Oh No, It's Devo! (What Was Up With Those Weird Art Punks From Ohio?)
Devo was never your typical rock band -- combining philosophical ideas and silly antics, they walked the fine line between performance art and rock 'n roll. They even had a hit, the MTV favorite "Whip It," which reached #14 on the Billboard Hot 100. But even that video was weird -- weird even by the standards of early '80s MTV. There's a lot to unpack when it comes to Devo. Whether you remember them with a chuckle or have never seen the appeal, this might help you to at least get where they were coming from -- join us as we take a peek beneath those crazy red "energy hats" they wore.
Devo's Origin Story
Evolution, of course, is the idea that species have adapted and changed over time. The opposite of this, de-evolution, is the notion that they can revert to a more primitive form over time. And the concept of de-evolution gave Devo its name, as the band arose from the notion that mankind was regressing. The evidence of this was in American society. The concept was created by Gerald Casale and Bob Lewis, two Kent State art students in the 1960s. It was, however, a joke at the time.
When Casale came up with the idea, he was also in a band, 15-60-75, aka, The Numbers Band, where he met Mark Mothersbaugh around 1970. At the time, Mothersbaugh was with the band Flossy Bobbitt. On May 4, 1970, the Kent State shootings occurred, providing the impetus for the formation of Devo. Part of the band’s philosophy was that modern technology had a dehumanizing effect, and that influenced their sound, which was mechanical, including a drum machine, which was invented by Bob Mothersbaugh. The philosophy influenced their movements during performance as well as their matching industrial jumpsuits.
They Start To Devolve
Devo’s first form was the “Sextet Devo.” They performed at the 1973 Kent State performing arts festival and included Casale, Lewis, and Motherbaugh along with Bob Casale, Rod Reisman, and Fred Weber, and this was their only performance with this lineup. Devo returned to play at the 1974 Creative Arts Festival, this time with the Casale brothers, Bob Lewis, and the Mothersbaugh brothers. They continued to perform after that, typically as a quartet, although the lineup was fluid. They created their first two music videos, “Secret Agent Man” and “Jocko Homo,” in Akron and Cuyahoga Falls Ohio.
Devo Mixed Music And Theatrics
In concert, they occasionally performed in the guise of theatrical characters, including Booji Boy and the Chinaman, and until 1977, their concerts would be confrontational. The character of Booji Boy stuck around however. Booji Boy was created when the band was using Letraset to produce captions for a film and but did not have enough of the letter “g”. Reportedly Mark Mothersbaugh said that the spelling “looked right,” and it stuck. The character is kind of like a simian child, wearing an orange nuclear protective suit. The character, who first appeared in the film The Truth About De-Evolution, was created when they found a baby mask in a novelty store in Akron. After Mothersbaugh tried on the mask, the character, with its high pitched falsetto, was born. He appeared throughout Devo’s career, and seemed to take on a life of his own.
Devo Aroused The Curiosity Of David Bowie And Neil Young
In 1976, the short film The Truth About De-Evolution directed by Chuck Statler which introduced Booji Boy, won a prize at the Ann Arbor Film Festival and caught David Bowie’s attention. Bowie then worked to help them land a contract with Warner Music Group. Then, in 1977, Neil Young asked them to participate in his film Human Highway. They wrote their own parts, and were featured as “nuclear garbagemen.” The soundtrack for the film, which was released in 1982, was one of many that Mark Mothersbaugh would work on.
In 1978, Devo secured their contract with Warner Bros. and released Q: Are We Not Men? A: We Are Devo!, their first album. They also appeared on Saturday Night Live on October 14, 1978, performing “Jocko Homo,” and covering “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction" in their distinct style, which brought them to national attention.
Devo Kept Succeeding, And A Pop Hit Became Inevitable
They followed up their first album with Duty Now for the Future, released in 1979. With this album, the band moved closer to electronic instrumentation. The album included some songs that would become fan favorites, “Blockhead” and “The Day My Baby Gave Me a Surprize.” It also included their cover of Johnny Rivers’ song “Secret Agent Man.” In 1979, Rhino released Devotees, an album with covers of Devo songs and popular songs recorded in Devo’s style.
In keeping with their style as a band, they embraced the Church of the SubGenius, a parody religion. Occasionally they were their own opening act in concert, appearing as a Christian soft rock band called “Dove (the Band of Love)” and also appeared as this band in Pray TV, a 1980 televangelism spoof film. In 1980, they released their album Freedom of Choice, which included their best known song, “Whip It,” which became a top 40 hit.
More Than Just A One-Hit Wonder
Of course, they are not just a band, but performance artists as well, as they conveyed their philosophy in their performances, and in 1980, they started wearing the energy dome which is also referred to as “power domes” or “flower pots,” as part of their Freedom of Choice campaign; it reappeared in subsequent performances. The origin of the unusual attire was explained by Mark Mothersbaugh, who said in an interview for USA Today:
“We designed them [Jerry Casale] and I. We were influenced both by German Bauhaus movement and geometric fashion, and Aztec temples. We just liked the look. It looked good, and it didn't look like any other bands out there. We weren't interested in wearing groovy hats or groovy clothing. We kind of looked like Lego toys or something by the time we got those on our heads, and that was a positive thing.”
They were originally red, but in the 2010 Olympics, during their appearance on February 22, 2010, the audience received blue domes. The group has also had cyan domes, as well as dark blue ones.