For a brief 1970s flash, punk rock lacked much definition. Within that moment's porous nomenclature, Blondie and Patti Smith, Suicide and Pere Ubu existed alongside aesthetic archetypes such as the Ramones and the Sex Pistols.
When Mark Mothersbaugh and Jerry Casale formed Devo on the campus of Kent State University in 1972, they subsequently climbed through that brief window of opportunity, before punk had a name and a rulebook, back when the nascent musical movement was full of promise, experimentation and a shared zeitgeist, not style sheets and dress codes.
Indeed, if anything unites punk's disparate eras and substreams, it's the sense of apocalyptic anxiety that fueled Richard Hell's "Blank Generation," the Pistols' "Anarchy in the UK" and hardcore's no-tomorrow flashbangs. You can hear it in Devo's central philosophy, too—de-evolution, they called it, the notion that humanity was on a steady march backward.
For Devo, the world had fallen victim to groupthink and repression. They filtered sneering irony and scathing criticism through crisp, mechanical rhythms and, ultimately, a glossy synthesizer veneer. The band reached its commercial apex with 1980's Freedom of Choice, driven by the undying single "Whip It." On its ascent to No. 14 on the Billboard Hot 100, "Whip It" became an MTV hit, earning infamy for the video's S&M imagery.
If detractors worried that such images might mutate the morals of kids, they were at least partially right.
"Devo was really the first band to warp my young mind," admits Draxx Barton, frontman for the Burlington punk band Nanner Head. "All the earlier stuff is really kind of hardcore punk, anyway. Devo does a lot of just outright punk stuff if you took keyboards away from it and threw in distorted guitars."
Indeed, Devo's 1978 debut, the Brian Eno-produced Q: Are We Not Men? A: We Are Devo!, remains their most guitar-centric effort. Its herky-jerky hits—the urgent "Uncontrollable Urge" and the relatively straightforward "Mongoloid"—have since proven ripe for rock 'n' roll reinvention and inspiration.
Barton is keying on the pliability of the band for the two-night DEVO-Fest, billed as a "half-assed punk rock tribute to Devo." A slate of less-than-obvious groups will pay tribute to the obscure cuts of the cult act from Akron, Ohio, hoping to further rockify the Devo catalog.
"Out of this whole festival," Barton says, "I don't think anybody's gonna do 'Whip It,' oddly enough, even though that is the biggest selling song they've had."
Split between Chapel Hill bar The Cave and Raleigh's Slim's, DEVO-Fest promises a modest and alluringly offbeat tribute. Barton booked bands he'd seen, liked and simply wanted to play with. For Friday's gig in Chapel Hill, Durham surf-punks Blood Red River and Chapel Hill's roots-leaning P-90's join the Barton-fronted Nanner Head and Devo cover band The Smart Cadets (in which Barton substitutes cowbell and kazoo for synthesizer). At Slim's on Saturday, Nanner Head and The Smart Cadets sandwich the hard-rock purists K.I.F.F.
"My idea was to have a bunch of punk rock bands get together and have something like Elvisfest, where you'd have a bunch of bands get together and everybody would do a couple Elvis songs, then do their set," Barton says. "If you want to hear nothing but Elvis, you could buy an Elvis album or look at YouTube."
That diversity in approach might be the mini-fest's principal draw. Cave co-owner and Slim's booking agent Mark Connor helped Barton organize DEVO-Fest, and he thinks the festival's movement between two cities and inclusion of bands from multiple genres shows the breadth of Devo's fandom.
"Stuff like John Howie [who drums behind frontwoman Billie Feather in The P-90's] and K.I.F.F.—I can't think of two acts that are more opposite than that," Connor explains. "Across the board, there are Devo fans and people willing to spend their time doing this. I think it makes this more fun and more exciting."
Connor hopes to do more trans-Triangle tribute shows in the future, but he agrees that very few bands could attract such a surprising and disjointed slate. Devo's idiosyncrasy not only virtually ensures their continued cult status but also that their fans emulate them in less-than-obvious ways—that is, fans of the strange Devo tend to start strange bands of their own. "It's not like you can pick 'em out walking down the street because of the jacket they're wearing or whatever," Connor says of Devo fans, calling out punk rock's more traditional insistence on uniform.
Indeed, Devo's unique character is evident in the way critics have inconsistently described them, alternating among terms such as "art rock," "new wave," "synth-pop" and "proto-punk" over the years but never quite hitting the bullseye. That's confirmed by the musicians who've covered Devo, too—Superchunk, Soundgarden, Nirvana and Robert Palmer among them. More accessible than some of their more prickly punk peers and more cynical and singular than contemporaneous new wavers, Devo provided a reliable bridge to sounds and ideas beyond the pop mainstream.
"The pictures that Devo would paint in my head were just altogether bizarre," Barton recalls, fondly. "It was like staying up until 5 o'clock in the morning to watch an old episode of The Outer Limits, where you've been up all night eating sugar snacks and then you watch weird stuff that you're not fully old enough to understand."
This article appeared in print with the headline "Are We Not Punks?"