WE ARE DEVO by Jade Delinger and David Giffels

Book Reviews
WE ARE DEVO by Jade Delinger and David Giffels

Apr 15, 2003, 02:21


WE ARE DEVO! by Jade Dellinger & David Giffels; SAF Publishing (London) 2003

If you can get past the TINY type, We Are Devo! is certainly one of the most fascinating rock biographies I've read. As arty and conceptual as any Krautrock outfit, with a knowledge of art and philosophy, political and socio-economic thought matched by few, Devo's beginnings were headier and more serious than most would've guessed. At the same time, they were also greatly inspired by a love of bad television, bad movies, commercials, and pornography giving them an immature and nerdy quality. This contradiction makes Devo one of the most original as well as one of the most misunderstood bands of the last 30 years.

It might come as a surprise that the spark that created Devo occurred at noon on May 4, 1970 at Kent State. Jerry Casale, an attending art student, watched a friend die when the National Guard opened fire into a group of protesting student where three others were killed and nine having been wounded. Shocked and disgusted, Jerry and his friend/collaborator (and later, enemy) reacted in a profoundly original way. Instead of reacting to the event through the traditional, student/hippy-protesting channels, Jerry and Bob reacted through darkly humorous, perverted, and disturbing performance art and a series of writings. These “devolved” performances and the literature that supported them formed the basis of the Devo philosophy. Although discussed in great detail in the book, the theory is, at its roots, the belief that humankind is no longer progressing. It reached its peak some time back and is now reversing, or devolving. So, yes, the concept was very serious in the beginning and, to some extent, all the way through the life of the band.

With a great deal of literature and performances under their belts, it was only natural for Jerry and Bob to form a band to spread their bizarre message. After a few mismatched front-men and assorted other band mates, Devo finally solidified when long-haired art student, Mark Mothersbaugh and his brother Bob joined up with Jerry and his brother Bob. They rounded it out with friend and “human metronome” Alan Meyer on drums.

Bob Lewis, aware that he wasn't much of a musician, was happy to act as manager and a source of inspiration. Over the following months, the band consistently performed bizarre as well as rocking, high-energy shows, always leaving their audiences impressed. It didn't take long for them to develop a devoted following around Akron and Cincinnati. Although the vast majority of their fans didn't understand the lyrics that humorously explained their well-crafted theories, no one (the band nor the fans) seemed to care.

At the same time that Devo was gaining popularity, bands like Pere Ubu, the Bizarros, the Waitresses, and the Clone Records label were also beginning to flourish, making these industrial wastelands the unlikely hotbed of Midwestern punk and new wave. The rise of this unlikely music scene in Ohio is a fascinating side plot worthy of a book in its own right.

But Devo's “rise to the top” also makes for an entertaining read, complete with the bitter friends, lawsuits, drug problems, jilted lovers, and power struggles that make the best rock bios enjoyable. Their story also includes a mind-boggling cast of friends & foes that includes Joe Walsh, John Lydon, James Michener, William Burroughs, Bob Dylan, Neil Young, Cheetah Chrome, John Hinckley, Larraine Newman, Pere Ubu, Brian Eno, The Bizarros, John Belushi, and others.

Other than the tiny typeface, my only real problem with the book is that, although it covers the crucial early years very thoroughly and entertainingly, it basically ends after the debut album and appearance on SNL. Only a scant 40 pages is allotted for the next 25 years. Although I'm sure that the rest of the story isn't nearly as interesting (sacrificing art and principles for money, etc.), I would've liked to have read a bit more about the recording of, and tours for, their next few albums (Duty Now for the Future, Freedom of Choice, and New Traditionalists). “Duty Now . . .” is considered by many die-hard fans to be their masterpiece. And Freedom of Choice was the album that spawned “Whip It.” Although New Traditionalists wasn't as important, it still had some memorable moments (“Beautiful World,” “Going Under”) and had one of the best album covers of all-time.

That said, this lack of information on the band's later days is excusable since the early years are covered so brilliantly. Well worth picking up, if you can afford the steep $30 price tag. (It's expensive because, it's an UK import. No U.S. company would have the guts to publish something as risky. Especially one that doesn't contain much info on the ha-ha-funny flower pot hats.) Hopefully, a cheaper paperback will be on offer in the near future.

-Adam Miller

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