"Craft is what enables you to be successful
when you're not inspired." - Brian Eno
Melody Maker MARCH 18, 1978 - by Allan Jones
"WE MUST HAVE SEEMED LIKE REAL GEEKS"
Bowie and Eno are fans of a new US band, Devo. In person, the band's quirky mania isn't a hit with everyone, while Bowie has been unable to contribute to the project. "David, being David," they say, "made commitments he couldn't keep."
Devo are up to their space-cadet ankles in Liverpool's miserable drizzle. Thursday evening on Merseyside and the city's been wrapped in a damp blanket and left for dead.
The De-Evolution boys are dancing the poot outside Eric's in Mathew Street, Liverpool 2. The Cavern once grooved on the empty lot across the cobblestones. No one seems overwhelmed by this information. It's nowjust another roadside attraction. The chaps have beamed in from Manchester, where, that afternoon, they had recorded a brief appearance on a local tube show.
We are introduced. The traditional Blighty handshake is offered and provokes a flurry of salutes and semaphore hand signals. It's like hoofing into Freemasons on the beat. Gee, they say, its swell in Liverpool, it reminds them of home. Akron, Ohio, is so much like The 'Pool. Rain. Fog. Dereliction. Industrial wastelands. They'd probably love Luton, too.
They were less enamoured of their treatment at the hands of Granada's hacks. Jerry Casale (voice/bass/philosophical asides) and Mark Mothersbaugh (voice/guitar/keyboards/more philosophical asides) are the first in the queue with complaints.
"They treated us like weirdos," announces Jerry, who has the wizened features of a deadbeat gnome. "We were squeezed in before the performing dogs. We must have seemed like real geeks."
I wondered, as we ambled into Eric's, whether Mark had enjoyed the more incongruous aspects of the experience. He replies with a look of startled disgust, as if I had insulted his mother and stolen his Dinky toys. Mark reminds me of Hiram Holiday. Eric's reminds me of the Hope & Anchor with headroom.
It is perhaps an inauspicious venue for the European debut of a band who have recently captured the hearts of Brian Eno, David Bowie and most of the hacks in the Western Hemisphere, as well as winding up the majority of record companies, all of whom are still dangling on Devo's coat-tails, desperate for their signatures on (allegedly) multi-million-dollar contracts.
Still, they have been persuaded to appear here by the boys and girls at Stiff who, although unable through a lack of bunce and clout to match the offers of the major companies, have licensed them to a three-singles package (the first of which, Jocko Homo/Mongoloid, has just been released).
The hysterical clamour for a definite reply to these various, and ridiculously lucrative offers and the considerable claims already advanced for their apparently unique talent are confronted with a rare equanimity. It does not seem to surprise them that they are being touted as the darlings of tomorrow's music.
They are, after all, very smart boys, fully prepared to exploit the demands of the music biz for a new sensation. With perfect timing, they are about to leap into the sudden void created by the faltering impetus of punk (which power pop is surely unlikely to fill). They have already tailored an effective mystique, based around their philosophy of De-Evolution (essentially K-Tel Dada affectations meet Fritz Lang's scenario for Metropolis with special effects by Walt Disney - i.e., so much beating of the air with vacuous verbal broadsides that confuse and conquer).
It's a neat line in marketing, clearly enhanced by their association with Bowie and Eno. And more blah to their elbow, champ. It's an amusing diversion, and if they can screw some hapless record company empire for a couple million greenbacks, good luck to them.
Meanwhile, back at the soundcheck, Devo are carefully supervising the preparations for their debut. Their eventual appearance will be prefaced by the short film they made with Chuck Statler, simply (he guffawed) Devo - The Truth About De-Evolution.
The trick is that the final credits will give way neatly to the band slumming into the opening bars of their rearrangement (in the style of the Magic Band) of Satisfaction. A quick run-through is proposed and cocked up because the trusty road crew forget to drop the screen on cue. Jerry momentarily loses his Devo cool and hollers them out.
"I told you to keep the film running," he declares, his face colouring with exasperation, "but I said nothing about keeping the screen up!" Jerry's quite the little martinet, eh, kids.
It's an uncharacteristic blunder. Devo, for the most part, maintain a rigid facade of quiet, alien intensity. Their manner is not untouched by humour, but even at their most relaxed and informal they project an air of superiority that lends to their conversation the kind of noble weight and unusual eloquence most often attributed to benevolent Martian interlopers in '40s sci-fi flicks.
Their own home movies underline this observation. Devo - The Truth About De-Evolution includes the chaps posing as an inter planetary cabaret combo in space cadet fatigues clomping through a piece called Secret Agent Man (it ends with a caricature of Kennedy with a bullet hole in his temple); and the principal sequence involves one of our heroes in the role of "Booji Boy" bringing to a character known only as The General a secret despatch.
"Come in, Booji Boy, you're late," booms The Gen (who's played by Mothersbaugh Snr). "Do you have the papers the Chinaman gave you?" He has!
"The time has come," the Gen continues to boom, "for every man, woman and mutant to learn the truth about De-Evolution!"
I fully expected Flash Gordon to wing in through the bathroom window to chuck in a few vocal harmonies on the following rendition of Jocko Homo (catchy song, that one).
This moviette, when it is finally shown at Eric's, is completely obscured by the pogoing hordes clamped tight around the stage front, and the group, too, is little more than a rumour in the crush. They will prove altogether more impressive at London's Roundhouse when their madcap choreography has a greater impact.
Here, though, you're lucky to catch the top of Mark's head as he stalks about the stage like a super-animated Mr Natural in a boiler suit. The music, divorced from the visuals and with its lyrics blurred in the mix, sounds not at all like the vehicle for a supposedly complex philosophy. I mean, Mongoloid sounds like The Troggs and no other.
Much of the rest is pure Magic Band-era Beefheart, diluted with contemporary general weirdness, courtesy of Mark's guitar chomping and keyboard thumping.
In the dressing room after the performance I innocently ask Jerry whether he considered Eric's a reasonably Devo audience. Fifteen minutes later, we're still negotiating a tricky passage through the multiple contradictions of Devo philosophy.
Jerry proves to be most adept at thinking fast on his feet and sailing nonchalantly around the most basic discrepancies in the design of his arguments and theories. The hack Dada dialectic is trundled out in his insistence upon the juxtaposition of opposites and suchlike, and so far so simple.
We do get a little bogged down, however, on the social consequences of accepting the philosophy of De-Evolution. He repeats his belief in the priority of the group above the individual - "The idea of the individual has gone as far as it can be taken, and the individual still hasn't achieved anything" - but denies that there is any oppressive consideration in the scheme.
Basically (and as far as I'm able to determine from all the waffle), he believes that we're split into High Devos and Low Devos - the latter he also refers to as "spuds". We're most of us Low on the Devo rating, living in a squalid stupor, ruled by the High Guys, who have the knowledge and the intelligence to alleviate our condition, but choose instead to oppress us. So we're all Devo, but some are more fortunately placed.
He explains that once Devo had straightened out Brian on a few of the pertinent facts, the boy was well on the case and their relationship was without flaw. Bowie's involvement in the album they have now completed was slight, although he was originally to have produced them.
"David, being David, made commitments he couldn't keep," Jerry comments. "Brian was probably better for us. He's more disciplined. He gets up at ten o'clock and is prepared for his work."
Did Bowie appear on the album? "On the album? Our album? Why should David appear on our album? Do you think we needed him? We don't need anyone. No, he didn't play anything on our album."
Fine. Thank you.
They play me a tantalising fragment of the platter on the way back to the hotel that night. A new version of Satisfaction that sounds like The Beach Boys whacking through an out-to-lunch arrangement of Eno's Baby's On Fire, and a fetching reading of Praying Hands. I suddenly appreciate the possibilities of Eno's forthcoming liaison with Talking Heads.
Anyway, back at the hotel we're having coffee and a nightcap, and Jerry is telling us about the hostility Devo faced in their early days from audiences in the Midwest, more into "shag haircuts and Led Zeppelin" than manifestations of De-Evolutionary philosophy.
He recalls one occasion at the University of Cleveland on Halloween, 1975; Jerry was fielding beer bottles with his bass. A full bottle of vodka skimmed off someone's head and smashed against the drums.
One irate fellow jumped on stage and demanded to know whether his pals in the audience were merely going to stand there and take such crap from this group of degenerates.
"They're prostituting themselves," he yelled. "You are Devo," Devo replied, thus winning their day with their wacky humour!
Jerry also has a word on one or two of their contemporaries. Pere Ubu he digs. Suicide he does not. "Listening to that record, it's like a low joke."
Time is getting on and Devo are tired. So off they troop.
Some forty-five minutes later your correspondent and Stiff representatives Paul Conroy and Pete Frame decide to follow them. We're met at the lift by Mark. Mark is wearing what appears to be a suit tailored originally for a small child or an organ grinder's monkey. He is also wearing a latex Booji Boy mask.
"Where is Devo? " he asks in a voice that squeaks and cheeps. "Where IS Devo?" I feel like screaming. This I can do without at 4am.
"Where is Devo?" he repeats. We direct him toward a group of blockheads across the lounge. They bravely ignore him. Mark spots the night porter emerging from the kitchens.
"Where is Devo? " he squeaks. The night porter looks at him carefully. "Haven't I seen yer on New Faces? " he asks.
Mark joins us in the lift.
"I've got Jerry's key," he cheeps. "Jerry's gonna be scared... I've got his key. Oh boy, is he gonna be scared." He squats down in a corner. "When the doors open, Jerry will think I'm doing poo-poos in the elevator."
Oh boy, what a crank, we Blighty fellows are thinking as we dash to our rooms, locking the doors firmly behind us.
I recall a typical Devo maxim: "Either you make it or you eat it. We make it."
So did my mother. I always left it on the side of the plate. Good night.