Since the human species appears to be careening headlong down the path of devolution, I thought it was a good time to engage with Devo and see if they got it right when they released Are We Not Men? almost forty years ago.
First, let’s clarify what we’re talking about. Devolution is the notion that a species can revert to more primitive forms over time. The flaw in the theory of devolution is that it presupposes that the intent of evolution is progress. Evolution has no intent—it just happens as species respond to environmental challenges. The belief in a purpose to evolution is closely tied to the belief that the human species represents the evolutionary peak, an anthropomorphic view oddly similar to the belief of creationists that a god created humans in his or her own image. Under that theory, human beings are god’s gift to the universe—and if that’s the case, god needs some training in gift-giving etiquette, as it is entirely rude to give gifts that are so vile and offensive.
In a strange twist that could have only come from the many still-to-be-corrected defects in the human brain, many religious wackos who styled themselves keepers of the wisdom attacked evolution by arguing for a form of devolution, based on the silly belief that a fictitious couple named Adam and Eve represented perfection until Eve fucked everything up by wanting to learn more than god was willing to dish out.
Now you know why Trump and Betsy DeVos are so intent on dumbing down the American populace, ESPECIALLY those pesky, inquisitive women.
By eating the apple, so the fairytale goes, Eve sent us down the path of devolution. Given that one of her kids murdered another, devolution got off to a roaring start. As the connection to Adam and Eve has dissipated over the centuries, we have naturally de-evolved into the imperfect beings we are today. Or so say the Evangelical Lunatics.
Anyway, most biologists think devolution is bullshit, but Devo really wasn’t all that concerned with the biological aspects of evolution. Mark Mothersbaugh and Gerald Casale saw a planet going madly backwards in the early 1970’s. They were students at one of the epicenters of the madness, Kent State University, when the National Guard gunned down four of their classmates. That madness was ignited by the madness of the Cambodia invasion, which came out of the madness of Vietnam that came out of the madness of the Cold War that came out of the madness of the atomic bomb . . . Mothersbaugh and Casale had lived their entire lives in a world that had gone mad. Devolution was as logical an explanation as any for the seemingly insatiable desire of the human race to destroy itself.
The theme of devolution that runs through Are We Not Men? is more of a creative device than a dogma. Devo doesn’t really take one side or another, but the more nuanced position that when it comes to knowledge of how we got here and why, we’re all as dumb as rocks, and we’d be a helluva lot better off if we’d just admit how fucking ignorant we are instead of elevating ourselves to honored status in the animal kingdom. Our ability to create fantasies far outpaces our ability to make genuine improvements to the human condition. Gerald Casale put it succinctly in a December 2003 interview with Songfacts:
That was kind of our position statement. It was our mission statement saying, ‘Hey look, humans are making up stories about why we’re here and how we got here and who we are and what our importance is and it’s all basically rubbish, it’s absurd. You don’t know what’s going on, and that’s OK. In fact, if you admit you don’t know what’s going on and you admit there are alternative explanations for things, then you’re already better off, and there’s a lot of things you won’t do because you’d quit believing in ridiculous things that drive you to actions that cause more pain and suffering in the world.’ It was kind of a Dada, self-effacing kind of statement, like, ‘Look, we’re all pinheads here on this planet together.'”
Curiosity never killed a cat or anything else for that matter. Curiosity is the quality most likely to ensure growth and survival.
So much for philosophy. Devo shared their philosophy through music, and music is what we’re here to discuss. Devo’s approach to music was as controversial as their denial of human progress. I’ve heard their music described as “robotic,” “android-like,” and “emotionless.” When Are We Not Men? came out, Rolling Stone opined, “There’s not an ounce of feeling anywhere . . . the music here is utterly impersonal.” Robert Christgau liked the album but classified it as “novelty music,” the backhand put-down par excellence.
What I hear is a very tight band with a clear sense of purpose. They don’t gush with emotion but their music has tremendous emotional impact, a clear sign of artistic discipline. You can’t listen to Devo and not appreciate the intensity they bring to a performance, so don’t try to tell me that these guys have no feeling. David Bowie and Brian Eno clearly saw the power and the potential, and engaged in sort of a ping-pong match on the production and mixing of Are We Not Men? Despite the conflicts with Eno and the late appearance of Bowie on the scene, the result is a very compelling album that sometimes makes me laugh and sometimes frightens me so much I want to get the fuck off this crazy-ass planet as soon as I can locate a transporter.
After a drumstick count-in, the first sounds you hear are chords eerily similar to the pattern that opened “I Want to Hold Your Hand,” but instead of jumping into the vocals immediately after the build, Devo uses a few measures of stop time to change chord patterns, signal the end of the stop time with a tension-enhancing rising slide and extend the instrumental introduction. Continuing the tease, the band delays the appearance of the first verse with a few extra measures of bass-heavy double-time drive. At this point, I am positively dripping with anticipation.
Then Mark Mothersbaugh steps up to the mike and sends me into a state of pure ecstasy:
Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah!
Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah!
Whether it’s the result of the terribly exciting introduction or the manic commitment in Mark’s voice, those opening lines make me shout, giggle and shift my ass into high gear. The opening to “Uncontrollable Urge” is one of my absolute favorite opening passages, a masterpiece of tension and release—a truly thrilling experience.
Getting back to Mark, well . . . he can’t help himself, you know, with that uncontrollable urge and all. Most interpretations link the urge to masturbation, and you can certainly interpret the lyrics through that lens (“Got an urge, got a surge and it’s outta control/Got an urge I want to purge ’cause I’m losing control”). Then again, he describes the urge as something relatively civilized and refined—“It’s got style, it’s got class”—and that would eliminate male masturbation with all its sticky mess. Only women can jack off with class and discretion! My take is the uncontrollable urge is generic, a common condition in a puritanic society that represses many urges, whether sexual or those that are simply unpleasant to people who don’t have a life and don’t want anyone else to have one.
One thing is certain—in “Uncontrollable Urge,” Devo establishes themselves as one helluva band. The song shifts tempo several times, alternating double-time drive with straight-time bash and dropping to half-speed in the opening lines of the chorus. The frequent drum fills from Alan Myers that signal an upcoming rhythmic shift keep you on the edge of your seat, but when you step back and consider what just happened, you realize that this is a goddamned tight band with an outstanding command of rhythm. The call-and-response in the chorus dissolves into cascade of harmonic background vocals that are really quite striking, giving the song a nice melodic touch. Still, I repeatedly find myself waiting for the next rendition of “Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah!” so I can feel that ecstasy all over again. “Uncontrollable Urge” is a manically addictive experience.
Next up is Devo’s cover of “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction.” Those accustomed to either the iconic Stones’ version or the Otis Redding cover probably experienced shock and outrage when they heard Devo’s herky-jerky translation of the rock-soul classic. The beat patterns in Devo’s version sound like the music that might accompany the falling ball in a Rube Goldberg contraption—mechanical sounds built in a factory in an attempt to mimic human rhythm, perhaps something a band of robots might create. Mark Mothersbaugh’s lead vocal follows suit—awkward, stiff, almost Data-like (she said in a nod to TNG fans). After dismissing the “android-like” criticism of Devo in the introduction to this review, you may think I’ve gone total blonde and am guilty of contradicting my own argument. Pas si! I think Devo’s take is not only brilliant, but adds a dimension completely absent from the more popular renditions.
Look. Do you really believe that Mick Fucking Jagger “can’t get no satisfaction?” Of course not. The guy had his choice of hundreds of women at every stop on the tour. Do you really believe he experienced the existential angst of the average Joe trapped in a shit job, oppressed by overwhelming pressure to conform with the norm? Fuck, no! I think the Jagger-Richard composition as performed by The Stones is a brilliant social critique, but Devo’s version tells the story from the point of view of devolved modern man—the loser with zero sense of rhythm and not one ounce of soul who really can’t get no satisfaction because he has no idea who the fuck he is or what he’s supposed to be. The guy who starts blathering “baby baby baby baby baby baby baby baby baby . . .” when he’s confronted with a real live woman. The guy who tries to be hip and fails miserably because he’s completely out of his league in the messy, uncertain world of romantic connection. Devo’s rendition has the virtue of demonstrating the real damage caused not by a lack of satisfaction but the complete inability to understand what could truly satisfy—all this guy knows is what he’s been told . . . there is no there there.
Continuing the theme of mindless conformity, the Gerald Casale-Mark Mothersbaugh composition “Praying Hands” manages to link several variations of unthinking, unquestioned compliance, demonstrating the fundamental silliness of the conformist mindset as manifested in parental advice, personal hygiene, sexual expectations and religious ritual. That’s poetic fucking economy, people! The music is modernistic Gilbert & Sullivan, with conformist mottos delivered in semi-operatic style:
Wash your hands three times a day
Always do what your mom and dad say
Brush your teeth in the following way
Wash your hands three times a day
On closer inspection, some of the conformist advice described in the song holds up with experience—if you don’t brush your teeth in the proper way, you’re virtually guaranteeing a root canal in your future. The point isn’t that all conformist advice is automatically bad, but what is bad is the failure to question the alleged wisdom and validate its usefulness through experience.
Religious ritual clearly fails the test, for the results are based on something called “faith,” the silliest concept ever invented by human beings. The “praying hands” in the song are described as more useful for masturbation than prayer—even if “you got praying hands,” the truth is “they pray for no man.” Casale and Mothersbaugh then cleverly connect religious and sexual rituals, exposing the absurdity that mindless rituals can lead to either spiritual bliss or sexual satisfaction. The instructions that follow in the bridge tell you, “Okay, relax and assume the position/Go into doggie submission,” lines that can be interpreted as a description of learning how to fuck with The Joy of Sex open to the backdoor bliss page, or an echo of the rituals in a Catholic mass (stand, sit, kneel, roll over, play dead). I thought of the themes in “Praying Hands” when considering the sickeningly repetitive chorus of religious blather after the mass shootings in Las Vegas and Sutherland Springs: “Our thoughts and prayers are with the victims and their families.” Yeah, putting your hands together will really make a fucking difference. Since mass shootings in the United States take place with appalling regularity, you would have thought god or Jesus or someone up there would have intervened by now with all that fucking praying sent in their direction.
In the spirit of questioning everything, I visited the Live Science website to answer the question, “Spock, what are the odds that I could get wiped out by a piece of space junk falling from the sky?” Here’s what I learned:
According to Mark Matney, a scientist in the Orbital Debris Program Office at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston, the odds that any of the 7 billion people on Earth will be struck by a piece of the soon-to-fall satellite is 1 in 3,200. “The odds that you will be hit … are 1 in several trillion,” Matney said. “So, quite low for any particular person.”
Compared to a once-in-a-lifetime lightning strike (1 in 12,000), getting eaten by a shark (1 in 11.5 million) or being killed by a vending machine (1 in 112 million), I like my chances when it comes to avoiding death-by-space-junk.
Which I believe is the point of “Space Junk.” As Joe Strummer so memorably demonstrated in “London Calling,” it seems like the media’s job is to scare the living shit out of us. Fear increases TV ratings because the genetic imprint of Homo sapiens contains centuries of memories of disasters that befell individual members of the species. Our dumb ancestors also made some really stupid conclusions about what constituted danger (superficial differences in appearance, for example), so in addition to the real reasons for fear, we have learned to respond to the slightest hint of danger with paranoid overreaction (google “9/11” for a contemporary example). Over a background of rather happy-go-lucky music, the lead character describes how his girlfriend (Sally) was walking down the alley when WHAM—she was wiped out by a piece of space junk. Rather than bothering to grieve for his lover, he turns weird and spends all of his time researching incidents where humanoids found themselves splattered by falling space debris. In a stirring passage where the music darkens with increasingly intense beats and edgy riffs, he recites several spots around the world that have been victimized by former orbital garbage. This part is a hoot, especially when he shifts to nasal twang for “Tex-ass” and “Kans-ass.” We leave the character a victim of his own paranoia, frozen by the contradictions spinning inside his head:
And now I’m mad about space junk
I’m all burned out about space junk
Walk and talk about space junk
It smashed my baby’s head, space junk
And now my Sally’s dead, space junk
“Mongoloid” apparently led to a minor controversy with a London-based teacher’s organization when a combination of superficial listening and misapplied political correctness led them to accuse Devo of making fun of people with Down Syndrome. There’s certainly no evidence of disrespect in the lyrics, and when you translate the song’s meaning within the context of a musical work built on the theme of devolution, the charge becomes even more ridiculous. Gerald Casale met with the teachers and recalled, “I convinced them that I was not making fun of Mongoloids but rather making fun of ‘normal’ people who do make fun of Mongoloids!” The teachers accepted his explanation and life moved on.
The song is terribly catchy, with the loose supporting vocals encouraging the listener to join in. Musically, the foundation is built on Casale’s always-spot-on bass and enhanced to the nth degree by a disciplined but extraordinarily effective use of the mini-moog in providing swoops and bends that feel like the musical equivalent of a fun house mirror. That feeling of distorted reality is crucial to understanding the point the song is trying to make: that we have dumbed down our culture to the point where a person with the average IQ of 50 could master the essentials—and for the “normals” to poke fun at those folks who were unlucky enough to wind up with an extra chromosome is the height of humanoid arrogance.
The album’s centerpiece is “Jocko Homo.” The Wiki Devo fan site provides us with the essential context:
- The title is taken from a 32-page anti-evolution tract published in 1924 by F. W. Alden  called Jocko-Homo Heavenbound. (“Jocko Homo” being a now obsolete euphemism for “man ape”.)
- The inspiration for the song came directly from the movie Island Of Lost Souls, which is based around the “Island Of Doctor Moreau” story, in which animals are forced into advanced evolution and then begin de-evolving. In an attempt to maintain order and humanity, the doctor cracks a whip and barks “Are we not men!?” to some unruly subjects.
Now we’ll turn to Mr. Casale for the artistic intent:
We were kind of poetically explaining what it meant to be Devo, and what de-evolution was. We didn’t see any evidence that man was the result of some never-ending linear progress and everything was getting better. When we were growing up, the magazines would show the world in 1999, and it’d be this beautiful, futuristic, domed city with everybody going around in jets and space-cars. Everybody was fed and everybody was groomed and everybody seemed to have tons of money. It’s such a joke, what really happened was: the planet got more and more overrun by population, greater gaps between the rich and the poor, more new diseases, decimation of the environment. It seemed like even though people were getting more ‘free’ information from television and newspapers, they were actually less informed, less thoughtful, and acting dumber. So we saw de-evolution. The fact that a bad actor could be elected president was more proof to us. Things have just gone downhill from there. We didn’t really want it to all be true, instead it looks like de-evolution was clearly real. In retrospect, compared to what’s going on today, Reagan looks like a serious guy.
And at that time, Trump was just a twinkle in some Nazi pedophile’s eye.
The Gilbert & Sullivan analogy certainly applies to “Jocko Homo,” an outlandish theatrical piece that works exceptionally well live. The musical structure is essentially a chromatic twist on F#minor featuring half-step declines in the interval riff before resolving on the truncated F#-G#-A dominant figure. Minor chords and their diminished partners always create a sense of eeriness, and the stiffness of the execution adds to the sense of displacement. This other-worldly environment is the perfect setting for a science-fiction tale where a defective, easily-manipulated species like Homo sapiens, encouraged by an insane leader, conform to the notion of inferiority:
We’re pinheads now
We are not whole
We’re pinheads all
Q: Are we not men?
A: We are Devo
Q: Are we not men?
Q: Are we not pins?
A: We are Devo
Q: Why is there Donald Trump? A: We are DEVO.
“Too Much Paranoias” expands on the consumerist themes in “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction” within a manic context of dissonance heightened by the disturbing siren-like guitar riff from Bob Mothersbaugh that peaks on the evil flatted sixth. Most of the imagery concerns the contemporary war between McDonalds (if you want a special order, please step to the side and wait half-an-hour) and Burger King (“have it your way”), the latter providing the last thing a devolved consumer wants—a choice! Devo explores this theme in full on Freedom of Choice, but the sheer terror of having to deal with newly-invented debilitating conditions like static cling is beautifully captured here. The dissonant, decaying instrumental break sounds like a brain gone haywire in response to both increasing complexity and the ability of advertisers to plant phony needs like Big Mac attacks into your psyche.
By contrast, the opening passage to “Gut Feeling/Slap Your Mama” sounds surprisingly conventional: a cleanly-picked arpeggiated guitar pattern with an accessible Em-G-C-A-D pattern. That pattern repeats itself throughout “Gut Feeling,” eventually enhanced by full instrumentation and gradual acceleration in tempo. As an expression of partner rejection, the opening lines “Something about the way you taste/Makes me wanna clear my throat” is certainly more original than “you broke my heart in two,” but beyond that the song doesn’t really go anywhere—and the insertion of “Slap Your Mama” at the end seems superfluous (eventually Devo dropped the appendage in live performances). In the context of the themes on Are We Not Men?, the theme of “Gut Feeling” feels too small to bother with.
According to the Wiki Devo piece on “Come Back Jonee,” the song is about “John F. Kennedy, using the metaphor of a dead rock musician.” The primary evidence is a picture of JFK on the cover of the single version. Well, they’ve built JFK conspiracies on more evidence than that, but still, I struggle with the image of the most elegant of all presidents jumping into a Datsun. Certainly the lines “You gotta love ’em and leave ’em/Sometimes you deceive ’em” could be a reference to JFK’s many dalliances, but I think the stronger connection involves linking JFK to Buddy Holly or other rock stars who died too young. Actually, I think the song’s a lot funnier if interpreted as the story of a wannabe musician who gets squashed by a semi, but I do have a wicked sense of humor. Musically, the song is an absolute hoot, integrating strong rock drive with corny hillbilly guitar strumming that makes me laugh every time I hear it. The faux female singers begging for “Jonee, Jonee” in the fade are a bonus delight.
“Sloppy (I Saw My Baby Gettin’)” doesn’t add much to the album except to remind us that Casale is a great bass player and Devo put a lot of work into their arrangements. I do like the album closer, “Shrivel Up,” a “cool-rock” piece accented by reverb-heavy guitar that stretches the meaning of “god-given fact” to include consumerist wisdom from White Castle (“it’s a god-given fact you gotta buy ’em by the sack”) and the sad inevitability that all dicks must shrivel up (whether in response to cold, hemorrhoids or recent ejaculation). Casale’s vocal is delivered in the creepy-nice-guy voice of a commercial announcer, the guy who wants to come across as your friend but really thinks you’re a dumb piece of shit. The most chilling lines appear at the start of the closing verse:
It’s at the top of the list
That you can’t get pissed
It’s rule number one: living right isn’t fun
Living right isn’t fun
I can’t believe this record came out in the 1970’s, long before the appearance of anger management classes and health nazis. Both are conformist responses from people who are unable to handle strong emotions and are terrified of people who do naughty things like smoke cigarettes and have kinky sex (yes, I’m taking this personally). Living right ISN’T FUN, and if you’re not angry about Donald Trump, racism, sexism and the decline in the quality of music, there’s something seriously fucking wrong with YOU.
Although Devo was dismissed at the time by those who heard their music as a passing fad and saw their outrageous get-ups and choreography as evidence of temporary insanity, Are We Not Men is a timeless album about vital issues that still concern us today. What the fuck is going on with the human race, anyway? For every step forward, we seem to take two giant steps backward; for all our extensive networks of communication we still can’t communicate; and for all our advanced knowledge we still can’t figure out how to eliminate poverty or come up with an economic system that doesn’t require people to work at jobs they abhor. And why is the human race filled with so many people who never want to make progress? While progress may not be the pre-determined outcome of evolution, human beings have both the consciousness and free will to make the world a better place, and it’s damned mystifying why we would choose not do so so.
The only possible explanation is . . . WE ARE DEVO!