Devo’s “In The Beginning Was The End: The Truth About De-Evolution”

By on April 15, 2015

Here’s an exclusive excerpt from Kevin C. Smith’s Recombo DNA: The Story Of Devo, Or How the 60s Became the 80s, about the film that started it all… right as it was about to end. Watch Devo: The Complete Truth About De-Evolution at Night Flight Plus!

By 1976, Devo were beginning to feel that they had exhausted their options. They had fewer than ten shows under their belts, a dearth of venues in which to showcase their music, and had received less than welcoming receptions in those where they had appeared.

They had also been sending demos to anyone they thought might listen, but to no avail. One night at around 3:00am, sitting in an all-night diner with his old college friend Chuck Statler, Jerry Casale revealed that they were seriously considering calling it quits. “Not so fast,” Statler replied. “Before you split up, let’s do a film.”

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Devo had clearly been interested in documenting their work from the beginning. Part of their 1973 Kent State Creative Arts Festival performance had been captured on grainy black-and-white Portapak video, and most of the audio from the WMMS Halloween show had been recorded as well, suggesting that the band approached their work with an artist’s interest in preserving and curating.

“From the beginning, on purpose, Devo was a multi-media idea,” Casale later noted.

It seems only natural, then, that they would be interested in expanding into film. They had already ticked visual art, writing, performance art, and music off the list, and would later claim that their decision to go into music was based entirely on economy.

“The equipment was just inexpensive. We couldn’t be filmmakers because we couldn’t afford the equipment.”

Cost aside, Devo would probably have ventured into the medium sooner, had any of them actually known how to make a film. Statler did. He was an Akron native who had stayed close to home to attend Kent State, where he began (but ultimately dropped out of) a BFA in film studies. He met Jerry and Mark in an experimental sculpture class at the university. Since the class was largely self-directed, Statler’s work consisted mainly of “boxes with motors in them that just kind of vibrated,” while Casale’s project was titled The American Dream and recreated a summer barbeque indoors, complete with working grill, hot dogs, radio, and artificial grass.

Although Statler appreciated what Devo were doing musically, what was more important was that they shared a common aesthetic. “We had grown up together . . . and had a mutual appreciation for everything from John Waters and Russ Meyer to Luis Buñuel,” he later recalled.

It was appropriate that their taste in film would reach back nearly 50 years from the contemporary ‘Pope of Trash’ and the ‘King of the Nudies’ to Buñuel’s pioneering Surrealism. Soon, in the age of MTV, bands would find themselves paired arbitrarily with a director; Statler and Devo, by contrast, had a shared history.

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“One thing about the Devo films and my relationship to Devo is that I’m familiar with the music and I’ve heard it for years and there’s a whole understanding there, there’s the aesthetic similarities and stuff because we came from the same place,” Statler continued.

Mothersbaugh, for his part, has always been more than willing to give Statler credit for his contributions.

“Chuck’s role in Devo should not be underrated,” he said in 2010. “He was the only one of us who took film classes and actually knew how to put a film together, which obviously was huge for us.”

Unlike most music videos, the project was not conceived of as a promotional tool to get exposure for the band. Devo barely even existed at this point—Jim Mothersbaugh had left the band but agreed to return for the film—but saw no contradiction in creating a film for a nonexistent band. In fact, they hoped the film would serve as a substitute for a traditional band.

“Devo would be like The Three Stooges,” Casale explained. “You’d watch these film shorts that were music-driven with stories. We were going to put out one a year—we didn’t even want a record deal.” The band realized that people had “always made films to music. Duke Ellington did it. The Beatles did it. It was just that we were already thinking of it as the only way it would be presented.”

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The means that they would use to achieve this end was the newly developing technology of home video, specifically the Laserdisc format. “I still remember the day Chuck came over, and he had a Popular Science magazine with this married couple on the front, all smiley,” Mothersbaugh recalled. “They’re holding up what looks like an LP. It said: Laserdiscs: Everybody will have them for Christmas.”

(The article in question was probably the one headlined ‘Here at last: VideoDisc players’ in the February 1977 issue of the magazine. It claimed that both the RCA SelectaVision and Philips/MCA VideoDisc systems would be on the market by Christmas 1977, but neither arrived. Laserdiscs appeared in one test market, Atlanta, on December 15 1978, and then in Seattle the following February, but only became available nationwide at the end of 1980.)

The band saw far-reaching implications in the announcement of this new media format. It was more than just another medium in which to express themselves; it was nothing less than the arrival of Andy Warhol’s brand of multimedia pop art aesthetic in the staid world of rock music. While Warhol made his name in painting, silk screening, and sculpture, he also directed numerous films in wide-ranging genres, ‘wrote’ several books, and even ‘produced’ The Velvet Underground & Nico, although his role entailed little more than paying for the studio time. His ability to encompass these disparate fields was undoubtedly a factor in his pervasive influence on art and culture in the later 20th century, and it was precisely this straddling of mediums that Devo were aiming to exploit.

“This is totally going to change who’s making pop art,” they reasoned. “It’s not going to be some guy sitting over there with a band in a bar, and it’s not going to be somebody that’s sitting on a hill painting a landscape, it’s going to be somebody that works in the pop media of our time. They’re going to be doing stuff that goes on television and it’s going to be music and pictures together. And that’s what we wanted to be. We wanted to be in the new art form.”

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Once the band had the means, the only remaining obstacle was the prohibitive cost. Statler had been working on commercials for an advertising agency, and fortunately had access to the company’s film and editing facilities. The band would only be required to pay for the cost of the film stock. The project would be shot on 16mm film (cheaper than the motion picture grade 35mm, yet a significant step up from the hobbyist 8mm or Super-8). Mothersbaugh had started a small gallery and store the previous year called Unit Services, in which he sold his prints, including many made with rubber stamps, and silkscreened T-shirts. The shop was located in Quaker Square, a little mall in downtown Akron, and housed in the disused silos of Quaker Oats. Much of the money the shop earned went directly toward paying for the film. The ten-minute movie took four months to complete and required the band to raise $3,000 in funding. It was a homegrown effort in every possible way: supporters lent money, local organizations generously provided locations, and a number of friends and family members made appearances.

The film was titled In The Beginning Was The End: The Truth About De-Evolution, a nod to one of the band’s key inspirations—Oscar Kiss Maerth’s book—while one of the two songs featured was ‘Jocko Homo,’ inspired by B.H. Shadduck’s pamphlet Jocko-Homo Heavenbound.

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The film begins with the band, clad in their coveralls and hardhats, finishing a day’s work at the rubber plant (actually a display in Goodyear’s World Of Rubber museum, located across the street from the company’s headquarters in Akron).

Booji Boy—the only remaining character of the five that the band had conceived of the previous year—is the last of the workers to leave, and the only one not wearing a clear plastic mask. They pile into Mark’s battered 1967 Chevy Biscayne, take a short drive, and enter a nondescript building, instruments in hand, to perform Johnny Rivers’s 1966 song ‘Secret Agent Man,’ with Bob Mothersbaugh on lead vocals. (The version in the film had been recorded two years earlier in 1974.)

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The set is now the lower level of JB’s in Kent, with the band performing on a small stage with low, dropped ceiling tiles. The back of the stage is lined with huge letters spelling ‘D-E-V-O,’ fashioned from what look like crudely cut panels of riveted steel, which were actually constructed by Gary Jackett years earlier during the summer Mark and Jerry spent with him in California. The performance is intercut with visual non-sequiturs: men in monkey masks and satin boxer shorts spanking a woman in a bathrobe and a china doll mask with Ping-Pong paddles emblazoned with the faces of Richard Nixon and Mao Zedong; Chinaman fondling a coat hanger in the shape of a woman’s spread legs, complete with red panties; a leather-jacketed Jackett animatedly playing two thrift-store guitars bolted together and plugged into a space heater instead of an amp; Mark wearing a pink and purple balloon-sleeved and butterfly-collared shirt with quilted mustard-colored pants and a mask with a pompadour, slowly gyrating with his redheaded girlfriend Marina, who is dressed in a powder-blue waitress’s uniform; and a shaggy-haired man in a monkey mask, wraparound sunglasses, and a fur collar, eating a popsicle. The song ends with Mark in a John F. Kennedy mask and coveralls, waving goodbye to the camera.

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Booji Boy is then seen in orange coveralls (more prisoner uniform than factory worker’s) rushing past a two-story building with an expansive mural painted on the side. It features the words ‘SHINE ON AMERICA’ radiating from the Statue of Liberty’s torch, as well as a somewhat arbitrary choice of portraits of Benjamin Franklin, Abraham Lincoln, and Chief Joseph. Right above the Indian chief’s head are the U.S. Apollo and Soviet Soyuz spacecraft, which happened to dock while the mural was being painted.

Booji Boy bounds up the stairs at the back of the building and into the stately office of General Boy, who is sitting alone at the head of a lengthy table wearing a decorated Army uniform, a grey comb-over, and large sideburns. The first character not portrayed by a member of the band, General Boy was in fact played by Mark’s father, an amiable salesman who agreed to take on the role after a lawyer friend of the band backed out over concerns that the film would color his reputation.

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“At first he didn’t get the idea,” Mark recalled, “but once he saw himself on screen, he totally got the acting bug.” The building Booji Boy is seen entering may have been the one that housed Mothersbaugh senior’s Great Falls Employment Agency; the set for General Boy’s office was none other than the ‘President’s Room’ of a local McDonald’s.

Booji Boy dutifully delivers the papers that Chinaman gave him to General Boy.

Then, over a simple and repetitive synthesizer figure, General Boy declares: “In the past, this information has been suppressed, but now it can be told. Every man, woman, and mutant on this planet shall know the truth about De-evolution.”

“Oh Dad,” Booji Boy replies. “We’re all Devo.”

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A snippet of the band’s ‘Mechanical Man’ plays as the letters ‘D-E-V-O’ are spelled out in neon (“we were originally going to spell out the name with ketchup and mustard bottles,” Statler recalled, “but the neon looked nicer”).

Mothersbaugh is then seen in white lab coat, tropical shirt, large maroon bowtie, orange dishwashing gloves, and swimming goggles as he sings ‘Jocko Homo’ to a table of four professionals in surgeons’ caps, masks, and 3D glasses. He animatedly gesticulates with his gloved hands, his call of “Are we not men?” answered by a trio of talking heads in wraparound sunglasses and bank robber-style masks: “We are Devo!”

During the song’s bridge, Mark does a strange backward-leaning, side-to-side dance, which according to the band is the ‘poot’ that the teachers and critics of the lyrics perform. (Asked years later to describe the poot using no more than three phrases, Bob Lewis replied: “Uh, squatting, loping rondo.”)

For the second half of the song, the rhythm shifts to a pounding, insistent, almost tribal beat, and we see that Mothersbaugh is, in fact, addressing an entire lecture hall—actually the same Governance Chambers of Kent State that was the setting of the band’s 1974 Creative Arts Festival appearance—full of students wearing the same caps, masks, and 3D glasses, pounding the tables and pumping their fists. Atop a conference table in the middle of the room are three writhing, pupa-like figures with their arms and legs constrained in yellow plastic bags, whom Mark would describe as being “like maggots, paramecium, foetal things. . . . That’s the nature of research or birth or discovery. It’s pretty disgusting.”

The end credits run over an electronic version of The Beatles’ ‘Because’ (achieved by running the original song through a ring modulator) and distorted close-up images from television screens, before the tenets of the Devolutionary Oath are flashed onscreen. (When the film was released on video, the unauthorized Beatles song was replaced with random electronic noise.) Finally, an unidentified man unmasks a seated, duct-taped Booji Boy and puts a knife to his chest.

Check out our interview with Jerry Casale of DEVO on Night Flight (January 3, 1983)

If ‘Jocko Homo’ was the band’s litmus test — a manifesto as much as it was a mere song — then In The Beginning Was The End was an ‘indoctrination to de-evolution.’ It is self-referential. In other words, it doesn’t depend on anything outside of itself to exist. It’s logical within itself.”

It certainly isn’t logical to anything outside of itself. Jerry would later describe the overall mood as “a combination of Fritz Lang’s Metropolis and Ronald McDonald. We teeter between a kind of beehive collective mechanistic thing and Walt Disney.”

The film’s skewed worldview and deadpan nonsensicality predated and helped set the tone for the most significant development in popular music of the next decade.

DANGEROUS MINDS POST 2

Kevin C. Smith recently wrote about Night Flight for the Dangerous Minds blog, which we told you about here. Recombo DNA is the first book to evaluate in the proper context the innovations and accomplishments of this truly groundbreaking band. Beginning in 1970, with the transformative effects of the Kent State University shootings which the band-members witness firsthand, and ending a decade later with Devo on the cusp of superstardom (with “Whip It”), it traces the sounds and ideas that the group absorbed and in turn brought to prominence as unlikely rock stars. For anyone who has ever wondered where the band who fell to earth came from, here is the answer.

About Bryan Thomas

Bryan Thomas has been a freelancing writer/critic for All Music Guide, and a contributor to Launch, Music Connection, Big Takeover and numerous other publications and entertainment websites, blogs and zines, most of them long gone. He's written more than sixty sets of liner notes. He’s also worked for over twenty years at mostly reissue record labels -- prior to that he worked in bookstores and record stores, going all the way back to the original vinyl daze. He lives in the Miracle Mile neighborhood of Los Angeles, CA.
  • Admin User

    a friend worked for storer cable in the 70s and 80s, he would drive his truck out into the woods in the middle of the night where cable pedestals had been installed in preparation for subdivision construction.

    we’d get drunk and high and watch showtime soft porn and night flight.