Riding the Whip

The world catches up to Devo

In preparing their comeback album, Something for Everybody, Devo took the unusual step of inviting fans to pick its dozen tracks from 16 contenders.

“We did it on purpose as an experiment,” Gerald Casale says in a phone interview. “We were always hermetically sealed, like little aliens that dropped down, dropped our load, took off and went home. We thought, ‘What is the thing that we haven’t tried?’ It’s like playing ball, involving the outside world on purpose, because at this point, 30 years down the line, everybody feels like they know what Devo is or has their own idea of what Devo is.”

The idea that fans would ever understand Devo, who play Napa’s Uptown Theatre on Jan. 15, is rather ironic, given the group’s history.

When Devo arrived in 1977 with Q: Are We Not Men? A: We Are Devo!, the band startled and confused most of the world. Devo’s music was spastic, synthesizer-based, with quirky lyrics and song titles like “Gut Feeling / (Slap Your Mammy)” and “Jocko Homo.” They wore futuristic sci-fi-styled radiation uniforms. It was as if the very definition of rock and roll was under attack from Akron, Ohio.

Casale remembers the initial reaction to Devo clearly.

“We got people upset. We were like a lightning rod for hostilities back then,” Casale told a SXSW audience in 2009. “Rolling Stone, I remember they wrote us off, like, ‘They don’t even have a guitar on every single song. How can they be a rock band?’ or ‘They used a drum machine on one of their songs. How could you even do that?’ And they called us fascists. They called us clowns. Mark and I went, ‘Fascist clowns?'”

A few years later, Devo didn’t seem so dangerous. The group’s third album, Freedom of Choice, became a mainstream hit, with the MTV staple “Whip It.” But while some saw comic relief and entertainment in Devo’s songs and videos (remember those red flower pot helmets), the group’s music and lyrics were never light-hearted in intent or message.

“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 of de-evolution has become reality, which marks an appropriate return for the band. “I think things have devolved so far,” he says, “that Devo is relevant now in another way.

“I’ve often said Devo is like the house band on the Titanic, playing familiar tunes that make us feel better as we all go down together.”

Devo appear on Sunday, Jan. 15, at the Uptown Theatre. 1350 Third St., Napa. 8pm. $75. 707.259.0123.