A Half-Century of Devo and The Spudeoisie

Co-founder and bassist Gerald Casale talks about the Kent State Shooting, giving demo tapes to Iggy Pop, squashing the band’s now-mythical beef with Brian Eno and how the energy domes will outlive us all.

Music Features Devo
A Half-Century of Devo and The Spudeoisie

I came of age in a land of dysfunction, a rural place of oddities and hatred and pickup trucks and cursed sports teams. For so much of my childhood, Northeast Ohio—specifically, the 330—had felt like a beautiful oasis immune to abandonment. Once you spend enough days driving along I-90 in Downtown Cleveland, hugging the Lake Erie coastline and swearing you can see a glimpse of Canada, it becomes a part of you. The Terminal Tower, the factory clouds, the port ships. Take a trek south to Akron and you’re met by the industrial gloss of the Goodyear headquarters, the cracked pavement where LeBron James once dribbled, the interwoven highways that are always under construction.

And in the spaces in-between—in the pockets of one-bar service and farmland and Dollar Generals—there are cross burnings and McCain signs, and that crush you’ve got on the boy a few grades older than you suddenly carries the shadow of a bullet or an ass beating. Your friend calls you a slur and he means it. But then, after digging through crates at the record store you spend hours in after school lets out, you find a yellow vinyl sleeve with a suburban white golfer emblazoned across the front, fedora (that comes with a free bowl of soup) and all. Q. Are We Not Men? A. We Are Devo! has come into your orbit and saved what the land around you dared to destroy.

When I heard “Uncontrollable Urge” for the first time, I felt like Devo were speaking directly to me through their yellow jumpsuits and 3-D glasses and red energy domes. I’d heard “Whip It” countless times on pop radio stations while running errands with my mom, but I was far too young to pursue their work beyond it or recognize that, whatever it was they were doing, they were lightyears ahead of their own time and their own generation. Oh, No! It’s Devo would have likely resonated with me, had I known all that time ago that it was written in response to America’s careening embrace with right-wing politics and evangelicalism. It would’ve been a brilliant comfort to retreat to at a time like 2012, when my best friend cried his eyes out in Spanish class the day after Mitt Romney lost the election. Before I’d ever lent an ear to Q. Are We Not Men? A. We Are Devo!, Devo was a pop band who made that really catchy track that borders on novelty. But, once I got to college, I found myself sharing a wavelength with Devo. They weren’t counterculture, they were anti-culture. They made music for the kooks and the geeks and the queers, for the folks who never felt free enough to imagine themselves on the cover of Rolling Stone or on a Hollywood red carpet.

Devo got started in my backyard, at Kent State University. I grew up about a half-hour east near Warren, but I attended undergrad at Hiram—a village that neighbored the college town. Around the time Devo began, in the early 1970s, the landscape of music in Ohio was beginning to change. Gerald and Bob Casale, Mark and Bob Mothersbaugh, Bob Lewis and Rod Reisman were onto something big, as they tapped into the same world that a band like Pere Ubu had—this industrial, experimental quadrant of punk rock. While the funk scene of Dayton was still thriving, the Rust Belt—and Devo—had started to find its own niche. There were country acts, heavy metal bands, power pop groups. At least 100 cover bands were cropping up—a tradition that still remains headstrong, as Warren holds a summer series of cover band concerts every damn summer. The sextet had started putting the pieces together that there were other people interested in the same things they were doing in basements and garages in 1973.

Mark Mothersbaugh joined the band in 1973, an addition that formally marks the official genesis of Devo. But back then, they called themselves Sextet Devo, because they were performing as a part of a creative arts festival and they had to sound artsy and academic—and they wanted an excuse to go out and play their songs. At that gig, Mothersbaugh was wearing a full-head ape mask—because he and co-founder and bassist Gerald “Jerry” Casale used to shop for rubber masks all the time and it was, as Casale puts it, “part of [their] fetish”—and wearing a lab coat and he’s got his Moog synthesizer. He played the whole set like that, letting his Moog fail and crash and echo a droning woosh. “We’d go off-stage and tell him to do the ‘headache solo,’” Casale adds. “So he just does that to people for about 10 minutes with nobody else on stage. It was already a brutal, Dadaist assault on the audience. It was performance art. There wasn’t a word for that then, but that’s what we were doing.”

Though Casale and Lewis were the originators of the band, Devo doesn’t exist without Mothersbaugh. And that became evident from the very beginning, as he and Casale adopted a collaborative chemistry with each other that was rooted in obliterating any and all expectations anyone might have had for them or for Devo. “Mark once said to me, ‘Well, Jerry, I don’t start anything. What I do is I take things further.’ And, at the time, he was being abstract. I didn’t know what he was referring to. But that’s exactly what he did,” Casale says. “Bob Lewis and I had seeded him with all of this de-evolution propaganda—because it had started as a literary thing and art thing, and Mark and I liked each other’s art. That’s really how we got together. I didn’t even know he played music for a while. He didn’t know I played music for a while. Then, when he came to see me play in the Numbers Band, he was unimpressed. He thought it was boring and a joke. By ‘73, we’re getting together, musically. We’re talking, Mark and I, and going ‘What should Devo music sound like?’ and we’re doing it on purpose.”

At the same time, acts like the Michael Stanley Band and the Raspberries were kicking it up in Cleveland. The Belkin family were quickly becoming the most powerful name in Ohio’s music industry. They were important people, “royalty,” as co-founder and bassist Gerald “Jerry” Casale puts it. He’d only met the Belkins because of Chuck Statler—his compatriot at Kent State who was a film buff and owned a 16mm camera and would make the short film The Truth About De-Evolution, which won an award at the Ann Arbor Film Festival and led to David Bowie catching wind of the band in 1976. Statler was the son of a judge, so he had access to certain “pumpers” in the community, including the Belkins. But they weren’t interested in what Devo was doing, because Devo weren’t a coterie of rock gods with chart appeal. They weren’t interested in making Ohio economical, they were only interested in doing things that obliterated the conceptions of the narrow-minded mystifications of the region they were born into. They evoked an industrial brutalism that rose from the ashes of the dying factory town they called home.

“What we were immersed in was a pretty depressing, anti-intellectual right-wing culture—Rex Humbard and Ernest Angley, Miracle Witness Hour. That was a reality. And what it did for us is we felt like aliens, we felt isolated, we couldn’t relate to any of it—including the Raspberries,” Casale says. “We felt that that was pretty bubblegum stuff. What it really helped us do was get strong. We knew exactly what we didn’t like, and that’s how things really started. We knew all the things that we really disliked and what really bummed us out. We said, ‘Let’s avoid all of those, let’s avoid doing anything that sounds like any genre that you’ve been involved in. I was in a blues band, the Numbers Band, and they were revered for their blues orthodoxy. They were acolytes of blues and trying to recreate it, and that seemed academic to me. Mark was involved with Flossie Hobbit, this prog-rock band—basically, ‘How many notes can you play and how many time signatures can you hit?’ We had this mutual agreement that we’d abandon all of that. We would just start tabula rasa, no preconceptions about genre, and only do something that was original. And if it sounded like something else, we’d stop doing it.”

I’d later learn that the Kent State shootings on May 4th, 1970 greatly informed the creation of Devo, that their own concept of “de-evolution”—the idea that humans would regress, that reverse evolution was not just imminent but was happening loudly right then and there already—was a reaction to immense, unfathomable trauma. Casale thought the Vietnam War was bullshit, that it was an imperialistic, unnecessary war. He almost served, actually, after getting drafted in 1967—but an exaggerated hernia diagnosis got him a deferment and he went to Kent State to study art instead. But he was born in Ravenna and went to Catholic school in Kent; the area was blue-collar and largely Republican—the kind of Republican that vehemently opposed Lyndon B. Johnson’s recent socialist efforts to reform America into the “Great Society” with access to medicare, procedures to curb poverty and civil rights. It was an era of increased equity, but Northeast Ohio—or all of Ohio, for that matter—didn’t give much of a shit about any of that and, in 2023, that is largely still true.

Casale hung out with his art cohort and they adopted Beatnik lifestyles, mimicking the Velvet Underground and getting taunted by the frat jocks on campus. They were growing more and more politically active as days passed, holding huge gatherings and having East Coast activists travel west and help sign people up for the blossoming Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) collective. One rally even brought a few thousand people to Kent State’s Commons where, a few days before the May 4th shootings, a rally of 500 students was held in protest of the United States’ recent expansion into Cambodia. Governor James Allen Rhodes called Casale and his friends “worse than brown shirts” and riled up public opinion against them. In the nights leading up to the 4th, locals and students would get into scrums—the former believing that Kent State kids were going to poison the town’s water supply with LSD.

Everyone talks about May 4th, and for good reason. Four students died, and nine more were injured. All of them were unarmed and massacred by the Ohio National Guard. But it was not a one-day affair. In the late 1960s, Casale and his friend Bob Lewis started to formulate their “de-evolution” worldview, one not yet informed by a massacre. Around that same time, the SDS and the Black United Students group held a sit-in in protest of police recruiters on Kent’s campus. The SDS clashed with cops in 1969 when they entered an administrative building with a set of demands. 58 participants were arrested, four SDS leaders spent half-a-year in prison. Almost a month before the shootings, Yippies leader Jerry Rubin came to campus to speak and, in his closing remarks, said: “The first part of the Yippie program is to kill your parents. They are the first oppressors.”

Leading up to May 4th, demonstrations and widespread anger of the Cambodia expansion had caught the eyes of Kent Mayor LeRoy Satrom and Rhodes. On May 1st, Rhodes ordered cops to use tear gas when clearing out downtown crowds after ordering that every bar close. The city was declared to be in a state of emergency, and the National Guard would be brought in—only to arrive at the sight of the campus’ ROTC building burning. Though it was never officially classified or declared as such, Rhodes acted on the Kent State incidents like they were grounds for martial law. Curfews were enforced on May 3rd, tear gas was again used to disperse assembled crowds of students and a few kids were even bayoneted by National Guardsmen. The next day, a peaceful and leaderless protest on the Commons turned into a tragedy—as 29 guardsmen fired 67 rounds of ammunition into the large crowd of students, killing four of Casale’s friends and peers and wounding nearly a dozen others. It was a moment that would change anti-war efforts and reconfigure the political landscape of Ohio forever.

And local news rags like The Plain Dealer and the Akron Beacon Journal were not writing fairly, or accurately, about what transpired that day. The latter, especially, had written that students had hurt officers and, in response, citizens were deputized and ran around campus with shotguns. Everyone was living in fear, and media outlets had been exaggerating the events—an act that, given the horrendous nature of what actually occurred, seems as impossible as it is unforgivable. Casale watched bullets fly through the backs of people he knew; it was a truth largely unspoken in news cycles. “Your life changes when you see people really get shot with M1 rifles and see what it really is about and watch how illegitimate authority works and how they control history—because they write the history,” he tells me. “You were there, and then you read what happened, and it’s like, ‘That’s not what happened’ and you realize, ‘Oh, I’m in an episode of—if there had been the word back then—Black Mirror. We were talking about The Twilight Zone. We were in an alternate reality and you’re just learning that everything you were taught was bullshit—which, usually, is what organized religion does to children. I realized America, the brand, this idea that we were free, was all a marketing ploy.”

That trauma reverberated across Kent State’s campus for months, years, after the shootings were carried out. There was martial law for two weeks after the killings, with curfews set to 7 PM. Helicopters and tanks swarmed the city. “That’s an experience that most Americans don’t have,” Casale says. “We used to read about that stuff in Banana republics, with dictators, and it’s like, ‘Oh, it’s the same thing, Nixon and his cadre of people.’ And then what grows out of that, it ends with the Watergate scandal. You’re crestfallen, you’re depressed, you’re angry, you’re in disbelief. What that did was congeal that subculture of people that felt the same way—because we felt everything had changed. You felt like nothing was ever going to be the same again after that. At the same time, we’re talking about what’s going on and developing it into an organized, analytical viewpoint that we call de-evolution. And we see de-evolution starting to really happen. And nobody else thinks it’s happening. Then, we present that idea to the world and they laugh at it and they think it’s a joke. It was a polarizing idea, clearly, from day one. Rolling Stone Magazine had an animus towards Devo. They didn’t like Devo.”

Devo were the butt of jokes, that much is true. And Rolling Stone largely panned almost all of their records (Total Devo would get a one-star review in 1988, which was a crass assessment of a very good album), and Ohioans didn’t gel with what the band was doing at the time. “We were either pitied or hated,” Casale admits. “People just couldn’t believe what we were spending our time doing. We were very isolated. When we finally emerged, it was fully formed—because no one had interfered with what we were trying to do. By the time we got in front of people, we moved a certain way, we sounded a certain way, we acted a certain way. It became a meta concept where the idea was bigger than the sum of its parts, the individuals in the band. It wasn’t about the cult of personality; it was about presenting this intense, industrial machine that could play live like machines—except with no click-tracks.”

In the decades since Devo released Q. Are We Not Men? A. We Are Devo!, the cultural opinion of the band has completely changed. The Casales and the Mothersbaughs are now revered as one of the most strikingly original and daring band concepts ever fashioned. Their goal was to be uncool and shapeless; they ended up becoming the coolest band in rock ‘n’ roll history—and Casale never, not even for a second, had any doubts (nor much interest) as to whether or not Devo and de-evolution would endure. They went from getting threatened and attacked and booed off stages and having beer bottles thrown at them and being paid to quit to playing Saturday Night Live and finding warmth in the eccentricities of non-Midwestern scenes.

“I was strident enough, in my aesthetic beliefs, that it wasn’t just some college pose or a joke. I thought there was substance behind it. This idea was informing the body of work that we made,” Casale says. “I didn’t even have the common sense to care whether or not it was ever going to succeed. It was more like ‘I have to do this. People need to hear this. We have to get up in front of people. Nobody knows what we’re doing, and somebody has to see this.’ And that’s how it was. And then, obviously, it turned around quickly. The first time we traveled to New York City, we played Max’s Kansas City and CBGBs in the same weekend and these crowds were going nuts. They got it, they ate it up—because they had been seeing, for the last two-and-a-half years in those clubs, the punk scene grow. They’d seen the Damned and they had seen Television and they’d seen Patti Smith and the Dead Boys and Suicide. They were primed for what we were doing.”

The first figure in the music industry that Devo met was Neil Young, who’d asked the band to participate in his film Human Highway (when it was finally released in 1982, the guys were credited as “nuclear garbagemen”). Being that Young wrote “Ohio,” a tune that wasn’t just the definitive song about the Kent State shootings, but it was such a definitive anti-war song altogether, meeting him was a full-circle moment for Devo—especially since Young was a fan of their work. “We loved that song, and we liked Neil Young’s first record, but we always thought of him as this ‘Grandfather of Granola Rock,’ or something,” Casale admits. “We would never have thought that Neil Young would like Devo. And then you meet the guy and it’s totally not the guy you think you’re going to meet. He was so cool and so quirky and so open—almost childlike in his enthusiasm. And he got it, he got Devo totally. And we couldn’t believe it. He loved us, so it was really gratifying.” When I think about Young’s records like Trans and Everybody’s Rockin’, how he rebelled against Geffen Records and made the albums he wanted to make, his love of Devo just makes complete and total sense.

Devo, unintentionally, made it a habit of hanging out with subversive musicians. David Bowie once said that he was trying to catalog the unknown and the forbidden in the 1970s and, when people think about artists who defy expectations of where their music should go or what their music should do, Bowie is a top draft pick every time. But Devo is, without a doubt, right there behind him. And his influence on Casale and Mothersbaugh was an exponential cardinal direction for them when it came down to navigating the music industry. “For me, Bowie was god-like. He was my #1 inspiration,” Casale explains. “And he was showing me how far we needed to go. We talked about a lot of ideas, but he was doing it. And he was doing it where he had honed his performance craft and was doing it amazingly well with amazingly powerful performances. When I saw the Diamond Dogs tour, I basically went home with my tail between my legs and thought ‘We’re not worthy. We’ve gotta start all over here.’ I saw something so mind blowing, it was a bar that I didn’t ever think we could reach. But it inspired me to start getting serious.”

Bowie was a crucial voice in helping Devo get signed with Warner Bros. He found out about the band after Iggy Pop gave him a cassette tape of some Devo demos that they’d made in Cincinnati. Bowie was playing keys in Pop’s band, as they were touring songs from his solo debut The Idiot and opening for Blondie. Casale, Bob Mothersbaugh and Bob’s girlfriend caught one of the gigs at The Agora on Cleveland’s East Side in March 1977 and arrived armed to the teeth with cassettes and promo packs. “The girl that I knew from Chi-Pig got us backstage and I met [Blondie guitarist] Chris Stein, who was very nice to me, and I met Iggy,” Casale says. “There was a basket of tapes, and Bob’s girlfriend had given Iggy a tape, I had given Iggy a tape and Chris Stein a tape. There were three Devo tapes in that basket, and Iggy later said to us that David would tell him, ‘Hey, listen to those tapes and tell me if there’s anything you find that’s any good.’ So he was given the task of listening to all of these unsolicited offerings from the Spudeoisie, and he listened to the Devo tape and flipped out and played it for David.”

A few months later, that summer, Devo was playing at the Starwood nightclub in Los Angeles and Toni Basil, Iggy Pop and Dean Stockwell caught the show and came backstage and were all impressed with the set. Soon, Casale and Basil would strike up a relationship that would last into the 1980s (she’d provide vocals on Devo’s “The Only One” in 1987 and cover many of their songs on her records around that time). Pop gave Casale the name of Bowie’s lawyer, Stan Diamond, which led to the Thin White Duke and Devo having a direct line of communication with each other. The band would sign a direct deal with Warner Bros., which led to them making Q. Are We Not Men? A. We Are Devo! with Brian Eno in Germany. Bowie was set to produce the album initially, but he had to back out due to other commitments—though Casale argues that it might have been because a direct deal wasn’t big enough for Bowie to just produce the record.

In the 45 years since Devo released Q. Are We Not Men? A. We Are Devo!, the zeitgeist has turned the rumored tensions between Eno and Devo into mythical territory. In retrospect, those sessions were much warmer and fruitful than cultural perceptions might argue. Before they started making the album, Casale and Mothersbaugh had hung out with him in New York. “He was a really smart guy, really cool to talk to. We just hit it off, aesthetically. We were in the same world,” Casale says. “The only surprise was that the crazy Brian Eno that we’d seen with Roxy Music was gone. There was this English gentleman who was very zen, and he had his deck of cards called Oblique Strategies. He was still doing ambient music, Music For Airports and stuff. He was this new guy, he had moved on.” Devo, at the time, were a bunch of smartass, quippy brutalists who weren’t anti-intellectual, but they made fun of everything and didn’t take anything seriously. On the flipside, Eno was quite serious in the studio. They’d work on songs for 12 hours a day in the middle-of-nowhere countryside in the dead of winter with nothing to do but make music. It was an intense process for Devo and Eno.

“It was only when Brian would try to do something like make our songs less angular and more beautiful, adding harmonies and adding pretty sounds,” Casale notes. “And Mark and I would, during the mixes, slowly, put our hands on the faders and we’d be bringing that stuff back. That didn’t make Brian very happy, but he had a sense of humor. We would play Oblique Strategies with him and we would wise-crack about the Zen-Yoda answers. We made him laugh, we had a good time. [Q. Are We Not Men? A. We Are Devo!] was the first thing he had done like that. He hadn’t reached this mega-producer phase and done the things he did with the Talking Heads a couple years later that turned him into this fantastic, cutting-edge producer.” Given that Eno’s next three projects would be the Talking Heads’ Fear of Music and Remain in Light and Bowie’s Lodger, one has to wonder whether or not the antics of Devo’s brutalism softened the Roxy Music co-founder a bit and pushed him towards the eccentricities he’d made good on with his old band.

Bowie would—just like he had five years earlier with The Stooges’ Raw Power—come in and remix a few of the Q. Are We Not Men? A. We Are Devo! tracks. But his input didn’t change the shape of the album’s final cut so much as it improved it. “He did things that we wound’t have thought of and, contrary to what people say about Devo, we do recognize other peoples’ ideas when they’re good,” Casale laughs. “And, of course, David, we respected him so much. What he thought mattered. That’s what’s so incredible about that period, that the people we actually liked us. Iggy Pop, Neil Young, David Bowie, Toni Basil, who was like, ‘Okay, this is amazing.’ When the people you respect like you, that’s the greatest kind of validation you can hope for.” Q. Are We Not Men? A. We Are Devo! didn’t hit #1 on the Billboard 200, but having the adoration of their heroes minimized the lack of critical fanfare that Devo received right out the gate.

“A critical hit matters, because it’s easy to be an inaccessible, tedious art band. It’s also easy to just put out pablum, commercial crap that doesn’t withstand the test of time. What’s the hardest, of course, is to be both accessible and artistically valid. If you think about it, all of the greatest bands in the world were both of those things. If you look at the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, David Bowie, Roxy Music, the Yardbirds, Jimi Hendrix, I mean, come on—they were doing something new and exciting. And, once you heard it, you couldn’t imagine that you hadn’t wanted to hear it already. You just kept putting it on over and over, putting the needle down over and over, like a rat hitting the lever for cocaine.”

The same can be said about Devo, at least in my experience. Discovering Q. Are We Not Men? A. We Are Devo! and New Traditionalists was like having everything I once knew—or thought I knew—about pop music mutilated, desecrated and re-configured. It’s easy to ride the momentum of an artist finally, after 45 years, having their debut album get its proper due—but to see a band like Devo play songs like “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction” and “Jocko Homo” on Saturday Night Live, the biggest TV platform you could have been on (at the time) outside of The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson, was a life-changing discovery for me. The SNL that was airing when I was a teenager in the mid-2010s was rid of the risks that made it so boundary-breaking 40 years ago—and Devo played a big role in helping expand the show’s music palette and pedestal. “Lorne Michaels told us 15-million viewers [watched the episode], and it changed everything—because that was a tastemaker show and all the kids were watching that show, especially if they didn’t have money to go out or have a car to drive or a date on Saturday night,” Casale says. “We blew peoples’ minds, and we had to have our tour manager stop and re-consider the tour dates, because we could now play bigger places. Suddenly, we weren’t going into these little places with 200 seats. There were, suddenly, 1,500 seats.”

Devo’s cover of “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction” remains one of their most important songs. It’s so distinctive that it stands on its own damn near like an original recording. The spastic, punk-derived robotics that Devo injected into the rock ‘n’ roll classic came from experimentation, and their decision to deconstruct the song and patch it back up into their own unique reappraisal was the result of a jam session. “That riff is something that Bob, my brother, started. He kept doing it, and Alan [Myers] started this whacked beat to it on his own,” Casale says. “And I go, ‘Hey, that sounds like backwards reggae.’ And then I tried to put, what I thought would be, a reggae-style bassline on that backwards beat. Mark started chanting ‘Paint It Black’ lyrics over the top of it, and it had no change or anything in it. And Bob Casale stopped it after five minutes and said, ‘Hey, sing “Satisfaction” over that. So Mark started singing ‘Satisfaction’ and, as soon as he did, our faces lit up. We couldn’t stop doing it. We added the musical change and probably played it for two or three hours and just kept making it better and better. And we thought, ‘This is great, because it really is “I can’t get no satisfaction.” It sounds, in substance, like a guy that can’t get any satisfaction—rather than a blues rooster preening, who’s got plenty of girls, saying he can’t get no satisfaction.”

But Jann Wenner and Rolling Stone hated the cover, positing Devo as having attempted to make a mockery out of the magazine’s namesake and, according to Casale, “dissing his rock gods”—even though the Casales and Mothersbaughs weren’t making fun of “Satisfaction.” “From that point on, he put Devo in the trash bin,” Casale adds. “But we thought ‘Satisfaction’ was the greatest rock song that had ever come along since Elvis.” Mick Jagger was a fan of the rendition, as Devo had to play the cover for him in order to get his approval before Q. Are We Not Men? A. We Are Devo! came out.

Mothersbaugh had once said that Devo didn’t think they were a rock band early on, that they considered themselves an art movement. And when you tap into clips of their old performances, you can see that—despite their eclectic, anti-beaten path mentality, they could positively shred and did so in such succinct, impenetrable ways that very few bands of the era even could keep up with. And much of that has to do with how, no matter how left-field Devo went, there were still pieces of decades-old rock foundation in their own architecture. “At a certain point, you’ve pushed through the meat grinder. At a certain point, there’s got to be the credibility of rock music in what you do, because there’s some classic thing there,” Casale says. “It’s like elements of tragedy and comedy, or three acts in a movie—you’re following some kind of rules, whether you like it or not. The fact that we could really rock only became obvious to people that saw us [live]. Nobody ever thought about that, then they’d see and go, ‘Oh, my God, these guys really can do it.’ And that’s not a bad thing, that’s just an added dimension.”

After Devo struck gold with a Top 20 hit in “Whip It” in 1980, they did what no band is ever supposed to do—they took a dashing left turn and told the industry to fuck off. Their follow-up to “Whip It”—and its album, Freedom of Choice—was New Traditionalists, a title hawked from a right-wing Japanese group. And, after that, they made Oh, No! It’s Devo—an album conceived under the idea of “What would an album by fascist clowns sound like?”—and the song “I Desire” was even directly inspired by a John Hinckley Jr. poem. The intentionality that Devo had to poke fun at extremism and rebel against mainstream inclinations was not a brilliant decision, as far as record sales go—but, in retrospect, it’s an apt and prime example of a band sticking out like a sore thumb and doing what no other pop act would do at the time: reject the establishment and forego selling out, even after scoring a hit song.

“Devo was always driven by ideas and experimentation, and we never even had a moment where we thought we should do another ‘Whip It’ or do an album that just sounded like Freedom of Choice,” Casale says. “We were on to some new things that we wanted to try immediately, and that became New Traditionalists—much to the chagrin of the record company. We didn’t have the common sense to do what mega-millionaire bands do, which was make another Freedom of Choice—because we were just following our ideas, and we were unfiltered in that sense. Nobody said, ‘Well, maybe that’s not a good idea.’ We just kept going and then, of course, the culture kept turning right because of Reagan. It kept getting uglier and uglier. We read this review—I don’t know if it was Rolling Stone or some other publication—that actually said ‘They’re fascist clowns, Devo.’ And I saw ‘fascist clowns’ and, of course, we seized on that. Being the punk scientists that we were—and anger-driven—it was like, ‘Okay, fascist clowns? We’ll show you! Here’s fascist clowns!’”

No bands were touching social commentary at the time, at least not in the mainstream (punk, new wave and folk were always treasure troves for that kind of thing). You could find political songwriting anywhere but Top 40 radio. The Reagan era, for certain brackets of privileged Americans, was a great time to be alive—but those people weren’t paying attention to the pop charts—or, at the very least, not paying attention to what anyone on those charts had to say beneath an intoxicating groove. Devo would wear plastic hairpieces that resembled the cookie-cutter, side-part pompadour that presidents like Reagan and Kennedy used to sport; they resisted the very idea that the country should adhere to a nationwide religious order. The band dressed in uniform and moved like robots, like one cohesive unit. No other group around them could have ever forgone their egos enough to exist as one organism. “Rock bands are supposed to just talk about sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll. They’re supposed to be hapless—either they’re screwed-up children that need guardians, or they’re monsters that need to be stopped,” Casale says. “And Devo was articulate and thoughtful and told the truth in interviews. And then the sound was not what the guys who controlled FM radio wanted to hear. They didn’t want that sound. I think we hit a raw nerve by satirizing right-wing religion.”

Devo’s quintessential look, the red energy domes they began wearing when Freedom of Choice came out and in off-and-on in the years since, was inspired by light-fixture ornamentation in classrooms at Saint Patrick in Kent, a Catholic school Casale and his brother Bob went to as kids before graduating from Roosevelt High School. “I used to stare at it all the time, because I hated being in school,” he says. “The nuns were very mean, and I always had an eye for design and I was always drawing. And I used to love those light fixtures. Years later, when we started talking about head gear, I was like, ‘Okay, that shape. It’s art deco. You just turn it around and reconfigure the proportions to fit a head.’ And we put a hat liner in it, that was the secret part. You didn’t see the hat liner, and that made it float. When people would buy the hat and stick it on, it just flopped around stupidly on their head and fell off. They didn’t know that’s how we did it, but that’s what gave it the look.”

When I told my partner I was writing a story on Devo, she replied “Are those the guys with the hats?” I think about that a lot, how Devo has become almost exclusively synonymous with the outfits they wear on stage more so than the music they’ve made. For 50 years, it’s been a balancing act for the band—and one they’ve made peace with. “Having a multimedia aesthetic is definitely a double-edged sword,” Casale says. “There’s all kinds of people that have never listened to Devo that want a red hat. And they still think they’re flower pots. They think it’s a novelty item they want. There’s more people that know about the red hat than have ever listened to Devo. And you can’t go back and erase that, so we just accept it and go with it. It might not be a bad thing.”

Energy domes or not, Devo have never been more prominent in the face of music history—be it via Stranger Things putting “Whip It” on their Season Two soundtrack or the nebula of commercials that use “Uncontrollable Urge” (or Jackass, for the cultured folks). And “de-evolution” is a part of common language now, and it’s used in hundreds and hundreds of news posts, social media discourse and magazine articles—and not just in reference to Trump and politics, but to social issues and climate. After half-a-century, Devo’s influence has become exponential, and too many folks still don’t even recognize it.

There’s a clip of Casale and Mothersbaugh on Late Night with David Letterman, and the prestigious talk-show host is asking the musicians what the hell the deal is with the potatoes on the cover of Oh, No! It’s Devo. Casale says they’re “five sweet spuds hovering down the road of life,” and the vegetable has long come to represent not just the conduction of our humble beginnings, but of our continued humanity in general. They are the living, breathing portrait of cogs in a machine. “Bob Lewis and I used to refer to the common person as ‘spuds.’ They’re underrated, but they fed the world during the famine. They have eyes all around, they conduct electricity. In other words, they’re underrated, under-appreciated and absolutely necessary,” Casale explains.

After 50 years, that truth applies to Devo. And it’s a funny thing how—after decades of wearing matching uniforms, doing synced-up choreography together and referring to themselves as nameless, faceless spuds—Devo still managed to champion uniqueness in some way. My college brain was comforted by the presence of weirdos in rock ‘n’ roll who came from the same place I came from and never wavered in their own principles, in their long-standing refusal to conform to the right-wing maniacs they grew up around in Ohio or the demigods in the Oval Office or the venomous, money-hungry megachurches they wrote against. Perhaps you’ve felt that way, too, about Devo or another band that’s helped you find unity in being an outlier. On records like Q. Are We Not Men? A. We Are Devo! or Total Devo or New Traditionalists, we find five guys who were relentless in their push to make still-bodied, close-minded folks just an inch more uncomfortable. It’s the kind of story that might just save your life.

Listen to Devo play a set in Cincinnati in 1979 below.

Matt Mitchell reports as Paste‘s music editor from their home in Columbus, Ohio.

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