The Stories Behind 4 Distinctly Different Versions of Devo’s “Beautiful World”

Devo’s sound is so original and identifiable that covering their songs—and doing justice to them— would seem to be a monumentally difficult task. Yet their songs have been covered frequently, with their best-known track “Whip It” having been recorded by at least 40 other artists. While their 1981 single “Beautiful World” didn’t gain as much notoriety as “Whip It” did, it has inspired a number of cover versions as well.

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Three bands with entirely different styles—Seattle alt-rockers Harvey Danger, synth-pop trio Information Society, and rap-metal titans Rage Against the Machine—are among those who have covered “Beautiful World.” As one would expect, each had their own distinct take on the song. Here’s a look at how Devo created a deceptively cheery hit about ugly realities, and how three other bands put their own stamp on it.

About Devo’s Original

Entering the 1980s, Devo had yet to place a song on a Billboard chart, but the surprising popularity of “Whip It’ from the 1980 album Freedom of Choice catalyzed a modest run of hits in the early part of the decade. “Beautiful World” was the leadoff single from Devo’s fourth album New Traditionalists. As was the case with “Whip It,” “Beautiful World” gained notice for its hooky melody and a video that got some MTV airplay, but it also contained a serious message.

To those who only listened casually to the song, “Beautiful World” may have seemed like a feel-good tune, with its references to a society that is a sweet, romantic place with beautiful people everywhere. If Gerald Casale’s deadpan vocal delivery and the band’s cold synth-laden sound didn’t make the irony of those lines apparent, the lyric It’s a beautiful world / For you / Not me, gives it away. The official video for “Beautiful World,” like the song itself, begins with pleasant imagery that eventually gives way to a grimmer picture of the bleaker aspects of humanity and how we tend to gloss over them.

“Beautiful World” is unmistakably Devo, but if the vocals remind you of another band that grew in stature during the early MTV years, it’s no accident. The song’s co-writers, Casale and Mark Mothersbaugh, both envisioned the song being sung in the style of Wall of Voodoo’s Stan Ridgway. Since Casale had the more convincing Ridgway impersonation, he got the nod for the lead vocals on the song.

Harvey Danger

The cover of “Beautiful World” that Harvey Danger recorded for the 1999 MTV-produced film 200 Cigarettes never made it into the movie or the soundtrack. According to frontman Sean Nelson, the song was never actually fully completed. The song has been published on YouTube, and while Nelson tells American Songwriter the song is “85 to 95 percent” finished, it likely sounds fully formed to anyone who isn’t actually in Harvey Danger. The Devo cover was one of several songs Harvey Danger submitted to MTV for inclusion in the movie, with others including versions of David Bowie’s “DJ,” Duran Duran’s “Is There Something I Should Know?” and—the one that was actually chosen for the film—The English Beat’s “Save It For Later.”

Devo had been a fixture in Nelson’s life since the age of 5, when his father brought home some of the band’s stickers after a day of mixing sound for them. Harvey Danger’s cover of “Beautiful World” includes some jangly guitars that give the song some warmth, but Nelson’s forceful vocals are a reminder of its darker meaning. One unique feature of this version is Nelson’s muddled annunciation of the lyrics at the beginning of the bridge. Nelson says he wasn’t actually sure what the lyric was, which is difficult to make out on Devo’s original version. Nelson subsequently had the opportunity to ask Mothersbaugh about the lyrics when interviewing him at the Seattle International Film Festival, and he clarified the lines are Boy and girl with the new clothes on / You can shake it to me all night long.

Information Society

In a 2014 interview, Information Society lead singer Kurt Harland said he had been lobbying his bandmates to record a Devo song for an upcoming covers album. The band agreed to do it, and they settled on “Beautiful World” as the song they would record. Then keyboardist Paul Robb took their homage to Devo a step further, getting Casale to record the vocals. Several years earlier, Information Society’s management had worked with Casale on his Jihad Jerry & the Evildoers side project, and they connected Robb with the Devo vocalist and bassist.

Information Society’s version is even more synth-dominated than Devo’s, and it has a more pulsating feel. It appears on their 2014 album Hello World, and the band also included it on the aforementioned covers album, which was released in 2016 as Orders of Magnitude.

Rage Against the Machine

This cover, which was included on Rage Against the Machine’s final album Renegades, diverges the farthest from the Devo version, though not in the way you might expect. There is not a synth to be found, but there are also no drums and not much volume in general. Much of RATM’s cover of “Beautiful World” is Zack de la Rocha quietly singing on top of Tom Morello’s gentle strumming.

In discussing the cover songs on Renegades for an interview, Tim Commerford noted it was the first song the band had ever recorded without drums. Morello explained the group’s laid-back approach to arranging and playing “Beautiful World,” saying, “I thought, ‘what if you made it a moody, almost U2 or Pink Floyd dark ballad, and what would that sound like?’”

The U2 comparison in particular is apt, as RATM’s version of “Beautiful World” comes across like a rendition of “One,” but with an even less hopeful message. Their cover has actually been listened to more often on Spotify than the original, having been streamed more than 5 million times, as compared to the over 4 million times Devo’s version has been streamed.

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Photo by David Redfern/Redferns/Getty Images

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