When Neil Young & Devo Jammed Together: Watch Them Play “Hey Hey, My My” in a Clip from the 1982 Film Human Highway

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 High­wayDevo 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.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

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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