New Traditionalists – Devo (1981)

New Traditionalist cover art (US version)

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 other DEVO material like “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.

With the success of “Whip It” and Freedom of Choice, DEVO music from multiple albums was being featured on MTV. With all the music from it’s recent past playing on college radio and the few video outlets, it was still clear the the band had moved on from it’s hyper quirky punk/funk roots to a more streamlined production with New Traditionalists.

Despite the darker tone, New Traditionalists used many of the same elements of other early new wave bands did like simple keyboard hooks and catchy melodies. The difference with DEVO came in part from its punk origins which were still there but subdued in a slick synth heavy production.

The alternating vocals from Mark Mothersbaugh or Gerald Casale still had a kind of emotional delivery that was more punk than new wave, yet the phrasing was robotic. That vocal fusion made songs like “Through Being Cool” sound fun with a catchy melody despite becoming a minor protest anthem for the budding nerd community. More importantly the song announced that the nerd aesthetic that DEVO represented had  entered the modern pop vernacular and become the new cool.

With the increased emphasis on keyboards and synthesizers, DEVO’s arrangements resembled less the child’s toy Casio keyboard from earlier albums and more like what was quickly becoming mainstream pop. This move strengthening their new cool propaganda even if it was on the edge of the mainstream. “Beautiful World” was typical of this new sound that was both slick and quirky.

Devo’s sound would continue to move closer to pop (or pop would move closer to DEVO) as the band became popular for various film projects featuring oddball characters. Despite a few mildly successful albums later, DEVO would never become the household name that some of their counterparts did.


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