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Q: Are We Not Men? A: We Are Devo!

Warner Bros. 3239
Released: October 1978
Chart Peak: #78
Weeks Charted: 18

Mark MothersbaughWhat's most impressive about Q: Are We Not Men? A: We Are Devo! is its authority: Devo presents their dissociated, chillingly cerebral music as a definitive restatement of rock & roll's aims and boundaries in the Seventies. The band's cover version of "Satisfaction," for instance, with its melody line almost completely erased and the lyrics delivered in a yelping, droogy chant to mechanical rhythms, at first comes across as an intentional travesty, a typical New Wave rejection of the old-fart generation. But what Devo is really doing is reshaping the old message into their own terminology -- claiming one of the greatest anthems of the Sixties, with all its wealth of emotional associations, for their own time. It's a startling gesture, yet a surprisingly convincing one.

The same could be said for the whole album. The primitive guitar work and pulsing beat suggest a gamut of early Sixties borrowings, but the group is also reminiscent (the vocals especially) of some of the artier New Wave bands such as Wire or the B-52s. Yet all of these influences are flattened into an arid, deliberately fragmented science-fiction landscape. There's not an ounce of feeling anywhere, and the only commitment is to the distancing aesthetic of the put-on.

Devo - Q Are We Not Men? A We Are Devo!
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I suspect, though, that in adopting this style, Devo would argue that they're simply being good journalists -- that the futuristic deadpan comedy of their stance reflects the current pop-culture reality. "Too Much Paranoias," for example, starts out as a mocking, jarring little ode to dread that's genuinely frightening, then turns into an overt joke in which the chief villain is apparently a McDonald's hamburger ("Hold the pickles hold the lettuce," in a spasmodic shriek), but the joke is equally scary. And the group's attitude remains poker-faced throughout. In the lobotomized anthems that end side one, "Mongoloid" (a sort of bastard cousin to the Ramones' "Pinhead," with a great, stuttering guitar line) and "Jocko Homo," it's impossible to tell whether these guys are satirizing robotlike regimentation or glorifying it. The answer seems to be that there isn't any difference.

Brian Eno's production is the perfect complement to Devo's music. Eno thickens the band's stop-and-go rhythms with crisp, sharp layers of percussive sound, full of jagged edges and eerie effects that whip in and out of phase at dizzying speeds. On every cut, Devo seems to know exactly what they want and how to achieve it almost effortlessly. Such apparently random strategies as "What Goes On"-style organ in "Mongoloid" or the near-Byrds-like guitar intro to "Gut Feeling" coalesce into a barbed, dislocated texture that draws you in even while it sets your nerves on edge.

Though the group's abstract-expressionistic patterns of sound are closely related to Eno's own brand of experimentation (not to mention the recent work of David Bowie, who one once slated to produce this LP) and to a host of other art rockers, Devo lacks most of Eno's warmth and much of Bowie's flair for mechanized melodrama. For all its idiosyncrasies, the music here is utterly impersonal. This Ohio band either treats humanity as just another junky, mass-cult artifact to be summarily disposed of, or else ignores it completely. Q: Are We Not Men? A: We Are Devo! is a brittle, small masterpiece of Seventies pop irony, but its shriveling, ice-cold absurdism might not define the Seventies as much as jump the gun on the Eighties.

- Tom Carson, Rolling Stone, 11/30/78.

Bonus Reviews!

In case you haven't heard, Devo is the latest in the long line of Art Rock/Future of Rock-and-Roll hypes that extends back at least to Roxy Music and Be Bop Deluxe. What distinguishes them from the others is that they're American (part of the Ohio Mafia, the rest of which Stiff Records has locked up), and, more important, they're funny, as anyone who has experienced they're bizarre remake of the Stones' "Satisfaction" can attest. The real reference point for Devo's music is the Captain Beefheart of Trout Mask Replica. Unless you are a doctrinaire New Waver, your reaction to them will pretty much depend on how you feel about the good Captain. If you think he's a fraud, you'll probably find Devo's stuff insufferably pretentious; if you think he's some kind of genius, Devo's brand of Robbie the Robot rhythm-and-blues will most likely be right up your alley.

In my opinion, most of what Devo does is about as avant-garde as the soundtrack for Rocky Jones, Space Ranger (the synthesizer stuff, in particular, is real hokey). But not matter; they're upholding a grand tradition. Listening to this album reminded me of a C.Y.O. dance I attended in New Jersey almost nine years ago. It starred a local combo called Rubella and the Dead Little Girls who wore gas masks and included a percussionist playing the rear fender of a 1968 Pontiac. By the middle of the set, the Grateful Dead fans who made up the audience that night were throwing beer cans at the stage. Rubella and the Girls accepted these tributes philosophically -- they were, after all, creating Art. I don't know if that group still exists, but in Devo their spirit clearly lingers on.

- Steve Simels, Stereo Review, 12/78.

Possibly the first new sound of the '70s, this young five-man group from Akron, Ohio, gives a demented twist to the conventional rock instrumentation of guitar, bass, drums and synthesizer. In presenting its concept of Do-evolution, the first reaction is to call Devo new wave, but it goes deeper than that. Sensitive and serious, Devo's sound, song structure and themes add a new dimension to the rock medium without being gimmicky. So far, the group, with its raw and unspoiled urgency, has gathered a large underground following. Best cuts: "Satisfaction," "Mongoloid," "Jocko Homo," "Shrivel-Up."

- Billboard, 1978.

Devo's debut shows why the band still has a small but rabidly dedicated following well after their artistic peak. Their sound here is mostly guitar-based, with odd melodies and crazily jerky rhythms. With songs about masturbation ("Uncontrollable Urge"), freaks ("Mongoloid"), and technology ("Space Junk"), plus their patented de-evolution philosophy (the anthem "Jocko Homo," about the regression of mankind) and a wickedly deranged deconstruction of "(I Can't Get No) Satisfaction," Devo took punk's anti-mainstream, D.I.Y. spirit and filtered it through the sensibilities of weirdoes, nerds, and outcasts, relentlessly (and bizarrely) satirizing American culture and briefly picking up, attitude-wise, where the Mothers of Invention left off. * * * *

- Steve Huey, The All-Music Guide to Rock, 1995.

Further reading on
Super Seventies RockSite!:

Album Review:
Something For Everybody

Article: 'What I've Learned
by Mark Mothersbaugh'

Devo Lyrics

Devo Videos

Nowhere is Devo more Devo than on its first album, Q: Are We Not Men? A: We Are Devo. Containing songs both curious ("Mongoloid," "Space Junk," "(I Can't Get No) Satisfaction") and perverse ("Uncontrollable Urge," "Sloppy (I Saw My Baby Gettin')"), it is a much better rebellion against the stagnant music of the 70s than many of the most celebrated punk albums. * * * *

- Gary Graff, Musichound Rock: The Essential Album Guide, 1996.

Q: "Who else could take 'Satisfaction' and turn it into a new wave hit?" A: no one, but these progenitors of geek-rock who married synth and satire wrote scathing lyrics, delivered in earnest and spit their Brian Eno-produced sound in the face of an industry then defined by disco. If the Gang of Four infused their music with Marxism, then Devo doused theirs with the theory of de-evolution. Yeah, they were rebels, so don't let their plastic suits and flowerpot hats fool you. * * * *

- Zagat Survey Music Guide - 1,000 Top Albums of All Time, 2003.

In 1970s pop music, synthesizers were heard largely on disco records and in the elaborate studio productions of progressive rock acts like Yes. Certainly, they were not a staple of punk performances, although Kraftwerk made expert use of the instruments as they explored punkish themes of alienation in their proto-techno music.

Alienation was the stock in trade of Devo, the Ohio quintet whose explosive, Brian Eno-produced 1978 debut, Q: Are We Not Men? A: We Are Devo!, embellished punk's big guitar sound with harsh, metallic synthesizers. To be certain, they made relatively sparing use of them on Q: Are We Not Men?, especially compared to the oceans of synths that typified subsequent efforts like 1980's Freedom Of Choice.

But Devo's four studio releases between 1978 and 1981 were linked thematically. The group, former art students and deft satirists, cultivated a despairing if vague philosophy -- thanks to dubious modern innovations like space exploration and fast food, civilization was not evolving but rather "de-volving" (hence the name). Happily, Devo never let sociological theory get in the way of great music, and little of this ideology is spelled out explicitly in Q: Are We Not Men?, a marvelous, rocking set of funny, quirky songs about topics such as mongoloids and paranoia.

Interestingly, the album's most distinctive and famous song is a cover of "Satisfaction." But while the Stones' version is swaggering and sexy, when Devo frontman Mark Mothersbaugh sings, the song becomes an anxious, frenetic cri de coeur about feeling overwhelmed in the face of an oppressive consumer culture.

- Kenneth Burns, 1001 Albums You Must Hear Before You Die, 2005.

They came from Akron, Ohio, wore matching jumpsuits, and had a sinister theory of devolution. Their debut runs on rubber-punk energy and robotic New Wave beats, with deeply devolved tunes like "Uncontrollable Urge."

Q: Are We Not Men? A: We Are Devo was chosen as the 252nd greatest album of all time in a Rolling Stone magazine poll of artists, producers, critics and music industry figures in Oct. 2020.

- Rolling Stone, 10/20.

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