It’s well known that in the 80s, Neil Young briefly went New Wave, first with 1981’s Re-ac-tor, then the following year’s Kraftwerk-inspired album Trans, which features such dance floor-friendly tracks as “Computer Age” (see it live further down), “Transformer Man,” and “Computer Cowboy (aka Syscrusher).” This is a weird period in Young’s career—one critics tend to ignore or dismiss, as William Ruhlmann writes at Allmusic, as “baffling.”
“Despite the crisp dance beats and synthesizers,” Ruhlmann complains, Trans “sounded less like new Kraftwerk than like old Devo” (as though this were a bad thing). But the “old Devo” dig probably wouldn’t bother Young. He jammed with the band themselves in his bizarre 1982 film Human Highway. Devo not only star in the movie—as garbage men at a nuclear power plant—they also play a version of “Hey Hey, My My,” with Young on guitar and Mark Mothersbaugh on vocals.
Young wasn’t cashing in on Devo’s popularity, riding their New Wave coattails to bolster his hipster cred with a punk generation. He began as a big fan before they even released their first album. “Young first saw Devo when they played the Starwood Club in West Hollywood in 1977,” writes Andy Greene at Rolling Stone. “He was blown away by their wild, frenetic stage show and decided to cast them in his movie,” which began shooting the following year.
The admiration wasn’t mutual at first. Devo were “shocked by the atmosphere on the set,” especially the stoned, drunken antics of Dennis Hopper and Dean Stockwell, and they weren’t totally digging the song, either. The jam was “completely unrehearsed.” Says Devo’s Jerry Casale, “He told us the chord progression and that was that…. It was hippie style.” Mothersbaugh remembers, “I didn’t want to sing about Johnny Rotten. So we sang about Johnny Spud.”
Young, at work on songs for the classic 1979 live album Rust Never Sleeps, was pushing his approaches to performance and recording in new directions. But when Human Highway started shooting in 1978, few fans would have predicted that when it wrapped four years later, he would be making synth-rock records. The film became a cult classic, notable for bringing together a legendary cast of weirdos and serving as Mark Mothersbaugh’s first venture in film-scoring.
But we can also see this bizarre musical comedy as a conceptual bridge between the jam-band “hippie style” rock of Crazy Horse and the slick, vocoder pop of Trans, an album that might make a little more sense if we think of it in part as Young’s tribute to Devo.
Who Is Neil Young?: A Video Essay Explores the Two Sides of the Versatile Musician–Folk Icon and Father of Grunge
When Neil Young & Rick James Created the 60’s Motown Band, The Mynah Birds
The Philosophy & Music of Devo, the Avant-Garde Art Project Dedicated to Revealing the Truth About De-Evolution
Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness
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