I recently downloaded a copy of the way-out-of-print Hardcore Devo Vol. 2 1974-1977 which, as the title suggests, consists of very early Devo recordings. Compared to the first volume, this one has a higher proportion of underdeveloped, warped blues-like tunes: it was the mid-seventies after all. Still, the best songs (or at least the most interesting ones to me) are almost shockingly stark, raw, and crude (in both senses: “I Need a Chick” is the subtlest line in the song of that title). The clearest precedents seem to be the most caveman-like moments of the Stooges, along with some of the wilder, distorted electronics of the early German scene. The near-atonality and occasionally bizarre time signatures seem to be pretty much Devo’s own.
“Mechanical Man” (from the first volume) is an early theme song of sorts: after a moody, ambiently creepy opening, detuned synths splurt in descending rhythms (5 beats, then 4, 3, 2): this theme was used in the band’s early video The Truth About De-Evolution as the band’s name was spelled out, letter by letter (or so I remember it: it’s been a while since I saw the video…). The song itself is a curiously static and (aptly) robotic 3/4, with mechanically distorted vocals. The synthesizer solo is an exercise in uglification, with leering pitchbends, electronically harmonized distortion that renders the background nearly bell-like. As the title suggests, the lyrics explore one of the key ideas in early Devo: mechanization of the human (in the context of work or “fitting in”).
The other notion Devo returned to in its early songs was the grotesquerie of the human body, particularly the sexual body. It would be pretty easy to conclude that raging geeks like the guys in Devo were frightened and appalled by sex because, uh, they never got any…but there’s also the mid-seventies context to be taken into account. By contrast with the easy, sun-kissed sexuality in, say, contemporary songs by the Eagles, Devo wants to insist that sex is full of bad smells, sticky, murky liquids, and stickier, murkier feelings: if they could have released these songs with accompanying scents, I’m sure they would have. “Ono” (also from the first volume: no apparent relation to Yoko…) presents its sexual scenario in terms of domestic squalor, disease, mundane events, and the physical plainness of blunt, crude objects. The highlight of the song, though, is that creepy, squalling synth in the background (an effect they would recycle in “Shrivel Up”)…and that chilling, half-cry, half-laugh in its last minute.
“Can You Take It?” (from the second volume) contrasts cartoon violence (Popeye, Yosemite Sam) with reality (“you and me wind up dead”; “Mama’s in a basket, crossed a double yellow line”), along with trademark Devo surrealism (“dreamed I laid a toaster/Daddy caught me in the act”). I can almost imagine the music – straightened out and wrested into more conventional tonality – turned into a ZZ Top song. Curiously – although I doubt either band would have heard of the other this early in their respective careers – the Residents were doing something similar in uglifying rock songs (and, of course, both bands covered the Rolling Stones’ “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction”). Devo later used this uglification technique in the guitar solo in “Too Much Paranoias” – which is suspiciously reminiscent of the guitar solo in Led Zeppelin’s “Whole Lotta Love” run through a blender and played by an ill-trained robot on an electric guitar loosely strung with rubber bands.
There was a scene in the original version of The Fly showing a fly’s-eyes point-of-view, refracted through hundreds of hexagonal eyes: every sound on “U Got Me Bugged” (and I think Devo deserves credit/blame for that annoying “U” thing, rather than Prince), including the vocals, is a sonic analogue of that effect. Nearly impossible to understand, the lyrics present the narrator as his lover’s victim, pinned and otherwise entrapped in the manner of various insects. (Surprisingly, both Mark Mothersbaugh and Jerry Casale eventually entered into long-term marriages…)
Amazing, the unlistenably bland quasi-dance dreck the band ended up doing near the end of its career… My personal theory is that their movement from abrasively confrontational music, into less-confrontational songcraft, into synth-based pop, into blandola, was entirely intentional, an example of “de-evolution” in action. At least, I can hope that’s true.