They were influential New Wave rockers and early pioneers of the music video. But you might just remember them for their geometric red hats and their hit 1980 single, “Whip it.” They are Devo, the band of brothers from Akron who often find themselves unfairly lumped in with one-hit-wonder bands from the ’80s like A-Ha, Nena and Big Country, despite their longevity and critical acclaim.
“We were like the Rodney Dangerfields of music,” said Gerald Casale, Devo’s co-founder. “We got no respect ever. MTV hardly even acknowledged that we were the pioneers of music videos. We re-wrote history and they relegated us to a trivialized corner.”
They may not have achieved the respect they felt they had earned, but nearly 40 years after Casale hooked up with fellow Kent State art student Bob Lewis to form the group, Devo fans still love the band’s smart, irreverent music. On Dec. 15, Devo, which includes nearly all of the members of the original group, returns to the area for a show at the State Theater in Falls Church.
Casale was present at the May 4 Massacre at Kent State in 1970, when National Guard troops opened fire on unarmed student demonstrators, killing four, two of whom were his friends. He said it was a “transformative experience” that made him abandon his hippie ideals and embrace the concept of “de-evolution,” a theory that posits that mankind is essentially regressing. Casale and Lewis named the band Devo based upon the concept and later joined forces with Casale’s brother, Bob, who played guitar, and fellow Akron natives brothers Mark, Bob and Jim Mothersbaugh.
“What we noticed about society was that it was falling apart and that people were actually getting dumber,” said Casale, who sings and plays bass guitar and synthesizers. “These days, we realize that the concept was even more real than we thought.”
In their first gig in Akron, the band was pelted with beer bottles and offered $100 to leave the premises after they refused to play Foghat covers as promised.
But Casale said the band began to command more positive attention from record companies after releasing a short film that won an award at the Ann Arbor Film Festival in 1976. The following year they did a cover of the Rolling Stones’ hit “Satisfaction,” which Mick Jagger reportedly dug, and by ’78 they landed a record deal with Warner Brothers.
Shortly after they were signed, Casale sketched an idea for the band’s iconic “energy-dome” hats on a piece of graph paper, and found some bright yellow reactor-attendant suits in a janitorial supply catalog for $3. An influential British rock critic called them a “thinking man’s Kiss,” and their look was born.
“The hats became completely iconic,” Casale recalled. “People who never bought a Devo record wanted one. I think because they’re so stupid, they’re cool.”
(The band now sells them for $32 on their website and you can even see how they’re made on YouTube.)
The band convinced Warner Brothers to use $15,000 that had been earmarked for promotional efforts on a music video for the single “Whip It.” At the time the concept of using music videos to promote a song was still new, but Devo already had made five videos.
“MTV was desperate for our videos, because they had no programming,” Casale recalled. “They were running our videos day and night and everybody was talking about us. But as soon as MTV went national, they tied their playlist to the top 40 charts and started using our stuff as filler.”
After “Whip It” made it to No. 14 on the Billboard charts, Warner Brothers was hungry for more hits, but Devo had no intention of compromising artistically. They were dubbed “nerd rockers” and they were OK with that.
“People wanted to make us nerds and we were fine with that,” Casale said. “Devo was guilty of engaging in the same kind of sex and drugs that hair bands were but no one was paying attention to us because we were ‘nerds.’”
After releasing eight studio albums in their first twelve years, the band played together only sporadically in the ’90s and 2000s and in 2010 released “Something for Everybody,” their first new album in nearly 20 years. The band made extensive use of focus groups of Devo fans in preparing the album and even let the band’s fans choose what color energy domes they’d wear: “U.N. blue.”
Casale said the band never broke up, but he drifted into the world of advertising. He directed television commercials and created ad campaigns, but continued to ruffle feathers. He took flack from Miller beer, one of his clients, after being quoted in the press admitting that Miller Lite didn’t taste good; referred to Disney executives as the “Disney Taliban” for their efforts to censor some Devo songs they planned to release on a children’s album; and threatened legal action against McDonald’s, after it came out with “New Age Nigel,” a Happy Meal toy that appeared to be an obvious ripoff of their energy dome hats.
Casale is content with the band’s legacy and says that performing live is “as good as sex,” even at 63. He said Devo still wants to make a musical and a documentary, write a book, and even open a Devo store.
“I think we’d like to be remembered as what was new about New Wave,” he said. “New Wave was a lot of recycled ideas with some big shoulders and eyeliner. We sounded different, we looked different, we were different.”