What’s Round on the Ends and High in the Middle? or Five Monkeys in Yellow Suits Hit the Big Time — A Conversation with Jerry Casale of
Once upon a time, after the Earth cooled, but before JonBenet Ramsey became America’s posthumous sweetheart, five cynical ex-hippies got together in Akron, Ohio. Dissatisfied with the stupidity they observed in the world around them, they formed a theory of “de-evolution,” then set it to music just in time to ride the wave of punk and new wave and come ashore on the sandy-white beaches of mainstream success.
The band, of course, was Devo, remembered best for their gold-selling single “Whip It!” and those damn yellow suits. Nearly thirty years after Devo germinated in the industrial wasteland of middle America, Rhino Records is releasing an anthology, Pioneers Who Got Scalped . A solid cross-section of their entire career, from the raw independent releases through their smash hits, this two-CD set also includes a few remixes, alternate takes, lesser-known cover songs, and soundbites from some of their films. There’s nothing here that can’t be found elsewhere, but it gives a great overview of the band’s music and their devolving style. Extensive liner notes describe each song and explain Devo’s contributions to pop music for those who didn’t live through it.
The anthology begins in the same way as their early shows, with a clip from the movie that literally started their career, The Truth About De-Evolution . Devo was one of the first bands to put out truly creative music videos, well before MTV, and all twenty of them were directed by founding member Jerry Casale. Casale, Devo’s bass player, has also directed videos by the Foo Fighters, Soundgarden and others.
So, how did this anthology come about?
Well, I’m going to tell you the truth. When Rhino was purchased by Warner Brothers, our pre-existing deal from twenty years ago with Warner allowed them to do this whether we liked it or not. Rhino informed us they were doing it, so I asked if I could be involved, thinking that if it was going to happen anyway, let’s try to make it as good as it can be. They really didn’t listen to me on the track list. I don’t know why, but they’d go, “that doesn’t work for us at retail,” whatever that meant.
I was going to arrange it in four musical sets that would seamlessly play out, almost like a live set. There would be the early years, before we signed with Warner, so that you kind of got a flavor of that time and place and where we were coming from. Then there was going to be a 45-minute set of all the best Warner Brothers and Virgin recordings, what you’d call the “corporate output.” Then there was going to be something from all the strange years, what I can only call the “Enigmatic years,” where we did two albums for Enigma Records.
Actually, when I go back and listen to this stuff that never saw the light of day, especially the remixes that Ivan Ivan in New York did (he was an early guy that was into hip-hop and dance mixes) — I really liked all the remixes very much, songs like “Disco Dancer” and “Baby Doll,” “Agitated,” and all these other songs. So, I was gonna concentrate on all this other stuff that never really saw the light of day that I feel is quite good.
Then there was going to be a fourth set called “Devo Goes to the Movies” which was just all the songs we did for movies and TV shows — there were enough of those to fill another half-hour. Each disk was going to have its own nice mood, so depending on what disk you picked up, you weren’t jumping all over the place with noisy stuff and quiet stuff, strange stuff and new stuff — you get the idea.
Why that was “not working at retail,” I’ll never understand, because it would have truly been something that you couldn’t get anywhere else. You know what I’m saying?
Nobody wants that!
Exactly. The Warner Brothers Hits and Misses are quite good in terms of just spanning Devo’s career with Warners, and I thought this should go way beyond that. But, basically all they did is rehash a lot of that.
I didn’t hear anything that was too unusual, it was all stuff that was pretty much out there already.
Well, exactly. Mine was much more something that if you didn’t get Devo before, you would have been kind of opened up to that world, and if you were an old fan, you were gonna get all this stuff you didn’t have on any other record.
They did cooperate with me on the packaging, the 52-page booklet and the 3-D cover. It’s called Pioneers Who Got Scalped , and businessmen are throwing hatchets and tomahawks at us and splitting our hats — I liked that.
Let’s jump back in time. I’m curious if you were into music as a kid, or in bands before Devo?
I was in two, actually. At the end of high school, I formed a band that played mostly Rolling Stones, Muddy Waters, John Lee Hooker and things like that. It was called some ridiculous name like “The Satisfied Mind,” and then because of that, I got asked to join this kind of infamous Ohio band called the Numbers Band — 50,60,75 — that was this hardcore Chicago blues band, and I played the bass in that band. It wasn’t real creative in terms of making anything up, I was just playing music that I loved and listened to growing up.
Devo was like — my basic thing is I thought I was going to be an artist.
I’d gone to Kent State University and I was teaching art when I met Mark (Mothersbaugh), and Devo was just an art project that kind of trailed off into music. We were really making visual art and we had planned to make little short films with a fictitious band called the “De-Evolution Band,” and then we started writing songs that this band would supposedly play. So it was all a concept, and then it became real because of the film that went to the Ann Arbor Film Festival, called The Truth About De-Evolution . It was a ten minute film, and some guy named Kip Cohen saw it at the festival. It won a prize and started traveling around the country as part of the Ann Arbor traveling show, and he said, “I want this band! This de-evolution band — we gotta find them!”
So it was almost an accident that Devo became a real band?
Totally an accident. He called me in Ohio, and I lied and said that we were booked up until June; he called in April, and we took those three months and got our brothers and learned to play a 45-minute set, wrote about four more songs, and then we were ready to play.
At that time, you’re still in Akron, and there was starting to be a scene with the Electric Eels, Rubber City Rebels and all…
And Pere Ubu and the Dead Boys and various bands like that.
It seems weird now, but you guys were lumped in with the punk bands back then.
Yeah. Well, we felt like we were what was new about “new wave.” Everybody was talking about “New Wave,” and what you were really hearing was ’60s-style garage music by guys in skinny ties and white shirts, and it was hardly new. We didn’t fit in, really, to punk or new wave, but I think because of the irreverence and the do-it-yourself thing, that’s what we had in common with stuff going on at that time. It was raw and basic and self-contained, and we were creating our own image and doing things that you weren’t supposed to do — you know, singing about subjects other than sex and love and drugs, certainly looking and sounding different in the way we put together our musical parts and staged our shows, so at least it was original. I think that’s why I picked the title Pioneers Who Got Scalped . What we did turned out to be curiously kind of timeless or modern. I just keep hearing bands today that have so many pieces of Devo in them, in terms of the way they use sounds, the way the compositions fit together and things like that. Some people are just of their time, and others do something that remains iconic, and I think at least we achieved that. We did as good as we could as long as we could in the face of the all-consuming monstrous corporate meat-grinder machines.
You’ve got to have some great stories about label executives that didn’t “get it,” back in the early days after you got signed…
In those long-form videos I was trying to do way back then, one was called The Men Who Make the Music , and the other one was called We’re All Devo , and I had this ridiculous guy called Rod Ruder who represents Big Media. Big Media is a monolithic record company — we were foreseeing at the time in sort of a joking way, the day in which there would be only one record company…
Oh, that would never happen!
I know, we’re down to three now. But everything he says, every line people assumed I wrote, I only wrote down what executives said to us. I didn’t make up one line that he ever said, I only wrote down things that freaked me out. Stuff like, “I can forgive you guys for being artists, but I can’t forgive you for being stupid!” That was an executive explaining to us how we had to get a more commercial sound and hire this producer who was going to write a song for us.
The other one was when we said, “Yeah, but our band is about ideas, we don’t want to just keep doing ‘Whip It’.” And he goes, “Ideas? We’ve got lots of ideas — what we like to have is tonnage!” That’s how they talked about what they shipped — how much tonnage they shipped. I never made up a line.
We were just totally misunderstood. They had no idea what we were doing — they were just hoping we’d make a lot of money. Their attitude toward Devo from the beginning was, “Hey, this is weird but it looks like some kids seem to like it, so let’s run with it.” Radio programmers hated us and were resistant to programming that kind of music, because they were still steeped in the hippie tradition and wanted one of those big stadium acts like Boston on the radio, and not Devo.
Did your fans get it? Especially after “Whip It,” when you got more mainstream acceptance, weren’t you running into a lot of people that didn’t get it either?
Well, we lost a few cult fans, but we had a great audience and the live shows were pretty infamous. Anybody that ever saw a Devo live show felt like they got their money’s worth, because it was so visual and so staged and added so many dimensions to the songs that nobody could claim we just stood on stage and played our record.
I got a great concert souvenirs at one of your shows — you played “Penetration in the Centerfold” at the Agora in Atlanta, and Mark threw out a porno mag; Blondie was playing across the street at the Fox the next night and you had written a bunch of obscene comments on the inside, thought bubbles coming out of the people’s heads with things like “I wish it was Blondie!”
You got one of those? That’s great.
You were on Saturday Night Live in their heyday, how was that?
That made all the difference. We were playing to 400 people at the Bottom Line and then suddenly we were playing to 5,000 people after that.
That was the first night I ever bought cocaine, and John Belushi snorted all of it. The moment we got done playing it was going to be my big thing, I was gonna do coke! I tried to be a nice guy and offer it to him, and I go, “John, would you like some?” and he said, “Don’t mind if I do!” And he takes a glass straw out of his Blues Brothers jacket, sticks it right in the vial and snorts it all in front of me, then hands it back to me and laughs.
I didn’t see him for a year, and when I did see him I was going to the bathroom at a restaurant in New York, and he walks in, fatter then ever — he’s got about a year and a half left to live and didn’t know it — and he looks at me and he goes, “Jerry… Jerry Devo!” And I go, “Hi, John.” And he goes, “Don’t ask me… I know, I know…” and he does the whole thing — he imitates what he did that night, imitates the expression on my face and he starts laughing. And I said, “So, you gonna pay me back?” And he goes, “I don’t touch the stuff any more.”
He would have been giving you something else, at that point.
Exactly. Luckily, I quit a long time ago, and I’m glad I did. There’s nobody that controls it. They all think they’re under control and nobody is.
I’ve heard stories from people that ran into you along the way, and it seemed like at one point you may have been falling prey to the “big rock star” lifestyle. Was that an issue?
Nobody in the band got that far out. I think the problem was that we were the five musketeers, and it went beyond the cult of personality. Then it degenerated into the individual personalities instead of group effort and teamwork, that’s all. That’s the problem of success, along with everybody bending the ears of the various band members, like “You’re really the one!” “No, you’re the guy!”
It had to be like winning the lottery and going to hell at the same time.
You’d better believe it. The only good times I really had were on stage, because the rest of it is just fending off the various people with their hands in your pocket and sticks up your butt, and the takers. All the takers and parasites and all the lies and evil. It’s so evil.
You always did a lot of interesting cover songs.
We were trying to show people how we could deconstruct music so they could understand, like, “Oh, Devo takes that song and does that to it — I get it now.”
Do you have a favorite, or some that didn’t get released that were cool? I loved “Head Like a Hole” — I hadn’t heard that until recently.
We were trying to do it like an opera. I’ve always seen that song as being potentially like some insane techno-musical, you could do that one in Vegas with characters and big costumes.
No, I think everything we ever did, we ended up releasing. I love “Working in a Coal Mine” and “Satisfaction.” There was something else we did that was kind of bizarre and obscure, some old Australian hit, “Bread and Butter.” We did it for the movie soundtrack of 9 1/2 Weeks .
You worked with Toni Basil on her record Word of Mouth , how did that come about?
Toni met us in our early days before we got signed. She watched us at the Starwood and came backstage and said, “Who choreographs your show?” And they all go, “Jerry did.” And I’m laughing, because I would never consider it choreography, but she loved it and the next thing you know I was bedding down with her for a year. She crossed the rule with me, a guy always had to be at least 14 years younger than her and I was the first guy who wasn’t.
I heard a story about Richard Branson (of Virgin) trying to get Johnny Rotten to join Devo.
Yeah, he wanted to sign Devo if Johnny Rotten could be the lead singer. That’s a true story.
Are you working with Muzika Mutato (Mark Mothersbaugh’s studio in L.A.) a lot, or just on certain projects?
Just on some things. I just wrote a song with Mark for The Powerpuff Girls TV show.
There’s a movie coming out, right?
Yeah. The song’s called “Go, Monkey, Go!” and it’s going to be on the album. I do stuff for video games, stuff for TV and movies. Mark does soundtrack work and scores movies, and I concentrate on songs. That’s kind of what I’m into anyway, when I’m not directing TV commercial or music videos.
Are you still spreading the message of De-Evolution?
Well, certainly it’s only in subversive pits and pats. It’s not the same as being Devo with a voice in the marketplace and people waiting to hear your next missive.
I read something about commercials with little subliminal messages in them, is that something that you do?
We’ve done things like that. You have to have fun, don’t you?
Well, you’d think people would think that, but…
Well, in a corporate feudal state, there’s not much room for irony and sarcasm. Anything that makes anybody laugh is usually politically incorrect anyway.
You played in L.A. recently, didn’t you?
There was a photo show on the punk era at a gallery in L.A., and we came and played two songs. We also played a benefit at the Universal Amphitheater with the Violent Femmes, that actually was quite good. It was an hour-long show, the place was packed, and it felt great to be on that stage again. It’s one of my favorite places to play.
What else would you have people know about the band or the record?
Just to take a listen, and that we did as good as we could as long as we could, and fought the good fight.
Did you win or lose?
Oh, what do you think?
Well, a little bit of both, maybe.
Yeah. Actually, in the sense that kids who are twenty years old come up to me and say that we’re what made them want to write songs and play music, I guess in that sense, we won. My goal was to be as big as Queen or Bowie and keep going, so in that sense, I lost.