Around the time that Gary Numan was starting to capture the American imagination with his brand of dystopian sci-fi influenced electronica, some of us were already listening to a different kind of futurism. Devo, the Akron, Ohio based punk/new wave band was an important force in the development of electronic pop on this side of the Atlantic. More importantly, the robotic nature of their music made it a perfect backdrop for everything from hip hop dance styles to DJ sampling.
Like some other early American punk bands that transitioned to new wave like The Talking Heads and B-52s, Devo’s take on the future was not always the dark dystopia imagined by their European counterparts. In the process of having a lighter and somewhat brighter outlook, DEVO often would create songs that were funky and funny.
Devo had already firmly established a future world of zany alien subhumans characters and themes like Booji Boy and Church of the SubGenius well before films like The Adventures of Buckaroo Bonzi would bring variations of them to the big screen. As teenage nerds like myself were discovering computers, Devo was ready to become our music of choice by catering to a new aesthetic.
It was funk however that was the first thing that captured my attention about Devo. New wave and the emerging hip hop scene connected on occasion with the occasional Kraftwerk sample. DEVO was one of the first bands to recognize this connection by featuring dancers popping and locking in the hilarious video for “Girl U Want”. I couldn’t help but notice the hip hop potential in my first Devo encounter “Satisfaction”, a stripped down and funky stop start rendition of the Rolling Stones classic. It wasn’t until the event of MTV that DEVO really took off, with both “Satisfaction” and their biggest hit “Whip It”, getting heavy airplay and a kind of second life.
“Whip It” comes from Freedom of Choice, their 3rd and most successful album. There, the band defined their concept of de-evolution best: where man would devolve as technology evolved. The theme is expressed in funny songs like “Girl U Want” that would become the blueprint for nerd anthems for the rest of the decade.
Freedom of Choice uses many of the same elements of other early new wave bands like simple keyboard hooks and catchy melodies. The difference with Devo came in part from its punk origins. The alternating vocals from Mark Mothersbaugh or Gerald Casale had a kind of emotional delivery that was more punk than new wave, yet the phrasing was robotic. That vocal fusion made guitar driven songs like “Gates of Steel” resemble the AOR/new wave hybrid sound of The Cars.
The traditional drum and guitar were of course augmented by electronics that from our vantage point sound like a child’s toy Casio keyboard. That was much of DEVO’s early charm as they combined strong dancible rhythms with a new nerd boy aesthetic. “Cold War” a track that rivals “Whip It” danceability shares a retro vibe with the B52s.
Devo’s sound would move closer to pop (or pop would move closer to Devo) as the band became popular for various film projects. Despite a few mildly successful albums later, Devo would never become the household name that some of their counterparts did. Thank’s to “Whip It” Devo’s legacy as a punk, new wave and funk pioneer will never be forgotten.