It's likely that most people who were around in the late 1970s and early 1980s remember the band Devo as little more than a New Wave novelty act, a quirky band whose videos showed them wearing strange headgear and whipping the clothes off women in barnyard settings (I'm sure we've all seen the video for "Whip It" at some point in our lives). But Devo was way deeper than that. Hailing from Akron, Ohio, a blue collar city wrecked by the decline of the U.S. auto industry, these art-damaged kids offered the world an unsettling post-industrial vision of dysfunctionality and regression they called "de-evolution" - hence the name Devo. In songs like "Jocko Homo" and "Secret Agent Man," they looked into the abyss of late '70s disintegration and decay - and saw their hometown looking back at them.
The world that Devo made drew from two sources: sci-fi schlock and the social and economic decay they observed all around them. As Cowie explains:
For Devo, the common horde of their hometown, Akron, resembled the evolutionary disasters of the Island of the Lost Souls. “Those mutants were [bleeped] with,” the band explained. “They looked like people from Akron.” By the 1970s, the city’s decline had given it a “hellish, depressing patina” and the people’s “spirits were depressed; they were desperate…In other words, they were just ready to go over the edge at any moment.” The shuttered landscape, where the tire industry’s glory days once meant sweeping up black rubber dust from townspeople’s front porches, served as the backdrop to their innovative video creations. The scene fit “in with the early twentieth-century art movements—Expressionism, Dada and others that were influenced by those kinds of environments in Germany and England,” explained band member Jerry Casale. “We had our very own backyard version of it. A rubber version.”
Yet buried in the city’s growing rubble was a completely different history: that of Akron’s role as the birthplace of the working-class hero. There, in the midst of the Great Depression, dramatic sit down strikes, mass pickets, and guerrilla warfare against the rubber tire magnates of the 1930s made the tirebuilders “the first to fight their way to freedom,” in the words of one chronicler at the time. The Akron workers’ struggles blazed the path for the rest of industrial America to join the leap forward in labor organizing and then the blue-collar prosperity of the postwar golden age."
By the 1970s, Devo could find no traces of such working-class nobility—just militancy regressing to corporate stasis, blue collar fading to grey, “Solidarity Forever” disappearing into the “Devo Corporate Anthem.” Working-class activism spawned consumerism, and consumption generated apathy. Industrial and consumer cultures turned out to be as vacuous as the empty tire factories and boarded-up buildings of their hometown. “Look we are spuds,” explained one of the band members. “We’re very average looking, normal gene pool. In Akron, it’s the Goodyear Museum and the Soapbox Derby and McDonald’s and women in hair rollers beating their kids in supermarkets. We were products of it and used it.” The band neither criticized nor shied away from the socio-economic failures of the seventies; instead, they took it as fact, and embraced the decline.