In the different decades of music history, few bands have stood out for their distinctive blend of sound and visual artistry, quite like Devo. Emerging from the tumultuous 1970s, this American new wave band has etched its mark not just in music but also in the realms of pop culture and fashion.
Known for their quirky style and satirical take on modern society, Devo’s journey from an underground act in Akron, Ohio, to international fame is a story of innovation, resilience, and the relentless pursuit of artistic expression. This article takes a closer look at how Devo’s unique sound, characterized by its synthesizer-driven music and unconventional lyrics, along with their visually striking performances, have cemented their legacy as pioneers in the music world.
The Beginnings of Devo
Formed in 1973 in Akron, Ohio, by two sets of brothers, Mark and Bob Mothersbaugh and Gerald and Bob Casale, along with drummer Alan Myers, Devo’s inception was rooted in a concept. This concept, known as “de-evolution,” posited that instead of evolving, mankind was regressing, as evidenced by the dysfunction and chaos of the 70s.
This idea became the driving force behind Devo’s music and stage persona. Their early work was characterized by a sharp, satirical edge, challenging societal norms and the status quo. Musically, they were experimental, fusing elements of punk, art rock, and synthesizers to create a sound that was distinctly their own – a sound that would later be recognized as a pivotal influence in the development of new wave and synthpop.
Devo’s breakthrough came with their short film, “The Truth About De-Evolution,” in 1976. The film, which won a prize at the Ann Arbor Film Festival, was a significant milestone, showcasing their unique style and philosophy. It also caught the attention of music industry figures, leading to their first record contract.
By combining biting social commentary with avant-garde music and an unforgettable aesthetic, Devo began to build a reputation in the underground music scene. Their performances were more than just concerts; they were a form of expression featuring the band in their signature yellow jumpsuits and red energy dome hats, symbols that would soon become synonymous with the band’s identity.
In these formative years, Devo established themselves as innovators unafraid to challenge and entertain, setting the stage for their rise to fame in the late 1970s and early 1980s.
Devo in the 1970s
As the 1970s drew to a close, Devo’s career witnessed a remarkable ascent, marking their transition from underground pioneers to mainstream success. This period in the late 70s was pivotal for the band as they broke into the wider public consciousness and defined their place in the music world.
The release of their debut album, “Q: Are We Not Men? A: We Are Devo!” in 1978, marked a significant milestone. Produced by Brian Eno, a key figure in the music industry, the album was a bold statement of Devo’s unique sound and style. It featured tracks like “Jocko Homo” and a cover of The Rolling Stones’ “Satisfaction,” both of which became staples in their repertoire, showcasing their ability to reinterpret mainstream hits with their idiosyncratic twist.
This period also saw Devo’s aesthetic becoming more refined and iconic. Their energy dome hats and yellow jumpsuits weren’t just stage costumes; they were part of a carefully crafted image that encapsulated their philosophy and set them apart from other bands. Their music videos, particularly for the hit “Whip It” in 1980, became early staples of the burgeoning music video scene, further cementing their status as visual as well as musical innovators.
Touring extensively, Devo brought their high-energy performances to fans across the United States and beyond. Their live shows were a spectacle, combining music with performance art and often featuring futuristic and dystopian themes that resonated with the anxieties and uncertainties of the era.
Devo’s Career in the 1980s
The 1980s were a defining era for Devo, as the band continued to evolve and adapt to the changing musical landscape. This decade saw them achieving new heights of popularity while also navigating the challenges and shifts in the music industry.
The early 80s marked the peak of Devo’s commercial success, particularly with the release of the 1980 album “Freedom of Choice.” The album’s hit single “Whip It” became a cultural phenomenon, reaching the Top 40 and becoming an anthem of the era. Its accompanying music video, quirky and laden with the band’s typical satirical humor, received extensive airplay on the newly launched MTV, cementing Devo’s place in the burgeoning music video revolution.
Devo’s sound in the 80s evolved to incorporate more electronic elements, reflecting the technological advancements of the era. Albums like “New Traditionalists” in 1981 and “Oh, No! It’s Devo” in 1982 showcased a shift towards a more polished, synth-heavy sound. This transition, while marking a departure from their rawer, early work, demonstrated the band’s willingness to experiment and embrace new trends.
Despite their initial success, the mid to late 80s proved to be challenging for Devo. The band faced creative differences and the pressures of commercial expectations. Albums like “Shout” in 1984 and “Total Devo” in 1988 did not achieve the same level of commercial or critical success as their earlier work. This period was marked by changes in the band’s lineup and a struggle to maintain their relevance in the rapidly evolving music scene.
Throughout the 80s, Devo also delved into film and television, contributing soundtracks and making appearances that expanded their presence in popular culture. Their unique style and philosophy continued to influence other artists and bands, cementing their legacy as pioneers of the new wave genre.
Devo in the 1990s and Beyond
The 1990s, 2000s, and 2010s marked periods of transformation and resurgence for Devo, a band that had already established itself as a pioneer in the new-wave scene. This era in their career was characterized by a blend of retrospection and innovation as they navigated the changing landscape of the music industry.
In the early 1990s, Devo took a hiatus from recording new material, focusing instead on individual projects. Members of the band ventured into film, television, and video game scoring, showcasing their versatility and the wide-ranging influence of their musical style. This period was a time of reflection and exploration of new creative avenues outside the traditional band format.
The late 1990s saw a revival of interest in Devo’s music, partly spurred by the rise of the internet and a new generation of fans discovering their work. This renewed interest led to a reunion and a series of tours, where Devo revisited their classic hits, much to the delight of their loyal fan base and new admirers alike. Their live performances during this period were celebrated for their energy and the band’s ability to connect with audiences across different age groups.
Entering the 2000s, Devo continued to perform and even ventured back into the studio. Their 2010 album, “Something for Everybody,” was their first in two decades and was well-received, blending their classic sound with contemporary production. This album demonstrated that Devo could still resonate with the times, offering music that appealed to both long-time fans and new listeners.
Throughout the 2000s and 2010s, Devo’s legacy in music and pop culture was increasingly recognized. Their influence was evident in the works of newer bands and artists who cited Devo’s innovative approach to music and visual art as an inspiration. The band’s commentary on consumer culture and technology remained relevant, reflecting the enduring nature of their core themes.
Devo’s Top Hits
Known for their quirky, unconventional approach to music and performance, Devo’s influence extends far beyond their peak in popularity. They combined punk, art rock, and synthpop to create a unique and enduring sound. Here are ten of Devo’s top hits that not only defined their career but also left a lasting imprint on the music industry:
- “Whip It” – Their most iconic song, known for its catchy beat and innovative music video.
- “Jocko Homo” – A staple of their live performances, this song introduced Devo’s theory of “De-evolution.”
- “Girl U Want” – A synth-heavy track that showcases their trademark sound.
- “Freedom of Choice” – The title track from their most successful album, blending a punk ethos with a synthpop sound.
- “Beautiful World” – A satirical take on modern life featuring a memorable and melodic chorus.
- “Satisfaction” – A cover of the Rolling Stones classic, Devo’s version completely reimagines the song in their unique style.
- “Uncontrollable Urge” – Known for its high energy and driving rhythm, a highlight of their early albums.
- “Gates of Steel” – A fan favorite, combining catchy hooks with their signature synth sound.
- “Working in the Coal Mine” – A cover of Lee Dorsey’s song, Devo’s version became a hit and a standout track in their discography.
- “Secret Agent Man” – A Devo-style cover of the famous television theme, showcasing their ability to reinterpret and transform well-known songs.
Devo’s Impact on Pop Culture
The band’s influence is not just within the boundaries of music, as they left an indelible mark on various aspects of pop culture. Here are some key points when it comes to the impact of Devo on pop culture.
- Pioneering Music Video Art: Devo was among the first bands to understand and exploit the potential of music videos as an art form, especially with their hit “Whip It,” setting a precedent for future artists.
- Innovative Sound and Style: Their unique blend of electronic, punk, and new wave music influenced the sound of future generations of bands and artists, contributing significantly to the evolution of these genres.
- Cultivating a Distinctive Image: Devo’s unmistakable aesthetic, including their energy dome hats and yellow jumpsuits, became iconic, influencing fashion trends and visual styling in music.
- Satirical Commentary on Society: Their concept of “de-evolution” – the idea that humanity is regressing instead of progressing – offered a unique, satirical critique of modern society, culture, and technology, resonating with audiences during periods of social and political upheaval.
- Influencing Alternative and Indie Music: Devo’s approach to music and their DIY ethos have been inspirational for alternative and indie musicians, encouraging a spirit of experimentation and independence.
- Impact on Performance Art: Their performances, which blended music with elements of performance art, set new standards for live shows and influenced how artists engage with their audiences.
- Contribution to Subculture Development: Devo’s music and image played a key role in the development of various subcultures, particularly those centered around alternative music and fashion.
- Integration of Technology in Music: Their use of synthesizers and electronic instruments was innovative at the time and contributed to the broader integration of technology in music production and performance.
- Influence on Film and Television: Devo’s music and members have been featured in various films and television shows, broadening their cultural influence beyond the music industry.
- Inspiration to Future Artists: The band’s unique blend of irony, humor, and social commentary continues to inspire and influence contemporary artists across various mediums.
Interesting Facts About Devo
The band’s journey from an underground act to a cultural phenomenon is filled with unique and fascinating milestones. Here are ten interesting facts about Devo:
- Formation and Concept: Devo was formed in 1973 at Kent State University by Mark Mothersbaugh and Gerald Casale, inspired by the concept of “de-evolution” – the idea that humanity is devolving.
- Name Origin: The band’s name, Devo, comes from their concept of “de-evolution.”
- Kent State University Tragedy: Gerald Casale’s experience of the Kent State shootings in 1970 profoundly influenced his outlook on life and the formation of the band.
- First Film: Devo’s first film, “In the Beginning Was the End: The Truth About De-Evolution,” won a prize at the Ann Arbor Film Festival in 1977.
- Signature Look: The band is famous for its energy dome hats, which have become a pop culture icon.
- “Satisfaction” Cover: Devo’s cover of The Rolling Stones’ hit “Satisfaction” brought them significant attention and was a breakthrough in their career.
- Saturday Night Live Appearance: Their appearance on “Saturday Night Live” in 1978 played a crucial role in bringing their music to a wider audience.
- Innovative Music Videos: Devo was one of the first bands to treat music videos as an art form, using them to enhance their satirical and artistic expressions.
- Musical Instruments: The band often created and used custom-made instruments in their performances and recordings.
- Members’ Involvement in Other Projects: Beyond Devo, members of the band have been involved in various other projects, including composing music for TV shows like “Rugrats,” as well as films directed by Wes Anderson, one of the most popular directors in the world.
In conclusion, Devo’s legacy is not just in their catchy, unconventional music but also in their satirical critique of society and the concept of “de-evolution,” which remains relevant today. As we look back on their career, Devo’s journey underscores the enduring impact of creativity and the importance of challenging the status quo.