Mark Mothersbaugh is on the cover of this week’s L.A. Weekly. It’s an eight page article, and in it the author, Randall Roberts, describes one of the long-term employees at Mutato Inc. and his opinion of his boss’s vision:
Miltenberg’s eager and enthusiastic about Mutato’s mission, and committed to helping Mothersbaugh build a business that will outlive them both. He’s a huge Devo fan — the kind who lowers his voice in conversation to impart that he considers Devo’s impact on American culture to nearly rival the Beatles’. He compares Mutato to Warhol’s Factory and confesses that he still can’t believe he’s working with Mark Mothersbaugh.
As a fan of Devo since the age of 15, when I first picked up a copy of the brilliant New Traditionalists album at a yard sale, I completely agree with this assessment. The concept of Deevolution was practically as arresting an artistic statement in the seventies and eighties as Warhol’s Pop Art was in the sixties (their Energy Dome perhaps as important an icon for them as Andy’s Campbell’s Soup Can was for him). Both Warhol and the Devo boys worked in several mediums–photography, fine art, film, the printed word, and music–and both wound up in their later years making phat bank off aggrandizing rich patrons (Warhol’s portraits, Mutato’s jingles) and funneling that money into their more personal projects. Hell, both even appeared on Saturday Night Live in its formative years.
Anyway, Roberts’s article goes into this with Mutato, showing how through TV scores and film soundtracks, more and more people are coming around to realizing the genius of Mark Mothersbaugh and his team.
And it’s great that Mothersbaugh is getting the recognition he deserves for his current work. But it bothers me that a lot of people still don’t get how amazing, groundbreaking, and truly diverse Devo really was, back when it was more-or-less primarily a band. I think people who lived through the prime Devo era remember the band mostly for “Whip It,” the hats, and the Casios, which to some seemed quaint, even sanitized, compared to the growling (or at least mewling) rock around them at the time. Even people who like them, even the countless groups and tribute bands that emulate their sounds, seem to see them as little more than “quirky,” exactly the quality advertisers who user Mutato look for in their jingles to this day.
But though Devo’s mass popularity started at a time when they were becoming more and more robo-synthetic (and by the mid-eighties, a little too similar to Kraftwerk), probably their best music was in their early period, when there was a definite groove and funk to their music that satirized Stones licks while nonetheless appropriating them. Despite Mothersbaugh’s insistence that Devo grew to adolescence in a void, you can hear the influence of Can, the Stones, Kraftwerk (of course!), Chuck Berry, David Bowie, Funkadelic, and even the nascent Akron and New York musicos (such as Rocket From the Tomb and Television) they claim to never have gotten along with in those early tracks.
This stuff is all available in Hardcore Devo Volumes 1 and 2, which you should check out even though they’re out of print and pricey as hell. Some of the manic tracks released on official albums at the height of the punk era show up here as earlier, slowed-down, more skeletal tunes, with Mark’s keyboards serving as an antithesis to the boogie (not Booji) put down by the rest of the band. Some of the other tracks are anthemic analog synth dirges akin to what Eno or Faust might do. And the rest is just plain awesome. It’s a treat to listen to, and they both make damned good roadtrip music. These CD’s were the soundtrack to the most awkward years of my late teens, and continue to wow me with their darkness, humor, insight, and sheer creativity to this day.
I actually did an interview with Mark a bunch of years back about this stuff, when I was able to infiltrate Mutato headquarters at the behest of my friend Nondor Nevai (a highly talented and berzerk musician who deserves a whole piece devoted just to him). The interview appeared at the highly wonderful but sadly defunct Ostrich Ink back in the day, and here’s a plain-jane copy, well-edited by Editor-in-Chief Kyle in a rough Interview Magazine style (by my request) in 2003 or so. I was a lot younger when I did this interview, and my vision of publishing it in the style of Warhol’s a (a novel I never actually read, just read about) maybe didn’t work out quite as well as I’d hoped, but the rawness hopefully paints a more interesting picture of the old days of Devo than most interviews thus far have contributed.