"If anyone in 1980 had shown you 2006 in a crystal ball, would you have believed them?" asks Devo founder and bassist Jerry Casale? I'm sure my 7-year-old mind would have been disappointed by the lack of jetpacks, but otherwise he clearly has a point. Casale and Mark Mothersbaugh met at Kent State in the early '70s and went on to create one of the most influential art-rock bands of all time. Over 30 years later, their message is more relevant than ever, and their best music sounds far fresher than most of the nouveau new wave that's been foisted on us in the actual 21st century.
If "Whip It" and red radiation dome hats are the first things that come to mind when you think of Devo, it's time to give the past the slip and set the record straight. Certainly that gold-selling single and its resultant MTV ubiquity have stamped the collective consciousness forever, but Devo never should have been a commodity, nor a one-hit wonder. Their damaged synth-rock recordings began in 1972 as soundtracks for low-budget obscuro film projects and have more in common with the Residents than they do Gary Numan.
Devo's first major releases—1978's Q: Are We Not Men? A: We Are Devo! and 1979's Duty Now for the Future—proved that it was possible to be both intelligent and punk. Fans who missed out on these albums are like folks who think the Bad Seeds are better than the Birthday Party. In recent years, Devo have concentrated almost wholly on performing this material in concert, rather than their later, more dance-oriented catalog. As Casale explains, "The older material has primal force sans complex technology—[it's] much easier to execute in a limited-date situation."
In 1980, Freedom of Choice ushered in a new era of punk-influenced commercial radio rock with infectious beats and robotic harmonies. Sarcastic anthems touted the theory of de-evolution: a cryptic mythology that maintains that humans are on a downward spiral toward homogeny and futility. Unfortunately, de-evolution's precepts are proving to be all too prophetic today. According to Casale, "Nothing has changed since Ronald Reagan. All of the same issues are in play."
Following Freedom of Choice, Devo had a few more good records in them, but the public took little notice. Devo's videos were still compelling and pushing boundaries, but saw a lot less play in the mass media. The incessant and thinly veiled sexual innuendos in their music was barely subtler than AC/DC's (one video shows a recurring image of a French fry stabbing a doughnut; the "Whip It" video is all S&M allusion), but still many music fans were not able to see past the perceived novelty. A few lackluster albums were issued in the late '80s, and then Devo quietly disappeared.
When Lollapalooza unearthed a reunited Devo, it was clear that interest and love for the original spuds had reached a new generation. Limited high-profile tours have given the band a chance to spread their de-evolutionary gospel to kids who need this message more than ever. And still the corporations miss the point, with Nike hiring the band to play alongside A Flock of Seagulls as part of the "Run Hit Wonder" campaign. I ask Casale why these corporate partnerships are necessary. "We never made money in all the years we were touring on the heels of new releases. Ticket prices were incredibly low and our elaborate stage shows were very expensive. But we were doing something timeless and laid the groundwork that lets us reap some cash benefits from our lifelong efforts. The Corporation taketh and the Corporation belatedly pays."
Whoever is footing the bill, seeing a part of history at a venue the size of the Paramount is a fantastic opportunity. Though older (and fatter), the Mothersbaughs and the Casales still have a hell of a lot of energy, and a deep back catalog of material from which to choose. "It's the 'greatest songs that should have been hits' tour since there are no new songs—only selections from the 140-plus songs that span our career," Casale promises.
Over a thousand monkey men in business suits will be in attendance. De-evolution is real. Now it can be firstname.lastname@example.org