Are We (still) Not Men?

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Fig. 1

FORTY YEARS AGO THIS WEEK, my friend Ralfh came over to my apartment, held up an album cover, and said, “You have to hear this.” He slid out the vinyl disk, put it on the stereo, lowered the tone arm, cranked the volume, and changed my life.

“Q: Are We Not Men? A: We Are DEVO!” was revolutionary band DEVO‘s first album, replete with such underground wonders as “Uncontrollable Urge,” “Space Junk,” “Come Back Jonee,” a solid cover of the Rolling Stones’ “Satisfaction,” and the anthemic “Jocko Homo” (the latter song making use of the album title as part of the chorus). Partly nihilistic, eminently danceable, the band’s message touted the “devolution” of modern humanity from its noble Homo sapiens roots to “monkey-men all / in business suits.” DEVO perfectly captured the existential angst of the late 1970s in a way that other Punk and New Wave bands didn’t (although some came close). My late friend Sputnik even coined the term “DEVOvision” to describe the perspective where everything seems like a cliche; if you can grok that, you’ll better understand DEVO.

The word “anthemic” is used deliberately; for a certain type of person (non-conforming, social outcast, overly intelligent), DEVO’s songs were a defiant middle finger aimed at then-modern American society with its disco kings and queens, consumerist proto-yuppies and uber-bland TV fare. They told us that there was somewhere we belonged, that there were Other Mutants out there seeing things the same way we did. They gave us a reason to go on.

I saw DEVO in concert only once, in San Francisco in the late 1990s. They played classic selections from their vast discography (interspersed with some of their music videos on several big screens) to a roomful of sweaty, dancey, happy people, many of whom were in their 40s (some with their kids) and dressed in the band’s signature yellow jumpsuits and/or planter-style helmets. (Full disclosure: my jumpsuit was dark blue.) Ironically, the venue’s bouncer was a classic example of the devolved human DEVO often sang about: taut, muscled, self-important. (He actually went into the men’s restroom and shouted “Hustle hustle hustle! We got people waiting here.”) As the world slides into a tribalist parody of itself, DEVO’s mission is more vital than ever. Other Mutants! we’re still here to help you “eliminate the ninnies and the twits” and “face those who make it tough to get around.” Long may their freak flag wave.

2 comments for “Are We (still) Not Men?

  1. Alana
    2018.09.01 at 0331

    As an added bonus, the sneering twit on the front cover is the spitting image of my ex-boyfriend’s creepy ex-business-partner. We should have known. We were warned. :-D

    • 2018.09.01 at 2054

      Officially, he’s “The Mongoloid.” (Or was, when people used that term.) GREAT song, too.

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