CHAPTER 3:UNCONTROLLABLE URGE: the Industrial Grotesquerie of Pere Ubu and Devo
[chapter 5 in the US edition]
>"rubber capital... world"
>the Akron competition
The chump who bothered to enter and then ended up in third place would be treated to a visit to Firestone’s UK branch in Brentford!Akron was such a reference point in 1978 that when Leeds became a hot scene later that year with Gang of Four and Mekons, the NME hyped it as "this week's Akron" (NME 8/5/78)
>"Marvel at... dream ends"
>"the beauty... into vinyl"
>the pollutant-rich Cuyahoga River
The murky and viscid waterway that flowed up from Akron through Cleveland into Lake Eyrie. So contaminated by effluent from waterfront industries was the river as it passed through Cleveland that it famously caught fire, on June 23rd 1969, with flames climbing as high as five stories. The incident, which locals downplayed as a routine river fire (!), inspired Randy Newman’s song "Burn On, Big River" on his album Sail Away: "There's an oil barge winding/Down the Cuyahoga River/Rolling into Cleveland to the lake/Cleveland city of light city of magic/Cleveland city of light you're calling me/Cleveland, even now I can remember/'Cause the Cuyahoga River/Goes smokin' through my dreams."
>only catch, each city has just one band of genius
Ain't that always the way with these city-based scenes! Manchester circa 89/90 did pretty well to have three bands of note: Stones Roses, Happy Mondays, 808 State. After that it gets sketchy... Charlatans hhhhhmmmm... Northside, you sure about that... Paris Angels comeoffit... er... Candy Flip!?
Influenced by Sandy Denny and Henry Cow, Gong and Bebop Deluxe. The resulting quirky-jerky prog-scented New Wave was preserved on Contents Dislodged During Shipment (Warner Bros, 1979; reissued Collectors' Choice Music, 2003), a period curio at best.
In an NME interview from January 7th 1978, David Thomas declared: "There's this relationship between machines and flesh in Cleveland that is very strange. It's a strong juxtaposition. Cleveland is a giant, blown-out factory town. There's the Flats with all this incredible industry, steel mills going flat out all day and all night, and it's just a half-mile away from where all the people live." Thomas chimed in concord with the critics who subscribed to the environmental theory of music, saying "All I can say is whatever you feel from the music is what it feels like be here."
>"Eighties industrial band"
—unattributed Devo quote MM 2/25/78
Cleveland was also blessed with numerous oil refineries and chemical works. Standard Oil, US Steel, and Public Steel were big companies there. For an idea of what the city looked like at more or less the time Ubu got started, watch Michael Cimino’s 1978 movie The Deer Hunter and pay special attention to the landscape of smoke-belching pipes and chemical plants behind Meryl Streep’s character’s house.The city was where the Rockefellers made their fortunes before moving to New York. In tandem with rubber-producing Akron and that other steel-foundry town Pittsburgh (immortalized in the Sixties garage punk classic ‘I’m in Pittsburgh and It’s Raining”), this region of North East Ohio provided the raw materials for Michigan’s automobile industry, some two hundred miles North up the Great Lakes.
>Boom goes bust
Scott Kraus: “Another factor was that the auto industry had always operated on planned obscolescence , ‘every two years people buy a new car so we’ll just make ‘em crappy’. The import cars from Japan were made to last longer”. Tyre manufacturing Akron suffered too. “There were loads of unskilled laborers out of work and just scratching their heads,” says Mark Mothersbaugh. The early effects of globalization were also beginning to impact the region, with manufacturers moving their operations to countries where labor costs were cheaper. “All the big rubber factories in Akron decided they’d rather hire Malaysian workers for 20 cents a day rather than someone in Akron for 20 bucks a day.”
Performing there nearly every Thursday for a year, Ubu became a formidable live band and developed a following, albeit slowly. “That winter it was rough sometimes, with more people onstage than in the club,” says Krauss. “It was so cold that people were standing on chairs ‘cos heat rises. The owner had to bring in big propane heaters.”
>”We thought it was... or something”
—Thomas. The Wire April 1998.Ubu here participated in the grand tradition of aestheticizing means-of-production originally considered blights on the landscape—windmills, canals—but which subsequently, as their use declines and they cease to be the cutting edge of technology or have any practical association with work/production/industry, become picturesque, a suitable subject for painting or meditational meandering/reverie/psychogeographic derive.
Abandoned buildings like the derelict 1930s auditorium that had once been a radio theater, which was then made the site of the Disasterdrome event organized by Thomas’s friend/room-mate Johnny Dromette (see below)
Tin Huey’s Mark Price spent a hefty chunk of his legacy on an 8 track studio where he recorded many local bands.
On Prospect Avenue, it was bought directly from the owner by land contract rather than mortgage. Krauss: “Instead of going through a bank, you draw up the papers and go through the person selling it–you don’t have to pay the extra interest. But he didn’t buy it outright, it was like a mortgage but to the land owner.”David Thomas did live there, albeit briefly, courtesy of a girlfriend. “Everybody there was an artist or musician or writer,” he says. Ubu co-founder Peter Laughner and his wife Charlotte Pressler also lived there.The area had become an edge of ghetto zone. “Once somebody was breaking into my apartment, so we called the police,” recalls Krauss. “And the cops just said ‘why in the world are you people living down here?!?’ But Ubu loved it there, we owned the town after six o’clock—there was no one around.”
>Ravenstine’s EML 200 Synth
The only other famous musician who used an EML at that time was Joe Zawinul of jazz-fusion ensemble Weather ReportRavenstine also bought a powerful PA system and started jamming with his friend Bob Bensick, who also had a synth. Under the name Hy Maya they played amorphous electronic music at art gallery openings.Part of the attraction of the synth to Ravenstine was similar to that felt by the Human League: it was easier to get great results quicker than with guitar. In one interview, he explained: ”I'd tried millions of times to be a guitar player and just never could get the discipline together. I hated all that crap where my fingers had to get calluses, and I had to endure all this excruciating pain while my fingers were learning to stretch that far, and put up with the bloody fingertips till they got the calluses, and that trash; I really couldn't deal with it. It was too much regimented work that I wasn't into.”
>moulding raw sound
Ravenstine’s approach to the instrument embraced the aleatory aspect of the machine, according to Scott Krauss. “Allen’s whole thing was ‘how much control do you really have’? Ravenstine also saw synths as synaesthetic, telling NME: “I’ve always been into music more on a visual than aural level.” David Thomas said of Ravenstine (NME, Jan 7 1978), "He's at the core of Ubu, I suppose. He's a very unusual synthisizer player . He's very purist with it, and he doesn't even have a keyboard--instead he has a touch tone dial. He doesn't want to combine anything musical with the synthesizer, because he feels--and rightly so, I think--that it's a new instruemnt and should be treated as such."
David Thomas himself wrote rock criticism for the local free paper, Scene, under the name Crocus Behemoth, which was his stage name also in the very early days of Ubu.
More info on Thomas the rock scribe at http://clevescene.com/Issues/2005-06-29/news/feature3.html
>Worked in record stores
By Ubu’s time--the Seventies--the hippest of all the record stores was Drome (from Discodrome) which stocked the early English New Wave stuff plus American weirdness like the Residents, and hosted gigs by local bands. David Thomas and early Pere Ubu member Peter Laughner both worked there. Drome was owned by John Thompson a/k/a Johnny Dromette, who shared a house with Thomas in the Cleveland Heights suburb and did most of Ubu’s artwork and design from 1977 to ‘82, working with photographer Mik Mellen. One of those catalyst figures who were so crucial in post-punk yet who never made any musical artefacts as such, Thompson also promoted shows, throwing a series of events called Disasterdrome in derelict venues, such as an abandoned 1930s auditorium that had once been a radio theater but now teetered on the edge of the ghetto.
>Progressive radio station… WMMS
WMMS was one of the few stations in the nation to play Velvet Underground. Other unusual things it played include MC5, New York Dolls, Sensational Alex Harvey Band, King Crimson. It is reputed to have helped break Bowie in America. Cleveland was considered the gateway to the MidWest as far as radio was concerned. WMMS held out longer than most against the bland-out of FM radio formats that virtually eliminated idiosyncratic programming in the mid-Seventies. Even when absorbed by the Malrite Broadcasting company in late 1972 and going to a more commercial format, it was still very adventurous compared with the AOR and soft-rock norm.Akron fell within its broadcast range, and Devo’s Mark Mothersbaugh recalls tuning in late at night, “lying in bed and learning about what else was happening in the early Seventies other than bubblegum pop. WMMS was like a beacon in those days, an inspirational thing.”
>Zappa/Beefheart, Velvets/Stooges, Roxy/Eno
The Cleveland-Akron sound was more or less determined by three sets of paired avatars: Zappa and his protégé Captain Beefheart; the Velvet Underground and their Michigan counterparts The Stooges (whose first album was produced by John Cale); Roxy Music with Eno, and Eno’s post-Roxy solo albums. Velvets and Warhol damaged Roxy were appreciated for their “idiot energy” and Eno’s barely-integrated irruptions of synth-noise. The Stooges had started as an experimental noise outfit, using kitchen equipment and the like, and they always retained a free-form, becoming-abstract tendency even at their most primitivist (Iggy had been a jazz drummer before he turned to singing). Funhouse was barbarian rock reaching some jazzed outer-limits (Steve Mackay’s sax, the feedback squall-scape of “LA Blues”). One fragment from the Stooges became Destroy All Monsters, pure experimental non-rock that paralleled Krautrock-style malarkey. “
Yet the Cleveland bands didn’t necessarily toe the Bangsian proto-punk line that Seventies rock was wasteland of singer-songwriter cissies and virtuosity-addled snooze rock. Thomas believes this is a distorting myth created by punk rock. “The early 70s was one of the highlight periods in rock music,” he declares, citing Eno, Krautrockers like Amon Duul, Neu! and Can, Soft Machine and its offshoots like Robert Wyatt and Kevin Ayers, even hippie pastoralists The Incredible String Band. “There was more innovation between 1970 and 1974 than ever before.” What was frustrating was the deterioration of radio and the disappearance of middle-level places for bands to play, as a gulf opened between arena rock and bar bands (most of who covered Top 40 hits and talking wistfully of “going original” at some point in the future, i.e. writing and playing their own material). For Thomas, punk rock in the Ramones/Pistols/Clash sense was an irrelevance, a regressive blip blighting and interrupting the continuum of Seventies art-rock.
>Art project… Electric Eels…
Cleveland’s homegrown version of shock-rock always was always coming from a highbrow place, less Alice Cooper than Vienna Aktionist. The Eels wore white-power logos and swastikas; one show was advertized a “Special Extermination Music Night”; vocalist John Morton and guitarist Brian McMahon liked to go to blue collar bars and incite fights by dancing close like a gay couple. While the music was mostly retro-primitivist, back-to-the-garage thrash (the Bangs/Nuggets credo given flesh), the Eels’s arty side seeped out in tracks like “Natural Situation”, a cavernous underground silo of unstrung harmonics and ambient noise. And Rocket From the Tombs, the precursor band to Pere Ubu, was also “clearly an art project”, says Scott Krauss. North East Ohio’s penchant for putting art* in its rock is an anomaly. Apart from the bi-coastal bohemia capitals San Francisco and New York, and tiny scenes in university towns like Austin, Texas, and Athens, Georgia (often clustered around art schools, sometimes music colleges) America has never been that nurturing an environment for art-rock, either in terms of consumer demand or producer supply.
* Art versus Folk
Ubu seemed equally drawn to the notion that what they did was a form of “folk” music, as opposed to art. “Music should be regional, it should speak directly of a specific place on the planet, of a specific geography, a specific time, otherwise music is a function of merchandise and market,” insists Thomas sternly. He has some odd notions about rock’n’roll somehow being connected to “the American blood”. Slightly more sensible is this from the FAQ (link at end):
“Why do you think foreigners can produce American culture? Fundamental to rock music is the American geography and the American aesthetic of space & motion as a language of understanding. It's not better than a Greek form of language. It's different and shows up different facets of the human experience. That's the advantage of cultural difference. What happens when a Greek imitates something American? He becomes a citizen of Nowhere and forsakes the advantages of being Someone Somewhere.”
Perhaps this confusion--art or folk, bohemia or populism--is at the core of rock, its undecidable essence. Perhaps the best stuff manages to be both at the time. In this respect Pere Ubu were, as Mark Sinker argues, a bit like The Band “if they had ended their  tours with Bob Dylan by deciding to invent an urban American music based not in borrowed snatches of the rural past but in intuited fragments of the city future.”
>“I am in a lot… not pretty”
—Thomas. NME 1/7/78.
>“total sonic environment”
—Thomas, NME, 5/13/78.
I was disappointed to discover subsequently that I’m not the first person to have compared “30 Seconds Over Tokyo” with Sabbath, or even the second. Rob Michaels in the Spin Guide to Alternative Rock claims that Ubu filched Sabbath’s “Hand of Doom” (from Paranoid) to make “30 Seconds Over Tokyo”, while Chuck Eddy got there even earlier in Stairway to Hell, saying “30 Seconds” “is basically Sabbath’s ‘Electric Funeral’ with new words!“30 Seconds over Tokyo” is presumably a deliberate echo of the title of a live album by Jefferson Airplane, 30 Seconds Over Winterland, released a few years earlier (1973), and generally deemed “lame”. But why?
>Thomas’ sniffy attitude to English punk…
In hindsight, Thomas has come to regard punk as a counter-revolution: “a foreign, distanced view of rock music,” he told The Wire magazine in April 1998, “in which fashion and politics were the most important things,” imposed on top of something that in its pure original form was open-ended. “That’s when all this stuff about rock being rebellious and adolescent [was] bolted on.”… “Pere Ubu and other bands just like us had come to their creative manhood when rock was at a fully matured state. It’s like a rocket that takes off and the stages drop away, and we were in orbit now. We called ourselves the New Wave after French cinema because we were pretentious. We weren’t punk rebels, we were pretentious…. The punk movement had nothing to do with anything artistic other than cutting off the manifest destiny of rock as an art form.”
Yet Charlotte Presler, in her mini-memoir of the CLE pre-punk scene Those Were Different Times, identifies a current of nihilistic rage in Cleveland that sounds like pure punk as it would be understood in the UK. She wrote “I would like to know too the source of the deep rage that runs through this story like a razor-edged wire. It wasn't, precisely, class-hatred; it certainly wasn't political; it went too deep to be accepting of the possibility of change. The Eels, perhaps, came closest to embodying it fully; but it was there in everyone else. It was a desperate, stubborn refusal of the world, a total rejection; the kind of thing that once drove men into the desert, but our desert was the Flats. It should be remembered that we had all grown up with Civil Defense drills and air-raid shelters and dreams of the Bomb at night; we had been promised the end of the world as children, and we weren't getting it. But there must have been more to it than that.”
>“Things are rough… the problems”
—Ravenstine, NME, 5/13/78.
>Ubu’s positive/constructive approach
Compare the direction Pere Ubu pursued with what happened to the other ex-members of Rocket From the Tombs. Taking the punk side of RFTT to the max, they became The Dead Boys, fronted by Stiv Bators (who had briefly displaced David Thomas as RFTT’s singer), a weasel-faced Iggy Pop-wannabe who mimed suicide by hanging himself onstage. Moving to New York and latching onto the CBBGs scene, The Dead Boys were briefly infamous for their misogynist songs (“Caught With the Meat In Your Mouth”), Vicious-like cartoon-psychosis, and puerile penchant for carrying switchblades. Where The Dead Boys thought it a real, er, gas to sport Nazi imagery (Bators legendarily shaved a swastika into a girlfriend’s pubic hair), Pere Ubu decided to cease playing “Final Solution” live, in case anyone took the song (actually inspired by a Sherlock Holmes short story!) as pro-Nazi. In essence, the Dead Boys were like the Sex Pistols if they’d been entirely composed of Sid Viciouses and Steve Joneses.
A man who died, said Lester Bangs, because he wanted to be Lou Reed so badly (see his moving, unsparing elegy for Laughner as reprinted in Psychotic Reactions and Carburetor Dung). Although 'Final Solution' got included on the first Max's Kansas City album, Pere Ubu were also too humanist to really fit even the New York arty but death-tripping version of punk. They had no truck with those who flirted with the void, however poetically—Richard Hell.
>Emerging bands…. Assimilating
Maimone’s baleful bass-as-melody approach was also a big influence on the likes of Joy Division. As Savage puts it in England’s Dreaming, his “sinuous, loping lines” would be widely copied by postpunk Brits.
“In the early 70s Cleveland was reputed to be home to the largest population of Maoists living outside of China. Cleveland was, also, located at a unique planetary spot which insured that radioactive clouds regularly dumped on us, and us only, from Red Chinese nuclear tests. We found great significance in this.”Ubu were also fascinated by the organization and orderliness of Chinese society (c.f. David Byrne circa “Don’t Worry About the Government”). The song features samples of crowd noises from all-American band Grand Funk Railroad at Shea Stadium--a joke connecting American culture and Chinese culture.
As seen in the Metallica movie, where he’s the manager of that monster of rock band.
Datapanik came out on a new UK label called Radar, which was funded and distributed by Warners, but--like Blank--run more like an independent. It was co-founded and helmed by Andrew Lauder, who as A&R for United Artists had an impressive track record of signing innovative bands, from Krautrockers like Can and Amon Duul II and Neu! to UK freak-rock groups like Hawkwind (and its offshoot Motorhead) and Man, to the best of the New Wave (Buzzcocks, Stranglers, Costello, the Pop Group, the Soft Boys). He also reissued the 13th Floor Elevators and Red Krayola records originally released on International Artists, and put out a new Krayola album by Mayo Thompson, the latter basically using Ubu as his backing band. Radar’s ads were very strikingly designed and often featured a mordantly bleak sense of black humour; the adverts were a dominant presence in the music press all through 1978, until the company’s collapse.
Ticket-holders boarded coaches at Marble Arch and were taken to a mystery location, which turned out to be Chiselhurst Caves, actually within the Greater London area, in the Borough of Bromley (home of London punk’s famous Bromley Contingent: Chiselhurst was where Siouxsie Sioux grew up). When they got there, says Krauss, “We were just as stunned as the people who were bused down there. We were like, ’oh, this is what they call publicity! We were both impressed and shocked at the same time”In his live review of the Caves show, NME Nov 25 78 ,Paul Morley hails Ubu as "the missing link (and there has to be one) between Family and the Spontaneous Music Ensemble"
From Transpontine blog, http://transpont.blogspot.com/2005/07/bucky-co.html: “…. The Caves are well worth a visit, if you can take some of the guide's more lurid tales of Druid sacrifice with a pinch of salt. They have been variously used as an ammunitions depot (World War One), a mushroom farm (between the wars), an air raid shelter (World War Two), and a venue for gigs and parties--Jimi Hendrix played there in 1966, and Pink Floyd the following year. As a film location they have been used for Doctor Who (The Mutants - 1972), Insemenoid, Bliss, Neverwhere and Randall & Hopkirk (deceased).”
>Big time rock manager
Not managed to ascertain this guy’s name, but as a benchmark: according to Thomas, his other recent signing at that time was future megastars Def Leppard.
>“Our problem is… some bands do”
—Thomas. NME 1/9/82.
Joe Carducci, writing about the quirkification of later Ubu, claims that Thomas, “pursuing some harebrained scheme involving art and religion, disappeared up his own ass and insisted on draggging the band up after him. The later albums are full of brainy rinky dink art noise. Some people think it takes balls to cut them off.” Ouch!
>"all adventurous art is done by middle class people"
In her mini-memoir Those Were Different Times, Cleveland scenester/musician
Charlotte Pressler, noted how most of her peers “were from middle or upper-middle class families…. Many of them could have been anything they chose to be….. There was no reason why they should not have effected an entry into the world of their parents.” Instead they stepped off the career path mapped for them (David Thomas, for instance, was set for an academic career like his English professor dad) and dedicated themselves to art.
>"Devo, it's like… giving a damn”
—Ravenstine, NME, 5/13/78
Remainder of quote: “Whereas we're into survival, being positive. the human race will survive. Cities will survive. Cities are on the upswing.... We're all gonna have to do something, take some action..."
>Alison Krauss and Jeffrey Miller
He had got to know Alison Krauss and Jeffrey Miller through being their student counsellor.
>“It was the turning point…. SDS… very naïve”
According to Mothersbaugh, the protest movement withered after “the government put its foot down. It’s like the country went into a big sleep. In music, all the voices like Dylan were gone, and stadium rock and disco took over.”
>Casale and Mothersbaugh's friendship
Other stories of Casale and Mothersbaugh mischief: Gerry wearing a lab coat to a dance decorated with soiled tampons; Mark wearing a mutant baby mask his entire senior year. Eventually, Mothersbaugh inadvertantly cost Casale his job as a graphics teacher. To show his students how to keep a sketchbook journal, Casale borrowed Mothersbaugh’s and projected some of the more innocuous images during class. In the lunch break, a girl pried further into the notebook and was so traumatized by what she found--Mothersbaugh’s self-portrait of himself as a butcher-doctor--that she immediately reported Casale to the Dean. He was fired that same day.
Other influences: Sparks’s highly-strung Aryan pomp, The Residents surrealist synth-slime, Zappa’s sneery, smutty sexism. The result: what just might just be the most repellent rock music in history. Unappetising fare, on first whiff, but once you acquired the taste, utterly irresistible.
>Ferry's android vibrato
A glamdroid, Dalek-like rattle of reptilian sangfroid, as heard on those astounding first two Roxy albums, before his lounge lizard persona took over and the voice smoothed out into a wordly, debonair, love-worn croon.
>A whole new way to think about the instrument
C.f. Ravenstine, Mothersbaugh says his mindset was “approaching it as though the keyboard was a hindrance”
In Search and Destroy, (Search & Destroy #7; Reprinted in Vale, V (ed). Search and Destroy #7-11 (see bibliography)) Devo talked about their early art-noise days: machine guns on a tape loop, using windshield wipers and washing machines as rhythm instruments, songs where the rhythm track was a sneeze or a belch in a loop.
“make you feel rigid right away”
>Casale: “They give you that stiff, non-gut feeling”
“We were anything…. loose, natural”—Casale. Search & Destroy #7. Reprinted in Vale, V (ed). Search and Destroy #7-11 (see bibliography)
The band declared in a telexed communique printed in ZigZag march/april 1978: “The ideals of freedom and equality constitute a soft-core mysticism that is pretty insipid and pretty evil. It allows the economy to thrive on the illusion that individual beliefs, plus convoluted sexual energy, equals personal liberty--when all it does equal is insanity and indulgence.”More extracts from the communiqué”“We’re merely following our genetic imperative…. this drive we’ve been programmed with…”“Things falling apart. Everything in the universe degenerating from its most complex to simple form. That’s all that’s going on. Devo is just based on the facts”
“The cities are our major source of information. They are devolving faster than the places in between, which don’t rub up against each other as much…”“
We’re pedding insecurity and purposelessness because people need it”
At the end of the communiqué, Casale reproduces a letter from a friend whom he claims is at the State Mental Hospital, about how Cro-Magnon man had an 18 inch penis with a glans the size of a peach, but that penises are shrinking due to (resentful) vaginal secretions absorbed by it!
Devo typified New Wave as music of suburban non-swingers; a rootless music, purged of folk traces or blackness.
>“here’s another one by Foghat”
Cleveland was the same as Akron: the city run by bar bands who played Top 40 hits; bands would talk about "going original" meaning writing their own songs but put it off for years because the only way to get gigs was to do covers.
>Often we’d get paid to quit
College audiences were no more sympathetic: a Halloween 1975 gig at the University of Cleveland saw Casale using his bass to bat away the beer bottles. On another occasion Devo called themselves Sextet Devo in order to play at a jazz festival. “This was early on, when we were like an Ohio version of Trout Mask Replica Magic Band,” recalls Mothersbaugh. “Very dissonant, slow and plodding. It was only later when we heard things like the Ramones that we decided that fast was the way to go. At the time we were playing at Ohio unemployment speed!”
>Jocko Homo... Booji Boy label
The three color sides of the wraparound fold-out cover for "Jocko Homo" and its double A side "Mongoloid":
>A garage with no heating
Mothersbaugh has described it as “a subzero rehearsal bunker”. They had to drive through a car wash to get to the garage, and so their car always had a sheet of ice over it.
About a worker drone who successfully conceals the fact that he’s a mongoloid. It has a kind of Glitterbeat/”Rock’n’Roll, Part 2” feel to it rhythmically.
Along with making a science fiction movie, they fantasised about live gigs evolving into three-dimensional action holograms, with, say, a giant purple worm crawling across the stage as a visual representation of the bassline!
>The Seventies had been a write-off
Seventies as the Sixties aftermath/afterbirth: Devo’s cover of the Stones’s “Satisfaction”, wrote Jon Savage, “wipes out the Sixties finally”
>“We figured we’d… auto mechanics”
—Casale. Quoted in Dan Graham’s Rock My Religion (see bibliography). Page 96.
>Devo Corporate Anthem
An idea borrowed from Rollerball, which actually is an “anti-capitalist science movie” come to think of. Directed by Norman Jewison and released in 1975, it’s set in a neo-feudal society of the near future where corporations have replaced nation-states (c.f. Network’s loony financier’s vision of the future where they will be no more countries, just General Motors, Du Pont etc--almost a parody of communism’s “withering away” of the nation-state). The peon-like masses are kept amused by gladiatorial games like Rollerball (an idea very similar to Frederick Pohl and C.M. Kornbluth’s s.f. classic Gladiator-At-Law). James Caan plays the champion rollerballer superstar Jonathan E. Both Rollerball and Network are movies highly rated by Casale.More info on Rollerball, (link)
>Individuality and rebellions were obsolete…
Casale liked to compare the band to a beehive, drone-serfs following their genetic imperative
The Virgin press release for their first album Q: Are We Not Men? A: We Are Devo! insisted that the five band members “are almost uniform in height and weight and their boot size is 8c.”
When they met Casale and Mothersbaugh discovered they both shared a soft spot for rubber masks—as the latter put it, “a coincidence that surely wasn’t a coincidence.” As “a cheap form of entertainment” in Akron (they had no car and couldn’t afford drugs, so couldn’t do the local thing of dropping quaaludes and driving aimlessly around in a van), they would wear a mask all day and stay in character.
>Russian Constructivist ballet
Specifically, Victory over the Sun, Malevich’s Russian Constructivist play. According to Wikipedia, Victory over the Sun was actually a Russian Futurist opera; it was premiered in 1913 in St Petersburg; Malevich was the stage designer, the music was by Mikhail Matyushin, the libretto was written by Aleksei Kruchonykh in zaum (not an invented language but a kind of mutated Russian, "wild, flaming, explosive” and trans-rational.
>“the best live… ever seen”
—Eno. MM 5/20/80. Eno interview.
Eno further talked of the show: “what I saw in them always happens when you encounter something new in art—you get a feeling of being slightly dislocated, and with that are emotional overtones that are slightly menacing as well as alluring.” Clearly he recognized in Devo the very elements of “insanity… clumsiness and grotesqueness” that were gradually purged from Roxy Music, along with his own person.
here's some footage from the July 8th 1977 gig at Max's Kansas City, NYC
>Neil Young, of all people
Actually, to be fair, Neil Young would have been one of the few babyboomer hippie-generation long-hairs with any integrity, spiritual or sonic, left. As Devo recognized, it was Young who’d written about the “four dead in Ohio” in Crosby Stills Nash and Young’s famous song “Ohio”, rushed out as an instant-response single to the atrocity. Trans, his 1982 New Wave-influenced synth album, clearly bore the imprint of Devo. But before that was 1979’s Rust Never Sleeps, partly a document of his 1978 concert tour; “My My Hey Hey (Out of the Blue)” nods to Johnny Rotten as custodian of the spirit of rock’n’roll. The story goes that the phrase “Rust Never Sleeps” itself came from Devo themselves. Young had hired them to play on the song “Out of the Blue” for Human Highway, and during the recording, Mark Mothersbaugh and Jerry Casale began repeating the words “rust never sleeps”. It was a slogan they'd coined for the anti-rust product Rustoleum, when working for an Ohio ad agency
>Iggy Pop was so enamored
Devo had managed to inveigle a cassette into Bowie’s possession when the Iggy Pop tour hit Cleveland. Back in Germany to record Lust for Life, Iggy rifled through Bowie’s suitcase in search of music, found the Devo demo, and was blown away.
Bowie described them as “three Enos and a couple of Edgar Froeses in one band”
The deal Bowie and his cohorts wanted would have involved a hefty take being siphoned off as payment for production services, leaving Devo, or so Casale and Mothersbaugh claim, with crumbs.
As per my introduction comments about punk and evil, it’s easy to forget how much of the Pistols’s magnetic menace was based around the idea of them as these monstrous, diabolical, disgusting figures: Vicious slashing his wrists and vomiting onstage, and so forth.
>Embroiled in negotiations with record companies
Phone calls constantly interrrupted the sessions at Conny Plank’s studio. There was a period in early 1978 when Devo seemed the pivot of the rock universe, and also to be repeating McLaren’s gamesmanship with the major labels. When Devo didn’t go for Branson’s scheme of Rotten joining Devo, the Virgin mogul wasn’t discouraged and continued to woo the group, eventually persuading them to sign a deal for half the world. But Warner Bros believed they already had Devo more-or-less signed to a world deal, not just for North America and Japan. It turned out that Brian Eno hadn’t paid for their flights to Germany, Warners had, and they felt they had a lien on the album, a verbal understanding. So when Devo signed to Virgin, Warners threatened to litigate. The resulting farrago was written up as though Devo were the Sex Pistols Mark 2, fucking with the industry, playing two big companies off against each other. The truth was less impressive. The two majors decided what the arrangement would be and imposed it on the band. It wasn’t a particularly good deal for Devo.
Mothersbaugh sounds gloating as he sings “‘it’s a god given law/that you’re gonna lose your ma”
Also tinged with misogyny is the sci-fi scenario of “Space Junk”, the lament of a guy whose girlfriend is crushed by a falling satellite
Stopped just short of the Top 40 in the UK, but was Single of the Week in both NME and Melody Maker, with the reviewers admiringly noting the way its mechanical disco-like feel subverted the Rolling Stones. Sounds gave single of the week to the Normal’s “TV OD/Warm Leatherette” and fair enough!The single was accompanied by a creepy ad in the papers of a man’s midriff and groin, and a women’s loins, with weird kinky get-up on it.The Residents’ two and a half year old version of ‘Satisfaction’ was released a month later
The most traditional of rock festivals in the UK, its staples being metal, hard rock, and prog-lite: the Old Wave, basically. “We had no road crew and so we put on these blue jumpsuits and hung out onstage with the other roadies,” recalls Mothersbaugh. “When it was our turn to play we set up the gear, then ran offstage and changed into our performance outfits: yellow workmen’s suits and fluorescent orange skateboard helmets. Afterwards we ran offstage, put on the roadies uniform and came back and tore down the equipment. The actual show went down really wild.”
The Devo cover story in NME July 8th 1978 was a derisive piece by Tony Parson who thought they were inarticulate charlatans. Parsons wrote: "Devo have turned wallowing in society's rank mire into an Art Form. Or rather, they've tried to. They say they're not pointing a way out of crudland, they're just pointing at crudland itself."
>Opaque psuedo-scientific jargon
With their encrypted jargon (references to “spuds”, to “high and low devo”, and other arcana) and menagerie of characters like Booji Boy, Devo looked suspiciously like an exercise in cult-building, a deliberate cultivation of mystique. The spud thing, says Mothersbaugh, “came from looking at famous people and thinking if society was the vegetable kingdom, we’d be Potatoes--dirty, assymetric, from underground. Yet spuds are the staple of the American diet, on everybody’s plate. But nobody every talked about them. So we decided we were potatoes where Brooke Shields was an asparagus.”The distinction between high and low devo: “low devo” was normal Americans who went about their devolved business in blissful ignorance, whereas “high devo” was people like Devo who knew the score. Sounds a bit like the 5
In Search and Destroy #7, Devo explain that Booji Boy is an alter-ego from days when they’d sit around all day in a mask and become a different character. With his high voice and baby face, he represents innocence and naivete, ie. being a patsy.
>the corporatization of rock
Devo seemed to be revelling in the fact that rock’n’roll, shorn of its rebellious pretensions, had become a prime agent of behaviourist control, its “untrammelled sexuality” and “breaking free” mere pseudo-liberation.
The Devo ideology oddly parallels the neo-conservative critique mounted by Christopher Lasch in his 1978 best-seller The Culture of Narcissism: American Life in An Age of Diminishing Expectations. And it looks ahead to Jean Baudrillard’s vision of Western society’s recline-and-fall, in which all the 20th Century’s dreams of radicalism and renewal disappear into the morass of mass culture, the impassive inertia and unconcern of “the silent masses.” Like Casale and Mothersbaugh, Baudrillard and his French post-structuralist counterparts were disillusioned children of 1968, who’d glimpsed the mirage of revolution and now questioned all the Enlightenment myths of progress and improvement.
>Virgin's Press Release
More from the press release: “Jerry emits debased pulses, and Bob 2 adds precise robot rhythms. Bob 1 retaliates with sonic mutations, and Mark sprays it all with alien synthesiser gases…. They are following the demands of their genetic codes. They are suburban robots here to entertain corporate life forms. Devo says opposition and rebellion are obsolete. The fittest shall survive yet the unfit may live. It’s all the same.”
With their anti-evolution pamphlets, these guys always got a warm welcome at Mothersbaugh’s door.
Casale described one of their video images as ‘choirboys with a dark side’ . C.f. the sexual guilt and self loathing that informs the porno aspects of Devo.
>Mire… mindless electric filth
C.f. National Lampoon’s savage spoof of rock festival culture, Lemmings. According to Greenman Review’s Craig Clarke, it was specifically parodying Woodstock, taking "peace, love, and music" and adding "mass suicide". It featured future SNL stars John Belushi and Chevy Chase, and Christopher Guest and Tony Hendra later famous as respectively the guitarist and the manager in This is Spinal Tap.
Compare with the analysis in The Sex Revolts of Devo as part of a line of abjection-fixated rockers including Big Black, Scratch Acid, Henry Rollins, Nirvana:
Perhaps the most clinical rock'n'roll of all time was created by Devo. Emerging in 1978 from the depths of Ohio, their squeamish fascination for the ickiness of human biology seemed to be part and parcel of punk's disgust with the body. In fact, Devo's morbid obsession predated punk's assault on taboos. Their early '70s material (released posthumously on the compilations Hardcore Devo Volumes One and Two) was grotesquerie a-go-go. 'Soo Bawls' was a paean to a cute mongoloid whose toilet water all the guys want to sip…. In 'Midget', the protagonist, who has the body of a toddler but the lusts of a grown man, plays under his mother's skirts all day, until his daddy has him put in a home…. Accompanying this distasteful but strangely addictive fare was a fully-fledged if opaque philosophy called 'de-evolution'. The gist of it was that humanity was in decline, owing to the brain-eroding influence of TV and advertising. Devo's goal was to sever rock'n'roll's residual links with counterculture utopianism and re-make rock as a fully-functioning element in a new conformist, totalitarian pop culture. Songs like 'Are We Not Men?' and 'Mongoloid' were anthems of rock's new role in western civilisation's decline. As a parody, de-evolution was a brilliant prophesy of rock's integration in the '80s, via MTV, advertising and Hollywood tie-ins, with a mainstream leisure culture that was controlled and controlling.What's most striking now, though, is how old-fashioned Devo's disgust was, so in tune with Judaeo-Christian body-fear. The group's chief theoretician, Jerry Casale,said: 'We base our aesthetic on self-deprecating humour. We have that [Mid-Western] sense... of shame about being human'. He explained that rock music is 'exciting because it's filthy--nauseous yet erect.'… In interviews, they talked of imagining a new, ultra-clean sexuality for the twenty-first century. They were obsessed with the efficiency of Japanese society. But their revulsion from the body, and in particular the liquefacient abjection of the female body, was as ancient as the Old Testament.”
>“Clean up squad”
Either that or they were surgeons: “[We’re] just finding out what's going on beneath the skin,” Casale told NME. “You see decay on the surface and underneath you find this big tumour that's been growing for ten years.”
The formation of the group “happened like an eruption on the skin", claimed Casale.Casale dreamed of adding odour to their debut album, saying ‘Mongoloid’ would smell like ‘pablum and bacon frying. Hospitals” while ‘Jocko Homo’ would be like the zoo. You gotta love these guys, doncha, really!
—Casale, Trouser Press, February 1982.
>“like maggots… things”
—Casale. Sounds 11/27/77.
Casale fantasised in interviews about using subsonic frequencies to induce involuntary bowel movements in the audience: "We could hand out diapers before our shows with the lyrics printed on them." He told Melody Maker: “The Sixties was definitively like genital-oriented sex. The Seventies became narcissistically oral, and now we’re in an anal phase…. That has to do with pre-genital sexuality, infancy. Again, just like playing in your own pooh-pooh.”
Quoted in July 14 NME 79, Devo: Their Part In Our Downfall, by Paul Morley. an extract from an article by Jerry Casale written for an LA magazine 1972: "I interviewed a friend of mine, he's a real Devo-ist. Meatman, he only delivers prime, concerning this subject matter, and his view is epiphanic. He says" 'the way I see it, man is a germ in the universe.... I mean it's that Henry Miller stuff... you know, I sampled her potatoes and gravy, she was wriggling like a wet fish on the end of a spear, comin' and jerkin'..... man's a germ, he's gotta couple, he's gotta spread... It's gotta be wet and oozey, it's gotta be Henry Miller... I had a friend who used to fuck a data processing girl behind a big Univac 704... he laid her right on the read out board... he used to say there was nothing more spiritual than dog style love'."Casale sees a parallel between Devo and the porno-kitsch of Jeff Koons and Ciccolina.
Casale: “LA is physically Devo. I mean there's no centre to LA, you just go and go” (from the July 14 1979 NME piece.)
>Duty Now For The Future
Compared with the debut, it’s a dry, clinical sound. “The producer Ken Scott took it very sterile,” says Mothersbaugh. “He started with the drummer playing to a metronome and had each member of the band of play by himself and recorded their parts separately. Although still compelling on songs like “S.I.B. (Swelling Itching Brain),” and “Pink Pussycat” (three guesses what’s that song’s about) and a cover of “Secret Agent Man” (a rock song about a CIA operative, it made a good companion to Talking Heads terrorist-inspired “Life During Wartime”) Duty’s cleaned-up commercial sound didn’t placate those who thought the first album failed to capture the band’s live energy.
>Freedom of choice
Devo had actually approached Eurodisco producer Giorgio Moroder but found they “didn’t have anyting in common with him on a political or cameraderie level”. So they hooked up with Robert Margouleff, the guy who’d worked on Stevie Wonder’s synth-funk albums.
>“Girl U want”
Basically is ‘My Sharona’, more or less. The video humorously develops this idea--the Knack’s loathsome ditty is about jailbait lust, a penchant ‘for the touch of the younger kind’, so the promo has Devo as 60s-style teenbop stars playing to an audience of crazed (yet weirdly regimented in their dance moves) teengirls. There is considerable comedy in the presentation of the unprepossessing Mothersbaugh as a heart-throb boy-toy.
Produced by former Moroder associate Keith Forsey, of course
>Whip It as hit
It reached the top 20. And in California, the most devolved part of the USA according to Devo, it did even better, becoming the biggest selling regional hit in history, at least at that time.
>“Whip It”/Jimmy Carter
This was partly inspired by Devo’s tours around the world, where “we got a sense of how America was perceived by the rest of the planet,” says Mothersbaugh.
>”Whip It” as their one true moment of mass-cultural triumph
Devo received a blow to their morale because they’d planned to put out the first videodisc album but Blondie beat them to the punch. The Men Who Make the Music was made in 1979 but some kind of legal dispute between Time-Life and Warner meant it came out in 1981, by which time the Eat to the Beat video LP was out.
>”Freedom of choice”
“Freedom of choice is what you’ve got/freedom from choice is what you want” is pretty direct and hard-hitting, nailing the disempowered consumer culture that reduces agency to Pepsi or Cola, different brands of the same garbage
>“Through Being Cool”
“Through being cool” isn’t about “hip” but about being too cool to care, a rejection of political fatalism and a declaration that it was time to get angry and fight the power. According to Casale, the concept in the video was of the smart patrol, misfit kids in every town who get organized into socially conscious gangs, sort of “do gooder droogs” as per A Clockwork Orange, except they don’t attack old people for sadistic kicks, they use their laser guns to zap examples of cultural inanity like joggers or disco dancers.
Ubu Projex (official site about the band and its ongoing activities)
Frequently Asked Questions About Pere Ubu
Cleveland punk (and proto-punk, and postpunk, and…)
Charlotte Pressler’s Those Were Different Times A Memoir Of Cleveland Life: 1967-1973 (Part One)
Ohio art punk
David Lewis and his Hospital label
Jon Savage early Sounds piece on Devo from the New Musick issues
The Smart Patrol
Mark Mothersbaugh’s Mutato Muzika
Devo early recordings review, Melody Maker, 1990 (?), by Simon Reynolds
All non-pictorial contents copyright Simon Reynolds unless otherwise indicated