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From the Vaults

Devo: Crank the Volume, Whip It Good

May 12, 2000|RICHARD CROMELIN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

We're all Devo.

That was the offbeat band's hopeful proclamation back in 1977, but in the end, not enough of us were Devo to make the group a sustained success. After its brief commercial surfacing with Warner Bros. Records in the early '80s, it moved on to smaller labels and more or less disbanded in 1990.

But over the course of its peculiar saga, Devo came closer to household-word-dom than anyone might have reasonably expected, given the bizarre nature of the Ohio-grown group's package.

They got a major-label record deal, they recorded with such admired producers as Brian Eno, they appeared on "Saturday Night Live," they recorded songs for movies. Though they didn't sell a lot of records, they can claim to be a key influence on all sorts of elements that would surface in '80s and '90s rock, including electronics, video, industrial rock, performance art and geek chic.

*** 1/2 Devo, "Pioneers Who Got Scalped--The Anthology," Warner Archives/Rhino. The five self-proclaimed "spuds" came out of the rubber-belt wasteland of Akron, Ohio, in the mid-'70s, armed with manifestoes, slogans, stage uniforms, supporting characters, films and songs, all linked to an elaborate if enigmatic social philosophy of de-evolution (the source of the band's name).

Portraying themselves as "common stock" and "suburban robots who monitor reality," these nerds with attitude hit the underground punk circuit and quickly drew a crowd with their social satire and quirkily aggressive shows.

"Pioneers" includes the self-released versions of their first singles, "Jocko Homo" and "Mongoloid," rather than the ones they recorded later for Warner Bros., as well as some dialogue from "The Truth About De-Evolution," the explanatory film they used to set the stage for their shows.

There was enough of a David Lynch-like creep factor in those early musical and visual dispatches to give them arty credibility, but throughout its career Devo had to fight the perception that it was all gimmicks.

"Pioneers" provides the first full career overview of Devo's music, and it demonstrates why it would attract an audience and why it wore thin. After their initial burst and a period of growth that peaked with their biggest hit, "Whip It," they tended to meander, repeat and labor.

The package features enough rarities to make it more than a gathering of the obvious, among them tracks from a CD-ROM game and a newly recorded version of "The Words Get Stuck in My Throat," an eerie ballad from a Japanese monster movie that was sung during Devo shows by their Booji (pronounced Boogie) Boy character.

The highlights here prove to be the Devo treatments of songs from other sources, a tradition that started at the beginning with its android-reggae version of "(I Can't Get No) Satisfaction" and continued as recently as 1998, when the group gathered to record the '50s novelty "Witch Doctor" for "The Rugrats Movie." (Their occasional reunions also included the 1996 Lollapalooza tour, and on Wednesday they convene to host Rhino's Musical Aptitude Test at Tower Records on the Sunset Strip.)

"Witch Doctor" isn't included on "Pioneers," but there is everything from Lee Dorsey's "Workin' in a Coal Mine" to Jimi Hendrix's "Are You Experienced," from the folk tune "It Takes a Worried Man" (recorded for Neil Young's movie "Human Highway") to Brian Hyland's "Itsy Bitsy Teeny Weenie Yellow Polkadot Bikini" to Nine Inch Nails' "Head Like a Hole."

Ironically, the toddler offspring of some of the original Devo fans may now be absorbing input from the same source. Singer and co-leader Mark Mothersbaugh has built a successful career as a movie and TV composer, creating music for such shows as "Pee-wee's Playhouse" and "Rugrats."

Maybe we'll all be Devo yet.

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