Like Mother Nature, rock'n'roll works in strange and wondrous ways. Often the "strange" overshadows the "wondrous," but the pop-music process is rarely worse for that wear. In fact, sometimes it makes things all the more interesting.
Saturday night at Georgetown University's Gaston Hall, Washington gets its first in-person look at Devo. We may never be the same.
Devo, which appeared last week on NBC's Saturday Night Live, makes David Bowie's "Spiders from Mars" days look like a walk in the park. It's not surprising that Bowie's friend Brian Eno discovered Devo and produced their debut album ("Q: Are We Not Men? A: We are Devo!"), but even Eno at his most outrageous cannot compete with the wierdness of Devo. When, in "Jocko Homo," the band rthetorically asks "Are we not men?" one's immediate reaction is "good question."
The offical facts list Devo as Jerry and Bob Casale, Mark and Bob Motherbaugh, and Alan Meyers, all from Akron, a city that up till now claimed automobile tires and the Goodyear blimp as its major experts.
The rest of the Devo explanation is a bit out of control. It reads as if the music industry had adopted some virulent strain of Newspeak as its official language. Warner Brothers' publicity magazine "Waxpaper," which is generally designed to be informative, had this to say about Devo:
"Devo [accent on "vo"] is an adjective, applicable to any variety of phenomena which reflect the de-evolutionary condition." It claims that a British concert melee between Devo-tees (their word) and anti-Devos "was definitely Devo." Follow so far? It describes the band as "an industrial-strength janitorial crew in the corridors of culture."
The band is equally helpful. Mark Mothersburgh describes Devo as "taking yourself out of it and being in it at the same time." Jerry Casale says "It has that kind of positive insanity and the sound of things falling apart." That clears things right up.
The album sleeve has a performance photo that shows the men (are they not men?") in what looks like NASA-issued moon suits. The picture in "Waxpaper" has the quintet clothed in black cellophane, shades and stockings over their heads. Are they not nuts?
With this kind of preamble, you might think that the album itself would sound something like National Airport at rush hour, but - are you sitting down? - it's not bad.
As a band, Devo is a member of the growing legion of acts that take the punk movement one step beyond. Like the Cars, Cheap Trick and Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, Devo has a full sound and a tight, rhythmic quality to its melodies.
"Uncontrollable Urge" is prime rock'n'roll, and Devo's quirky version of the Rolling Stones' "Satisfaction" translates into a strange, reggae-like reworking.Eno has used the same production expertise with Devo that he used on Talking Heads' "More Songs About Buildings and Food." The sound quality on "Q: Are We Not Men? A: We Are Devo!" is far superior to any punk release, and the inherant outlandishness is controlled enough to keep more normal types from screaming.
According to publicity blurbs, Devo is supposed to offer "industrial rock for the '80s," and its music is sufficently metallic and regimented to get the point across. Already-bizarre lyrics are further laced with corporationisms and fractured cliches. In "Too Much Paranoias," we hear "I been dipped in double meaning/I been stuck with static cling/Think I got a rupto-pac/Think I got a Big Mac attack." Cole Porter it isn't.
Of course, the album is only one cog in the promotional machine that's out to convince us that we are all Devo. And promotions, like the rock'n'roll they represent, also work in strange and wondrous ways.
About the same time that Devo was asking if they were not men, cryptic notes began arriving extolling Jules and the Polar Bears. Remember that promotion departments have been known to insist that a recording of the Emergency Broadcast System is the new Beatles, but they do manage to prick one's interest with such gambits.
It turns out that Jules is leader Jules Shear, a former Funky King ("Slow Dancing") and partner of Walter Egan. His band's first album, "Got No Breeding," exhibits a good feel for popular taste and a simple but powerful approach to some strong compositions.
While Devo warps its way sideways into your consciousness, Jules and the Polar Bears bore in directly. They alternately sound like Bob Dylan, Jackson Browne, the Kinks and even Lou Reed, but they maintain an individuality that sets them apart from the plethora of copycats currently producing hits.
Like the Cars, they seem to have moved straightforward music into a deeper, more encompassing context. They can rock ("You Just Don't Wanna Know") or slow up for more introspective thoughts ("Home Somewhere"), and the group seems to have all the right moves.
One wrong move was to make their first Washington appearance the same night as Yom Kippur and the opening game of the World Series. Needless to say, only a small group of hard-core seers attended the show.
However, Jules and the Polar Bears are back in the area this week, opening for Peter Gabriel in Baltimore's Lyric Theater next Thursday, and a lot more people should get a chance to see them.
If their live act shows as much promise as "Got No Breeding," it may not be too long before the rock'n'roll world is asking, "Are we not Polar Bears?"