A Rhyme That Comes in a Riddle
In its “50 Most Essential Punk Records”, Spin magazine praised Devo’s Q: Are We Not Men? A: We Are Devo! for being “laced with acrid shots of synth-slime, uncontrollable urge overkill, and riff after killer riff”. I never thought of Devo as a “killer riff” band—they were hardly Deep Purple, hardly even the Amboy Dukes. I wonder if Spin understands the “killer riff” in relation to rock ‘n’ roll—whether the magazine can differentiate between the catchy guitar refrain in Led Zeppelin’s “Whole Lotta Love” and the one in, for example, Devo’s “Shrivel Up”. The first is a guileless face-splatter of unbridled machismo; the second, although the song’s lyrics allude to the journey of the sperm (“dyin’ under daddy’s cap” as metaphor for prophylactic birth control?), is a bafflingly off-key finger-exercise that threatens to uproot the tonal center of the bass melody.
If you were a musician in the late ‘70s, you were part of the new guard, or the old boomer regime, or completely under the cultural radar. There was the scary, fashionable “punk”; to the right of that there was radio-rock, progressive rock, disco, and funk. To the far left—the experimental music that developed out of 20th century classical, synthesizer technology, free jazz (and fusion), and the theories and practices of the LSD ‘60s (Sgt. Pepper, Timothy Leary). Devo were, in fact, progressive, experimental-minded punk rockers with a rhythm section that sounded like the crazy spaceman-outfits the P-Funk wore.
Devo perplexed nearly everyone, angered some (guess Middle America didn’t hear the Residents cover of “Satisfaction” that predated Devo’s brutal deconstruction of the same song), and managed to strike the fancies of influential industry folk and regular spuds who were ready for something new.
Q/A, however, was just a conduit for the Devo philosophy—the theory of “de-evolution”, positing that humans are descended from brain-eating cannibal apes, and that our future as a species sees us regressing back to that simian state.
Humans, they claim, are no longer intellectually advanced creatures on the order of Albert Einstein; they’re Down Syndrome retards with steady paychecks (“And he wore a hat / And he had a job / And he brought home the bacon / So that no one knew”, as the line goes in “Mongoloid”). People work (“monkey men all in business suits”), they screw (“you took your tongs of love and stripped away my garment”), and sometimes they do both (“the left hand’s diddling while the right hand goes to work”).
The sex is not romantic, it’s vulgar and cheap—but so is everything else, like the food we consume (the words “rupto-pac” and “Big Mac Attack” in “Too Much Paranoias” are as garishly artificial-sounding as the crap they’re meant to signify) and the cars we drive (“Jonee jumped in his Datsun / Drove out on the expressway / Went head-on into a semi”, Mark Mothersbaugh sings in “Come Back Jonee”). Devo’s follow-up album, Duty Now For the Future, pushed these image-envelopes even further, but never quite as poetically as on Q/A.
Some of Devo’s punk contemporaries (Talking Heads, Gang of Four, the Clash), couldn’t say this sort of thing without seeming tremendously didactic. But like the music that now pays the bills of several Mothersbaughs and Casales from the Devo lineage, Q/A is, fundamentally, kid music. Mark delivers his lines in a funny Christopher Lloyd mad-scientist voice, and references the one Burger King jingle everybody knows. There are goofy synths and bizarro time signatures (such as the main instrumental riff in “Jocko Homo”, which is in the fairly uncommon meter of 7/8) that defy you to dance and make you laugh at yourself for trying. “Jocko Homo” has a Sesame Street-style spelling lesson (“We must repeat / D - E - V - O”). The version released on the original single also has a neat little singalong section: “I’ve got a rhyme that comes in a riddle / O-HI-O! / What’s round on the end / High in the middle? / O-HI-O!”
And for the childlike create-your-own-adventure abandon of the lyrics and musical experimentalism, the message the band conveys here is very solemn, painting a grim, dystopic picture: a future in which people become progressively stupider and less aware of how easy it is to brainwash and manipulate them, turn them into fleshy androids. It stands to reason, then, that Q/A is more subversive than any Kraftwerk or Gary Numan album. Kraftwerk and Numan both had mainstream appeal, but they weren’t overtly fun; they wore their technology-will-save-us-and-destroy-us schisms on their suit-jacket sleeves. And in 1978, Devo were still primarily a guitar band with synth flourishes—implying technocracy rather than becoming it (which they would do in the next decade, on albums like Shout and Total Devo).
Q: Are We Not Men?/A: We Are Devo! wasn’t the first record (not even the first work of art) I’d bought of its kind, but it certainly had a hand in shaping my tastes, values, and interests. Devo were one of the first rock bands to apply Futurism and Expressionism to their visual approach (flower-pots-as-“energy domes”; propaganda art), and one of only a handful that were prescient enough to warn people against the reality of an insidious and influential corporate culture. I’d merely “respect” Devo if their music wasn’t so good; thankfully, it’s great.