Growing up, I used to listen to my dad’s music a lot. He had a ton of stuff he taped to cassette, including bootlegs he and his brother had owned once upon a time. One was a Devo bootleg of all their early stuff (I think it was called Spud Patrol) and I probably played it half to death.
One of the Devo guys (Mark Mothersbaugh, probably) once said that the cheaper the synth, the better the sound. Sure, finances probably played a big role in their early sound, but so did artistic choice. They went for a sound that’s part human, part machine, both retro and futuristic at the same time. After all, this was a band formed around the concept of devolution and combined music with performance art.
This approach to music makes their demos and early experiments riveting listening. It’s the sound of a band trying to nail down a unique style by trial and error. By trying to be as inhuman as possible, these recordings are sometimes more impressive than their polished, professional ones.
The two-CD album Hardcore is a reissue of two separate albums from the early 90s, but the music dates back to the earliest days of Devo, between 1974-77. It’s decidedly lo-fi, recorded in everything from garages to studios. Combined with the generally cheap instruments, it sometimes sounds completely raw. And that’s not even getting into the music itself. This is experimental stuff, even by their standards.
Although it’s as complete a collection of these demos as we’re likely to see, a few good tunes have slipped through the cracks here: early demos for classics like “Smart Patrol” and “DEVO Corporate Anthem” are easily available online. But for hardcore fans, this is loaded set, with a little bit of everything.
Some of the material is instrumental, like the soaring “Booji Boy’s Funeral”, a chorus of babbling synths and keyboards. Some is familiar, like early readings of “Jocko Homo” and “Mongoloid”. There’s even a couple covers: witness their deconstruction of “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction”, which strips the song of the signature riff, turning it into a stiff, jerky and intense reading of frustration. And on “Working In The Coalmine”, they sound pretty pleased to be working underground.
But this is mostly the manifesto of a band too smart to be called punk and too raw to fit into rock. A lot of early Devo was built on ripping apart music and rebuilding it on their terms. The riffs drop in and out, the singing sounds more like a guy barking commands. Even when they sound more organic – “I’m A Potato” comes to mind – but before long, they’re singing about devolution, sex or alienation.
My favorite cut is their early take of “Mechanical Man”. Over a simple guitar riff, an impossibly cold and robotic voice repeats a few lines about being a mechanical man. As the song builds, he chants “me feel swell / me work well / me want what you got” as the keyboards grow more atonal, the bass sounds more and more ominous and the music sounds more and more like an assembly line. It’s unsettling and sounds more robotic than anything Daft Punk ever dreamed up. It’s exactly the attitude I’d bet they were going for.
But there’s plenty of good cuts spread out over this compilation: “Ono”, where the band lurches between lines and droning keyboards, sounding like an assembly line; “Fraulein”, about a guy who works at a filling station, where they play it straight enough to sound just a little unhinged; the surf rock/dick joke “Clockout” (say it out loud a couple of times); “Bottled Up”, a fun tune, complete with cheesy sound effects that tells you not to listen to your doctor and relax.
If you’re new to Devo, this probably isn’t the best place to start. Hell, if you only know them from “Whip It”, you’re probably likely to get weirded out by the stranger stuff here. Like the name says, this is them at their most hardcore, when they were their most uncompromising and unpolished. If you haven’t listened to Are We Not Men…, start there. And if their wicked, cynical sense of humor and jaded point of view stick with you, this will speak volumes.
Hardcore is available through Superior Viaduct, on both CD and Vinyl. Recommended.