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Are we not men? Inside the strange world of Devo

28 Feb

Taken from my interview with Bob Lewis, founder member and former manager of Devo.

Bob Lewis - Devo


“Once we came up with the joking theory of de-volution – it was a joke at the time, subsequent events have proved it was not such a joke after all – we applied it to a number of the arts; not just music, but poetry and literature. I did some Devo journalism that was trying to have the same playful, mocking spirit and to try, in a kind of reverse psychology, to elevate the human and warn people about the perils of technology. Without being Luddites, you can still be aware of the danger. Once we had that, applying that to music was not that difficult, especially because at the time we were doing it, and this was closer to the early Seventies, there were bands like Yes and Emerson, Lake and Palmer, where every song had to have a 15-minute jam and it was kind of dinosaur rock. So we said, ‘Well let’s try to make things almost childishly simple in how we arrange the music and how we craft the song’. At first our attempts to play locally were not necessarily that well received because that was not at all what people were expecting to hear. Then by 1976 to 1979 because of punk and new wave, but more punk rock – and Devo wasn’t punk rock, by any means – there was a live music audience for simpler songs. So even though we didn’t quite fit, we at least weren’t a square peg in the round hole, we were a little obloid maybe. There was room for us.”

Kent State University

“People talk about Devo being an Akron band, but it really happened at Kent State [University]. There was this place called the Commuters Cafeteria, and people tell me it’s not like this at universities any more, but you’d go in there and there’d be people from the art department and literature department, and sciences, and sitting there, drinking coffee and shooting the shit all day long. And there was a guy named Terry Hynde, who was in the art department. He plays saxophone in 15 60 75 [the Numbers Band] and they’re been together for forty five years. Two years after he showed up at Kent, his little sister Chrissie showed up. Gerry [Casale] played bass for a while in the Numbers Band, and so did Chris Butler, who went on to be in the Waitresses and Tin Huey. Mark [Mothersbaugh] was in a band for a brief period of time with Chrissie before she went over to England, so she was around.”

“If it hadn’t been for the shootings, I don’t know the band would ever have happened. Gerry was on his way in a master in fine arts and I think he would most likely have gone into graphic arts, and I was going to go be an anthropologist and dig up stuff. So May 4, 1970 was the last time I was a college student because I was out of it at that point.”

Devo get Stiff

“There was a guy there called Paul [Conroy] who seemed to be a really nice guy and he was attending to the nuts and bolts. I think he called me and I would imagine by that time, and it was, of course, much easier to do this now with the internet, there was an independent record store in London, one in France on the Rue Saint-Suplice, and ones in the Netherlands, Denmark and Germany that we were selling our single to. They [Stiff] had my phone number, because I was calling, and I think that’s how Paul got my contact information…

““I think they heard the single. This was before we had recorded in Europe and I think they were interested in trying to get an act in New York. We only played CBGBs once, but we went back and played Max’s Kansas City two or three times, so it’s possible somebody saw us there…

“We were going to play Max’s Kansas City, so we loaded our van with a bunch of singles and they actually bought some singles from us which they sold because we gave them the wholesale price. Mark and I went to a little office they had in New York City and we met with Dave Robinson, dropped the records off, spent the afternoon talking to him. I don’t know if we sketched out exactly what the parameters of our relationship were going to be, but we knew that we didn’t want to sign with them exclusively because we had bigger fish on the line. But we didn’t know how long that process, so I think we sold them five thousand copies of Jocko Homo and then we also made the deal for Be Stiff and Satisfaction. We got cash-flow now out of it and the warning shot to who was interested was that you’re interested, you’d better speak up because we’re not going to just sit by the phone waiting for the call for the date. We’re out to do other things too’.

“We produced it, we mastered it and we actually wound up selling 18,000 copies, which was great for the time, and considering half the sales were probably in Europe and Japan where we’d have to call someone at an independent record store at weird hours. I used to go over to my parents’ house and use their phone. It also embedded our first international presence.”

Jocko Homo video

“We wanted something to be able to send to record companies that was video that said, ’This is what you get if you get us’. So Chuck [Statler] came out to Akron and by favours and committing a bit of harmless fraud, we talked various institutions into opening up their premises and allowing us to film there, including a McDonalds restaurant, across from the hospital in Akron, where we blew out all of their power with our lights. When we left, the fryers weren’t running.”

(I Can’t Get Me No) Satisfaction (Stiff Boy 1)

Devo - Satisfaction

“That was really one of those serendipities where Mark Mothersbaugh had been in some cover bands that played a lot of Rolling Stones songs and he really liked Keith Richards’ rhythm guitar playing. So he just started playing the riff and the one thing he could do was to take normal music and mutate it. So we made it robotic rather than sensual, if that makes sense. I do agree that it’s a cover that’s up there. Actually, I think the two greatest covers of all time are Joe Cocker doing With A Little Help From My Friends and Jimi Hendrix doing All Along The Watchtower because they took those songs some place that they’d never been before and once you heard them, the originals kind of paled. I wouldn’t say that Devo’s quite makes the Stones’ original pale because I can still remember driving around in my car in ‘65 that summer and hearing that on the radio all the time. But it did take the song some place it had not been before.”