"The First DEVO Concert"
by Gerald V. Casale
At Kent State University’s 1973 Creative Arts Festival, we were the “Sextet Devo.” Why was it a sextet? Because my college student best friend and early Devo collaborator, Bob Lewis, was insistent that I couldn’t sing. He convinced us that having a crooning signer — who had sung with the James Gang (Joe Walsh) and with The Measles, a locally popular cover band — was the way to go. I didn’t buy it, and I was personally offended that he said I “couldn’t sing.”
But there was a more important and subversive reason for going along with the ploy. It allowed us the “Sextet” billing to qualify for a pretentiously curated arts festival, sponsored yearly by the university gatekeepers. Clearly “Sextet Devo” was “art,” and not Rock N Roll. So we slipped in with a vote from Dr. Robert Bertholf, a tenured English Literature professor (and all around cool, brainiac guy), who was sympathetic to our cause. And that cause — starting then — was spreading The Gospel Of Devolution.
Our setlist was eclectic, to say the least, and ample evidence that Lewis and I had spent way too much time philosophizing — and convincing Mark Mothersbaugh of the merits of the De-evolution trope — and way too little time with songwriting.
On April 18th, 1973, our line-up was my brother Bob Casale and Bob Lewis on guitars, myself on bass guitar and vocals (I prevailed and sang “Sun Come Up, Moon Go Down”), Fred Weber on lead vocals/tambourine, drummer Rod Reisman, and Mark Mothersbaugh as keyboardist.
The video that my good friend and colleague, Chuck Statler, shot that night to document our nascent performance is interesting in the same way that the recently surfaced news footage of 11-year-old Prince supporting the teacher’s strike in Minneapolis is interesting. Looking back, it is important historical evidence of… something.
In front of an audience of 20 or so students, seated in a small auditorium and curious enough to check us out, we slugged through mid-tempo experimentation on songs like “Wiggle Worm,” “What Goes Up Must Come Down” (a relatively lively blues stomp by comparison), and a folk-rock indulgence titled “River Run” that showcased Bob Lewis’s country-folk leanings.
All of that followed after Mark had played a solo keyboard warmup intro while the meager audience trickled in. He plunked out tunes like “Here Comes Peter Cottontail,” and “Mr. Jingeling” which was a Northeast Ohio advertising jingle for Halle's department stores. (Their mascot character, named Mr. Jingeling, was a grotesque man in a Christmas elf-type suit who went from store to store enticing kids to come in with their parents to buy, buy, buy!)
The preamble that Mark provided was an excellent example of what we called “Low Devo.” But for me, the rest of that set doesn’t matter much, in retrospect. However, at age 24, it did provide a painful lesson on an artist’s learning curve.
What did I learn?
(A) Sing your own songs.
(B) Don’t let others discourage you with doubt and fear.
(C) Practice, do more, and talk less.
The real highlight, though — given our critique of technology and of conformity culture — was classic Devo perfection. Mark’s Minimoog malfunctioned, and it was stuck in a loop of sine wave noise that swooped up in pitch like a warning alarm in a nuclear plant. He could only flip a switch and make it swoop down. And boy, that’s what he did for what seemed like an eternity, while we stood and watched. He kept putting his hand to his forehead, as if confused, and in pain. (Oh, did I mention that Mark was wearing a full-head chimpanzee mask for the entire set to hide his identity?)
As the “Dada” aspect of Mark’s broken synthesizer disaster began to fatigue the audience, the other performers walked off stage and into the wings. But Mark and I refused to leave. Because our set wasn’t finished. And I can be heard in Statler’s video, yelling to a stage hand, “Hey! Go Get Those Guys!”
Mark’s improvised “Headache Solo" was Devolved genius, and the thing that still resonates with validity nearly half a century later.
P.S. Witness historic video clip here:
P.P.S. Today, Bob Lewis admits: “The only reason for having Fred Weber was he was a ‘professional’ singer who fronted the Measles and sang with Walsh and the James Gang on occasion. In retrospect, an aberration.”
NOTE: Gerald V. Casale in the yellow plastic raincoat in image at top of page.