Tuesday, August 26, 2014
Devo – “Ono” from Hardcore Devo Volume One: 74-77 (1990/2013 Rykodisc)


At this point I think a lot of us look back at Devo as those weird Ohio art rockers with the flowerpots on their heads who sang that cute “Whip It” song. They were zany, kind of camp, and isn’t one of those weirdos on Yo Gabba Gabba now?

All of these things are true, and I’m guilty of thinking of them in this way as well, but what I didn’t know was that the group was formed at Kent State, and that Mark Mothersbaugh and Gerald Casale actually witnessed the National Guard mowing down student protesters at that campus on May 4, 1970. Classmates and friends of theirs. And apparently, according to Casale, this was the impetus for everything after, when he “started to develop the idea of devolution. I got real, real pissed off.”

For me, that colors my entire view of Devo, a band I kind of had heard in the background ether, but, if I’m being honest, didn’t really deliberately explore until hearing Skankin’ Pickle cover “Gates of Steel.” Look, it is what it is, okay?

It’s difficult, now, to hear anger in Devo’s songs unless you go looking for it. There have been so many subsequent challenges to what music is or should sound like, it’s hard to really understand exactly how devolutionary the band was at the time. Here is some context:

Billboard Year-End Hot 100 singles of 1974

Billboard Year-End Hot 100 singles of 1975

Billboard Year-End Hot 100 singles of 1976

Billboard Year-End Hot 100 singles of 1977

Certainly not all terrible, but it’s easy to see how it maybe didn’t seem relevant to young people who had seen the government’s most bloody response to the student movement. And given that, it’s easy to see how Devo wanted to fashion themselves as a sort of wrench in the gears of a system that allows for that sort of thing.

Thankfully, it is impossible to think of anything even remotely analogous in today’s headlines.

“Ono” is a song that, like a lot of Devo’s music, could be about anything for as much as the lyrics make sense. They are dark, frustrated, possibly sexual (though not necessarily), and for some reason, the song is named after John Lennon’s surviving wife, a disruptive artist in her own rite.

The music is kind of herky jerky, culminating in a buzzing of synths that builds throughout, sounding eventually like an air raid siren that is paired with mad, desperate laughter. It isn’t just a bunch of weirdos being weird, it’s rage, and if it doesn’t make any sense, I suppose that’s because it existed in a time that didn’t make any sense. A time, perhaps, not so different from our own.