“They found different ways of getting under people’s skin,” said Martyn Ware, a founding member of the English electropop bands Human League and Heaven 17; he first saw Devo in the late 1970s. “The artiness of it all, this idea of the interaction with film and presenting yourself as almost Dadaist, was something that just completely entranced us. It felt more like a Futurist manifesto than a rock band. And with de-evolution, there’s a little bit of Nostradamus there too.”
Devo’s third album, “Freedom of Choice,” had Robert Margouleff, who had worked with Stevie Wonder, as associate producer. It brought out enough of a groove in the songs to yield a hit with “Whip It.” For Devo, that was a decidedly mixed blessing.
Suddenly, its record company was paying attention. “When it finally was a hit, they were like, ‘Do another “Whip It”! Do another “Whip It”!,’” Casale recalled. “We couldn’t even imagine how to do that. We moved on. We were using different equipment, having different ideas, talking about different things, and we were incapable of making another ‘Whip It.’”
Record-company pressures, self-consciousness and the temptations of new technology took a toll on Devo’s later albums. “Something went off the rails,” Casale said bluntly. “It got very intricate, very busy, with too many little sounds. So it started just sounding like ditties, trinkets and children’s music. Devo was always, like, humans playing like machines. Now suddenly it was machine music for real. So the interesting part of Devo — playing tightly like robots but really doing it — was buried.
“Toys do run away with you,” he added. “We always cautioned about that, but there we were, including ourselves in the equation. We did say, ‘We’re all Devo.’ We didn’t exempt ourselves, and we proved it.”
By the late 1980s, Devo’s principals were building their other careers, and after the 1990 album “Smooth Noodle Maps,” Devo didn’t make another studio album for 20 years. Casale was directing while amassing songs he’d eventually record as Jihad Jerry and the Evildoers. Mothersbaugh had taken on the prodigious job of scoring “Pee-wee’s Playhouse,” composing for an entire show every week; it was the beginning of his prolific career writing soundtrack music. He’s had enough unused material from films to release full-length instrumental albums like the 2021 “Mutant Flora,” which began as additional music for “Thor: Ragnarok.”