“This is the first time that Devo’s played Central Park in twenty-four years, and we were wondering what you’d be like… And we gotta tell you that you’re a better audience than your parents!” -Booji Boy
Twenty-four years ago. 1980. I was fifteen years old and had been a fan of Devo since first seeing them appear from out of nowhere on the night of October 18th, 1978 at the age of thirteen.
The late 1970’s were an odd time in the history of pop music, what with the airwaves dominated by the juggernaut of disco and the predicted “next big thing” — namely punk rock — fizzling out with the near simultaneous breakup of the Sex Pistols and the Clash signing with a major label (and consequently pissing away their talent for all the world to see). At the time, network institution SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE was in the midst of being the big counter-culture confection hungrily gobbled up by a nation that had weathered the staggering disappointments of Watergate and the end of the Viet Nam war. Fuelled by a well-documented cornucopia of booze and hard drugs, SNL managed to introduce to its dosed-up audience a plethora of then-unknown musical acts, many of which went on to lucrative mainstream success, such as the B-52’s and Talking Heads, to name but a few.
On the October night when Devo was foisted upon an unsuspecting public, you could almost hear the late-night TV-watching audience spewing its beer out of its collective nostrils and exclaiming “What the fuck is this shit?!!?” Presented for our consideration were five ultra-geeky white boys attired in yellow bio-hazard gear who moved with herky-jerky movements that suggested faulty animatronics while cranking out a disturbingly minimalist version of the Rolling Stones’ “Satisfaction.” Before the show was over, we were also treated to the now-anthemic “Jocko Homo,” perhaps rock ’n ’roll’s only examination of human evolution and the fact that we haven’t progressed as far as we like to think. After that double-barreled offensive, many in the audience scratched their heads in disgust and confusion. For those of us who got it, it was the start of a strange musical journey that the members of Devo were confident that we could take alongside them. From their near-invisible genesis in 1974 Ohio through their influence on many forms of music and their inevitable fall from both original artistic intent and mainstream popularity, Devo has endured as both a common ground joke amongst those of a certain age and as an entity/philosophy that has proven over and over that only the meanest survive. And the goofy bastards also still happen to know how to rock. Hard.
I’ve had the pleasure of seeing Devo live on several occasions but I missed them during the 1980 performance in Central Park, so when I heard that they were not only appearing on the East Coast for the first and only time since 1988 but also returning to the Park, I immediately enlisted my close friend Chris — another die-hard Devotee — and obtained tickets. To my surprise and delight, several people I knew told me that they were going to attend as well, some of whom were barely out of diapers when the boys first hit the scene, further proof of the spudboys’ cross-generational appeal.
Chris and I made it to the band shell entrance at 6PM but nature was against the concertgoers, due to the downright biblical torrent that spewed forth from a cruel sky. The sold out crowd was quickly soaked to the DNA and the discomfort was only compounded by the swamp-like condition of the standing-room-only Astroturf and outrageously overpriced concessions and souvenirs. $35 for a t-shirt? Bite a fart, motherfucker!
The first opening act was a band called Stella Star (presumably named for the lead character in a spectacularly bad Italian Star wars rip-off called STARCRASH) and their frontman tried his damnedest to sound just like that pussy who sings for the Cure while the band valiantly rocked out in stark counterpoint to his blazing wimpiness. The next act was a local favorite called the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, whom I had heard of but not actually heard, and let me tell you that if what I heard live was anything like what their album sounds like, their label is pissing their money down the toilet by supporting those clowns. Their singer had the aspect of a crazy homeless woman decked out in a psychedelic/stained glass one-piece bathing suit wreathed in a plastic bag, with the whole ensemble accented by her lime green hightop Chuck Taylors. Her shrill voice violated my eardrums and that’s no mean feat since I voluntarily listen to music that would make most sane people head straight to the rubber room, but I was forced to alleviate this aural horror with homemade ear stopples crafted from bits of a torn-up copy of the Village Voice. (Annoyingly, one of the earplugs proved to be smaller than intended and ended up lodged deep within the confines of my left ear until I could later remove it with a pair of tweezers.)
The rain continued to pour until shortly before the Yeah Yeah Yeahs mercifully departed, and the crowd was palpably jazzed in anticipation of Devo taking the stage, the change in weather seeming like the gods themselves said “Enough of this bullshit, we wanna see Devo!” The roadies busied themselves like a swarm of worker ants, readying synthesizers, drum machines and string instruments while the lighting crew practiced their visual cues and synched the movie screen for its role in the upcoming multi-media circus. Soon, the opening film rolled; the old intro from the NEW TRADITIONALISTS tour (1981) featuring General Boy’s guide to proper behavior and dress for a Devo concert, and it was greeted with laughter from the neophytes and nostalgic chuckles from those of us at which it was originally aimed. Then the boys took the stage.
Despite being in their early-to-mid-fifties the band exploded into the limelight like they’d just taken 50,000,000 volts up their collective ass and shook the venue with a bass-heavy rendition of “That’s Good.” The crowd bounced along with the funky-yet-minimalist groove and both young and old rocked like they had just discovered something other than the corporate shit that passes for music these days. In fact, I’d bet that that’s just what happened for many of the newcomers in attendance.
As for us old school Devotees, we danced and sang along like maniacs. My favorite spectator was a woman who had to be about sixty who was wearing a Necrosis t-shirt and singing the words with a familiarity similar to that of the person who penned the tunes in the first place. And if one were to scan the crowd, one would note the sea of metalheads, punk rockers, B-boys and urban cowboys all united by a common love of the weird. I tell you, dear readers, you will find no more diverse a concert crowd than that found at a Devo show.
As the proceedings were filmed for an upcoming DVD release, the boom camera danced its dark, industrial arabesque over the onlookers’ heads while enthusiastic dancers squelched and throbbed upon the marshy fake grass. Anti-Bush sentiments flew wildly as the boys urged the audience to vote at election time, lest their predictions of a heartless totalitarian empire come true…Hmmmm….
Surprisingly, the set list consisted largely of the pre-“Whipit” punky stuff, and it went over quite well with the newbies; perhaps the boys finally realized that their ideas were most potent when not merely traipsing down the path of dance music, and unleashing such balls-out rockers as the electrifying “Uncontrollable Urge.” The crowd ate it up, and the evening wound to a satisfying conclusion when that mascot for disturbing mutants everywhere, namely the baby-masked Booji Boy (for some reason pronounced “Boogie”), emerged and sang a screechy rendition of “Beautiful World.” With that the show ended, and as Devo cried out “Good night, New York! We’re outta here!”, as if on cue the sky opened up and pissed down on the rapidly exiting concertgoers. Every living thing that was outside was utterly soaked, and the streets of the Upper West Side looked like a riot hose had been turned on, its cleansing bath washing away all of the needles, vomit and discarded prophylactics from a befouled city.
An altogether fitting end to what may turn out to be the last East Coast Devo tour.