“The Men Who Make the Music: Devo”: The Akron, Ohio band take on Big Entertainment in this quirky late ’70s film

By on December 2, 2016

The Men Who Make the Music: Devo — now streaming on Night Flight Plus — combines raucous live concert footage of the band (shot in October 1978 at the Starwood club in West Hollywood, CA, as well as some footage shot in late ’78 and early ’79), along with five of their music videos and quirky filmed interludes telling a vague story about the Akron, Ohio band’s relationship with their bloated corporate record company “Big Entertainment,” representing the band’s actual label at the time, Warner Bros. Records.

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This unique film documents a time when Devo were not yet the popular Freedom of Choice-era top-selling act of the mid-to-late 80s, and still a weirdo synth-punk combo with high-concept ideas, presenting themselves not as musicians but as low-budget sci-fi scientists, uniformed in bright yellow suits and other “protective gear” while conducting sonic experiments to test our perception of reality in order to eventually expose the world to the actual “truth.”

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In addition to the Starwood footage, we also see the band performing “Wiggily World,” taped at Walker Art Institute, Minneapolis, MN, in November 1978, and “Red Eye Express,” featuring Booji Boy, taped at Nippon Budokan Hall, Tokyo, Japan, in May 1979.

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The interstitial segments are essentially used to espouse Devo’s theory of De-evolution, which then cut away to the members of the band (Mark, Jerry, Alan, Bob 1, and Bob 2), who flesh out some of the details.

The other interstitials involve General Boy (Robert Mothersbaugh, Sr.) discussing Devo’s influence on the world and their philosophy.

The longest segment is called “Roll Out The Barrel” or “Rod Rooter’s Big Ream”/”Rod’s Big Reamer,” which was shown during an intermission during Devo’s 1979 tour (part of The Men Who Make the Music also appears in The Complete Truth About Devolution).

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The Men Who Make the Music: Devo was set to be the first Video LP under the title “DevoVision” (it was advertised in the inner sleeve of the band’s Duty Now For The Future too), completed in 1979 but then set aside by the video distributor, Time-Life, due to their perceived concerns about how the band’s record company was treated, even though Devo never actually talk about Warner Bros. Records in the filmed portions (Time-Life’s parent company also owned the label at the time, of course).

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When The Men Who Make the Music: Devo was finally released, in 1981, it was still one of the first video releases (pre-dating the real craze for home video releases) to feature professionally shot footage of the band which was only then beginning to break out nationally (due to their 1980 smash hit, “Whip It”).

The low-budget dramatic filmed portions concern the band’s sleazy manager, Rod Rooter (Michael Swartz) — his name is a not-so-hidden pun on the plumbing service Roto-Rooter, who you might have called in the late 70s if you needed your pipes cleaned out — who is told by his boss, Daddy Knowitall, to get them “back into their yellow suits” (and back out on tour), or he would be fired. Message delivered.

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A meeting with the band is then set up, and when four of the five members of Devo arrive at Rooter’s office, Rooter — who is listening to a song called “Midget” by a new band, Parcheesi — asks them why Devo’s music doesn’t sell as well as they do, and then proceeds to criticize the band — who are wearing chrome ski masks while discussing business — for their “artistic” behaviour, and he reams them out about their reluctance to go on tour.

Rooter doesn’t give a hoot about the band’s philosophies or theories about De-evolution or anything, he needs them to make the record company money, that’s what it’s all about: profit.

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Meanwhile, the record company Big Entertainment want the band to tour so that can capitalize on what they essentially think is a fad, by merchandising Devo dolls and making sure Devo stay in their yellow suits and play their well-known hits (hits they really didn’t have yet, not in late ’78).

Rooter doesn’t want Devo to do anything that might cut into Big Entertainment’s profits and scolds the band: “You’re messing with Big Daddy’s Cap [Capital]! “

Booji Boy essentially accuses Rooter of being a slave to his job, crying out, “You’re dying under Daddy’s cap, smeghead!”

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If you know the words to Devo’s “Praying Hands,” you know they describe that musicians signed to major labels essentially must “assume the position” and “go into doggy submission,” punctuating the joke further by having Jerry telling bandmember Alan (who didn’t go to the meeting but meets up with them at Club Devo later to discuss how it went) about how hard it is to sit down after being reamed out in a meeting with Rod Rooter.

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Here’s what was written on the box cover art on the original and now super-rare and collectible VHS tape:

“For all hordes, throngs and cults — and those homosapiens who fall in between — who want their Devovision, look no further. This one’s for you. Since the mid-1970s, Devo has perched precariously atop a steadily devolving world. U.S. Presidents bear striking resemblances to the grinning golfer on the cover of Are We Not Men? Vast sums are expended by outmoded sociological organisms in a race to nowhere special. No one is immune: “Now we’re doing it,” Jerry Casale said. “Here we are, reduced to making product pieces and being considered the same as any other group.”

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“But Devo isn’t any other group. Devo music and Devo visuals have been utterly and distinctively Devo since 1976, from that first startling Truth to the flying babies and the hilarious corporate machinations of “Come Back Jonee” and other videos to the handy take-home cassette you clutch today. This typically Devo blend of crazed live performances and head-spinning studio footage stars General Boy, his beloved Booji and of course, Mark, Jerry, Alan, Bob 1 and Bob 2 — yesterday of Akron, today citizens of the world. Devo video is in your midst. Watch it wisely and well.”

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Watch The Men Who Make the Music: Devo and other music documentaries on our Night Flight Plus channel.

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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.