Devo Anthology Revives Misunderstood Electronic Pop Band

Pioneers Who Got Scalped covers three-decade career of early electronic-music band.

Devo have been called a lot of names during the past 30 years. Outsiders. Innovators. Flowerpot enthusiasts.

But one name stands out in the mind of Jerry Casale, a founding member of the seminal electronic-music band from Akron, Ohio, which released the anthology Pioneers Who Got Scalped on Tuesday.

"We were once called a thinking man's Kiss," Casale said.

Pioneers Who Got Scalped aims to capture the essence of the band: the idea that creativity is positive, no matter what label is placed on it. The 50 songs speak to disenfranchised artists of all ages. The peculiar title addresses the music industry.

"It's a title I always wanted to use," Casale said. "It's exactly what happened to us. We did a lot of things first and got totally misunderstood because of it."

Innovation Through Not Being Cool

"Devo is not a middle-of-the-road idea. Either you love it or hate it," Casale said. "We appeal to people who aren't in the mainstream, who are thinking about things that they are not rewarded for. Then a band comes along and reinforces the idea that those are good things to think about, that it's legitimate. Of course, you get a loyal fanbase, because you're speaking to people with ideas. It's not arbitrary."

Many of Casale's musical peers would sing equal praises of Devo. They were among the first American pop musicians to exploit modern technology, and certainly the first to do so with a sense of humor.

"I'm a huge Devo fan," former Soul Coughing singer M. Doughty said. "If Soul Coughing was ever mentioned in the same sentence with Devo, I would be honored. They were true innovators."

Devo formed in 1972, when Kent State art students Casale and Mark Mothersbaugh joined creative forces under a unifying belief in de-evolution — the idea that mankind was regressing rather than evolving. The duo, who would remain the group's core, recruited friends and family to help make music that echoed their beliefs. (Bob and Jim Mothersbaugh and Bob Casale were all members at one point.) The band's sound was rhythmically rigid and mechanical, but it also showcased a new-wave flair before that style even existed.

Devo got a break four years later when their score for the short film "The Truth About De-Evolution" caught the ear of David Bowie and Iggy Pop, who helped land Devo a record deal with Warner Bros. Their Brian Eno–produced debut, Q: Are We Not Men? A: We Are Devo!, was released in 1978 to mixed reviews.

"We were dumb enough to not be intimidated back in Ohio, where no one was around to tell us we couldn't do it," Casale said. "There was no cool people around going 'Oh man, don't do that.' They just ignored us. So we were allowed to follow our creative urges and nobody convinced us to censor ourselves."

While Devo were making musical history by creating synthesizer-based pop, they managed to never take themselves too seriously. In 1980, Casale directed his band in an iconic, early music video for the hit single "Whip It." The band wore red jump suits and upside-down red flowerpots in place of caps, while Dadaist images of whipped cream and farm girls flashed on the screen.

"It was like a self-defacing humor," Casale said. "We played with irony because it was fun. There's not much of a place for that in a world where [Limp Bizkit singer] Fred Durst says, 'Hey people, you feel like starting some sh--? I feel like starting some sh--.' It's like, 'Wow, starting some sh--. That's really cool.' "

Deconstruction, Devo-Style

Pioneers Who Got Scalped includes "Whip It" and other Devo standards such as "Freedom of Choice" (RealAudio excerpt) and "Uncontrollable Urge" (RealAudio excerpt). The double album also includes rarities such as the original Booji Boy (a Mothersbaugh character, pronounced "Boogie Boy") version of "Jocko Homo" (RealAudio excerpt) and a cover of Nine Inch Nails' "Head Like a Hole."

The anthology also features the previously unreleased "The Words Get Stuck in My Throat" (RealAudio excerpt). "It's the only time you'll hear Booji Boy singing," Casale explained. "It's actually a quite old song, it's just a recording that was never released."

Devo's unusual song-crafting methods are captured on covers of Lee Dorsey's "Working in a Coal Mine," Jimi Hendrix's "Are You Experienced?" and the Rolling Stones' "Satisfaction (I Can't Get No)," all included on Pioneers Who Got Scalped.

"'Satisfaction' is probably the most classic rock 'n' roll song ever written," Casale said. "So for us to do it, we wanted to show what it meant to deconstruct a song Devo-style. We would never bother doing a cover that sounded like a carbon copy."

In their nearly 30-year career, Devo released 12 studio albums and countless songs for compilations, soundtracks and video games. But as new wave's popularity grew in the late '80s, Devo fizzled. They re-formed in 1996 and again in 1997 to play random dates on the Lollapalooza tour, but Mothersbaugh and Casale have mostly moved on to other passions.

Mothersbaugh owns a production company called Mutato Muzika and has composed scores for films including "Rushmore" and "Happy Gilmore" as well as for television. Casale is a full-time video director whose work includes Foo Fighters' "I'll Stick Around."

Devo haven't ruled out the possibility of reuniting for a tour, although Casale said Mothersbaugh has declined recent offers.