By Ashley Zimmerman
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By David Von Bader
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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."
That may explain the appearance of Pioneers, the double-disc retrospective that Rhino released in May. Although the package is necessary, welcome, and overdue (containing hits, rarities, live tracks, and more), Casale admits to a little dissatisfaction with the result. "This is the package that they wanted to do," Casale says a little glumly. "I submitted my ideas, organized in a much more fulfilling and interesting way. They said, "That doesn't work for us at retail.' I love answers like that. But so be it."
That attitude is indicative of the relationship that Devo has had with labels throughout its history. Even with the success of "Whip It" and its impact on the video revolution, the band was constantly second-guessed, until it tired of the game and dissolved in the mid-'90s. Mothersbaugh traded pop music for TV-and-movie scoring, creating incidental music for Pee-wee's Playhouse, moving on to the popular Nickelodeon series Rugrats, and graduating to film. Casale has directed commercials and music videos, but with tighter playlists on MTV, labels have cut budgets to almost nothing and rely on a small pool of directors. Casale isn't one of them.
Although the band has mounted comebacks -- to create the soundtrack for the Smart Patrol CD-ROM game and for a few touring opportunities -- there is little hope that a reassembled Devo will create new music together anytime soon (although there is one brand new song on Pioneers, "The Words Get Stuck in My Throat").
"I would be making new records right now, but Mark's not interested, and if he's not part of Devo, it's not Devo," says Casale. "What we really need is Devo: The Next Generation."
As Casale looks backward with Pioneers Who Got Scalped, he looks simultaneously to a bleak new millennium that, to him, contains a faint whiff of the last one.
"Everything's moving faster, and the Internet allows for the fourth dimension of hucksterism to take place," he says with a laugh. "All creative people are reduced to "content providers,' and the corporation owns your intellectual property, even worse than before. Everybody's downloading your music for free, so you're getting totally screwed as an artist. Welcome to the future."