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Nothing Like Nihilism

Warner Brothers Records

By Scott A. Rosenberg

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

Evolving up

From little snails

I say it's all

Just wind in sails

Are we not men?

We are DEVO!

We're pinheads now

We are not whole

We're pinheads all

Jocko homo

Casale shouts out "Are we not men?" like the enraged leader of a fanatical sect; the band answers with voices that are indescribable--but if de-evolution does exist, this is what it must sound like. The song moves through a section that sounds like a patriotic anthem, then builds into a frenzied repetition of question-and-response, Casale varying his emphasis in every possible way--"Are WE not MEN?" "ARE we not MEN?" "Are we NOT men?" The chorus mirrors his emphasis each time.

The whole thing would be laughable if Devo didn't sound so sincere. In their psychotic way, they do, unlike so many of the already-stereotyped razor-and-chain punks. But the system that governs the way popular music gets distributed in America has already latched onto the most unpleasant, alienated side of Devo in a futile and self-defeating shot at record sales through novelty. The band's appearance on NBC's Saturday Night Live only gave the folks in Peoria a superficial look at Devo, and probably left them shaking their heads at the decadence of today's wasted youth.

IT'S TO BE expected that the hype should focus on the strangest, most saleable aspects of a group like Devo. Unfortunately, in this case the result exaggerates Devo's worst side--the monotony and formulization that creeps into some of their songs that are less inspired than "Jocko Homo."

In particular, FM stations seem to have decided that the best cut from Are We Not Men? is the group's sterile rendition of "Satisfaction." What was a fevered shout of desperate frustration in the hands of Mick Jagger et al becomes a mechanical exercise under Devo's influence. The song itself de-evolves--it loses the anger and humanity of the lead vocals, the power of the rhythm guitar, the pulse of the heavy drum beat; it becomes lobotomized. Devo probably intended all this when they recorded "Satisfaction" this way--but that doesn't make the track any less dull. Alas, this sterile, tuneless shell will be many radio listerners' only acquaintance with Devo, and they will understandably avoid the group like the plague.

In the process, they'll be missing a lot of music that's powerful and unique. Aside from the infectious "Jocko Homo," Devo's album includes one song, "Mongoloid," that's a fine punk-influenced rocker, and another, "Space Junk," that's in the grand David Bowie tradition of futuristic disaster songs.

Devo's critics will try to dismiss the group by attacking the ridiculousness of the de-evolutionary theory on a literal level, or by deriding the simplistic dreariness of the less exciting songs, or by laughing at the group's goggles and goofiness. They'll be the losers, because Devo is a step up, not down, the evolutionary scale--at least as far as rock music is concerned.

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