By Ron, Everett Public Library staff
Q: I’ve got a rhyme that comes in a riddle. What’s round on the ends and high in the middle?
A: If you answered O-Hi-O, then you win a red energy dome.
Coming out of Akron, Ohio (where the rubber meets the road), Devo made a profound impact on the rock music world. Their first full-length album, Q: Are We Not Men? A: We Are Devo!, is a veritable smorgasbord of forays into the musical unknown. And while their later albums moved more towards the mainstream, the impact of Are We Not Men? continues to be immense.
But first, a little history. In 1924, B. H. Shadduck published a pamphlet on creationism called Jocko-Homo Heavenbound. This publication coined the term “D-Evolution”. It also contained text and ideas which turn up in the Devo canon. 50 years after its publication, a band of renegade youth in northern Ohio formed a band… Well, you can see where this is going.
Starting in the late 1960s, rock music became increasingly slick and, in the minds of some, soulless. Rebellion against this aesthetic is largely what punk and its related genres were all about. Punk, post-punk, new wave, no wave… all looked for ways to take the music back to the people, to make creating music an activity open to one and all. Devo was one of the earliest groups to make the plunge into a new aesthetic.
Enter Are We Not Men?:
They tell us that we lost our tails
Evolving up from little snails
I say it’s all just wind in sails
Are we not men? We are Devo!
People who talk about music like to use the words tension and release to describe how tonal music moves forward. Tension is created, and then a resolution of that tension creates a moment of peace and relaxation. Devo, however, frequently leaves out the resolution part. Take for example the song Jocko Homo. Most popular music has four beats per measure, so of course Jocko Homo has seven.
Q: But surely the drums, those bastions of stability, provide a measure of comfort?
A: Well, no.
Q: How about if I focus on the vocals, something I can certainly relate to?
A: The lead vocals are hyper-dramatized and the background vocals are robotic, unemotional.
Q: What about those cute synthesizer sounds, seldom used in rock music pre-Devo?
A: The synthesizer brings an even higher level of disturbance to the listener’s comfort.
Q: Are you trying to tell me that there are no resting points, no moments of contentment?
A: Yes. This is what I’m telling you.
I’ll leave this song with my favorite lyric, from a passage that promotes evolution:
God made man but a monkey supplied the glue
Gut Feeling is another song that creates tension through odd numbers, in this case five-measure phrases (four-measure phrases are by far the most common in rock music). A five-chord sequence repeats over and over, each time feeling like it’s one chord too many. There is no respite from this brutal asymmetry:
Something about the way you taste
Makes me want to clear my throat
There’s a method to your movements
That really gets my goat
I looked for silver linings
But you’re rotten to the core
I’ve had just about all I can take
You know I can’t take it no more
I’ve got a gut feeling
At least the guitar and drums behave normally in this song. However, the five-chord pattern goes on forever (so it seems) before vocals enter. And when they do enter, they are once again rather weird. And as the song progresses it becomes more and more chaotic until it breaks into the next song.
Coming in at #442 in Rolling Stone’s 500 Greatest Albums of All Time, this one is worth checking out. Oh yes. So throw away your preconceptions and postconceptions, relax, and whatever you do, do not Shrivel Up.