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Week 95 | Devo’s “Q: Are We Not Men?” (1978)

I’ve recently been reading a compilation of interviews with David Bowie called, “Bowie on Bowie,” and learned something I didn’t know:  Bowie co-produced Devo’s first album, “Are We Not Men.”  Actually, it was Bowie and Brian Eno, and they did this in 1978, right in the middle of Bowie and Eno’s collaboration known as the Berlin Trilogy.  This was also around the time that Bowie worked with Iggy Pop on “The Idiot” and “Lust for Life.”

Through the magic of YouTube, I listened to “Q: Are We Not Men?” for the first time.  Unlike Iggy’s two, iconic records, this one doesn’t sound like Bowie was involved.  Fortunately, the album is very listenable and Devo, at least on this album, does not sound as much like a novelty band as I had thought it to be.

Devo certainly seems to try hard to come off as a novelty band.  I saw a somewhat recent picture of the band performing, still wearing their satirical futuristic costumes.  The song I think of when I think of the band is, of course, ‘Whip It,” which isn’t on this album. While catchy, and ubiquitous in the early days of MTV, its borderline Dr. Demento material.  

“Q: Are We Not Men?” reminds me that I actually recognized two additional Devo songs, which are on the album, including the band’s rendition of “Satisfaction.”  The Rolling Stones’ version of “Satisfaction” is possibly the representative sample of a rock song, but Devo’s version is probably the worst on the album.  It kind of reminds me of Bowie’s version of, “Let’s Spend the Night Together,” on “Aladdin Sane,” that its a Stones song that the Stones did better.  Anyway, “Satisfaction” sounds like a parody, reinforcing the novelty-act image.

The other recognizable song is called, “Jocko Homo,” though I didn’t know it was called that.  The refrain is, “Are we not men? We are Devo!” Since I probably haven’t heard the song since the Reagan Administration, that’s all I remembered, but its not a bad song.  

Overall, the album reminded me more of the Cure from around that time than Bowie.  Despite the all-star producers, the album sounds minimalist in its production.  More like a garage band than anything.  But the songs are melodic and fast paced.  The listening   experience passes too quickly to become boring.  

Did I say the Cure? Actually the two more obviously similar bands are Talking Heads and the B-52s.  Devo’s singers, the Mothersbaugh brothers, have a sound that while distinct,  is somewhat  similar to that of David Byrne and the B-52s’ Fred Schneider.  But while all three bands had a sense of humor, Devo seems to be more ostentatiously comedic.  

Is this a Bowie album?  Eh, no, not really.  Some of the albums he produced for others, notably the two previously mentioned Iggy Pop albums, as well as Mott the Hoople’s “All the Young Dudes,” and Lou Reed’s “Transformer,” bear distinct Bowie undertones.  Not so in this case.  

Still, “Q: Are We Not Men?” seems to portend an 80s sound two years before the decade began and thus was innovative for the time and belongs in the constellation of extremely influential works that Bowie had a hand in creating.  When, by 1980, Bowie would sing the lines, “Same old thing in brand new drag comes sweeping into view,” in “Teenage Wildlife,” I think he had in mind bands that were imitating sounds that acts like Devo, along with Bowie himself, etc. were initiating a few years earlier.  

So, I’ll count this as a nifty discovery and one that belongs in this compilation.

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