John Lydon almost joined Devo in 1978? Well, I’ll be.
11:25 am
John Lydon almost joined Devo in 1978? Well, I’ll be.

Mark Mothersbaugh by Brad Elterman.
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.)

The story comes from Mothersbaugh, who’s told it many times—if interviewers ask him about it, he’s just as happy to tell it all over again. I first encountered it in Marc Spitz and Brendan Mullen’s We Got the Neutron Bomb: The Untold Story of L.A. Punk:

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.
Public Image Ltd.
In Apocalypse Jukebox: The End of the World in American Popular Music, Edward Whitelock relates an anecdote from Jade Dellinger and David Giffels’ We Are Devo!: Are We Not Men?,

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?

Previously on Dangerous Minds:
Devo: Something For Everybody!
DEVO light switch plate made of LEGO pieces

Posted by Martin Schneider
11:25 am



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