Devo, plays two-night stand at Belly Up Aspen
July 26, 2011
ASPEN – Devo was a band tightly tied to its time. The group had a robotic sound in an era, the late ’70s and early ’80s, when artificiality was applauded. Their look – matching metallic suits, the iconic energy domes on their heads – not only mirrored the sound but was as recognizable as the music, at a time when the visual element of music was becoming paramount. Devo was an MTV staple during the rise of the music video as an art form.
So does the offbeat, quintessentially ’80s bunch from Akron, Ohio, have relevance 30 years after the band’s heyday, a quarter-century past the New Wave movement, and two decades since Devo was consistently releasing new albums?
Gerald Casale, one of the band’s co-founders, believes so. In fact, he says, the passing years and ensuing events have only made Devo’s message more relevant. To understand this, one has to look beyond the surface – past the appearance, the synthetic sounds and delivery, their defining hit song “Whip It” – which, granted, is not an easy thing to do. But Devo was founded on deep ideas – or at least one provocative idea: the theory of de-evolution, the notion that humankind hit its evolutionary peak some time ago, and was now on the downward slide into a cesspool of mimicry and vacuousness. To Casale, the nearly 40 years since Devo was first hatched have offered plenty of evidence in support of de-evolution.
“Given the way the world went, de-evolution is more real now than ever,” the 62-year-old Casale said from his home in Santa Monica. “If you had a crystal ball in 1980 and showed someone the Patriot Act, oceans losing everything except jellyfish and calamari, the Twin Towers – no one would have believed it. They would have thought it was a bad B movie. And preposterous. But guess what?”
Firmly convinced that de-evolution had taken hold, and even accelerated, Casale took the obvious step of trying to reactivate Devo. After several halting efforts and minor projects, the band toured in the summer of 2008, debuted new material at the South by Southwest festival in 2009, and, in 2010, after performing at the Olympic games in Vancouver, released “Something for Everybody,” their first album in 20 years. The band, featuring the early core of Casale and his brother, Bob, and the second set of brothers, Mark and Bob Mothersbaugh, plays a two-night stand starting Wednesday at Belly Up Aspen.
“We had more to say, and deserved more of a place in the marketplace,” Casale said of the return of Devo, identifying himself as the “driving force” behind “Something for Everyone.”
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Unlike, say, the Knack, whose big concept was to be the New Wave version of The Beatles, Devo was founded on a philosophy. The band then added a handful of elements – Wonder Woman comics; Dadaism; Russian constructivist architecture; an Irish political movement that advocated allowing government to collapse; the 1932 science fiction film “Island of Lost Souls,” from which they borrowed the phrase, “Are we not men?” which was adapted for the title of their 1978 debut, “Q: Are We Not Men? A: We Are Devo!” – to create a hybrid of high and low art that addressed the idea of de-evolution.
“We didn’t see that there was progress, where life was improving,” Casale, a former art student at Kent State, said of embracing de-evolution. “We saw that man was becoming almost willfully stupid – repeating slogans and sound bites, and resisting good ideas. The infrastructure was crumbling; things that were working weren’t working anymore. We felt it and we saw it and we were offended by the illegitimate authority and double-speak. We felt a dystopia coming.”
So the response by Casale and company was … to form a band that wore strange outfits, stranger headgear and play coldly electronic music, including a mechanical, herky-jerky cover of “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction?”
“I think that any artist, when they start out, has to be grandiose enough to think they can make some kind of a difference, make some lasting mark,” Casale, who has had a side career making videos for Rush, Foo Fighters and Soundgarden, said. “It wasn’t a shallow joke. There was a substance to Devo. We weren’t Weird Al.”
The question stands: How much of the audience was in on the joke? How many recognized that Devo was satirizing the decline of humanity, and using German expressionist film to do so, and how many simply thought “Whip It” was catchy and unique and had a pretty cool rhythm? For Casale, it was enough to get the band back together and make “Something For Everyone,” whose title, he said, is another nod to contemporary banalities.
Casale brings up a Bob Dylan story. After the caustic “Like a Rolling Stone” became a hit, Dylan was asked if thought people understood the lyrics. Dylan said he hoped not: “If they do, I won’t ever have a hit again,” was Dylan’s explanation, according to Casale.
“You find out right away, if you put something out there, most people will not get it – the ‘it’ that is you, that you think of as your ideas and sound. They get something else, and they make it their own,” Casale continued. “I’d say, what we did right clearly resonated beyond a level of style. We weren’t just guys with white shirts and skinny ties. A generation later, we still have fans who we mean something to. There was something classical enough or artistic enough in the ideas. There’s a kernel of content that’s still meaningful.”