The Men Who Still Make the Music 

Devo returns to Tucson for the first time since 1982, as subversive as ever

1. Wear gaudy colors or avoid display.

2. Lay a million eggs or give birth to one.

3. The fittest shall survive yet the unfit may live.

4. Be like your ancestors or be different.

5. We must repeat!

These are the tenets of the Devolutionary Oath, as spoken in In the Beginning Was the End: The Truth About De-Evolution, the 1976 film that showcased the art-rock band from Akron, Ohio, known as Devo. The film consists of two short music videos (five years before MTV) and a few sketches that introduce two significant characters who inhabit Devo's universe: Booji Boy (vocalist Mark Mothersbaugh in a baby mask) and General Boy (Mothersbaugh's dad in a military uniform). Booji Boy frantically runs up the side of a burnt-out building via a fire escape, enters a room and hands General Boy some papers. After reading them, General Boy informs the audience that "Every man, woman and mutant on this planet shall know the truth about Devolution."

Devo (Mothersbaugh, brother Bob "Bob 1" Mothersbaugh, brothers Gerald and Bob "Bob 2" Casale and Josh Freese, who replaced longtime drummer Alan Meyers) started playing music in one form or another in 1973. The band was inspired by the concept of "devolution," the idea that instead of constantly evolving, mankind is actually regressing. Gerald Casale, an art student at the time, witnessed firsthand the ugliness of devolution while attending Kent State University. He was there when the Ohio National Guard opened fire on anti-war protesters, leaving four dead.

"You have to understand what I was in the middle of was highly conscious; it was the result of social and political conflict that was pretty thawed out," Casale says. "The shootings weren't random by some crazed nut. There was a message and political action behind it."

When Devo started playing gigs, they left many audience members either scratching their heads or outright enraged. It wasn't uncommon for the audience to rush the stage and try to land a few punches, or to have promoters unplug their equipment and wrestle microphones from them. In 1976, Devo released their first single, "Mongoloid/Jocko Homo" on their own Booji Boy label. A year later they released their herky-jerky take on the Rolling Stones classic "(I Can't Get No) Satisfaction."

With their iconic yellow industrial suits, square black sunglasses, JFK haircuts (which, naturally, devolved into Ronald Reagan pompadours) and robotic movements onstage, Devo were the square peg of the then-fresh punk rock/new wave movement. They were also the darlings of rock music's glitterati. Both David Bowie and Iggy Pop raved about them to anyone who would listen, and Bowie would jockey to produce their debut album Q: Are We Not Men? A: We Are Devo! for Warner Bros., a task that eventually went to studio alchemist Brian Eno in 1978.

Their second album, 1979's Duty Now for the Future, saw Devo utilizing synthesizers more. While keyboards are certainly there on Q: Are We Not Men?..., it's still primarily a guitar-oriented album, albeit a far cry from the Ramones. Synthesizers would trademark their sound for the majority of their career, starting with 1980's smash album, Freedom of Choice, the record that would cement Devo in the public's consciousness for two reasons: the Top 40 single "Whip It" and the red Energy Domes atop Devo's heads.

After a few forgettable albums in the 1980s, Devo went on hiatus in 1990. Mothersbaugh started Mutato Muzika, a commercial music production studio. Since then, Mothersbaugh has composed soundtracks for television shows, commercials, videogames, and all of director Wes Anderson's films. Casale, after directing the majority of Devo's music videos, went behind the camera during the 1990s for bands as disparate as Rush and the Foo Fighters.

After re-recording Freedom of Choice's "Girl U Want" for the Tank Girl soundtrack in the mid-'90s, Devo embarked on the 1996 Lollapalooza tour, playing the hits from their first four albums and pissing off fans who were there for Soundgarden and Metallica. In 2006, they collaborated with Disney for the Devo 2.0 project. In keeping with the band's surrealist humor, Devo 2.0 were child actors who sang, dressed and mimed their way through re-recorded versions of classic Devo songs. Devo have also re-recorded several of their songs for Target and Swiffer commercials, a move that upsets some fans who should know better.

"That's fun. It's subversive. That's probably the only avenue left in corporate society to have fun," Casale says. "There's no such thing as rebellion. We're all in it together."

In 2006, Casale started a new solo project, Jihad Jerry & the Evildoers. The 2006 album Mine Is Not a Holy War, featuring several covers of old Devo material (all found on the incredible collections Hardcore Devo Vol. 1 and 2) as well as bluesy, surf-rock originals, confused fans more than it entertained.

"Jihad Jerry didn't get the love. I'm afraid he was very misunderstood. I liked that record," Casale says. "The final blow was when I was doing interviews at Sirius radio in New York and the DJ, who was interviewing me, named the first two tracks off the record and said, 'I'd be playing these right and left if this was a Devo record, but I can't play Jihad Jerry & the Evildoers!' He didn't even mean anything bad, he was just telling me the truth! Wow, I get it. OK. Time to make a new Devo record!"

A new album it would be. In 2010, Devo released Something for Everybody, their first album of new material in 20 years. Devo embraced the Internet for the release, with viral video teasers, odd communiques, real-but-not-real focus groups and marketing strategies. Hot off the release, Devo even switched up the uniform for the new era: gray industrial suits, mutated half-face masks and (gasp!) blue Energy Domes.

"It was almost like a fun artistic way to embrace all the bizarre techniques that advertising uses today with crowd sourcing, social media, focus groups and test groups. Treating it as if it was a box of cereal they were trying to promote," Casale says. "Devo always just went away in their little spaceship and created music and dropped it on people without ever interacting at all—it was a hermetically sealed process. We thought, 'What's the one thing we haven't done?,' which is actually to find out what people think."

Devo's concert at the Rialto Theatre on Friday will mark the first time they've played Tucson since 1982.

More by Casey Dewey

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