Devo is one of the truly great cult bands of our times and it’s impossible to imagine anyone but Mark Mothersbaugh being the vocalist in the iconic group or donning the Booji Boy get up. But there was a brief moment when Johnny Rotten, AKA John Lydon the frontman of the Sex Pistols, was almost appointed their leader instead.
The Ohio band had been together since 1973 and had admired from afar what the Sex Pistols had helped create in the UK. The band’s anti-authoritarian ethos and DIY attitude had seen them become inspirational figures to Devo. What they didn’t know at the time was that Johnny Rotten admired them greatly as well.
They wouldn’t release their debut record until the summer of 1978 and had various label executives sniffing around them before they did so, including none other than Mr Richard Branson from Virgin Records. The notorious mogul had of course been the Sex Pistols label boss and, having seen the huge impact they had landed with, he was looking for a new venture for Johnny Rotten that he could monetise.
Whilst he looked for a new project for Rotten, the Virgin Records boss sent the punk icon out to Jamaica with him to scout for exciting reggae musicians, a growing market in Britain, and he then cunningly flew out Devo to try to convince the band to replace Mothersbaugh with the now-uber-famous former Sex Pistols man.
“Richard Branson called me up in Akron in the winter of 1978 and said, ‘Hey, you wanna come down to Jamaica?’ And I looked out the window and said to myself, ‘Well, it’s snowing about thirty inches here. Sure, I’ll come down to Jamaica.’ So he flew Bob Casale and I down there to meet him and Ken Berry,” Mothersbaugh said about the trip in Marc Spitz and Brendan Mullen’s We Got the Neutron Bomb: The Untold Story of L.A. Punk.
It’s safe to say the Jamaican greenery took its effect on the Devo men, “Branson is rolling these gigantic joints on a newspaper and we’re used to being in Akron where you get enough to make a paper-thin joint,” the singer noted about the eye-opening and perhaps mind-expanding experience.
“Branson said, ‘I’ll tell you why you’re here. Johnny Rotten is down here at the hotel. He’s in the next room, and there are reporters downstairs from the New Musical Express, Sounds, and Melody Maker. I’d like to go down to the beach right now if you’re into this because Johnny Rotten wants to join your band and I want to announce to them that Johnny Rotten is the new lead singer for Devo’,” he continued.
The duo didn’t take Branson’s comments seriously because of how wildly stoned they were and burst out into a fit of uncontrollable laughter. “Regrettably, I didn’t just go, ‘Yeah, sounds great. Send him to Akron. He can do it for a week or two, just for the hell of it.’ It was a weird time for us,” Mothersbaugh added.
Seeing Johnny Rotten front Devo even if it was only for a show would have been a spectacle, to say the least, but with hindsight, things have definitely turned out for the best. The former Sex Pistol would go on to form Public Image Limited and Devo would become one of the all-time cult bands who are still tearing it up all these years later.