Devo

Pioneers Who Got Scalped: The Anthology (Rhino)

The Devo Zeitgeist is in full effect:

Sunday, March 26, 2000, approx. 5 p.m. Home. Devo's Total Devo mysteriously spills out of the record collection and falls to the floor. Despite its dated '80s production, it almost rocks, though, too, it kind of sucks. Incident results in pulling entire early Devo oeuvre -- Q: Are We Not Men?, Freedom of Choice, Duty Now for the Future and New Traditionalists -- and skimming through.

Devo: If rock & roll was created as an emotional release, Devo strapped it in a straitjacket, where it squirmed on the floor.
photo courtesy of Warner Bros. Records
Devo: If rock & roll was created as an emotional release, Devo strapped it in a straitjacket, where it squirmed on the floor.

Thursday, March 30, 2000, approx. 11 p.m. The Firehouse. Textured drone rockers Yo La Tengo begin their final encore with a cover of Devo's "Gates of Steel."

Tuesday, April 10, 2000, approx. 10 p.m. CBGB Bar on South Grand Boulevard. Steaming out of the speakers during an unseasonably warm spring evening is "Beautiful World," Devo's heavenly affirmation/negation set to guitars and synthesizers.

Thursday, April 27, 2000, approx. 9:40 p.m. KDHX (88.1 FM), Sovereign Glory radio show. Caller on the request line: "Yeah, do you have any Devo you could play? I've got them stuck in my head -- 'Uncontrollable Urge' -- and I don't have the records."

Sunday, May 7, 2000, 9:42:31 p.m. E-mail message: "I am very pleased to tell you that this Monday, 8 May 2000, at Noon Pacific Daylight Savings Time [1900 UTC], Rhino Handmade will begin taking orders for our 2-CD compilation of Devo rarities entitled Recombo DNA."

Tuesday, May 17, 2000, 10 a.m. Rhino releases Pioneers Who Got Scalped: The Devo Anthology.

Perhaps "the future" of Duty Now for the Future has arrived, and all the hard work the band did 25 years ago is bearing its subliminal fruit right now. Because something is obviously up. The spuds have sprouted, and here they come, in the form of said Pioneers Who Got Scalped, a double-disc anthology of new-wave and cheese punk from Akron, Ohio's finest.

You're forgiven for rolling your eyes at Devo if all you know of them is "Whip It," their campy new-wave hit from 1980, one of the great odes to masturbation and one of the first-ever MTV-driven hits. Although weird and wonderful -- guitars battle with synthesizers for supremacy while lead singer Mark Mothersbaugh belts operatically, "Before the cream sits out too long, you must whip it!" -- it's not a song that suggests greatness. It's kinda funny, kinda dumb and kinda dated. But if you dig deeper, a pattern emerges -- one of experimentation and cheeseball curiosity that stretches back to their formation in the early '70s, and although their experimentation failed as often as it succeeded, it nonetheless deserves second examination. (Nirvana covered "Turnaround"; Soundgarden, among many others, covered "Girl U Want.")

On Scalped, we see their shtick, and although some of it shines, there are a load of warts. But it's not supposed to be pretty; if it were, Mothersbaugh would have stuffed a potato in his mouth and got someone else to do the singing. Two-and-a-half hours of his new-wave-operatic voice is bad for your ears, and as the time wore on, his vocal confidence propelled its way to the front of each mix (mistake No. 1) and it became more overdramatic (mistake No. 2). The early music, though, is priceless, as is some of the later stuff.

Devo's philosophy -- that man is not evolving but devolving -- dictated their fashion "sense" and personality as bland automatons, and their rigid beats and quasi-emotionless delivery gave it a foundation. If rock & roll was created as an emotional release, Devo strapped it in a straitjacket, where it squirmed on the floor. Where other bands of the time were devoting much energy to one or the other, Devo gave equal respect to synthesizers and guitars (and equal lyrical time to both Zippy the Pinhead and Leni Riefenstahl).

Any Devo freak will note some glaring omissions. Nothing from the E-Z Listening Disc; no "Penetration in the Center Fold" (which Pussy Galore covered years later). Some of the great Devo decons -- they were brilliant at picking apart rock and taping it back together, a talent most obvious on their great cover of the Stones' "Satisfaction -- are gone, and we're left with way too many novelties. But when Devo was great, they were memorable, smart and engaging. Pioneers Who Got Scalped illustrates this, but it illustrates the limitations of their aesthetic, too.

 
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