Kids, there was a true Golden Age twenty or thirty years ago when your biggest commercial asset as a musician was to be the sort of person who, in high school, spent a lot of time yelling “Hey! Quit it! This isn’t funny, guys!!!” at burly upperclassmen, to little or no effect. It was a era when your big stars were your Ric Ocaseks, your David Byrnes, your Thomas Dolbys, and your L. Ron Costellos.
Was there a time before or since when Devo could have hit it so big? Their flashy act was tailor-made for MTV, but I have to remind myself that the band formed during the Nixon administration. It’s tough enough just to imagine what they must have sounded like in 1973, when electronic instruments consisted of just the Theremin, and pocket calculators with poorly-grounded cathode displays.
A proper Devo song will follow the basic blueprint demonstrated by “Big Mess.” It’s tricky to explain the signature style of a band using just words. I suppose the best way for me to describe it is to say “If you can’t imagine a music video for this song in which someone’s running in place in front of a bluescreen, it isn’t really a Devo song.”
The fine men and women of Hulu have endeavored to preserve the 1980’s Devo Experience, in the form of their guest spot on the 80’s superhit teen sitcom “Square Pegs.” I know you’re sick to death of seeing the nonstop reruns of this show in syndication…but give it a look anyway:
As with all TV sitcoms that are set in a high school, the middle-aged men and women of the network at that time perfectly replicated what teenage culture was like. The Mayor of Television would have put his foot down if they hadn’t done a careful job of it.
The clip reminds me of how different schools are today. “Big Mess” was one of my favorite songs back in school. I try to imagine what would happen if a teacher or principal today were walking through the halls and overheard a student humming these lyrics:
I’m a man with a mission
A boy with a gun
I’ve got a picture in my pocket of the lucky one
Who doesn’t know
I’m a big mess
I mean a really big mess
…Yeah, that kid would probably get to see his family and daylight again in about forty years.
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