Tuesday, April 5, 2022

Rock & Roll Hall of Fame '22: Devo


The bad boys from Akron are not only back on this year's ballot, they're still out there flailing around, with three original members, which is more than you'll get from, say, .38 Special. If you're in New York on May 18, go see them at Pier 17. That concludes this blog's breaking news for this year.

THE SONG: Devo initially catapulted to whatever level of fame it reached with the release of its 1977 deconstruction of "Satisfaction," which the band later performed on Saturday Night Live. Rendering an overly familiar hit in Devo's signature spasticity really laid bare what the band was all about, and was also a lot of fun. Plus, it was a lot easier to imagine that these mopes can't get no satisfaction, as opposed to Mick Jagger. 

THE CASE FOR: Say what you want about Devo, but there was nobody else like them. Given what was about to follow them, it seem remarkable that, at least at first, they were doing all of this with guitars, without a synthesizer or any other kind of keyboard in sight. (The keytars would arrive soon enough, alas.) Most of the artists that followed in Devo's footsteps were far more reliant on keyboards, like the Cars and the B-52s and Gary Numan. 

But I've always been fascinated by Devo's relationship to Neil Young. Even before they recorded an album, Young asked them to appear in his 1977 movie Human Highway as "nuclear garbagepersons." Neil recorded a bangin' version of "Hey Hey My My" with Devo as his backing band. For ten minutes! If you're a big fan of "Sample and Hold," you have Devo to thank. Unfortunately, the film didn't see the light of day until 1983, by which time Devo had not only ceased to be from the future, the bulk of their significance was already in the past. 

They had also had their lone Top Forty hit, "Whip It," by that point. A mainstay of early MTV, the video featured Devo mastermind Mark Mothersbaugh whipping the clothes off some kind of cowgirl. The idea for this came from a 1962 article in a magazine called The Dude, about a former rodeo performer who had taught himself to do just that to his poor, poor wife.  "That's the kind of stuff that fed us creatively," Mothersbaugh said. "It was just so stupid and so low, and yet so great."

THE CASE AGAINST: That sounds like a Hall of Fame resume, doesn't it? Groundbreaking music that influences several of the hot bands of the day plus a reinvigorated longtime legend, as well as a hit song that has never really gone away. My problem with Devo is that the bulk of their catalog just doesn't excite me very much. For one thing, their lack of a decent vocalist really hurts them on anything that ventures beyond the realm of the novelty hit. 

But more than that, their originals never sound as good as their covers, which is surprising since Mothersbaugh went onto a successful career as a film composer. They really should have kept doing the covers. Don't you want to hear Devo do "You Really Got Me"? "Horse With No Name"? "I've Never Been to Me"? 

THE VERDICT: I certainly wouldn't mind a Hall of Fame that had Devo in it. They were an important band, and a fun band, and those are two really great things to be. I have seriously considered voting for them in the past. But it's a fairly crowded ballot this year, and they only let us vote for five nominees. With a little bit of regret, I vote NO for Devo. 

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