"Craft is what enables you to be successful
when you're not inspired." - Brian Eno
Uncut MARCH 2015 - by Tom Pinnock
THE MAKING OF... JOCKO HOMO
Outraged by 1970's Kent State killings, the original Ohio art-rockers set out their mission statement with novelty face masks, Balinese monkey chanters and an unhinged, synth-stomp classic.
On May 4, 1970, National Guardsmen killed four students and wounded a further nine during an anti-war rally at Kent State University. Among the other students on campus, Mark Mothersbaugh and Gerald Casale reacted by forming a band, inspired by their own Dada-esque philosophical tract. "Devo was a creative response to the outrage," says Casale today, "and the realisation that the world as you had been told it was, was indeed upside down."
Jocko Homo, the thrilling B-side of debut single Mongoloid, was one of the first songs the fivepiece came up with. With its off-kilter 7/4 rhythm and infectious chants, it perfectly summed up Devo's musical and theoretical mission statement, and has long been the centrepiece of their wild live shows (recently documented on Miracle Witness Hour, recorded in 1977). "It was always our performance stamp," says Mark Mothersbaugh, the song's primary writer. "It had the opportunity to be the craziest thing we did all night!"
It was primarily this chaotic, synth-led stomper that led Devo on a strange journey from the violent fleapits of Akron, via Joe Walsh's LA mansion and their own surreal short film, to jamming with Bowie and Eno in Cologne. "We had a sense of humour," explains Casale despite the terrible events that sparked the group's formation. "But our songs had very pointed messages and irony in them always. We were real serious about our sense of humour..."
GERALD CASALE: I was in the middle of the action that day at Kent State. I knew [two of the victims] Jeffrey Miller and Allison Krause. Nobody knew that the National Guard's guns were loaded, and the next thing we knew they were firing their rifles at us. It turned me instantly from a thoughtful, live-and-let-live hippy guy to a 'no more Mr Nice Guy'.
MARK MOTHERSBAUGH: Those scenes left an impact on us - that was the beginning of us trying to figure out what we were observing on the planet.
CASALE: I came from a blues background and Mark came from a progressive rock background - his band were doing prog-rock and my band was doing Muddy Waters and Howlin' Wolf kind of stuff, but we both knew that was just not original - it wasn't our own expression. So what we were looking for was a new language, to start fresh and just clear out all of the influences and start over.
MOTHERSBAUGH: We decided what we wanted to talk about was the evolution of the planet, or the opposite to that - things falling apart. Jerry had found this amazing book by this Yugoslavian anthropologist, Oscar Kiss Maerth, The Beginning Was The End. His take on it was that humans were an unnatural, insane species that was at odds with the planet. We found people with other similar ideas. A reverend from Ohio named BH Shadduck preached primarily against evolution and wrote these incredibly creative, humorous and kinda nutty tirades, including one named Jocko Homo.
CASALE: The cover is a stairway to hell, and the stairs are all marked with text like 'adultery', 'alcoholism', all the way up to the top. So the lyrics for Jocko Homo came out of that book.
ED BARGER (engineer, soundman): Mark wrote Jocko Homo pretty much himself. It just came out of nowhere. At that point, Jerry was sort of the lead singer in the band, and Mark comes in with Jocko Homo and boom, Mark was the lead singer.
MOTHERSBAUGH: Once we decided what we were and what our mission was, that was one of the first pieces I wrote. I didn't have a video recorder, but I would record movies on audio cassette. And one of the films I recorded was [1932's] Island Of Lost Souls. It was the story of a mad scientist on a remote island taking the animals from the jungle and turning them into creatures that could walk on their back legs and looked like humans. But the problem was he couldn't keep them going up the chain of evolution, no matter how many times he took them to the 'house of pain', his laboratory. Somebody would be acting like an animal and it would upset the doctor, he would crack a whip and go "What is the law?" and they would go, "Don't walk on all fours! Are we not men? What is the law? Not to spill blood! Are we not men?" And they would remember that they were trying to attain human status. The movie was very inspirational.
CASALE: We used a lot of dark humour. I personally was trying to find a third way, because otherwise I probably would have joined the Weather Underground and have ended up in jail or dead. And I realised that was a path to a quick end. So that third way is a Dada approach with a sense of humour. Mark and I would go to novelty stores and buy a lot of masks. I had what would now be considered as racist, a sort of Chinese man forehead and spectacles that made you into a Chinese person, and Mark had a baby mask, which I started calling Booji Boy.
CHUCK STATLER: Jerry kept me informed of the band's progress and around 1974 or '75, I heard about Mark's discovery of the Booji Boy mask. It seemed all that more fitting than the monkey mask he wore at their first show [Kent State, 1973].
CASALE: I started calling his character Booji Boy when we were driving to California on a completely misguided tip that Joe Walsh was going to help us out, because he was a Kent person. It was a humorous disaster. Walsh had been completely California-ised - he was in this house in the Hollywood Hills, and his stoner friends were all around him and they had all the long hair, the '70s clothes and moustaches, smoking tons of hash. And in come these two guys from Ohio, with our short haircuts and tight, straight-leg pants and buttoned-up shirts, and Joe's friends were sniggering and laughing. Joe listened to the songs and you could see he was squirming. He walked out with us at the end of the night and he said, "Can you smell the eucalyptus?" And I said, "Oh, is that what that is? It's pretty strong!" And then he goes, "Be quiet a minute, you'll hear the hoot owls." Mark and I were just looking at each other like, great... And then he goes, "Well, guys - keep doing it. I wish you all the best..."
MOTHERSBAUGH: We recorded the first version of Jocko Homo in 1976. This was a super low-tech basement recording.
CASALE: We had a place on the cusp of some ghetto neighbourhood and we set up in the basement. It probably took us about four hours to cut the first recording.
MOTHERSBAUGH: Back in the mid-'70s when we were playing one of our infrequent live shows, we tended to extend the middle section sometimes longer than you can call humane. It would be the thing we'd use as a lightning rod to attract hostility from out-of-work ex-Vietnam Vets that were unlucky enough to stop off at the bar we were playing at, hoping they could hear some Bad Company or some Wings before they went home and got in a fight with their wife. Instead we got the hostility going - we would get paid to quit playing or we would get attacked onstage. We would extend that "Are we not men? We are Devo!" and put other pieces in it. We had people come up onstage and take swings at us, throw things. Somehow it only confirmed our belief that if were pissing these guys off then we must be doing something right.
BARGER: As soon as we went to NYC everybody loved us, but in Akron they hated us. Disco was just starting, mostly progressive rock before that, they just did not fit in at all. Other musicians would hate them, they would try to unplug their equipment. There weren't that many shows, but Devo practised like crazy, they called it debasement, they were 'in de basement', you know? That was a very torturous place... They practised so much that any time they played they were so much more professional than anyone else.
STATLER: At the end of 1975, Jerry and I went to an all-night diner in Akron for a late-night meal. He expressed his frustration with the band's inability to gain record company attention. It sounded as though they were on the verge of calling it quits. I believed in the band's concept and music, so I offered my energy, equipment and financial support to document a performance on film. It took a collaborative effort from friends, family and bandmembers, as well as an on-again, off-again editing schedule that lasted for more than six months to put eleven minutes on-screen. But it resulted in a record contract for the band.
BARGER: The Truth About De-Evolution film was pure art, everybody was doing it for art.
MOTHERSBAUGH: We did everything ourselves and it took an incredibly long time. Jerry and I opened a graphic design company and kept it open just long enough to make the money for the film. The part in the film that looks like we're in a lecture theatre, that was in the student union bar at Kent State, and General Boy's office was actually at a McDonald's in Ohio. Believe it or not, McDonald's in Ohio had a meeting room you could rent.
BARGER: When we filmed at Kent State, about ten or fifteen friends came down to be an audience. But there weren't enough people, so Mark went out into the hallway and just grabbed people until they filled the chamber up. Most of the people had no idea what was going on! At the end of the film you see the guy stab Booji Boy, that's me! Mark's dad plays General Boy, he really got into it. To this day, he's still General Boy.
CASALE: I pretended to be our manager and, dressing up all street, went to New York in April, and booked us into CBGB based on our single and a tape of the ten-minute movie. Then I got this guy who had a New York paper called The Rocker to look at it, and he endorsed us.
BARGER: David Bowie introduced Devo at Max's Kansas City. I'm at the back, at the soundboard, and I hear that David actually wants to walk out onstage with the microphone, but I have everything taped down because Devo's shows were so crazy!
CASALE: David Bowie promised to produce us, but he kept taking on projects, and we were just being pushed and pushed, and I said, "We have to go now, we have to do it." So me and Mark met Brian Eno in New York, and came to an agreement. Then off we went to Germany in '78 to this studio just outside of Cologne, and us and Brian did the whole record in twenty-eight days.
MOTHERSBAUGH: Eno took us to a studio he liked to work in, owned by Conny Plank, and there was a farmhouse that housed the recording room, in a pigsty of all places.
CASALE: I was on the phone arguing with my girlfriend at the time, Toni Basil, at Cleveland Airport, and I didn't hear the last call. When I got there the plane was still there but they had closed the door to the jet so I had to take the next flight.
MOTHERSBAUGH: So we had a day when we didn't have the whole band. So Brian, David Bowie and Holger Czukay from Can and the four other Devo guys just jammed all day. There's still a tape of that somewhere. In Jocko Homo, Brian put together this great piece of found sound of monkey chanters from Bali. He had done Music For Airports not long before, so he was used to this thing where four or five people would be supporting a thirty-foot-long piece of tape in a loop. We wanted to have that part live, so at that point in the song, Bob Casale would hit a button on a tape deck and the monkey chanters would start. Once out of ten times we'd be playing in the same tempo the chanters were in. So there was always this weird thing where we'd be playing faster than the chanters... We were like, "OK, technology doesn't exist for us to work like this yet..." We were pioneers!
CASALE: Brian was by this point concerned with beauty - he wanted to put tracks on that made us less industrial and more harmonic. We let him do it, but in the end they got mixed out. It would be fun now to find all of those tracks and mix them his way. At the time there was no question, though. It was our aesthetic - we had to get that out there before we started being influenced by other things.
BARGER: Jocko Homo is one of the most classic songs, if you compare any other rock'n'roll hit, nothing's like that. The timing of it, the whole thing. It became the main song every night.
MOTHERSBAUGH: During Jocko Homo I'd go into the audience. The lights would go out right before the chanting started and I'd maybe run up two or three flights of fire escapes and come down on a rope in the middle of the ceiling of the hall - I would be climbing upside down on a rope singing "Are we not men?" Jocko Homo always had the potential to get people going crazy. That's when there was the most crowd interaction. My glasses would get stolen, or I'd come back with no shirt, or half a shirt. There was always the potential for something really crazy to happen.
CASALE: Live, people were always surprised because underneath it all, we were rock'n'roll. We weren't a wimpy band standing there looking at our shoes. It was powerful and raw, and it still is today. I always said that we were Kraftwerk from the waist up, and Elvis Presley from the waist down.
WRITER: Mark Mothersbaugh
PERFORMERS: Mark Mothersbaugh (vocals, keyboards), Gerald Casale (bass, keyboards, vocals), Bob Casale (guitar, keyboards), Bob Mothersbaugh (guitar, vocals), Alan Meyers (drums)
PRODUCED BY: Chuck Statler (first version) / Brian Eno (second version)
RECORDED: Devo basement / Conny Plank's studio, Cologne, Germany
RELEASED: March 1977 / February 1978
UK/US CHARTS: 62 / did not chart
APRIL 18, 1973 - A 'proto-Devo' play their first gig, at Kent State University's Creative Arts Festival
1975 - Devo and Statler begin filming In The Beginning Was The End: The Truth About De-Evolution
MARCH 1977 - The band release the original version of Jocko Homo, recorded in an Akron basement
NOVEMBER 14, 1977 - Devo play Max's Kansas City in New York, introduced onstage by David Bowie
LATE 1977 - Devo begin recording their debut LP with Brian Eno, the new Jocko Homo comes out the following February