Contemporaries of Talking Heads, Pere Ubu and The B-52s, Midwestern avant-punk pranksters Devo were a conceptual art critique of dumbed-down consumerist America, whose subversive anti-pop parodies proved so catchy that they eventually had no choice but to became a real pop group. Corporate capitalism will eat itself, every time.
Mark Mothersbaugh, Jerry Casale and their two younger brothers, both called Bob, pioneered a vivid mash-up of jerky robo-pop rhythms, primitive electronics and kitsch sci-fi imagery that attracted early celebrity fans including Brian Eno, David Bowie and Neil Young. Eno produced their 1978 debut album Q: Are We Not Men? A: We Are Devo!, though the band stubbornly resisted his attempts to smooth down their wilfully abrasive sound into something more beautiful.
The subtitle of this latest retrospective suggests a musical menu confined to singles and B-sides released during Devo’s first four albums, but the rules seem a little fuzzy. Early classics including Jocko Homo and their novelty robo-punk Stones cover (I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction both resurfaced on Virgin but are sadly absent, while some minor inclusions here seem to have been album tracks only. The bonus songs – pedestrian remixes and a live radio snippet – feel flimsy and inessential.
That said, there’s plenty here that remains fierce, funny and attractively wonky. Social Fools itself, Come Back Jonee and Penetration In The Centrefold are all Eno productions, sharing some of the same wired power-pop mania as his Talking Heads collaborations.
On later tracks, Devo’s sound becomes more shiny and synthesiser-heavy, from the deceptively soothing Beautiful World to the electro-punk yelper Gates Of Steel, which sounds like Kraftwerk covering the Sex Pistols.
Devo’s sound was co-opted into the 1980s synth-pop mainstream, while their goofy-hatted, boiler-suited image is now a knowingly nostalgic joke on The Simpsons. For better or worse, punk parody became pop product.