I’ve had Devo on the brain for the last few months. Maybe it’s the degradation and failures of our culture, social interactions, and institutions that has me believing in the central premise that we are, as a species, devolving. Or maybe it’s the excellent, twice weekly podcast “ABCDevo” [abcdevo.com] in which the entire Devo catalog is analyzed and scrutinized, one song at a time in alphabetical order. A little from Columns A and B, I suppose.
The one Devo album from the main 1978-1984 sequence that resides in my (and many other Devo fans’) blindspot is 1982’s Oh No, It’s Devo! The consensus among many fans of the earlier “Hardcore Devo” era of the band is that this is the point where they got too synth-heavy and lost their way. Too synth-heavy? Seriously? Is that even possible?
This album sees the band teaming up with producer Roy Thomas Baker, who was coming off of mega-success with albums by The Cars, Journey, and Queen. The album also reaches the end of the path started on their Eno-produced 1978 debut (Q: Are We Not Men?, A: We are Devo!) – which started with synthesizers providing either the punctuation or unusual flavors to otherwise guitar-driven punk songs – to where synthesizers and drum machines were the dominant instrumentation, from the initial writing stages all the way through the production and live performance. So essentially what happens over the course of Devo albums from Q/A to Oh No is that the role of guitars and synthesizers are switched. By Oh No, it is the guitar that is holding back to just provide the rare second melody or emphasis, while the synths take care of the musical heavy lifting. It is this new synth-heavy development in their sound that squarely placed them as the weirder and quirkier contemporaries of acts such as The Human League, Missing Persons, Berlin and countless other early 1980s synth pop groups both in the US and the UK (growing up, I thought they were English for some reason even though they are from Akron, Ohio).
The first track, “Time Out for Fun,” immediately sets the stage with sequenced bass and melody riffs alongside an unrelenting drum machine track, while the guitar performs the occasional angular secondary riff during the chorus. It’s very easy to imagine a band like The Human League doing a less manic version of this track and making it a hit.
What follows is perhaps one of the creepiest tracks to grace the Devo catalogue – “Peek-A-Boo.” The childish Simon-Says-type lyrics (“So put your hands on your face/and cover up your eyes/don’t look until I signal/Peek-A-Boo!”) are unsettling as delivered by Mark Mothersbaugh against a musical backdrop that is uniquely upbeat and sufficiently dissonant. In a way it reminds me of a synth-centric version of their earlier song “Praying Hands” – the lyrics and music on their own are not as sinister until combined. As if that weren’t enough, check out the video: that laughing devil still gives me the creeps!
“Out of Sync” and “Explosions” are both straight up 1980s pop tunes that fit comfortably both on the album and in the musical zeitgeist of aerobics VHS tapes and bowl haircuts, while retaining that essential Devo quirkiness that comes through mostly in the vocals and slightly-off-kilter synthesizer sounds. The intro riff for “Explosions,” for example, is a fantastic sequence of aggressive-dissonant synth blasts that one could picture being looped by a current EBM act.
“That’s Good” may be the catchiest track from the album. The bass-synth part is nice and resonant, while the other synthesizers and drum machine effortlessly glide along from verse-to-chorus-to-verse with purpose and efficiency. One could imagine this would have been Devo’s biggest hit after “Whip It” if it weren’t for MTV’s reluctance to play their suggestive video for the song.
The one track to actually feature the guitar – “Patterns” – is a low point on the album. It comes across as limp and uninspired filler with nothing subversive to offer in the lyrics or music. It also has a certain Oingo Boingo quality I can’t quite put my finger on, and sounds like it was the band’s attempt to follow up on the previous album’s sublime “Beautiful World.” Thankfully, a real banger comes to the rescue next with “Big Mess,” a song inspired by notes sent to a radio station from a schizophrenic. The tempo, beats, and bass riffs on this track return to the more aggressive form found on previous tracks. There’s also a great synth solo towards the end of each chorus that is more technically accomplished than one would expect from Devo.
“Speed Racer” is Devo doing what it does best, matching musical and vocal quirkiness and absurdity in a way that’s still catchy and propulsive. On earlier albums this territory was covered by more guitar-driven songs like “Too Much Paranoias” or “Blockhead.” The track is marked by various different cartoonish character voices and has a solid groove happening in the drums and bass synth. Various different melodic parts burble in and out providing new weird elements to pay attention to on multiple listens. The track even features the best use of the guitar on the album, clearly articulating counter-melodies that complement the rest of what is going on rather than demanding attention to itself.
The last three tracks on Oh No, “What I Must Do,” “I Desire” (with lyrics from a poem by would-be presidential assassin John Hinckley), and “Deep Sleep,” lend support to criticisms that the band’s synth-centric ways were starting to dilute their energy and spark. “Deep Sleep” in particular sounds like it could have been included in the soundtrack for a buddy cop movie from that era. They are not terribly embarrassing songs (like those that would appear on Total Devo and Smooth Noodle Maps, and to a lesser extent on Shout), but they do not feel essential, either.
It is important to note that at this time the band was really pushing the envelope in terms of what was possible, audio-visually, during live performances. For the Oh No tour, the band attempted syncing the music (it’s not clear to this writer whether this was done via MIDI or control voltage or some other method) with the 3D videos created by Mothersbaugh and Jerry Casale. They even did a live telecast utilizing this technology on the first show of their tour, with disastrous results!
Of course this had to happen during a song called “Big Mess”! Ironically, the problem was fixed during the next song, “Out of Sync”…
This moment really encapsulates the development of Devo and many other acts in the early 80 who started to embrace MIDI and more slick production techniques. Gone was the more spontaneous “by the seats of their pants” band to one that really crafted their audio-video presentation down to the smallest details while relying on sync between drum machines, multiple synthesizers, and video. Although many Devo fans regard that development as the “beginning of the end,” one could also think of them at this time as fearless pioneers of techniques still being used today by many artists in music and video production. Additionally, Oh No introduced some of the musical and visual “1980s”aesthetics from which synthwave and other similar genres draw. In that sense, it may deserve another listen.
Some other synth-heavy tracks from Devo for further listening:
“S.I.B. (Swelling Itchy Brain)” – Duty Now for the Future
“Planet Earth” and “Cold War” – Freedom of Choice
When he’s not on duty with the Smart Patrol, Chris Frain records and performs electronic music under the moniker Pattern Language. The debut Pattern Language EP, Total Squaresville, is available online at Happy Robots Records: https://happyrobotsrecords.bandcamp.com/album/total-squaresville