CD Comments – Devo Greatest Hits

(Image from Amazon, used for review purposes only.)

Technically, I’ve been reviewing CDs I received as presents in the last 2 years. However, I had to recharge my mp3 player, and while it was plugged into my laptop I just started dragging as much music over as would fit in memory. Later, as I was walking to work, Devo’s Greatest Hits came up and I realized that I had to include it here because there’s just so much synth work going on in every single track. Just to get it out of the way, I bought this CD myself close to 10 years ago, and I’d listen to it while I drove around the Hill Country in Austin, TX.

Devo – Greatest Hits (Warner Bros., 1990)
I’ve talked about the use of synthesizers in the formation of concept albums, but Devo took the idea many, many levels beyond as a concept band. According to the wiki entry, the starting point was founding member Gerald Casale’s “de-evolution” joke, which then coupled with Jocko Homo Heavenbound, a 1924 diatribe against evolution written by B. H. Shadduck. Since “modern man” was showing signs of devolving (Casale attended Kent State university and was on campus at the time of the National Guard shooting, which helped convince him of this de-evolution), Devo emerged as the flag barrier of this backward movement.

In my view, it’s important to approach Devo as performance theater, where the act influences the choice of vocals as well as instruments. They messed with several different genres, from punk, art rock, post-punk and new wave, using a fairly minimalistic sound and semi-robotic melodies in most of their songs, highlighted in “Girl U Want” and their version of “(Can’t Get No) Satisfaction”. The songs themselves don’t fall into categories (as with Kraftwerk), but the music is the concept – de-evolved, and that’s common throughout Greatest Hits.

There’s no particular advantage to deconstructing the synth patches in the songs, because just about every technique is used at one point or another, along with occasional vocoding. I will say, though, that Devo mixes all four stages of experimentation together and just destroys any distinctions along the way, blending “what does this do” with “how do we use this in a song” and “this is what we’re trying to get, this is what we need”. Having the overarching band concept in place provided the structure required to pull everything off.

Greatest Hits has 16 tracks, including the ones that got the most radio play – Beautiful World, Whip It, Freedom of Choice, Here to Go, Through Being Cool, Beautiful World and Peek-A-Boo. My favorite is still the song featured on the Heavy Metal soundtrack – the cover of Working in a Coal Mine. But, there’s really no “bad song” in this collection. I can listen to all of them as driving, or walking music. A few tracks, such as Gut Feeling and Gates of Steel, are even danceable.

Bottom line, if you’re a synth student, you want Devo in your collection. No question.

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  1. Here is an article with Jerry Casale’s views of Kent State, and the most I have ever heard or read Chrissie Hynde say about Kent State that day.

    Oh yeah, Devo worked with Neil Young on The Human Highway film. This RS article gives some more background into Devo, and now I understand why there was a Flying Devo at NY+CH Live Rust film, at the intro for Like a Hurricane.

  2. Michael Boyd

     /  July 13, 2015

    I have the same CD buried in (what’s left of) my music collection. I have seen a number of the music videos associated with the songs. “Freedom of choice, Through being cool(ended up a “Weird Al” parody song; “Daring to be stupid”).

    • Back when Devo first started getting popular, I really didn’t “get the joke”. I liked “Dare to be Stupid” much better than the Devo original works. I still consider Dare to be Stupid to be a national anthem.


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