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Devo
Scanners
Shepherd's Bush Empire, London
Tuesday June 26 2007

 

The janitors of the apocalypse are back, and this time they're really going to clean up.

It's alarming to think that it is now over 30 years since Devo first formed as a student art project in 1973. That witty, weird little art project - in the early days more or less a series of conceptual pranks with a suitably whacko musical backing - grew into one of the quintessential new wave bands of the late 70s and early 80s. Championed by art-rock aficionados such as Brian Eno and David Bowie, Devo became unlikely stars of the burgeoning post-punk scene. Their concept - that western culture is regressing (or de-evolving, as the band would have it) back to an infantile state - gave Devo more substance than many of the weird-for-the-sake-of-it bands that came out of punk and its aftermath. Meanwhile, their meticulously contrived visuals - Devo would typically dress up in cartoonish, futuristic uniforms, like a squad of space cadets on clean-up detail - gave the band a defiantly un-rock 'n' roll image that struck a chord with new wave nerds everywhere.

But as the 80s turned into the 90s and conventional guitar rock staged a resurgence, Devo began to look uncomfortably like a novelty band that had stuck around just long enough for the novelty to wear off. With the likes of U2 and Oasis in their pomp, Devo's scratchy, nervy, weird-kids-in-the-bedroom sound and deliberately artificial image seemed utterly out of place. Although Devo never irrevocably split up, they certainly put the brakes on. Recent years have seen lengthy Devo-free periods as the Scannersvarious members of the band struck off on other tangents. The prospect of a full-scale Devo comeback seemed impossibly remote. And yet, here they are, back on the tour circuit like they've never been away. A venue packed with enthusiastic fans, many wearing Devo-trademark energy dome hats (a frightening eighteen quid from the merch stall - one thing that has certainly changed over the years is the cost of the souvenirs) awaits the appearance of their unlikely heroes.

It can't be easy, being the support band at a gig like this, where everyone in the audience is entirely focused on the soon-come headliners. But Scanners go at their brief slot with quiet confidence, which is singularly at odds with the assertive volume of their music. They're a self-effacing bunch of indie types to look at, but don't let that fool you. They've got noise in their blood. They push things to peaks which must bend the needles in the VU meters on the mixing desk into all manner of strange shapes. Listen to the ebb and flow: they'll take things down to a deceptive croon, and then flatten the loud pedal to the floor as it all takes off again, in a swirl of almost psychedelic sound. I'm sure I'm not the only person in the audience who's thinking 'My Bloody Valentine', but I'm also sure I'm not the only person thinking, 'Hmmm. This lot are a bit good.' I think the band would probably reach maximum velocity (and maximum decibels, too) in a smaller venue, which would compress their sound to greater intensity, but they're certainly building up a good head of pressure here.

A short film presages the entrance of Devo themselves. We're instructed on the correct manner in which to absorb our Devo-info; we're treated to some archive footage of Devo looking chiselled and stern. Devo in real life, it must be said, do not look quite as chiselled and stern as their vintage image. The passing years have transformed the youthful cosmonauts of the 80s into middle-aged mad professors, marching on stage in yellow jump suits, as if they've been interrupted in the course of Devosome weird chemical experiment...or at least clearing up after it splattered the lab with flourescent gunge. And then - Kapow! - they're off, jerking about like there are tin tacks on the stage, as the beat drops like tin cans off a shelf, and the keyboards fizz and jitter. Lead vocalist Mark Mothersbaugh, presiding over the hoopla with an avuncular air, somehow manages to retain a certain authority - no mean feat given that he's wearing comedy spectacles and a plastic flower pot on his head. But then, that was always part of Devo's weird genius: they can persuade even the most rational individuals to suspend their sense of the absurd.

The musical choices favour Devo's early ouevre. The band have ruthlessly pruned the set down to a selection of old-skool classics. 'Peek-a-Boo', 'Girl U Want', 'Whip It', and even the band's ancient cover of the even more ancient 'Satisfaction' are rolled out early doors, setting the scene for a night which, while never quite turning into a nostalgia show, nevertheless looks over its shoulder at past glories far more than it looks ahead. But there's no doubt that the band have put geat effort into creating a real show. Every on-stage move is choreographed to the nth degree; every song has its own herky-jerky dance routine, or neat-o bit of visual business.

As 'Uncontrollabe Urge' surges forth, Mark Mothersbaugh accosts his colleagues. In a suitably counter-intuitive contolled manner he rips off their yellow jump suits - to reveal that Devo, for reasons known only to themselves, have dressed as football referees underneath. Then it's a full-on clatter into 'Mongoloid', a song which would probably be considered shockingly un-pc if it was written today, even though it makes an entirely positive point. Maybe that's a bit of de-evolution right there. 'Jocko Homo' and 'Gut Feeling' are twin-barrelled bug-eyed monsters, easily as dynamic as they were in ye olden days. Finally, just to wrong-foot us all, Devo eschew the conventional big finish in favour of bringing on Booji Boy - Devo's dysfunctional kid brother, played by Mark Motherbaugh in a mash-up of papier mache - for the oddly affecting lament of 'Beautiful World'.

Notwithstanding the oldie-heavy selection of songs tonight - even the latter-day hit 'Through Being Cool' didn't get an airing - it seems Devo are back in business. There's even talk of a new album, so maybe this gig marks the start of something, rather than an entertaining look back at the Devoachievements of the past. And if it seems a little odd that a bunch of middle-aged men should once more don strange costumes to sing strange songs about where humanity is going wrong - well, perhaps we need to be told. As bassist Gerry Casale remarks, 'How many of you believe that de-evolution is real? You don't have to look very far for evidence!'

Perhaps Devo will have the last laugh yet. Maybe the de-evolutionists will end up being the only ones making progress as the world at large slips backwards. Me, I'm with the weirdos. Forward, Devo!

 

Essential links:

Devo: Website | MySpace
Scanners: Website | MySpace

For more photos from this gig,
find the bands by name here.

 

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