DEVO, Even Better Than The Real Thing


BY ED KING, ROCKIST The great thing about Devo was that you didn’t have to listen to their music to love them. Their appearance on Saturday Night Live, where they performed “Satisfaction” and “Jocko Homo” [see below] — complete with robotic choreography, the Booji Boy routine, the yellow HazMat jumpsuits, and a fuzz box mounted directly on one of the guitar players’ guitar — was the atom bomb of the rock ‘n roll age as we knew it. With that appearance, the release of their debut album, and their spectacular, absurd videos, they were the first shots fired in the coming war against Brill Building-based song structure, the blues-hammer tradition in rock, and music itself.

Did anyone really listen to a Devo song for the song itself? Sure they had some catchy songs and put a minimalist, repetitive spin on the classics, but without the arch theories and choreographed stage and video presentations what are they but Neil Young’s Trans? Lord knows a generation of rock nerds has wasted time trying to defend the merits of that album the way that generation’s rock nerd big brothers wasted time defending the merits of The Beach Boys’ Love You album, but that’s neither here nor there.

Try turning down the volume on a Devo video someday — turn it all the way down — and tell me if the images onscreen aren’t just as powerful and the song isn’t just as good. Now, try listening to a Devo record with the volume turned all the way down. Just look at the album cover and read an interview with Mark Mothersbaugh about the philosophy of de-evolution. I am not kidding when I say the album is just as good as if you had it cranked. That was a new trick Devo taught the old dogs of rock music, for better and often for worse.

In the decades that would follow the appearance of Devo, the music itself would become secondary, then tertiary to the marketing campaign, the video, the overall buzz. Justin Timberlake puts out a new album, pop culture feature stories and cover shots are booked, the little girls understand, old white guys at laptops hammer out praise using ’00s hipster lingo, and JT videotapes himself live at the GRAMMYS! This is the onanistic world of the future Devo evisioned and enabled. Long ago, they accepted our de-evolution as inevitable, tried to warn us and then got the hell out of the way.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Ed King likes a lot of things great and small, but mostly he likes to be left alone. Ed has kicked around the outer orbits of the periphery of local scene for some time. He was there when Tuxedomoon played Revival. Ed likes all things great and some things good. Anymore, what falls short of those simple criteria gets harder to bear. He appreciates you respecting his privacy at time like this.

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