The Wire

In Writing

Read an extract from Strange Stars by Jason Heller

May 2018

An extract from award winning author's book about the relationship between pop music and science fiction, Strange Stars: David Bowie, Pop Music, And The Decade Sci-Fi Exploded

Hit By Space Junk: 1978

“There's one band that I can mention. I like them very much indeed,” David Bowie said in early 1978 when asked if he was fishing around for any new collaborators. “They’re an unrecorded band in America called Devo. I’ve been listening to them for a long time since they sent me their tapes, and I hope if I have the time at the end of the year to record them.”

Bowie was already busy enough without taking a new, unknown group under his wing. He was in the midst of making his second feature film as the star attraction, the ill-fated World War I period piece Just A Gigolo. He didn’t release an album in 1978, but he had just come off the frenzy of activity with Eno that had yielded Low and “Heroes”. Basking in the buzz of a revitalized career, both critically and commercially, he had pushed pop music to the bleeding edge of emerging technology and avant-garde futurism and not only survived, but thrived.

No wonder he noticed kindred spirits in Devo. The group came together in 1973 around core members Gerald Casale and Mark Mothersbaugh, former students at Kent State University in Ohio; both had been protesting the Vietnam War on the morning of May 4, 1970, when the National Guard opened fire and killed four young demonstrators. Soured on the peace-and-love ideal, Mothersbaugh began playing in a prog cover band that specialized in the sci-fi rock of Yes and Emerson, Lake & Palmer. “He had long hair down to his waist and a stack of keyboards,” Casale recalled.

Devo, though, were a sharp departure from that. Rather than luxuriate in the ornate arrangements and pomp of prog, Devo forged a kind of future primitivism. Picking through pop culture like postapocalyptic scavengers in a junkyard, they cobbled together electronic equipment and a rudimentary palette of inhuman sounds. Mothersbaugh’s brothers, Jim and Bob – as well as Casale’s brother, also named Bob – soon joined, turning the band into a clannish kind of experimental hive. Jim soon left to become an inventor; before he did, he created his own electronic drum kit with pieces of an acoustic set, guitar pickups, and effects pedals. “It sounded really amazing, like a walking, broken-down robot,” Mothersbaugh said.

“You must use technology or else it uses you,” vowed an unspecified member of the band in a 1978 profile. They were interviewed collectively, as if plugged into a single brain. “It’s a hippie, kind of asshole mentality to be afraid of technology as if it’s some kind of separate entity. You see, technology allows you to be more primitive.” As Casale summed up, “We wanted to make outer-space caveman music” – paralleling David Brock’s claim that he wanted his role in Hawkwind to be that of “a barbarian with the machines.” But unlike Hawkwind – admired by Michael Moorcock for being neither self-conscious nor pseudo-intellectual – Devo were acutely and conceptually aware. They drew from the reality-warping sci-fi of William S. Burroughs and Philip K. Dick and coined a loose theory dubbed de-evolution. According to the theory, humanity had reached the pinnacle of its possible evolution; from there, it was all downhill. But unlike the hordes of sci-fi alarmists in pop music throughout the decade, Devo didn’t flinch in the face of humankind’s catastrophic decline in the technological age. With bleak humor, they cheered it on – and sought to be its personification.

Strange Stars was reviewed by Joseph Stannard in The Wire 412. Subscribers can read the review via Exact Editions. It'll be published by Melville House next month.

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