ANGELES — Few musical partnerships over the last
four-plus decades have proved as influential as the one
between Devo’s Gerald Casale and Mark Mothersbaugh.
who just dismissively guffawed — "The geeks with
the flower pot hats?!!" — might consider holding
that chuckle until after studying "Devo: The Brand
/ Devo: Unmasked," the first retrospective art book
devoted to the groundbreaking art-punk band best known
for hits including "Whip It," "Freedom of
Choice," "Girl U Want" and "Jocko
book, which is available as a limited-edition,
two-volume box set and a combined, expurgated third
version that merges the two as a double-fronted volume,
is split into complimentary themes. "The
Brand" explores the band’s visual art, philosophy
and self-representation; "Unmasked" profiles
Casale, Mothersbaugh, their respective bandmate-brothers,
Bob Casale and Bob Mothersbaugh, and drummer Alan Myers.
envisioned Devo books forever," Casale says. Now he’s
got a few, and what they reveal is a collaboration that,
among other concepts, explores "how branding is the
end-all-be-all of everything."
Mothersbaugh and Gerald Casale first imagined Devo as
undergrad art students at Kent State, where they
witnessed the notorious 1970 killing of four students
during an antiwar protest, Casale recently recalled in
an office at Hollywood Vaults, an art and wine storage
facility were he keeps bottles made by his Napa wine
brand, the Fifty by Fifty.
was a concept from the beginning that was multiplatform,
multimedia," Casale says between sips of Pinot
Noir. "We weren’t tied down to some style. It was
about an idea. About putting out missives."
creating a series of influential experimental films
espousing their fictitious belief system, one built
around a regressive theory of humanity they dubbed
de-evolution, the band started playing the Northeast
music circuit, including early gigs at CBGB and Max’s
Kansas City in New York.
in "Unmasked" show a young Casale and
Mothersbaugh wearing various creepy masks, performing
with the band in adult diapers, of a young David Bowie
introducing Devo in ‘77 from the stage of Max’s as
"the band of the future." A flier from a
downtown L.A. gig advertises a 1977 show featuring
headliners the Weirdos and an undercard of Devo and the
to Los Angeles from its Akron, Ohio, home in 1978, Devo
went on to become one of the most identifiable outfits
of the so-called new wave movement. Its performance of
the Rolling Stones’ "(I Can’t Get No)
Satisfaction" that same year on "Saturday
Night Live," where they jerked in unison while
wearing matching yellow decontamination suits, remains a
touchstone moment of ‘70s music culture.
the time, they’d recently signed what turned out to be
a bad deal with Warner Bros. Records in the U.S. and
Virgin in Britain, the combination of which Casale says
continues to limit the ways in which Devo can earn money
from its own music. That corporate interests control
aspects of the band’s intellectual property only
proves a point they warned against decades prior.
upside of the band’s first contract, Casale says, was
the artistic freedom it afforded.
controlled the studio time and the price of the
producer, how money would be spent on promotions. We had
the power to use promotional publicity that was
(budgeted) for T-shirts, in-store stand-up cardboard
displays — this and that — and videos," Casale
band took full advantage, and "The Brand" is
teeming with examples of how Devo harnessed the weight
of the major-label marketing machine in service of its
formative aesthetic, which drew from postwar business
communication templates that favored rhetorically dense
corporate-speak instead of long-haired rock ‘n’ roll
still from "Roll Out the Barrel" (aka
"Rod Rooter’s Big Reamer"), a short film
produced to be projected during concerts, shows the
quintet in matching black shorts, white business shirts,
red belts, knee-length black socks, white patent-leather
shoes — and creepy silver face masks. Every new album
dictated a fresh visual theme.
books confirm artists who used the various platforms to
comment on commercialism, brand identity and pop music
iconography. As merchandisers, Devo offered an array of
weird products — a "Devo-Doo" fabricated
plastic pompadour, an "action vest" with Devo’s
logo, synthetic yellow coveralls, red "energy
dome" helmets — long before Tyler, the Creator
shilled Golf Wang tube socks.
sensation of manufacturing an object first hit
Mothersbaugh after a drive to a record pressing plant in
Cincinnati in 1977, he said recently in his studio at
Mutato Muzika, where he and his company compose music
for TV and film in a saucer-shaped green building on the
had recorded two songs on a Teac four-track recorder
and, after searching in vain for a local company to
release it, decided to put it out themselves.
made it to the plant to pick up 1,000 cover-less records
and popped open a box in the parking lot. "I
remember looking at them out in the sun and thinking,
‘This feels like we made art,’" Mothersbaugh
said, adding that something existential in him shifted.
"It had the feeling of, ‘Nobody knows who you
are; you could disappear and no one would know it.’
Then we had this record — ‘Jocko Homo’ and ‘Mongoloid.’
It was such a big deal."
they were channeling that sensation in search of
like-minded spirits who might connect with the endeavor
and set about building a facade that suggested not a
rock band but a visionary corporation wryly embracing a
calls their approach "branding before there was a
word for it," and it’s hard to argue that the act
wasn’t ahead of the curve. "When we would put out
this stuff that was custom merchandise, we were attacked
by the classic rock press for being sellouts," he
said. "But what we were doing was more like a
design firm trying to create cool products, and none of
the merchandisers wanted to make these products."
1979 press release, issued in conjunction with Devo’s
album "Duty Now for the Future," was written
on letterhead that read, "From the desk of the
General" and includes a photo of a uniformed,
helmeted leader who was in fact the Mothersbaughs’
may not be aware of this, but we are in the middle of
World War III," reads the so-called directive,
which then encourages readers to act: "We must
fight back! We must know what we want! We must want what
we need. And what we need is ‘Duty Now for the Future.’"
a visual perspective, freedom to experiment with music
videos proved consequential for Devo during the early
1980s, when the fledgling cable station MTV was looking
for content to populate its music video channel. As with
the press releases, the band tapped Warner Bros.’
wallet for videos, including the breakout clip for
"Whip It," without having to pay for them out
of future royalties.
label guys, whom they’d already alienated, left Casale
alone as he and the band were making their videos.
"They were like, ‘Oh, man, these guys.’ They
had an arms-length attitude towards us," Casale
Devo went on an extended hiatus in the 1990s, Casale
channeled his energy by moving into commercial directing
— and wine-making.
is now an in-demand composer, visual artist and
designer. He’s working on a number of notable
projects, including his first theatrical production. A
collaboration with famed skateboarder Tony Hawk, the
project is an adaptation of Nick Hornby’s
skateboard-heavy novel, "Slam." Kyle Jarrow,
who recently earned a Tony nomination for writing the
book for "SpongeBob SquarePants," has
committed to the project.
band still occasionally performs, most recently last
month as part of the Burger Boogaloo in Oakland. Bob
Casale’s 2014 death has limited the prospects of new
Devo projects, which makes "The Brand /
Unmasked" feel like a complete statement.
their part, Gerald Casale and Mothersbaugh are satisfied
with the result. "Anybody that has a conscious
aesthetic and almost comes from outside of rock ‘n
roll, with influences that come from philosophy, from
political science, from fashion, theater — especially
if you’re visual — you want a book," Casale
says. "It’s a form that codifies the body of