Fifteen years after becoming eligible, Devo was nominated for the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame this year, and I was immediately struck by the timing of our sudden recognition. For me, Devo has been a long journey littered with broken dreams, but the nomination compelled me to put things in perspective. I know that many are called but few are chosen.
I was front and center that day – May 4, 1970 – when, along with fellow members of SDS (Students for a Democratic Society), we were fired on by our fellow Americans at Kent State University. We were protesting President Nixon’s expansion of the cancerously unpopular Vietnam War into Cambodia. I was lucky. I dodged those bullets, but four students were killed and nine more seriously wounded by the National Guard troops, many of whom were younger than we were.
Two of those killed, Allison Krause and Jeffrey Miller, were acquaintances of mine. Less than a year earlier, as an admissions/curriculum counselor to incoming students, I had admitted them to the Honors College program.
That day in May changed my life and I truly believe Devo would not exist without that horror. It made me realize that color TVs, Swanson TV dinners, Corvettes, and sofa beds didn’t mean we were actually making progress.
Working with my Kent State poet friend Bob Lewis, we explored a philosophy fueled by the revelation that linear progress in a consumer society was a lie. Things were not getting better. I called what we saw “De-evolution.” Borrowing the tactics of the Mad Men era of our childhood, we shortened the name to the marketing-friendly “Devo.”
We witnessed an America where the capacity for critical thought and reasoning were eroding fast; people mindlessly repeated slogans from political propaganda and ad campaigns – “America, Love It or Leave It,” “Don’t Ask Why, Drink Bud Dry,” “You’ve Come a Long Way, Baby,” even risk-free feel-good slogans like “Give Peace a Chance.”
Creative subversion seemed the only viable course of action. We of course mixed our outrage with equal parts satire and dark humor. What else could a poor boy do?
Prior to the resignation of the nefarious Richard M. Nixon, I partnered with a new collaborator, Mark Mothersbaugh. We formed a band of brothers around the philosophy of Devolution, never dreaming that two decades into the 21st century, everything we had theorized had not only been proved, but became worse than we had imagined.
Presently the fabric that holds a society together has shredded in the wind. Everyone has his own facts, his own private Idaho, stored in expensive cellphones. The restless natives react to digital shadows on the wall, reduced to fear, hate, and superstition. There are climate change deniers, and there are even more who think that the climate is being maliciously manipulated by corporate conglomerates owned by the Central Bank to achieve global control of resources and wealth.
We are drowning in a devolved, WWF smackdown-style world with warring, huckster TV pundits from the left and right distracting clueless TV viewership while our vile, venal mobster-in-chief and his corrupt minions raid the nation’s coffers.
The rise of authoritarian leadership around the globe fed by ill-informed populism is well documented at this point. And with it we see the ugly specter of increased racism and anti-Semitism. It’s open season on those who gladly vote against their own self-interests. The exponential increase in suffering for more and more of the population is heartbreaking to see.
So, let us not talk falsely now, the hour is getting late. Perhaps the reason Devo was even nominated after 15 years of eligibility is because Western society seems locked in a death wish – and Devo doesn’t skew so outside the box anymore. We were the canaries in the coal mine, warning our fans and foes of things to come. We were certainly not the one-hit wonders that the dismissive rock press likes to say we were. We have always been the Rodney Dangerfields of rock ’n’ roll. We were polarizing because we did not play ball with the sex, drugs, rock ’n’ roll messaging.
Today Devo seems like the house band on the Titanic. But we’ve stood the test of time — 2020 will be the 40th anniversary of our “Freedom of Choice” record. Don’t be surprised to see us on tour in our iconic red “Energy Domes” as we careen toward another presidential election. Speaking truth to power is a never-ending battle. It’s what we do.
Listen to the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame’s recommended DEVO playlist:
Gerald V. Casale is the founder of Devo, a songwriter, and director.