Devo Comes Home
by David C. Barnett
Young musicians of the 1970s brought a simple, do-it-yourself style back to rock and roll, which had become bloated and over-produced. And while New York and London are often cited as the birthplace of this back-to-basics movement, one of the most popular new wave bands sprang from the dust of the rust belt. Akron recently celebrated the birth of some hometown heroes --- Devo.
Devo arose from the ashes of an industrial powerhouse. Akron started the 20th century supplying tires for the thousands of cars sliding off Detroit assembly lines. But by the 1970s, that industry was on the ropes, due to foreign competition. And the city’s economy was further decimated by the growth of suburban department stores and movie theaters that left vacant buildings downtown.
"Everything was crumbling," recalls Devo co-founder Gerald Casale. "The old infrastructure was down, nothing new had taken its place. So, there we were in that environment of decay and degeneration, and bringing something out of it --- out of the pain."
Casale and his bandmates were former Kent State art students, who decided to use music as a way to comment on what was happening to the world around them. Paul Nagel was one of their local fans: "They had a whole theology --- the de-evolution of the rust belt, and how we were growing up in this area that was transforming and devolving, instead of evolving. A lot of it was tongue-in-cheek, but a lot of it was very earnest."
But, such artful intentions didn’t exactly make for hit songs. Devo remained a quirky, cult band, until 1977, when they recorded a remake of the Rolling Stones' (I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction.
"This is one of those songs that totally represents the mainstream tradition of rock and roll," says Devo biographer, David Giffels. The band took the swaggering rock standard and deconstructed it into a robotically rhythmical ballad that sounded like it had been manufactured in an Akron factory.
"The beat on this song is insane," Giffels adds. "It seems unplayable. You’re going from a straight, traditional rock riff --- and one of the great classic rock songs --- and to turn it on its ear the way they did, and make it sound like an entirely new kind of music."
Ironically, the Devo remake of Satisfaction first took-off in London, home to the original song. When the band got money from Warner Brothers
Records to promote their creation, they continued their innovative ways by shooting a music video --- three years before the invention of MTV. Cleveland photographer Janet Macoska was hired by the British press to document the production.
"As Liverpool might have been a mythical music city for us, because the Beatles came from that, they thought Akron was this mythical music place," she says. "And I just wanted to show them one of the bands they loved in their own hometown."
The filming took place on the stage of the ornate Akron Civic Theater --- by then, a faded remnant of the city’s glory days, with holes in the ceiling and unpredictable heating. The band members were dressed in yellow hazmat suits, once worn by Akron rubber workers. Writer David Giffels says performing a devolved song in a devolved theater was intentional.
"And to film their video in it when it was in its own decline, kind of represents what artists do. When the prevailing culture starts to implode, the first people who come in and pick-up the pieces and find them interesting are creative people."
Last weekend, dozens of fans crowded Main Street in Akron, some dressed in blue jumpsuits or wearing flower pot hats reminiscent of the characters created by Devo over forty years ago. A wall-sized blow-up of one of Janet Macoska’s iconic photos had been mounted over an empty storefront beside the marquee of the Akron Civic. It was made to look as though it was 1978 again… and the band members -- life-sized in their bright yellow rubber suits standing in front of the Chili Dog Mac diner -- had returned to the place where their careers took off.