The little-known city of Akron – self-proclaimed “Rubber Capital of the World” – had a musical moment in 1977. In fact Ohio had a bit of a moment, if you include Cleveland. Devo were Akron’s biggest export.
In that punk era, the latter brought us The Dead Boys and Pere Ubu (and their progenitors, Rockets From The Tombs); Akron gave us Chrissie Hynde, Rachel Sweet, Jane Aire and Devo – one of the strangest bands to emerge from the punk and New Wave scene.
So, in a way, did the Kent State massacre of 1970: the tragedy encouraged one of the students, Gerald Casale, to form a band with his friend Mark Mothersbaugh, to pursue his interest in devolution, or “de-evolution.”
Devo comprised two sets of brothers: the Mothersbaughs (Mark and Bob, and for a while a third brother, Jim) and the Casales (Gerald and Bob) with a drummer called Alan Myers.
They first came to attention in 1975 when two of their songs, Secret Agent Man and Jocko Homo, appeared in a prize-winning documentary, The Truth About De-Evolution, which was seen and championed by David Bowie.
In March 1977 they released this, their first single Mongoloid, backed by Jocko Homo, on the local Booji Boys label, and it was picked up by Stiff for UK release.
With its motorik beat and synths, it’s not a natural fit for punk, yet it fitted in with the alternative sounds of the advancing New Wave.
Of course today we don’t call people with Down Syndrome “mongoloids” (or “mongols”) but it’s important to say that the song doesn’t disparage them in any way – it’s about a guy whose disability goes unnoticed: “He had a job, and he brought home the bacon, so that no one knew… No one even cared.”
Or, as Devo marketed the promo video, made by experimental film-maker Bruce Conner: “A documentary film exploring the manner in which a determined young man overcame a basic mental defect and became a useful member of society.”
One of the first music videos to use collage, it combines sci-fi clips with 1950s TV ads, science docs and animation. Sci-fi buffs might spot the scene from It Came From Outer Space.
Insightful editing techniques reveal “the dreams, ideals and problems that face a large segment of the American male population,” making it as educational as it was entertaining.
Devo would re-record Mongoloid for their Eno-produced debut album: Q: Are We Not Men? A: We Are Devo! but it was not a patch on this orginal, which begins at 3:40 in the clip below.