New Wave Epiphany: DEVO on Saturday Night Live

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It was the evening of October 14, 1978. As was my custom at the time, I was watching Saturday Night Live. I watched for the comedy. The typical SNL music act was usually someone who I might have read about but never heard. Tom Waits. Leon Redbone. Those types of acts. Once, I saw Eddie Money and following his appearance, his song “Baby Hold On” quickly became a pop hit, leaving me to hear it endlessly on the Top 40 radio of 1977. But that was atypical for SNL. Back then, their musical choices were decidedly non-commercial.

Never moreso than with the combo who had their first appearance on Saturday Night Live that weekend. I had not heard about DEVO previously, since they flew far under my immature musical radar, which hadn’t left the nest yet. Host Fred Willard introduced them and I was subjected to five guys in industrial yellow jumpsuits and they were playing the worst version of The Rolling Stones classic “Satisfaction” I’d ever heard! They moved like insect robots and used rhythms that sprawled far and away from the comforting 4/4 that made up 99.8% of the pop music I’d been exposed to for most of my life.

The lead singer had a guitar that was covered in boxes and switches and had an alien tone that was nothing like the “wicked” fuzztone of the Stones original. I really hadn’t seen or heard anything like it. My knee-jerk reaction was that this was the worst group I had ever seen in my entire life! The entire performance seemed calculated to alienate… which I guess is why by the time the performance was over as they ended cold on a dime, I had made the transition from offended to smitten!

This, I realized, was music for people like myself, who were proud to stand outside of society’s norms and make our own world instead of buckling under the enormous societal pressure to confirm. In the three minutes it took for them to deconstruct “Satisfaction,” I had run the gamut of responses from disdainful shock to incredulous admiration. Indeed, this was possibly the first time I’d ever been exposed to deconstructionalism in any way, shape, or form. I could now hardly wait for the band’s next song!

The next song was introduced by a film clip that seemed to take place in an apocalyptic setting [Akron, Ohio] and featured a band member and a strange general proclaiming a previously suppressed truth about mutants could now be told. Then inserts of neon letters spelling “DEVO” appeared and when it was over the action cut to the band live on stage playing their anthem, “Jocko Homo.” The band were back on stage in their yellow industrial HAZMAT suits twitching along to the even more outré meter used for this song!

Then, during the middle eight which featured the band giving a call and response about Ohio over a whacked out synthetic percussion hook, the band proceeded to strip down out of their jumpsuits and revealed similarly coordinated black shorts and t-shirts with knee and elbow pads. Then they began chanting their slogan over the churning rhythms.

“Are we not men – We are DEVO” – x 16

I ended that evening with the strongest desire to run right out and buy that album of theirs immediately. Given that I was a high school freshman without two nickels to rub together, this was easier said than done. Never had I experienced such a whiplash of feelings about anything in such a short amount of time. Fortunately, I had a great Christmas present from a friend that year, who bought me the 1st copy of this album I ever owned. This was also most certainly the first import of any kind in my record collection. It was hardly a Record Cell at that time seeing as how it was able to sit in two plastic letter sorting devices [see left] that were each just five inches long, sitting on the top of my chest of drawers in my room.

Virgin Records | UK | LP | 1978 | V 2106

Virgin Records | UK | LP | 1978 | V 2106

DEVO - q+aUSLPAThis was my only version of the album for years, and it was a delightful watermelon red slice of vinyl. I bought the first Virgin CD of it in 1993, which was bundled with their second album on a twofer CD, but still with the same art I always had. It wasn’t until my wife bought me a copy of the US album several years later that I had the classic US artwork for this album. But if Talking Heads cover of “Take Me To The River” switched a bulb on over my head during the summer of 1978, the appearance of DEVO on my television a few months later had an even more galvanizing effect in my developing mind.

When I began to read about this “New Wave of rock and roll” in the [very] mainstream press that managed to reach my eyes shortly afterward, the names of DEVO and Talking Heads were always prominent and I made sure to note what other groups were associated with these upstarts. This seemed to be the emergence of people who were actually like me making rock music. Most rock stars seemed like the cretinous jocks who didn’t impress me in school. I didn’t know it at the time, but I would soon go from merely liking music to obsessing over it within a very short span. The positive feedback I wasn’t getting from my peer group or society was embedded within the grooves of these “New Wave” records that had managed to break out of the underground and reach my young ears.

– 30 –

About postpunkmonk

graphic design | software UI design | media design • record collector • satire • non-fiction
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21 Responses to New Wave Epiphany: DEVO on Saturday Night Live

  1. I too was witness to that revelation — while it was not my first exposure to performance art, it was shocking to see such an act on a mainstream TV show, and for many viewers it must have hit like a bomb. It was probably my first exposure to DEVO and to be sure I was in awe of it, floored in particular by the use of changing time signatures (surely a first for most people, at least in the genre of rock music!). I remember that I didn’t even recognise the song as a Rolling Stones cover until I heard it again some time later! The film and performance of Jocko Homo instilled exactly the same desire in me: MUST. HEAR. MORE!!

    I think, however, that at the time I did little about it until they later appeared on Friday’s in May of 1980. That sealed the deal. When I found a copy of the album I was flabbergasted at the name Brian Eno in the credits. I knew who he was but did not associate him with music anything like this. I got the second album around the same time (which at the time I thought was even better — hmm, need to see if that still holds), and another spudboy was born.

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  2. Echorich says:

    Elvis Costello, Gary Numan, DEVO and don’t forget Bowie (in full drag) and Klaus Nomi and Joey Arias…these are the things I will always remember SNL for… By the way, I had the nerve to wear a Jocko Homo t-shirt to high school (having to slip out of the house so my dad would not catch it) and for as many homo cat calls that I got that day, I got just as many that came up to me and said it was cool (“rad” was not a word used in Queens, NY). This started a series of my wearing newly purchased band t’s from Trash & Vaudville on St. Mark’s Place in the East Village. Sex Pistols, Clash, Ramones, Siouxsie & The Banshees, XTC, The Ruts, Gary Numan were among the one’s that got an airing on Friday’s at school. Saturday I would be at the shop to buy more.
    A couple years ago, with my niece in high school, I gave her those t-shirts that still survived. She happily wears the XTC and Ramones ALL the time. It even got her interested enough to download some music on iTunes…so the spiraling circle of Post Punk widened a little bit.

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    • Taffy says:

      oh wow – most of my college wardrobe came from Trash & Vaudeville! And frankly, I still stop in when I’m in town to check out the shirts (and boots)!
      as for SNL – I think it was the Gary Numan appearance that really burned into my memory. I recall watching it in my dorm room with friends, and of course everyone thought he was a freak (and awful). I thought he was a freak and fabulous.

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      • postpunkmonk says:

        Taffy – Of course I remember Numan on SNL! By that time, my friends already had “Replicas” and we were primed. A friend taped the live performances on reel-to-reel and we played the live versions [in mono] on our high school radio station. It wasn’t bad because we broadcast in mono anyway; we used a WWII surplus transmitter – 10 watts of power so you could hear our station up to 2 miles away on a clear day. Of course Reagan put the boot to low power FM radio for a generation that year. Thanx, Gipper!

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    • postpunkmonk says:

      Echorich – Gott In Himmel! I remember those Trash + Vaudeville ads from Trouser Press. They were works of art. If the store was run with a third of the care that went into those ads, I am retroactively jealous.

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  3. Brian Ware says:

    Well, as I said before, I just didn’t get Devo at first, but Gary Numan’s SNL performance was my epiphany. As a keyboard player I could hold my own, but I was no virtuoso. Here was music I could totally connect with. I went out and bought a couple of entry level Moog synths and never looked back.

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  4. Brian Ware says:

    My first synths were a monophonic Moog Rouge and a polyphonic Moog Opus. I used them in the early days with Still Obscure. They weren’t programmable so I’d have to twiddle the knobs and sliders between each song. I quickly moved on to the Roland Juno 106 and the Kawai.

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  5. JT says:

    Plenty of analog synths have the ability to recall parameters, such as the aforementioned Juno 106, plus my own first-ever synth, a Korg Poly-800, or the sensibly-named Memory Moog, and – especially – the mandatory post-punk champion synth, the Sequential Circuits Prophet-5, which was a pioneer in many ways.
    (While the Moog line certainly defined the 1970s, I’d argue passionately that the Prophet-5, – released in 1978 and made until 1984 – defined the records made in those same golden years).

    I didn’t hear Devo until 1980 when Whip it came on the radio. I liked it, but I was not overwhelmed. A year later, I got MTV and saw the video for Satisfaction. My reaction was similar to your viewing of this tune on SNL… it was a very cold day, but as soon as the video was over, I put on my boots, went outside, rode my bike directly to the record store most likely to have this disc, and bought it. Saw them do the whole album live in Chicago a few years ago… amazing to hear seldom-aired tunes like Space Junk or Shrivel Up live!

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    • postpunkmonk says:

      JT – Funny you should mention “Whip It.” I had the first two DEVO albums and I recall chas_m buying “Freedom Of Choice” almost immediately. When I gave it a spin, I immediately picked ” Whip It” as the breakout track due to the synth percussion hook. I played it a lot on the high school radio station where I DJ’d with chas_m. When it became a hit four or six months later I was agog.

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    • postpunkmonk says:

      JT – The first synth I mucked around with was my friend Tom’s Realistic [Moog] Concertmate MG-1. The sound was a fat polysynth but you had a printed notepad to “record” your patches! I can’t imagine using it in performance unless you stayed with a patch the whole set.

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  6. JT says:

    …and yet *every* band that used a synth on stage before patch-recall memory became standard did just that: lightning-fast knob twiddling between songs to get the next sound dialed in!

    As stated, the first synths with memory started to emerge around 1978, but the original Prophet-5 sold for $4500 (in 1978 dollars!). Too expensive for many artists. It wasn’t until a few years later that memory became a standard feature.

    So yeah, all the 1970s gigs from Kraftwerk, Foxx-era Ultravox, Devo, Magazine, The Cars, any number or prog or classic rock bands (Styx, ELP, Yes, ELO, whatever) and soooo many others were performed this way! Some wealthy bands had techs setting up a synth for the next song while a duplicate was being played…!

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    • postpunkmonk says:

      JT – My head hurts when I consider what Ultravox did to perform pre-MIDI. I’ve read Warren Cann’s voluminous ramblings on the realities of trying to play highly technological music in a live setting of the day. Footage I’ve seen is spellbinding as all four members were performing a complex dance of timing and coverage to achieve their goals. The bands may think otherwise, but for me, those were the “good old days” of high-tension excitement. Of course, I never actually saw any such bands in that time! Oh, the stinging irony!

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  7. Brian Ware says:

    At one point with Still Obscure I had four keyboards on stage – two programmable, two not. In the middle of a song I’d sometimes be playing with one hand and trying to hit the right button or switch in the darkest corner of the little stage. Yep, high tension excitement.

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  8. I had an eerily similar introduction to Devo, PPM. I’m not sure if you were in Orlando at the same time, but I was at USF in Tampa going to “Midnight Movies” and enjoying a contact high from all the reefer smoke. On this particular evening, they were playing Buster Keaton shorts with Pink Floyd music behind them (holy crap, it worked!). Some time during the evening, “Satisfaction” began to play and I was stunned…..by the video…..not the smoke. This had to be late in 1978 or early 1979 when they released this promo film clip. It took me a couple minutes to figure out what they were doing, but by the end of the song, I knew that something was about to change in pop music. I wish that I could claim to be prescient or even musically intelligent, but this song SO changed how I viewed pop music from that day forward. I was SO over the ’70s and this was the sea change that I had been waiting for. I hate to make this sound so “over the top”, but I think I had the same reaction that you did.

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    • postpunkmonk says:

      Dave Morrison – It really was an impactful presentation, you have to admit. In one fell swoop [whatever that means] it re-writes the DNA of rock and expands its horizons dramatically. Almost catastrophically.

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      • Absolutely! I really can’t explain how much that night meant to me. It really set in motion my tastes for music in the ’80s. I really felt that big changes were in store for all of us. There are very few moments in my musical education that can measure up to that moment, except for the night that I was laying on the rug in front of our old black-and-white TV and saw The Beatles step onto the Ed Sullivan Theater stage….but that’s another story and I suddenly feel VERY old! ;-)

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  9. JT says:

    Bob2
    RIP.
    :-(

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    • postpunkmonk says:

      JT – This is a total bummer! I suppose it dramatically increases the likelihood that I’ll never see that band live from 70% to about 90%! And that was way too young to go for Bob Casale! His loss permanently skews the balance of remaining DEVO personnel. The whole “pair of two brothers plus drummer” vibe was neatly balanced. The drummer changed, but it could still stand as DEVO. Now? I don’t think so.

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