It was a cold, wet November night back in 1982—the night I sat in the majestic Holiday Star Plaza Theatre in Merrillville, Indiana waiting for Devo to take to the stage.
Leave it to Devo to have a concert in a theatre where you would expect someone like Tom Jones or Neal Diamond to headline. Maybe it was intentional, a little “de-evolution” humor from the spudboys—you know, if you could play the Holiday Star Plaza Theatre, you could play anywhere. It seemed fitting for a band like Devo that had made a name for themselves by defying critics and rock and roll purists alike to play such a venue. While it might not have had the same resonance as The Beatles at Shea Stadium or The Band at Fillmore East, Devo at the Holiday Star was an incredible concert.
Billed as an “Evening With Devo” it has remained a concert near and dear to my heart because the band has been and will always be one of my favorite bands from the 70s and 80s.
I first heard of Devo one night four years before in 1978 when I caught them performing “I Can’t Get No Satisfaction” on Saturday Night Live. Maybe it was the radioactive suits they were wearing or the frenetic guitar playing and vocal stylings of frontman Mark Mothersbaugh that got me hooked. All I know is the next weekend I was at my local Tower Records in West Covina, California buying the spuds’ first album Q: Are We Not Men? A: We Are Devo!
At a time when music was changing and something called “new wave” was re-packaging the early punk sound, Devo was one band that sort of defied any kind of label. With a bit of histrionics thrown in for good measure, the music that Devo played was a far cry from anything that was being played on the radio. A year later, a resurgence of rock would take place sounding the death knell for disco and the “mega-stadium bands” of the 70s. Without question, the band was one of the early pioneers of the new wave sound; but then again I think the spud boys would probably disagree.
I bought all their records, but their first one will always be my favorite. Maybe it was the Brian Eno touch that has made it a classic I (although I hadn’t even heard of him at the time, but like much of the music I would soon be listening to—I would).
Even now, 30 years after it first came out, it still rocks. I have never grown tired of songs like “Come Back Jonee,” “Jocko Homo,” “Space Junk.” “Gut Feeling” (which was a pleasant addition to the Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou soundtrack), and my all-time favorite spud classic “Uncontrollable Urge” (which was always a crowd stopper when performed live).
Before I saw Devo that night, I was lucky to have caught some great concerts in the early 80’s by some classic New Wave acts including The Pretenders, Ultravox, and The Stray Cats. While these bands and concerts will always be near and dear to me, especially for someone who was really getting into the new wave scene at the time, there was always something unique about Devo and their sound that made them stand out from other bands of the post-punk new wave era. One thing is for certain when it came to Devo and their music: either you were into them or you despised them.
(I’ll never forget back in the autumn of 1980 when I was working a cafeteria at Thompson Point at Southern Illinois University, there was this girl who I worked with who was one of those preppy “new wave” types—you know the ones I am talking about, the ones who would wear some band buttons, a skinny tie and her father’s dress shirt over a black mini skirt and think they were punk. Well, she came to work one day a little sad because some sorority types in her dorm made fun of her wardrobe and called her “Devo.” Obviously, Devo rubbed some people the wrong way.)
When I heard that they were going to playing at the Holiday Star Plaza Theatre (the band was on tour to promote the recently released Oh, no! It’s Devo album) there was no way that I was going to miss this concert. Although the album is my least favorite of their first four albums, (a few songs/videos had already gotten some airplay on MTV—at a time when MTV was still pretty hip—before I saw them in concert) their video stylings were definitely classic Devo, which they would incorporate into their live show.
Before they took the stage, some vendors were hawking some Devo paraphernalia from Spud Collars to Energy Domes (the hats that looked like upside down flower pots)
“Get your spud collars here,” barked one vendor, “great to wear around your neck when eating your favorite brand of potato chips so you don’t get any crumbs on your clothes.”
“Energy Domes here, get your Energy Domes,” yelled another vendor.
Yes, perhaps just a bit surreal. Then again, this was Devo and who’s going to bat an eye when someone is hawking Energy Domes?
There was no opening act either—just Devo. Actually, I think it would have been hard for any band to open for them. Leave it to the Spuds to have it their way. And speaking of having it “their” way, they had already recorded “muzak” versions of most of their popular songs and that was what was playing when you walked into the theatre and sat down in these wonderfully comfortable crushed velvet-like padded seats. Of course, when Devo started to rock the house, no one would be sitting for too long.
The stage was bare but there was a huge video screen in the back of the stage and while the band played “Peekaboo!” “Big Mess,” “That’s Good,” and “Speed Racer” there were images and vignettes playing on the screen while the boys played. The band members were dressed in black with “white spud-collars” around their necks.
Okay that was fun enough, but things got more interesting during the second half of the show when the band played most of their hits from the their first four albums from “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction” and “Whip it” to “Jerkin’ Back and Forth” and “Freedom of Choice.” They also made a number of costume changes that included their red Energy Domes and their yellow radioactive suits.
One of their more popular songs played in concert was “Uncontrollable Urge” –a favorite among fans when four of the members moved to the front of the stage and sort of “jogged” in place (while they were still playing their instruments) as the song ended.
However, the real show stopper of this concert was “Jocko Homo” the song that featured the now famous “Are we not men, we are Devo” chorus. At one point in the song, Mark Mothersbaugh disappeared from stage as the band played while removing their radioactive suits to reveal black Devo T-shirts underneath. Then all of a sudden everyone heard, “I’m up here!” Mothersbaugh had disappeared to the balcony and was now standing at the edge of it. As he started to sing the chorus “Are we not men” he climbed down a rope and once he reached the audience below, he continued to sing “Are we not Men” as he walked toward the stage (he wasn’t too far from where I was standing) and getting some vocal assistance from various members of the audience. He literally brought the house down.
The show ended on a more sedate note with Boogie Boy (Mothersbaugh) singing a gentle version of “Beautiful World.”
On a cold, wet November night all those years ago, Devo rocked the Holiday Star Plaza Theatre only the way Devo knew how with their frenetic musical virtuosity and vocal stylings. An Evening with Devo was a memorable concert that will always be near and dear to my heart.