“Whenever I got accosted on the street by a crazy maniac, the best thing to do was walk away. I always felt threatened. We had to leave by the back door at a lot of places”: Devo’s battle for survival

The concept behind Devo was created during a single shocking event in 1970. From their earliest moments they had a point to make – but they also had a specific way of wanting to make it, and it wasn’t an easy journey. In 2015, Gerald V Casale looked back on the band’s career with Prog.

“God, those were exciting times,” says Gerald V Casale, vocalist, bassist, synth player and joint founder of Devo, über-geeks of the States’ late-70s new wave. “When you’re just so energised by what you’re doing and you’re the chief believer in your own vision.”

Casale is reminiscing about Miracle Witness Hour, a live album, previously unreleased, of his band performing in a biker bar in Cleveland, Ohio, in 1977. That was just before Devo’s “full bloom,” when they became America’s Public Anomaly No.1.

“It was a very strange place,” he says of the Eagle Street Saloon. “It was mouldy and decrepit. There’d be a towny bike-bar scene and then the music would start. Some locals would stick around and create tension and terror for the artsy punks there, and then we’d play to them – around 40 people. Then we’d just get out of there.

“I remember being really afraid. I had things said to me and figured the best thing to do was ignore them. Whenever I got accosted on the street by a crazy maniac, the best thing to do was walk away. I always felt threatened. We had to leave by the back door at a lot of places.”

Devo occupied a similar position in the US to The Sex Pistols in the UK – alienated, arch-provocateurs peddling the shock of the new. “That was us,” Casale chuckles. “Although we weren’t so much alienated – we were alien. We really didn’t like most humans. We felt put-upon by stupid pinhead people. Our music was jagged – not like anything else. In substance we confronted people, and lyrically it was not what the average spud wanted to hear. We were lightning rods for hostility.”

With their songs about Mongoloids, Huboons and Jocko Homos, Devo wound up everyone. They wore matching outfits – yellow radiation suits with flowerpot-shaped red plastic “energy dome” hats – their music was a spasmic judder, and their visuals were surrealist and satirical, drawing on comic book art and kitsch sci-fi. Then there was their theory of de-evolution, which proposed that mankind was becoming a species of retrogressive consumerist near-simians – or in Devo language, “pinheads” and “spuds”.

And yet, while Devo effected a radical break with tradition, they were actually children of an entirely different revolution. Casale and co-frontman Mark Mothersbaugh had been studying art at Kent State University when, on May 4, 1970, they witnessed the Ohio National Guard massacre four students, among them two of their friends. That day inspired Neil Young to write the song Ohio, and caused Mothersbaugh and Casale to change: hippie idealism became a new kind of negative energy and disgust.

“Correct,” confirms Casale. “Until May 4, 1970, I might have been part-hippie – I certainly had a laissez-faire attitude, I liked my pot, and my hair was long – I looked like Brian Jones of the Rolling Stones. But that day changed everything. I was always political and there were things lurking in the background that were fodder for rage, but that didn’t find a true focus until I was in the middle of people being shot by soldiers with M1 rifles. That’s when Devo was born. We became an insular, parallel world: I started talking about common people – the unwashed, who believed the illusions fed to them by government and schools – as spuds, pinheads and huboons: half-humans, half-apes.”

Musically, Devo had their genesis not in Genesis, but rather in Captain Beefheart, King Crimson and Yes. “I was a big Captain Beefheart fan – there is a lot of nasty, jagged and counterpointed rhythm in his music – and Mark was in a band called Flossie Hobbit who played Yes and King Crimson covers,” Casale recalls. “He was a real prog rock guy, with hair down to his waist. When I met him he had a lot of equipment – Mellotrons, a Minimoog – that some pot dealers had bought him.

“I told him I wasn’t interested in being in a covers band, that I only wanted to do something original. I basically propagandised Mark with all my ‘devolution’ theories and he assimilated it all really quickly. Then we started writing ‘devolved’ music together.”

Devo were closet technophiles and virtuosos, and their minimalist, primitive music was the result of pure strategy. “That was all premeditated,” Casale admits. “It came from lots of late-night musings. Decisions were made, like we weren’t allowed to make a chord change unless we could justify it to everybody.”

Patrick O’Keeffe of Iranian/Irish cinematic/electronic prog experimentalists Safe Barracks is a big Devo fan, precisely because he can detect their prog virtuosity beneath their minimalist exterior. “They were like XTC, with a similar economy of instrumentation and rhythm,” he says. “Every part counted. It showed a lot of knowledge and musicianship. Their skill level was so high, and they were metronomic in their precision. I can’t imagine a synth‑pop band like The Human League whipping out a furious keyboard solo, but Devo could – and dance at the same time. The whole thing – the music and visuals – was all about virtuoso displays.”

Devo had the chops, and the gear, to go prog, but instead chose the opposite direction on aesthetic grounds. “We were looking for the nastiest, most minimalist stuff, to strip away all the crap out there,” Casale explains. “We were trying to create something fresh and clean, to strip away all the prog and cock rock clichés.”

Taking their cues from, variously, the Dadaists, Futurists and Russian Constructivists of the early 20th-century – “We were making that stuff palatable; dumbing it down,” he jokes – Casale and Mothersbaugh created characters such as Booji Boy that predated David Lynch’s Eraserhead. They would walk around wearing masks, even when they weren’t performing. “You’d get arrested today!” Casale roars. “We’d do this ’til someone would kick us out or ask us to leave. It was incredible.”

Casale agrees that some of the language they used – particularly the titles on their 1978 debut album Q: Are We Not Men? A: We Are Devo!, such as Mongoloid – probably wouldn’t be allowed now. “No, all that stuff is so politically incorrect and transgressive you couldn’t do that today,” he says, adding that Devo’s project wasn’t to bully outsiders but to identify with them. However, that point got lost amid the general provocative thrust.

Other tracks on that debut album – Come Back Jonee, which finds the song’s hero driving not a Cadillac but a cheap Datsun, or Sloppy (I Saw My Baby Gettin’) – inverted rock tropes about virility and sex. The nerdish antithesis of machismo, Devo were a puritanical reaction to the decadence and puerility of rock. They were the anti-Stones, which is perhaps why they chose to deconstruct (I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction for their debut album, reducing it to a series of mocking jerks and tics.

“We were disrespectful of everything,” laughs Casale, who describes Devo’s modus operandi as “a postmodern reassessment of Western culture combined with performance art”, adding, “We took everything off the pedestal.” With their retro-futurist imagery and synth-pop sound, were they a 70s take on 50s rock’n’roll, or the first band of the 80s? “That’s a good question,” Casale muses. “I think we were more like the precursors of the 80s.”

He rejects similarities to The B-52s (“They’re the ones that scooped up the 50s sci-fi thing”), preferring comparisons to the equally cartoonish Ramones, and even fellow masked marauders Kiss. Nor did he see that other super-creep, David Byrne, as a like‑minded musician.

“We didn’t hear about Talking Heads ’til we were fully into what we were doing,” he attests. “We thought they were interesting but couldn’t believe how the New York rock press had anointed David Byrne as some kind of incredible god. In fact, when he started doing videos, I thought he was imitating Mark.”

Arriving with a fully formed vision and image (a dystopian presentation at odds with, say, Kraftwerk’s shiny futurism), Devo were greeted like the Second Coming themselves. David Bowie introduced them onstage at New York’s Max’s Kansas City in December 1977 as “the band of the future” and at one point was jostling with Brian Eno and Robert Fripp to produce their debut album. The job finally went to Eno, who produced it at Conny Plank’s studio in Cologne.

Neil Young was drawn into Devo’s weird orbit too, inviting them to appear in his film Human Highway as “nuclear garbage-persons”. There was even a suggestion from Richard Branson that Johnny Rotten should become their frontman following the dissolution of the Pistols.

With their debut album reaching No.12 in the UK charts, followed by the consolidating second album, 1979’s Duty Now For The Future, Devo were the centre of attention after years as Akron outsiders.

“It was a wonderful gulp of water after years in the desert where we were either hated and ignored or laughed at, to finally get some kind of positive feedback; that what you had believed in possibly had a core of validity,” says Casale.

And then, with third album Freedom Of Choice and its attendant singles Whip It and Girl U Want, the coneheads became stars. “Suddenly, after playing 400-seaters, we started playing to 5,000 people a night,” he marvels.

Did the audience comprise the sort of peon fools they had set out to critique? “If you’re lucky, that’s what happens,” he laughs. “Like Bob Dylan said when asked if people misunderstood his lyrics: ‘It’s the only way I could have a hit!’ In a way it’s like having your cake and eating it: seeing people acting moronic and totally misunderstanding you but filling the arena.”

A peak moment for Casale was appearing on satirical TV show Saturday Night Live, whose viewership was 15 million. “There were throngs of people outside your hotel. You couldn’t go to a restaurant – it was amazing,” he says of the aftermath. Did Devo become the decadent hellraisers they had despised? “No, I don’t think so,” Casale replies. “We had too much discretion.”

Throughout the 80s, they continued to release records – notably 1982’s Oh, No! It’s Devo, produced by Roy Thomas Baker. But by 1990 and Smooth Noodle Maps, they decided they had taken the band as far as it could go.

Thereafter, Mothersbaugh created music for kids’ TV shows such as Pee-Wee’s Playhouse and Rugrats, which makes sense given the infantile dementia of Devo’s quirkiest sonics. Meanwhile, Casale directed commercials, as well as videos for The Cars, Rush and Foo Fighters.

Despite subverting rock conventions, Devo fell victim to the usual strictures and structures, and the law of diminishing returns – Casale describes Devo as “the postmodern pioneers who got scalped”. Still, even if they’d never released another note after that first album, they would have made their mark.

“We became synonymous with this outsider counterculture,” reflects Casale. “The word ‘Devo’ became an adjective. Anybody that looked different or had a weird haircut, that guy was devo.”

Casale can see Devo’s influence everywhere, in electronic and industrial music, and even in the scabrous and scatological South Park. “I love South Park,” he beams. “Their sensibility is so [like ours], we felt like we knew them [creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone].”

For Patrick O’Keeffe, Devo are “a lost influence on electronic music” and argues that the uniforms and theatrics – which might have contributed to them being seen as a novelty over the last few decades – account for their greatness.

“I loved their choreography and visuals – it is definitely an influence on what we do, the multimedia aspect,” he says. “I like the way they questioned the status quo, but always had fun. They took their fun seriously, to quote the Dead Kennedys.”

Devo, maintains Casale, are “a cultural referent for irreverence, the absurd, and a healthy disrespect for illegitimate authority.” They are also absolutely one-of-a‑kind, unrepeatable, sui generis. “There’s nothing like us,” Casale reckons. “You can’t say, ‘You’ve got your Kraftwerks and you’ve got your Devos…’ Because there is only one Kraftwerk. And there is only one Devo.”

Paul Lester

Paul Lester is the editor of Record Collector. He began freelancing for Melody Maker in the late 80s, and was later made Features Editor. He was a member of the team that launched Uncut Magazine, where he became Deputy Editor. In 2006 he went freelance again and has written for The Guardian, The Times, the Sunday Times, the Telegraph, Classic Rock, Q and the Jewish Chronicle. He has also written books on Oasis, Blur, Pulp, Bjork, The Verve, Gang Of Four, Wire, Lady Gaga, Robbie Williams, the Spice Girls, and Pink.