Note: There has been some confusion about what happened at Sonos this week. After running this story, we were given reason to doubt that Mothersbaugh ever made these remarks. It turns out that he did say them—at a press preview of the Sonos event that took place one night earlier than the public event. Apologies to Daniel Maurer of Bedford and Bowery for casting his reportage in a negative light. The good news is that Mothersbaugh’s tapes appear to exist! Yay!
Yesterday, at an event hosted by Sonos at its Soho location in Manhattan, Mark Mothersbaugh divulged some news that has some fans of David Bowie positively salivating.
The “Song Stories” event was a tribute to Bowie, in which the lead singer of DEVO was joined by Meredith Graves of Perfect Pussy, photographer Mick Rock, Motley Crüe‘s Nikki Sixx, and moderator Rob Sheffield. The idea was that each of the four guests would tell a story about Bowie and each story would be paired with a Bowie track.
According to Daniel Maurer of the Bedford and Bowery blog, Mothersbaugh let it be known that he had recently come across some tapes of a remarkable jam session that featured members of DEVO jamming with David Bowie, Brian Eno, and Holger Czukay of Can (!). “I haven’t listened to it yet because I just found this tape,” Mothersbaugh said to the startled attendees.
The recording stems from the sessions for DEVO’s first album, Q: Are We Not Men? A: We Are Devo!, which was recorded at the studio of renowned Krautrock producer and musician Conny Plank near Cologne, Germany. Brian Eno produced the album with occasional assistance from Bowie, who was filming the David Hemmings movie Just a Gigolo nearby. Bowie also remixed most of the album’s tracks. Apparently all the members of DEVO participated in the jam session, except for the band’s “bassist,” who had “missed his connecting flight because he was fighting with his girlfriend on an airport pay phone.” Presumably this refers to Gerald Casale?
In 1977, the wife of Michael Aylward, the guitarist in another noted Akron band, Tin Huey, sent Bowie and Iggy Pop a tape of DEVO’s demo songs; both musicians immediately became fans of the band and expressed an interest in producing DEVO’s first album. DEVO’s first gigs in New York took place on July 8 and 9, 1977, when the band played two sets per night at Max’s Kansas City. According to Mothersbaugh at Sonos last night, Bowie “came out on stage when we played our second show at Max’s” on the first night.
He came out on stage and goes, “This is the band of the future, I’m going to produce them this Christmas in Tokyo!” And we’re all like, “Sounds great to us. We’re sleeping in an Econoline van out in front on Bowery tonight, on top of our equipment.”
As Maurer writes, “Bowie ended up taking the band out on the town, putting Mothersbaugh up in his hotel room, and introducing the Akron, Ohio innocent to sushi.”
Mothersbaugh apparently found the tape after bringing his DEVO archive back to his studio. The jam session featuring DEVO, Bowie, Eno, and Czukay isn’t the only interesting tape he found, however. Mothersbaugh also found the 24-track master tapes used for the album, accompanied by Eno’s documentation of each song’s instruments, effects, and audio settings: “There’s these tracks down below that say things like: ‘David’s vocals’ and ‘Brian’s extra synths.’ And I’m like, ‘I remember turning that stuff off when we were doing our final mixes.’”
The band’s lead singer explained the band’s reluctance to use the vocal of a pop star as massive as Bowie by reference to DEVO’s paranoia of having their distinct sound messed with after so many negative experiences with hinky industry people and unauthorized releases.
Mothersbaugh indicated that he’ll have a listen to the tapes. “I’m thinking we should see what’s on those tapes. ... I’m really curious to see what the heck they did.” He joked by saying that DEVO “might have been more successful” if they had used Bowie’s vocal tracks.
Interestingly, Bryan Rolli’s account at Billboard of the Sonos event makes no mention of Mothersbaugh’s revelations, so we’ll see what shakes out.
Here’s footage of DEVO playing Max’s Kansas City that first night, July 8, 1977: