A LIFE-SIZE, life-like mannequin stood in front of the record rack at the Coop, "DEVO" splashed in big letters on its shoulder. As I looked over the latest leavings of the record industry, I glanced to my left to see how many people, like me, had mistaken the advertising display for a fellow shopper before realizing their error. Many did; but the most memorable was the middle-aged matron who bumped into Mr. Devo, courteously said "Excuse me" to him, and went merrily on her way.
People who have attended a Devo concert or bought their new album are often just as confused. Is Devo just the latest, most bizarre form of punk nihilism? Is it some recording executive's brain-storm; a way to catch the jaded public's attention? In short, can these guys be serious?
Against all odds, logic, or reason, the answer is yes. Devo is that near-extinct animal, the rock band with a message. Its name doesn't come, as you might expect, from "deviant"--Devo draws its identity from a theory called "De-evolution," the idea that homo sapiens is on its way back down that ol' Darwinian scale. As a result, the band's songs tend to be about mental deviants, physiological functions, and the detritus of modern American life.
The music that backs all this up is energetic, hypnotic, metallic, and impressive. It's also very reminiscent of the sound of Talking Heads. Not surprisingly, Devo's album was produced by Brian Eno, the same artist who produced that groups' most recent album. Eno has almost single-handedly brought innovation and creative excitement back into '70s rock; for Devo he's created a tight, technological sound that perfectly complements the band's ideas.
Music like this won't seem all that hard to swallow for New York audiences accustomed to the freakish, but will Devo play in Peoria? Actually, Devo comes from Peoria--or, to be more precise, from Akron, which is probably worse. At least the band thinks so. Life in places like Akron--the factory routine, the Big Macs, the repression of natural instincts--may not literally "de-evolve" people, but it probably induces the social equivalent. The scientific basis for de-evolution seems pretty slim, but if you ignore the theory's crackpot side and think of it as a particularly inelegant form of social comment, it hits the mark.
However the sight of these five men jumping up and down in unison on stage strikes you, there's no doubt that Devo has created one unique masterpiece--the de-evolution anthem, "Jocko Homo." The song opens with three chords on a standard electric guitar followed by a rising four-note sequence on some sort of synthesizer or Eno-treated guitar. This elusive rhythm continues throughout the song, as lead singer Mark Casale breaks out in a contorted voice with the de-evolutionary creed:
They tell us that
We lost our tails
From little snails
I say it's all
Just wind in sails
Are we not men?
We are DEVO!
We're pinheads now