Voting for the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, class of ‘22, is well underway and, not for the first time, art-punk pioneer Devo is in the running. The competition is stiff; Dolly Parton may have removed herself from the running (which was sweet but unnecessary), but a strong case can be made for the inclusion of everyone else. Like Devo, early punks the MC5 and New York Dolls have been nominated on multiple occasions and really should be in there.
So who knows what will happen? For founding Devo member Mark Mothersbaugh, the third nomination has him feeling tickled.
“I get a lot worse phone calls with things that are going to happen in my life than that—that’s for sure,” he says. “So I think it’s kinda nice. The Rock & Roll Hall of Fame has a pretty wide policy. Dolly didn’t feel right to be in there, but I think she’s as important as anybody else. I think I would actually be much more receptive to putting 20 people in every year instead of just 10. There’s enough out there.”
There really is. Debates rage year after year about which bands should be inducted first, which bands are or aren’t “rock & roll” (a nonsensical argument, by the way), basically who is more deserving. Essentially, it’s all subjective.
“I think a lot of what makes most bands important in the first place is kids that are at this age where they realize Santa’s not real and they question all sorts of things,” Mothersbaugh says. “They come into a world that they don’t understand, and one of the only things that gives you some sort of comfort is music. The reality is, we have people come up to us at Devo shows and tell us we saved their lives. ‘I thought the world was totally insane and made no sense, and then I found you guys and I realized I was correct—that helped.’ That can be any band for any person. It can be any kind of music. So I think we’re as appropriate as anyone.”
Maybe more appropriate than some, given the subject matter that they’ve covered since the beginning. Devo is often dismissed as a zany band—silly clothes and sillier lyrics. In fact, it’s always had its manifesto.
“We decided at the very beginning of Devo that we wanted to address something that was bothering us,” Mothersbaugh says. “That was, why humans behaved the way they do on this planet. When I was 19, I read this book called The Population Bomb, and basically the guy just said ‘do the math.’ Humans will have eaten and consumed everything on the planet by the year 2050 at the rate the population is expanding. He said that most likely, Earth will strike back with a virus and probably eliminate the human race. We’re kind of at that place. It’s the kind of thing that people should talk about. Jerry found a book called In the Beginning Was the End. He was a crackpot Yugoslavian anthropologist, but we liked the idea that he was questioning whether humans were even sane. We might be the only unnatural species on the planet and out of touch with nature. Nature was in danger of us. We liked that as a concept.”
So here we are, approaching half a century since Devo formed. Whether Devo gets into the Hall of Fame or not, its legacy is secure. Devo hasn’t released a new album for 12 years (2010’s Something for Everybody), but it remains an important and enigmatic group.
“I think we still stand for what we always stood for,” says Mothersbaugh. “The manifesto wasn’t like something we were shaking in people’s faces. We really felt like, the way you change things in this world was not through rebellion. They shot over 30 kids in my school and killed a bunch, when we were protesting the war in Vietnam. That seemed like a capricious thing to be shooting people for. So who does change things? We came to the conclusion it was Madison Avenue, and although we didn’t like the things they were selling necessarily, we did like their techniques which was mostly subversion. We thought, what could be more subversive than for us to get a record deal with a label. That’s what brought us out to California.”
A new album, by the way, isn’t outside the realm of possibility. It’s all about timing.
“I have all the Devo recordings through the years,” Mothersbaugh says. “I have a writing studio—it’s a round, green, spaceship-shaped building on the Sunset Strip not too far from the Whisky, and Tower Records. I have all these tapes downstairs of things we recorded that we never did anything with. So besides writing new stuff, which would be easy—I write music every day—it would be easy to do Devo again. So you never know, it could happen.”
We’ll have to wait and see. Mothersbaugh is keeping busy with his visual art, although he was hampered by catching COVID and then suffering a bizarre eye injury.
“I got COVID in June, I think, of 2020,” he says. “I was working on two movies and a video game. I was so tired, and thought I must be working too hard. But I had COVID for about a week before somebody said I was 105 on my thermometer and I should call an ambulance. I was in ICU at a time where I watched them running people in and out of ambulances and then I watched them taking people out with their faces covered in the other direction in the same hallway. It was a trip. Somewhere early on where I was there, I got hit in the eye. I don’t know how it happened, but it basically made it explode. It never really healed, I’m blind in one eye.”
A horrible situation. Mothersbaugh did at least use the recovery time wisely and was able to write a lot of new material. The man never stops creating, either for Devo or for his visual art. We finish the interview by asking him how he’ll celebrate getting into the Hall of Fame, if Devo does make the final cut.
“There’s a parking lot right next door—I will go and ask if I can buy one parking space and own it,” he says. “Ohio has really lax burial laws—this is the truth. In Ohio, you can basically bury your grandma in your backyard and grandpa in the front yard if you want. I’ll keep that space open for anybody who ever played in Devo. They can all get buried in that one space next to the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame.”
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