with the labels and the music industry?
Mothersbaugh: We knew we were stepping into a sewer. We didn't know how bad it stunk. It was tough, we were never 100 percent happy about anything that was going on. And even when we finally had a song that did get hit radio play, “Whip It,” it seemed like that worked against us, because all of a sudden, you know, we were this band. It was almost like a cartoon, where you'd be in the studio working on something, and all of a sudden Joe Schmo from Warner Brothers' head would pop up and say something like, “Hey! How are you guys doing? Do you need anything? Just wanted to remind you, you can do anything you want, anything you want, just write another ‘Whip it!’” It was obvious they weren’t getting it. We were never taken very seriously.
What do you think Devo would look like if the project formed today?
Casale: I feel so sorry for anybody trying to do anything now. It's so overwhelming. But things were also pretty horrible when Devo started. Maybe we'd make the film that we weren't allowed to make, because we'd have a way of doing that without asking for millions of dollars. I think there would be kind of a Banksy component to it too, like striking here and striking there. Almost anonymously, like, Is that Devo, or was it somebody else doing Devo for Devo, you know? You could almost have a Devo army that gets the idea and then they go do things, like ISIS, but creatively, rather than malignly—they're in the spirit of Devo, doing Devo's work for them. If it was up to me, we would be out there actively, with a voice in the marketplace. I need to find people that've got the spirit. I direct TV commercials to make a living, but I have no delusion about what that is. If Devo’s not working and not able to tour and make a record, you have to live. So maybe I’ve got to get a bunch of young Devos and get them going. I know there's a lot of people who get it, and there's a whole new generation of fans that discovered us on the internet, and they love it. We need a big rock band to cover “Freedom of Choice,” or a rapper sampling it would be even be better.
Mothersbaugh: I think somebody could come along and do what we were trying to do back then, and they could do a really effective job of it. I think our priorities were right. We were not sexist. We were not money grubbers. We weren't trying to get rich. We had all sorts of dreams.