in an era when you couldn’t really go wrong jumping the prog rock bandwagon, devo, the band from akron, ohio, premised itself instead on the concept of de-evolution, a self-deprecating notion on the regression of humankind. the theme was most noticeably covered in the controversially titled “mongoloid”, a song on a person with down’s syndrome having a day job and bringing home the bacon “so that no one knew”, and while no one cared, he really was “happier than you and me”. the critique inherent in their music, together with the new wave, proto-punk edge of the music itself, ironically revealed devo to be much more progressive than their prog rocker counterparts, something even more evident in their live shows, where the band would indulge in the mock-futurism of a pseudo sci-fi pantomime, as epitomized by their distinctive yellow tyvek suits.
i finally caught a glimpse of this when i got a copy of their live: the mongoloid years album at the half-price sale at sembawang music center: while the sound quality of the recordings is barely passable (albeit probably the best of “the only audio tapes that escaped total disintegration” as mentioned in the cd liner notes), i loved how the three shows captured in this record are arranged in reverse order, beginning with their successful gig at max’s kansas city in 1977, the one where legend has it that got record companies calling in the morning after) and ending with the horrendous whk radio concert in cleveland ohio, where the band was hired as a joke to open for psych/space jazz guru sun ra, a night which ends with the plug being pulled on their performance – also the stuff of legends.
the song that got lodged in my head amidst all this was “come back jonee”, which really is a rock and roll number masked in various shades of punk, garage and new wave. in contrast with chuck berry’s “johnny b. goode” who makes good with his toil and musicianship, things really aren’t that pretty for jonee, who in devo’s script also has a guitar but instead of fulfilling the american dream, he leaves his girl and heads for the highway on his ill-fated datsun, which comes to stand for all his wrecked dreams. it’s a sobering take on life, though you can’t help but agree it’s a lot closer to reality than what you’d expect from a bunch of crazy de-evolutionists.
and if you’re wondering, devo are actually still alive and kicking. the band just made an appearance at the recent sxsw festival, and have a new album due this fall, their first in almost 20 years.