Back in 1979, Devo released their first home video. I remember grabbing a VHS version of the film somewhere in the ‘80s, possibly as a bootleg. It is one of those videos that once you see it, you will never forget it (although I swore somewhere in the film, they did a version of “Working In A Coalmine”—my mind confused that for “Secret Agent Man”).
The video is apparently dated, but for a band like Devo, they can play the now generic sound and visual cues and incorporated it into their analog lifestyle. Strange backgrounds, strange filmmaking and lots of masks all contribute to a somewhat uneasiness that rolls through the story about an anti-corporate music business and contractual exploitation message. “You are either sheep or you are the shepherd,” says General Boy as he gives his fireside chat on Devolution. Most of this film resides from the perspective of General Boy, guiding us through blue collar ethics and into a Darwinistic approach. “We must repeat,” Mark Mothersbaugh says in a youthful body. 1979 was a long time ago, but thanks to MVD, we get to re-live what is easily seen as revolutionary both in song and visual spirit.
With music videos coming into the mainstream,the rise of the MTV generation, and with the genesis of vanity in play, this anti-music film shocked Time Life into canning the release of this video until 1981. Taken from their 1978 tour, the live material exposes the glory that is Devo and their live stage (strange) antics. Although the early part of their performances look like high school talent show derivatives, it is not until they get into the gems like “Jocko Homo,” which is a live reprise to the music video that opens up this weirdness. “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction”, is the most memorable for me. Next to “Beautiful World” and “Whip It”, which came later, this Rolling Stones cover makes its mark as glitchy sexual repression and social awkwardness. And to reference “Secret Agent Man” again, the masks that look like variations of Nixon with Booji Boy joining the band for some synth power in what becomes a beat up cover of a magnificent portrayal of an industrial society escaping for a fantasy life filled with thrills and grandeur the best way Devo can present it by wiping away your identity and assimilating with the masses.
But the song(s) that are worth its weight in gold and worth every penny of this DVD are the live versions of “Smart Patrol/Mr. DNA.” It’s Devo the spectacle as they shed their protective gear and rock out while showing off their knee and elbow pads and uniform black shirts and shorts as if they are an army ready for battle. They take on the two songs with excitement and with a chaotic roundabout of lyrical interchanges that is one of the more stimulating things you will see out of the art rock movement from the late ‘70s.
The second part of this video is comprised of a concert from the Sundance Film Festival from 1996. It’s kind of like watching a version of your 20 year high school reunion. They are the same familiar faces just a little slower and more bloated than what you remember. To have a side-by-side comparison between 1979 and 1996, and to hear “Praying Hands” or “Jocko Homo” from both eras is not as impressive as their more nimble years, however as the concert progresses, the band exerts more energy and tackle the hits (i.e., “Whip It” and “Beautiful World”) while making it seem fresh.
Cheech Marin comes out to introduce the band, which is an odd choice and seems strangely uncomfortable. But then again Devo’s music was never comfortable so whatever works. And it’s not that the band is rigid like wood planks, they start out by bouncing from one side of the stage to the other creating a chaotic fury to their chaotic music, launching into “Too Much Parnoias”. And by “Smart Patrol/Mr. DNA”, the band relinquishes back to their prime and act like youthful sprites all over again. Yes, they are still tired of the soup du jour and they still think you will not be able to understand their potato. But that was the beauty of this band all along and if you grew up listening to Devo, no one understood your potato either.
Both entities of this video are presented as an afterthought, but then again, The Men Who Make The Music was an afterthought to begin with. To this day, it is the best known representation to tell you what Devo was all about as a philosophy and functioning unit without the band telling you what they are about. If General Boy is speaking to you about Devolution or reprising his role to explain to a Sundance crowd what they are in for, then you have succumbed what is most likely an eye-opening experience.