PHOTO: Michael Heeg/Courtesy of Devo
Living Legends: Devo Subverted The Herd Mentality Beginning In The '70s, But Their Art Punk Aesthetic Is More Relevant Than Ever
Devo's Mark Mothersbaugh and Jerry Casale discuss the evolution of devolution, and the video revolution they helped whip into reality: "We drew a line in the sand, and either you hated Devo or you loved Devo"
Presented by GRAMMY.com, Living Legends is an editorial series that honors icons in music and celebrates their inimitable legacies and ongoing impact on culture. This week, GRAMMY.com sat down with Mark Mothersbaugh and Jerry Casale, members of seminal new wave/post-punk band Devo, who challenged the status quo with irreverent, catchy songs.
The average music fan thinks of dome-shaped headpieces and whipping it good on the dance floor when they hear the name Devo, but for an entire generation of music lovers, the four-letter moniker means something much more.
The Akron, Ohio art rock band formed in 1973 to spread a message about societal regression, driven by herd mentality and negative cultural influences (the name is short for "de-evolution"). The music they created was infectiously fun, with catchy choruses and a synth-driven futuristic energy that fit in perfectly with the new wave genre that was becoming popular in the early '80s. But behind the campy outfits and colorful videos, there was a nonconformist message — which the band managed to maintain even at the height of their popularity.
From the science aesthetics of Q: Are We Not Men, A: We Are Devo! (1978) and Duty Now for the Future (1979), to the subversive empowerment of Freedom of Choice (1980) and
New Traditionalists (1981), Devo approached their output as a sardonic experiment. Their sometimes deceptive lyrical simplicity and sonic nuances created alchemy, and their charisma individually and as a unit made for a compelling blend of nerd rock meets post-punk.
Devo’s dynamic videos always had a message driving the madcap imagery and ideas. Maybe even more than Sparks, who were touted as "your favorite band’s favorite band" in their recent hit bio-doc, Devo’s influence on music is substantial, with everyone from Talking Heads to David Bowie (who helped discover them) taking obvious cues over the years. If some thought Devo a novelty act, they proved otherwise a long time ago.
As Devo celebrates the 40th anniversary of their fifth album Oh No! It’s Devo this month (as well as their third nomination for consideration into the Rock n’ Roll Hall of Fame), they are also cementing their legacy as a band who call out the ills of the world in their music and actively work to change them, too. Throughout the month of April, Devo will donate all proceeds from their catalog to aid Ukraine. The band also have a top slot on the highly-anticipated Cruel World music festival in Los Angeles this May, which some have nicknamed "Gothchella" thanks to its darkly nostalgic, '80s-heavy lineup.
The story of how Devo emerged as a force in music includes some very big names, including David Bowie and Iggy Pop. Can you share how they and others had a hand in your early success?
Jerry Casale: We popped up on the radar through many efforts that we made, and they finally succeeded in paying off, where Iggy became aware of us and we spoke with him in Cleveland, when he was playing on the Idiot tour and David Bowie was playing keyboards for him. We got him a demo cassette, and you would assume those things go in the wastebasket, because I know how that is when you're on tour…. He actually listened to it and Dean Stockwell and Toni Basil, who I had also gotten to, they talked to Iggy about it. He played it for David Bowie.
So then David Bowie heard it, and told Iggy to put me in touch with David's lawyer Stan Diamond in L.A. and we started a dialogue. Then Toni and Dean played it for Neil Young in San Francisco about the same time. So then [Young] called up and wanted us to be in his film, Human Highway. And it all started snowballing.
We did everything we could, and that was a do it yourself aesthetic. Back then, there was no internet…. We sent packages to Saturday Night Live over and over too, with the videos and the songs because we loved that program and we wanted to be selected to play on it. Of course there was no chance in reality that Devo was going to be able to do that then. That took having a manager and a label. We got on Saturday Night Live in October of 1978.
It’s been over 40 years since Devo became hitmakers and you are still getting recognition for your work. In a general sense, what do awards and honors mean to you at this point in your career?
Mark Mothersbaugh: You know, it's nice to be recognized. We're in a business where there's always somebody younger, somebody cuter, somebody who got there faster, somebody who's getting paid more, somebody who had a bigger hit — there's all these things that figure into people wondering, Where am I? How am I doing? Did anybody pay attention? So it's kind of really nice.
Casale: I think that any artist would have to be a bit dishonest if they said they didn't like the fact that they are being recognized by some official organization or outside body of self-proclaimed gatekeepers. Yeah. It does mean something. I mean, my God, when you're a performer, you get up in front of people. Think of the nerve it takes to get up in front of people, like, why should people watch you? You were looking for approval, right? From the time you're a kid, you're looking for approval.
In 1985, Devo was nominated for a GRAMMY for your video work, which was always such a big aspect of what the band was about.
Casale: Yeah, it sure was. I directed all those videos, and from the beginning, was kind of spearheading the visual aspect of Devo. We had agreed that it was going to be a multimedia kind of experimental art collective. So from the beginning that was very intentional.
For those of us who belong to "Generation X," Devo are a very significant band, especially the album Freedom of Choice and the releases that came after. Do you hear a lot from fans of different ages about how formative you were to them?
Mothersbaugh: I have two daughters and I watch them and what things help them figure out what's going on in the world. Music plays a big part of that. I do get those letters and I meet those people at our shows, and, yeah, I like that. That's kind of sweet. For me, it was the Beatles and the Rolling Stones. And, you know, for them, it's Devo and that tickles me.
Casale: We were very polarizing without even wanting to be, but we just were. Because of the way we looked, the way we sounded, the way we acted and what we said. We drew a line in the sand and either you hated Devo or you loved Devo. So a lot of young fans would all tell us the same story about how they got harassed or beat up or made fun of in school because they liked Devo. We inspired a lot of people to start bands, and a lot of bands that came after us that we respect have cited us as an influence. So we were an artist’s artist. That's heartening.
How did you two come together?
Mothersbaugh: When I met Jerry at Kent State University, he was a grad student and I was a sophomore. We collaborated early on on visual things. He had come up to me and said "Are you the guy that's sticking up pictures of art and astronauts holding potatoes standing on the moon?" And I go, "Yeah, what of it?" He goes, "What does a potato mean to you?" I really liked that for an opening conversation.
Before there was a word for posting up art or graffiti, before there was Shepard Fairey, I was a teen who was posting artwork around school at Kent State. I don't know why I did it, but I had to do it for some reason. So that's how we met. We were visual artists, and we collaborated on visual projects. He liked that I was making these decals that stuck on things, and he liked that I liked potatoes. So I made these potato decals for him for his senior graduation class project… that he hung all over photos he’d blown up from his high school yearbook of different kids he didn't like.
What is the significance of the potato?
Mothersbaugh: We were trying to figure out, who are we? And how do we fit into the world? We were both the kids of working class parents, and we decided we weren't asparagus people or part of the elite or the rich, we were like potatoes. We were like spuds. We were like asymmetrical, not very good looking vegetables that came from underground. But they were a staple of everybody's diet in the USA.
The interesting thing about potatoes for us, it's like, potatoes have eyes all around, so they see everything. So we called ourselves spuds, and we used that term in exchange for comrades or mates.
In terms of presentation and imagery, including costume, your most iconic has to be the red dome hats. How did the idea for those come about?
Casale: The inspiration for the design came from an Art Deco 1930’s ceiling fixture. So imagine a milk glass-like fixture that looked like a dome hanging from three chains on the ceiling with a bowl. But upside down, right? I used to just stare at that when I was a kid in my grade school and I always thought it was such a cool image.
And so years later, when we were talking about Devo wearing some kind of headgear, I kept thinking of that. Making them red and making them plastic and wearing them became a thing. Then we could make multiples and we could sell them to people because people wanted them. In fact, people were stealing them. So we started selling them.
Devo had chart-topping success but the project was always sort of out of the box and different, even weird to some. Now bands like yours seem to finally be getting the recognition they deserve.
Mothersbaugh: Because Devo had content. A lot of the bands that were out at the same time as Devo, you could just kind of group them together. We had a concept that was unique, not just only for the time period we were in, but actually, for a much bigger time period of rock and roll.
Just even questioning man's central glory on the planet. We kind of pose the question that maybe humans, we're not the best species on the planet; maybe we’re the only insane species. We might be the only organisms out of touch with nature and destructive, as opposed to being a symbiotic part of everything. And you know, that didn't win friends and a lot of people took offense to that. They're usually the people that should take offense to it, because we were probably talking about them.
So we had a pretty unique concept, and it was what we wrote our music about. I think there are a lot of artists out there that respect that or understand that.
Casale: The test of time proved that those bands weren't so weird after all. I mean, look in the '60s, '70s and '80s: Those three decades, there was an explosion of diversity — of creativity, of technology, of new ideas, new sounds, and groups who performed a body of work well. If you bought a record because you liked one song on that record, you probably ended up liking five or six songs on that record, because it was a piece and all connected.
I think that's what kids today miss. They miss that reality. There were real groups, and real artists that did something with a whole body of work that mattered. And it was exciting. The packaging mattered and what the artist said mattered. We had MTV playing the videos. So [the '80s were] like the last decade where this explosion of Western culture was exciting, at the top of its game. That was the end, then it started to devolve and decline.
In addition to its statement- minded subtext, your early stuff was so atmospheric and that seems to have led you both down cinematic paths later in your careers, Mark with your scoring of shows like "Pee-Wee’s Playhouse" and "Rugrats," and appearance on the kids show "Yo Gabba Gabba," and Jerry with your directorial work.
Casale: Devo was kind of put on ice in the '90s and Mark wasn't interested in doing anything except scoring and composing for TV. Because I had directed like 20 Devo videos, [I started] directing videos for other bands.
So I had a whole music video career as a director for bands like Rush, Soundgarden and Foo Fighters — the first video they ever made. They were anti-video because all the grunge bands were anti-video, but Dave Grohl said, "You know what, if we have to do one, let's get that guy from Devo because I can trust him because he's been in my position as a band member on stage, so he won't make us do foolish things." That led me to commercials. So then I had this whole directing career doing TV commercials up until about 2005, when it kind of trickled out as the business changed a lot and the money went away.
Mothersbaugh: I can tell how old somebody is when they say, "Oh, I really like your music," and they're talking about they're talking about "Rugrats" or "Pee Wee's Playhouse." And if they're talking about Devo, they probably have gray hair. Except for kids, because the internet is this amazing place. They’ve got the whole world right there in their hands.
So yeah, now we get people of all ages, asking about Devo, who are knowledgeable about it. So that's kind of interesting. In the early days we sounded like some sort of outer space version of Captain Beefheart mixed with Sun Ra or something like that. Jerry and I always thought about sound and vision.
One of the things we learned at Kent State was protesting isn't the way to change things in this country, because when they get tired of you, and when the government finally is irritated enough, they just shoot you. Like they did at my school. So we thought, who's changing things…and we were looking around and we thought… Madison Avenue, that's who changes the world. They get you to buy stupid cars, eat food that's not good for you, buy clothes you don't need and you're happy at the end of it.
We just thought well, what if we use those techniques in reverse, and figured out a way to talk to people about reverse evolution, talk to people about how to change the trajectory of the planet. We looked for ways to add hooks into our songs but our whole idea was just to get people to come in, find out what we were. If they liked the song, they’d buy the album, and then they'd listen to the album and hear “Jocko Homo” and or they'd hear “Too Much Paranoia,” or they'd hear the last line in a “Beautiful World": "It's a beautiful world for you, for you, but not for me." And the videos were made to show that.
Your devolution message has sadly never been more relevant.
Mothersbaugh: I agree that the world has devolved. It's even more complicated than ever to find out the truth about things. Jerry likes to call Devo, "the band playing on the Titanic while it goes down."
I'm the eternal optimist. I keep wanting to think that between technology and just people becoming aware of where we are, you know, that they can figure out ways to turn things around. So I like that our music is being listened to and I hope it has a positive effect on people.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Photo: Gabriel Olsen/FilmMagic via Getty Images
Morrissey, Bauhaus, Blondie, Devo & More To Play Cruel World Fest
The new Los Angeles music festival will also feature Echo & The Bunnymen, the Violent Femmes, The Psychedelic Furs and Gary Newman
The one-day fest will take place at the Grounds at Dignity Health Sports Park on May 2.
Other acts include Echo & The Bunnymen, the Violent Femmes, the newly reunited Psychedelic Furs and Gary Newman.
Presale starts Thursday, Feb. 13. For more information, visit the Cruel World Fest website.
Photo: Jeff Vespa/WireImage.com
The Week In Music: Miley's Ear Tat
And the award for most painful celebrity tattoo goes to...
After learning that Miley Cyrus had inked her ear with a tattoo of the word "love," PopEater asked Steve the tattoo artist at Fun City Tattoo which celebrities have the most painful tattoos. Steve leans toward Katy Perry's inside bicep tat and the decoration on the top of Britney Spears' foot. Lil Wayne's inside-the-lip tattoo elicits a mild response from Steve, but to Travis Barker's full-body ink job, Steve says, "If you want something bad enough, you get through it."
Speaking of Katy, is there trouble brewing between her and everyone's favorite bad romancer? Following the premiere of Lady Gaga's controversial video for "Alejandro," Katy took what some fans perceived as a swipe at Gaga. "Using blasphemy as entertainment is as cheap as a comedian telling a fart joke," Katy tweeted. She later clarified her remark, "Lately, I've just been seeing some things that are kind of like, I don't know, in my own personal feelings, a little bit like not something I would do, I guess." Outside of kissing a girl, what would Katy actually do, you ask? Well, as evidenced by her own new video for "California Gurls," roll around on cotton candy clouds, take bites out of live ginger breads, bury Snoop Dogg in the sand, and even dish out some whipped cream. Check it out, but keep the popsicles in the freezer.
In yet another sign of the synergy between music and social networking, MTV announced it is on the lookout for its first Twitter Jockey. The network will have 20 candidates compete against one another in a mini-Twitter Olympics of sorts designed to display their tweeting aptitude, with five finalists selected to compete on a live show in August. Fans will ultimately select the network's debut TJ, who will be charged with reporting on MTV events and appearing on-air periodically. No specifics were revealed but it's a good bet on-air time will be limited to 140 seconds or less.
Justin Bieber has been doo-wopped. Utah rockers and labelmates Neon Trees have a turned in a doo-wop-tinged version of the Bieb's Top 10 chestnut, "Baby." Asked about their cover choice, Neon Trees frontman Tyler Glenn said, "We might as well cover something people are enjoying right now…[and] we thought it would be kind of a nice shout-out. Hello Justin Bieber!" Could this possibly spawn a rash of Bieber cover fever? A disco version of "First Dance," or perhaps a grunge-rock take of "Up"?
File this under the category Worst Use of Horns. Earplug makers report huge sales at early FIFA World Cup rounds thanks in large part to the constant honk of vuvuzela horns at stadiums in South Africa. The BBC has registered 545 complaints about the annoying bleats during its TV coverage of the games. Ear Plugs Online reports its sales are up 121 percent and Sheppard Medical says sales have jumped 20 percent. For a slightly more musical approach to the squawking horn, check out the Vuvuzela Orchestra.
What's the secret to surviving years of (alleged) drug and alcohol abuse? According to Rolling Stone, scientists may be about to find out. Genome researchers at Cambridge, Mass.-based Knome will perform a full DNA analysis on iconic rocker Ozzy Osbourne for the purported purpose of discovering how the self-proclaimed madman has withstood years of heavy-metal partying. Knome's services don't require the famed garbled articulation of Ozzy to render them difficult to understand: "novel allele identification, multi-genome comparative analysis, predictive functional analysis, and causation targeting." We're hoping for the best for Ozzy's allele.
In comeback news, new wave synth punkers Devo released their first studio album in 20 years, Something For Everybody, this past Tuesday. And when they say they have something for everybody, they mean everybody. The band whipped it up good with a live cat listening party for a cadre of Devo kitty enthusiasts. The feline album reviews were apparently mixed, but an unidentified partygoer said a chorus of vuvuzela-like hisses erupted when the album was ejected.
Katy Perry's "California Gurls," featuring Snoop Dogg, is once again the No. 1 song on the Billboard Hot 100 this week, as well as tops on the iTunes singles chart.
Any news we've missed? Comment below.
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Last Week In Music
Bob Casale Dies
Devo guitarist dies at 61
Guitarist Bob Casale of GRAMMY-nominated new wave collective Devo died Feb. 17 following complications from heart failure. He was 61. Formed in Akron, Ohio, in 1972 by Casale's brother, bassist Jerry Casale, and vocalist Mark Mothersbaugh, the first incarnation of Devo also featured Bob Casale, guitarist Bob Mothersbaugh and drummer Alan Myers. The band's 1978 Brian Eno-produced debut album Q: Are We Not Men? A: We Are Devo! — which climbed to No. 78 on the Billboard 200 — is considered a benchmark in the development of new wave and marked one of the first pop albums to use synthesizers. Following the release of 1979's Duty Now For The Future, Devo released 1980's Freedom Of Choice, which peaked at No. 22 (their highest-charting album to date) and featured the Top 20 hit "Whip It," which became a smash on MTV with its accompanying music video. Devo subsequently released several more albums to chart on the Billboard 200, including New Traditionalists (1981, No. 23), Oh, No! It's Devo (1982, No. 47) and Shout (1984, No. 83). The band earned their lone GRAMMY nomination to date in 1984 for Best Video Album for We're All Devo, a collection of music videos from 1976–1983. After disbanding in the early '90s, Devo returned to release 2010's Something For Everyone, which peaked at No. 30 on the Billboard 200.
2010: A Rockumental Year
(For a complete list of 53rd GRAMMY Awards nominees, click here.)
When a new decade is broached, anniversaries come to light. Last year marked significant birthdays for landmark albums in rock music. Forty years ago Led Zeppelin III, the Stooges' Funhouse and Black Sabbath's self-titled debut changed rock music — and music — forever. Thirty years ago Iron Maiden, Judas Priest's British Steel, Ted Nugent's Scream Dream, Devo's Freedom Of Choice, Joy Division's Closer, and Motörhead's Ace Of Spades took things even farther. Twenty years ago, Depeche Mode's Violator, Megadeth's Rust In Peace, Jane's Addiction's Ritual De Lo Habitual, Alice In Chains' Facelift, Pantera's Cowboys From Hell, and the Black Crowes' Shake Your Money Maker diversified the rock genre. And 10 years ago, Radiohead's Kid A, Deftones' White Pony, Queens Of The Stone Age's Rated R, and A Perfect Circle's Mer De Noms started off the new millennium right. While rock music has grown and changed throughout the decades, both the albums that celebrated their 40th anniversaries and those that were just born provide that spirit of rebellion that was the essence of rock music then, and continues to be now and forever.
Looking at album sales, one wouldn't think that 2010 was the best year for rock (or any genre). But there were many other ways that rock music prevailed. The Who — a classic rock giant — performed at halftime during Super Bowl XLIV, one the most-watched television broadcasts. On April 17 Record Store Day marked the largest number of vinyl purchases since 1991, and the genre that has been known to embrace the resurgence of vinyl most is rock and metal. In summer 2010 the "big four" of thrash metal — Anthrax, Megadeth, Metallica, and Slayer — performed together at a series of festivals in Europe for the first time. One performance was broadcast to theaters for metalheads all over the world to see.
The non-fiction bestsellers' lists were decorated with rock memoirs all year as I Am Ozzy, Mustaine: A Heavy Metal Memoir and Keith Richards' Life educated readers about what being a real rock star is like. And in looking back at concerts in 2010, the most successful tours were all rock bands: Bon Jovi, U2 and AC/DC. Rock also infiltrated Broadway with the continued success of the '80s-themed "Rock Of Ages" and Green Day's "American Idiot." The U2-scored "Spider-Man" production also hit the stage. There were also landmark tours in terms of production in rock concerts this year as Roger Waters built and destroyed The Wall for the first time in 30 years, and Rammstein lit Madison Square Garden on fire in their first U.S. show in 10 years.
However, as 2010 brought anniversaries, landmarks and reunions, many significant figures in rock, punk, industrial, and metal music left us. To Ronnie James Dio, Malcolm McLaren, Jay Reatard, Paul Gray, Alex Chilton, Peter Steele, Derf Scratch, Peter Christopherson, and Captain Beefheart: Your work will continue to live in our hearts, minds and ears, inspiring a new generation of rockers to come.
As we begin 2011, let's embrace that rebellious spirit of rock music again and see where it takes us.
Who will take home the GRAMMY gold in the Rock Field? Tune in to the 53rd Annual GRAMMY Awards live from Staples Center in Los Angeles on Sunday, Feb. 13 at 8 p.m. ET/PT on CBS. For updates and breaking news, please visit The Recording Academy's social networks on Twitter and Facebook.