DEVO: HARDCORE DEVO VOL. 1 & 2
Hardcore Devo Vol. 1 & 2
L.A. RECORD is literally minutes away from going to print, and I have no idea how to end this essay. Who the hell will remember this review? How can any of my insights about a Devo reissue be as important to relay as the sorrow we all feel that Alan Myers, the drummer from Devo who played on some of these songs and on all of their classic albums, has just died within the last 48 hours?
The timing, for me, was as bizarre as it was tragic. I have been spending days and days and days trying to write a long-form review about this month’s re-release of Hardcore Devo, the 2-CD collection of Devo recordings from 1974-1977 that had remained in the vaults throughout the entire history of Devo, until it was finally put out on Rykodisc very briefly in the very early 90s (this pressing is its first reissue). I think a part of me was hoping he would read this, and hear my praise, and be impressed with himself, and with me?
I nearly met Myers, several times, and in my mind I see a memory that could have been: I’m DJing the Abbot Kinney festival, he’s on stage with Swahili Blonde. I tell him that he sounded great today. And then I launch into a full-fledged geek-a-thon as I talk his ear off, telling him how much his music means to me and that songs like “Uglatto” and “Sooo Bawls” are some of my favorites in the world. While I find so much to love in so many of Devo’s albums, for me, these two collections of weird 4-track recordings are the best thing Devo has ever done, full of darkness and mystery and complexity mixed with drooling, politically inccorrect childishness—and yes, very clever rhythms. These albums were a pivotal discovery in my teen years, as important and eye-opening for me as Bowie’s Ziggy Stardust, the Velvet Underground’s White Light White Heat, or PiL’s Metal Box.
Part of that impact is due to the time when they were initially released, right around when I started high school. You’ve got to understand what it was like to discover Devo at their apex, immediately after the 80s had ended. By then, new wave had petered out into the mid-range electronic beats of Paula Abdul and Debbie Gibson, a stale relic at best. While we all remembered watching “Whip It” on MTV as kids, we were into punk rock and loud guitar bands like Sonic Youth and Mudhoney. Synth rock seemed incredibly quaint—that is, until I picked up these CDs, based partially on short, positive reviews in Rolling Stone, etc, but perhaps even more by the cover art, which was lewd enough to entice me but ironic and weird enough to let me forget that I was still a virgin.
And the music inside was weird enough to match! There are story-songs straight out of JG Ballard’s Crash, and warped tunes from the “Itsy Bitsy Teeny Weenie Yellow Polka-Dot Bikini” song book. And sex! There are songs about really gross sex in here, from the porn funk of “Midget” and “I Need a Chick” that predated/predicted Talking Heads’ later P-Funk obsessions, to cutesy celebrations of infantilism such as “Goo Goo Itch” and “Baby Talkin’ Bitches,” which sounds like the Stones if they stripped all the Delta out of their blues and just admitted that their groupie fetish was Freudian regression.
An early version of “Satisfaction” appears here, plus a few other songs such as “Be Stiff” and “Mongoloid,” that were later re-recorded and officially released on Devo’s first two albums. But I didn’t have those at the time: these 4-track versions were the first versions I ever heard. That’s probably not the case for you, dear reader, so here might be a good time to warn you: if you’re addicted to what you think of the classic Devo sound and are getting this because you want more of Mark Mothersbaugh saying “yeah-yeah-yeah-yeah-YAH-YAH-YAH-YAH-YAH-YAH- YAH-YAH,” you might at first be unpleasantly surprised.
See, the songs on Hardcore Devo are basically the demos that preceded that recording, some a couple years before they hired Myers at all. And they’re great legacies for Myers, because they catch him as he takes the band and transitions it into something new, something way more frenetic and energetic. It’s clear from hearing these songs that if Devo hadn’t found Myers, they would never have had the necessary chops to win punk audiences; to captivate viewers on Saturday Night Live; to date Laraine Newman; to inspire the Revenge of the Nerds rap; to become the frantic, forward-thinking panty droppers that they needed to become for us to still be talking about them today. In fact, my overall favorite tune is one of the songs Alan plays, the 10/4 “Uglatto,” a wound-up spazzy number with distorted punk guitar riffs about “mobutu shoes” and speaking Esperanto that criminally never made it onto an official release during their frantic first years.
But while you should definitely relish the Myers era tunes like “Fountain of Filth” or “Working in a Coal Mine,” train your ears to hear the genius of the slower songs on here, the ones with a more mechanized, strange feel to them. Not all the credit can go to Myers here; Jim Mothersbaugh, Bob and Mark’s brother, plays the majority of these songs, and he does so on primitive electronic drum pads. Just a half decade later, you might have seen bands like the Thompson Twins playing such drum pads in 80s videos (or Myers himself, in later Devo recordings) but they were radically new at the time—a little too new. These aren’t drum machines but drum pads, the kind a human hits with a stick. And from the aural evidence here, they might not have been very useful at doing normal drum stuff like drum rolls or cymbal crashes. But within those limits, Devo created many rich delights, from robo funk to the alien reanimation of Chuck Berry’s future corpse. It wasn’t the mighty Alan Myers, but it wound up the pitch that let Myers hit it out of the park.
It feels weird to be so happy to hear such great music at a time when I should be sad. But I know that with a legacy like this, Myers and the rest of the men who make the music in Devo (and I haven’t even gotten to the genius of Mothersbaugh’s keys and Casale’s guitars, but I think you’re already understanding now how good those things are on here, too) can rest easy, knowing they have made music that will stand the test of time when so many of their peers, from Aerosmith to Gary Numan, will be shriveling up in the cesspool of history. If you’ve reached this paragraph and you don’t already own both the Hardcore Devo albums yet, you’re a ninny, a twit, a genuine mongoloid. Not only will these albums undo everything you thought you knew about Devo, but they will undo everything you thought you knew about punk, about new wave, about rock ‘n’ roll, and about music.