Devo were an early and important discovery for me. I was fourteen or so, and my record collection comprised four Beatles albums. I was aware of punk, although I wasn't quite sure what it was seeing as all I seemed to hear on the radio was either Dan Hartman's Instant Replay or the Electric Light Orchestra; although that said, I'd watched the first Public Image Limited single and Germ Free Adolescents by X-Ray Spex performed on Top of the Pops and found both songs strangely hypnotic. Graham, my best friend, lent me his copy of the first Devo album apparently having decided that I needed to hear it. It was on red vinyl, and there was something disturbing about it. It was something new in the world. I listened to it once whilst staring at the weird and freakish figures on the cover as I sat next to the record player, then decided to take it back to Graham. There was something strange and deeply unwholesome about this music. It implied regions of human experience I had never considered, and would rather not know about; but Graham insisted I keep at it, give it another listen, and so I did.
Devo became my new favourite band, and have remained pretty much unchallenged in this capacity ever since. Henry Rollins once observed that there are two kinds of people in the world, those who get Devo and those who don't, and generally I've found this to be true whilst thanking providence that I can be counted amongst the first group. The last person I knew who didn't get Devo was the pothead owner of an atheist bulletin board for whom they were essentially interchangeable with Duran Duran. He preferred Kiss and classic rock, and by strange coincidence he was also something of a dick in terms of his interpersonal relationships and how he dealt with other people. Since my brief encounter with that guy, I have known to shun those who don't understand Devo, to walk the other way before they can infect me with their failure and turn everything complicated.
The point that so many somehow miss, is that Devo were never art rock or novelty pop or weirdness for the sake of weirdness. They have always been in essence a folk band, and in American terms possibly the only folk band, the group who see clearly and who understand how our society really works. If they seem a little fucked up stood there in their fake plastic breasts and with those things on their heads, then maybe you need to take another look around yourself, at this world in which we were denied the silver rockets promised by Hugo Gernsback, where Archie has that sister with an IQ of thirty-seven who somehow never gets a mention in the comic books, with Betty and Veronica forever lost in their own lurid fantasy existence of cowboy pharmacology and giant babies. The bottom line - at least for me - is that Devo have ever been so finely attuned to the ongoing backwards progress of human culture, so sensitised to the real stuff, that almost any band or artist stood next to them will inevitably look like teenagers trying to appear cool whilst smoking the wrong end of their first cigarettes; and as a band devolving backwards along the timeline of their own career in keeping with everything else that's happened since the industrial revolution, it seems fitting that now, forty plus years, countless albums, and two fallen soldiers down the line they should be taking the dark Ohio basement in which they recorded their very first songs on tour.
I know most of the material played tonight from the Mechanical Man EP, from the two Hardcore Devo collections of formative recordings originally released by Rykodisc, and a handful of tracks which eventually made it onto the first two official albums. The original recordings sound muffled in places, prone to tape degradation, the best that could be done under primitive circumstances, bluesy science-fiction surf tunes scraped together with home built synthesisers on a rough framework of spastic rhythms. Transposed to a stage before hundreds of eager Texan spuds, it's peculiar how the songs remain the same whilst forming new, unfamiliar shapes. I feared it might sound as weird and cranky as those archive discs, partially because I was there with Mrs. Wax Cylinders whose main frame of reference was this being the band who once had a hit with Whip It. I needn't have worried, and found myself surprised at how funky some of the songs sound in such a setting, even how heavy. The loudest band I ever saw was probably Terminal Cheesecake, and although this wasn't at even half their volume, Devo - against all odds, the novelty band who got a namecheck on Different Strokes and upon whom a Kiss fan might rightly pour his hairy chested scorn - sounded or maybe felt bigger, heavier, darker, funnier, and more relevant to the mess we've gotten ourselves into than ever. Mechanical Man achieved an effect resembling the sort of thing to which Black Sabbath once aspired; Bamboo Bimbo could have been the Swans at their most pensive and grunting; Fountain of Filth and I've Been Refused came on with such righteous energy as to leave no doubt of this being the band formed in response to the outrage of the Kent State Shooting of May, 1970. They didn't exactly play all of the hits - I personally would also have liked to have heard Chango and maybe Bottled Up - but it was all of the good stuff, all the weirdly terrifying and yet strangely intoxicating forms found when you flip the Beach Boys over and scrape off all that stuff that's been growing on their underside; Jocko Homo and Gut Feeling and even the infant-headed Booji Boy finding his way onto the stage for a few numbers with the help of what was either a baby walker or a Zimmer frame, depending on whether you're looking backwards or forwards.
Finally, to boil the above bones down into something that will settle better on top of your beer, it was not only a good gig, but possibly the greatest gig I've ever attended by at least a few definitions, some quantified by hairs erect on the back of my neck throughout the performance. Forty plus years, countless albums, and two fallen soldiers down the line, and Devo are still able to surprise me. I don't know if there's ever been another band capable of such a feat, who could retrace their first steps and still take us somewhere entirely new.