Devo were notoriously strange creatures, figureheads atop the new wave revolution. Along with a few other similar freak conglomerates, they defined what it means to be a “cult” band. And a “nerd” band. These gentlemen began life as a “concept” band, produced a few great energetic guitar-based albums while peddling a creepy “devolved humanoid” schtick, and then very quickly devolved in reality into a terrible faceless synth pop group. Any self-respecting rock and roll fan needs to hear the debut at least once, and if you like your new wave quirky and fractured and scary and Eno-y, these guys are probably already in your Minidisc player. If they’re not in there, get ’em in there.
Hardcore Devo: Volume 1
Hardcore Devo: Volume 2
Q: Are We Not Men? A: We Are Devo!*
Duty Now For The Future
Freedom Of Choice
Oh, No! It’s Devo
Smooth Noodle Maps
Something For Everybody
HARDCORE DEVO: VOLUME 1 (DEMOS FROM 1974-1977)
The first of a two volume collection of early self-recorded demos. Some great (if raw) stuff on here that isn’t available elsewhere – the punchy “I’m a Potato” and Residents-like ‘Auto Modown” both could have made the cut for the debut. The band were clearly riding the The Residents wave here, if such a thing ever exist, and when you consider what they eventually turned into, it’s amazing just how WEIRD they were at the beginning. This is twisted underground outsider music, essentially, and good listening for fans, if not particularly useful for Devo tourists.
HARDCORE DEVO: VOLUME 2 (DEMOS FROM 1974-1977)
More early demos – this time we get 21 of ’em and the collection runs well over an hour. This is the better of the 2 packages, and shows off the band’s range in the weirdo-pop department. If you like the Eno album, go to this one before any of the later records – it’s raw and unfinished stuff, but quite a lot of fun and stuffed with punky energy!
Q: ARE WE NOT MEN? A: WE ARE DEVO! (1978)
New Wave revelation tells us that this is far and away the best Devo album, and New Wave revelation is correct. I would go one step further and say that this is the only album you ever need to hear from Devo, and the only real classic in their catalog. There are multiple elements separating this from the rest of the pack. Firstly, it’s produced by Brian Eno and sounds like it too – this isn’t particularly far removed from early Roxy Music or Eno’s solo albums, and it has the same weird squiggly glammy new wave stew. Secondly, it is the most rock and roll Devo release by a million miles, actually sounding at times like a punk rock album. Depending on your taste, that may or may not sound appealing – but I generally choose organic new wave guitar rock over 80s synth pop. Thirdly, outside of a few scattered tracks on later releases, it has all the best Devo anthems (“Monogloid,” “Jocko Homo,” “Uncontrollable Urge”). This is when the band’s concept and material were working together, and they were freaking people out and innovating and coming off like real Ohio aliens. Yes there is a novelty element at play here, but it’s much more of a “dark novelty” situation, and really more quirk-pop and art-punk than “novelty,” which is harder to say about some of the later synth-pop singles. It’s a twisted and wild record, and what it lacks for in melody and professionalism, it more than makes up for with spastic energy and warped atmospherics. Though it might take a little effort to get into it – this is not a friendly album, and the vocals are pure hicopp-y New Wave – it’s hard to deny how influential and consistently cool this one is. A classic of the era.
DUTY NOW FOR THE FUTURE (1979)
Switching from Eno to another great but very different kind of producer – Ken Scott, engineer and sometimes producer of half the great 70s pop records. Scott lends the band a much cleaner and thicker sound, and as always his drums sound amazing. The grooves here hit harder than previously, and the overall sound is more consistent and beefy. That being said: the material here is just not quite as good as on the debut, and the punk rock energy is dying down in favor of synth experiments. It’s hard not to hear these songs as leftovers. And yet – it’s still a guitar rock album! There are lots of fun wacky riffs, and the band’s creativity is still in a very strong progressive place. In general this a less accessible and more avant-garde record than the debut, and takes even longer to appreciate than that album. It’s more fractured and almost seems unfinished at times. But every track on here does eventually reveal exciting qualities – these guys were really brilliant at this point, and seemingly in total command of their vision. The place to go after the debut, for sure, and the last time Devo would sound like a real rock band.
FREEDOM OF CHOICE (1980)
This is the album from which the general public’s perception of Devo derives. THe band is wearing the upside down flower pots on the cover. Three songs into the record can be hear the immortal classic “Whip It,” the video of which song was an early contributor to the eventual domination of MTV. It’s by far the band’s most famous anthem. This is also the album where Devo transformed themselves from avant art punks working with the likes of Eno into novelty synth poppers soon to go into the cut out bins. Never again would the boys exhibit the cool punky guitar-driven oddities of their early work – from now on everything will be lathered in nerdy synths and booming 80s drums. Songs will grow increasingly more formulaic and flimsy and dance oriented, and in a very short amount of time the band would grow into a total joke. Not yet though! If you want the best Devo, get the early stuff. If you want the best NOVELTY SYNTH POP Devo, this is the only record you need. The guitars aren’t totally drowned out yet, and the hooks are mostly happenin’. The drumming sounds energetic and alive, and the band appears to be discovering new pastures, lending the album a freshness missing from every other subsequent synthy Devo release. The two big singles – “Girl U Want” and the aforementioned “Whip it” – could not be catchier, and in their quirky ways, they also thankfully manage to rock! At 32 minutes, the album flies by without any noticeable filler – it’s a brisk and fun little new wave pop album. And I’m going to mention it again because it warrants repetition when discussing this albu: “Whip It” is something to behold – a truly bizarre and truly exciting oddity in the pop hit canon.
NEW TRADITIONALISTS (1981)
Any sparks of warped genius left in the band after “Whip It” get smoothed out and washed away on this crucial followup to their breakout. This is the last time Devo will sound remotely relevant or innovative, but the guitars are already nearly gone and we’re moving towards faceless techno-sludge at a rapid pace. This is routinely pegged as the first useless Devo record, and that assessment isn’t far off the mark – though there are still some good singles on here and as a whole the album is entertaining enough to raise hopes that the band would turn around with their next platter. “Beautiful World,” for all its dated sounds, is nonetheless a haunting synth pop single, smartly saving it’s scary racist/fascist/existential implications for the very last moments (“It’s a beautiful world…for you….for you…BUT NOT FOR ME!”) “Love Without Anger” has one of the better melodies in the catalog, and “Race of Doom” is just overblown silliness done well. Many of these tracks slip by me like shit through a goose, but nothing is particularly insulting or garish. Rock fans need not really bother with this release at all – it has very little in common with early punk Devo, and that tight nervous computer-rock energy is dissipating into something more mid-tempo and generic. Clearly success was not going to work in this band’s artistic favor – they are the Blue Oyster cult of New Wave!
OH, NO! IT’S DEVO (1982)
GREAT title for this album!! What happened to these guys? Seriously – this is a total embarrassment of a record. I sincerely hope that drugs were involved – that would at least let their artistry off the hook. Everything about this one screams “stupid novelty record for nerds who liked ‘Whip It’ and think we’re just a dumb comedy nerd band.” The cover shows the band with potatoes for bodies, and the opening and only half-way decent track “Time Out For Fun” begins with a nerdy robotic kids’ music voice speaking things like ‘Hello. This is De-Vo.” The single “Peek-A-Boo” almost excites me with its weirdness, and the creepy novelty track “Speed Racer” sounds exactly like one of the terrible but hilarious amateur parodies on the sketch comedy show “Tim and Eric Awesome Show Great Job.” Other than the three songs I just named, I wouldn’t be able to tell you a single thing about any of these other tracks. This record is boring and lacks hooks – the arrangements sound like cottage cheese – and the nerd-factor is amped up to 11. This is where Devo’s muse flies away into the computerized sunset, never to return – and it’s a shame!
Everybody says that this album is the band’s big fat jump the shark moment. But ultimately this is just another weak record in a continuing line of weak records. These guys started slipping right after their first record, and it’s been a downhill slide ever since. So yeah – this is worse than the previous one. But not THAT much worse! They’re both useless synth pop albums that probably won’t appeal to anyone interested in rock and roll and guitars and hooks. At this point these kids sound nothing like they did during their avant-punk Eno days. They sound like a faceless synth pop band. This album is neither funny nor catchy, and the arrangements are loud aggressive fake-sounding electronic overblown synth pop icings on already failed cakes. The synth sounds are dated and garish – the drums are exactly what you’d expect from a bad mid-80s pop album. The vocals aren’t even distinct anymore. Who were these guys trying to appeal to at this point? They obviously aren’t even remotely sexy, so Duran Duran fans won’t buy it. Their music sounds like nerd crap for nerds who listen to crap, but nerds are usually a bit too smart to go for albums without any real attempts at wit or humor. This is aggressively pointless and dull. I have heard worse albums – but perhaps no “classic” band slipped from interesting to unbelievably uninteresting as quickly as Devo. (NOTE: If the whole thing was meant to play into their “Devolution” concept, with each album getting progressively worse to represent the sorry state of humanity, then….they are brilliant! But based on interviews by band members who blame it all on cocaine….I don’t believe the hype).
TOTAL DEVO (1988)
The boys took a few years off, got themselves a new drummer, and reunited for this bad album. They sound not an inch re-invigorated. Many fans consider this their all time worst, though I hear it as a very minor improvement upon the past record. What does this thing sound like, then? A way past-their-prime Devo album in 1988? It sounds like “Shout,” with longer songs and more guitar. It has the same ugly synths and a-melodic non-songs that fly by like sonic wallpaper. Very little sticks out of the 45-minute overblown synth mush. I do, however, count one interesting song: “Happy Guy,” which sports a uniquely disturbingly chorus of sorts. I also count one ATROCIOUS piece of shit: “Sexi Luv,” which doesn’t sound like Prince, implication of the title aside. It’s so bad you have to hear it to believe it. Again, I wonder with these freaks: “Were they joking?” Moments on here perks my ears up, but mostly I’m left pondering my purpose in the universe as I listen to this crap. There’s nothing on this album approaching good taste or true pop magic. There’s nothing worth preserving, even in the context of Devo. It’s a bunch of boring dancey synth-laden garbage seemingly tailor made for the cut-out bins. Avoid.
SMOOTH NOODLE MAPS (1990)
This one starts off on the right foot! Right out of the gate, it seems like it’ll be the best album since “Oh No!” Opener “Stuck in a Loop” has a catchy chorus cutting through the dated synth mush, and “Post Post-Modern Man” is the most classic poppy sounding song in the Devo catalog. It sounds like XTC (though not NEARLY as good). BUT…next up come the abysmal “When We Do It” and “Spin The Wheel,” and we’re right back in tuneless pounding techno-crud territory. After those losers, we get a corny over-processed cover of Grateful Dead’s “Morning Dew,” which with its mock keyboard fills and dumb Nintendo synth bass is just about as bad as pop music gets. Later on there’s a grotesquely terrible “song” called “The Big Picture,” one of the more annoying recordings on planet Earth. Luckily, there are also a few fun and bizarre moments, making this the best of the terrible Devo albums. Faint praise for bad record-making – better than these guys deserve at this point, really. What a terrible latter career for a once interesting band.
SOMETHING FOR EVERYBODY (2010)
20 years later the band returned for a reunion album on Warner Brothers. By being merely mediocre and employing some heavy guitars, this is their best work since “New Traditionalists.” The lead-off single “Don’t Shoot (I’m A Man)” really does remind me of early Devo, and it’s the best track to come out of the band since the early 80s. The overall sound here is thick and punchy and modern, the tempos spastic and the tones aggressive. Clearly this was meant to re-capture at least a BIT of the old rock energy, though in general this sounds more like one of their mid-80s synth pop shitfests than the Eno/Ken Scott records. But someone grew a bit of taste or helped steer the band into slightly less annoying pastures – plus the technology for synth music has greatly improved – so I don’t think this will date quite as badly as the 80s records. This isn’t essential stuff, but if you’re curious to hear some late-period post-peak Devo, this might be your best bet!