‘Dark Clouds in the Crystal Ball’

How DEVO – like Cassandra – saw the future, tried to warn us, and was widely ignored

The title for this post comes from a song lyric by the avant-garde music group DEVO, namely, from the opening song ‘Time Out for Fun’ from their fifth studio album, Oh No! It’s DEVO. By the time that album was released in late 1982, DEVO as a band had spent the better part of a decade promoting the thesis of ‘de-evolution’ – the idea that humanity, rather than progressing, was actually regressing, and was in point of fact not evolving but really de-evolving (which was the origin of their name) to a more primitive state of mindlessly conformist automatons.

The band’s initial approach was to show the impending undesirable future they saw coming by taking on, and parodying through at times rather caustic satire, the very appearance and behaviour they sought to critique. Not surprisingly, given the risky choice of using parody and satire as their mode of critique – risky, because it requires a certain level of sophistication and brainpower in the audience that might not actually be present – they were very widely misunderstood by those who took them at face value or were either unable, unwilling, or both, to ‘get’ the deeper more subtle point lying below the deadpan satirical portrayals. They had, for example, been called both “Nazis” and “clowns” in Rolling Stone magazine [1]. So, in true DEVO fashion, they had taken on this intended insult as simply a prompt to think about what an album by ‘fascist clowns’ would sound like, and the (under-rated) Oh No! It’s DEVO had been their response [2, c.1m44s].

In the beginning …

The thesis of societal de-evolution – or sometimes simply ‘devolution’ – originally began as a kind of half-serious joke idea at Kent State University in Ohio, USA, in the late 1960s. Included among those subscribing to it were early members Bob Lewis, Gerald Casale and a bit later Mark Mothersbaugh who, together with Casale, would eventually become the co-principal song-writer (and primary lead vocalist) of the band. But the ‘joke’ about de-evolution suddenly became deadly serious when, on May 4, 1970, Casale – while taking part in a student protest at KSU against the US’s escalation of the Vietnam War – watched in horror as the Ohio National Guard opened fire upon the protesters, killing four of the students, including two of his friends. As he would later put it in many interviews, the event was nothing short of completely life-changing – seeing the exit wounds from the bodies of his friends Allison Krause and Jeffrey Miller galvanised him from being a laid-back live-and-let-live hippie to becoming an angry activist with a profound distaste for and abiding mistrust of what he considered to be illegitimate authority [3, p.38].

DEVO began therefore as a critical experimental multimedia artistic movement, “part social commentary, part performance art”, wrapped up in a kind of “absurdist satire” [4, p.10] intended to parody the stupidification of human society which they saw happening. Casale (who was two years older) and Mothersbaugh were both visual arts students who had met and bonded over the idea of devolution and had begun designing visual art to advance the message. At some point, however, they wondered what devolutionary music would be like, and in this way the prior experiences of both Casale and Mothersbaugh playing in other earlier bands were brought together into using music, in addition to the emerging DEVO visual aesthetic, as simply another medium to spread the broader message, or rather, warning, about our species’ de-evolution. DEVO the band was therefore a kind of ‘meta-performance’ – a musical performance inside a broader artistic social critical performance – and much of their ‘trickster’ energy came from inhabiting and playing in that ‘meta’ space.

As the sub-title to this post suggests, however, this message/warning was not taken seriously by the culture at large, who were the intended audience. While some people did ‘get’ the point (and often became very loyal fans, or what came to be known as ‘DEVO-tees’), most did not, and instead regarded DEVO as merely a joke band – albeit one which nonetheless did somehow manage to snag a surprise Top 40 hit with the song ‘Whip It’ in the early 1980s, likely aided by the self-produced (in-)famous ‘whiptease’ film-clip which became an early MTV favourite, with their recognisability boosted by their now-iconic red ‘flower pot’ (really ‘energy dome’) hats [5].

I became aware of DEVO while still in high school – a late-night music show in Australia aired the film clips for ‘Girl U Want’ and ‘Freedom of Choice’, the latter of which made quite a strong impression upon me, largely for its unashamedly bizarre weirdness, which I totally loved. The at-first-glance seemingly-normal video for ‘Girl U Want’ is actually a subtle parody of then-stock-standard live-show musical performances. Among other things, the distorted colours in the clip (their red shoes and energy domes appearing purple) implying the meta-gag that the band was not really displaying its ‘true’ colours, while at least one of the adoring ‘fan-girls’ in the audience is actually (pretty obviously) a fan-boy in drag.

In ‘Freedom of Choice’, dressed as near-identical humanoid aliens, they observe that humans, while possessing free will, nonetheless also have a propensity to actively avoid using it:

Freedom of choice is what you’ve got;
Freedom from choice is what you want.

Two skateboard-riding ‘tribes’ are also depicted, dressed in red and blue – a clear reference to the Republican and Democratic sides of tribal US politics in that presidential election year of 1980, when a serious choice needed to be made between incumbent Jimmy Carter and challenger Ronald Reagan. After separately riding along the right and left sides (respectively) of a skate-track and colliding into each other in the ‘middle ground’ at the end of the track, they are ultimately drawn into the irresistible consumerist lure of an up-to-70% off! closing-down-sale discount outlet store. They use their freedom of choice to obtain nondescript identical clothing and emerge as a homogenised group of quasi-identical red-blue-amalgam drone-beings. They then begin assimilating anyone who comes into their view or field of action, while the DEVO-aliens make their observation/statement, quoted above, in point-counterpoint, indicating the “you” both towards the assimilating group on screen, but also towards the viewer.*

Keen-eyed observers will also notice DEVO’s parody of themselves in this clip – something else the wider culture was usually not able to properly grok as part of their aesthetic: the drummer, dressed in one of their earlier-era yellow hazmat suits [6], is similarly apprehended and assimilated, whereupon the expanding group of mindless marching drones/clones now focus their attention, continue to march, and point their assimilating fingers towards, the viewer’s point-of-view … . In other words, DEVO itself is not immune from the almost-irresistible process of de-evolution on its path to assimilating everyone, an ironically prescient observation given later events in the band’s own history.

Thumbnail image from the ‘Freedom of Choice’ music video showing Mark Mothersbaugh (L) and Gerald Casale (R) as humanoid aliens. (https://youtu.be/ajjX2_Eygu4)

Self-parody was not new with this film clip, however. They had earlier, on a few occasions, disguised themselves as their own opening act, “Dove, the Band of Love”, dressed in mustard-yellow polyester leisure suits wearing accountant’s visors, and playing easy-listening music, which had apparently led to their being heckled and having objects thrown at them. A video at the DEVOvision YouTube channel [7] shows just such an easy-listening version of a song that would eventually appear in Neil Young’s long-delayed film Human Highway with DEVO dressed as nuclear waste disposal workers [3, pp.201-2]. And the easy-listening self-parody was not confined to these particular instances, either. For DEVOtees in Club DEVO, they released cassettes of easy-listening versions of many of their songs, which would sometimes be the house music that was played before a live show. As Casale noted in 1978 [4, p.63]:

Since pop music is definitely a vulgar art form connected with consumerism, the position of any artist is, in pop entertainment, really self-contempt. … Devo understands its self-contradiction and uses it as the basis of its creativity. We make fun of ourselves. You have to. People forget that.

Naturally, I became a fan, and bought their first three albums: Q: Are We Not Men? A: We Are DEVO! (1978), Duty Now for the Future (1979), and the-then newly-released Freedom of Choice (1980). (I still have the original vinyl of both Are We Not Men? and Freedom of Choice, but Duty Now is missing; I must have loaned it to someone who never returned it.) Together with a few friends at school, we ourselves began promoting the DEVO concept and even staged our own lunch-time ‘performance’ (along with one very cool teacher!) in a fenced-off enclosure in the school-yard, miming to a tape playing DEVO music on a portable tape deck while dressed in large black rubbish bags. This was something that we had heard they’d done themselves [see, e.g., 6, pp.12 & 20-21 of the The Brand half], and which was much easier for us to do since we couldn’t get hold of the yellow hazmat suits from the Are We Not Men? era, or the vinyl suits and red energy domes that were part of the then-current Freedom of Choice era [6]. Obviously, some of the onlookers thought we were idiots (and said so, loudly), but some actually got with it. The rubbish bags are intended to create a “spud-like body” shape. Potatoes (‘spuds’) feature a great deal in DEVO lore. The very early song ‘I’m a Potato’ makes this fairly clear, but the lyrics to ‘Smart Patrol’ also tell us that they are

Afraid nobody around here
Comprehends my potato.
Guess I’m just a spudboy… .

The same group of us would also go to parties and bring DEVO music along to play, usually by hijacking the sound system, and mostly getting ourselves sworn at by many of those present for “forcing” this “sh!t music” onto them. But, funnily enough, a year later, at the same person’s birthday party a year on, when ‘Whip It’ was played, those present danced and sang along very happily to this “great” (read: now officially popular) song, which they seemed to forget that they had hated a year earlier, before it was cool to like DEVO.

The song itself – like the band in general – was of course widely misunderstood. Contrary to then-popular belief, it was not actually a song about B&D, S&M or (apparently) masturbation. ‘Whip It’ – along with two other tracks from Freedom of Choice, Ton O’ Luv’ and ‘That’s Pep!’– in fact represented mordant parody of what they saw as America’s vacuously optimistic ‘can do’ culture [4, p.33], with the lyrics to ‘That’s Pep!’ literally having being taken effectively verbatim from a serious 1919 motivational poem [4, pp.117-8]. The subsequent legendary ‘whiptease’ film clip for ‘Whip It’ was itself based on a story they’d read in a 1960s men’s magazine about a former stuntman who had left Hollywood, married a stripper, opened a dude ranch and, each day at noon, would literally whip the clothes off his wife for the assembled guests [4, p.40], whom one presumes were passingly similar to the All-American beer-swilling young dudes and dude-ettes portrayed in the music video [5]. As Casale said [4, p.40]: “It was just so stupid and so low, and yet so great.”

Freedom of Choice ends with ‘Planet Earth’, a song that thematically revisits the title track’s video depiction of humanoid aliens (or perhaps simply ‘alienated humans’) observing and trying to make sense of what is happening on this world. The narrator-vocalist (in this case Casale) speaks of the strange things he “couldn’t understand” that one can witness on Planet Earth, which were “enough to make me cry”. As he later put it, it was [4, pp.143-4]:

just one man’s reportage about what it feels like to be alive. Surrounded by the absurdity you’re surrounded by, and the ridiculous human behaviour that makes an otherwise beautiful planet turn miserable more often than not, at least for me.

It was, he said, in a way a precursor to the next album’s most well-known song, ‘Beautiful World’.

… was the end

Following their surprise success and global fame with ‘Whip It’, and – increasingly irritable and impatient about people not understanding their message in general and the song and film clip in particular – on 1981’s New Traditionalists they announced in the opening line of the opening track, using a quasi-robotic collective voice, that they were “through being cool” and that it was time to “eliminate the ninnies and the twits”. DEVO had long felt they had a serious message to advance, even as they had until then used somewhat subtle parody, satire and irony in order to do it. Their growing exasperation and impatience with those who could not, or would not, get the message, is perhaps best exemplified by a lyric from ‘Pity You’:

But there’s some big fat point that you seem to be missing
And it’s driving you to destruction,
But it doesn’t stop you in the least.

The character of the album – which tended to alienate critics and the public at large, and even some fans – is basically one of now no longer merely subtly showing, as before, but instead explicitly telling. Thus a lyric from ‘Enough Said’: “Let me tell you what tomorrow holds for you”. On this new album, therefore, subtlety or nuanced irony were in large part jettisoned. The two singles, ‘Through Being Cool’ and ‘Beautiful World’ (the latter again with Casale on lead vocals), each hammered their message openly, albeit in the latter case with that hammer-hit coming at almost the 3-minute mark of a 3½-minute song (as opposed to being in the very first line of ‘Through Being Cool’), thus:

It’s a beautiful world, for you;
It’s not for me.

The film clip overlays the sweetly melodic and somewhat melancholy music with, initially, pleasant images of beauty and idyll drawn from 20th Century American pop cultural archival footage, gradually giving way to hand grenades, machine guns gunning down infantry, the Ku Klux Klan, starving children and, ultimately, a nuclear mushroom cloud, topped off with an undisguisedly sardonic sequence of a cheerleader leading a march, presumably ‘into the future’.

‘Beautiful World’ was certainly a much more obviously dark view of the world than their prior clips – with the possible exception of the one for ‘Through Being Cool’ where a roving gang is shown being armed, prepped for, and then actually eliminating those whom they considered ninnies and twits – and the critical response to both it and the song was often less than glowing. DEVOtees were also polarised by it; some embraced the view as right on target, while others were put off. Other songs on the album likewise feature similarly fairly dark lyrics. In ‘Through Being Cool’, as part of eliminating those ninnies and twits, we are told they were (note again the potato reference):

Going to bang some heads,
Going to beat some butts;
Time to show those evil spuds what’s what.  …
Mash ’em!

And:

Put the tape on erase,
Re-arrange a face,
We always liked Picasso anyway.

In the final song ‘Enough Said’ (which, as noted above, was going to tell us what tomorrow held for us), we also find the following:

Take all the leaders from around the world,
Put them together in a great big ring.
Televise it as the lowest show on earth,
And let them fight like hell to see who’s king. …
Gather up the pieces when the fight is done;
Then you’ll find out living really can be fun.

But, this darkness should also not have been surprising – DEVO had always taken a fairly dim view of humanity’s baser side, and especially of political leadership, seared as it was into place by those thirteen fateful seconds on May 4, 1970 at Kent State. In the Are We Not Men? album version of their early song ‘Jocko Homo’ – where the call-and-response of “Are we not men?”, “We are DEVO!” is repeated many times, and (obviously) provides the album title – we find the lyric:

We get it now, God made Man
But He used the monkey to do it.
Apes in The Plan, and we’re all here to prove it.
I can walk like an ape, talk like an ape,
I can do what a monkey can do.
God made Man, but a monkey supplied the glue.

Despite our much-vaunted intellect and achievements we are all still just barely-evolved primates, with the baser aspects of our being lying only just below the surface, waiting to emerge into the light at any moment. And, DEVO further claimed, we are already de-evolving anyway, as any clear-eyed, open-minded witness would attest.

From our current vantage point, it now seems pretty clear that their pessimism was ultimately proven correct. From an interview in 2010 [8]:

“We had a very dark vision,” Casale says succinctly. “We definitely saw the world crumbling. There wasn’t much optimism.” … Today Casale says much of Devo’s bleak vision has become reality. “I think things have devolved so far that Devo is relevant now in another way,” Casale says. “Now all we are is in step with the world that we all live in” [italics added].

That is, by 2010, DEVO was no longer a step ahead of where they saw the world heading, and trying to warn it, but rather was now simply in step with the by-then much-devolved world. And things have not really improved much in the interim, either, as the recent annus horribilis of 2020 has shown us. Indeed, in 2020, Casale observed, again, that [9, c.1h11m34s]:

Our worldview, and our view of humanity, while it was dark, it was based on real evidence – real, just, ‘hit you over the head, over and over’ empirical evidence, that if you’re not blind, you can’t miss it.

The interview continues with him describing sociologist Erich Fromm’s contention that people wanted freedom from choice (cf. their 1980 lyric, above) and how they would willingly conform, even without coercion, which is [9, 1h12m20s-37s]

a problem with human nature. And so the people that are capable of logic and critical thought are in the minority. And that’s why there’s always this rush towards dictatorships. And that’s what America [has become over the last 50 years].

It was not until I had become a professional futurist that I fully understood why DEVO had so spoken to me back then and why their sardonic mix of ironically optimistic retro-futurism and simultaneously dour acerbic pessimism about the coming bleak future seemed to so resonate with me as a teenager. I now recognise it as having been a certain kind of ‘gallows humour’. In the foresight method known as Emerging Issues Analysis, we learn from Graham Molitor’s decades of work that it is the artists, poets, SF writers, mystics and similarly ‘out there’ people – not the mainstream – that we need to look to in order to gain an early view of what the future may hold [10]. By definition, these ‘fringe’ outsiders will not see the mainstream’s ‘official’ (usually optimistic, and often delusional) future, but tend to be more attuned to alternatives, most usually (but not always) somewhat darker. And generally not without good reason.

Aldous Huxley had written Brave New World in the early 1930s, while Eric Blair / George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four followed in the late 1940s, and Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 soon after in the early 1950s. This classic trio of 20th Century dystopian fiction (or quartet, if one also adds Orwell’s Animal Farm) has collectively proven remarkably and eerily prescient over time. Having grown up reading these novels, I intuitively recognised a kindred warning in DEVO’s music and central thesis, although it would not occur to me more fully or consciously until much later; back then, it was merely a vague visceral sense of ‘just being “right”’. Like the tragic figure of Cassandra in the legend of the Trojan War, DEVO could see that things were going to go to hell in a hand-basket, and were trying to warn as many people as they could that something had to be done, in their view to avoid our increasing passivity leading to a creeping authoritarian totalitarianism. And, like Cassandra, they were not believed. Many contemporary futurists do feel a certain kinship with Cassandra, and with some aspects of her unhappy story…

As mentioned at start of this post, 1982 saw the release of their ‘fascist clown music’ album, Oh No! It’s DEVO, the long-running potato theme now appearing explicitly on the cover art, where they are depicted as literal spudboys, as well as at the start of the film clip for the opening track, ‘Time Out For Fun’, from which this post draws its title. Their critical social commentary set to catchy pop music continues on this album, touching upon issues ranging from creepy surveillance (‘Peek-A-Boo’), to psycho-obsessive love (the then-controversialI Desire’), to consumerist mass-demand (‘That’s Good’) to, frankly, who-knows-what (‘Big Mess’)? There also appears to be what may be a rationale offered for the more clearly overt messaging and darker turn that the previous year’s New Traditionalists took, as well as foreshadowing their subsequent album. The song ‘Deep Sleep’ contains the following lyric (which again seems to critique America’s culture of optimistically re-framing everything):

I’ve been walking in a deep sleep,
Sleep walking but I just woke up …
I’ve been running on remote control
In a deep sleep, a very deep sleep.
I awoke the moment I was told
That a smile is just frown turned around,

while ‘What I Must Do’ tells us that, presumably now awakened and thereby called to take appropriate action:

I must do what I must do,
And I do, though I know better.
I must do what I must do
(Even though he might regret it).

In 1984 DEVO followed this up with Shout. The first and title track literally opens with a trumpet call-and-response, analogous to their similarly album-opening but firmly tongue-in-cheek ‘Devo Corporate Anthem’ on Duty Now for the Future (see the main image at the top of this post, or the associated film clip). Here, though, it seems intended no longer as satire but instead as a serious, urgent and explicit call to arms, wherein we’re told:

I’m shoutin’, about the world outside
(I’m shoutin’), because you just can’t hide
(I’m shoutin’), from the plain honest truth
(I’m shoutin’), there’s so much we could do!

(Shout) Oh baby, this one’s for you
(Shout) For everything that you do
(Shout) Until the battle is won
(Shout) We’ll live to fight on and on.

Sadly, by this stage, despite their “shoutin’”, fewer and fewer people seemed willing to listen to (or buy) their message, and DEVO themselves also seem to have begun to burn out [3, p.233ff]. In ‘Here To Go’, we find what appears to be a reference to an increasing urgency of needing to act on global problems such as rising authoritarianism or perhaps even global warming, which had barely begun to enter popular awareness. Thus:

If you smell the smoke
You don’t need to be told
What you got to do.
Yet there’s a certain breed
Some vary in between
They’d rather take a vote.
Running short on time
Still they can’t decide
But we already know.

The song ‘C’mon’ provides their by-now weary perspective on humanity’s unfortunately too-common response to the need for any sort of responsible action:

Let’s run to a place where the party never ends; …
Let’s run from a promise that could never be kept,
Let’s run or it’s sure to chase us down,
Well, c’mon, let’s run,

which perhaps represents an even more disillusioned follow-up to another lyric from the previous album’s ‘Enough Said’, namely: “Remember to do nothing when you don’t know what to do.”

After Shout did not fare at all well either critically or commercially, even their record company stopped listening, and dropped them. Soon after, their long-time drummer since the early (but not the earliest) days, Alan Myers – whose legendary technical skill and rare talent were very widely recognised – left the band, citing feeling creatively unfulfilled, as DEVO continued to rely increasingly on digital electronic, not analogue acoustic drums. However, they had by then so instilled themselves into the popular imagination that Weird Al Yankovic could still do a hilarious ‘style parody’ homage to them in 1985, ‘Dare To Be Stupid’– which contained at least two-dozen or more tongue-in-cheek references to their music and videos – and easily have it widely recognised as being unmistakably based upon DEVO.

With a new drummer and a (short-lived) new record company, two more albums – Total DEVO (1988) and Smooth Noodle Maps (1990) – appeared, and promptly sank almost without trace, the latter not even charting, perhaps due to their record company going bankrupt. By this time, DEVO had also pretty much stopped touring; while on a European tour they had watched This Is Spinal Tap and recognised with horror that they were actually living the satirised life of the eponymous band [4, p.139], and effectively wound down. Mostly they went on to have success elsewhere – Mothersbaugh as a recognised composer of film and television music [11], employing his former band-mates Bob1 (his own brother) and Bob2 (Casale’s brother), while Casale, building on the experiences of directing their own and some other videos from very early on, became a noted video producer, working with many top acts.

In 1990, several other albums were also released – almost as a kind of ‘last hurrah!’ – including a compilation of many of their early demo recordings from their pre-Are We Not Men? days – Hardcore DEVO, Vol.1 – as well as two retrospectives: Greatest Hits, and, again self-parodying, Greatest Misses. The following year Hardcore DEVO, Vol.2 was released.

The eventual unravelling of DEVO should also not really have come as a surprise. They had known going in that the music industry, by its aggressively parasitic nature, would very likely assimilate them, chew them up and spit them out. As Mothersbaugh had noted in an interview c.1981 [3, p.223]:

There is always a chance that Devo’s going to go down, that we will be sucked up by the business and made horrible, stupid and meaningless. That’s what the whole game is. It’s fighting for as long as we can before we go under.

Indeed the song ‘Going Under’ on New Traditionalists actually says:

I know a place where dreams get crushed
Hopes are smashed but that ain’t much …
I’m going under

while the alarmingly-titled ‘Race of Doom’ suggests that

It’s a matter of time
It’s a matter of luck
It’s a factor of chance
‘Til I self-destruct. …
Let me be your time-bomb.

They’d likewise known since their very earliest days, well before the depiction in the closing scene of the video for ‘Freedom of Choice’, that de-evolution was a force which could also engulf them. Part of DEVO’s origin story includes a film they had made in 1976 titled In The Beginning Was The End: The Truth About De-Evolution (based on a controversial book that had been an influence on their approach [3, p.10]). It had won first prize for Best Short Film at the Ann Arbour Film Festival of 1977, and was often screened before their live shows, an early indication of their keen visual art-inspired understanding of the use of video as an adjunct to music [3, pp.132-3].

In the film, Mothersbaugh – wearing a creepy, baby-faced mask and playing one of their invented characters, Booji (pronounced “boogie”) Boy (who is also seen in the film clip for ‘Beautiful World’) – having performed a song with the rest of the band, then runs through a bleak parking lot and up the exterior staircase on an unglamorous industrial building to meet his father General Boy, played by Mothersbaugh’s own real-life father. The General states that, although this information has been suppressed in the past, “now it can be told. Every man, woman and mutant on this planet shall know the truth about de-evolution.” To this, Booji Boy responds: “Oh, Dad! We’re all Devo!” [7]. The scene then shifts to show an unmasked Mothersbaugh delivering this truth via a ‘lecture’ to an assembled audience, by singing ‘Jocko Homo’, albeit a slightly slower pre-album version that does not include the lyrics detailed above.

The later song ‘Gates of Steel’ from Freedom of Choice similarly tells us:

The beginning was the end
Of everything, now.
The Ape regards his tail –
He’s stuck on it.
Repeats until he fails,
Half a goon and half a god.

Mothersbaugh later said that while Freedom of Choice was “‘the pinnacle’ of DEVO’s creative cooperation”, it was “‘also the beginning of the end. … But, you know what? We did pretty good’” [4, p.150].

And as the biographers Dellinger and Giffels put it [3, p.233]:

The final brilliance of Devo was that they had predicted this from the start, from before they were even a proper, working band. They put themselves in a position of always having to move forward, but they knew that moving forward was moving backward. … The beginning was the end, and the end could only reflect the beginning.

We’re all DEVO!

After several years’ hiatus, they began a series of reunion gigs and tours that were very well received, beginning with The Sundance Film Festival in early 1996 where they appeared in prisoner uniforms [6, p.142 of the Unmasked half], having supposedly been given a temporary release just to play the gig [7], with their highest-profile performance being at the Vancouver Winter Olympics in early 2010 [12].

They had been recording new songs in the years leading up to 2010,† and – as noted in the cited news story about the Olympics performance – were planning on releasing a new album, their first studio album in two decades, which Casale called “a return to form” [9, c.1h44m33s]. As described by Casale in a 2020 retrospective podcast interview [13], the process of releasing it was, as one might expect, conducted as deadpan satire, parodying the focus-group obsessions of modern record labels. One focus group was conducted on what colour their energy dome head-wear should be given. A lightish shade of blue, as it turns out. Another focus group process revealed that the album would be called Something For Everybody [14, c.2m].

The album certainly is a return to form of the DEVO of yore. It opens with ‘Fresh’ (which I admit I would have voted for as the album’s title [14], although had it been given as an option I would have used my freedom of choice and gone instead with ‘Step Up’), a classic DEVO-parodic commentary on breathless consumerism and commercial sloganeering apparently driven by sneaky ‘olfactory advertising’. ‘What We Do’ comments on the pointless repetitiveness of much of modern life, and the associated film clip was particularly innovative, featuring a 360-degree view of some eleven or so simultaneous vignettes into which one could zoom and/or follow specific camera angles in a single, continuous unedited take (a couple of versions exist online, including a ‘slow pan’ of the total scene). The more serious songs include the even-then-topical ‘Don’t Shoot (I’m a Man)’ which unfortunately, as we know, became even more topical in 2020, as well as two in particular that deal most directly with themes I’ve discussed above. Their character is well described by a lyric from ‘Step Up’:

Listen up y’all – it’s D-E-V-O …
… now it’s high time to choose your destiny.

Part of the problem with the human response to climate change is that as a species we seem incapable of treating it seriously enough to act right now in the present. We tend to respond well to concrete, fast-moving proximal threats like large carnivorous animals, but we don’t seem to be able to grasp dealing with more abstract, slow-moving diffuse threats, like global warming. This is probably due to the way the wetware was installed into our cognitive wiring systems during the 300,000-odd years we’ve existed as a species, over 95% of which was spent hunter-gathering in the Palaeolithic Era. As a result, what are actually urgent greenhouse gas targets are set for ‘not-just-yet’ times, the attitude seemingly being ‘we’ll deal with it later when we really have to’. Futurists call this cognitive bias ‘future discounting’. The song ‘Later is Now’ calls out the fallacy of this thinking. No matter how far we tried to run away, way back in ‘C’mon’, we were chased down, the party did end, and the somehow-distant future, where things are parked until ‘eventually’ they become such a problem that we do deal with them because we have to, is no longer ‘distant’. The lyrics observe that:

In the day-glo sky above the devolved city,
I looked up and saw the banner big and bold:
‘Later is Now’ …
Tomorrow is a replay,
So tonight I’ll try to sleep
I’ll deal with it later! …
Later is Now! …
Sooner or later, everything comes to light …
Sooner or later, everybody feels the bite
Later is Now!

This song represents a significant ‘dropping’ of the sardonic tricksterism that had characterised much of DEVO’s early approach. It is close in spirit to the call-to-arms of ‘Shout’, although now the narrator is living in and reporting on the undesirable future-which-is-now-here, as opposed to merely warning about its impending arrival. We had our chance, delayed too long, and blew it. And this brings us to perhaps the most poignant song on the album, if not in their entire oeuvre.

‘No Place Like Home’ is what Gerald Casale called a “bookend” to ‘Beautiful World’ [13, c.43m30s ff], and observed that “if you thought ‘Beautiful World’ was dark, … then … ‘No Place Like Home’ … makes ‘Beautiful World’ seem like a warm-up act” [9, c.1h46m33s]. As such, given earlier comments, it actually represents the third entry in a triptych of lamentation for our planet. ‘Planet Earth’ was “reportage” from a human being feeling bewildered by the absurdity of our species’ propensity for self-imposed misery. ‘Beautiful World’ was essentially a ‘bait-and-switch’, which baited with allusions to beauty and wonder, then switched with the confession that the world was not actually beautiful or wonderful for the narrator because of what he could see going on in it (some days it seems acerbic or even sarcastic, other days it seems plaintive or even apologetic; perhaps that very ambiguity is part of its power as a song). With ‘No Place Like Home’, Casale acknowledged that it was DEVO in effect taking off their suits and masks and speaking without any artifice at all, just nakedly and honestly, like adults [13, c.43m40s]. It certainly is that. A Big History perspective helps to set context for the lyrics.

On a Big History view, human beings have existed only in the last few moments of any timeline of Universal history, such as the Cosmic Calendar popularised by Carl Sagan. In the 13.8 billion years of cosmic time compressed into and represented by one calendar year, the Earth forms at the start of September, while we show up on New Year’s Eve, Dec 31st at 11:52 pm, just as champagne bottles are being prepped to pop. We are, in other words, but a recent blip in the grand scheme of things. Our species emerged, as noted above, during the Palaeolithic Era several hundred thousand years ago. This time-span included long periods of intense glaciation (‘ice ages’) interspersed with relatively brief warm interstitial (‘inter-glacial’) periods, in a roughly 10-to-1 ratio: ~100,000 years of glacials to ~10,000 years of inter-glacials, more or less. We were able to move out of our nomadic hunter-gathering lifeway into sedentary settled agriculture when the most recent ice age (at the end of the Pleistocene Epoch ~11,700 years ago) gave way to the warmer inter-glacial known as the Holocene Epoch, which allowed us the opportunity to begin to domesticate plants and animals. In many ways, the world that was our ‘home’ was this most recent inter-glacial period when humanity grew from a few million individuals to our present 7+ billion.

However, our activities have begun to recognisably alter the balances of the processes of the global system. Atmospheric chemist Paul Crutzen famously declared at a conference in 2000 that we were no longer in the Holocene, but rather in the “Anthropocene”. While he was not the first to propose something like this idea (although he apparently did so independently on the spur of the moment), it does capture the essential realisation that humanity is now clearly a planet-altering force, on a par with geological processes. Although the Anthropocene has not (yet) been officially recognised by the international body that determines these designations, nonetheless, in a very real sense, we have left the Holocene that was our home and have moved on into a new world of our own (unconscious) making. In the process, we are now causing what has been called the sixth major mass extinction of species that the geological record has revealed – and one that yet might also include us …

No Place Like Home’ begins with the beep-beeping of an electrocardiogram, suggesting the not altogether incorrect idea that the patient, while currently still alive, at the very least needs to have vital signs monitored, and may even be doing so badly as to require life support. Frankly, this is a pretty elegant assessment of the state of the biosphere of the Earth. Now to the lyrics, bearing in mind the context just set. One can clearly recognise both a Big History perspective on where we are, as well as the deep anguish for what we are losing:

In the bigger scheme of things,
We haven’t been around here more than a moment.
And yet, too many, it seems, believe
We are creating a brand new world around us.
We are creating a brand new world without us.

Maybe it really is okay,
Although we’re digging our own graves, at this moment.
If we should all just disappear,
The skies and waters will clear in a world without us.
And there’s no place like home to return to.

We push against the rest of life
As if we can survive without the world around us.
Can’t have a rainbow without the rain;
Can’t have a payday without the pain;
Can’t have a lover walk out without the love leaving with them.
There’s no place like home to return to.

There is scarcely a clearer statement possible of where we find ourselves at this point in our history. Thus, the third song in this ‘lamentation for Earth’ sequence is pure heart-break and sorrow at where we have come to and what we have done.

For the last year or two, I’ve been thinking a great deal about “future grief” – the sense of loss that many futurists feel when we think about all the many potential futures that are being foreclosed by short-sighted decisions in the present. ‘No Place Like Home’ is a closely-related kind of grief – for the world we had, and for the world we could have had, but have now lost through our own misguided action. But more – even when we were warned about how this would happen (such as in The Limits to Growth), we still went ahead and did it anyway, compounding the sense of sorrow and regret. The loss is not just tragic, which it is, but doubly-so, since it was (again, as in ‘Planet Earth’) self-imposed.

In the years since Something For Everybody, a follow-up album Something Else for Everybody was also released, and DEVO continued to tour occasionally as well. Sadly, two members of the original ‘classic’ line-up (shown in the main image) are no longer with us. Alan Myers died of stomach cancer in 2013, and Robert (‘Bob2’) Casale succumbed unexpectedly to heart failure in 2014, while in mid 2020, Mark Mothersbaugh almost died of Covid-19, spending two weeks on a ventilator in a delusional state, some of which, he said, were “very dark”. The time is coming when the tricksters from Akron, Ohio, will eventually be forced to stop reminding us in person of the de-evolution of humankind. Luckily, we have their many recordings, audio and video, to keep that uncomfortable assertion before us. By now it is surely not something that anyone should need any more convincing of; although, on the other hand, if de-evolution is real (as it does seem to be), then maybe it is – perhaps more than ever.

While DEVO were ‘only’ a music group, they nonetheless had an important message and warning – one that (I would claim) has been more than amply borne out and vindicated by the passage of time. One might be able to forgive the world at large for not taking serious notice of a group of artsy-musical pranksters staging elaborate satire and parody. Perhaps that is fair enough. But what is more staggering is how the serious scientists and researchers who produced The Limits To Growth in 1972, and then likewise tried to warn us of a dire future if we didn’t act, were themselves treated similarly (which I may explore further in a later post). They too were vilified, ridiculed, dismissed and ultimately ignored. There are therefore very interesting parallels between the experiences of the authors of The Limits To Growth and DEVO: both attempted to alert the world to a coming danger, using the appropriate tools of their working contexts, be it music or computer modelling. Sadly, neither succeeded, much to the detriment of a world that really should have listened. In this they share an unfortunate poignant affinity with the tragic figure of Cassandra.

Duty Now for the Future

In Futures Studies there is a well-known half-serious tongue-in-cheek ‘law’ coined by one of the founders of the field, James A. (‘Jim’) Dator, known widely as ‘Dator’s Second Law of the Future’. It states that [e.g., 15]:

“Any useful idea about the future should appear to be ridiculous.”

The rationale for this ‘law’ comes from the observation that, since the mainstream view of the future is almost certainly wrong, including the future considered ‘most likely’ – hence a well-known aphorism usually attributed to Herman Kahn: “the most likely future isn’t” – one must look to non-mainstream ideas for potentially useful insights about how the future may actually turn out to be. Therefore, in looking for genuinely useful information about the future, those who seek it should expect it to be “unconventional, and even shocking, offensive and seemingly ridiculous” [15]. The job of the futurist, therefore, is to show how the ridiculous idea is nonetheless plausible and feasible, and needs to be treated seriously.

I’ve been aware of Dator’s Second Law for over two decades. It is of course part of the origin of the category of “preposterous futures” I added to the Futures Cone nearly a decade-and-a-half ago. In more recent years I’ve come to consider that a natural consequence and logical corollary of the Second Law is that

“satire eventually becomes reality”,

which, after an email exchange with Dator – who approved of the idea, but suggested a variant [Priv. Comm.] – seems better expressed as:

“satire eventually becomes indistinguishable from reality”.

If ridiculousness is a necessary (but of course not sufficient) condition for an idea to be useful, this immediately suggests that ideas that may have once been proposed purely as satire may actually have come to pass. The more I have thought about this in this way, the more it seems to have been borne out by history. A case-in-point that comes to mind as I write these words today – the day of the inauguration of Joe Biden as the 46th President of the United States of America – was an episode of The Simpsons from 2000, which featured Lisa Simpson becoming President and taking over from (ha ha! how ridiculous, imagine that!) Donald Trump! [16]. The writers had obviously intended it as satire. But, be careful! Your satire may eventually become reality… DEVO also represents a case-in-point: it seems that all the things that they detested and critiqued through their elaborate parody and satire have come to pass. A whimsical song from 2008 even declared that “DEVO was right about everything” [17].

In a directive from a 1979 letter to DEVOtees in Club DEVO, General Boy warned us that [18]:

You may not be aware of this, but we are in the middle of World War III! It is not nuclear bombs that we must fear. The weapon is the human mind or rather the lack of it on this planet. … We must fight back! We must know what we want. We must want what we need. And what we need is Duty Now for the Future.

This lack of human mind is pretty clearly evident as we exit 2020. Without a shadow of a doubt we now dearly need to treat the future much more seriously than we have for the last 50 years. As discussed elsewhere, I took part in a multidisciplinary 3-day conference on the Anthropocene in December 2015. In my presentation at that conference, I noted that the Anthropocene is where our increasing agency as a species has bumped up against the physical limits of our planet, and that our present choices will ultimately determine the eventual course of all of future human history. It is where our long heritage meets our obligation to those many, many billions who will (hopefully) come after us. It is where Big History meets the Big Future. So, no pressure!

Noted astrobiologist David Grinspoon also spoke at that conference. He dared to hope that the Anthropocene would not simply be an event, nor merely a short-lived epoch, but that it might represent the first stirrings of a new eon of time – one characterised by a much wiser use of our (or our descendants’) cognitive capacities to intelligently guide the future evolution of Planet Earth – the ‘Sapiezoic’ (‘wise life’) Eon. (However, a cartoon he showed was less than optimistic about that.) It is a grand and sweeping vision of the future of our Spaceship Earth, one that is almost inevitably instilled into a mind primed by astrobiology or Big History, and undeniably one that is worth signing up to. And that will require a cognitive wetware upgrade, from the older version 1.0 evolved during, and appropriate for, the Palaeolithic, to a newer version 2.0 more suited to the global existential challenges and problématique of the Anthropocene. Perhaps Futures Studies and Big History together can be of some utility in bringing about such a change, from our current and ever-more dangerously out-of-sync mindset, to a newer and ever-expanding worldview which takes the long-term future of humankind seriously.

For, it is right here and right now – in the Anthropocene – where we must make our stand to set out for that future: as a civilisation, as a species, and as a planet.

We simply must succeed. There is no alternative. Because now, unfortunately, there’s no place like home to return to…


UPDATE 02021-03-06: The Australian Broadcasting Corporation recently aired a documentary Devolution: A Devo Theory, which as of this update is available at this URL: https://iview.abc.net.au/show/devolution-a-devo-theory. You might need to use a VPN to access it, depending on any geographical restrictions there might be.

Notes

Main Image: From the Duty Now for the Future era, ‘Secret Agent Man’ single cover. The so-named ‘classic’ DEVO lineup. Band members (L to R): Mark Mothersbaugh, Robert (‘Bob1’) Mothersbaugh, Alan Myers, Gerald Casale, and Robert (‘Bob2’) Casale, wearing leisure shirts featuring the ‘science boy’ graphic (God, I want one!). Original photo taken by Maria Mothersbaugh, 1979. [See, e.g., 6, p.70 of the The Brand half.]

* Interestingly, in the opening verse the song also obliquely references part of the origin story of the Stoic school of philosophy, wherein the founder, Zeno of Citium, lost his fortune – and in some versions almost his life – in a shipwreck. Thus destitute, after making his way to Athens, he began to study philosophy, initially under the guidance of husband-wife Cynic philosophers Crates and Hipparchia, eventually founding his own school in c.300 BCE, whereupon he began delivering his lectures at the Stoa Poikile in the Agora of Athens, which led to the school’s eventual name. One of the central tenets of Stoicism, of course, is that we have complete freedom of choice over our attitudes and behaviours (and only those).

† In 2007 they wrote perhaps the catchiest song they’d ever done – ‘Watch Us Work It’ – for a commercial for Dell computers. This was later released as a single, and eventually appeared on the subsequent ‘Deluxe’ (but not the initial) version of the album Something For Everybody. I confess that I thought the song was a little bit brief at 2m15s, and recently edited it in such a way that the second verse became a new first verse, so that it now has three verses in an A-B-A pattern, while also slightly altering the transitions between them. It’s now 2m57s, which I find much more satisfying. OK, OK, and I also edited the filmclip, too. What can I say? Semi-retirement after becoming a COVID redundancy from my university has afforded a bit more “time out for fun”, as it were… 😉

References

1. Michael Goldberg. 1981. Devo: Sixties idealists or Nazis and clowns? Rolling Stone, December 10. https://www.rollingstone.com/music/music-news/devo-sixties-idealists-or-nazis-and-clowns-119053/

2. SXSW – Devo. 2009. YouTube video. NME YouTube Channel. https://youtu.be/FTSAVVCdr14

3. Jade Dellinger and David Giffels. 2003. Are we not men? We are Devo! London: SAF Publishing. ISBN: 978-0-946719-76-1.

4. Evie Nagy. 2015. Freedom of choice. New York: Bloomsbury Academic. ISBN: 978-1-62356-344-8.

5. Whip It (Video) [1980]. 2009. YouTube video. DEVOvision YouTube channel. https://youtu.be/IIEVqFB4WUo

6. DEVO. 2020. DEVO: The Brand / DEVO: Unmasked. Two-sided book. London: Rocket88 Books / Essential Works Ltd. ISBN: 978-1-910978-49-8.

7. DEVOvision YouTube channel. YouTube. https://www.youtube.com/user/DEVOvision/videos

8. Alan Sculley. 2010. ‘Devo is like the house band on the Titanic.’ Shepherd Express, June 30. http://www.expressmilwaukee.com/article-11426-lsdevo-is-like-the-house-band-on-the-titanicrs.html

9. Conan Neutron. 2020. Jerry Casale (DEVO) [part 1]. Conan Neutron’s Protonic Reversal [podcast]. Episode 159, April 23.  https://www.radionope.com/podcasts/protonicreversal/?name=2020-04-23_159_ep159__jerry_casale_devo.mp3. Accessed November 21.

10. Jim Dator. 2018. Emerging issues analysis: Because of Graham Molitor. World Futures Review 10(1):5–10. https://doi.org/10.1177/1946756718754895.

11. Mark Mothersbaugh. 2021. Internet Movie Database. https://www.imdb.com/name/nm0006205/.

12. Clark Collis. 2010. Devo plays the Winter Olympics! Mark Mothersbaugh talks about tonight’s Vancouver show—and the band’s first new album in 20 years. Entertainment Weekly. February 22. https://ew.com/article/2010/02/22/devo-olympics-new-cd-mothersbaugh/

13. Conan Neutron. 2020. DEVO – Something for Everybody 10 Year Breakdown with Jerry Casale. Conan Neutron’s Protonic Reversal [podcast]. Episode 210, October 28. https://www.protonicreversal.com/2020/10/27/ep210-devo-something-for-everybody-10-year-song-by-song-breakdown-with-jerry-casale/. Accessed November 24.

14. DEVO and Mother LA Conduct Live Focus Group Study at SXSWi. 2010. DEVOvision YouTube Channel. https://youtu.be/SWPJhIpbn-A

15. James A. Dator. 1996. Foreword. In The knowledge base of futures studies, ed. Richard A. Slaughter, 1:xix–xx. Kew, Victoria, Australia: The Futures Study Centre.

16. Bart to the future. 2000. The Simpsons. Season 11, Episode 17, first aired 19 March. https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0767439/

17. The Attery Squash. 2008. DEVO was right about everything. YouTube video. Ricardo Autobahn YouTube Channel. https://youtu.be/gShKgGs-Jbw

18. Directive: Summer 1979. From the desk of General Boy. 1979. The Devo-Obsesso web site. https://devo-obsesso.com/html/paper-itempages/documents/gboy_dir79.html

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