Devo – Q. Are We Not Men? A. We Are Devo!

The Clash – London Calling
Released August, 1978

Jerry Casale and Mark Mothersbaugh attended art school at Kent State University, Ohio in the early 1970’s. Along with their friend Bob Lewis, they came up with a theory of de-evolution, in that mankind had actually regressed rather than evolved. They viewed American society as a repressive instrument by which its members walked through life like assembly-line clones, intolerant of doubt or incertitude. They even produced a book entitled The Beginning Was The End: Knowledge Can Be Eaten, showing the human race as having been evolved from mutant, brain-eating apes. It was all treated as bit of harmless fun until Casale witnessed the National Guard killings of student protestors on May 4th, 1970 ( Understandably, Casale was quite shaken by this event and began to believe that there was a legitimate point to be made by their theory. To spread the message they formed a band in 1972, choosing the name of Devo, shortened from de-evolution. Casale took on bass duties and Mothersbaugh became the lead singer, enlisting his brothers Bob and Jim who played lead guitar and drums respectively. Casale’s brother Bob also joined the band as an additional guitarist, but Jim Mothersbaugh would leave to be replaced by drummer Alan Myers.

To help illustrate their theory of society being mere clones, they all wore the same outfits with the same processed hair styles when they performed live. Their music began to incorporate real and homemade synthesizers, as well as other objects such as toys and toasters. They produced and released several singles under their own Booji Boy label, but their big break wouldn’t arrive until 1976. The band filmed a music video for two songs, a cover of the Johnny Rivers hit ‘Secret Agent Man’ and their own composition ‘Jocko Homo’, in the form of a short film called The Theory of De-evolution. When the film was screened at the Ann Arbor Film Festival, not only did it win First Prize, but it also caught the attention of audience members David Bowie and Iggy Pop. Impressed by the music, they helped Devo secure a record contract with Warner Brothers. Enlisting Brian Eno to produce their debut album, the band set off for Cologne, Germany and began recording in October 1977.

“Q: Are We Not Men? A: We Are Devo!” is one of the most audacious debut efforts you’re likely to hear. Not since Zappa and the Mothers of Invention had such stinging satire of the American public been committed to vinyl. The album’s centrepiece ‘Jocko Homo’ features a call and response section which can be interpreted as the band talking to human society as a whole, who respond as one: “Are we not men?/We are Devo/Are we not men?/We are Devo”. A feeling of disorientation is created by the track’s unusual 7/8 time signature until it switches to common time for the call and responses.

Album opener ‘Uncontrollable Urge’ sets the scene nicely, with a frantically paced track full of jerky rhythms and a whole lot of “yeah…yeah…yeah yeah, yeahyeahyeahyeahyeahyeahyeah YEAH!”. The titular urge is never truly revealed, but that’s kind of the point. Whether its lambasting consumerism or religion, the song expresses that society doesn’t always know where these urges come from, but act on them regardless. ‘Mongoloid’ tells the story of a man with Down’s syndrome who goes into the workplace so no one finds out about his condition, finding anonymity in conformity, a theme Devo continually reprise throughout their career. I love their cover of ‘(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction’ too! That bassline is just awesome.

Devo certainly isn’t for all tastes, but I’ve become a bit of a fan since I saw them live last year. Most of these songs build up tension without ever releasing it, which can make some listeners uncomfortable. This album was a minor success on its initial release (peaked at No.12 on UK charts, No.78 in the US), but its legacy and influence has grown over the years. Regarded by many as the band’s best work, the record recently came in at 442nd place on Rolling Stone’s 500 Greatest Albums of All Time. This is a great example of a band’s mission statement merging seamlessly with their music. Worth the effort.

I’ve always vaguely known of Devo through songs such as ‘Whip It’ and ‘Pop Musik’ but never delved into their history. Sure, they were the guys with the weird hats and yellow overalls, but that was much as I really knew. My interest in the band was piqued however a few years ago when they toured Australia for the Big Day Out. People were really excited. I made a mental note to make sure a Devo album made the afyccim list for the 70s, which was a good move on my part. One doesn’t have to read Devo’s Wikipedia biography to know that they started the band as art students at university. Everything about them screams ‘art student’. There are those out there who actually believe that Devo were serious about the whole ‘devolution’ thing. Personally I just think they were taking the piss. I’m okay with this though because “We Are Not Men” really is a brilliant debut album. It is quite a confronting though in that it builds up a frantic energy but it doesn’t really ever resolve it, so I imagine if you didn’t like the sounds within it would really grate on your nerves. Once you give the album enough listens you can get past that and actually find the shape of the songs. The whole actually really reminded me of The Mothers of Invention’s album “We’re Only In It For The Money” in the way that they are having quite a dig at the world around them in a very quirky and original way. “Are We Not Men” is an insanely catchy album if you can stick with it through the first few listens. Hours after listening to it I would find myself singing along to the random lyrics, much to the amusement of my  work colleagues. “Mongoloid, he was a mongoloid / Happier than you and me”. Yeah, that got a few weird looks. Worth it though.

So this is Devo, huh? Are We Not Men is certainly an… Experience. They’re the kind of band that if they debuted today, they’d probably be huge with the hipsters. Is it punk? Is it techno? Quirky sounds with unconventional vocals and bizarre lyrics screams desperate to be noticed, but I don’t know what else I should’ve expected from an album produced by Brian Eno. The annoying part is that I still haven’t decided if I liked it or not. We’ve had albums before that were basically just noises (I’m looking at you, ‘Piper At The Gates of Dawn’ and ‘Another Green World’) that I absolutely loved. But this is different to those. I’ll tell you what I did love though (and definitely did not expect). A cover of ‘Satisfaction’! What?! Now that was interesting, especially considering that in no way apart from the lyrics did this song bear any resemblance the the Rolling Stones’ version. Wait. No, I’ve just decided I don’t like it. It’s the vocals that ruin it for me. Which is odd because it’s not dissimilar in style to the Clash, and I quite liked that. Basically I don’t know what I like. Picking the track I liked most was tricky, but ‘Gut Feeling/Slap Your Mammy’ was the one that most appealed to me. I think the neat and tidy musical introduction is a welcome break from the chaos of the rest of the album, though it certainly returns at the end of the track, with wild guitar scratching, frantic shredding and feedback. Like most people, my knowledge of Devo extended to ‘Whip It’. I am glad now I’ve delved a bit deeper in to their madness, but it’s a kind of scary place to be. I don’t imagine myself coming back here again anytime soon.

Listening to “Q: Are we not men? A: We are Devo!” was kind of annoying for the most part. Having said that, I’m pretty sure it’s the type of album whose genius is underrated, and takes quite a while to grow on you. You can see that the style is not for everyone and I wouldn’t say it’s easy to listen to. The bulk of the songs come across as frantic and tumultuous and tended to grate on my nerves. Take ‘Praying Hands’, for example. It is fast-paced, discordant and has a schizophrenic vibe to it, with lyrics that play out like a religious chant ‘Wash your hands 3 times a day / Always do what your mother would say / Brush your teeth in the following way’. Points for the syncopated  and staccato New Wave re-working of the Rolling Stones’ hit ‘(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction’; I’m not overly convinced, but it took guts to take on such a hit and make it their own.  Of all the tracks my least favourite is ‘Jocko Homo’, the song which contains the album title in its lyrics. I found it ironic to learn that the band would actually use the song at their live gigs to aggravate the audience in order to get their message across: that the human race was declining into a race of depraved savages (sounds a bit like Ziggy Stardust all over again!).   Before listening to “Q: Are we not men? A: We are Devo” my knowledge of Devo, like most of people of my vintage, was limited to the catchy riffs of ‘Whip It’, red plastic hats and black sleeveless turtle neck sweaters. Legacy aside, I think I would have been happy to keep it that way.

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