Devo will forever be known as the band of guys in plastic hats cracking whips at cowboys while urging us to "whip it good." It was 1980 when Devo's oddball video for the hit single "Whip It" became an inescapable staple on still-wobbly MTV. The song was a brief foray into the mainstream for an innovative and articulate art group, acclaimed by avant-gardists like David Bowie and Brian Eno. Devo released eight albums during its career, but it will be the flower-pot-and-leather fashion sense that kitsch-mongers like VH1 will milk until the sun grows cold.
Despite the fact that Devo had more in common with Kraftwerk and Kafka than Kajagoogoo, the band will play at the finish line of Sunday's Nike Run Hit Wonder Tour--a 5K and 10K run that also features one-hit has-beens Tone Loc, General Public, Dramarama, Tommy Tutone and A Flock of Seagulls. But does the group belong on such a novel tour?
While the runners gulp Gatorade, what they will hear is a band that between 1978 and 1990 was a mass of punk-rock vitality and postmodern deconstruction. Unlike many of its contemporaries, Devo was snapping with societal rather than emotional short-circuits. Theirs was a world where radiation was leaking, the control room smelled of burnt plastic, and music had devolved into jerky and robotic factory-rhythms.
The Brian Eno-produced debut Q: Are We Not Men A: We Are Devo was a very real picture of dystopia. Duty Now for the Future followed with an even more bitter and dark vision. Then, in 1980, the band released Freedom of Choice, and "Whip It" became a hit.
Musically, the spazzed-out aesthetic of "Whip It" owes more to electronic-music pioneer Raymond Scott than to the New York Dolls, and for all the mainstream exposure, the single dripped with S&M imagery. Even with a handful of minor hits and critically acclaimed albums, the band came off for most as no more than a gimmick. By the late '80s, Devo's edgy new-wave theatrics gave way to polished pop.
More of an art collective at times than a rock band, Devo was conceived as a conceptual multimedia group by Mark Mothersbaugh and Gerald Casale at Kent State University in the early '70s.
"We were protesting the war in Vietnam. We were part of that," says Mothersbaugh of the May 1970 shootings at Kent State. "The National Guard...ended up shooting and killing four of the kids, and they closed the school down. That's when we started writing music together."
A disgust with herd behavior set to a backdrop of the paved-over wastelands of Akron, Ohio, led the group to a fixation on de-evolution--the idea that society is backsliding into prehistory while technology outmodes humanity and corporations dose us with radiation and pollution. The idea held, and de-evolution became the serious ethos at the core of the eight albums the band recorded after 1978.
The band stopped recording albums with 1990's Smooth Noodle Maps but has never broken up. Instead of putting out records, the band members are invested in Mutato Muzika--a soundtrack-composition firm founded by Mothersbaugh that also acts as a Sunset Boulevard Devo compound. At any time, any one of the four principal members of the band could be working individually or collaboratively on scores for television, film or video games.
To Casale and the rest of the band, the music of Devo is still applicable in 2004. "We live in a fucking corporate feudal state. It's run by pigs and morons," he says by phone during a break in rehearsals in Los Angeles. "In case you haven't noticed, de-evolution is real. We told everybody about de-evolution. They thought we were joking. And it's real. OK?"
On the Run Hit Wonder tour, Devo has played to more than 20,000 people in Los Angeles. A Central Park appearance in New York sold out weeks in advance. But, despite the apparent popularity, this is still a band lumped into a category of '80s leg-warmer nostalgia.
"It's easy to go through and say it's been fairly misunderstood and, in the general context of things, under-rated," says Mothersbaugh. "But many of the best concepts in the arts are often not really appreciated until long after the people that they first occurred to or [who] initiated them have moved on to another kind of condition. Usually death."
Devo plays Nike's Run Hit Wonder Sunday, Aug. 1, with Tone Loc, General Public, Dramarama, Tommy Tutone and a Flock of Seagulls at Pioneer Courthouse Square, Southwest Broadway and Yamhill Street. 8:15 am. $35. All ages.
For more info, see www.nike.com/nikerunning/runhitwonder/main.jhtml
Members of Devo will also be appearing Sunday, Aug. 1, at the After Hours Devo Party featuring the Punk Group at Dante's, 1 SW 3rd Ave., 226-6630. 9:30 pm. Cover. 21+.
One-hit wonders from Oregon: Kingsmen, "Louie, Louie," 1964; Quarterflash, "Harden My Heart," 1981; Nu Shooz, "I Can't Wait," 1986; Meredith Brooks, "Bitch," 1997.
Mark Mothersbaugh's Mutant series of photographs and illustrations will be shown July 31-Aug. 1 at Powell's Books, Pearl Room, 1005 W Burnside St., 228-0540, ext. 215.