Secret Agent Men

Devo’s Paradox: Why some art can’t be appreciated in its own time. By Noel Murray, AV Club.

Nearly a year old, this piece, but just discovered today. Akron’s spud boys vs. four seventies rock critics–Christgau, Bangs, Dave Marsh, and Tom Carson–none of whom reserve too many kind words for the band (though of the four, only Marsh seems to out and out despise them). Clearly, Murray is some kind of Devo fan, though in a piece that’s commendable for its evenhandedness, he only overstates the case for them once, I think, with the specious (at best) claim that “today, Are We Not Men? routinely lands on lists of the best and/or most significant albums of all time”–really? I haven’t noticed that at all (it’s possible we’re not looking at the same lists in the same publications). His strongest point, however, is his assertion that, in some instances (particularly, I’d suggest, for a band like Devo, who never lacked for a manifesto) negative criticism actually helps tell a band’s story–it completes, or anyway fills in, the picture they’re trying to create in the first place. Says Murray:

“It’s important to note, though, that the Devo skeptics weren’t ‘wrong’ per se. Devo intended to provoke with its science-fiction mission statements and its emotionless renditions of ’60s party music, so the affronted reactions that the band received from some quarters weren’t just expected, but to some extent, desired. Art and criticism are supposed to be in conversation with each other, and the Devo-haters were just answering the band in the terms its members had established. Marsh in particular makes a persuasive case that Devo is more shallow and disposable than smart. He just fails to be as persuasive when he all but demands that the young people of the late ’70s not take any pleasure in this catchy, exciting music.”

Elsewhere he notes:

“Tom Carson and Robert Christgau’s dismissive, defensive reactions to Devo are part of that band’s story, and now help explain what Devo was and what it meant, circa 1978. Those guys did their jobs–and well, I’d say.”

Funny thing is, I bet Devo agreed with that, too.

Don’t fight the urge.

5 thoughts on “Secret Agent Men

  1. Nifty topic, Scott. While Devo have never been one of my main squeezes in the rock pantheon, I’ve been known to enjoy their music, and especially their well-ahead-of-their-time videos. Maybe I was more sympathetic to Devo’s cause as I knew first-hand “where they’re coming from,” both psychically and literally, in that we were fellow Ohioans.

    While I agree with Murray that Devo are worth a listen, I think he takes them a bit TOO seriously, with that overreaching “most significant album” claim you’ve noted. Also, the supposedly tut-tutting Christgau and Carson passages he cites actually read quite *positive* to me, especially Tom’s finding of “futuristic deadpan comedy” as Devo’s defining aesthetic. If that’s what you wanted, they were great at it.

    I’m not sure where Murray got Bangs’s “tinkertoy music” description of Devo, though he’s not wrong about Lester not liking the band, per his “Devo: Good-bye Bozos” review of their *Freedom of Choice* album, which ran in the June 16, 1980 Village Voice. (This review didn’t make the cut for either the Marcus or the Morthland anthology; your reporter still has an original clipping of same.) Lester’s cranky throughout, and concludes that Devo’s “whole strategy” is “appeasment of the hive masquerading as satire . . . Pass the Kraftwerk.”

    Much as I still idolize Lester, Tom Carson nails Devo much better for me, with phrases like “the distancing effect of the put-on.” Devo put ME on when I interviewed them for a CREEM feature in the fall of 1978, claiming their name was pronounced “Duh-voe” and other such blah-blah-blah silliness, even though we got along okay & I was nominally in their corner. Doo-doo now for the future was the watchword for those guys.

    Incidentally, my pen pal Sue Schmidt (of fellow Akron band Chi-Pig fame) recently hipped me that Devo’s Jerry Casale has a bit part in the *Hitchcock” movie, but I haven’t seen it yet.

  2. Pretty much in your corner on this one, Richard. Devo are a funny band for me in that, I always think I like them better than I actually do. I mean, I do enjoy them, especially the best parts of the debut, but often when I go to listen to them, I can’t spend too much time there. They attained a great *sound* on some of those records but very few of the songs compel me towards repeated listens. (A parallel I’m tempted to draw is with Kraftwerk, who are even more mechanical and distancing, etc., but whose music I’ve loved for many years, maybe because I think their jokes are funnier — certainly they’re more deadpan — but more importantly, because they do genuinely have some sterling, beautiful moments in their repertoire — a new age kind of classicism or whatever you want to call it. The notion of beauty is foreign to Devo–an affront, even.)

    I did read your Creem feature on them many many years ago, and look forward to digging that up again. Between them and the Dead Boys, I guess you had the Ohio wing covered for America’s Only, eh? Did you ever cross paths with Pere Ubu or Chrissie Hynde?

  3. oops–silly me, here I am thinking I’m drawing such a smart parallel with Kraftwerk, while subconsciously aping the very Bangs comment you quoted!

  4. No sweat, Scott, bringing Kraftwerk into the discussion of any given rockcritical situation is inevitably a good move. Also, Devo have done a lot of soundtrack work over the years, so they may be aiming at musical “beauty” of a sort too, even if it springs from their customary devolved-chia-pet aesthetic.

    Somehow, with all the writing I did for CREEM, I never managed to score a feature or review of either Pere Ubu or the Pretenders, though I did see the latter in concert (on my own dime) around 1984. Also got to meet David Thomas (courtesy of my man Cheetah Chrome) when the Rocket From The Tombs reunion tour came through Cincy a few years back.

  5. Didn’t realize that Christgau did somewhat end up advocating for Devo a few years after the piece that gets quoted in that article. In 1981 he wrote (I’m shortening this somewhat):

    “Devo are very opportunistic, and in the past I’ve disliked them heartily for it; when they tell interviewers that the only nuclear benefit worth their time would blow up the installations, all I get is a strong whiff of bullshit. But with last year’s Freedom of Choice I learned to enjoy them as a joke band, and now, with New Traditionalists, I’m beginning to think they could be something more….[In] the wake of Reagan and the Moral Majority (both of whom General Boy takes on, though not by name) they’ve had the good sense to drop some of their arch, antiliberal, antihumanist pose, and I’m impressed. Sung by Phil Ochs with an acoustic guitar, ‘Beautiful World’ would be recognizable as an ironic but unambiguous protest song. They closed the show with it. And the audience–white, collegiate, nondescript except for those in Devo get-ups or Halloween garb–understood what it was about.”

    [posted on his website]

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