When they were in their prime (1978-82), Devo were generally written off as a novelty act, a one-joke cartoon that didn’t know when to quit. A generation later, removed from the baggage of the early MTV era, the Akron spuds look infinitely better.
For one thing, their early material rocked hard in the most tortured time signatures. “Come Back Jonee,” “Jocko Homo,” “Jerkin’ Back and Forth,” “The Day My Baby Gave Me a Surprise,” and “Girl U Want” no longer depend on your allegiance to the concept of devolution. They’re simply pop classics.
For another, all that devolution stuff is sounding a little more plausible with each passing year. As founding member (and video visionary) Gerald Casale said in a 2003 interview, “It was an artsy joke and turned out to be true.” In fact, part of Devo’s allure was the tension between their overtly comic presentation (yellow nuclear-contamination jumpsuits, red flowerpot hats, and phony Kennedy pompadours), and the dark heart of their vision.
The band grew out of the 1970 Kent State massacre, in which Casale — then a student protester — saw two of his best friends gunned down by National Guardsmen. From that point on, he lost all hope for constructive societal change. Many fans praised Devo for not taking themselves too seriously, but that’s a bit like hearing an admirer commend Lenny Bruce for always keeping things light and apolitical.
The final testament to Devo’s enduring appeal is the way Casale put video and music together years before anyone saw much of a future in the notion. His imaginative Booji Boy star vehicles ultimately drew the attention of Dave Grohl, who hired Casale to direct the Devo-inspired video for the 1995 Foo Fighters track “I’ll Stick Around.”
These days, frontman Mark Mothersbaugh is an in-demand film composer, Casale makes commercials, and Devo’s songs can be heard on a Disney collection, sung by a group of adolescents called Devo 2.0. But no amount of respectability can ever make Devo’s message socially acceptable. And that’s a good thing.