Like a lot of people, my first exposure to Devo was on Saturday Night Live in October, 1978. I was pretty young, and had no frame of reference, yet their version of "Satisfaction" knocked me out. As a teenager in the sticks 50 miles outside of Seattle, anything new or different at the time was considered "punk," and Devo definitely were new and different. I bought their debut album, and enjoyed it, but by the time of their breakthrough hit "Whip It," I had moved on. From the outside, you could tell that there was some sort of underlying "theme" with them, but for me at least, it was impenetrable. With Recombo DNA: The Story Of Devo, Or How the '60s Became the '80s by Kevin C. Smith, we get the full Devo story.
Authors make choices, and Smith made a bold one here. He covers the years 1970-1979, with just a ten-page Epilogue devoted to "The 80s," and nothing beyond that. The usual rock bio spends a little time on the band's early years, then follows their progress through success, failure, whatever, up to the present day. For Smith, the Devo story is mainly what led up to their recording career, rather than what came after.
The signal event was the Kent State shootings on May 4, 1970, where four protesting students were killed by National Guardsmen. Jerry Casale is quoted as saying, "All I can tell you is that it completely and utterly changed my life. I was a white hippie boy and then I saw exit wounds from M1 rifles out of the backs of two people I knew. I would not have started the idea of Devo unless this had happened."
Mark Mothersbaugh was two years younger than Casale, and also grew up in the Akron area. It was inevitable that the two "outcasts" would eventually meet. A little factoid about Mothersbaugh that I did not previously know was that he and Chrissie Hynde played together briefly in a band, before she moved to London.
Their "De-Evolution" philosophy was formed out of comic books, the classic Island of Lost Souls (1932) film, and other sources. On one of the Island of Lost Souls Criterion Collection extras, the two appear and talk about the influence that film had on them. For anyone who has not seen it, the movie is based on the H.G. Wells book The Island of Dr. Moreau. The Doctor is performing human experiments, and there is a scene where his half-witted victims are shuffling about. In the DVD bonus piece, the Devo founders say that they recognized those people. They saw them every morning, lining up for work at the dying Akron factories.
As I mentioned, Recombo DNA is not your typical rock book. Smith spends a fair amount of time on subjects other than the band. Lengthy segments are devoted to such subjects as the DADA movement, other artists such as The Residents, Captain Beefheart, Frank Zappa, Pere Ubu, Tuxedomoon, and the German Krautrock movement.
As for the Krautrockers, there was another bit of trivia that does not directly relate to Devo, but was still pretty fascinating to me. Anyone with an interest in the Krautrock bands should be familiar with a group called Amon Duul II. They are prominently mentioned in Julian Cope's brilliant Krautrocksampler book, for example. The "group" were actually something of a musical commune, and unintentionally housed members of the violent Baader-Meinhof gang for a brief time.
The discussion of Krautrock fits the topic well, as they were a definite influence. Especially Kraftwerk, with their homemade electronic instruments, as well as their "total package" presentation. The great Bowie-Eno "Berlin Trilogy" of albums was big as well, especially Low. Both Bowie and Eno are owed a huge debt by Devo. In fact, Bowie talked them up so much that he got the labels interested in the group in the first place, and he had planned to produce their first record. When scheduling problems nixed this plan, Eno stepped in.
As much as the members of Devo liked and respected Eno's music, the recording experience was not good. One of Eno's guiding principles is to embrace chance. He has gone so far as to create a deck of "Oblique Strategies" cards, which are designed to force him to look at alternatives he may not have considered while in the studio. His three word description of their recording experience says it all: "Devo are anal." The band had their songs down pat, exactly as they wanted them. They would not consider any alterations at all.
Today, Mothersbaugh and Casale express some regrets about the situation, but still stick to their guns. There was simply no room for Oblique Strategies with their music, their songs had been honed to perfection.
Some of the early Devo gigs Smith describes are pretty incredible. One has them "opening" for Sun Ra at a radio-station sponsored event. Apparently this turned out to be a disaster as the crowd hated Devo, and they went on so long that Sun Ra decided not to perform at all. Another legend has it that Sun Ra and the Arkestra did perform after the crowd left. And then there was the night they performed prior to a screening of the John Waters classic Pink Flamingoes (1972) at a midnight movie-type event. Smith's description of Pink Flamingoes is pretty hilarious, he seems genuinely offended by it.
Devo were pioneers in the emerging home video market, and their interest and influences in it are discussed in detail. If I had been paying attention back in 1978, their "Booji Boy" video on SNL might have helped me to understand them a bit better. But as Smith notes, even though Devo had a fully-formed "philosophy," it did not fully translate to their records. I must say that when I saw all of the Devo merchandise offers on their album sleeves, I thought a lot less of them. They now say that was a mistake, that they treated their record sleeves "like cereal boxes."
Neil Young brought this to their attention as well. The Devo-Neil Young connection was also a huge break for them. Elliot Roberts was Young's manager, and took on Devo. He has been a powerful figure in the music business for years, and not only got them on SNL, but talked Mick Jagger into signing off on their version of "Satisfaction." I love the pitch that Smith reports, evidently Roberts called Jagger's manager and told him that with Devo performing the song on SNL, big sales might result. In other words, it could mean money in Jagger's pocket. At the meeting, he acted like he loved the Devo version, which thrilled Mothersbaugh and Casale. It was only later that they learned that the whole thing was pretty much a set-up.
These are the types of cool bits that are sprinkled throughout Recombo DNA, and make it such an intriguing book. Since Devo are anything but your typical rock band, a book about them should not be your typical rock book. Even though I have focused on the Devo stuff, there is a running theme, which is reflected in the subtitle, "How the '60s Became the '80s." Smith charts the progress of the lawsuits filed by the families of the murdered Kent State students throughout the text. These periodic updates are presented in simple, one-paragraph form, so they do not detract from the Devo story, but provide a fascinating counter-narrative.
It is clear that the event was central to the Devo story, but there is no way of knowing about that from the outside unless you are told, it is not apparent in their music or marketing. Another example is The Island of Lost Souls, where Lon Chaney asks" "Are we not men?' I had no idea about this until I finally saw the movie a couple of years ago.
There are quite a number of other things in this 320-page book that I found intriguing, but have not detailed for space considerations. My adivice is to simply read the book, it is excellent.
Recombo DNA is published by Jawbone Press, who I have a great affinity for. I recently reviewed their Read & Burn: A Book About Wire by Wilson Neate, and have discovered that their books have a very clean, and wonderful style about them. Recombo DNA is a nice addition to the library.
This is a great book, a little different from the norm, which is exactly what makes it great. It may be a cliché, hell it could even be wishful thinking, but I think Devo fans are a bit ahead of the curve intellectually. Recombo DNA digs a little deeper than most rock books, and I like that a lot. It is nice to see an author take a risk, and a publisher willing to back him. Well done.