History is written by the winners, as the quote goes, but what happens when the losers out to be right? The music world will find out when the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame announces its Class of 2022, and DEVO is among the inducted. While the band is not guaranteed a spot within the Rock Hall, it’s hard not to see the world today and acknowledge that the once-reviled Cassandras of new wave and punk are more relevant than ever.
“People either thought we were pathetic, or they hated us,” founding member Gerald Casale recalls while speaking with HollywoodLife. “We tried to play out, and we would get rejected, laughed at, or threatened. We were very polarizing, as you can imagine, because it was original, and nobody was doing anything original.”
Born in the tragedy of the Kent State massacre, DEVO – Gerald and his brother, Bob Casale, Mark Mothersbaugh, and his brother, Bob Mothersbaugh – gazed into the abyss of humanity’s regression and dared not to blink. With drummer Alan Myers, the artistic collective incorporated theatrics, concepts, and new sonic technology to combat culture and thought’s increasing “de-evolution.”
The early days were rough. “Cover bands were the gods of the day,” Casale tells HollywoodLife. “And then there was stadium rock, with guys in tight leather pants, platform shoes, and big curly hair. That’s what was happening. And DEVO was antithetical to all that. It was just like suddenly, ‘no, here’s another world,'” he says, adding that DEVO led the charge – “change by example.”
Four decades after DEVO’s debut album, 1978’s Q: Are WE Not Men? A: We Are Devo!, the world has followed DEVO’s example. At least musically. The band’s usage of synthesizers, especially in later recordings (like 1980’s Freedom of Choice, 1981’s New Traditionists, and 1982’s Oh, No! It’s Devo), laid the groundwork for the 80s-revival sound that has dominated popular music for the past few years. DEVO’s forays into discordant compositions are one of the progenitors of aggressive and abrasive mutants found in hyper-pop.
Plus, we live in a day and age when there are TikTok accounts explaining the concept of interpolation in music. DEVO’s devolving of The Rolling Stones’ “Satisfaction (I Can’t Get No),” the song that rock historian Richie Unterberger described as “the most instantly identifiable in rock history, bar none,” remains utterly profound, 45 years after its release as a single.
“It’s heartening to me that things we were talking about, and sounds, and beats, and relationships of parts of music, kind of architecturally that we were always striving for and experimenting with — it turns out that we did a lot of things right,” says Casale when discussing DEVO’s discography. “When you hear some of those songs off those three albums, they still sound fresh. There’s something modern about them. They’re not just of their time. Because there’s some substance there that goes beyond trivial stylings, it’s beyond a white shirt and a skinny black tie.”
“DEVO was never hip,” continues Casale. “That’s why it was so funny, ‘Through Being Cool’ — we were never cool, and we knew that. What we were after were things that would withstand the test of time, hopefully. And some of them did. Like ‘Freedom of Choice,’ ‘Gates of Steel,’ those songs, ‘We Like Explosions,’ ‘Time Out for Fun’ — the preamble sung by neutral and the rotating spud bodies in the video? Think about what it’s talking about. It’s talking about a dark specter on the world stage threatening World War III. And it was about terrorism. I mean, just listen to it. The whole talking part’s about terrorism.”
Despite the timelessness of DEVO, it’s not a lock that the group David Bowie called “the band of the future” will be inducted into the Hall of Fame. The band was nominated in 2018 and again in 2021. The 2022 competition is stiff. Dolly Parton may be voted in, even though she asked not to be involved. Proto-punk pioneers The MC5 and the New York Dolls are nominated, as are DEVO’s fellow 80s icons, Pat Benatar, Eurythmics, Duran Duran, and Lionel Richie.
The late Fela Kuti is nominated, as are Kate Bush, Carly Simon, A Tribe Called Quest, Judas Priest, and Dionne Warwick. With eligibility for the Rock Hall extended to an individual artist or a band twenty-five years after its first commercial recording, the ’90s are also present among the nominees, with Beck, Eminem, and Rage Against The Machine among the nominees.
Despite the prestige of the other nominees, it’s hard to deny DEVO’s worthiness. Half of the 2022 nominees were either peers of DEVO, influenced by DEVO – or both. And if not influenced musically, the iconoclastic ideas in the band’s work have permeated throughout the following generations. “Beautiful World” pulls back the curtain on the promised “American Dream,” which still hits today. “Jocko Homo,” with its signature chorus (“Are we not men? We are DEVO!”) about rejecting science for superstition and belief, seems like it’s about the “fake news” misinformation era happening on social media right now. DEVO’s words of challenging inner conformity (“Freedom of Choice”), false piety (“Praying Hands”), and passively meandering through a consumerist life (“Mongoloid”).
DEVO’s prescience has spawned a few songs — The Attery Squash’s “Devo Was Right About Everything” and the Groovie Ghoulies’ “Devo” (Devo was right / Devo knew / And all the crazy prophecies came true.”)
“It wasn’t fun being right about the big picture,” says Gerry. “It started off as an honest but smart-ass college pose, right? ‘Forget evolution. There’s de-evolution!’ That explains what we’re seeing better than Darwin or the Bible, that’s for sure. We were disrespectful guys, right, we were iconoclastic, and we were taking the piss out of illegitimate authority, right? And as time goes on, it’s not funny anymore.”
“It was cute in the beginning when you could just make fun of stupidity and be anti-stupid. We were pro-information. We were like Spockian, right? We liked logic and reason. How silly. But now this isn’t funny,” says Gerald, looking at the world of 2022. “This is not funny.”
The 2022 Rock Hall also proves an interesting moment in time, when the establishment celebrates the torchbearers of the underground. How do paragons of the anti-establishment feel about the possibility of standing among the big hair and platforms that DEVO was once again? “I can only speak for myself, but I think it’s disingenuous when artists, like Tom Yorke from Radiohead, it becomes fashionable to put down the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. It’s easy, kind of like the Groucho Marx maxim of ‘I don’t want to be a member of any club that wants me.'”
Jerry states that anyone who dares raise their head to voice an opinion through artistic expression, they seek validation, no matter “what [they] think about an establishment, organization of self-proclaimed gatekeepers.”
“If you’re an artist who has bothered to put yourself out there and get up on stage and expose yourself the way you did to failure and criticism, I think that you do like some kind of recognition if it comes your way,” he adds, “because of what you went through, because of the insecurity of what it’s like to expose yourself to criticism and failure, the way any band does when they get up in front of people.”
“And why were you getting up in front of people anyway?” continues Casale. “Obviously, some obsession, some life force that’s compelling you. And so that’s how I feel. It’s like, ‘yes, it’s nice if we get in.’ If we don’t, I won’t be crushed because we’ve been up for it twice before. And the machinations of the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame are inscrutable.”
“But all I can say is if it still has anything to do with rewarding innovation and keeping alive the spirit of real music, then DEVO does deserve it,” says Gerald. “I mean, we were as primal and as animal and original in our own way, as Little Richard, or Jimi Hendrix or David Bowie. That is something we did do right.”
DEVO’s entry into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame will be a chance for the “never hip,” uncool “losers” to prove that history isn’t written by the “winners.” Except, DEVO are the winners. Plus, as it’s been noted, no one really said that phrase verbatim, and that mangled sentence has been passed off as established wisdom. DEVO, if anything, has challenged those notions in the war against devolution. Their induction will not stem the tide, but it could be a final acknowledgment that we are not men. We are DEVO. We all are DEVO. And DEVO was right.