If you’ve known me long enough, or know me in real life, or were linked here from Facebook (those three things should cover all of you who know this by now) you know that I love Devo. It took a long time, but as I started watching Devo Live 1980 this afternoon, I realised suddenly that these guys are my favourite band of all time. At least, right now. But they will likely continue to be into the future. These badasses of rock’n’roll spit on the graves of mere mortal musicians with the contempt usually reserved by hippies for their corporate masters.
Devo recognised the instant they formed that music wasn’t heading toward a hippie free-sharing utopia, although we have that in our underground pirate networks. No, they saw that music was corporatized; music was a product to be exported and sold to the masses on whatever media the corporation deemed profitable this week. And instead of rebelling against their new corporate overlords like cowards, they instead used their fascination with synthesizers and robotic riffs to infiltrate the corporations they wanted to bring down, writing satire so perfect it sounds like the real thing. Devo are not a band. They are the representatives of a cultural singularity that wouldn’t happen for over twenty years. All of this, you see, was in 1974.
My experience with Devo began when I was in middle school. I won’t hesitate to say, I was a cretin when I was younger. I was a cretin yesterday. I like to think that human beings are constantly shifting and evolving to their final forms, like films by George Lucas. This is off topic. Suffice it to say, I was a little pill, and I heard “Whip It” being used to sell Swiffer mops. And something about that song spoke to me on a basic level. I downloaded it off Limewire (I was never a Kazaa kid) as soon as I’d pestered my mom into telling me who wrote that song. She knew she was going to have to hear it for weeks afterward. Let me tell you, I loved that song to absolute pieces–ironically. Did I mention I was an idiot at thirteen? I was an idiot yesterday.
Something about the cold, calculated distance of “Whip It” fascinated me. Every riff was written as though on a calculator. The time shifts were done as though metered out for perfect length. Everything about it was cold, cool and detached from what actual rock and roll was. Little did I know that all rock’n’roll was like that–Devo just weren’t afraid to be proud of it. What The Colbert Report is to televised punditry, Devo were to music in the 1980s. And they were doing that schtick in the 1970s. They were so ahead of their time that the time they were aiming for was thought of as science fiction when they started out. That’s not just “cool”, that’s totally friggin’ awesome.
Years later, I was the kind of pill who said he liked bands that he didn’t listen to many songs by. Hence, I always said I liked Devo. I never count those times as having counted towards my actual fandom. That started when, on a band trip to Chicago, we visited the three story Virgin Megastore. In there, I found a lot of records that have gone on to shape my tastes in music. The two that really changed the way I approach sound as a fan, though, were Year Zero by Nine Inch Nails and Q: Are We Not Men? A: We Are Devo! by Devo. Every song on Q&A was filled with a raw, primal energy–calculated, divorced from any meaning, and re-interpreted by a computer. From 1974 to 1980, two genres were emerging: punk and new wave. Devo got filed under new wave. That is entirely false. These guys are more hardcore punks than I’ve seen out of music since.
Hell, let’s go through some punk criteria, you and me, right now. Simple music and easy-to-play style? Yes. Thumbing your nose at authority? Hell yes. Lyrical obsession with gutter talk; topics including sex, depravity, hatred and anti-commercial sentiment? Only every day. Hell, I think Devo wanted to be classified as new wave so that they’d been seen as safe. They were spies from the post-Vietnam, distrust of the government generation, sent to keep making and playing music well into the 1980s after they’d been abandoned by all but their core fanbase.
I thought I was a Devo fan back in 2007. I am proud now to say that I was totally wrong. I say I’m not a fanboy, and I stick to that. I love Devo, they’ve released some horrible albums, but they’ve also done more for popular music than any other band in existence with the exception of the Beatles. You wanna know what Devo did for music that was so damn special? How about inventing music videos before MTV was even thought of? Sure, the Beatles were the first televised appearance of a band that was pre-recorded, but Devo’s videos were the first to feature plots that complemented and supplemented the songs they were supporting. They were the first to convey stories independent of their songs. They were releasing music video compilations before MTV went live. I’m not even joking. They brought anti-corporate, anti-American sentiment to the forefront of popular music. They wrote happy, jolly songs about how corporations will end your life and have been doing so since before you could think.
Devo were pioneers and it’s time you damn well acknowledged it. You know why you listen to electronica? Devo. Why you hear synths on everything? Devo. Devo are the people who made your precious anti-American sentiment a reality before you had the balls to realize that being up to your ears in cocaine is no reason to vote Reagan twice. And now they’ve come back from a twenty year hiatus to tell you why you’re the exact corporate, joyless, cold and disconnected culture that McDonald’s and the Republican party want you to be, and the only thanks they get is being called a one-hit wonder from 1980? The real question is not “why do I like them?”. The question is why you haven’t gone out and bought Freedom of Choice yet.
De-evolution is very real. And now, we’re all devo.