Devo: Are We Not Men? (1978)

(Full title -- Q: Are We Not Men? A: We Are Devo!)

Now, in order to talk Devo, we really do need some stage-setting. It's all about context.

Early '80s, a midwestern suburb north of Chicago. My high school was near Lake Michigan; rich kids living near the Lake, the rest of us further inland. Almost universally white. High stress environment, nightmares about the SAT and getting into the right Big Ten college and the cool fraternity/sorority, maybe even a private university out east. The sort of privileged environment depicted in Risky Business (I saw it for the first time sitting in the same theater that Tom Cruise drives by in his dad's Porsche in the film), and given a sunshiny gauze in John Hughes' oeuvre, Sixteen Candles and Breakfast Club and the rest. 

Blandness and materialism on the rise -- Reagan in the White House; a rollback of the progress of the 60s and the post-Nixon 70s. The Preppy Handbook viewed by many as an actual bible, not satire. The kind of place where the underbelly was kept hidden, surfacing mainly when you'd read about the father of that kid in your AP science class being arrested for insider trading, or when PBS would run a documentary about teen drug abuse and suicide in the 'burbs.

Kids listening to Journey, to Zeppelin; maybe some inroads by the Cars and the Police and the Go-Go's.  The top singles the month I started high school were "Sailing" by Christopher Cross" and "It's Still Rock & Roll To Me" by Billy Joel and "Magic" by Olivia Newton-John.

And somehow Devo managed to infiltrate.  Obviously "Whip It" got some traction, especially as MTV started taking over our households, but that felt kinda cartoonish, more like a novelty track.  But MTV spurred on other late-night cable competition, like Night Flight on the USA Network, which delved a bit deeper into the vaults than MTV.  I think it was there that I first saw the video for Devo's "Jocko Homo." It was already a few years old at that point, but it was life-changing. The weird-ass introductory skit with Booji Boy and General Boy. Mark Mothersbaugh with that alien professor look and weird dance, like David Byrne only totally deranged; the rest of the band wearing stockings over their faces, like bankrobbers on acid; and everyone else with creepy medical masks (a prescient view of what we're living through today).  Try to put yourself back there when you watch it.
It wasn't even so much that I liked the song (though I did), so much as I liked living in a universe where this band and video could exist; it suggested something interesting was happening outside our cloistered suburban bubble. It gave me hope. 

Night Flight also started running the concert film Urgh! A Music War; it was a weird, disjointed collection of live clips from various new wave-oriented bands, from the popular to the fringe. And, again, Devo jumped out, so alien and foreign, "Uncontrollable Urge" both a bit more traditional and poppy than "Jocko" yet, when viewed with the band's odd costumes and herky-jerky yet choreographed moves, still a little frightening and revolutionary.
And of course there was their compelling deconstruction of "Satisfaction."  They debuted this back in '78 on Saturday Night Live; my babysitter at the time (I was 12) would let me stay up to watch SNL, and I'm pretty sure I saw this back then, too young to process or appreciate it; but when I heard it a few years later, it made perfect sense, drawing from the classic rock roots that were a huge part of my life while simultaneously leaving them in the dust, antiquated and irrelevant.
Now, I didn't listen to much Devo beyond the singles. I didn't buy the actual albums until years later (and, even today, I probably spend more time listening to a home-burned collection of favorites ["Gates of Steel" a personal fave] rather than the full-length LPs).  It was more the visuals, the concept, the very idea that Devo existed.  But the impact of seeing those videos was alone was a huge motivation in moving me away from the classic rock bands of my youth and towards the post-punk indie bands I started to voraciously absorb once I got to college.  Seeing "Jocko Homo" and "Satisfaction" and "Uncontrollable Urge" filled me with the need to start digging for what else might be out there that wasn't managing to get radio airplay or MTV rotation time.
 

Comments

  1. Humanfund here. Very nice piece, one of your best I would say.

    Pretty similar local context in coastal Orange County CA, just a few years later. I remember a pretty abrupt personal transition from Duran Duran and attending a Reagan re-election rally to the last gasps of the OC punk scene and some friends who steered me in musical directions like Devo. I remember at the school talent show we lip synced a Dead Kennedy's song, yours truly on drums.

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