One of the pioneering artists of the world, the utterly unique Mark Mothersbaugh, turns 70 years old today and we thought there was no better way to celebrate the septuagenarian than by revisiting ten of Devo’s greatest songs of all time.
There’s very little in music that Mark Mothersbaugh has left to achieve in his life. He’s won BAFTAs for his film scores, he’s been given honorary doctorates and he’s even composed the Rugrats scores. The musician transcended hippie culture in the seventies and in the winter of that decade co-founded one of the most forward-thinking bands of all time, Devo.
As the principal songwriter for the group and their lead singer, Mothersbaugh took a starring role in the band’s unbridled success. The group were widely adored by those already in the music industry for their unstoppable evolution of music. They could count Neil Young and David Bowie as fans and without a shadow of doubt changed music beyond recognition.
Below we’re looking back at ten of the band’s best songs and how their influence can still be felt to this day.
Mothersbaugh may well have done it all, but now is the time to devolve back to Devo.
The 10 greatest DEVO songs of all time
10. ‘Space Junk’
Taken from the group’s seminal album, Q:Are We Not Men? A:We Are Devo!, the song is a fragmented and paranoid trip around the galaxy as it concentrates on a tale of falling space debris and an unlucky girl named Sally.
Oddly enough, the track acted as a degree of foreshadowing as only a year after its release Skylab fell out of the sky and landed over parts of Western Australia.
9. ‘Jerkin’ Back N’ Forth’
Devo’s 1981 album, New Traditionalists saw the band break into the eighties with a kick and a punch. The group were no longer perceived as the oddest band around and were instead considered serious tastemakers.
The fourth record would see the band employ a cleaner and more polished sound and it allowed pop gems like ‘Jerkin’ Back N’ Forth’ to be given ample room to shine. It’s the band at their popstar peak.
8. ‘Girl U Want’
Perhaps one of Devo’s best riffs sees the band in another element of their multi-facteetd output; the rockers. Despite their evolutionary thinking, Devo were born out of the classic rock momvement and this track pays homage to it.
Released in 1980 as part of the Freedom of Choice album, Devo do their best lyrical work on this number, as they balance rock and roll tropes with the band’s breath of minty fresh air.
7. ‘Freedom of Choice’
The titular track from the band’s third album in 1980 sees Devo completing a devilish balancing act as they not only deliver riffs AC/DC and other stadium fillers would be proud of, but they do it with an extra dose of existentialism.
Sarcastic lyrically and yet straight down the middle of the road sonically, Devo are at their best when bringing us something we never expected.
6. ‘Wiggly World‘
Devo’s second album saw the group assert themselves as the brightest thing the other side of punk and were quickly gainging a name for themselves as the most forward thinking band around.
The band’s debut record was delivered at a frenetic pace and mirrored their incendiary beginnings but nothing perhaps typifies the band quite like this song from Duty Nor for the Future.
5. ‘(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction‘
The single was originally self-released by the new-wave band in 1977 on their own label Booji Boy Records. The track then got that extra flourish when it was mixed by the wonderful Brian Eno as part of their debut album. But, with Warner Brothers Records now at the helm of the production, the song needed to be vetted by Jagger. A somewhat tense meeting is reflected upon by Devo founder Gerald Casale in The New Yorker.
Casale remembers: “He was just looking down at the floor swirling his glass of red wine,” going on to add “He didn’t even have shoes on, just socks and some velour pants. I don’t know what his habits were then, but this was early afternoon and it looked like he had just gotten up.”
The band were major fans, speaking of ‘Satisfaction’, Mothersbaugh said: “I think those are some of the most amazing lyrics that were ever written in rock and roll, dealing with conspicuous consumption and the stupidity of capitalism and sexual frustration all in one song. It pretty much encapsulated what was going on with kids at that time, much more than any of the hippie songs, as far as I was concerned.”
Casale said of Jagger: “He suddenly stood up and started dancing around on this Afghan rug in front of the fireplace, the sort of rooster-man dance he used to do, and doing his best Jagger impression saying ‘I like it, I like it.’ Mark and I lit up, big smiles on our faces, like in ‘Wayne’s World’: ‘We’re not worthy!’ To see your icon that you grew up admiring, that you had seen in concert, dancing around like Mick Jagger being Mick Jagger. It was unbelievable.”
Taken from the band’s seminal debut album Q. Are We Not Men? A: We Are Devo! the song remains a bastion of the album which shot the group to stardom. It may have experienced a mixed reception when it landed but soon enough people would understand the massive change of direction Devo provided.
It all started with ‘Mongoloid’ the band’s first ever single release on their Booji Boy Records, backed with ‘Jocko Homo’, which grabbed the attention of Brian Eno and the rest of the people behind the album. Built out of a simple motorik beat the song is typical of Devo’s game-chaning output.
Eno quickened the pace of the original single and turned it into every reason you ever needed to love Devo. Angular guitars, a frenetic attitude and an uncontrollable groove, the song was the starting point of it all.
3. ‘Uncontrollable Urge’
‘Mongoloid’ may well have been the first single the band released but the lead track from their debut album Q. Are We Not Men? A: We Are Devo! would be reserved for ‘Uncontrollable Urge’.
Vocally it is about as close to pop as Devo gets but the real shiny power of the song resides in the late, great Alan Myers and his metronomic drums which propel ‘Uncontrollable Urge’ into legend status.
It has since become a mainstay of the band’s live performance and has been amped up with some synced moves that will guarantee you a smile.
2. ‘Whip It’
Certainly, Devo’s most famous song, the track captured the attention and minds of countless creatives when it arrived in 1980 as an angular vision of the future. Weirdly, for Devo, everyone seemed to just “get it.”
Not many times in their career can you consider Devo to be swimming in the mainstream but ‘Whip It’ certainly did that and chucked the group in there as unceremoniously as a stepfather trying to bond with his stepkid.
Helped in no small part by the song’s video, which included cowboys, whips and mashed potatoes — as well as Devo being, well, Devo — the song is not about masturbation or sadomasochism as suspected, instead it reflects on the plight of humankind and the struggles of the common man.
1. ‘Jocko Homo’
It seems fitting that the song considered the band’s best should also come from their first-ever release. But in true Devo style, non-conforming giants as they are, the song was released as the b-side, the obscurity, the rarity — Devo’s best.
The song, after its release with ‘Mongoloid’ in the spring of 1977, soon became the band’s unofficial anthem. Least of all because it clearly and eloquently spelt out their values, morals and ethics as a band for all to see in under three minutes.
The song’s concept derives from B.H. Shadduck’s anti-evolution work ‘Jocko-Home Heavenbound’, a deliberately tongue-in-cheek viewpoint on the “arbitrary nature of the laws of evolution.” With it, the band announced themselves to the world as “the band of the future.”