Wednesday, February 7, 2007

The Day Devo Game Me a Surprize

Duty Now For the Future
Warner Bros., 1979

No matter where you go in Ohio, Devo are typically considered punk gods, especially the more north and east you are. You know the old saying....the more your city smells like rubber, the more Devo nerds it contains. Across the globe, in fact, in cities just like Akron, there are thousands of Devo faithful who will put aside their greasy comics to argue about what their best record was, which piece of memorabilia is most valuable, and whether or not Eno really did ruin their debut album. I'm talking seriously obsessed people, and to be honest, I've never been one of the fanatics. I've always liked Devo enough, you could even say loved them - but I wouldn't say I hold them up as gospel.
But as each year passes that seems to be changing. A few months back I picked up a cassette copy of Duty Now For the Future at a Salvation Army, just for something to play in the car on mt way home from work. I had a vinyl copy at home but rarely ever played it. Always thought it was a little overrated by the Devo-heads (my good friend Serie Ozna, especially, who for eight years now has insisted this is the one) - I much preferred Freedom of Choice, the follow-up to Duty Now - but something about the cassette format gave me a new perspective. It sounded flat and a bit distorted, like a relic from an older, more primitive American generation...I let it play for weeks straight, front to back.
It's safe to say that the songwriting on Duty Now For the Future is probably the weakest of Devo's first big three. Are We Not Men? benefited from the six year old repertoire the band had built up, and it shows; nearly every song is a classic. Listening to the Hardcore Devo comps, though, you get the idea that their debut wasn't exactly what it could have been. With his production work, Eno (along with Warner Bros.) transformed the group from a bunch of basement rat sci-fi nerds, banging out three-chord pop songs on homemade synths, into a marketable new-wave gimmick of sorts, albeit one of infinite intellect and potential. Not that Mothersbaugh(s), Casale and Co. didn't have anything to do with this, because, in hindsight, much of what happened seems to have been in Devo's master plan, it's just that the sound and feeling of the debut feels a little boxed. I'm convinced Duty Now is what Devo intended for the debut to sound like. Make any sense? Maybe I am becoming a Devo nerd.
Duty Now For the Future is Devo's great, weird transitional record - a rare album that is impressive because of its transitional nature. Thematically, the record is all over the map. They pull ideas from decades of the American Pop aesthetic - Warhol's supermarket consumerism, Saturday morning cartoons, surf-rock, science-fiction UFO's, Cold War paranoia - to tell their stories of sexual frustration and humanoid inferiority. It comes off cold, awkward, tremendously weird and considerably anti-punk. By the time of Duty Now, Devo were beginning to take hold of the band-as-commodity reality and run with it (check the bar-code emblazoned sleeve). Much has been said of John Lydon being the first punk to become the quintessential psuedo-celebrity anti-hero with the first PiL album, and rightly so, but Devo accomplish a similar feat with Duty Now's pop funhouse.
Musically the album is a synthesizer smorgasbord only Bob Moog himself could fully appreciate. The band use synth as rhythm, synth as bass, synth as melody, synth as background...synth for no damn reason other than to sound different. It's a tight, focused sound, with guitars spiking in and out, drums punching hard and steady and vocals simulating the stiff keyboard stabs. Devo on Duty Now are so tight they at times remind me of James Brown's JB's, the way they made every instrument percussive. Elsewhere they sound like a computerized version of Pink Flag-era Wire, or even a jerkier entity of the polyrhythmic explorations that the Talking Heads were also mining. Sometimes I'm even reminded of a synthesized Magic Band minus the stoner haze.
The album contains a few classic pieces of songwriting, especially on the A-Side. "Clockout" kicks things off as well as any Devo album, in all of its Captain Caveman meets the Ventures glory, and "Wiggly World" is a brilliant Adult-ADD Beefheartian rocker, one of the finest lesser-known Devo songs (seek out This Moment In Black History's cover from a few years back). "Strange Pursuit" perfects their weirdo synth-pop before a similarly styled Freedom of Choice brings the band unlikely stardom. Aside from a few ill-advised conceptual pieces and a fairly boring rendition of "Secret Agent Man", Duty Now packs a punch in every corner.
While I'm still not sure if Duty Now For the Future is Devo's best or most important album, I will say that it is Devo's most interesting piece. Stuck between two very strong voices, Duty Now often gets lost in the shuffle. Well I'm here to tell you: don't let that happen anymore! It's your duty to give this album the credit it is due. For the future!
Bonus: I found an old review of the record stuffed in my vinyl copy and scanned it for your enjoyment. Even back then people weren't sold on this album. Click on picture to enlarge.


mike carney said...

If you are interested i have a copy of the book about devo you could borrow if you want.

Anonymous said...

If you mean dellinger-giffels's bio from a few years back, it says jerry casale vetoed several of eno's ideas on Q&A ...

Doug said...

yes i've been meaning to read it. a lot of the eno-drama is pure speculation on my part but i have a feeling he took over the band much in the same way he did the talking heads (to a lesser extent, obviously...eno's issues w/ that band run deep). i'm interested in eno's rejected suggestions...?