I was in that big Victorian pub opposite the big Victorian Free Trade Hall in Manchester. The F.T.H.was built to commemorate the repeal of the Corn Laws in 1846 on the site of the Peterloo massacre, a landmark event in British radicalism when a meeting to protest economic conditions & a lack of political representation was charged by cavalry leaving 15 dead & many more injured. I’m still fascinated by the social & economic history of my country. Why not ? It’s where I live. Manchester, “Cottonopolis”, the crucible of Industrial Revolution, was brimful of the stuff (ask Freidrich Engels, “The Condition of the Working Class in England” ,1844). On the 4th of December 1978 the mills were no longer dark & satanic, the grimy city centre not yet gentrified (the F.T.H. is now a hotel). Still no matter because tonight we were off to see a leading group of American art-punk rockers do their thing.
It was sure to be a good night out. I was out with Wink, my closest friend from my school days in a town 90 miles to the East. We saw less of each other when we had made like bananas & split for different colleges 7 years earlier. I was in Manchester for a work thing, in a pub (another one) before a football match when I chanced into the person with whom I had shared teenage passions & problems. Our respective crews, unaware of the significance of this moment of Providence, were confused. Man, it was good to see him & to be back in touch.
The band we were going to see, Devo, were known to wear a uniform of yellow radiation suits. I made a pre-gig visit to the little boys’ room & while shaking hands with the unemployed a similarly dressed young aficionado struggled with his coverall’s fastenings. Our eye’s met, mine with a glint of sympathy. In a deadpan, resigned Bolton accent he sighed “Ee, ah wish ah’d never fooking bothered !”. Brilliant, D.H. Lawrence should have been there. I love being from the North of England !
In 1977 David Bowie called them “the band of the future” & 1978 had been a good year for Devo. Stiff Records curated their early songs into a 6 track EP. A flurry of re-release & re-packaging “Jocko Homo”, an individual introduction to the band, & “Satisfaction”, a jerky attack on the Stones’ classic, both supported by memorable videos, caught our attention. Britain is a small place which back then supported 3 music weeklies. Devo could talk the talk & they became a favourite of “the Inkies” (please wash your hands) who loved shiny new things. In March, after an appearance on local TV, they played the Free Trade Hall supporting local purveyors of quality rock parody Alberto y Los Trios Paranoias. Now, 8 months later, with a debut LP produced by pop’s Dr Manhattan, Brian Eno, Devo could sell out this big hall on their own.
The members of Devo met at Kent State University Ohio, in 1970 the setting for one of America’s own political massacres. The killing of 4 students by the National Guard greatly affected the group’s founders Jerry Casale & Mark Mothersbaugh. By the time they were ready to move out of Ohio their brothers, both called Bob, had joined them & the theory of De-Evolution was being run up the flagpole to see who saluted. Now, I’m down with evolution, of course I am, it’s just that I don’t think that we are too far away from the tree we fell out of. Humans are still staggering around holding their heads yelling “Ow! The affectation & conceit of progress & culture is pointless, often dangerous &, thankfully, always hilarious. De-evolution is an idea that we have passed Peak Humanity & are becoming bestial idiots (Jocko Homo). Hey, I never thought we were anything more but go ahead, I’m listening.
After some decent pub-rock pretending to be decent punk rock by the Members (“Sound of the Suburbs”) the lights dimmed but the band did not immediately appear. In their place the videos for the 3 singles were shown on a big screen. This was, at first, a little confusing. We had paid our hard-earned to hear these songs played live & surely that thing would be happening in the next hour or so.It was a smart move, By the time Devo walked onstage the audience had been whipped from a froth to a frenzy. This overload of teenage testosterone down the front surprised me. I didn’t know that this band was this popular & inspired such abandon. This was how I imagined a head-banging metal crowd might be like but hey ho, let’s go, it’s all good. We were with the older guys (who, as you know, get the ladies with the style) sitting comfortably on the balcony
Devo surfed the energy wave & delivered a great rock & roll set. “Q:Are We Not Men ? A:We Are Devo !” has more than the 3 singles going for it. The band, jerkily caroming around the stage, delivered these & more. The giddy, urgent “Gut Feeling” did it for me then & still does it now. I was expecting something a little more conceptual & got high energy, dynamic, even traditional, loud, live music. Y’know…Fuck Art, Let’s Dance.
Ah, “Come Back Jonee”, the final 45 release of 1978. A hectic, lovely, whirling clatter. After years of buying LP records we started a new collection of irresistible 7″ singles, mostly punk & reggae, in a variety of colours & shapes. This was one of them. Sometime around Xmas our gang was selecting their own records of the year. It helped to prevent the blur of time passing &, as you know, some of us do like a list. It was the year of “What Do I Get”, “Because The Night”, “Jilted John” & 250 other contenders but the woman lucky enough to be my wife selected “Come Back Jonee” as #1 in her heart for 1978. She is a woman with unrivalled taste, she married me for Jah’s sake.
The gig ended with the stage covered by a polythene sheet, Booji Boy, a masked Mark Mothersbaugh, emerging through a hole to entertain us. The child crooner is idiosyncratic & weird, both good things & perhaps what I had expected in a Devo show. The band had enough stage smarts to know that this funny B-Boy would be a real buzz kill anywhere else in the set. This gig was all about exuberance, satire would have to wait its turn.
There were 5 more LPs (without Eno) in the next decade. In 1980 “Whip It”, a motorik electro-disco hit, supported by a video on heavy MTV rotation, became their biggest commercial success. I’m not the guy to tell you about these records I was not listening so much. Go find a Spud Boy, a member of the Devo Army, to tell you how good this music is. Devo kept on keeping on but the passing of Bob Casale earlier this year is a major loss. I watched 2 movies last weekend & Mark Mothersbaugh was involved with the music for both of them. He is all over Hollywood now.
All I know is that Devo played some fine punky American music that rocked the Free Trade Hall that night. As we descend into another, lower, Chamber of Hell on Earth (& Israel, you are really not helping now & you never have helped), as our knuckles start to drag on the ground, that’s the best you can hope for on a night out in Manchester.