Devo’s first album ‘Q – Are We Not Men? A – We Are Devo’ was by all accounts a messy, protracted birth, brought about in no small way by casting Brian Eno as the midwife. Despite many moments of genius, Eno’s forté of making pedestrian bands interesting had never been more surplus to requirements, his demented charges rolling on the floor in bubble sacs and singing through surgical stockings. He’s probably still scraping the placenta off his ‘oblique strategy’ cards.
A mere year later however, and something had changed. 1979’s ‘Duty Now For the Future’ was an altogether sleeker affair. Who knows what warped self-imposed boot camp they’d been to but the transformation was stark. With ‘Ziggy Stardust’ producer Ken Scott at the helm, this second outing positively gleamed in comparison. It was a mission statement on every level, from the atom-age sleeve logo on the front to the graphic-design font orgy on the back. Sure, they were still gynecologically obsessed frat spuds, but on ‘Duty…’ they were literally “on duty”.
‘Devo Corporate Anthem’ opens things up and sets the scene, a patriotic hymn to their utopian vision, conjuring up images of saluting cosmonauts and billowing flags, but suddenly a frenetic drum roll of such metronomic precision that it could only be a machine or drummer Alan Myers (RIP), heralds the arrival of ‘Clockout’. It whooshes along at breakneck speed, sparse guitars and hydraulic synths propelling the engine, and that incredible recurring drum roll. “I’m afraid the future’s gonna be, maintenance free!” warbles Mark Mothersbaugh as sonic bleeps trill like production-line droids. ‘Timing X’ is a compact shimmering arpeggio, a precursor of the kind of ubiquitous ringtone we are so at ease with today that we barely register them anymore.
On ‘Wiggly World’ the guitars come out to play, but the raygun synths still dominate, vapourising imaginary aliens and all in their path, the drums again, precise, clean and echo-free. It’s a kind of controlled chaos, the wailing vocals reined and contained by the shiny futuristic backing.
‘Blockhead’ calms things down a little, a 5/4 descending groove with an intertwining synth line and hypnotic bleeping motif, before a curiously out of place rock ‘n roll guitar solo gives way to automaton chants of the song’s title. ‘Strange Pursuit’ is more of a regular pop song, albeit with vocoder vocals and sci-fi synth lines. It’s this embrace of electronic melodies and effects that defines this album. Earlier work was always synth-heavy (the Hardcore Devo releases of recordings as early as 1974 evidence this) but on ‘Duty…’ it feels like affordable technology collided with their experience, (honed on older unwieldy less predictable devices), resulting in a sheer unparalleled mastery of it.
‘Swelling Itching Brain’ closes side one, a nervous twitching amoeba in a petri dish, demonstrating that paranoia was still something they’d got too much of. ‘Triumph of the Will’ is another foray into cold-war Dr Strangelove territory, anthemic yet skewed, “Before I die, I’ll get another piece of pie”. What on earth were they on about?
‘The Day My Baby Gave Me a Surprise’ is a Twilight Zone tinged love song, hinting at tragic auto-crash disfigurement, yet couched in a joyous Beach Boys xylophone-driven surf stomp. ‘Pink Pussycat’ takes up the driving frantic pace once more, munchkin vocals counterpointing low rumbling “No No No No’s”. as a synthetic feline voice exclaims “I’m so stroft!” (a blend of strong and soft?)
Devo’s cover of ‘Satisfaction’ on their first album demonstrated their flair for re-working a tune, and here it’s the song ‘Secret Agent Man’ by Johnny Rivers that gets the treatment, originally written as theme-tune for the U.S. broadcast of ‘Danger Man’. Their version is a jerky, muscular workout, but still retaining the Duane Eddy twang, with a synth solo that’s part spaceship and part police siren.
‘Smart Patrol/Mr DNA’ is the album’s Magnum Opus. It’s simultaneously a statement of intent, describing themselves as “surburban robots to monitor reality”, and a nagging fear that their sonic avant-garde assault may be misconstrued – “I’m afraid that no-one around me comprehends my potato, I guess I’m just a spudboy looking for that real tomato.” Such concerns soon give way however to some frantic workouts and squiggly electronic spasms in its relentless part two.
The album closes with ‘Red Eye Express’, a chugging 4/4 locomotive charge; their ‘Trans Europe Express’, but more of a bullet train rattling through Idaho, leaving a cloud of desert dust in its trail.
Devo’s synthetic sound, plastic uniformity and “evolution in reverse” ideology, would go on to be developed and defined on the many albums that followed, but ‘Duty Now For the Future’ is where we first glimpsed what a tight conceptual unit they were, firing on all cylinders, with a bold, unique and shiny manifesto.