Sunday, June 26, 2016

Hippies vs. Punks: Oh, No! It's Devo (1982)

I had intended last week to follow up my treatment of the two Van Morrison albums that closed out the 1970s, Wavelength (1978) and Into the Music (1979), with an appreciation of Dinosaur Jr.'s You're Living All Over Me (1987), an album that I listened to extensively and intensively the summer I separated from my wife. That summer, the summer of 1990, was also the summer I searched for the hidden truths of Wavelength. But the real bonanza of musical exegesis was garnered by my immersion in You're Living All Over Me. I would drink Midnight Dragon malt liquor into the wee hours of morning and suss out the tiniest sonic morsels from Lou Barlow's "Poledo." I have to say that it changed my life. I came up with a motto or hypothesis that guided my studies for years afterwards. I took the hypothesis back with me to New York City, and from there to San Antonio, until I ended up back in the Emerald City. I alluded to this "lunatic fringe" hypothesis at the end of the March post on the Beatle's Sgt. Pepper's:
I have my own hypothesis about this pervasive atmosphere of pain and hopelessness we find ourselves in today; it is highly speculative, to the point of being located solidly on the lunatic fringe. I was going to indulge in it this morning because it follows on ideas I stumbled upon at the same time I was thinking about the alchemists' VITRIOL, as mentioned in last week's post. But it will have to keep. I am out of time.
I never got back to it. And I am not going to get back to it today because though I read Nick Attfield's 33 1/3 of Dinosaur Jr.'s You're Living All Over Me in April -- and it helpfully confirmed my sense of what was going on in that album (namely, Lou Barlow's musique concrete stuff, found in such tracks as "Raisans" and "Poledo," is what gives the record its sublimely deep haunting uniqueness) -- I still want to read Carlo Rovelli's international bestseller Seven Brief Lessons on Physics (2016) before I post anything else about You're Living All Over Me. But I will spell out the hypothesis revealed to me that difficult breakup summer 26 years ago (the summer of Iraq's invasion of Kuwait): "Future man made the planets."

Insane enough for you? I was under duress that summer. Living alone, working construction, drinking lots of malt liquor, separated from a wife who was partying hard and hooking up with different partners in multiple states, "Future man made the planets" came to me like a firefly on a black night. But what did it mean? I intended to find out.

Monday I went to a fundraising dinner at a hip vegan restaurant. The fundraiser was for a Democratic candidate who is vying to replace the longtime Congressman for Washington's 7th District (who announced his retirement this past winter). I went because the dinner was hosted by a city councilmember who I support (mentioned in a post from last fall on Patti Smith's Radio Ethiopia). When she refers candidates to me I make a point of contributing to them.

On my walk up to the hip vegan restaurant I stopped off at one of the only remaining, good used record stores in the city. I was looking for some early Mott the Hoople, something pre-All the Young Dudes (1972) because I want to get back to my exploration of the undercard from Cincinnati Summer Pop Festival of 1970, as well as the idea that Glam was a huge stake in the heart of the Hippie.

All that I found was 1974's The Hoople (Ian Hunter's last with the band before going solo). I probably should have picked it up, but I passed, thinking that I might be able to find a copy at the public library. Instead, walking on down the row of used CDs, I found a scuff copy of Oh, No! It's Devo (1982) for the low price of $4.25.

Oh, No! It's Devo was the end of the line for the boys from Akron. They would release another album two years later, Shout, that I don't think anybody listened to. I didn't, and no one I knew at the time did either. And I was a Devo true believer. (To this day I still haven't listened to Shout.) Warner Brothers Records dropped the group from the label after Shout.

It is too bad that Devo flamed out so quickly. Buzz generated by their 1976 short film, In The Beginning Was The End: The Truth About De-Evolution, turned into interest from David Bowie, Iggy Pop and Neil Young, which landed the band a recording contract with Warner Brothers. The first album, the super-historic, Eno-produced Q: Are We Not Men? A: We Are Devo! (1978), was followed by the timeless Post-Punk record Duty Now For the Future (1979), produced by the man at the helm of Bowie's big Glam albums, Ken Scott.

Then in 1980 Devo released what is probably the greatest synthpop album of all time, Freedom of Choice. For me, Freedom of Choice is right up there with You're Living All Over Me in terms of importance. We on the high school debate team were wed to Freedom of Choice. We were saturated in it; it was our sonic blood. At tournaments we would stack our evidence file-card boxes and brief cases into a pyramid, and atop that pyramid we would perch a big boom box from which would blast "Girl U Want," "Whip It," and "Gates of Steel." No one would mess with us. We had purpose. (Eventually I intend to post on Freedom of Choice; it might have to be in multiple parts.)

Before moving on to Oh, No! It's Devo, a few words on why Devo is so important for an understanding of Hippies vs. Punks. The principal founders of Devo, Mark Mothersbaugh and Gerald Casale, were students at Kent State when, on May 4, 1970, the National Guard opened fire on demonstrators, killing four and setting off a nationwide student strike. Campuses burned and it looked for a time that there was going to be a revolution in the United States. In response, the Nixon Administration launched the Huston Plan, which J. Edgar Hoover put the kibosh on but Nixon maintained in pocket version with the White House Plumbers (leading of course to Watergate).

Casale and Mothersbaugh were so affected by the savagery of the National Guard shootings that they crafted a philosophy of "devolution." Simon Reynolds' interview of Casale in Totally Wired: Post-Punk Interviews and Overviews (2009) perfectly captures the essence of Hippies vs. Punks. Casale said something to the effect that, "Sure, we're all about peace and love and revolution and creating a new world but then daddy comes along and mows a few of us down and we fall right back into line and shut up and do as we are told!" Mothersbaugh and Casale thought that the most cogent response to Kent State was to embrace Dadaism and Fluxus. Anarchy, baby.

In other words, the failure of the Hippies to respond effectively to Kent State leads directly to Punk.

Oh, No! It's Devo came out in the fall, a time when we were all listening to Combat Rock (1982). We liked it, particularly "Speed Racer." That fall Devo made an appearance on Square Pegs, a CBS sitcom that was a vehicle for a pre-stardom Sarah Jessica Parker. I remember making a note to watch it. I was in my freshman year, living alone off campus in a nicely refurbished mother-in-law unit. I can't remember actually watching it. I think I must have been underwhelmed. (I do remember thinking that Sarah Jessica Parker was fetching with her long wavy pigtails and schoolgirl glasses.)

I say "we," meaning a buddy who I went to high school with; he was attending Stanford on the other side of the Bay. We made plans to see Devo when they came to San Francisco. My memory isn't exact here, but I think we -- me, Kevin, and my girlfriend-who-would become-my-wife -- saw them on New Year's Eve at the Warfield. The band was tremendous, truly incredible, very physical, very tight. Bob Mothersbaugh used a heavy-duty whammy bar to bust all the strings on his guitar. There was a big screen with video playing while the band performed. I think it is one of the best concerts I have seen.

Listening to Oh, No! It's Devo again after all these years -- I probably haven't listened to the album more than once or twice in over 23 years -- my initial reaction was not kind. It seems like the band, which always peddled schlock, was parodying its own schlock. And that's a hard sell.

Then walking to work one morning I experienced a moment of incandescence when I heard "Speed Racer." It was like I was frying on acid and the whole Hippie/Punk "society is a hole" perspective yawned in front of me. There is speed racer who is always trying to outrun everything, distance himself from class and status and the other categories of existential confinement. He is followed by the big pirate who likes to drink and steal and kill. That's basically society. Big pirate is followed by barbie doll who has lots of brains and likes sex. Self-explanatory. Another basic construct. Then comes the doctor who, same as big pirate, likes to steal. So there it is. Society is murderous theft. Delivered in faux-naif synthpop. Pretty amazing.

I started hearing everything on Oh, No! It's Devo differently after my "Speed Racer" acid trip. The album gets cooking I think with track three "Out of Sync." All of side two is strong. "I Desire" is based on a poem that John Hinckley, Jr. wrote to Jodie Foster. It is a great song.


  1. On future man made the planets:

    1. Elton Musk is very pessimistic about out our AI future, isn't he? He is super convinced that unless we start acting collectively pronto AI is going to take over and we'll be living the TERMINATOR screenplay. Thanks for the singularityhub link.

  2. I saw Devo in SF twice. Once at the Warfield, but it was a few years earlier, and once at the Old Waldorf. At the Warfield they played with the Dead Boys, and if I recall correctly, Pere Ubu. All I can remember from the show was a Dead Boy climbing all over the PA system, which was kind of a rock move at the time, think Alice Cooper, and since the house was half-full it struck the audience as weak sauce. I don't remember an opening act for their show at the Old Waldorf, but we were up close, if you remember the venue, and they actually were a damned good rock band. "Wiggly World" was great. Must admit I bailed on them after "Freedom of Choice" but that was partly because I'd gotten married and my music money stream pretty much shut down.

    Old Waldorf was a great venue. Saw Elvis Costello's first US show there, Pere Ubu. It was like these acts were performing in your living room.

    1. The Old Waldorf was closed before I got in there. I made into Mabuhay Gardens before it was shuttered. Saw Agent Orange there. Saw many shows at The Stone on Broadway, formerly The Matrix.

      The Dead Boys. I hope to eventually do a post devoted to The Dead Boys. One week I started working on post about The Germs. The problem is that listening to that stuff for a solid week is excruciatingly masochistic.

    2. Almost got beat up by the lead singer (RIP) of VKTMS at the Mabuhay. She was having a bad night.