Sunday, December 09, 2007

I'd Buy Anything By...Devo

Excuse me if I've already told this anecdote.

When I was eight or nine years old I used to torment the Dairy Queen ladies every lunchtime by playing two songs on their jukebox: "The Devil Went Down to Georgia" by the Charlie Daniels Band and..."Whip It" by Devo. I loved the song. It touched a burgeoning New Wave chord in my little kid's body (likewise absorbed with the post-prog music of Alan Parson's Project, Supertramp, and Styx), though my OTHER juke box selection indicates that I had hardly chosen a niche.

Fast-forward past years of "Whip It" at various retro nights (and the occasional acknowledgment of "Jocko Homo" as a neat song), then finally to a gift given to me circa 1997 by fellow BollyBobber Mike: a VHS copy of Michael Nesmith's dismal "Elephant Parts" show (that I'd been waxing nostalgic about)...with Devo's "The Men Who Make the Music" taped onto the end, just because Mike thought I might like it.

I'd always considered Devo to be a one-hit-wonder novelty band, a group of slackers who probably didn't take their careers seriously and -- likewise -- didn't deserve serious treatment. But I was amazed not only by the great songs I hadn't really noticed before, but also by the surprisingly jangly, intense, rock-out quality of their live show.

So I started to buy the albums, but most importantly I began to absorb the "Devo story." Far from a bunch of carefree goofballs out to make a buck, they were actually a deeply serious bunch...especially Mark Mothersbaugh and Gerald Casale, the shockingly misanthropic (and some would say misogynist) singer/songwriters/philosophers. They did become homogenized into their manufactured image eventually, but their uncompromising nature got them into trouble time and time again...the final line of "Beautiful World," for instance, or the recurring character of "Rod Rooter," or the "you can have the french fry, the donut, or the girl, but you can't have all three" conflict in the video for "Good Thing." They generally managed to ease their nasty ideas past the record company executives so it's fun now to go back and ponder how -- for instance -- they slipped those placards into the "Girl U Want" video.

The most entertaining example of their personality problems is in their video for "Through Being Cool," (choreographed by the choreographer for "Beat It") which contains a message that some said encouraged children to "eliminate" ("murder") "the ninnies and the twits." The Manson-esque adolescent killing spree is all during the second half, impatient viewers.

The Devo discography is uneven. During the early '80s they began to phase out the guitars (supposedly Casale's revenge on the guitarist for trying to date Casale's then-girlfriend Toni Basil) and became increasingly bloodless, ending off with a spectacularly awful album. But they still tour around -- and they're still feisty, apparently -- and it's a dream of mine to see them before they perform in wheelchairs.

Albums to buy? Everybody loves their debut ("Q: Are We Not Men? A: We Are Devo!") but since their albums are pretty uneven I'd actually recommend "Now It Can Be Told," the 1989 live album. Albums to avoid? "Smooth Noodle Maps" is almost completely without any redeeming qualities. For fans only? The "Hardcore Devo" collections of early demos, which I sadly passed up buying when I had the chance. Likewise you might enjoy their collaboration with Neil Young in the movie "Human Highway," which is...well, impossible to describe.


Anonymous said...

Before I was kicked out of my third high school, I was flipping (uncharacteristically) through an advanced science book and almost swallowed my own face. The quote at the beginning of one of the chapters (something brilliant and science-y) was by Mark Mothersbaugh. It killed me to think my iconoclastic idol was a true blue academic.

Didn’t stop me from catching them live around 89. I also visited some of the clubs they played at near Ohio State. Some very tough rooms on (I think it was) High Street.

As an adult I am amazed by the mix of genius and absolute trash.

Recommend: Mystery Men Mantra or the live version of Girl You Want.

Hope you feel better.

Adam Thornton said...

Hopefully the science book quote wasn't "God made man / but he used the monkey for glue." :)

"mix of genius and absolute trash" just about sums it up, especially as their career wore on. All those later albums have a handful of "genius" buried in the "absolute trash."

Were they good live in '89, at least? I'll have to look into "Mystery Men Mantra."

(PS: Feeling mostly better and now nursing the sick, sneezy cat).