The Philosophy & Music of Devo, the Avant-Garde Art Project Dedicated to Revealing the Truth About De-Evolution

The chief dif­fi­cul­ty for any­one want­i­ng to make an assault on our munic­i­pal the­atre… is that there can be no ques­tion of reveal­ing a mys­tery. He can­not just point a stumpy fin­ger at the theatre’s ongo­ings and say, “You may have thought this amount­ed to some­thing, but let me tell you, it’s a sheer scan­dal; what you see before you proves your absolute bank­rupt­cy; it’s your own stu­pid­i­ty, your men­tal lazi­ness and your degen­er­a­cy that are being pub­li­cal­ly exposed.” No, the poor man can’t say that, for it’s no sur­prise to you; you’ve known it all along; noth­ing can be done about it.

–Berthold Brecht, “A Reck­on­ing”

Have you ever felt like Net­work’s Howard Beale? Rant­i­ng to any­one who’ll lis­ten about how mad as hell you are? “I don’t have to tell you things are bad. Every­body knows things are bad.”

Or maybe agreed with the weary cyn­i­cism of his boss, Max Schu­mach­er? “All of life is reduced to the com­mon rub­ble of banal­i­ty.”

Faced with the cru­el, stu­pid the­ater of mass pol­i­tics and cul­ture, we begin to feel a blan­ket of over­whelm­ing futil­i­ty descend. All of the pos­si­ble moves have been made and absorbed into the programming—including the out­raged crit­ic point­ing his fin­ger at the stage.

Avant-garde artists since the late 19th cen­tu­ry have cor­rect­ly sized up this depress­ing real­i­ty. But rather than seize up in fits of rage or suc­cumb to cyn­i­cism, they made new forms of the­ater: Jar­ry, Dada, Debord, Artaud, Brecht—all had designs to dis­rupt the oppres­sive banal­i­ty of mod­ern stage- and state-craft with mock­ery, sadism, and shock.

And so too did DEVO, the authors of “Whip It.”

Their 80s New Wave antics seemed like a juve­nile art-school prank. Behind it lay the­o­ret­i­cal sophis­ti­ca­tion and seri­ous polit­i­cal intent. “When we first start­ed Devo,” says Mark Moth­ers­baugh in the “Cal­i­for­nia Inspires Me” video above, “we were artists who were work­ing in a num­ber of dif­fer­ent media. We were around for the shoot­ings at Kent State. And it affect­ed us. We were think­ing, like, ‘What are we observ­ing?’ And we decid­ed we weren’t observ­ing evo­lu­tion, we were observ­ing de-evo­lu­tion.”

Won­der­ing how to change things, the band looked to Madi­son Avenue for inspiration—intent on tak­ing the tech­niques of mass per­sua­sion to sub­vert the enchant­ments of mass per­sua­sion, “report­ing the good news of De-Evo­lu­tion” in a joy­ous the­ater of mock­ery. The phi­los­o­phy itself evolved over time, first tak­ing shape in 1970 when Moth­ers­baugh and Ger­ald Casale met at Kent State. Casale had already coined the term “De-Evo­lu­tion”; Moth­ers­baugh intro­duced him to its mas­cot, Jocko-Homo, the 1924 cre­ation of anti-evo­lu­tion fun­da­men­tal­ist pam­phle­teer B.H. Shad­duck.

Fas­ci­nat­ed by Shadduck’s bizarre, pro­to-Jack Chick, illus­trat­ed freak-outs, Moth­ers­baugh and his band­mates adopt­ed the char­ac­ter for the first sin­gle from their 1978 debut album (top). Are We Not Men? We Are Devo! announced their car­ni­va­lesque gospel of human stu­pid­i­ty. Devo proved noth­ing we didn’t already know. Instead, they showed us the ele­va­tion of idio­cy to the sta­tus of a civ­il reli­gion. (Lat­er in the 80s, they would express­ly par­o­dy the nation­al reli­gion with their Evan­gel­i­cal satire DOVE.)

The the­ater of Devo was weird­ly com­pelling then and is wierd­ly com­pelling now, since the banal­i­ty and casu­al vio­lence of late-cap­i­tal­ism that threat­ened to swal­low up every­thing in the twen­ti­eth cen­tu­ry has, if any­thing, only become more bloat­ed and grotesque. “As far as Devo was con­cerned,” writes Ray Pad­gett at The New York­er, “Devo wasn’t a band at all but, rather, an art project… inspired by the Dadaists and the Ital­ian Futur­ists, Devo’s mem­bers were also cre­at­ing satir­i­cal visu­al art, writ­ing trea­tis­es, and film­ing short videos.”

One of those videos, “In the Begin­ning Was the End: The Truth About De-Evo­lu­tion,” fea­tured their “first ever cover”—Johnny Rivers’ “Secret Agent Man”—before they re-invent­ed (or “cor­rect­ed,” as they put it), the Rolling Stones’ “Sat­is­fac­tion.” They would screen the 9‑minute film, with its footage of two men in mon­key masks spank­ing a house­wife, before gigs.

The con­cepts are aggres­sive­ly wink-nudge ado­les­cent, reflect­ing not only Devo’s take on the regres­sive state of the cul­ture, but also Casale’s belief that “high-school kids know every­thing already.” But amidst the synths and shiny suits, we still hear Howard Beale’s cri de coeur, “I’m a human being dammit! My life has val­ue!” Only in Devo’s hands it turns to dark comedy—as in the title of a song from their 2010 come­back record Some­thing for Every­body, tak­en from words print­ed on the back of a hunter’s safe­ty vest that call back to the band’s begin­nings at Kent State: “Don’t Shoot, I’m a Man.”

Relat­ed Con­tent:

The Mas­ter­mind of Devo, Mark Moth­ers­baugh, Shows Off His Syn­the­siz­er Col­lec­tion

New Wave Music–DEVO, Talk­ing Heads, Blondie, Elvis Costello–Gets Intro­duced to Amer­i­ca by ABC’s TV Show, 20/20 (1979)

Devo’s Mark Moth­ers­baugh & Oth­er Arists Tell Their Musi­cal Sto­ries in the Ani­mat­ed Video Series, “Cal­i­for­nia Inspires Me”

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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  • Njguy says:

    At a time when we’ve “de-evolved” enough to elect Don­ald Trump as pres­i­dent, Devo is more rel­e­vant than ever.

  • DavidA says:

    Per­haps unin­ten­tion­al­ly, you failed to men­tion Bob Lewis as one of the co-founders of Devo. This was shown in 1978 when they lost a law­suit to deny his accred­i­ta­tion and com­pen­sa­tion for his con­tri­bu­tions to the band.

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