Devolution is a regression of humankind, a descent to a lower or worsened state. This concept of degeneration inspired a few art students to name themselves a truncated version of the ideation: Devo.
1970 Kent State Massacre
The notion of devolution stuck with Jerry Casale immediately after finding himself in the middle of the Kent State shootings. On May 4, 1970, the Ohio National Guard began firing into a crowd of unarmed students protesting the U.S. bombing of Cambodia. The Kent State massacre killed four, including two of Casale’s friends, and injured nine others.
Casale says he was a “smart, politically aware hippie,” which changed following the tragic event at Kent, where he was studying art along with Devo bandmate Mark Mothersbaugh and former member Bob Lewis. “May 4, 1970, changed all of that in the nanosecond of gunfire,” said Casale. “I was traumatized beyond description. It probably qualified as a nervous breakdown. No more Mr. nice guy.”
Witnessing two students he knew, Alison Krause and Jeffrey Miller, get shot and killed, was a moment Casale says forever changed his life.
“All I can tell you is that it completely and utterly changed my life,” said Casale. “I was a white hippie boy and then I saw exit wounds from M1 rifles out of the backs of two people I knew.” He added, “I stopped being a hippie and I started to develop the idea of devolution. I got real, real pissed off.”
Art School Drop-Ins
Formed in 1972 by Casale and Mothersbaugh, whose brothers, Bob Mothersbaugh and Bob Casale (1952-2014), would later join, Devo was born.
Topped in red ziggurat-shaped energy dome caps and uniform attire, Devo brandished mechanically mixed undertones of electronic and new wave, releasing their first single, the anthemic “Jocko Homo,” in 1977. The track, distinguished by the band’s rallying chant of Are we not men? / We are Devo, was released on the band’s debut album Q: Are We Not Men? A: We Are Devo!, produced by Brian Eno, a year later. Written predominantly by the Mothersbaugh brothers and Gerald Casale, Q played around a platform of techno-dance beats equalized by more satirical and abstract lyrics that had something to say underneath it all.
At the time David Bowie, who is also credited with co-producing Q along with Eno, called Devo “the band of the future.”
“Whip It” Was Good
By 1980, the band’s third album Freedom of Choice produced their hit “Whip It,” which captured the video-consuming (MTV-obsessed) spectators, before following up the New Traditionalists‘ hit with “Through Being Cool” and “Beautiful World.” The band continued releasing albums throughout their 1988 album, Total Devo, and Smooth Noodle Maps in 1990, before a 20-year hiatus in the ’90s and 2000s.
Gerald Casale went on to direct videos for Rush, Foo Fighters, Soundgarden, and more, while Mark Mothersbaugh has written music for film and television, including work with MTV, Pee-Wee’s Playhouse, and more along with his works in silk screen art.
Devo regrouped for reunions over the years and again for their ninth album Something for Everybody in 2010.
Now more than 50 years since Devo first faced a degenerated social and political landscape, it’s as if nothing has changed.
“De-evolution is real; it went beyond our expectations, and now you see it all the time,” said Casale in a recent interview. “It’s always being applied, of course, to the horrible alternate reality nightmare of our politics, and recently with Elon Musk’s takeover of Twitter. There were three huge references on a Google newsfeed about what he’s done to “devolve” Twitter into chaos.”
He continued, “It’s expanded way beyond our facile, smart-ass college guy concept. It’s real, and you can see it in the way that the planet’s burning up, but people have their heads in the sand about it like the proverbial ostrich. They’re not stepping up. They’re running away.”
Photo by Chris Walter/WireImage