Happy 40th Anniversary to Devo’s debut album Q: Are We Not Men? A: We Are Devo!, originally released August 28, 1978.
Like many people, my introduction to Devo was through their chart-cracking hit “Whip It” from their 1980 album Freedom of Choice. This led my brother and me down a rabbit hole of discovery, as they became our new musical obsession. Like Kiss before them, Devo were a band with a distinctive look, live show theatrics and an overall band ethos that posited that as a species the human race is devolving (thus the moniker Devo.) And like Kiss, because of the theatrics and costumes (or in Devo’s case, uniforms), the band is often marginalized by music critics who often dismiss them as some novelty act, forgetting that, first and foremost, the music was the centerpiece of the Devo universe.
So with weekly journeys to our local record store, my brother and I began buying up back catalogue albums, and getting our hands on any VHS tapes that showed the band live or featured their inventive video clips. It was through this musical scavenger hunt that we discovered their debut album, Q: Are We Not Men? A: We Are Devo!
Produced by Brian Eno and assisted by David Bowie, Are We Not Men? is a seamless synthesis of alt-punk and new wave. Guitar driven songs like album opener “Uncontrollable Urge,” “Too Much Paranoias,” “Gut Feeling (Slap Your Mammy)” and “Sloppy (I Saw My Baby Getting’)” all brim with the punk aesthetic fueled by a sweaty urgency to capture the energy in the tracks as it happens. For a band most often associated with the sound of blipping and sawing synths, it’s easy to forget they started out with guitars a-blazing.
But where Devo truly come into their own is when they embrace their geekdom and nerd up. With the synths twitching and intellectual theories on display, the band create a style and sound that is uniquely their own.
Whether deconstructing The Rolling Stones’ “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction” and refashioning it as a new wave reggae jittering groove, or taking aim at the social conditioning of America in “Praying Hands,” Devo prove an intriguing and refreshing force.
Their geek freak flag is fully unfurled and saluted on tracks like “Space Junk,” “Shrivel Up,” and the song that was quickly banned from our home (and thus became must-play material when the parentals were out), “Mongoloid.”
The highlight of the set is without a doubt the mind-blowing, seminal “Jocko Homo.” With otherworldly sounds, off-kilter time signature, descending and ascending counter melodies, and lyrics espousing the idea of de-evolution, “Jocko Homo” was Devo at their quirkiest and most brilliant. It’s hard to not get caught up in the euphoria of the anticipation and explosion of the second half of the song.
In totality, Are We Not Men? is the introduction to the musical manifesto and synthesizer stylings of a band that had a lot to say both sonically and lyrically. This is the sound of new wave at its finest and most ambitious. A wave Devo would continue to ride and course correct on its subsequent albums leading up to where the introduction of a chart topper like “Whip It” seemed inevitable.