Graded on a Curve: Devo, Hardcore Devo: Volume One, 74–77

Roughly twenty-three years ago the first of two exceptional Devo compilations hit the racks, and along with its counterpart from the following year, it provided a wealth of insight into the early work of an often misunderstood band. Unfortunately, neither installment received a US vinyl pressing at the time, but courtesy of the outstanding reissue label Superior Viaduct that lack has been corrected with panache. Any listeners curious over the sound of Devo in their wily ’74-’77 stage should begin with Hardcore Devo: Volume One.

When looked at through a commercial lens and in mainly New Wave-ist terms, it can be easy to overlook just how stridently critical Devo was of the culture that spawned them. And like many first wave American punk outfits, by the time they began impacting a wider consumer consciousness in the second half of the ‘70s, the group’s members were actually full-blown adults choosing to express their dissatisfaction with contemporary society through a prickly, rough-edged music that stirred up a lot of negative reactions amongst a sturdy and steadily growing base of support.

Some might quibble with the description of Devo as punk, but in the form’s early stages, before its moves became defined as largely rudimentary and classicist, the band fit into this emerging milieu as easily as New York’s Suicide or their fellow Ohioans Pere Ubu did. That Devo now seem like stylistic outliers to many observers is almost entirely wrapped up in retrospective “rockist” assessments of punk that when applied to the music’s invention are actually a little (or a lot) narrow.

And like many of their contemporaries in ‘70s discomfiture, Devo had solid roots in the previous decade. Indeed, the group’s very concept, specifically that of De-evolution, or the idea that mankind’s best days were over and in the place of intellectual growth was a stilted, oppressive conformity, started not as a musical form of expression but more as a conceptual joke instigated by Gerald Casale and Bob Lewis while they attended college in the latter portion of the 1960s.

De-evolution was derived in part from the book The Beginning Was the End, a volume authored by the now obscure figure Oscar Kiss Maerth. Considered to be an example of “pseudo-science,” Maerth’s tome made the case that humankind was the product of cannibalistic apes. The big change supposedly went down after the simians devoured each other’s brains. Unsurprisingly for pseudo-science, the book made these assertions without any backup evidence whatsoever, except of course the reporting of Maerth’s personal encounters.

Tracts in this vein can be highly seductive to young minds, and The Beginning Was the End apparently made quite an impression on Casale and Lewis, and it set the idea of De-evolution into motion through satirical artwork produced by the pair. But far from just passively swallowing up Maerth’s bizarro claims, they instead located a kernel of legitimacy in its attractive outlandishness and made it their own. And a fascinating and indeed perhaps the crucial part of Devo lore concerns Casale witnessing the infamous Kent St. shootings while attending art school there; suddenly this joke wasn’t so funny anymore.

In 1972 the concept began making the shift from the visual realm and into a full-fledged band, though one that displayed an enduring commitment to ocular concerns throughout their existence. A year later they performed a single gig with a six-piece lineup at a Kent St. arts fest. The members were Casale, Lewis, and Mark Motherbaugh (whom they met around 1970), with Gerald’s Brother Bob Casale, Rod Reisman, and Fred Weber rounding out the group, then named Sextet Devo.

Certain internet guidance to the contrary, it wasn’t this show but one played three years later that ended up as elements in the essential slice of early Devo audio-visual documentation In the Beginning Was the End: the Truth about De-Evolution. The film, directed by their frequent collaborator Chuck Statler, ended up winning First Prize in the 1977 Ann Arbor Film Festival, with the group subsequently stating that subliminal messages were used to secure the award.

But it was also a major development in the innovation of the music video, and one that’s much more ambitious than the underwhelming lip-synch stuff that MTV began rotating almost immediately after making its broadcast debut. Unlike Bruce Connor’s collage-film for the early, self-released version of “Mongoloid,” Statler’s movie falls a little bit shy of masterpiece level, but it remains a good watch and an inspired piece of historical relevance to boot, detailing how a gang of very smart guys were creating a conceptually themed art-music out of the malaise and disgust that was leading up to the punk explosion.

And In the Beginning Was the End: the Truth about De-Evolution is very easy to see. Not only is it part of the Devo video collection, The Complete Truth about De-Evolution, but it’s more interestingly included as an extra on the Criterion Collection’s DVD/Blu-Ray release of the Erle C. Kenton-directed classic from 1932 Island of Lost Souls.

That film, a loose adaptation of H.G. Wells’ 1896 novel The Island of Dr. Moreau, is a monument to the twisted scuzziness that could emanate from Hollywood’s brief pre-Code heyday, but it’s most relevant to the discussion of Devo due to Bela Lugosi. Billed in the movie as the Sayer of the Law, his character asks that now immortal question: “Are We Not Men?,” and any Spud-Boy or Girl that has yet to scope this typically outstanding release from Criterion is in for a real treat.

But all of the above is basically just background for the welcome reappearance of the Hardcore Devo volumes, releases that first hit the racks on CD back in ’90-‘91 via the Rykodisc label. And with the exception of a small French edition of Volume One that was served up by the New Rose-subsidiary Fan Club, neither has been on vinyl before, so Superior Viaduct’s attention to format is especially enticing.

By ’76, Devo was pared down to a quartet consisting of Gerald (bass/keyboards/vocals), and the Mothersbaugh brothers Mark (vocals/guitar/keyboards), Bob (guitar/vocals), and Jim (drums), and it was this lineup that eventually landed substantial if temporary New Wave success. But prior to that, they’d already been messing around in the studio for a couple of years with the help of Gerald’s brother Bob and Alan Myers (on guitar and drums respectively).

The ’74-’77 basement recordings of these men are what constitutes the Hardcore Devo collections, and they combine to provide an enlightening and very rewarding spotlight on the group’s formative phase. Even though some of the song titles on Volume One will stick out to casual Devo fans who haven’t heard the material from this era, any temptation to head directly to the second installment should be avoided.

For the shape, weight, and delivery found in the different versions of well-known Devo classics can be quite startling, and Volume One’s distinct incarnations of well-known entities wrap around the other less championed tracks to provide a superb entry point into the ’74-’77 period. And its aura shows that Devo could’ve developed into a very different band had certain opportunities not come their way.

The year before the ’78 issue of their Warner Brothers-financed, Brian Eno-produced debut LP Q: Are We Not Men? A: We Are Devo! the band self-released three 7-inch records on their label Booji Boy, with the UK imprint Stiff quickly collecting them onto the ’77 12-inch EP “Be Stiff.” By the time of the Virgin album, hints of pop streamlining (much of it actually due to Eno’s involvement) had already begun to infiltrate Devo’s creative bag, and while the LP survives as a classic it also doesn’t present them in their rawest form.

While the march of time has found all but one of those Booji Boy recordings reissued in Devo’s by now quite vast discography, only two of those songs, “Satisfaction” and “Mongoloid” appear on Hardcore Devo: Volume One (with the latter getting a different mix). So any remaining consumers that are worried over track-listing redundancy can rest easy.

The record opens with “Mechanical Man,” one of the band’s more noteworthy early cuts. And in some ways it remains their most infamous, for everything that the trad-rockers always hated about Devo is here in spades. For unlike much of the music found on their first couple of full-length efforts, “Mechanical Man” doesn’t “rock” at all.

Instead, the song dives deep into an approximation of robotics that if as dated in the here-and-now as an “I’m With Stupid” t-shirt doesn’t suffer in the slightest for this lack of contemporary qualities, for in their place the track retains an appealing strangeness, alternating a thick rhythmic pulse with interruptions of “futuristic” angularity, heavily processed vocals, and even whooshing bursts of keyboard grit.

“Mechanical Man,” with its quiet synth opening and general oddball sense of focus, occasionally gets early Devo compared to the simultaneous outsider progressions of The Residents, and while the linkage is appropriate it shouldn’t be overstated, for these Ohioans explored their own stimulating subversion of pop convention.

The concise slab of weirdo-funk that is “Auto Modown” is a fine example. And likewise, “Space Girl Blues” quickly formulates an actual groove, combining it with stinging guitar strands and then distorting any hints of normalcy with woozy technological spunk and the unusual approach of Casale at the microphone.

“Social Fools” however, while continuing to mine this minimalist rhythmic terrain, expresses with clarity Devo’s considerable distaste with the world that surrounded them. It’s as bluntly derisive (and some might say arrogantly obnoxious) as just about any punk-era screed, but when absorbed as part of their conceptual ambitions it becomes something more than angry rebellion.

And in addition to the lack of rocking, Devo being something more than just pissed-off and rebellious is what turned off so many punk hardliners. Again, Devo fell to the “art” side of the punk spectrum, but also in their arsenal was a batch of songs dealing with sexual anxiety and gender friction. “Soo Bawls” is a splendid example, and it also subverts the stereotype, with the song’s commentary upon the power of feminine allure finding the band at their most traditionally rocking.

But due to an undying attraction to keyboard quirk, in the end it’s not all that traditional. But where a score of subsequent acts utilized this element in a manner that was increasingly less successful as New Wave shaped up as a movement (if not an actual genre), the keyboard/synth equation was always a part of Devo’s DNA, and until the point where the (equally important) guitars began to suffer in the scheme of things their overall sound was a refreshing one.

The early takes on “Satisfaction” and “Jocko Homo” included here reveal a group whose marriage of music and ideology was well-formed long before Eno got his hands on ‘em. The latter cut is distinct from the Booji Boy/Stiff version, and while it’s ultimately not as strong, the track’s intriguing embryonic aspect more than suffices in helping it to stand on its own merits. By contrast, “Golden Energy” retains the conceptual motion but finds Devo at their least rhythmic and most abstract, and it’s another good example of their Residential aspects.

And the song indicates that an alternate career as avant-experimenters could’ve been possible for the group if they’d somehow been denied the opportunity to explore the fleeting nature of pop success. Additionally, “Buttered Beauties” is a superbly weird piece and also an impressively developed tune for a bunch of guys making music in a basement. “Midget” however, finds them returning to their dalliance with funk, and it completes a trio of songs that ears non-conversant with this material would have great trouble identifying in a blindfold test.

That’s not necessarily true with “I’m a Potato,” since the track explicitly mentions spuds. And yet the song rocks in a manner that Devo had basically abandoned by the time they became a household name. The same goes for “Uglatto,” a cut that’s quite ripe for the covering by some current group of garage rock scoundrels. However, the keyboard percolating of “Stop Look and Listen” returns to the more familiar Devo zone, though it still holds ample guitar residue.

“Ono” continues in this manner somewhat, familiar yet different, the song surely in keeping with Devo’s musical modus operandi and yet presenting a confrontational aspect that became steadily more implicit (but never disappeared) as the group’s profile increased. Volume One closes with the Booji Boy version of “Mongoloid,” the song more skeletal and guitar focused than the take included on their debut album. It rounds out a fascinating study in the growth process of a very important band, and one that continues to be underrated. Simply put, many folks still stubbornly refuse to take them at all seriously.

The reality is that Devo was a fine mess of a band, and maybe nothing better sums them up than the still wondrously peculiar three-way pileup of Creationism, Darwinism, and Oscar Kiss Maerth’s nearly forgotten folly of pseudo-science in “Jocko Homo”’s final verses: “God made man/but he used the monkey to do it/apes in the plan/we’re all here to prove it/I can walk like an ape/talk like an ape/do what a monkey do/God made man/but a monkey supplied the glue.”

A fine mess of a band, indeed.

GRADED ON A CURVE:
A

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