One for the true fans, this. Not the greatest hits set that you might expect from a recently re-formed Devo; but their debut album, Q: Are We Not Men? A: We Are Devo, played in order, in its entirety, for the first time ever.
Before the music kicks off, we’re taken even further back in history, as video screens play out selected sequences from their 1974 home movie The Truth About De-Evolution. This, lest we forget, features men dressed as apes spanking chubby babies with table tennis bats and a medical lecture with reanimated cadavers writhing around on the desks in plastic bags. The message is clear: tonight Devo will be as bizarrely entertaining as they were 30 years ago.
And anything less would evidently be a disappointment to the audience, evenly split between nerdy young things who have recently – and commendably – discovered the new wave pioneers and nervous, thin middle-aged men wearing flowerpot hats and shuffling about impatiently during the support act.
Devo, now close to pensionable age but no less silly than ever they were, take to the stage in their trademark yellow boiler suits and blast into Uncontrollable Urge. Mark Mothersbaugh, part David Lynch and part Benny Hill, charges around the stage like a loon, tearing the arms off his bandmates’ costumes; an appropriate mirroring of the jerky lunacy of the track. And yet, as the gig goes on, the songs become heavier, louder, faster and darker than anyone in the audience would have remembered them: tinny art-pop re-invented as heavy, pounding rock.
Praying Hands, poised and clinical like early Talking Heads on record, becomes far more aggressive here, not least when Mark Mothersbaugh interrupts the track by piling into the crowd like a man a third of his age and half his size to bellow at members of the audience: “Sir, what is your RIGHT hand doing? Sir, what is your LEFT hand doing?” For Mongoloid, he belts off the stage and reappears with oversized pom-poms, and capers around like a portly, out-of-breath cheerleader. Slightly frightening, and quite marvellous.
It’s Jocko Homo, one of the oddest pop songs ever written, that gets the biggest cheers of the evening. And therein lies the most puzzling and marvellous contradiction of Devo: the stranger and more inaccessible they are, the more they are loved. Of course it’s quite impossible to dance to a tune written in 7/8 time, so the audience do the next best thing: stand stock-still, raise their arms, and yell along to the deranged “Are we not men? / We are Devo!” catechism with ear-to-ear smiles.
The more song-based, ’50s-inflected second half of the album is played straight; showing that one of the most eccentric bands in the world also have the ability to loosen up and rock out with the best of them, placing them closer to their British punk peers than to the twitchy, uptight American ’70s new wave. Gut Feeling and Come Back Jonee acknowledge their debt to early, primal rock and roll; played more brutally here than on record, and are all the better for it.
But don’t be fooled: Devo are still a thinking man’s band with a manifesto to match. And so, Jerry Casale takes a break in the proceedings to remind us of the principles of De-evolution. They maintained in the late ’70s that modern, capitalist, herd-driven man was actually devolving rather than evolving. Thirty years later, asks Jerry, and has mankind actually devolved? A deafening “Yes!” from the audience leaves us in no doubt that it has. But as for Devo, they’re just as great as they ever were.