There have been countless words dedicated to telling the story of Devo, the influential Akron, Ohio-born post-punk ensemble best known for their Streets Talkin Hot 100 top 20 hit “Whip It” and their penchant for matching outfits capped off by their famed Energy Dome hats. But in many cases, the writer recapping their history often ignored the band's nuanced critiques of corporate monoculture and cultural de-evolution.
That's part of what makes the new book DEVO: The Brand/DEVO: Unmasked such an essential document. This weighty, beautifully designed book is part oral history, part exhibition catalog, driven by the recollections of Devo co-founders Mark Mothersbaugh and Gerald Casale and filled with rare photos, artwork, concert posters, and ephemera from the past 45 years.
“It was an interesting process putting this together,” Mothersbaugh recalls. “It required digging through a lot of stuff that hasn't been dug through in a long time. It wasn't something that we threw together overnight. It took some time to it finally being done.”
The book also feels like a deep reflection of Devo's overall aesthetic. Throughout its meticulous pages, we are treated to glimpses of sketchbooks featuring rough drafts of album artwork and stage sets. They include advertisements and objects that the band adapted for their own ends, like the art deco lamp that was the inspiration behind the Energy Domes or the image of golfer Chi Chi Rodriguez that they morphed for the cover of their 1978 debut album Q: Are We Not Men? A: We Are Devo!
There's also a bit of the band's arch sense of humor built into†DEVO: The Brand/DEVO: Unmasked's design. Once you have finished reading one section, you have to physically flip the book over to read the other. Or as they put it, “a 2-in-1, never-ending book.”
Because the band members were driving the creation of this book, it also provided them a chance to dive even deeper into Devo's formative years. The early pages of the book's Unmasked section is revelatory with old family photos of Mothersbaugh and Casale, laying bare their early love of kitsch and how many of the ideas central to the group were borne during their time studying art and graphic design at Kent State University in the early '70s.
“It was a time when you'd see people representing the ROTC,” remembers Mothersbaugh, “and then next to them there were people representing Students for a Democratic Society, talking about getting rid of Nixon and stopping the war in Vietnam. Gerald and I decided we were watching things fall apart. We were watching de-evolution in progress and we wanted to talk about that.”
Inspired as much by avant garde art movements like Dada and Italian Futurism as they were by R&B and bubblegum pop, Mothersbaugh and Casale recruited their respective younger brothers (both named Bob) and drummer Alan Myers to form Devo in 1974. They immediately set themselves apart from the pack not only through their unique take on rock music that peppered tunes with synth washes and angular rhythms but their decision to fit each member into a matching outfit.
“The whole thing was like a gestalt,” says Gerald Casale. “Devo was a worldview. Devo was an alternate reality. We had characters. We had a narrative. So, on the most basic level, presenting the band in a uniform manner, we thought was interesting. None of us looked like leading men. We were just average Ohio spuds and we thought the power came from the group presence onstage and watching people work together. From the beginning, people were just amazed at our stage show because we came on the scene fully-formed on purpose.”
That was also what helped Devo become one of the most talked about bands of the early punk scene. Their showcases in New York and Los Angeles in 1977 were the stuff of legend, luring out everyone from choreographer and future pop star Toni Basil to David Bowie. And their collectivist mentality allowed them to hold the line when record companies came calling, offering up less than ideal contracts or off-the-wall ideas like Virgin Records head Richard Branson's notorious suggestion that they bring on former Sex Pistol John Lydon as a lead singer.
Once Devo finally did land a deal with Warner Bros., they spent the next seven years confounding the record label even as they built a worldwide fan base on the strength of now classic albums like Duty Now For The Future and Freedom of Choice and scoring some surprise pop hits with their cover of Lee Dorsey's “Working in the Coal Mine” and their No. 14 single “Whip It.” Along the way, they also became pioneers in the world of music videos with their self-produced clips that made great use of early computer animation and their love of costumes and masks.
The momentum of the band only started to wobble after they left Warner Bros. in 1985 for Enigma Records, a decision that Casale refers to as “the sad, sad final nail in the coffin” for the group at that time.
“We signed a deal with them because they were willing to take a chance,” he continued. “But then they made sure that we were in the cutout bin before we even got out of the starting gate. They didn't spend any money on promotion. They let me do a cheap little video and nobody even knew the records came out.”
After two albums with the labeló1988's Total Devo and 1990's Smooth Noodle MapsóDevo did one big tour before taking a long hiatus from the project. During that time, Mothersbaugh became an in-demand composer for film, television, and video games, while Casale directed commercials and music videos for the likes of Soundgarden and Foo Fighters.
Devo slowly started coming back to life starting in '96 when they were invited to perform as part of the Sundance Film Festival. With new drummer Josh Freese in the fold (Myers left in 1987 and his replacement David Kendrick wasn't invited back), the band picked up steam over the next two decades, including their 2010 album Something For Everybody and tours that found them playing older albums in their entirety. And just last month, the band headlined the Burger Boogaloo, a weekend-long music festival organized by indie label Burger Records, with Portlandia star Fred Armisen filling in for Freese.
What remains uncertain is whether there will be more activity from the band in the future. The release of DEVO: The Brand/DEVO: Unmasked does feel like the capstone that marks the end of a peerless run of music and art. But for the members of Devo, they're not willing to think in such definitive terms.
“I do think it puts things in perspective nicely but it's the tip of the iceberg,” Casale says. “You know, where's the Devo musical? Where's the Devo documentary? Where's the Devo design store? What this book does at least is chronicle what happened and what was allowed to happen. And I'm thankful for that.”