If you spend a few minutes talking with Gerald Casale you will start taking Devo very, very seriously.
And that’s the way it should be. Although Devo may be deeply associated with the user-friendly quirks and superficiality of the New Wave, they are also one of the most message-driven artists of the entire era, with a ferocity and sense of mission that has more to do with CRASS and Clash than Men at Work and the Cars. This was serious fun, and full of intent.
Start here, with the remarkable fact that Gerald Casale formed Devo (along with Bob Lewis, who left the band in 1977) as a direct response to what he saw on May 4th, 1970, when he witnessed the Ohio National Guard fire 67 rounds in 13 seconds on unarmed student protestors at Kent State University, where Casale and Lewis were students.
“Before that time,” says Casale, “I was a more simplistic, laissez-faire peace-and-love type hippie. I wasn’t a stupid hippy, but I believed there was a basic reality you could count on that our American government system was basically good, but with some bad apples. I assumed there were shared humanistic values. But I started realizing there was this giant illusion that all of us who had grown up in American middle-class bourgeois society believed in.”
Casale’s response was to start an art movement, modeled on European movements like Dada, which blended art, politics, social activism, humor and absurdity. Casale and Lewis wanted to use film, visual art, advertising, music, even clothing to underline the idea that the societal forward progress that seemingly went hand in hand with technological innovation was beginning to go backward. Yes, we could fly to the moon, talk wirelessly through the ether, and microwave our meals; but your government was still capable of lying about Cambodia and then shooting the unarmed teenagers who were protesting the lie.
“We were angry,” explains Gerald Casale, who has been one of Devo’s principal songwriters, architects, and vocalists for 46 years. “But it wasn’t the kind of anger that comes from Trump-ites, or the right, where they’re just resentful and hate-filled and anti-intellectual. We were angry because we were smart. On a daily basis, we were insulted by it all. Every day was a slap in the face to any person of intelligence, or any rational person or any humanistic person – but it was kindergarten compared to where we are now, the Orwellian world that is taking place, the Spuds bowing down to a con man who is screwing them. It’s just pure propaganda and doublethink. And you are seeing the same kind of tactics used here that you’ve seen in supposedly totalitarian nations that we once gloated over and felt we were superior to. And now we are just one of them. We are somewhere between China and a banana republic.”
With all that in mind, don’t we need Devo more than ever?
Gerald Casale: Sure. And if it was up to me, you’d have it.
What do you mean?
GC: Obviously, Devo was a very concentrated collaboration on every level. You can’t have Devo operating on four out of eight cylinders. Once Mark Mothersbaugh wasn’t interested in what Devo meant or being Devo, and he just decided on a commercial career of doing scoring – well, that’s apples and oranges to what Devo was. I directed tons of commercials — that’s more of a secondary creativity; you did not initiate this idea or this product, but now your talents are being sought to solve a problem, and they tell you what they want. And it’s the same thing in scoring, of course: “Can you make this sound like Danny Elfman?” You’re paid lots of money to solve problems by doing what’s being asked for. And that’s not Devo. That’s not any major artist who ever walked the earth. Every major artist creates something that people didn’t even know they wanted until they heard it. Then it happens, and you cannot imagine not having it. That’s what Devo did for people. And you can keep doing that, but it takes commitment and digging deep and risking a lot.
I think of Punk Rock as anything that takes a stand and takes a risk, with humor and originality and simplicity…ergo, I think of Devo as a punk rock band.
GC: We were truly punk. It wasn’t just a one-dimensional style. That’s what’s happened since the ‘70s. Again, the dumbing down of society: Everyone has to sound like the Sex Pistols or a variation on that because punk got reduced to a style. Obviously the deeper meaning of punk has to do with the working class or a disenfranchised group of people with an axe to grind or a healthy disregard for illegitimate authority and the kind of indignities that are being foisted on them, and pushing back and raging out creatively via music — and that took on a lot of stylistic variation, not just something that sounded like the Sex Pistols.
Devo checks a lot of those boxes, yet perhaps more than any other band, you have become synonymous with ‘New Wave’ music; Devo has almost become a generic word for ‘New Wave’ music.
GC: -huh. That’s because of the synthesizers. New Wave from the beginning was style. From the beginning, it was a trivialization of what was going on. We realized early on that we couldn’t argue about these terms that were being foisted on us because to do so would be useless. It didn’t do any good to argue about terminology. Really, what we were was Devo.
It seems like there was a very 360-degree concept to Devo in the earlier days. That’s very hard to pull off.
GC: From the very beginning, Devo was a complete idea, on purpose, consciously, all articulated, all thought out. That started with Bob Lewis and I, with all these discussions with these professors like Eric Mottram and visiting poets like Ed Dorn. De-evolution started as this philosophical conceit, really dark, really humorous, satirical on purpose, and then I started making Devo Art – it started as an art movement. And then I started thinking, What would Devo music sound like? And we talked about it and talked about it, there were some early attempts where my blues-driven music was still at the core of the music, so it was still derivative. Then I tried some collaborations with Bob, but he was a very folk-oriented guy and didn’t really have rock’n’roll rhythms in him, but was super smart. And then I met Mark. Bob and I seeded him with all this stuff. I had loved the transgressive art and decals Mark had been making, and he loved my imagery, though we didn’t respect what each other was doing musically: he was in some prog rock band called Flossie Bobbit doing mostly covers and terrible prog rock, and I was in 15-60-75 playing the blues. We decided, after getting together and experimenting half a dozen times at his studio space in Akron, that what we would jettison all that stuff, and if it sounded like anything that had come before it, we would stop each other right there. We made up these self-limiting rules, like artists do: Okay, you can’t have any chord changes unless you can explain why you’re gonna change, you’re not going to change just because you’ve played eight bars and it feels like it’s time to change; and nobody is going to play the same part at the same time, so every part has to be interlocked polyrhythmically; and we’re not going to talk about losin’ your girl or getting laid, or any dumb things like that. And my good friend Chuck Statler and I, we were both film buffs and we would go see the art movies and the midnight movies together, and he had a camera, so we decided, well, Devo is a visual art movement, so Devo will make films; and this is well before there were any such things as music videos.
We thought we were going to be the Three Stooges of music: we were going to make film shorts, and we were going to put them out on this new format called LaserDisc that we were reading about. We weren’t even going to tour, because we believed – and this shows you how naïve we were – that all this stuff about holograms was true, so we were going to do one concert from Akron, and beam it to all these cities (laughs hard). That was the idea! And we would sell laser discs. This is how it started, with big ideas, big visions, and this is how these characters developed, because we kept imagining these films we were going to make, we would have these characters running through these episodic adventures – General Boy, and Boogie Boy, and the Kalimba Brothers, and Rod Rooter the evil record company guy, that’s how they all got created – I would sit around and conjure these things up and write them down.
You worked with Neil Young before you were actually even signed, is that correct?
GC: You’re right. It was our summer of independent, do-it-yourself gigging out here in Los Angeles that exposed us to a whole new stratum of people, in the music business and art and dance. I met Toni Basil and we immediately bonded, and Toni and her boyfriend – the actor Dean Stockwell – gave Neil Young a cassette of Devo, and a single, and a VHS video copy of our first film. We met him in the fall of 1977. That’s when he decided we had to be in his movie that he was just starting to hatch the plan for, Human Highway, which morphed many, many times over, so we didn’t actually shoot any scenes for that movie until early 1978. Neil Young, who would have guessed? My idea of Neil Young was some granola hippie guy. Meeting him was an eye-opener. He’s punk, by the way.
Would it be fair to say that you influenced him?
GC: At some point we did, and he would say so. For five minutes we did. We gave him a ‘Rust Never Sleeps’ t-shirt. Mark and I had our little stand, back in Akron, a little shop in the Quaker Square Shopping Mall – a shopping Mall and a hotel created out of old grain elevators – and we had a shop there where we did silk screening and rubber stamps and decals, and we did an image based on Rust-Oleum! So we gave it to him and he used it as a title. Rust Never Sleeps. And Trans – he said we made him want to do that album.
Speaking of odd collaborations – is it true that in 1978 Richard Branson, then head of Virgin Record, tried to enlist Devo as Johnny Rotten’s band after the Sex Pistols split up?
GC: Yes. That happened. For real. I had no interest in that, but Branson lured Mark Mothersbaugh and my brother Bob down to Jamaica in March of ‘78. Earlier in ‘78 we had been in San Francisco to play a gig at the Mabuhay Gardens and meet with Neil Young about his movie. So the Sex Pistols are playing in San Francisco at the Winterland Ballroom, and we get into the concert and we watch what turns out to be the Sex Pistols breaking up, that very night. Afterwards, we went over to the Miyako Hotel and that’s when Sid Vicious walked through a plate glass window and had to go to the hospital. So, we were sleeping on the floor of a guy’s apartment that night. His name was Richard Trance, who was active in the Mabuhay Gardens punk scene, and for some reason the two strains came together when at about 3:30 in the morning they bring Sid Vicious into the house, and he proceeds to step on my brother’s head. He’s all bandaged up, Sid is, and my brother wakes up out of a dead sleep and just reacts, he doesn’t know what’s going on, he grabs whoever or whatever is stepping on him and twists his foot – so now Sid Vicious has a sprained ankle. After that we leave and go back to Ohio.
We pull up stakes because we are going to Germany in February to record our debut album with Brian Eno producing and the famous German engineer, Conny Plank, at his studio outside of Cologne. We complete the record in three weeks and stop in London on the way back to the USA, because Dave Robinson of Stiff Records talks us into playing three shows there. Our self-produced single, “Satisfaction,” that he is distributing in England, is burning up the record charts there. Our final gig of the three shows is at the Roundhouse in London. Richard Branson shows up and puts the full-court press on for Devo to sign to Virgin. I explain that we have a very good ‘Right of First Refusal’ worldwide deal with Warner Brothers Records, but he is relentless. He beats his chest and maintains that the Warners deal is meaningless, offering us more and more money to kill that agreement. I explain that Warners will sue him and sue us and he doesn’t care, and neither does half of the band. I lose my argument and we sign with Virgin, going home to Ohio where there happens to be no home for myself, my brother Bob, and Alan – we had given our places up when we went to Germany.
Well, Warners sues us and injuncts the record, as promised. We are in lawyer hell and while floating in limbo we are crashing in apartments, due to the good graces of our Akron base of friends. Then there’s a huge snowstorm, a huge blizzard in Ohio in March. That’s when Richard Branson invites Devo down to Jamaica, because he’s got this ‘big plan’ for Devo. I’m already pissed at Richard Branson, I don’t want to go, I don’t want anything to do with it, but Mark Mothersbaugh and my brother Bob go, because, in my brother’s case, he’s sleeping in a room where snow’s coming in through the window and he’s freezing and he wants to go to Jamaica to get the hell out of the blizzard. And they go down there, and it was an ambush. Richard got Mark and Bob really high on some primo Jamaican weed. He had flown in Johnny Rotten, and he had Melody Maker and New Musical Express there in the same hotel with Mark and Bob, and he planned to announce that Johnny Rotten was the new lead singer of Devo. This is where Mark, finally, exercises some judgment. Even in his stoned state, he can’t believe what’s going on and he thinks Richard is making a joke, and he’s laughing. Then Richard explained that it was no joke at all, and Mark suddenly has the worst feeling in the world, because he’s super high and now it’s a nightmare. He has to bum Richard out and say no, and bum Johnny Rotten out, and New Musical Express and Melody Maker had no story, and Richard was left with egg on his face. So Mark chose to keep us the way we were. A Very smart decision.
Devo still plays gigs occasionally. Considering all this conceptual weight, is it odd working as a legacy band, occasionally re-assembling for gigs?
GC: Not for me. I look at it more like artworks, right? Why would an artist suddenly be embarrassed to show some of his best paintings, just because they were thirty years old? That’s what we’re doing, as far as I’m concerned. The stuff is valid. Yes, we do need Devo more than ever, now that we are living in this completely doublethink Orwellian reality that is diabolical, and as we watch the foundations of what is left of Democratic society being undermined and sabotaged. This is what we talked about, it’s what we were railing against, it’s what we were warning about. We may have won the cultural war, but we really lost in every other objective, over the long run. W, and Ken Starr, and Cheney, the Koch Brothers – I’m their generation – and those were the goons and the assholes that we were making fun of, thinking that this could never prevail. And guess what? We were wrong. They won.
It’s horrific. It’s not funny anymore. This is not what we wanted. The whole idea of de-evolution spawning Devo, the band, was a kind of an artistic stance and a warning that was born of anger and disillusionment and horror. And now it’s real. And the final touches were able to come about due to social media. We could never have predicted the impact of the Internet and social media. ‘Cos now we are all the way back to Plato, and the allegory of the cave – now we are watching everybody, no matter how nuts, how irrational, how crazed or sociopathic, they have a voice.
Finally — so that we don’t end on such a down note – what’s your favorite placement in a movie or TV show for a Devo song?
GC: When Bob Lewis and I created Devo, we said Devo was the juxtaposition of the high and the low. It was the combination of the most profound and pretentious movements of the 20th Century in philosophy and art and music and architecture, mixed with a conscious dive into the junk of pop culture and TV evangelists and advertising. So with that in mind, I would have to say the two most important uses for me, well, one is sublimely perverted: It’s the Swiffer commercial that uses “Whip It.” I watch that and think that if I had proposed that as a video director, they would have stopped me and said, no, you can’t do this. And the other one, of course, is Martin Scorsese using “Satisfaction” in Casino.
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