Devo’s Future Came True

Devo isn’t overjoyed about being prescient. The band got started half a century ago as a satirical art statement. But by now, much of what Devo mocked has become inescapable. Gerald Casale, who founded Devo with Mark Mothersbaugh, said, “If somebody would have told you 50 years ago where we would be at as a culture now, you probably wouldn’t have believed it. Neither would I. But here we are.”

Devo’s lone hit, “Whip It” in 1980, only reached No. 14 in the United States. But the influence of Devo’s buzzy, blippy synthesizer tones, its robotic moves and its re-contextualized retro graphics has grown ubiquitous, from commercials to cartoons and perhaps even into K-pop, where synthesizers, uniforms and tightly synced dance routines reign. This year, with a continuing world tour and a new, 50-song boxed set, “50 Years of De-Evolution” — a knowing assortment of hits and obscurities — Devo is savoring and reasserting its legacy.

“I think they’re highly underrated in terms of the zeitgeist,” Trent Reznor of Nine Inch Nails said in a phone interview. “Devo challenged the idea of what a rock band could be. It felt like rock was mutating. It made me realize, ‘Oh, there aren’t any rules. You know, you can do anything.’”

Devo’s ideas grew out of anger, political disillusionment, visual instincts, sonic ambitions, skepticism about rock and an absurdist sense of humor. Its abiding streak of outsider independence was forged in Akron, Ohio, where the band spent its formative years before finding a national audience on the early punk circuit. “It worked to our advantage to be in a cultural wasteland for years,” Mothersbaugh, 73, said from his Los Angeles studio, Mutato Muzika.

“It was mostly, you know, a smartass college guy being clever,” Casale said of the band’s “de-evolution” conceit. What actually occurred in American culture, he said, “is beyond my worst dystopian nightmare.”Credit…

Devo envisioned American culture evolving in the wrong directions, or devolving: dumbing down, losing individuality, succumbing to corporate imperatives and treating people as machines while anesthetizing itself with consumption. Those trends, to put it mildly, have not reversed.

“We were noticing an exponential increase in a certain kind of dysfunction going on. And we labeled it,” said Casale, who is 75. He was also in Los Angeles, sitting in front of a favorite interview backdrop: a sliced-up world map with the word “DE-EVOLUTION” emblazoned across it. “But it was mostly, you know, a smartass college guy being clever. I didn’t really think that we’d go where we went, because de-evolution is real. And this is beyond my worst dystopian nightmare.”

Devo anticipated the ascent of music videos in the 1980s, conceiving its early songs as inseparable from surreal short films. (The band expected video Laserdiscs to replace albums; it didn’t happen. The “visual album” would arrive much later.) By the early 1980s, Devo’s concerts had the band interacting with video footage, despite the era’s primitive technology. And decades before social media or influencers, Devo foresaw that artists and other public figures would end up marketing themselves as brands.

Yet Devo’s founders also went on to participate in the mainstream consumer culture they distrusted. “We understood that dichotomy and that duplicity from the beginning,” Casale said. “We were playing with it. You know, having your cake and eating it, too. Making fun of corporations and being one. You have to suck it up and be an adult about it.”

Since the 1980s, in the increasingly long gaps between Devo’s albums and tours, both Casale and Mothersbaugh have had extensive careers in film and advertising. Casale has directed music videos for acts including the Cars, Soundgarden and Foo Fighters, and Mothersbaugh has composed music for more than 150 films, television shows and video games, among them “Pee-wee’s Playhouse,” “The Royal Tenenbaums,” “The Lego Movie” and “Cocaine Bear.” The closing song on “50 Years of De-Evolution,” “Watch Us Work It,” was initially commissioned for a Dell computer ad.

Devo’s founders studied visual arts at Kent State University, where on May 4, 1970, the Ohio National Guard shot dead four antiwar protesters. The school shut down the next day, and in the unexpected hiatus, Casale, Mothersbaugh and some friends began conceptualizing what would become Devo.

“We learned from Kent State that rebellion is obsolete,” Mothersbaugh said. “If the government doesn’t agree with you, and you become too big of a pain in the butt for them, they just push you back down and shoot.

“And I was thinking, well, who does change things in this world?” he continued. “Look at TV. It’s Madison Avenue. It’s commercials. It’s subversion. You get people to eat sugar that’s not good for them. You get them to buy cars that are stupid and not well-designed. And they’re happy when they do it. And we thought, what if you use those techniques for something else? What if you use those techniques to talk about de-evolution?”

Casale was in a blues band; Mothersbaugh was in a prog-rock band. Neither was satisfied with what rock had become by the early 1970s. Arena-rock featured preening, strutting, self-indulgent stars. Early punk was developing its own orthodoxy. “You know, ‘You have to use these three chords and dress like this,’ and you had to a have certain kind of lyric that was anti-intellectual rage,” Casale said. “Devo was angry, but our anger was not misplaced, and it was certainly articulated, and it was not anti-intellectual. We were like punk scientists.”

Devo coalesced as a band with Casale’s and Mothersbaugh’s brothers, both named Bob, on guitars, and the crisp, unswerving drummer Alan Myers. The band members’ backgrounds show up on early recordings included on the “50 Years” set, like the 1974 “I’m a Potato”; it’s a blues shuffle, but Casale was already singing about “De-evolution/Self execution/No solution.”

Mothersbaugh was determined to change rock’s sonic vocabulary, and he got his hands on an early Mini-Moog synthesizer. “One of the Futurists had said that the contemporary orchestra does not have the instruments that are capable of creating the sound of an industrial society,” he said. “I wanted to know what the sounds were for 1972, 1973. I was thinking, ‘We’re watching the Vietnam War on television every night.’ And so I’m thinking V-2 rockets, mortar blasts, ray guns. And I felt like TV commercials were using synthesizers more successfully than bands. I was looking to create a new soundscape for the world.”

Devo’s music quickly grew more dissonant and angular. Reznor described Devo’s first albums as “a rock band with electronics that sound like they’re from the TV repair shop thrown in,” he said. “That informed me a lot about what the role of a synthesizer and electronics could be.”

Gerald Casale, left, and Mark Mothersbaugh performing at Lollapalooza in 1996. “Devo challenged the idea of what a rock band could be,” said Trent Reznor of Nine Inch Nails.Credit…Jim Steinfeldt/Michael Ochs Archives, via Getty Images

The band’s early shows in Akron were largely greeted with indifference or hostility, a reception that only solidified the band’s sense of purpose and idiosyncratic showmanship. They performed in uniforms bearing corporate-style logos; they honed stiff-limbed dance routines. They sometimes wore masks, plastic hairpieces or their distinctive “energy domes”: tiered red plastic hats inspired by an Art Deco-era light fixture.

By the time Devo started national and international touring, they were as tightly rehearsed as they were eccentric, a stark contrast to the anarchic punk bands playing the same clubs. Their homemade films and videos introduced recurring characters like the adult-sized, falsetto-voiced infant Booji Boy and the crass Big Entertainment executive Rod Rooter, whose dialogue, Casale said, was drawn entirely from actual meetings. On the coasts and abroad, Devo found a fan base among artists and musicians; Brian Eno produced Devo’s 1978 debut album, “Q: Are We Not Men? A:We are Devo!”

“They found different ways of getting under people’s skin,” said Martyn Ware, a founding member of the English electropop bands Human League and Heaven 17; he first saw Devo in the late 1970s. “The artiness of it all, this idea of the interaction with film and presenting yourself as almost Dadaist, was something that just completely entranced us. It felt more like a Futurist manifesto than a rock band. And with de-evolution, there’s a little bit of Nostradamus there too.”

Devo’s third album, “Freedom of Choice,” had Robert Margouleff, who had worked with Stevie Wonder, as associate producer. It brought out enough of a groove in the songs to yield a hit with “Whip It.” For Devo, that was a decidedly mixed blessing.

Suddenly, its record company was paying attention. “When it finally was a hit, they were like, ‘Do another “Whip It”! Do another “Whip It”!,’” Casale recalled. “We couldn’t even imagine how to do that. We moved on. We were using different equipment, having different ideas, talking about different things, and we were incapable of making another ‘Whip It.’”

Record-company pressures, self-consciousness and the temptations of new technology took a toll on Devo’s later albums. “Something went off the rails,” Casale said bluntly. “It got very intricate, very busy, with too many little sounds. So it started just sounding like ditties, trinkets and children’s music. Devo was always, like, humans playing like machines. Now suddenly it was machine music for real. So the interesting part of Devo — playing tightly like robots but really doing it — was buried.

“Toys do run away with you,” he added. “We always cautioned about that, but there we were, including ourselves in the equation. We did say, ‘We’re all Devo.’ We didn’t exempt ourselves, and we proved it.”

By the late 1980s, Devo’s principals were building their other careers, and after the 1990 album “Smooth Noodle Maps,” Devo didn’t make another studio album for 20 years. Casale was directing while amassing songs he’d eventually record as Jihad Jerry and the Evildoers. Mothersbaugh had taken on the prodigious job of scoring “Pee-wee’s Playhouse,” composing for an entire show every week; it was the beginning of his prolific career writing soundtrack music. He’s had enough unused material from films to release full-length instrumental albums like the 2021 “Mutant Flora,” which began as additional music for “Thor: Ragnarok.”

Devo in Copenhagen this year on its world tour. Is there hope for the future? “Even if it’s only greed, there has to be some human trait that’s going to avert total disaster,” Mothersbaugh said.Credit…Tom Little/Reuters

Mothersbaugh overcame ambivalence to start making commercials in the late 1980s. The first was for Hawaiian Punch, with dancing robots. “Yeah, I’m doing it — but I’m making a commercial for sugar,” he recalled thinking.

A decade earlier, an audience member had accused Devo of placing subliminal messages — “submit and obey” — in its first film, “In the Beginning Was the End: The Truth About De-Evolution.” There were none, but Mothersbaugh hadn’t forgotten the notion. He decided to add a subliminal message to the ad, intoning “Sugar is bad for you,” under a blast of drums. He went on to place other messages — “Question authority,” “Choose your mutations carefully” — in other ads. “I did about 30 commercials like that before I got caught,” he said.

Devo also licensed its own songs to advertisers, sometimes with severe regrets afterward — a cringe-worthy Swiffer ad rewriting “Whip It” — and sometimes with a proud sense of subversion, like a beer ad using “Freedom of Choice,” a song that mocks the illusion of freedom.

Through the decades, Devo has kept on touring, and its songs have continued to resonate with fans who can hear them as snarky predictions or present-day realities. Songs like “It’s a Beautiful World” can now describe the way glossy social media presentations spawn anxiety and depression.

Yet Devo’s upbeat music and jokey visuals have always defied the songs’ more dire implications. “That’s the ironic thing about Devo,” Mothersbaugh said. “At the end of the day, we’ve always been hopelessly optimistic that even if it’s only greed, there has to be some human trait that’s going to avert total disaster. Because nobody wants total disaster, even though they do want to make a killing in the meantime. It’s like, you could trade a little bit of your killing for people staying around another hundred thousand years.”

De-evolution doesn’t mean giving up hope. “I like the idea of the future,” Mothersbaugh said. “I like seeing what’s going to come. Sometimes you’re really disappointed. But sometimes something amazing happens that you really love.”

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