in News | 12 SEP 07
Featured in
Issue 109


Shepherd's Bush, London, UK

in News | 12 SEP 07

Something about US band Devo’s return to the UK for the first time in 15 years left me feeling uneasy. Which, in the case of a band who gave us such family favourites as ‘Jocko Homo’, ‘S.I.B. (Swelling Itching Brain)’ and ‘Blockhead’, is quite arguably the intended effect. Formed after witnessing first-hand the shootings at Kent State University, Ohio, in 1970 (in which four protesting students were killed by National Guardsmen), Devo, in their various guises, have always existed in the dystopic shadows of US Pop subculture; fellow travellers of The Res​ idents and Dead Kennedys, kindred spirits with the Church of the SubGenius, William S. Burroughs and a thousand ‘midnight movie’ fans. With a visual identity on par with their music (pioneers of the music video, their 1976 short The Truth about De-Evolution kick-started the band’s career), Devo, at their peak, satirized what they perceived to be a regressive (de-evolving – hence the name Devo), paranoid and morally desiccated America. Cold War public information films, B-movies, TV news footage and advertising imagery were conscripted in order to savage the infantilized, hollow Pop culture they had seen neutered of radicality by the bad trips of the late 1960s counterculture. Like high-school geeks getting their revenge on square-jawed football-team bullies, Devo celebrated the rust on the American chrome dream. If the Cold War had had a house band, it would’ve been Devo; their twitchy, neurotic sound the theme tune to M.A.D. – mutually assured destruction.

Having performed a few days earlier as part of Jarvis Cocker’s Meltdown festival at London’s Royal Festival Hall, friends had given me some idea of what to expect; a greatest hits set with all the works – the acid yellow hazmat suits, the flowerpot ‘energy dome’ hats, the hilarious, spooked films. They did not disappoint. Opening with a clip from The Truth about De-Evolution, the now proudly portly Devo arrived on stage, with singer Mark Mothersbaugh shuffling onstage using a Zimmer frame. They breathlessly hammered through an hour of back-to-back favourites including ‘Mongoloid’ (sadly unaccompanied by Bruce Connor’s blackly humorous 1978 film version), ‘Whip It’, ‘Girl U Want’, their electro-convulsive, dweeb-funk cover of ‘(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction’ and a ‘Jocko Homo’ that sent the audience into paroxysms of sing-along delight. So how could such a contractually obliging gig make me feel uneasy?

Precisely because it was so box-ticking. That and the ‘Are we not men?’ ‘We are Devo!’ call-and-response of groups of men in flowerpot hats in the tube station before the gig. And the obnoxious swing-bellied business executives in suits slugging lager and chanting, without any sense of irony, the lyrics to ‘Mongoloid’: ‘And he wore a hat/And he had a job/And he brought home the bacon/So that no one knew/Mongoloid he was a Mongoloid.’ And the people such as myself – those who only know Devo from our older brothers’ record collections and MTV documentaries but want to see ‘the real thing’ as if to verify their existence. At some point between Devo and its audience circa 1980 growing into Devo and its audience today, a strange switcheroo seems to have taken place; where once the band commented from afar on the subjugating machinations of the corporate entertainment industry, they have now become a defanged heritage act, a New Wave karaoke night out delivering exactly what everyone wants. But Devo know this all too well, which is precisely the point. The joke’s on us. We are Devo.