“At that point, the city was a shithole, but perfect for the punk scene. The anger and frustration was palpable” – Jerry Casale
Devo ‘Q: Are We Not Men? A: We Are Devo!’
“There’s no doubt that the trajectory they’re on will continue upwards,” announced the NME as the hype for Devo’s debut album, ‘Q: Are We Not Men? A: We Are Devo!’, started to intensify a few months ahead of its release in August 1978. “Devo go right to the blood,” the report continued. “There’s some grand common factor in their music that says I could play it to my grandmother or kid sister and still get the same reaction. A Devo craze is just seconds away…”
The Devo craze, which certainly swept the UK in 1978, was the result of planning and preparation that went back years, but the real heat was applied in New York City, where Devo’s bass player, chief strategist and co-architect Jerry Casale arrived from Akron, Ohio, in March 1977 on a one-man guerrilla mission. He assumed the identity of Devo’s manager and was armed with the freshly pressed and self-produced ‘Jocko Homo’, a seven-inch single on the band’s own Booji Boy label. He also had a videotape of their art film, ‘In The Beginning Was The End: The Truth About De-Evolution’.
“Devo had been reaching critical mass before that in the Akron/Cleveland area,” says Jerry. “But after listening to the first release by the Ramones and a few other things that were coming out, I was inspired and really felt we had to up our game.”
Jerry’s urgent hustle had already started earlier that month, when he managed to get a tape of Devo to David Bowie as he passed through Cleveland playing keyboards in Iggy Pop’s band on ‘The Idiot’ tour. Bowie and Iggy loved the tape, but had no idea who the artist was. By the time they got around to listening to it, the contact details had become separated from the tape itself.
Oblivious as to whether Devo’s music had reached the ears of Bowie, and expecting that it never would, Jerry’s first HQ on his NYC trip was “a dingy, leaky, fourth floor walk-up in the Bowery”, where a friend of his then girlfriend gave him a couch to sleep on. The area was famous for its flophouses, cheap rents and the legendary punk venue CBGB’s at 315 Bowery. Jerry walked into CBGB’s, introduced himself to owner Hilly Kristal, and secured Devo’s first New York gigs, a two-night stand on 23 and 24 May 1977. Next was a visit to the office of New York Rocker, a punk/alternative music paper, whose editor Alan Betrock dug the seven-inch and the video, and promised to write about them. He also put Jerry in touch with the booker at Max’s Kansas City on Park Avenue South, a 15-minute march from CBGB’s, where Devo duly bagged a third booking, for 26 May. Jerry’s stealthy raid was clearly going well, but the city itself was a mess, on the verge of bankruptcy and riven with crime.
“It was the perfect atmosphere for de-evolution,” notes Jerry. “New York was what we were talking about, it was really devolving, and it was frightening and intense there. At that point, the city was a shithole, but perfect for the punk scene. The anger and frustration was palpable.”
“I remember early on in New York, we met William Burroughs,” says Devo frontman Mark Mothersbaugh. “I went to his place in a funky part of town. He walked with a cane, because he was a little frail. There were people lying in front of his building, they’d harass you to give ‘em money. When we got in his apartment, he took his cane and turned the handle, pulled out a 15-inch dagger and said, ‘I’m waiting to use this on that guy down there that keeps hassling me’. It was pretty gritty.”
“We went home to Akron, got prepared, and came back with a set that I felt was worthy of playing in New York City,” says Jerry. “We had finally hit big city energy levels.”
“We knew lots of tricks because we were already artists, so we could do things like inexpensive large fly-posting,” adds Mark. “We used a place for architects and we could get 100 30-inch by 40-inch posters for $25. We’d go in a day or two early and plaster them everywhere. Everyone else had these little letter-sized posters. It really attracted people’s attention.”
The posters helped draw respectable crowds and these first NYC gigs were a success. Devo slotted right into a scene that was already at fever pitch thanks to the Ramones, Suicide, Talking Heads and Blondie. They were at the epicentre of the American punk, new wave and art scene. They scored another booking at Max’s in July, this time a three-nighter with Suicide and The Cramps on 7, 8 and 9 July.
“We loved it,” grins Jerry. “It was like the punk version of Vegas. You’re the house band for a while and you don’t have to move cities and hotels or pack up your equipment.”
“Max’s was the hang out for people in the art scene,” says Mark. “People like Warhol would come to see you, and all the people who worked with him, and Dennis Hopper as well. Everybody who was part of the scene would show up. I remember one time we were staying at the Chelsea Hotel and it was kind of wild. [Devo guitarist] Bob Casale called me from his room one morning and said, ‘Hey Mark! Can you come over and help me get out of my room?’. I went over and I think it was The Damned who had taken the mattresses out of their room as they were checking out and they’d stacked ‘em up against his door.”
“I liked Captain Sensible,” chuckles Jerry, “because he wasn’t…”
“Early on, we met Blondie,” notes Mark. “They asked if they could record ‘Come Back Jonee’ before we had even recorded it! People were saying they’d heard we were managed by [Suicide manager] Marty Thau, or that we’d signed to Marty’s Red Star Records. There were so many rumours flying around.”
After one of the shows at Max’s, Mark encountered John Lennon. Staggering out of the venue, the former Beatle recognised Mark, who was waiting in the band’s van to load out.
“He was with Ian Hunter from Mott The Hoople,” says Mark. “They were so drunk, they were holding each other up. Lennon stuck his head though the van window, his face right up close, and started yelling the ‘Yeah, yeah, yeah!’ part from ‘Uncontrollable Urge’ at me. I’d written that song as a homage to ‘She Loves You’ and ‘I Want To Hold Your Hand’. I’d seen The Beatles on ‘The Ed Sullivan Show’ when I was 12 and it had changed everything for me.”
With beery spittle still on his face, Mark watched dumbfounded as Lennon and Hunter staggered off into the night.
New York was in a state of high tension during the summer of 1977, not least because of a spate of murders by a serial killer known as “Son of Sam”. Just a week after Devo’s three-night stand at Max’s, the infamous 1977 power cut resulted in mass looting, rioting and fires across the city. And as a heatwave engulfed New York for a couple of weeks after the blackout, the police released a letter to the media purporting to be from Son of Sam, whose killing spree seemed to be reaching a climax. The letter, which was reprinted in the newspapers, opened with the line, “Hello from the gutters of NYC which are filled with dog manure, vomit, stale wine, urine and blood”.
New York, understandably, was losing its mind. Devo, however, were on a high, and were soon making a second attack on the consciousness of America, this time on the West Coast with gigs in San Francisco and Los Angeles.
“By the time of our second New York trip, the press had really come around,” says Jerry. “We were everywhere in the local new music scene in NYC, and that got the attention of Kip Cohen on the West Coast, who was an A&R man at A&M.”
Kip Cohen had signed The Tubes and he’d heard the New York buzz around Devo, helped by a friend of Jerry’s from Akron, who had moved to LA to start a film prop company and was friends with Cohen’s assistant. Cohen paid Devo $2,000 to go to LA and play a showcase gig, and he put them up in the Oakwood Garden Apartments in the Valley, which was partly owned by A&M. Devo soon realised that Los Angeles was a different kettle of devolution altogether.
“The picture postcard fantasy of LA is not what we experienced,” says Jerry. “We saw the reality, which was pretty grimy and grim, hot and dirty. The city looked so tacky and Hollywood was awful.”
The showcase gig was at the 800-capacity Starwood on Santa Monica Boulevard in West Hollywood. Kip Cohen “came late and left early”, according to Jerry.
“He summarily rejected us, and the way he did was so disgusting,” remembers Jerry with a wry laugh. “We were in this horrible office, decorated like it’s Hawaii or a South Sea island, with rattan furniture, palm tree prints on the cushions. He’s got bleached blonde surfer hair, khaki shorts and sandals, and here we are in our black pants and black shirts, super skinny, short haircuts, really serious, and he’s got this big grin on his face, like, ‘Guys… hey! How’re you doing?’.
“So he sits us down and launches into this long convoluted preamble, ‘You could march 17 teenage girls in here naked and they’re all pretty and one’s got a mole, one’s got a flat butt…’, and as he’s talking we’re getting more and more nauseous, everybody is falling silent and frozen. I’m getting really pissed off, and he goes, ‘You know, what I’m trying to say is, well, guys, you’re not my kind of girl…’, and Alan Myers, our drummer, looks at him and goes, ‘We’re not you’re kind of girl? What does that mean?’. And he says, ‘You know guys, you got two more weeks at the Oakwood Garden Apartments, just soak up the sun, hang out at the jacuzzi, get laid, have fun, and in years to come you’ll remember this’. And we go out in the parking lot and I say, ‘FUCK this asshole! We’re not leaving, we’ll figure it out’.”
And figure it out he did. Jerry, as “ad hoc Field Marshall” of Devo, went into battle once again. This time, he rustled up more gigs at the Starwood and was able to get some column inches in the local underground music press. The following week, Devo pulled a huge crowd, which included Iggy Pop, who was delighted to have finally found the band whose demo tape he loved so much. Also in the crowd that night were Toni Basil, the dancer and choreographer who had worked on David Bowie’s ‘Diamond Dogs’ tour, and the actor Dean Stockwell. Those contacts brought Devo into Neil Young’s orbit in San Francisco. They spent the next six months bouncing between LA and San Francisco, playing gigs and riding a wave of ever-increasing but under-the-radar Devomania.
In San Francisco, Devo played at a club called the Mabuhay Gardens, where they inserted a version of The Tubes’ ‘White Punks On Dope’ into an extended rendering of ‘Jocko Homo’, changing the lyrics to ‘White Dopes On Punk’. A poke at Kip Cohen perhaps?
“Yes, it was,” says Mark. “It was not lost on us that he liked The Tubes and he thought our music and our film making was inferior to theirs.”
“We were just eking out the typical itinerant musician’s life, on the fly, sleeping on people’s couches,” says Jerry. “When we got to LA, it just exploded. Every record company started coming around, every agent, every manager. And of course, they were all pitching horribly onerous deals but, you know, it was happening, there was action, and I loved action.”
They stayed with Iggy Pop for a while, hanging out at his Malibu beach house.
“That was a fantastically surreal experience,” recalls Jerry. “He was mixing ‘Lust For Life’, the song, and blasting it through a large PA system. It was incredible. One time, he dived off the deck of his beach house into water that was only about three feet deep and smashed into the sand. He hurt himself pretty badly.”
While they were on the West Coast, a masterplan was hatched: Iggy’s fellow Devo-tee David Bowie would produce Devo’s debut album, and Bowie would announce this at another New York show at Max’s. It happened on 15 November 1977, with Bowie promising the crowd that he would be producing the group’s album in Tokyo that winter.
“But then of course, he proceeded to have so many commitments that it just dragged on and on,” says Jerry. “I said, ‘Listen, we can’t wait any longer, this isn’t good, we’re missing out. We have to record!’. And Bowie goes, ‘OK, I’m going to have you meet Brian’, and so he lopped us off onto Brian Eno. We had a fantastic conversation with Eno in New York and we said, ‘OK, let’s do it’.”
So, still without a record deal, but confident they would get one, and with Warner Brothers increasingly looking the most likely home for them, February 1978 saw Devo in the German countryside, at Conny Plank’s studio just outside Cologne. Brian Eno was at the controls (and paying the bills) and Warner Brothers stumped up for Devo’s gear to be shipped to Germany in return for first refusal of the finished album.
“We were fish out of water,” notes Jerry. “It was completely bizarre and intimidating because it was cold as hell, they put us in some bed and breakfast place that was isolated, where there was no central heating, and Conny would come and pick us up in his huge Mercedes at nine in the morning, wearing this fur coat with no shirt, necklaces and chains, hair past his shoulders. He was like a Viking. We were like, ‘What the fuck have we done?’.”
Despite these conditions, or perhaps because of them, Devo recorded their extraordinary debut album, ‘Q: Are We Not Me? A: We Are Devo!’, in under a month. It sounded like nothing else, and would catapult them into the world when it was finally released in August 1978.
“We were so excited to be doing it for real and working with Eno,” says Jerry. “The circumstances were bizarre, but that allowed us to do nothing but think about the music and concentrate, and play with more passion and resolve than we ever had.”
Mark recently found the original two-inch tapes of the Eno sessions for the album.
“There are parts on it that are labelled, ‘David Bowie Vocals’, ‘Eno’s Vocals’, ‘Brian’s Synth Parts’…” reveals Mark. “Some did make it onto the album, their vocals are on ‘Uncontrollable Urge’, and some of the cool things Eno did with synths made it on, and his tape loops are on ‘Jocko Homo’. But there were quite a few of those that we muted right before we pressed the record button. They never confronted me about it, that I was doing that, even though we were all standing there listening to the songs at the same time.”
The Devo juggernaut went off the road after making the album. The band played a few gigs in the UK on the way home to the US, which allowed Richard Branson to get involved. Branson was determined to sign them to Virgin, made a fantastic offer, and dismissed Warner Brothers’ prior claim, saying Virgin would sort it out.
“We made a mistake by trusting him,” says Mark, ruefully.
“I was out-voted…” says Jerry, who wasn’t keen on messing with Virgin behind Warners’ back. When Devo told Warner Brothers they were signing to Virgin, Warners immediately sued. The court case halted any release of the album, and ended with Devo carved up between the two labels, Warners taking the Americas and Japan, Virgin taking Europe. The sorry affair poisoned the relationship between Devo and Warners, and delayed the album’s release from May until August.
When it was finally issued, in five different coloured vinyl editions in the UK, and sporting a different sleeve from the US version, it became part of that extraordinary run of albums in the summer of 1978. Devo returned to New York to have their own Beatles-on-Ed-Sullivan moment, when they played for a television audience of around 15 million on ‘Saturday Night Live’, an appearance brokered by Neil Young’s manager Elliot Roberts, who was now also managing Devo at Young’s request.
“It made up for the injunction and the delay with the album,” says Jerry, “because it kick-started us going from the minor leagues to the mainstream. We bumped straight up to playing in 2,000 or 3,000 seat places. That ‘Saturday Night Live’ appearance was our New York coronation.”
First New York, then the world. Devo had arrived and, as their own propaganda insisted, de-evolution was real.
‘Q: Are We Not Me? A: We Are Devo!’ was released by Virgin (in the UK) and Warner Brothers (in the US) in August 1978