Wednesday, March 25, 2015
Q- Are We Not Men? A- We Are Devo! (1978)
What do irony and sincerity have in common, besides that each can often be mistaken for the other? Well, after a while, both of them get old -- in a pop music platform if not an artistic or real-world one, both are affectations and neither is a suit you want to wear permanently. So the ironic Devo concept, as with every band built on a concept, has almost nothing but limitations in the same way that the Alarm or Elbow can't speak to most of us for the opposite reason. In the late '70s these Ohioans got compared to Talking Heads a lot, which now seems kind of bizarre; the Heads used irony to probe and find the hidden and the human, moreover to approach familiar things and ideas from a subversive and often charming angle. Devo was a sociopolitical gag, dreamed up by college students who'd read a lot of sci-fi, that fit well in with the kitschy self-help era, the new wave era, the post-Nixon era. That was the extent of it all. There's a reason you've probably only heard two or three Devo albums plus a handful of singles. Once a simple but salient point about massacred souls and empty coconut shells of human heads in front of screens is made, however prophetic it might seem in some detached way, what more is there to really add?
But the ironists have one thing on the rest of us, at least -- the ability to sustain a conceit perfectly, smoothly, with no crack in its arch sensibility. Q: Are We Not Men? A: We Are Devo (including its outrageous cover art) is, in a literary sense, a flawless work of popular art; if you're attempting to make a serious point altogether seriously and straightfaced-like, you open yourself up to widespread mockery if you don't allow a little bit of doubt or tempered enthusiasm to creep in. Devo had no such obligation -- their sarcasm is a thing of beauty, icily expressed and unyielding. For this reason, across the length of this debut album they are rock gods: an attitude subsumes you, empowers or digusts you, and becomes impossible to explain to those who don't immediately trust it, nor in turn are those on the outside to be trusted. That is why this is rock & roll, and maybe the most hardened and pointed punk rock artifact of all.
The five members of Devo -- Mark & Bob Mothersbaugh, Bob & Gerald Casale and Alan Myers -- were driven by their contempt for the American cultural hivemind, a loathing that sadly seems eventually to have extended to their own fanbase when they became (inevitably) a cult item that prefigured what we'd now call geek culture, or at least the commodification of it. No doubt the band was born of righteous outrage -- over Kent, so they say, making this a longer reply than the CSNY song -- but also of a kind of post-adolescent smugness that you can hear unmistakably on this record. (Try "Shrivel Up" with its condescending Big Brotherisms.) I've no doubt they grew out of it and came to appreciate their place in the world. But aside from betraying a certain snobbishness -- the kind of sensibility that these days would go on about "sheeple" or whatnot -- Devo's misplaced anger also made them startling performance artists. The compilation The Mongoloid Years gathers, among other things, one of the most confrontational live shows I've ever heard by anyone, wherein drunken Sun Ra fans (!) start expressing open hostility to a band that absolutely eats up the animosity with a fork and spoon. Dylan goes electric, Sex Pistols in the South, Yoko Ono playing in front of whatever idiots don't get her, bah humbug -- this is a moment that sounds actively dangerous somehow.
They got cuddlier later (1980's Freedom of Choice, which spawned the satirical hit "Whip It," is a wonderful albeit far more typical new wave LP) but as of 1978, Devo remained more than a little scary even if you didn't regard them as an important satirical concoction. This brings us back to irony, surrealism and their unwavering commitment to it. David Byrne's voice always expressed frustration with the limits of life out of the spectrum of civilized warmth and comprehension of other humans, peaking with the resignation then bitterness of "The Big Country," and when he attained something like grace on "Take Me to the River" and "This Must Be the Place" you could hear all that resolving itself in a lovely, unmistakably familiar way. That narrative is real and moving. Mark Mothersbaugh's voice resembles Byrne's a bit, at least superficially in its slightly grating yelp, gurgle and shout (both men unmistakably model their singing voices on Buddy Holly, the very first rock star who seemed to be on the outside looking in), but Mothersbaugh never allows himself to be entreated by love, hope or -- least of all -- sex. The band means very much to resemble robots and Mothersbaugh for his part delivers the goods on his dispassionate delivery of lyrics like those in "Praying Hands" ("relax and assume the position / go into doggie submission"), wherein he deadpan-mocks evangelism and masturbation with weirdly equal fervor. Or "Space Junk," which buries the lede with uncomfortable nonchalance -- "She was hit by space junk / she was killed by space junk" -- but not before a bizarre and disturbing bit of incongruous defensiveness: "I never touched her."
Musically, Devo sounds most like a renegade band designed to delight basement nerds and annoy beer-guzzling rednecks on two songs here. The first is the utterly wild "Jocko Homo," a rant and rave in 7/8 time that lends the album its title and sounds indeed more than any other rock song up to the late '70s like the creation strictly of machines gone amok. Sure, it has guitars and unmasked human voices, but none of them are doing anything that sounds normal, mortal or comforting. Like some chant among mole people out of a Corman movie, it marches its oblique march in a way bound to endear itself to alienated types who thrilled at pop concepts as far away as possible from the mainstream of the time. It's hard to reconcile the world of this album with the world simultaneously producing hit albums by the likes of Toto, Elton John, Kansas and Wings, a fact emphasized on the other major cut here, a broken-down, mutated-beyond-recognition cover of "Satisfaction" which all but robs the song of any hook and melody and instead transforms it to a stuttering, atonal bark. The word "rockist" wasn't really around in 1978 but the people now described by the term are the ones Devo's Rolling Stones deconstruction hopes to piss off. It flies in the face of staid, established rock "mythology" far more potently than the lyrical jabs at famous '60s bands from the Clash and such, and by whittling a legendary Boomer-beloved single down to its utter absurdity ("when I'm watching my TV / and a man comes on to tell me / how white my shirts could be / but he can't be a man cause he does not smoke / same cigarettes as me" may as well be a Devo original, really) it says all it needs to without actually verbalizing anything.
These stand out because in reality, most of Devo's music is fairly conventional. The scattered moments of avant garde perversion are mostly provided by producer Brian Eno, who as it happens would soon begin a legendary and long-term association with Talking Heads. Eno apparently saw Devo the same way John Cale saw Squeeze*: as an outlet for his most left-field ideas of what a rock band could be in the '70s. Devo and especially Mothersbaugh ironically didn't much care for Eno's treatments, which are most prominent in the bizarro, busted-toy synthesizer interlude in "Too Much Paranoias," in the spacious rhythmic chaos of the terrific "Gut Feeling," the repeated sound of dying tape decks on "Sloppy (I Saw My Baby Gettin')," but most contentiously on "Space Junk." The bridge of that song is a rattling off of location names -- "Texas" memorably given Mothersbaugh's most absurd southern accent -- with a repetitive guitar riff, which Eno promptly skewers with hypnotic, ghostly echo until it seems to fade into some spacey oblivion while the vocals stay prominent. It has nothing to do with anything, which seems typical of Eno's interest in the project, but it also sounds perfect and is a good fit with Devo's own philosophies and aesthetics, a tilted pinball machine set to music; the band reportedly understands it now and wishes they'd let Eno go further. (At various stages in the album's progress, it was apparently a good deal weirder.)
"Space Junk" stands out because it's a fairly normal-ish rock song that Eno manages to get his hands on; the bulk of these songs are surprisingly conventional even with his slight flourishes, a factor which itself doubles down on the irony -- how better to protest the emptiness of rock & roll than to imitate rock & roll, or better yet: how better to express anyone's naive or sage concerns about the world than through this particular medium, which for all its limits has proven so unexpectedly elastic now for decades? That's why "Uncontrollable Urge" is a great garage-rock banger for the ages and why they rewrite the Joe Jones (by way of the Rivieras) classic "California Sun" as the absurd guitar piffle "Mongoloid" and make it transcendent somehow. Because what Devo means to do in the end is lay down some good old rock & roll. They just wouldn't admit it. Maybe they didn't even know it. But goddamn if that's not what they did.
* One of my favorite tangential music anecdotes, actually, and since I'm not a big Squeeze fan (they're all right) I will recount it here and now in case you don't know it: Cale recorded Squeeze's debut album and inexplicably wanted to rename the band and/or the record "Gay Guys" and insisted that the album art would consist of stock photos of circa-1970s muscle-magazine bears. He won one argument and lost the other.