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Dystopia Now: How Cult New Wave Band Devo Predicted Our Doom-Scroll Era

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In an era of growing division, there’s one thing we can all agree on: Things are bad, and they’re only getting worse. This is the age of the doom scroll, where even the most optimistic are haunted by the suspicion we are indeed living on the darkest possible timeline: the climate is collapsing, Russia is invading Ukraine, and America is busy assessing Season 26 of The Bachelor. The dystopia is now. If only we’d been warned of our impending doom…

Oh, right, we have been. Long before dissecting society’s failings became the lingua franca of an anxious, overly media-tized generation, a plucky group of conceptual artists and musicians from the heart of America’s Rust Belt delivered a multimedia manifesto that exposed the decaying core beneath the gloss of our shiny modern world. More than a mere deterioration, this was a systemic rot — in their telling, humans aren’t adding to a problem, they are the problem. Humankind is in the midst of what they called a de-evolution, a reversal of the natural order so profound it will end in the destruction of life as we know it.

They named themselves Devo to put this ethos front and center, and over the course of five decades their ideas have filtered through our collective subconscious. For a band sometimes written off as a kitschy ’80s curiosity, pop culture today has ultimately been remade in their aesthetic-philosophic image, with their influence extending from the creation of New Wave to your favorite Nickelodeon shows.

And the world outside their dedicated fan base is finally starting to notice. When I called up Mark Mothersbaugh and Gerald “Jerry” Casale — the band’s chief founders, vocalists, composers, and creative directors — one spring afternoon, Devo had recently been announced as a nominee for this year’s Rock & Roll Hall of Fame inductions. It’s an honor, but it’s also their third time on the short list, which somewhat dulls the achievement.

“It’s supposedly about rewarding people who changed pop music, innovated,” says Mothersbaugh. “So if innovation and originality are worth anything these days, at least we measure up to that.”

The seeds of Devo were sown in art school. With a focus on performance art, Casale was already crafting confrontational, irreverent work. He recalls a graduate project that involved hijacking the local mall’s Christmas display for a holiday photo in which he stood bare-chested in shorts, covered in electrodes and wearing an astronaut’s helmet. Mothersbaugh reminisces on a piece Casale presented on a chaise lounge, cordoned off by velvet ropes, grilling hot dogs to a soundtrack of jammed Russian radio frequencies in an otherworldly vacation tableau. Mothersbaugh’s practice at the time was more visual — he jokingly refers to this era as being the “Shepard Fairey of Ohio,” lining the streets with his graphic work well before such terms as “graffiti artist” existed.

JAKE INDIANA: What were your first impressions of each other?

GERALD CASALE: Well, Mark had hair down to his waist at the time. He was very shy, in a cranial way. I liked what he was doing.

MARK MOTHERSBAUGH: Jerry was much more articulate than me. He was able to talk about the things he was doing. And I thought that was such a great thing to be able to do that. He applied it to my art — he talked about my art for me, so we really got along.

The school the two young artists attended was Kent State University, and on May 4, 1970, they bore witness to the deaths of four of their classmates, murdered by the Ohio National Guard while peacefully protesting the war in Vietnam. It was an event that shocked the nation and traumatized a generation. In previous interviews, Casale (who was mere feet away from the victims) described this moment as “the day I stopped being a hippie.” It was a tragedy that catalyzed their notions of human decline.

INDIANA: The Kent State shooting was a formative event in the creation of Devo. Can you take me through the aftermath of experiencing that trauma?

CASALE: Well, you can imagine how that would change a person to see people shot, to be in close proximity, and see what real gunshots do to humans. And to find out that they were people you knew well. You stop being a passive person who believes the mythologies, the propaganda you’re being fed. You really have a dim view of illegitimate authority. Then you see how history gets written, because people hated the students, and thought more of them should have been killed. Those who got to write that history got the story upside down. They were gaslighting the victims. And you see that, and now you’re terminally pissed off. Devo was born from questioning the prevailing reality and being on the wrong end of it.

Armed with a sense of righteous indignation, Casale, Mothersbaugh, and several of their compatriots (including Casale’s brother Bob) formed the first iteration of the band, whose lineup would fluctuate over the next few years (and, keeping it all in the family, would eventually include two of Mothersbaugh’s brothers). They both had a smattering of musical experience — Casale was in a band at the time, and Mothersbaugh had taken up the keyboard in his youth — but Devo was first and foremost an ideas band. These simmering thoughts boiled over in 1972, when Casale came across a book titled The Beginning Was the End, a theoretical tome from the Yugoslavic anthropologist Oscar Kiss Maerth, which posited that today’s humans evolved from a species of cannibalistic, brain-eating apes.

MOTHERSBAUGH: There were things that had influenced us that made us think that humans were... assholes. Or possibly just the only unnatural species.

They took this idea and ran with it, drawing a throughline from the brutality of early man to the culture of hyper-masculinity thrust upon America’s youth. These theories all coalesce on one of their earliest singles, “Jocko Homo,” a gloriously concise mission statement which serves as a deranged theme song to the band as a whole. In between a sing-song, call-and-response chorus, which asks, “Are we not men?,” and answers, “We are DEVO!,” they openly question the nature of our being: “God made man, but he used the monkey to do it.”

Presenting their material warranted a challenging live performance. And Devo was, to put it lightly, pretty hardcore. Their early recordings bristle with a manic energy, critiquing humanity’s inherent worth via warped rockabilly tunes slathered with jarring electronics. In true punk spirit, disquietude was the point, and Mothersbaugh and Casale laugh recalling the litany of dumbfounded audiences they left behind. At one gig they were even paid to end the show early.

INDIANA: What were some of the reactions to your shows in the early days? Were people ready for you?

CASALE: Oh, God, no! It’s what you would expect in 1970s Northeastern Ohio. You have this prevailing right-wing culture — anti-intellectual, pro–Vietnam War — and here we are making this art that’s certainly not digestible by anyone. They looked at us with pity, made fun of us, or they looked at us with homicidal daggers in their eyes. They were truly offended that we were even creating this stuff. We didn’t have any friends!

MOTHERSBAUGH: It’s true. We were isolated in a lot of ways. But it gave us time to think about what we were doing. See, if you have the right people hating you, it makes you stronger. We thought, “Well, those people don’t like this. Let’s do it even more.”

Playing early punk to unsuspecting audiences was only one facet of their shock value. From the beginning, Devo was a multimedia project, and their live act incorporated a vast array of dramaturgy. A range of intimidating characters frequently appeared in their sets, including the haunted figure known as “Booji Boy” — a man-child in glasses and a store mannequin-like rubber mask.

Costuming became integral to Devo’s success. Well before it would become en vogue in the ’80s, the band presented a bleak vision of an industrial, mechanized world, with their outfits all invoking the uniform of a dystopian workforce. Striking hazmat suits and goggles added to the overall impression that Devo was from another century entirely. But it wasn’t until their commercial peak in 1980 that they introduced what remains their signature contribution to fashion: the “energy dome,” a unique headpiece that strikes the balance between a bucket hat and the ancient Mesopotamian structure known as a ziggurat.

INDIANA: I’m curious about how you developed your performing aesthetic. Things like your yellow hazmat suits now feel particularly ahead of their time. What were some of the things you thought about when conceptualizing your stage persona?

CASALE: It was the Five Musketeers, the idea’s bigger than any of us. You can have personalities, but the power came from being all together as a military drill team. So what do you look like when you're trying to convey that austerity and seriousness, and you don’t have a bunch of money? Well, I had a job doing graphics for a supply firm. I designed their catalogs, and I had one with those safety suits for when you spray dangerous chemicals. I saw the yellow suits — and at that time they were $2.65 each.

MOTHERSBAUGH: Yeah, they were cheap. It was like, “Wow, we can wear those once then throw them away.” We don’t have to worry about dry cleaning, or if you ripped your knees onstage. I used to go to a lot of secondhand and Salvation Army stores, and I found women’s cinch belts from the ’50s that were elastic. And I thought, “Okay, if we cinch on the waist, then we would look cool.” It worked!

CASALE: It looked really good. We looked like international emblems. And by being so cheap, we could destroy [our looks], or have something else underneath for a second look. It became a theatrical part of the show.

In addition to these elements, Devo envisioned a cinematic world that should exist in tandem with the group onstage. In 1976 they filmed The Truth About De-Evolution, a clip featuring “Jocko Homo” and their cover of the ’60s rock n’ roll hit “Secret Agent Man” in locations around Akron. With stark images of the band in masks, and an unhinged staging of “Jocko Homo” as a hospital lecture, it’s reminiscent of the sort of curdled Americana and cracked-smile surrealism in Twin Peaks or Adult Swim’s late night programming.

Renting a projector from the Akron library, Devo took to screening the clip as an introduction to their live show. Mothersbaugh bemusedly notes that audiences had to watch the movie-band play songs that the live band would play immediately after, but it had the intended effect. By the time enough word-of-mouth had propelled Devo to get gigs in New York, the city was awestruck. After years of outright hostile gigs in Middle America, they were not prepared for the reaction.

“In Ohio, nobody gave a shit,” says Mothersbaugh. “But it blew up really fast in New York. After the first time we played, everybody wanted our guest list. So instead of making $150 to play a show, we’d be told they’d taken off $6 from David Bowie, they’d taken off $6 from Brian Eno, $6 from John Lennon, all of the Zappa band, the Rolling Stones, Jack Nicholson, and everybody that was in the who’s who.”

Things started moving quickly: David Bowie announced his intentions to produce Devo’s first proper album, only to pass this duty off to his sonic svengali and pal Brian Eno. Mothersbaugh and Casale traveled to the Rolling Stones’ manager’s office to approve their cover of the Stones classic “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction” and found Mick Jagger, who personally declared it to be his favorite version of the song.

When it was released in 1978, their debut record, Q: Are We Not Men? A: We Are Devo!, was received without elaborate fanfare, critically or commercially. Today, it is regarded as one of the greatest albums of all time, a touchstone of pop music that bridged the worlds of punk and New Wave with its intellectual edge and its massive, massive hooks.

INDIANA: Was it a big shift in perspective for you to suddenly be making an album for a major label?

MOTHERSBAUGH: Yes and no. Part of why we even wanted to do that was because of all the things that went on in Kent. Before we left for New York, we started going, “How do you change things?” We obviously don’t do it through rebellion, because if people get pissed off, the governor just has a whole bunch of you shot and that ends it — everything goes quiet. That’s what happened to the whole country — everything went quiet. And we looked around and we saw Madison Avenue as an example of how you change things in the United States. They were getting people to eat shit food and drive crappy cars and be happy about it. So we thought, “Subversion, that’s how you change things.”

By 1980, Devo had stumbled their way into mainstream success. Their pioneering work in music videos paid dividends when MTV launched in 1981. Devo already had a full catalog of hypnotic short films, putting them in near-constant rotation on the brand new network. And with the release of their 1980 album, Freedom of Choice, came the runaway smash “Whip It,” still their best-known song to date. Though they continued to produce some excellent work throughout the 1980s, their lofty ambitions quickly fell prey to the slow, risk-averse grind of the studio system.

INDIANA: What was one of the most difficult things you did in your time with Devo? Or, alternatively, what was one of your greatest accomplishments?

CASALE: Continuing to fight the good fight for so long — and that being, staying true to your art. Keep innovating, keep thinking. When we did “Whip It,” people went, “Do another ‘Whip It.’” Well, of course they thought that, and I guess a clinically smart band would’ve done exactly that — make three more records that sounded like ‘Freedom of Choice.’ But we did what we wanted, and then we had new ideas. People didn’t like that. We got punished for continuing to move forward.

MOTHERSBAUGH: I love it that later on people listened to something like “Whip It” and it gives them a reason to go back and wonder, “Well, what are they talking about? Why are they saying that humans are taking the world down?” That’s why we came out here, to try and work our way in. And that’s paid off!

Devo went on hiatus at the dawn of the ’90s (though a reunion and album would arrive in 2010), but their work never faded from the public eye. This is largely due to the fact that both Mothersbaugh and Casale continued to work at a clipped pace in the industry. An entire generation of children was raised on the compositions of Mothersbaugh — whose credits include beloved children’s TV shows like Pee-wee’s Playhouse, Rugrats, and Rocket Power — while Casale built up a résumé as a music video director, helming clips for the likes of The Cars, Soundgarden, and Foo Fighters. Mothersbaugh also found a creative kindred spirit in the director Wes Anderson, scoring several of his films including The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou (2004), which memorably featured Devo’s iconic track “Gut Feeling.”

It is close to impossible to measure the creative impact Devo’s work has had, but perhaps the only criteria we can use is the extent to which their ideas have proliferated. Their legacy lies in the brutal acknowledgement that we are living in the dystopia of dumb, of our ability to seriously question the validity of human progress, to reject the hyper-masculine consumerist dogma that this country, in particular, indoctrinates us with. We might not be what’s best for this planet, but we are Devo.

INDIANA: Your work has become eerily prophetic. Do you feel vindicated? Is it disheartening?

MOTHERSBAUGH: I’m sorry we were right.

Head here to get a copy of the new issue of Highsnobiety Magazine.

  • WordsJake Indiana
  • ImageMoshe Brakha / Courtesy of Devo
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