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The release of a career retrospective is a natural time to reflect on one's contribution to the musical landscape. On the occasion of Pioneers Who Got Scalped, the audio résumé of Akron, Ohio's most oddly influential band, Devo bassist Gerald V. Casale ponders the question of the band's high-water mark over the course of its 25-year career. Pausing for a long moment to contemplate, he says, only half-joking, "You mean the high of the low?"
After additional thought Casale puts forth a historical observation. "When did it get really good?" he muses, mulling over the band's twists and turns. "It may have been downhill from Saturday Night Live."
Casale is referring to the band's appearance on the second episode of the 197879 season of SNL, when the show was TV's hottest ticket and the quintet was just days away from releasing its debut album, Q: Are We Not Men? A: We Are Devo! Appearing on a hit television show in front of millions of viewers was heady stuff for art students fresh out of Kent State. Wearing matching yellow laboratory suits on a black PVC-covered stage performing a spastic, robotic cover of "Satisfaction" and the mutant synth-punk of "Mongoloid," Devo was the most alien, bizarre band the show had ever featured.
"Everybody watched Saturday Night Live," Casale recalls. "Viewership of 20 million. We had never played a club with over 400 people. We went against all their rules. Lorne Michaels comes over and says, "All right, you're on in 30 seconds. Twenty million people are watching. Don't fucking blow it.' Then the lights hit us, we can see the audience and they can see us, and we have to go. It was the most adrenaline I've ever felt in my life."
Although Devo had much success ahead -- a couple of hit albums, notably Freedom of Choice, which spawned the hugely popular single "Whip It" -- there is a strange logic in considering the SNL slot as the band's early climax. The appearance both captivated and horrified viewers, significantly spiking sales of the debut, but never again would Devo so thoroughly penetrate the American consciousness.
Casale recalls that the band had become accustomed to being reviled. In its seminal Akron years, there was a strong reaction against Devo's entire presentation.
"I don't understand," says Casale. "It was clearly just entertainment. We're not talking about anything real here. And yet there were many people who wanted to kill us, who thought that it was dangerous and evil. We got attacked on stage. We got bottles thrown at us. Guys threatening to beat us up. My favorite was being paid to quit. It was, "Here's $150 right now, get out.' That was after three songs."
The band was certain it had hit the right formula.
Founded by Casale and Mark Mothersbaugh in 1972, Devo was loosely based on the snarky philosophy of devolution -- man devolving rather than evolving. Mothersbaugh's brother ("Bob I") and Casale's brother ("Bob II") were brought aboard with guitars, along with drummer Alan Myers. Musically they were difficult to classify, a blend of cartoonish guitar rock and ahead-of-its-time electronic synth-pop that was new wave yet nothing like new wave. In terms of politics, Devo actively railed against the day's music.
"Rock 'n' roll became like church and was mired in endless imitations of '60s energy even when it went into the '70s," Casale says. "The whole canon of rock 'n' roll was, "I have long hair, I'm a rebel, I'm real.' In other words, it had a politic [sic] to it underneath that we were mocking, and I guess that's what pissed people off."
Although initial reactions to Devo were strong, Casale notes that they were not purposefully alienating people. "We weren't trying to piss people off," he says, laughing. "We were trying to do what we really believed in. I guess all you really need to do in society to piss people off is threaten the foundation of what they believe in. It was so absurd and so intense that we did get into the aspect of Dada performance. We rallied, and it made us stronger."
After the SNL appearance, Akron's early confusion was mirrored by the rest of the country, which was understandable, since Devo was unlike anything before or since. "We failed because we wanted to be as big as Queen or Kiss," reflects Casale. "We wanted to take [our] alternative message and make it pervasive in the culture. I think people in important positions had other ideas. We met a brick wall at radio; critics were out to get us, because they totally misunderstood, and we didn't really get promoted by the record company."
Although Devo confused a huge segment of America, many embraced the jerky electronic surge and sent Are We Not Men?racing up the charts. "We were what was new," says Casale. "In retrospect Devo is iconic. It doesn't fit any more today than it did then, but it's kind of timeless in a weird way. And a lot of the ways we were putting together musical parts and the sounds we were using, all the young bands today do it. So in that sense we did something right."