Everyone who writes about this song emphasizes how unlikely a pairing it is ... and most everyone concede that the song works perfectly well. Erik Adams at the A.V. Club at least had the wit to point out a few basic similarities that DEVO and Jermaine share, such as growing up in tough Rust Belt towns.
If it was Jermaine’s idea to seek out DEVO, it was a good one, and Mark Mothersbaugh and Gerald Casale—introduced here as “Spud and Pud Devo”—gamely agreed to pitch in. The song ended up cracking the top 20 on the Billboard charts in August of 1982.
I’d love to know what TV special this was, exactly; Adams identifies it as a “Dick Clark Productions Halloween special.” Anyone who is old enough to possibly have been watching at the time (I am, but I don’t recall catching it) will surely be able to identify the MC as funnyman Fred Travalena—he was the kind of guy to whom the identifier “funnyman” just comes naturally. (He did impressions, like Rich Little, Kevin Pollak, or, ah…. Frank Caliendo?)
In any case, it’s a Halloween special, as evidenced by the occasional camera pans over a pair of hearty jack-o’-lanterns. As I tried to figure out who changed to accommodate whom, DEVO or Jermaine, it became clear that nobody did—it turns out that DEVO and Jermaine fit together just fine exactly as they are.
But what makes this video truly special is Jermaine’s ... extraordinary technique on the guitar.
MOCAtv is the Museum Of Contemporary Art’s YouTube channel. MOCAtv has been showcasing some well-produced and very hip programs about art and music. One that is of particular interest to me is a series of short pieces on experimental filmmaker and artist Bruce Conner and his collaborations with Devo, Brian & David Byrne and Toni Basil. Conner began creating film collages composed of found footage, newsreels, animation and distressed celluloid back in the early 1960s and his style has been an undeniable influence on the MTV generation of video directors. His 1961 short film Cosmic Ray features Ray Charles singing “What I’d Say” set to a darkly psychedelic montage of go-go dancers, nuclear age imagery, cartoons and war footage that still carries some of the shock value that must have nailed viewers to the floor back in the early Sixties. Punk before punk.
In the mid-Seventies when punk erupted like the mushroom clouds in Cosmic Ray, Conner found a kindred artistic spirit in the subversive, often surreal, high-energy and over-the-top groups that were upending rock and roll in much the same that he himself had done with the visual arts more than a decade earlier. Conner’s creative juices were primed by punk and he spent many nights in the late Seventies hanging out with and photographing musicians at San Francisco’s Mabuhay Gardens.
One of the bands that really connected with Conner’s dada sensibilities was Devo. In this episode of MOCAtv, Devo vocalist, bass guitar/synthesizer player Jerry Casale talks about his encounters with Conner and the film that Bruce made for Devo’s “Mongoloid.”
In 1966 Conner made a film featuring Toni Basil dancing to a Northern Soulish single she had just released called “Breakaway.” It’s an amazing work on many levels—Basil’s dancing is exquisite, her nakedness is taboo-shattering: no female pop singer in the Sixties was so fearless and open—and there’s Conner’s gorgeous black and white photography and trippy editing. The film for “Breakaway” was, and still is, a fucking stunner. Conner’s buddy Dennis Hopper held the lights for the Breakaway shoot and ended up casting Basil in Easy Rider. I wonder if Kate Bush ever saw Breakaway. Basil and Bush are on similar wavelengths and after seeing Conner’s film I’ve become a Basil devotee. This ain’t no “Mickey.”
Toni Basil recounts her experiences with Conner in this episode of MOCAtv.
These presentations of MOCAtv were produced by Matthew Shattuck and directed by Chris Green.
The photos featured here of Devo in performance and Toni Basil in front of Mabuhay Gardens are both from 1978 and were taken by Conner. This is their Internet debut and they were provided to Dangerous Minds exclusively by the Conner Family Trust. We’re thrilled to be able to share them with you.
Watch the uncut (NSFW) version of ‘Breakaway’ after the jump…
It’s hard for me to imagine anyone but Mark Mothersbaugh doing the lead vocals for Devo, but did you know that for about ten minutes in 1978 there was a real possibility of John Lydon taking over the singing duties for Devo? (Actually, that’s not quite accurate—he was still known as Johnny Rotten then; there was no such thing as Public Image Ltd yet.)
Richard Branson called me up in Akron in the winter of 1978 and said, “Hey, you wanna come down to Jamaica?” And I looked out the window and said to myself, “Well, it’s snowing about thirty inches here. Sure, I’ll come down to Jamaica.” So he flew Bob Casale and I down there to meet him and Ken Berry. We were all just sitting around in the Kingston Holiday Inn and he brought out this big stash of pot and Branson is rolling these gigantic joints on a newspaper and we’re used to being in Akron where you get enough to make a paper-thin joint. We were talking to him about playing Mabuhay Gardens the night after the Sex Pistols’ last show at Winterland and how we were staying over at Search and Destroy magazine, we were using Search and Destroys for mattresses. And we talked about how the Sex Pistols came over to the office, Sid and Nancy, and we were hanging out. And Branson said, “What do you think of them?” And we said, “They were all nice guys. You know. It was fun meeting them. It’s too bad that they broke up.” And Branson said, “I’ll tell you why you’re here. Johnny Rotten is down here at the hotel. He’s in the next room, and there are reporters downstairs from the New Musical Express, Sounds, and Melody Maker. I’d like to go down to the beach right now, if you’re into this, because Johnny Rotten wants to join your band … and I want to announce to them that Johnny Rotten is the new lead singer for Devo.” And I’m going, “Oh my God, I’m really high right now.” Regrettably, I didn’t just go, “Yeah, sounds great. Send him to Akron. He can do it for a week or two, just for the hell of it.” It was a weird time for us.
The Mothersbaugh-Lydon connection doesn’t stop there, though. Apparently Mothersbaugh was instrumental in guiding Lydon in the eventual direction of PiL. In some versions of the story, Mothersbaugh goes on to explain that, since they were all high and all, he and Casale were laughing manaically, and in between bouts of laughter proposed to Branson that they help Lydon figure out his next combo instead: “We just started laughing at them until tears were coming out of our eyes and we were choking, and we’re like, ‘It’s not you, Richard. We’re not laughing at you. We love Johnny Rotten. That’s great. But what if we just help him start a band.’”
There may be something to this. Many have noted the complete tonal switch that existed between the Sex Pistols and PiL, and the more austere critique/adoption of the corporate ethos does seem right out of Akron, as it were.
The story concerns a conversation between Mothersbaugh and Johnny Rotten, shortly after the breakup of the Sex Pistols. Mothersbaugh “suggested that Rotten lose the safety pins and shredded shirts and adopt a corporate approach, that screwing with convention was edgier than spitting at it. Perhaps in response, Rotten dropped his stage name and John Lydon formed Public Image Ltd., defining the post-punk aesthetic in the process.” Exactly how much “credit” Mothersbaugh should get for PiL is beside the point, which is that overorthodox thinking had already become second nature for Mothersbaugh and Casale.
To me the whole thing is fascinating—Lydon’s early interest in Devo, Branson’s insatiable drive to make something happen, Mothersbaugh’s half-conscious (and probably correct) rejection of the idea.
Would the world never have heard of Jah Wobble? Would Lydon really have participated in the soundtrack to Dr. Detroit?
Alan Myers, Devo’s drummer from 1976 to 1985, has died of cancer.
Devo’s Gerald Casale praised Myers on Twitter:
... the most incredible drummer I had the privilege to play with for 10 years. Losing him was like losing an arm. RIP!! I begged him not to quit Devo. He could not tolerate being replaced by the Fairlight and autocratic machine music. I agreed. Alan, you were the best – a human metronome and then some. A once in a lifetime find thanks to Bob Mothersbaugh. U were born to drum Devo!”
Myers laying down his indelible and deeply quirky groove:
Unless you’ve got kids, are a really big Devo fan, or some pervy Nickolodeon-watching weirdo, Devo 2.0 (or DEV2.O) the 2006 reworking of some of the group’s best loved songs for The Walt Disney Company might’ve passed you by.
Disney?Devo?Wha? It’s the ultimate sellout, sure, but tell me that you wouldn’t have done the same thing if Disney came a knockin’ and you were in their shoes? Especially in their shoes! This isn’t merely the ultimate sellout, hell, it’s perhaps one of the ultimate acts of (practically real time!) devolution in action.
Do you feel that this sort of consumer-based art conflicts at all with the critique of consumer culture that you were doing with Devo?
Mark Mothersbaugh: Not at all. In fact, we used to get criticized back in the early days of Devo because, to us, what we were about, back before it was very cool to be into merchandise, we thought of our album cover as a place where we could do the inner-liner sleeves… as a matter of fact, if you look at any of the old Devo records, our inner-liner sleeves were always a merchandise page. We thought of it like the back page of a comic book where you’d see all the things you could order. Smith-Johnson novelties, stink bombs, baking powder-propelled rockets and X-Ray specks and all that kind of stuff. I loved that page of a comic book every time and I always looked at that stuff and sometimes would order it, and the Devo albums, we wanted them to be like a Cracker Jack box where you’d have a prize in there. I remember in 1978 when we put out our first album, and somehow our manager also managed Neil Young, and I remember Neil Young going, ‘You guys, I don’t know what you’re doing bringing merchandise into rock n’ roll that’s so uncool!’ Of course now, all these years later, he sells a ton of t-shirts and DVDs and things. But at the time he thought it was kind of sacrilegious, and we’re like, ‘You don’t understand! This is all fun! Rock and Roll is better than that!’ It’s like, everything that turned you on when you were a kid, you should still be able to be part of it. So for us, we thought the merchandise just had to be smart instead of stupid. So we tried to do smart merchandise, and I’m still trying to do smart merchandise.
Devo 2.0 seems like it’s fairly well-aligned with their shtick, when you put it that way. Plus, getting kids normally seen in “Honeycomb” commercials to mime along to songs about sexual frustration, reverse Darwinism and corporate fascism in colorful music videos and of course, all paid for by one of the largest media corporations in the world, must’ve seemed like a winning idea—I guess—until they actually realized what these kids would be singing about…
AVC: Oddly enough, one of the thing that really brings home the sexual undercurrents in Devo’s songs is the Devo 2.0 project from 2006, where you and Disney assembled a group of tweens to sing revamped versions of Devo songs. Not only is “Girl U Want” changed to “Boy U Want,” but the references to watering mouths and an “aroma of undefined love” are completely reworked.
Gerald Casale: That’s the best story. The Disney people, in the beginning, go, “Hey, how would you like to repurpose your material for a 4-to-8-year-old audience?” And we went, “Really?” They said, “Yeah. We want you to do a whole DVD. What would you do?” They gave us about a week to think about it. And I said, “Well, what if we did it like The Monkees? What if we cast a bunch of kids that can actually sing and play, and they will play Devo songs, and I’ll shoot videos with them, and we’ll tour them at middle schools.” “Yeah, that’d be great. But we want to pick the songs.” And we said okay. So they picked 12 songs. What’s fantastic is, they must never have actually listened to those songs. Because deep into the picture, at the phase where we’ve recorded everything and we’re shooting the videos and I’m turning in a video budget—it’s at that point that somebody upstairs in the Disney Taliban would like to see all the lyrics printed out. I don’t think I’m hiding anything, so I send the lyrics. Oh my God. Unbelievable, the next thing that happened—the firestorm that started. They’re poring over these lyrics, executives in their 30s and 40s, suits at Disney poring over these lyrics and for the first time paying attention to the songs they loved and picked. So it was like, “So listen, um, ‘Beautiful World.’ We’d really like that on the DVD, but you can’t say ‘It’s a beautiful world, but not for me.’” And it was like, “Oh really? Gee, that was kind of the whole point. What can we say?” The guy goes, “How about ‘for me too?’” And it just got better from there.
My favorite of all was—there’s a verse in “That’s Good” that I wrote the lyrics to in 1982. And the verse goes, “Life’s a bee without a buzz / It’s going great ’til you get stung.” Meaning, basically, you can get surprised. You can get ambushed, and that’s the point. They go “You gotta take that whole verse out of there, or replace it with another verse, or edit the song.” And I’m going, “What do you mean?” They go, “We know what you’re talking about, Casale.” And I go, “What do you mean? What am I talking about?” They go, “‘Life’s a bee’ means ‘Life’s a bitch.’ ‘Without a buzz’ means unless you’re getting high. And ‘It’s going great until you get stung,’ meaning as long as you get away with it, unless the cops pop you.” And it was like, “Who was I talking to here? P. Diddy?” Their sensibility had been so formed by hip-hop and current music that they were reinventing meanings in my words to go along with urban street culture now. The words were written 30 years ago, basically. You went beyond getting mad to just like going, “This is proof of devolution. This is it.” We thought it was really funny.
The final one was “Uncontrollable Urge.” That just had to come off the record. It was like, “What do you mean?” “Well, Mark, we know what ‘Uncontrollable Urge’ is. It’s sex.” And Mark goes, “Well, I never say that in the song.” And they go, “Exactly. It never defines the uncontrollable urge, so therefore you think it’s sex.” And he goes, “So if we define the uncontrollable urge, it would be okay?” “Yeah, I guess that would be okay.” They said, “Make it about junk food, then.” Mark just like threw up his hands and walked away, and I wrote a couplet for the pre-chorus: “Before dinner, after lunch, I get a snack attack and I need to munch.” And they went, “Now that’s great.” So here was this 13-year-old girl, just on the verge of growing breasts, singing that couplet, and you wouldn’t think that anybody would let you do that. So they made it far dirtier than it was, and we thanked them. [Laughs.]
AVC: So it’s okay for a 13-year-old girl to sing about eating disorders, but you can’t say “mist,” because we don’t know what that is.
Gerald Casale: Because those are bodily fluids. We know when it’s wet, it’s desire.
The music alone (played by members of Devo) isn’t the full package, you have to see the videos for that. The best thing about this project—other than that it exists in the first place—are probably those trippy videographics. One of the reviewers on Amazon called the Devo 2.0 DVD a musical gateway drug for kids.
This Devo video used to be widely known, but the Jimi Hendrix estate refused to allow it to be used after a certain point, saying it was insulting to Jimi (which it kind of is, I can see why they think that, but still, why deprive the world of this greatness?!). I used to have it on Laserdisc, but when that same collection came out on DVD, this clip—one of the best things on it—was missing.
From an interview with Devo’s Gerald Casale in Ear Candy:
Ear Candy: Speaking of de-evolution, why didn’t the Hendrix estate give you permission to put the “Are U Experienced” video on the DVD?
Gerald Casale: Further de-evolution. You understand that the consortium of people that now represent the Hendrix estate are basically run by lawyers; the lawyer mentality. Lawyers always posit the worst-case scenarios. Though that video was loved for years by anybody who saw it including the man who commissioned it—Chuck Arroff—a luminary in the music business who still claims to this day that it was one of his five most favorite videos ever; they [the lawyers] didn’t get it and assumed we were making fun of Jimi. That’s like saying “Whip It” makes fun of cowboys. This is so stupid it’s unbelievable.”
This high budget clip, one of only two Devo promos to be shot on 35mm film, was produced by group and Rev. Ivan Stang, founder of The Church of the Subgenius. I especially like the part where Mark Mothersbaugh has the big eyes of Margaret Keane’s paintings. Apparently this particular video also marked the first use of the “morphing” video effect.
I miss Tony Wilson. I miss the idea of Tony Wilson. Someone who had an enquiring mind and was full of intelligent enthusiasms, like Tony Wilson. And who also didn’t mind making a prat of himself when he got things wrong. Or, even right.
I met him in 2005 for a TV interview. He arrived on a summer’s day at a small studio in West London. He wore a linen suit, sandals, carried a briefcase, and his toenails were painted a rich plum color - his wife had painted them the night before, he said.
Wilson was clever, inspired and passionate about music. He talked about his latest signing, a rap band, and his plans for In the City music festival before we moved onto the Q&A in front of a camera. He could talk for England, but he was always interested in what other people were doing, what they thought, and was always always encouraging others to be their best. That’s what I miss.
You get more than an idea of that Tony Wilson in this compilation of the best of his regional tea-time TV series So It Goes. Wilson (along with Janet Street-Porter) championed Punk Rock on TV, and here he picks a Premier Division of talent:
Sex Pistols, Elvis Costello, Buzzcocks, John Cooper Clarke, Iggy Pop, Wreckless Eric, Ian Dury, Penetration, Blondie, Fall, Jam, Jordan, Devo, Tom Robinson Band, Johnny Thunder, Elvis Costello, XTC, Jonathan Richman, Nick Lowe, Siouxie & the Banshees, Cherry Vanilla & Magazine….. The tape fails there!
The uploader ConcreteBarge has left in the adverts “for historical reference” that include - “TSB, Once, Cluster, Coke is it, Roger Daltery in American Express, Ulay, Swan, Our Price, Gastrils, Cluster & Prestige”.
So, let’s get in the time machine and travel back for an hour of TV fun.
“This isn’t a red-state thing or Devo stumping for Obama,” he says. “But I think any animal lover that hears the story will learn so much about the character flaw of Romney. It’s just a deal-breaker about the man. My God, the world is a scary place with seven billion people. What you want in a leader is a guy with some humanity at his core. I just don’t feel that Mitt does.”
In 2008, Devo did a fundraising show for President Obama in their hometown of Akron. Does Casale approve of his job performance over the past three-and-a-half years? “No!” he says. “Absolutely not. Devo are not naive people. If anyone still thinks that the President of the United States of America runs things, they really live in the Wizard of Oz-land. My God, we’re a plutocracy. We’re owned and leveraged by global corporations.”
This is raw video of an interview from the early ‘90s with Devo co-founder Jerry Casale that was intended to be used in a documentary on the band that was, as far as I know, never completed. But the footage as it is still serves as a wonderful history of Devo and an entry into the brilliant mind of Casale.
The fact that you can’t hear the questions being asked of Casale doesn’t diminish the interview in the least. It’s full of fascinating insights and anecdotes detailing the genesis, rise and continued success of one of rock ‘n’ roll’s truly visionary bands. Casale delivers all of this with wit and sharply observed truths about the art and business of pop music.
Spud-boy Casale is one very intelligent potato and this video should be mandatory viewing in high school art classes (if they still exist).
Unfortunately, there’s about six minutes missing from the interview that contains some musical content that was disallowed by Youtube for licensing reasons. If that situation changes, I will update this article.
It looks like director Tony Pemberton’s Kickstarter drive for post-production funding for his three-years in the making film, Are We Not Men? The Devo Documentary, has reached its goal and then some with about a month to go.
I just caught wind of the project myself, but my oh my if this trailer isn’t mighty tasty looking:
From their origins during the 1970 Kent State shootings, to their latest album and tours, this documentary offers a funny and fascinating story that appeals to generations of art and music aficionados. Featuring new interviews with contemporaries (Iggy Pop), and followers (Dave Grohl, Tony Hawk), the official documentary reveals the truth about this important and misunderstood band with rare archival film, private home-movies, and recent concert footage.
The ARE WE NOT MEN? film delves into the brains — and the souls — behind the concept, music, and spectacle of Devo. Sculpting its music, lyrics and visuals are two men whose personalities seem different but whose worldviews are the same: introspective Mark Mothersbaugh and outspoken Gerald Casale. It is Mark and Jerry’s cataclysmic, sometimes contentious, collaboration that birthed what we know as Devo. Rounding out the group are two more members whose position cements the group as a literal band of brothers — Bob Mothersbaugh and Bob Casale. Yes, behind the curtain of this art-school façade are two fascinating and sometimes fractious families, led by Akron, Ohio’s twisted version of Lennon & McCartney — with all the genius and precariousness that would imply. It is the stories of these men — together and apart — that drive the engine that is ARE WE NOT MEN?
Testing Discovision at the Dangerous Minds’ research center.
Here at Dangerous Minds, we consider ourselves pretty saavy when it comes to the latest in cutting-edge technologies, so imagine how thrilled we were to hear about the latest in optical video systems from one of our favorite new bands, Devo.
In this exciting clip, the band compares the improved quality of Discovision (aka the laserdisc) over the standard videotape we use at the Dangerous Minds’ tech center. These discs are pretty impressive (colors seem brighter), but we’re not ready to toss out our Betamax machines quite yet. Let’s see how this plays out. We’ll keep you up-to-date as we learn more.
If Visiting Kids strike you as Devo-esque, it’s probably because this late 80s surreal spin on “The Partridge Family” was founded by Mark Mothersbaugh’s wife at the time, Nancye Ferguson, and included Bob Mothersbaugh and his daughter Alex, and Devo drummer (their fourth) David Kendrick. Mark wrote some of the tunes for the group and Bob Casale produced the Visiting Kids’ only album, which was released in 1990 on New Rose (it’s extremely rare).
Here’s Visiting Kids singing the appropriately titled “Nepotism” with Bob Mothersbaugh sounding more than a little like Fred Schneider on vocals.
According to the YouTube description, 1031 Skateboards owner-pro Kristian Svitak’s 2004 skate video Destroy Everything Now kept getting flagged and removed by Warner Brothers for using Devo’s “Mr. DNA” on YouTube.
In order to skirt around the issue with YouTube and keep the video intact, Svitak got his pals Kelley Deal and Mike Montgomery to help cover “Mr. DNA.”
These clips are hard to find on the Internet and who knows how long they’ll last out there before the dark corporate forces wipe them from view. The teachings of the SubGenius are under relentless assault!
Devo’s appearance on Saturday Night Live on October 14, 1978 was a visitation from a rock and roll galaxy far far away and yet so near. It was as if aliens from another planet had created a concept of Earthlings based on old television transmissions they’d hijacked of industrial training films, Triumph Of The Will, episodes of Hullabaloo and Saturday morning cartoons and then spewed it all back at us in a digitized replication missing a few ones and zeros. It was an attempt at communication, not unlike Klaatu’s failed efforts in 1951.