Graded on a Curve:
Devo,
Q: Are We Not Men?
A: We Are Devo!

Celebrating Mark Mothersbaugh, born on this day in 1950.Ed.

Thank God for the great state of Ohio. It produces rockers the way Utah creates cretinous little polygamist kids. Just look at Cleveland, where I once pissed into the front seat of a car that parked us in after a drunken night on The Flats. (And people ask me why I quit drinking.) Cleveland Rocks! has given us The Isley Brothers, The Raspberries, The Dead Boys, Pere Ubu, Rocket From the Tombs, and Nine Inch Nails. To say nothing of that great cowboy punk, Roy Rogers.

Then there’s Kent State—which I visited once, and after careful calculations concluded it wasn’t the Ohio National Guard that murdered those four students back in 1970 but Neil Young, desperate for the subject of a protest song—which has bequeathed us perhaps the weirdest Ohio band of them all.

I’m talking, of course, about Devo, which I was lucky enough to see on their first national tour: on Thorazine. It was in a seated auditorium, and during the show lead guitarist Bob Mothersbaugh stepped from chair arm to chair arm until he was straddled directly above me, playing a very berserk solo. I repaid him by drooling on his right foot. (And people ask me why I quit doing drugs.)

Call Devo Art-Punk, New Wave, or Synthpop, just don’t call them late for De-evolution, their joke philosophy which isn’t when one considers the likes of Dick Cheney and Rascal Flatts. Some people favor the “Whip It”-era Devo, but upon listening to their music again I’m forced to concede the only Devo LP I really love (or even much like) is their 1978 debut, Q: Are We Not Men? A: We Are Devo! Produced by Brian Eno (David Bowie, Iggy Pop, and Robert Fripp also expressed interest), the LP featured their “classic” line-up of Mark Mothersbaugh on keyboards, guitar, and lead vocals; Bob Mothersbaugh on lead guitar and backing vocals; Alan Myers on drums; Bob Casale on rhythm guitar, keyboards, and backing vocals; and Gerald V. Casale on bass, keyboards, and lead vocals.

You’ve got to love Devo. They revolutionized the millinery arts by pioneering the flower pot hat; occasionally appeared as their own opening act in the guise of Dove (The Band of Love), a Christian soft-rock group; and recorded muzak versions of their own songs to play before their shows. And oddly enough, it was the shooting at Kent State that is credited with their formation, as it (I’m guessing here) likely convinced the band that their “joke philosophy” (i.e., that mankind, and American society in particular, was regressing to a mongoloid state) was no joke after all. Oh, and incidentally Claw Hammer covered Are We Not Men in its entirety in 1995, and it’s fantastic!

Devo’s herky-jerky, whiplash rhythms, spastic guitars, truly strange keyboards, and uniformly great backing vocals, combined with Mark Motherbaugh’s David Byrne/cyborg vocals, gave the band a sound like nobody else, and their debut album remains the only LP I’ve ever felt the slightest impulse to dance to. While they later went Synthpop, and got smoother and less helter skelter in the process, Devo’s debut is a punk album if ever I’ve heard one, but demented in a way that no other punk album has ever been.

Take “Uncontrollable Urge,” with its cool intro and “Yeah yeah yeah yeah ye ye ye ye ye yeahs,” twisted garage guitar playing that infectious riff, and frantic beat. The group punk vocals on the chorus are great, as is the way Mothersbaugh spits out, “Got an uncontrollable urge/It make me scream and shout it!” And the keyboard that joins the guitar towards the end is special, simple but deranged, as are Mothersbaugh’s closing vocals.

As for “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction” it’s a carefully controlled experiment in meticulously calibrated syncopation, with stop-on-a-dime drums, perfect bass playing, one wonderful opening guitar spazz-out, and Mothersbaugh draining all the emotion from the song (on purpose) with his mechanized vocals (I love the way he repeats “baby” like 20 times; it’s positively inhuman.) To be honest, I’m heartily sick of the Rolling Stones’ classic and even Devo can’t redeem it for me, but I really dig all those “babies,” the keyboards that come in late on, and the way the backing vocalists sing “Satifaction” at the end as Mothersbaugh stutters “No no no no” like Hal the Robot on speed.

“Praying Hands” reminds me of a Talking Heads song, complete with David Byrne absurdist lyrics about how you’ve got your left hand, and you’ve got your right hand, and so on. The opening is New Wave, the keyboards are spastic and zooming, and the song marches along until Mothersbaugh sings, “Okay, relax/And assume the position/Go into doggy submission” and Gerald Casale barks out something really fast in response. “Roll over/Play dead/Get spiritual minded” says Casale later, then the song ends with that New Wave hook. “Space Junk” is a perky and very melodic song about a girl being hit by debris from the outer limits. The guitar plays an oriental riff as Mothersbaugh repeats a long list of places afflicted by space junk (the way he pronounces “Tex-ass” and “Kans-ass” is priceless), then comes a frantic guitar solo that Mothersbaugh shouts over as Casale repeats “space junk” in that marvelous punk voice of his.

“Mongoloid” opens with an ominous bass riff, then the drums and guitars come in along with a quavering, out-of-kilter keyboard. Casale’s vocals are distorted and the lyrics are Iggy-simple, and the song isn’t particularly fast but it’s fun to sing along with. And that spastic keyboard fizzes and sizzles, then plays a heavy-duty solo as the drums crash along, then the vocalists come back briefly and that’s it. Keep it simple, people.

As for “Jocko Homo” it boasts a maddeningly simple and repetitive guitar riff and the occasional space keyboards as Mothersbaugh sings, “Are we not men?” and the band responds, “We are Devo” and “D.E.V.O.” Then the tempo changes, the guitar fires off great riffs as the keyboard does something impossible, and then Mothersbaugh sings an anthemic chant followed by more spazz guitar and keyboard. And the song ends with an increasingly frenetic question and answer session that ends with the band shouting, Ramones-like, “Okay let’s go!” Tremendous stuff.

“Too Much Paranoias” opens with a twisted guitar riff and a scream, then Mothersbaugh sings real fast and delivers those immortal lines, “Hold the pickles/Hold the lettuce/Special orders don’t upset us!” At which point the back-up vocalists warble, “Too much paranoias” and there comes one of the strangest, stop-and-start, spaced-out guitar solos of all time, punctuated occasionally by the drums, after which the rhythm picks up again and Mothersbaugh sings—voice quivering like Johnny Rotten—“I think I got a Big Mac attack” and “Too much paranoias” before the song stops on a dime.

“Gut Feeling (Slap Your Mammy)” is my album fave, and opens with an irresistibly melodic guitar and drums that are joined by some lovely keyboards, and the tempo increases until Mothersbaugh (whose phrasing reminds me of Tom Verlaine) finally jumps in and sings, disgusted, “Something about the way you taste/Makes me want to clear my throat.” The guitar playing is super-cool, then Mothersbaugh sings, “I got a gut feeling/I got a gut feeling” while the song continues to increase in volume and tempo until one of my favorite guitar solos, a tour de force of feedback, comes roaring in. Then Mothersbaugh screams twice and the song morphs into hardcore caterwaul, with Mothersbaugh shouting, “Slap your mammy now!” (with G. Casale throwing in something or other) over and over again.

“Come Back Jonee” is a melodic and fast-paced tune, Talkng Heads simple, with a nice galloping guitar and a keyboard that doesn’t sound like it’s being played by a psychotic for once. Then it reaches the midpoint and really zooms off, with Bob Mothersbaugh tossing in lots of cool guitar fills and M. Mothersbaugh singing, “Come back Jonee.” Then the tempo gets ratcheted up yet again, with the back-up vocalists singing “Jonee/Jonee” just like Television as that organ continues to play and a big guitar surge brings the song to a close.

“Sloppy (I Saw My Baby Gettin’)” opens with some Ramones’ “Hey Hey Heys” and a Television guitar, and it jerks along with Mothersbaugh barking out the lyrics like a drill sergeant. Then the tempo slows and stops and slows and stops again, only to pick up where it started, with those “Heys” and Mothersbaugh singing about how his baby spent her money on a brand new car and warbling as the song again stops and starts and stops and starts. Then come more “Hey hey heys” until the song’s end, accompanied by one cool guitar riff.

“Shrivel-Up” is sung by G. Casale in his terminally cool way, and is moody and features an odd little keyboard figure, and another more synthlike keyboard that plays a solo at the song’s midpoint. “No you can’t go back/No you can’t go back,” sings Casale, until he sings, “Aw, shrivel up” at which point there’s an instrumental section during which he says gaily, “Shrivel up, people” and the song ends.

For yours truly, Devo was the perfect absurdist antidote to my pernicious Zappa addiction, because their Art Punk was all about sheer propulsion and pointed towards what the future held in store for me—The Ramones, The Talking Heads, Television, and Pere Ubu. I may have only loved them for a short season—I didn’t like their second album, and never even bothered listening to any of their later, more Synthpop stuff—but Q: Are We Not Men A: We Are Devo! changed everything. It opened my ears in much the same way the first B-52’s LP did, but I never loved that LP the way I did Devo’s great debut.

And it sounds every bit as fresh today as it did back then, as I can say with authority as I probably haven’t listened to it for almost 30 years. That said, I’m pleased to have it back in my life. I’ve been listening to “Gut Feeling (Slap Your Mammy)” about nine times a day, and it still makes me want to dance. But I’ve got a gut feeling nobody wants or needs to see that, so maybe I’ll just wait for them to come back to town—hopefully when they’re playing the album in its entirety like they did in 2009—take some Thorazine, and drool on Bob Mothersbaugh’s foot, just for old time’s sake.

GRADED ON A CURVE:
A

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