Friday, March 7, 2014

DVD Review: DEVO: The Complete Truth About De-Evolution

Text © Robert Barry Francos / FFanzeen, 2014
Images from the Internet

DEVO: The Complete Truth About De-Evolution
MVD Visual
70 minutes, 1993 / 2014

Looking back, the Dada-inspired band Devo represents everything I would come to hate about the ‘80s onward, i.e., electronica and arty theatrical music. And yet, they hold a bit of a special place in my musical history, even though I never saw them live.

I remember buying the original “Jocko Homo” single on Booji Boy Records (their own imprint) on 8th Street at Disc-O-File when it was first released; yes I still have it. It definitely sounds stronger than the album version that was turned into a hit song/video on MTV not much later. Singer/creator Mark Mothersbaugh’s voice was sharp as a razor on the catch phrase “Are we not MEN!?” But then again, there was no sideways dancing as he would do on the video that attracted so many other fans. I remember seeing people dancing like that when they played the song on the PA at the Peppermint Lounge.

 The basic premise of this DVD is a collection of 20 of the band’s videos over the years (listed below). I’ll comment on some of them, as the odds are you’ve seen them at some point or another if you – er – wanted your MTV.

 While not as disturbing as the Resident’s version of the Stones’ “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction,” the Devo cover is probably among the best well known. The spastic British second wave punk dancer flipping himself over in the occasional shot has become iconic of the early 1980s video days. As for the song, well, they certainly made it their own and it truly is an ear worm that is enjoyable.

If you’re like me, there are three things you remember about the “Come Back Jonee” video/song is (a) the cowboy outfits, (b) the repetitive rhythm (a Devo hallmark), and (c) the girl dancing by the keyboard. ‘Nuff said.

By the time they reached the “Whip It” stage, Devo sort of said everything they were going to say musically, but this is a band that wasn’t just oral, they were also optical. Their work in early digital video technology pushed its limits, using the medium as a palate of art, through color, effects, animation and experimentation. To me, that is one of the more important legacies of the band. Also, as far as I remember, they were among the pioneers of having videos that went beyond the song, and often had prologs and / or epilogs, making the songs into mini-movies, especially in the earlier ones, a wave that Michael Jackson would successfully jump on for Thriller.

Speaking of “Whip It,” watching it in retrospect, as this is the uncut version, it really does go into the whole promotion of rape culture. One woman’s clothes are violently and literally “whipped” off, while a cross-eyed woman is sexually assaulted by a rancher while his girlfriend yells (via caption scrawl) “Ride ‘em cowboy.” And, of course, the victim in this case is shown as willing (where is Tex Antoine when you need him). But at least the song is catchy, right? They do address it in the commentary, explaining, in part, that the cowboys represent the Reagan Republicans. Still…

An interesting aspect about watching these videos in a row is that you can notice themes, such as many of the songs are about individuality (e.g., “Freedom of Choice.” “Through Being Cool,’ and “Peek-A-Boo”), but the images promote getting it by being like everyone else. Reminds me of when Culture Club was first popular, in New York they had a Boy George lookalike contest (teenage girls showed up), and when questioned why they were dressing that way, one girl said, “Boy George is unique, and I want to be unique just like him” (shades of the crowd scene in Life of Brian). Uniformity is not unique; even within subcultures (e.g., hardcore and suspenders, grunge and plaid). Even when one is trying to be an individual, to fit into an ostracized group you must be recognizable to that collective. Devo seem to promote that. I’m not saying it’s good or bad, as it’s natural, I’m just pointing it out.

There is also a surprisingly large amount of images of violence, “Whip It” is the easy choice, but people are shooting others with ray-gun (usually to transform them into uni-bots), stabbings, electrocutions, and the like. Yes, it’s also used as social commentary in “Beautiful World,” but just check out “Love Without Anger.” Even in the later “Post-Post Modern Man” someone shoots the band’s name into a wall with a machine gun.

Sadly, by the end of these videos, they had gone from New Wave to jumping on the post-disco wave (much like the Clash). Meh.

To call this merely a collection of videos, though, is a major understatement because it extras are clearly as numerous and as historically important. In part, as there are too many to mention here, there is a collection of live footage from throughout the band’s tenure, including some crude b&w video from their very first performance at Kent State in – are you ready for this? – 1972. Even then, you can see what was coming, though they weren’t there yet. Humorously, there are a lot of empty seats in the theater. There are also commercials, shorts, a brief interview with the director their first video (“Secret Agent Man”), Chuck Statler, and the obligatory yet consistently interesting commentary track by band co-founders Mark Mothersbaugh and Gerald V. Casale.

The only thing missing was the spoof, "Dare to Be Stupid" by Weird Al Yankovic.

Song List:
Devo Corporate Anthem
Secret Agent Man
Jocko Homo
(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction
Come Back Jonee
The Day My Baby Gave Me a Surprise
Worried Man
Whip It
Girl U Want
Freedom of Choice
Through Being Cool
Love Without Anger
Beautiful World
Time Out For Fun
That’s Good
Theme from Dr. Detroit
Disco Dancer
Post-Post Modern Man
Post-Post Modern Man (Remix)
 Jocko Homo (LP version):


Weird Al’s “Dare to be Stupid”


1 comment:

  1. WHIP IT was also about the s/m culture at that time. I knew DEVO at least to see them around and get their first 45, go see them play in Ohio, way back in '76. Very fun.