DEVO – ” Are We Not Men? A: We Are Devo! ” Released 40 Years Ago

Posted: August 29, 2018 in ALBUMS, MUSIC
Tags: , , , , , ,

Released in the summer of 1978 a year in which the charts were dominated by the disco pop of the Bee Gees, Boney M., and “You’re the One That I Want” Devo’s mold-breaking debut was already years in the making.

Devo formed initially not as musical group but as an idea ,the concept of the “de-evolution” of the human race—formulated by three art students at Kent State University in response to the fatal shooting of four anti-war protestors by National Guardsmen on May 4th, 1970 (events that also inspired the Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young song “Ohio”).

After making their live musical debut in 1973, by 1976 Devo had settled on a five-piece configuration comprised of two sets of brothers Jerry and Bob Casale, and Mark and Bob Mothersbaugh and drummer Alan Myers. (Bob Lewis, who worked with Jerry and Mark on their earliest “de-evolution” pamphlets and played in an embryonic version of the band, had stepped sideways into a short-lived management role.)

That year, true to their subsequent reputation for cross-media experimentation, they made their debut not with a record but with a short film. Directed by fellow Kent Stater Chuck Statler, The Truth About De-Evolution was part manifesto, part music video, interspersing surrealistic visuals with performances of “Secret Agent Man” (a Sloan/Barri song made famous by Johnny Rivers in the mid-sixties) and Devo’s own jerky “Jocko Homo.”

Statler’s film went on to win first prize at the 1977 Ann Arbor Film Festival in the same week that “Jocko Homo” also appeared as the B-side to the band’s first, self-released single, “Mongoloid.” With its call-and-response chorus of “Are we not men? We are Devo,” the song would become a mission statement of sorts for the band—a disorienting blur of tricky time-signature shifts and thought-provoking lyrics (inspired by the 1932 film Island of Lost Souls) hidden beneath a veneer of throwaway pop-punk whimsy.

Four decades later, of course, they’re legends — distinctly memorable and directly influential both in their performance-art-laced messaging and in the way they actually composed a pop-deconstructing milieu that fit somewhere between NEU! and the Ramones. Their uncanny nature of building indelible hooks in even their most avant-weirdo songs gave them a way in to impressionable listeners, their visual camp was the closest early MTV ever got to embracing a Fluxus-style art sensibility, and for a lot of outsiders they seemed like one of the few signs that maybe things didn’t have to keep on continuing the way they were.

Devo, preferring to keep their options open and corporate interference to a minimum, had not yet signed a long-term record contract, so Eno agreed to finance the record himself in return for a share of any future deal, even paying for their flights to Conny Plank’s studio in Cologne, Germany. (Bowie, keen to maintain his involvement in the record, would visit at weekends during breaks from shooting Just a Gigolo in Berlin.)

If the meeting of arty upstarts and art-rock legends sounded good on paper, the reality was not quite as Devo had anticipated. As Casale recently recalled “Here we were with this brutalist, industrial aesthetic and songs we’d lived with for up to three or four years, and [Eno is] suddenly adding harmonies and very pretty synth string sounds, and we’re like, ‘That’s not Devo. What’s he doing?’” As such, much of the subsequent mixing process involved turning down the faders on Eno’s contributions, although as Mark Mothersbaugh admitted in the same interview, “The stuff that stayed is really amazing.”

Forty years on, that remains the case, from the opening assault of “Uncontrollable Urge” and the band’s Dadaist cover of the Rolling Stones’ “Satisfaction” to the rising arpeggios and trans-European groove of “Gut Feeling” and the short, sharp shock of “(Slap Your Mammy).” Before it could be released into the world, however, the album remained in the can for six months while lawyers for Virgin and Warner Brothers jostled over the rights to it. Though the former had agreed to a worldwide deal with the group, executives at the latter label claimed that they, not Eno, had put up the funds for the sessions, and that as a result they should have it.

In the end, a compromise was agreed, with Virgin releasing the album in the UK and Europe and Warner issuing it in the U.S. and beyond. Though it was only modestly successful from a commercial standpoint, damned with faint praise by critics like Robert Christgau of the Village Voice, who concluded that, “in small doses,” it was “as good as novelty music ever gets,” the album would quickly become an important touchstone of the era.

Part of what makes Devo so important, of course, is that nobody else truly sounds like them. But while precise sonic analogues are few and few between, numerous acts from across a whole spectrum of music styles owe a debt to them, not least for the way they brought uncompromising ideas out into the light. “When we were new, we were shocking and so different—only we owned that aesthetic,” Jerry Casale noted in 2010. “Now a lot of bands cite as Devo as their influence.”

Rolling Stone wrote: “It’s a brittle, small masterpiece of Seventies pop irony, but its shriveling, ice-cold absurdism might not define the Seventies as much as jump the gun on the Eighties.”
Released: 28th August 1978.

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