College Countdown, The First CMJ Album Chart, 9


9. Devo, Q: Are We Not Men? A: We Are Devo!

For any up-and-coming band, it’s useful to have some advocates who have already established themselves in the cutthroat music biz. Circa 1978, a band couldn’t do much better than David Bowie, Iggy Pop, and Brian Eno. Devo, the brilliantly bizarre art rock outfit from Ohio, had already released a bit of music by the late nineteen-seventies, including a trio of singles that were collected on an EP from the revolutionary British label Stiff Records. The EP, appropriately enough, took the title from the third of those singles: “Be Stiff.” But they were officially without a label when Bowie and Pop got their hands on and ears around one of Devo’s demo tape. The interest that was piqued evolved into full-fledged passion when Bowie saw the band play in New York City, in 1977. “This,” Bowie asserted, “is the band of the future.” At the same time, Bowie announced he was planning to produce Devo’s debut full-length release, a plan that ran into complications because Bowie had his own robust career to attend to. Producing duties fell instead to Eno, with Bowie stopping by to pitch in occasionally.

The resulting album, Q: Are We Not Men? A: We Are Devo! certainly does sound like a dispatch from the future. It’s not accurate to say that Devo’s music sounded like nothing else–the most obvious parallel act is Kraftwerk, already a half-dozen albums deep into their career by this point–but it’s not just originality that makes an album striking. Are We Not Men is frighteningly alive with anxiety, conveying the regressive humanity in the face of modern progress that is the band’s mission statement (as exemplified by the de-evolution concept that gives the band their name). The blistering opener “Uncontrollable Urge” makes fellow expresser of urban (and urbane) agitation David Byrne sound, in comparison, like he offers his performances from the comfort of a hammock. The music is synth-driven, but it’s got a helluva lot more punk to it than disco.

The hint of punk comes through in Devo’s straight-on run at the conventions and already atrophying venerated history of rock ‘n’ roll. There’s, of course, the band’s cover of the Rolling Stones’ most famous song, “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction,” which repurposes the cry of disaffected youth with a robotic rendering, stripping it of the angst-ridden romance and exposing the privileged brattiness at its core. “Come Back Jonee” similarly runs straight at Chuck Berry’s foundational “Johnny B. Goode,” deconstructing the quasi-mysticism of the country boy with a beat-up old guitar simply by presenting a similar character with repetitive, emotion-free lyrics. If rock ‘n’ roll and even all of society were rushing headlong towards a brick wall, Devo was ready to help press down the gas pedal and bring about the crash.

The album is filled with songs that are equal parts engaging and fascinating, led by the fierce call and response of “Jocko Homo,” the surprisingly tuneful “Space Junk”, and “Too Much Paranoias,” with its recurring rhythm motif that sounds like its trying to tear itself apart. It may have represented the future of music–or at least one possible future–but it would still be a couple years before a majority of listeners were ready to catch up to it. Devo wouldn’t have a real hit until 1980, when “Whip It,” the second single from their album Freedom of Choice, made it into the Billboard Top 20. It was their only foray into the Top 40, although they came very close on one other occasion. Then again, number of hits is hardly the best measure of the band’s influence. As Bowie knew, Devo held the keys to the future, some of them anyway. There are any number of bands currently toiling over electronic equipment, pushing the boundaries of what’s acceptable for a pop song, that owe some debt to them.

An Introduction
–26: Darkness on the Edge of Town
–25: Give Thankx
–24: Caravan to Midnight
–23: Next of Kihn
–22: 52nd Street
–21: Crafty Hands
–20: Luxury You Can Afford
–19: Some Girls
–18: Mr. Gone
–17: Stage
–16: Pieces of Eight
–15: Bloody Tourists
–14: Along the Red Ledge
–13: The Bride Stripped Bare
–12: On the Edge
–11: Parallel Lines
–10: More Songs About Buildings and Food

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