Does Rock ‘N’ Roll Kill Braincells?! – Devo

In Does Rock ‘N’ Roll Kill Braincells?!, we quiz an artist on their own career to see how much they can remember – and find out if the booze, loud music and/or tour sweeties has knocked the knowledge out of them. This week: Mark Mothersbaugh of the iconic new wave band

1
What pseudonyms did you and your Devo bandmate Gerald Casale adopt when you sang backing vocals on Debbie Harry’s 1981 song ‘Jump Jump’?

“Did we use Spud and Pud?”

CORRECT. You’re credited as Spud Devo and Pud Devo.

“Well, at least I got one right! We were both recording albums at The Power Station in New York. Debbie Harry was recording downstairs and we had the least expensive room upstairs and recorded through the night because it was even cheaper. Nile Rodgers was producing her. They asked us to come down and it was fun. We’d known them for years, so it was a nice experience.”

2
An easy one now: who introduced Devo at New York venue Max’s Kansas City in 1977 as “the band of the future”?

“Mr. David Bowie.”

CORRECT.

“Somebody had asked me in an interview who I’d most like to produce Devo, and I replied: ‘Brian Eno and David Bowie’. Brian came to the second show we ever played at Max’s and David came to the third one. David came backstage and said: ‘Let’s go to Tokyo to record an album’. I was thinking: ‘I’m sleeping in a van tonight out in the street so that sounds good to me!’.”

You ended up recording Devo’s debut album, 1978’s ‘Q: Are We Not Men? A: We Are Devo!’ with Brian Eno in Germany (with Bowie dropping by to help at weekends)…

“It was like a dream. We went from being penalized and attacked for writing original material in Ohio, because people there only wanted to see covers bands play, to the other extreme of working with Eno and Bowie. We were lucky. We didn’t have any money or a record deal, but Eno said: ‘Don’t worry – I’ll take care of everything and get you over there’. He was amazingly supportive.”

How did it feel to go from starting out as conceptual artists to smoking angel dust with Andy Warhol in Studio 54?

[Laughs] OK: I’m the guy in the band who was never interested in drugs – that was totally accidental. I’d hadn’t even smoked much marijuana – which in Ohio was 90 percent oregano! But I got invited on a double-date with Andy Warhol, Michael Jackson and a woman who used to be the host of [sexually themed US TV show] Midnight Blue.

“Michael Jackson passed me this joint which I thought was pot, so I took a puff and passed it to this woman who batted it away. Then I tried to pass it back to Michael Jackson, who I don’t think took a puff when he handed it to me, so I ended up taking a third puff. And this woman tried to get me to dance – which I’m uncomfortable with unless it’s the little moves I made up in Devo. Andy was no help because he was obsessed with this guy who looked like [buff American cartoon strip character] Li’l Abner who he told he was going to make a star. And I start having these crazy awful hallucinations where the rotating lights are whirring crazily, lowering and semi-decapitating people, with blood and hair everywhere. As I’m freaking out, the woman goes: ‘You didn’t smoke any of that angel dust did you?” [Laughs]”

3
Which actor allegedly refused to host an episode of The Midnight Special in 1980 if Devo appeared on it?

“I should know that but I don’t! [Laughs]  I probably had it in a brain cell somewhere, but it’s been destroyed after one too many stage dives. Who was it?”

WRONG. Lily Tomlin insisted you were cut from the American music show because she felt the satirical music video for ‘Whip It’ – which shows you ‘whipping’ a woman’s clothing off on a dude ranch – was misogynistic. According to Casale, she saw the video and fumed: ‘Get rid of those guys! They can’t be on the show!’

“Well, ironic humour wasn’t understood in those days. Now it’s much more acceptable and people get it but it certainly wasn’t her [Tomlin’s] humour, so I’m OK with that. I’m OK with her misunderstanding something – or maybe understanding it better than me. That stuff happens.”

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4
In 1991, Nirvana famously debuted ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’ at their Seattle OK Hotel gig. But which Devo song did they cover earlier in the evening?

“I know that one! It’s ‘Turn Around’. ‘Cause the favourite band of one my employees – a 24-year-old – is Nirvana, and she was shocked when she discovered it was a Devo song. She thought it was a Nirvana original.”

CORRECT. ‘Turn Around’ was originally the B-side to ‘Whip It’. Kurt Cobain once genuflected: ‘Of all the bands who came from the underground and made it in the mainstream, Devo were the most challenging and subversive of all’…

“Yeah! We understood that and we felt that way too, because college radio would play us and there were a few stations throughout the country that played us, but we didn’t really chart. We felt you had to be an artist or in college to even be aware of Devo.”

5
What number did Devo’s ‘Freedom of Choice’ reach on NME’s Best Albums of 1980 list?

“Probably about 750?”

WRONG. It’s 43. You claimed that after ‘Freedom of Choice’ was released, the label would hover over you and expect another ‘Whip It’ and they called you difficult to work with. Any regrets?

“Yeah, I made mistakes and Jerry [Casale] doesn’t let me forget I was the one who pushed for us to sign with Richard Branson in Europe, which I regret. He had signed the Sex Pistols who were my favourite band at that period, so I thought he’d be a good guy…”

Didn’t Branson fly Devo to Jamaica in 1978 to try and convince you to let John Lydon replace you as lead singer? 

“I think that was just a publicity stunt. Johnny was freaked out after the Sex Pistols and didn’t know what he wanted to do – and that [fronting Devo] sounded like the craziest thing. My advice to him [Branson] was: ‘I love and respect the Sex Pistols and what they’ve done, but John Lydon doesn’t need to be in our band. What he should do is the total flip of being anarchy. He should do a corporate version of Johnny Rotten, like Johnny Rotten Inc….’ And he ended up doing Public Image Ltd., so maybe he took my advice!”

6
Which hip-hop video does your Devo character Booji Boy appear in?

“It was a band called Boogie Boys.”

CORRECT. For their 1985 track ‘You Ain’t Fresh’. Your Booji Boy character (and the rest of Devo playing nuclear garbagemen) also appears in the bizarre 1982 Neil Young-directed film Human Highway..

“Neil Young was interested in Devo and we were flattered. He made these films where even he didn’t know what he was doing when he started. They weren’t even scripted – or at least were very loosely scripted. I was friends with Human Highway’s original [co-] director Dean Stockwell, because I’d scored an off-Broadway performance of Israel Horovitz’s play Man With Bags that he and [fellow Human Highway collaborator] Russ Tamblyn had done. I gave the score that I’d done for that to Neil Young and he used it for about half the underscore of Human Highway – technically that was my first film composition job.”

And now you’re a prolific movie/TV/video game composer who’s worked on everything from Wes Anderson projects to Rugrats to The Lego Movie. But is it true that legendary The Exorcist director William Friedkin once wanted to make a film with Devo?

“There were a few different directors interested in Devo at different times. David Lynch wanted to work with us and asked me to read a script called Ronnie Rocket about a Frankenstein punk. Then Francis Ford Coppola brought us to LA and gave us a room to work in for writing a script. He was also using it as a chance to show off his son Gian’s video-making – he was so proud of his kid making videos for bands like we did. Gian was a Devo fan who’d got his father interested in us.”

“And William [Friedkin] took us to the famous Hollywood restaurant Cyrano’s and sat telling us about the next movie he was doing, Cruising [the infamous 1980 Al Pacino film set in the gay scene]. He started loudly and enthusiastically saying: ‘THERE’S GOING TO BE A SCENE WHERE HE REACHES RIGHT INTO AND UP THE GUY’S ASS…’ [mimes a fisting action] and acting it out, while all the old people in the restaurant looked shocked! We thought Wow!’” [Laughs]”

“We talked about doing something with him, but then he had a heart attack. The last I heard from him, he was sending me over little videos he was making in his backyard of an owl he was feeding.”

7
Who hosted the 1978 episode of Saturday Night Live Devo performed on?

“Oh! It was [actor] Fred Willard – very nice guy.”

CORRECT.

“I ran into Fred at various times before he passed away and he was always enjoyable to talk to. Doing Saturday Night Live was amazing. Neil Young had talked his manager, Elliot Roberts, into putting Devo on his roster. We said: ‘If you want us to sign with you, get us on Saturday Night Live’. Elliot replied: ‘Easy’ and phoned up his friend [SNL creator and producer] Lorne Michaels.

Even now, it’s such a visually arresting performance…

“We played two songs live and it became more than it would be normally ‘cause we’d already been making films for about three years before that. Honestly, I was hoping Devo was going to be more like an art movement – I wanted us to be the next Dada. I remember in ’74, thinking: ‘Rock‘n’roll is pretty much over now – the next thing is going to be sound and vision’. We were making videos for LaserDiscs which we thought were the future.”

 

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8
Name the 1986 ‘Weird Al’ Yankovic Devo parody you once hailed as “the most beautiful thing I had ever heard”?

“He did ‘Dare to Be Stupid’.”

CORRECT. In an old interview with VH1’s Behind The Music that recently went viral, you said of it: ‘I was in shock. It was the most beautiful thing I had ever heard. He sort of re-sculpted that song into something else and… I hate him for it, basically.’

“Oh I did? [Laughs] Well, it was probably tongue-in-cheek! Although maybe I meant it at the time. I get really into whatever I’m listening to at that moment. “

9
You once claimed you sent Devo’s 1979 track ‘Devo Corporate Anthem’ to the president of which country to be his theme song?

“I sent it to this dictator in Uganda called Idi Amin.”

CORRECT.

“There was an article in Time magazine about warring tribes in Africa and there was some song that they sang. We took what they were doing and wrote lyrics to go over it, and I did a little synth track. So I sent what we’d written – as best I could – to Idi Amin’s presidential palace in Uganda. He never responded. He could have had a free theme song! So we erased the lyrics and that became ‘Devo Corporate Anthem’.”

10
What are the band called who perform a Swedish version of Devo’s ‘Baby Doll’ in the 1988 comedy film Tapeheads?

“Wait a minute – who was that? It was all these muscle guys from Venice Beach California…what was their name? Oh man! OK: you’ve got me on that one!”

WRONG. They were named Cube Squared.

“I wouldn’t have remembered that!”

The verdict: 7/10

“That’s terrible!”

Devo are among the 2022 nominees for induction into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. Upcoming live dates can be found on their website

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