By Martin Popoff
CONSUMING DEVO’S MUSIC as a kid in the ’70s was a creepy and, yet, in retrospect, mind-expanding experience. My buddies and I were into metal and the heaviest of punk, but this took a leap and a rearrangement of the thought process. To us, Devo sounded like music made by the hospital staff on quiet night shifts. The cult act hatched a debut that went gold, but then the second record faltered. Flash forward to 1981 and the band’s fortunes had improved. “Whip It” was a novelty hit from the band’s third record, “Freedom Of Choice,” and I found myself taking time out of my first-year university studies to trek across Vancouver to see the flowerpot men in the Pacific Coliseum (half-size concert bowl format, mind you), as the band worked the record toward platinum status.
And now, we chop up the very concept of time, as 33 years later, Goldmine talks to Devo bassist Gerald Casale about the band’s new album — which was recorded 37 years ago. It was a weird gig — although perhaps not as surreal as the band’s appearance as itself on the short-lived 1982-83 TV series “Square Pegs,” where Devo played the bat mitzvah of the overly peppy preppy Muffy Tepperman.
Devo celebrated Futurismo’s release of “Miracle Witness Hour” on yummy heavyweight 180-gram colored vinyl (with free download) and on die-cut Digipak CD format (see www.futurismoinc.com for more information).
GOLDMINE: Could you tell us about the gig recorded for “Miracle Witness Hour?” Set the scene for us.
GERALD CASALE: Well, let me just say that we played the Eagle Street Saloon, three times, OK? (laughs) And I think it was over the course of about a two-month period. I believe with the set list that we’re looking at, that it must’ve been the last time we played the Eagle Street Saloon before we headed off to New York to play Max’s Kan sas City for the first time. So I think it was late May 1977 that this particular concert took place. I thought one of our guys was recording it, but never thought about it again.
GM: What was your mission at this point, in 1977? What kind of band were you trying to be?
GC: Well, I think we were actually becoming, for the first time, who we really ended up being, because we had our real lineup for over a year at that point – the five people that became known to the world as Devo. We got very serious about writing and practicing every day. We were living in a big house in Akron that Bob Mothersbaugh and I rented, and we rented it because it had a huge basement. (laughs) And we were able to set up down there and we had everybody show up there every night to write and play. And we were really honing our Devo skills, getting better at performing, and it was really gelling – the songs and started to reach critical mass. They had force behind them and we were able to play them right. I had added a lot of whacked-out Devo-esque choreography that we were starting to introduce into the act.
The Eagle Street Saloon was just one of those improbable opportunities. Like the last place we would ever consider really playing was offered to us to play there, and we would play, basically, anywhere we were offered, just for the experience, just for the performance aspect. And that was a frightening place, of course, as many people have pointed out. A porthole had opened up where some alternative guy was able to book bands there on certain nights, so the biker bar would clear out, because they hated any of that ugly new wave punk stuff that was starting to rear its head. And there would be a lot of trepidation, even in the crossover of the clientele, where the demographic would change. And we ended up playing to about 40 people that night – you know, people that came up from Akron, and Cleveland scenesters who knew Pere Ubu and bands like that. You could see what we were trying to present to people, and it wasn’t anything like anybody had seen or heard, basically. Visually, lyric-wise, certainly, the jagged type of music with the strange changes. Repetitive kind of cadences of choruses that were almost like chants (laughs). Chants! So this was a very critical turning point for Devo.
GM: Was punk dead to you already? I mean, why were you not like the Dead Boys?
GC: Well, we were all, first of all, pretty high IQ people. I had completed six years of college, and Mark had gone through Kent State cherry-picking art classes. My brother Bob had completed radiology school. Alan Myers had spent a couple years at college himself. We weren’t coming off as just rebellious nihilists. We thought that was obsolete, just like the printed material that I used to send out said. You know, that rebellion was obsolete and corporate society was all a sham and it was just a marketing tool. Nobody could really be rebellious. And the most you could hope for as an artist was that someone else cared enough to co-opt you (laughs). An artist needs an audience. As soon as you have an audience, you’re part of the system. So rebellion is just a marketing ploy. And we didn’t want to bother with that. In a way, if you really want to think about it, we were, in substance, far more rebellious than any band like the Dead Boys could ever be. Because there was a sameness to that stuff, and tradition. Punk had so many rules about what it was to be punk and how you had to look and sound and act. And Devo was absolutely anti-rule book. We were rewriting the rules, and our stuff was dangerous to any rule book.
GM: What was the stage presentation like around this “Miracle Witness Hour” period?
GC: This is when I found the yellow suits and made some alterations. And in a Goodwill, I found some cinch belts from the ’50s that women used to wear around their sack dresses. And that really defined the waistline, and we had nice trim waists then. So basically, we were cinching our yellow suits at the waist, and then Mark and I would use, at that time, big Helvetica, Letraset letters and rub them on the suit by hand. This was the early period, the birth of the Devo the world would see. We’d probably worn the yellow suits three times, four times at this point. And we found how hard it was to perform in them.
GM: Did you have any other stage props around you that you were using already?
GC: Not really. I don’t remember any props. We did have some female fans that were girlfriends of some friends of the band that made almost like cheerleader letter cards, like the guys use in football stadiums. And during “Jocko Homo,” they would get up and dance with the Devo letters. Other than that, we were still using stocking masks and bubble glasses on “Jocko Homo,” and we used that as an excuse to rip off our yellow suits. We needed to get out of them because we were so hot, sweating two or three pounds off every night, that at that point in the set we wanted to get them off. And we thought, “OK, we’re gonna take them off, what do we see underneath?” I looked for long socks, and we decided on gym shorts and the classic Devo tee that was created around this time, the black tee with the white kind of dancing Devo letters that were cocked left and right on the front of the shirt. So it made the rest of the concert more comfortable (laughs).
GM: The biggest anthems on this live album would be “Mongoloid” and “Jocko Homo.” What are the personalities of those two songs? What did those songs say to you, and how did they come together?
GC: Well, you know, all the kind of philosophical tenets for devolution had been around quite some time. Those started in Kent in 1972, with myself and my friend Bob Lewis. And we were seeding that idea around, and all the professors we had would, of course, have to hear about it. We’d chew their ears off with all these ersatz theories. It was half serious and half college smart-ass joke. And when I met Mark, we kind of seeded him with all these things, and he was just right there. It was like, “Oh yeah, totally makes sense, ha ha ha.” Mark and I both had this professor at different times, in the art department, Ian Short, and Mark was taking a class from him when I was in graduate school. He gave Mark this pamphlet that he found, thinking we would be really interested in this. And it was a quack religious pamphlet called “Jocko-Homo, Heavenbound.” And on the cover, there’s a stairway to “Heaven.” But it’s really man being sent to hell, because at the top is a devil welcoming the way. And the steps are filled with words like, you know, alcoholism, adultery and I think devolution is in there somewhere.Which was strange, because our first encounter with the word devolution was a Wonder Woman book a couple years before that. My friend Bob Lewis’ girlfriend, Bobbie Watson, collected these comic books, and one night she showed us a Wonder Woman, about this professor that had made a machine. One end was evolution, where it could take into the future, and one end was devolution – you pull the lever and it would devolve you back into an ape, right? And this fit in with all our theories about society devolving.
Of course, we were also reading serious stuff. Besides watching TV creatures and terrible commercials and bad sitcoms and laughing at them, we were reading Noam Chomsky and Thomas Pynchon and the French situationalist guy that was starting post modernism, Michael Foucault. So this fit into our attitudes about where society was going and the disintegration of culture. In general, a breakdown of a rational society moving forward in some way being called progress. So the templates fit right into that – you basically have the lyrics of “Jocko Homo” in that pamphlet. So “Jocko-Homo,” the pamphlet, became an inspiration for “Jocko Homo,” the song.
And Mark, of course, was coming out of his progressive music background. So the riff for “Jocko Homo” that has that 7/4 timing in it, was Mark still liking to do time tricks. But then it ends up in a primitive four-on-the-floor pounding chant. And that was the idea – to even devolve the song. As we practiced that and practiced that, then it became our name-check song. It became our manifesto, “Jocko Homo.” It explained the position.
GM: And “Mongoloid?”
GC: About a year later, I was constantly playing 16th note bass lines. I’d heard the Ramones record and loved the fact that they were doing that and liked the speed that they were playing at, which was so much more pumped-up than Devo. We were still more like an art school band, more interested in the ideas more than the manic performance. And one afternoon I wrote the bass line to “Mongoloid” and kept playing it. The band was liking the riff, so I wrote “Mongoloid,” which was, you know, totally politically incorrect. But we used to call – and many people in Ohio, in that region of the world – used to call football players and jocks Mongoloids. In other words, it was a term of derision not of people affected with Down syndrome, but of the people who were cultural lunkheads. So in the song, a Mongoloid is an idiotic businessman; he’s a guy that would laugh at a real Mongoloid. And we’re saying he’s the Mongoloid. So, you know, again, there’s a politically incorrect or confrontational aspect in “Mongoloid,” and of course, a primal energy that Devo came to be known for because I based all the bass line to a football beat. It’s not Bo Diddley, it’s a kind of football charge beat that marching bands use (sings a rhythm). So that was the private joke reference, a famous bass line to a football beat. So, yes, those two songs became early favourites that defined the aesthetic of the band and got the crowd really either elated or totally pissed off. We had many people threatening us when we played “Jocko Homo” and “Mongoloid,” screaming at us, throwing beer bottles at us, threatening us. And that only made our resolve stronger.
GM: The big album, “Freedom Of Choice.” What do you think the personality of that record is? After all these years, where does it sit in the catalog for you?
GC: You know, for me, that’s the best album. And I say that because as artists, you have to develop and move forward. Allow the fact that you’re living life and allowing influence to work your way into the music. And that’s exactly what “Freedom Of Choice” is. It’s a product of our experiences and our move from being some underground cult band to being on Saturday Night Live and starting to be accepted. This, and becoming interested in different types of beats and different types of sounds and taking it away from “Mongoloid” and “Uncontrollable Urge” and rock. At least for Bob Mothersbaugh and I, we had grown up loving R&B and listening to stations out of Detroit and really liking that music and really liking Motown. So even though it isn’t evident on “Freedom Of Choice,” it’s very abstracted and twisted – it’s an R&B-influenced record.
And the reason we got Bob Margouleff to help us produce is he had worked with Stevie Wonder. We had wanted my bass lines to be minimoog bass lines like Stevie was using. So this was partly experimental, but also the songs are catchier and hookier than previous Devo songs. So it’s the perfect combination of art and experimentation with commercial accessibility to it, and I think that’s never bad. It’s easy to be, you know, a difficult art band like Pere Ubu and play to the same 400 people forever, and it’s easy to be schlock-meisters like Coldplay that just, you know, pump out lollipop music. And it’s hard to have both things. And certainly the Beatles did it, at their height. Certainly, the Rolling Stones did it, David Bowie did it, certainly Roxy Music did it. And some would even say Queen did it. It’s Devo’s moment there, “Freedom Of Choice,” where we’re not going off the rails but we’re doing something that’s got everything good about the past Devo and something new that’s appealing to a wider audience.
GM: Any conjecture over the years why things didn’t progress past platinum to double platinum after “Freedom Of Choice?” Why do you think “New Traditionalists” and the subsequent records didn’t do as well?
GC: Well, certainly I feel that through “Oh No!” we were really on a great trajectory, just personally as artists. But then, even with “New Traditionalists,” the industry was going right, along with Ronald Reagan, when we were going left, and they were looking for something completely different. We were still building on our aesthetic and on what we’d done in the past.
Also, I think, unfortunately, the sound of “New Traditionalists” was not a sound that was radio-friendly, and it wasn’t. It was all a big accident, because we got talked into using this new 3M tape. And what happened was halfway through the recording process, when we were doing overdubs, things started to sound really bad. And it turned out that the tape was disintegrating and that all the edge tracks, the tracks near either edge of the tape, were losing fidelity. All the high-end was gone. So we had to come back to L.A. from New York, and we had to transfer to the then-new format of 1-inch digital tape to save what was left, and then try to re-do certain parts and finish it in L.A. The overall effect was something that sounded manipulated, like when somebody is trying to save a bad vintage of wine and they start adding stuff after the fact to make it taste better (laughs). And that’s unfortunate, because the songs are so good to me. You know, if it had a sound like the first album or the third album, in terms of the recording quality, we probably could’ve had another hit. And then “Oh No!” was too strange for people, and then as a single, “Peek-a-Boo!” just freaked them out (laughs).