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Alternative History

How Devo Became David Bowie’s “Band of the Future” and Then a MTV One Hit-Wonder

devo 1977

Devo was once David Bowie’s new favorite band. The English musician liked them so much that, in fact, he called them “The Band of the future.”

That’s a pretty hefty claim, especially coming from Bowie, who was arguably at his artistic best at the tail-end of the 1970s.

Other artists, like Mick Jagger or Brian Eno, expressed similar enthusiasm. Television stations loved them, and record labels were anxious to find ways of promoting them.

Devo’s hit single, “Whip It,” became an MTV staple and the group’s only success of this stature. For ages, they’ve either been labeled a one-hit wonder or a pioneering musical force like no other.

But who’s right? Did Devo fulfill their potential, was Bowie right, and have we truly learned to understand their work?

De-evolution

Devo, essentially, was an art project masquerading as a pop act. The idea of a band recording songs was merely the canvas on which to work. That is to say that from the very beginning, Devo had a concept, a clear direction, and weren’t terribly interested in traditional pop music.

That concept had to do with “de-evolution,” the idea that the human race had entered a period of regression and unavoidable atavism was sure to follow.

Fittingly, the group was started by two art students, Gerald Casale, and Bob Lewis. Mark Mothersbaugh, who had some experience as a keyboardist, joined them. They bonded over comics and jokes about the de-evolution of the human species.

The 1970 massacre at Kent State University, which Casale and Lewis both attended, put their gallows humor in a terrible new context. Bob Casale and Alan Myers rounded up the line-up. Devo was formed.

Boojy Boy, Mongoloid, and Jocko Homo turn real

Most iconic bands are forced to spend years before finding their style. This was not the case with Devo. The imagery, the sound, and the philosophy for which the band is known were available to them from their very first single.

“Mongoloid” was released in 1977. It had the backbeat of punk, the electro-experimentation of Kraftwerk, and comic book humor. It talks about genetic disorders in a world that has de-evolved to the point this becomes unnoticeable.

The single featured the song “Jocko Homo” as a b-side. It was based on anti-evolution texts. The band was known to jam the song out live for over 30 minutes, occasionally causing near rioting in the audience. Quite a show!

Devo was also earning press due to their image. The band began wearing matching suits, presenting themselves the band members as clones of each other. Mothersbaugh occasionally performed as Boojy Boy, a childlike character decked out in a nuclear protection suit.

And while Devo could be confused for a punk or a new-wave group they weren’t precisely either of those. The band would introduce homemade instruments and even toys along with their repetitive, often dissonant guitar riffs.

David Bowie, Neil Young and Richard Branson take notice

More than any other group, Devo seemed to symbolize the change that was to occur in popular music. Sure, they would soon be successful. However, their concept and work might have dug too deep to ensure consistent commercial triumph.

In 1977, however, they were the toast of the town. The band made a short film titled “The Truth About De-Evolution.” Something akin to a long-form music video years before the launch of MTV, the movie became an underground sensation.

Soon one of the world’s biggest pop stars, David Bowie, was raving about Devo in interviews. Going through his own highly-experimental phase, Bowie may have seen kindred spirits in Devo. He used his influence to convince Warner Records to offer the band a recording contract.

Being labeled “the band of the future” by David Bowie himself was sure to drive interest for Devo before they’d even released an album.

Iggy Pop also praised the band, as did Neil Young, who asked the group to soundtrack his 1977 comedy movie “Human Highway.” Richard Branson, the president of Virgin Records, attempted to get John Lydon, who’d recently departed Sex Pistols, to front the band. William S. Burroughs interviewed Devo and asked them to record some of his lyrics.

In 1978, Devo finally released their debut album, “Q: Are we not men? A: We are Devo!” Frequent Bowie collaborator Brian Eno produced this.

It earned mixed reviews, confounding many and transforming some into fierce fans of the band.

But the hype train hadn’t stopped, and in 1978 Devo was asked to perform on Saturday Night Live. Their manic cover of “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction” found at least one fan in The Rolling Stones’ Mick Jagger.

Whip it!

Devo was the favorite art group of British and American rock stars by the end of 1978. It was, however, unclear whether this could translate into a long-lasting career. And nobody could figure out if the band even really cared about that.

The quintet continued performing and getting weirder and funnier while doing it. There were instances of them playing as their own opening act, disguised as a Christian rock group. Guitars and drums were almost ditched entirely for electronic instrumentation. And, new quicky covers, like “Secret Agent Man,” were added to the mix.

Still, perhaps, the greatest surprise of all was the public’s reaction to their single “Whip It!” The music video, in particular, would come to define an era and properly introduce them to the world.

Making weird music videos was nothing new for Devo. It’s how they began their careers. By 1981, the band could use MTV as a launchpad for their vision. It cost $15.000 to produce the “Whip It!” video, and it became one of the most popular clips on the new channel.

Meanwhile, the dude-ranched-themed video and the song became the subject of urban myths. Contrary to popular belief, Devo’s members insist that the song is not about masturbation or S&M.

New-wave pioneers?

The success of “Whip It!” was the best and worst that could’ve happened to Devo. It made them incredibly famous for a while. However, it also eclipsed most of their other work.

By 1982, Devo were labeled a new-wave band. In fact, too many they were one of the numerous new-wave bands equipped exotic music videos and with synthesizer-driven sound. I admit that this was also how I was introduced to Devo.

Those who had followed Devo’s early career knew that the group had foreshadowed these trends. If anything, MTV and mainstream media were catching up to them.

Devo’s concept and humor were also lost on most viewers. Instead, their outfits, identical yellow suits and energy dome plastic hats, made the biggest dent in popular culture.

That’s not to say that Devo cared much about it. Their 1981 album, “Traditionalists,” made fun of their success with songs like “Through Being Cool.”

As years passed, there was some in-fighting and some controversy when the band tried to use lyrics written by John Hinckley, Jr., who had attempted to assassinate Ronald Reagan. (The former president had partly inspired the music video for “Whip It!”).

And while these may have affected the consistency of their output, Devo remained beloved by a devoted following.

New-wave one-hit wonders or the most influential group of their era?

Some groups get to make only one or two albums that affect the musical landscape. They’re often dubbed “legendary.” Devo deserve the same kind of recognition.

Devo began as an elaborate prank. Their concept of “de-evolution” transferred to their sound, look, and how they reacted to media praise. Few groups have ever had such formative years.

The sound and visuals were so intriguing that they caught the attention of numerous rockstars willing to become Devo’s benefactors.

“Whip It!” offered them the success that they merited but also painted them in a corner. Suddenly, unaware of the band’s complex history, television audiences were treated to a single slice of their quirky pop music. For many, this was enough.

However, the sincere admiration of many of their peers and a niche audience allowed Devo to tour consistently until the present day. Younger musicians like drummer extraordinaire Josh Freese round up their lineup.

And did their theory ever come true? Just turn on your television, and you’ll likely witness a trace of Devo in almost everything.

About author

Eduard Banulescu is a writer, blogger, and musician. As a content writer, Eduard has contributed to numerous websites and publications, including FootballCoin, Play2Earn, BeIN Crypto, Business2Community, NapoliSerieA, Extra Time Talk, Nitrogen Sports, Bavarian FootballWorks, etc. He has written a book about Nirvana, hosts a music podcasts, and writes weekly content about some of the best, new and old, alternative musicians. Eduard also runs and acts as editor-in-chief of the alternative rock music website www.alt77.com. Mr. Banulescu is also a musician, having played and recorded in various bands and as a solo artist.
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