Devo: Spud Wars, by Andy Gill. Originally published in NME, December 9, 1978
They came from Outer Akron. Their purpose: conquest. Their methods: unpleasant. This was... Spud Wars.
Jackie Leven of Doll By Doll is Not Happy. A large man in a leather jacket, he's pacing back and forth across the foyer of Newcastle City Hall, thwacking a leather fist into a leather palm. Anger. Frustration. "Surly" might best describe his demeanor.
Doll By Doll, see, have just been relieved of their support spot on the Devo tour, the only reason given being that they "weren't devo". He is understandably miffed. DBD's manager, a leather-jacketed bloke of somewhat slighter build, points out that it's not just a case of the exposure the Devo tour would have provided.
"We've had a long, hard grind, and things were just starting to go right, the band was just peaking – the tour finishes on the seventh, and we go into the studio on the eighth to start the first album. We should have been right at our peak by then, and suddenly it's all fallen apart."
Perhaps, I mention, Devo thought they were too realistic? "I'd have thought the two would have been complementary," he muses. "I mean, it's not as if we were going down badly, or stealing any thunder. Audiences like us in Scotland, and Devo still went down a storm. I can't figure it out."
It transpires that it's all the agency's fault: the band thought they were on the tour, period, when in actuality they'd been "on approval" for the first gig or two, after which Devo took up the option to replace them. Their agent had apparently neglected to inform them of this probationary period. Devo, for their part, are also far from pleased with some of the arrangements made on their behalf. For example, they originally wanted The Human League as their support act.
"We were sitting over in the States," says Jerry Casale, "quite out of contact with anything here, and with no-one looking out for our interests specifically. We couldn't get any information, although we had been, I felt, quite explicit about what we wanted in a tour.
"It was just a series of people just not listening to Devo or taking them seriously, and making decisions based purely on money and business – even though it was ultimately our money."
Meanwhile, back in the main auditorium, Devo are going through their soundcheck. They take a very long time over it. They are utterly meticulous. Mark Mothersbaugh's radio-mike enables him to wander round the hall checking the sound as the audience hears it, rather than just through stage monitors, which never give an accurate representation.
'Uncontrollable Urge' sounds fine to me, but the band aren't satisfied. Further discussions with the man at the mixing desk. Another run-through. More discussions. Another run-through...
Sound-checks are extremely boring for onlookers.
Several hours later, they finish, and secrete themselves backstage for food and yet more discussions. The snap impression this perfectionism gives is of war-gaming generals, their strategy set, fussing over tactical problems. But then, this is The Big Tour, and naught must be left to chance.
Meantime, Doll By Doll's equipment's being shunted out, and that of their replacement, The Members, in. There's no blame attached to The Members, of course, for this unfortunate situation. Like DBD, they're just making the most of whatever breaks they can get. When you're at the bottom, you jump when a shot like this is called. That's showbiz...
Thoughts and theories on Devo invariably slot themselves into one half of the old dichotomy: love/hate, good/bad, naive/cynical, etc./anti-etc.
The pro-Devo lobby cite musical ingenuity and forward-thinking; masterly grasp of the fundamentals of image; humorous anti-rationalism and snook-cocking at seriousness and pedantry. The more naive proponents of this argument may even try deciphering a coherent "philosophy" from the fragments of de-evolutionist double-talk uncovered in interviews.
A good many members of this lobby will be convinced of Devo's validity by the patronage of Bowie and Eno (but then, there's always a good few million twerps willing to have their standards, opinions and tastes set by their idols, aren't there, Johnny? Politics, religion, music, life – let others run it for you, it's far easier that way. Yesterday's bowl of potage is today's lapel badge).
Mongoloid, 1978 from French TV
Some, certainly, love 'em for their clothes alone. Devoids. The con-Devo lobby will state that it's just that: a con. Music, clothes, "philosophy" – all are custom-built to make money via media-manipulation, with very little of any real substance being produced to support the claims of the pro-Devo lobby. Moral outrage, too, is evinced by Devo's antics, representing them as (a) a collective Nero, fiddling while the world sticks civilization in its arm and reaps the consequences, (b) a placebo replacing important issues with trivia, and (c) the advocates not of cure but of wallowing unto armageddon.
All of which makes things rather difficult for an agnostic like myself. Life isn't black and white, it's a shifting pattern of various shades of grey, and there's some truth in both the preceding arguments. Devo themselves would undoubtedly find the rigorous polarity of opinions they provoke amusing.
They do have a good grasp of the value of image, and they are humorous – fun, even. Yet they have produced little of substance to flesh out their concept, despite an obvious abundance of talent and promise. And yes, they did know they'd be enormously successful.
Uncontrollable Urge From Urgh! A Music War
I have no idea whether The Members are more 'devo' than Doll By Doll – for all I care, they could be its very essence. Their set's a pleasant, average mixture of passable white reggae and run-of-the-mill punky stuff, spoilt by clichéd lead guitar breaks (lots of 'em) but rescued by some neat choppy, syncopated rhythm guitar. They're politely received, and the earth carries on turning.
Devo, however, are a completely different teapot of trout: all that meticulous planning pays dividends, and more besides. It has to, to justify the inordinate amount of publicity they've received over the past year or two. That damp squib of an album becomes a thunderflash in the flesh. Honest.
To start with, the films of 'Come Back Jonee', 'Satisfaction' and 'Jocko Homo' are the ideal primer, sucking the audience in, teasing anticipation and dragging out a beserk, hungry roar as the credits roll and the band take the stage. Ring bell, salivate. Not for nothing do they show themselves being mobbed in the 'Jonee' film.
They open with 'Wiggly Worm' and another new number, neither earth-shattering but both riotously received. Everyone stands up for the first, and are forced to sit down by the end of the second by over-zealous bouncers intent on spoiling things.
It's with 'Too Much Paranoias', the fourth number (following a curt 'Satisfaction'), that the show really comes alive. Oh, the value of those leadless guitars! Devo choreography is simple, fast and (of course) absurd, for this song taking the form of bunny-hops on beat combined with circumnavigation of stage by the brothers Casale and Bob Mothersbaugh, a ridiculous nursery choo-choo train of stomps and jumps. The song zips by, is gone before you realise.
'Praying Hands' follows, a song I always hear as a parody of all those "explanatory" dance-craze discs of the past two decades and beyond, a "Simon Says" for cybernauts, still effective as an example of what it parodies, if indeed it does parody. Mark Mothersbaugh dives into the audience and returns unscathed. That's confidence.
More choreography for 'Uncontrollable Urge', this time ninety degree turns on the spot like lunatic compass-needles sent every which way by rogue magnetism, ending with ballet/jog steps in cross formation by all four movable members.
Simple but effective, more so than the excessive organized routines of the Tubes, and far funnier. Vaudeville, in fact. Those paper suits always did strike me as having more clownish connotations than futuristic overtones...
'Mongoloid' and 'Jocko Homo' get a predictable reception, the latter seeing the suits torn off and thrown to the audience. And so it goes. A couple more new ones, 'Sloppy' – during which a man rushes on stage and wriggles about on the floor a while before getting carried off (bet those Rollers fans never did that!) – and off they go, returning for encores of 'Jonee', 'Gut Feeling' and 'Slap Your Mammy' before they line up across the front of the stage, right arms cross chests, and stand to attention for the Devo Anthem.