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The Men With X-Ray Eyes: Somewhere with DEVO

I’ve come to tell you what I see. There are great darknesses. Farther than time itself. And beyond the darkness… a light that glows, changes…and in the center of the universe… the eye that sees us all.-X: The Man with the X-Ray Eyes

Being a pioneer, on paper, reads like such an esteemed and rugged thing. Carving out new territories, exploring the open planes, and bettering the overall landscape for future generations, what could be finer? But the open prairie can also be a dangerous place, with vistas littered with vicious carcass-seeking beasts like the music industry and a public that is inoculated to being talked down to and treated like zygotes with money. The journey is going to be both a sacred and scarred one, with heartbreak, scorn, and having The Eagles sell better than you do.

Hey, souls don’t come cheap…

If ever a modern American band personified all of the tribulations and triumphs of being innovators, it is the pioneers who got scalped themselves, Ohio’s own Devo. Emerging out of the asphalt swamp of the American Midwest, the band’s career would have some strong ebbs and flows, going from a local band to cult darlings to achieving mainstream chart success and the inevitable slide down until going upwards again and garnering better critical evaluations and overall love. The big consistent thread throughout their forty-plus-year career is the band’s unwavering dedication to spreading the message of the dangers of cultural de-evolution (all the way up to the band’s fantastic 2010 album, Something for Everybody) and their wholly successful resistance to being boring. Even if Devo aren’t your cup of tea, which would place you in the company of several music critics dating back to the band’s early days in the 1970s, you cannot accuse them of being boring. If you think Devo are boring, then you are the boring one, muchacho.

The great Bruce Lee was once quoted as observing, “We have more faith in what we imitate than in what we originate.” True evolution cannot occur without any sense of real inner reflection, something that Devo has done with varying degrees by retaining a brand of humor that ranged from the silly to the surreal and savage. (After all, never trust any artist that takes themselves dead serious. Taking the art seriously is fine, but themselves as a person? No. They are either a government robot or an asshole. Either way. Avoid avoid avoid.)

It’s this commitment to true identity and vision that made Devo’s path through the music world a tough one, with their time in the mid-late 1980s being one of their rockier paths both commercially and critically. It’s 1988 and the band has released their seventh studio album, Total Devo, via the now-long defunct Enigma records. (Enigma was one of the cooler record companies of the day, releasing albums from acts, in addition to Devo, that ranged from Hawkwind to Girlschool to Wall of Voodoo. Because we cannot have nice things, they would, like so many other labels before, during, and after it, would go on to be absorbed by a larger entity. In their case, it was Capitol/EMI. ) It was their first album without drummer Alan Myers, who had been with the band since the mid-70s and firmly a part of the classic line-up. A phenomenal and very idiosyncratic drummer with an occasional jazz flair, Myers would be a hard one to replace. Luckily, the fates rolled the dice in the band’s favor with replacement David Kendrick. Kendrick, one of the best drummers in music period, had previously been a member of Sparks as well as another wholly underrated band, The Gleaming Spires.

It’s not often a band gets to replace an ace with another ace, but Devo did just that, with the end result being Total Devo. Unfairly, Total Devo is one of the band’s more maligned works, putting it right next to its follow-up, Smooth Noodle Maps. Sure, it wasn’t as rock-solid as, say, Duty Now for the Future, but it has a number of strong tracks, including “Disco Dancer” and “Baby Doll” (which was beautifully featured in the 1988 cult-comedy Tapeheads) and is far from staid. Devo had changed a member and some musical approaches, but the end result is still quintessentially marked with their thumbprint. This was not the common-held view though, with even part of the fan community hating on this album and era. If you go back and read key reviews of the album from back when it was originally released, a distorted picture was painted, as if Devo had become the toothpaste commercial equivalent to elevator schmaltz. (Any naysayers out there should be forced to listen to some of the big “hits” that came out the same year, which also gave us Bon Jovi and Phil Collins “Two Hearts.” Musical wasteland ‘R Us.)

Now, any band that nets solid fandom and popularity for longer than a few years eventually will reach the “damned if you do, damned if you don’t” portion of their career. Some will view their latter-day work as tepid or even call it a dreaded “sell out,” because it is different than the older material that made them famous. But if an artist tries to blatantly mimic their older work, they will be called boring and a one-trick-pony. You can’t win. Personally, I’m for any artist making the exact kind of art they want to make and if that’s going down a new, uncarved path? Even better. At the end of the day, the only person any creative owes something to is themselves and their vision. All of this was part of the crossroads the band had reached by ‘88.

Adding further insult to injury was the music video for “Disco Dancer” being played on the MTV viewer-call-in segment, “Smash or Trash,” which basically was the mean spirited older brother to Total Request Live (TRL). Viewers could call in and deem the video one or the other, which is a bit like busting out a piece of Fluxus art at a raffle at the local VFW. Rating any song in such a format is the greasiest bit of game show cheese and unfortunately though not surprisingly, the video was “trashed,” placing it as persona-non-grata on MTV’s airwaves afterward.

This is the soil that Devo had to till with when they went on tour to support Total Devo. Judging by some (more than likely) bootleg footage that has shown up online, the venues are a little smaller with the show design (IE. outfits, projected graphics/video, etc) being much more stripped down. For a lesser band, all of this would be a sign of the music and performance going past its prime. But Devo was far from lesser and committed to a tour that was strong enough to warrant its own concert album in the form of their 1989 live album, Now it Can Be Told: Devo at the Palace.

This is a great and incredibly solid live album that ends with one of the band’s most fantastic, heart-wrenching and yet still danceable creations. The “Somewhere with Devo” medley merges “Shout” (still one of the band’s best singles), a cover of the song “Somewhere” from the 1957 musical West Side Story, and “Disco Dancer.” This composition actually dates back to an 18-minute long studio demo, that according to devo.fandom.com, dates back around 1986/87. (The live version is significantly trimmed down to a leaner and meaner 11 minutes.)

The studio-demo version is a bit loftier, militaristic, and is broken down into six parts. It even incorporates a variation of “Social Fools,” an old chestnut from their late 70s era that originally appeared on their 1978 EP, Be Stiff. While this demo, which itself would officially get released years later on the Rhino Handmade release, Recombo DNA, is a riveting and heavy creation, it is the live version that fully bridges heart with vigor, vinegar with blood, and the burst of energy you have to keep from dying.

Shout, oh baby, this one’s for you

Shout for everything that you do

Shout until the battle is won

Shout, we’ll live to fight on and on.”

Beginning with “Shout,” this is the rallying cry of the pioneer, a true rebel, and someone who cares enough about where all of this is headed to try to make the message felt and heard. Ever notice that traits like empathy, sensitivity, and being openly caring are often treated as weaknesses in this culture? The reality is that retaining your heart and giving an actual shit is one of the biggest strengths one can have. It takes true guts to care. Devo, being the glorious anti-rock-star-ego-tons that they were/are, are shouting with us and at them. There is no lording over the audience while the band skin the pomp-&-circumstance off of the music industry fiend.

Right after Gerald V. Casale starts singing “Are you ready for inspection?,” the band slides into “Somewhere.” This is the kind of swerve that helped cement my love of all things Devo years ago, but instead of coming off as a novelty, it is incredible in its sincerity. Casale and Mark Mothersbaugh duet on this, with Casale’s voice, especially coming off so big and brimming with emotion. (One of the man’s many superpowers, by the way. Anyone that has heard the band’s live song, “Beulah” from the Mongoloid Years album, can attest to this.)

Those familiar with West Side Story, the musical or the movie version, already know that “Somewhere” is the big sad number, with the two star-crossed lovers being divided by a world built on inherent racism and overall bigotry, singing about finding a Utopian place where they can just love and be. While the message of wanting to run away from racial intolerance is obviously muted in Devo’s context, the bigger picture at hand looms large. Wanting things like peace and inherent intelligence, both of the mind and the heart, especially from one’s leaders, should not be the lofty goal that it always seems to be. It should just be a given, but the malhearted in charge have everything to gain from others’ misery and ignorance.

The song, with a gale-force wind of percussion, nears completion with the band declaring “Das Tanz Devo” as they slam into “Disco Dancer.”

For a song that, according to Mark Mothersbaugh’s commentary for The Complete Truth About De-Evolution DVD, was inspired by him seeing a Bollywood film with characters singing about being a disco dancer, there’s some beautiful subversion going on. (According to Wikipedia and yes, your mileage will vary, the film was specifically 1982’s, Disco Dancer. Fittingly enough.) Surface level, it’s about, well, a disco dancer, who has been placed from his natural home in the 1970s to the current day, only to discover himself now out of place. Though scratching underneath the surface, there’s the struggle of the dissident, as well as the artist who was once popular but at a sudden whim’s notice, is instantly viewed as passe. It’s total displacement that brims with undercurrents of anger and feels like a twin metaphor for what the band had been going through career-wise at the time as well as for the idealist who has become lost in a world that has “turned unkind.”

“I’ve been looking for a dance to do

I’ve been looking for some answers, too

Now I’m back to change your mind

Now I’m moving right in time

In a world that’s turned unkind

I see what’s going on behind my back.”

The entire “Somewhere” medley is an enormous gift from the band to their fans. It’s also a fantastic battle cry for those have been beaten but never ever broken. Not then and not now. Even if the band never do another new album again, and with the 2014 passing of Bob 2 aka Bob Casale, it would be more than understandable, Devo’s legacy remains untouchable. Not only that, but they have left us the creative equivalent to a blueprint for all of us spuds of the present and future.

So it turns out there is a place for us after all and it’s with Devo.

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About Heather Drain

Heather Drain is a fringe culture writer who has written for Dangerous Minds, Video Watchdog, Lunchmeat and Cashiers du Cinemart. She has also been a contributor to The Rialto Report, The Projection Booth, Paracinema, Cinema Head Cheese and, on occasion, as a guest writer at both Rupert Pupkin Speaks and Turner Classic's Movie Morlocks blog. Heather currently writes for Art Decades as well as her own site, Mondo Heather, and is the Music & Culture Editor at Diabolique Magazine.

One comment

  1. Thanks for writing this article. Life long Devo fan.

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