Q: Are We Not Men? A: We Are Devo! (Warner Brothers, 1978)
All-Time Albums Series
I write about a new album that was essential to me every Wednesday, last weeks album was De La Soul's 3 Feet High And Rising.
This week it is Q: Are We Not Men? A: We Are Devo! by Devo.
So, I am sure this will end up shocking absolutely nobody, but in the period between 1980 and 1985 I was a geeky, unsure of himself, mostly unpopular, teen-age boy.
Until the end of 1985 (when somehow despite all odds I became a popular kid) I had no swagger, I was mostly nervous and unsure of myself, I was not cool, and never really anticipated being cool.
Virtually everyone I listened to, even the oddballs, seemed incredibly cool and confident.
The crazy thing, Devo had a period of MASSIVE popularity by literally presenting themselves in all of their Akron geeky glory.
That presentation started with their first album: Q: Are We Not Men? A: We Are Devo!
Growing Up DEVO
And when I say all of their geeky glory, I don't mean they presented an idealized portrait of their geekiness - they presented it warts and all.
Every wart, every insecurity, every cruelty real - imagined - or imposed by them (Jocko Homo comes to mind).
They were honest in a way I had certainly not encountered at that time in my life.
Just think of the album title (and song of the same name).
As an unpopular and sometimes bullied child, I spent a great deal of time wondering exactly what was wrong with me. Time wondering why other people were popular and loved and I was disliked and teased (or worse).
Often this train of thought would end up with me considering that maybe I wasn't like the rest of the human race.
The members of Devo apparently had these same thoughts and decided to say the most punk thing possible - Fuck You, if we aren't men we are something even cooler, DEVO!
I have written at length before about what I think are the three elements of punk:
* A commitment to a DIY ethic - Devo had/have this in spades * A belief that since exploitation is inevitable you should at least be a core beneficiary of your own exploitation - More about this in a second * An attitude that could be seen as anti-authority or anti-authoritarian - Devo was very subversive
What I am saying is that you can place Devo into whatever musical genre you want but they are also punk.
Devo is the original geek punk band.
Just think about the things they say on this album:
* the first track is "Uncontrollable Urge" - literally a meditation on what every young guy feels all the time during puberty and as they navigate masturbation and try to figure out how to be effectively attractive to women.
The difference, when most people talk about it (if they can talk about it all) they sure don't want to "scream and shout it."
* The second track is a cover of The Rolling Stones "Satisfaction." To my mind, this is one of the best covers ever produced. Why? Because it deconstructs the original and makes it something entirely new.
The Rolling Stones version is tongue and cheek, it is the worlds greatest ladies man trying to get over (wink wink nudge nudge) with a girl by acting like he is so sad he can't get any action.
The DEVO version flips it entirely around.
In the Devo version, the protagonist is geeky, paranoid, and almost proud in his failures. The DEVO version is someone who actually a failure with women but wears it as a badge of honor.
He is part of an army of DEVOTEES marching in military time to the drum-beat of his failures.
I can't explain to you how powerful this was to me at a time in my life when I was having a hard time trying to socialize how everything about me seemed different than all the successful popular types.
When I put on my odd clothing I walked a bit taller. When people made fun of me, I started to see it as something that could be good, or at least as something I didn't have to care that much about.
Deep down I was also really silly, still am, and there is lots of silliness on this album (who in 1978 wrote songs about Space Junk, Devo did, of course).
I can't tell you how much this album (and Devo) meant to me as a teenager. Somehow it really felt like some other people out there went through many of the same things I did.
And instead of performing them in some practiced smooth way, they performed them in the same herky jerky way that I always performed in my own life.
I might not have worn a flower pot on my head or dressed in a chemical protective suit, but I sure felt like I did.
There was also some darker stuff. Mongoloid is about hiding what you really are and fitting in.
For anyone familiar with issues around addiction you know this is pretty descriptive of the development of many addicts.
I certainly grew up thinking that my only chance at any social success was to hide my real personality.
"Mongoloid, I was a Mongoloid...I wore a hat so nobody knew."
Some people have interpreted this song as cruelty, but I have always felt they were describing their own feelings from when they were hiding behind socially appropriate masks.
Some of us felt like trolls others like Mongoloids.
I personally feel the famous cover art (a representation of the golfer Chi-Chi Rodriguez) was their approximation of what a socially acceptable mask might look like.
A softly smiling professional golfer.
And of course there is Jocko Homo.
"Pinheads all, are we not men?"
Both of these films are pretty consistent with embracing the outsider and freak. But what was different here was the suggestion of devolution.
Without going into too much detail, Devo presented the philosophy (perhaps satirically) that we were not evolving as much as devolving. Devolution became one of the guiding philosophies of Devo music.
One way to respond to being unpopular is to suggest that society and it's chief architects (the popular and successful) are heading in exactly the opposite direction of progress.
Again, it was hard for me to disagree with this anti-authoritarian notion of "progress."
The Placebo Effect
Another thing I always liked about Devo is that they had a political and marketing strategy.
There was this crazy point in the 80's where they were so popular they were appearing on teen sitcoms (I think it was a show called Square Pegs).
As I remember it, Devo could care less who marketed them, lunchboxes, action figures, bad sitcoms, whatever.
The philosophy was that, at the end of the day, how people got exposed to Devo didn't matter because they were still exposed to Devo.
Almost like they were a parasite who could care less what or who the delivery system was.
There was always an odd robotic quality to their notion of followers and fans during this period. There was almost a comic megalomania to their dreams of world domination (often depicted in their videos).
I kind of wonder what the world would have looked like if all those young people had grown up and remained Devotees.
I would love to talk to Mark Mothersbaugh about what the total vision was back then and how it devolved.
Way too often, Devo were derided for having an immature perspective, to my way of thinking they were/are radically open and self-aware.
I certainly was nowhere near as willing and able to put the feelings that they were putting out in front of the public back in 1978.
But I certainly was feeling those same things.
The most amazing thing to me is that they seemed to have so much fun and take so much joy in performing these feelings.
I still admire that to this day.
As a result, I guess in my own way, I am still Devo.
In other news, the album still holds up really well, you should check it out.
In another piece of news, considering the news of the last few weeks, David Bowie and Iggy Pop were instrumental in bringing Brian Eno to producing this album. Here is a great clip of Mark Mothersbaugh speaking on that (and other things Bowie):
Or Bill Mountain - represented on my Cool New Music page
Were you a Devo fan? How did it play out in your life? I would love to hear your opinion, leave a comment!