Devo – ‘Recombo DNA’ reviewed

❉ Career-spanning Devo rarities set expanded and reissued!

Ask anyone in Britain about Devo and they’ll probably say ‘Who?’ or ‘What?’. If they are former punks they might remember their robotic cover version of Satisfaction, if they were early synthpop fans they might remember Whip It and the ‘flower pot’ energy-dome plastic hats. Futurismo music have just reissued the band’s demos collection Recombo DNA, originally issued in a very limited edition double CD at the turn of the 21st century. It now comes on 4 vinyl albums, plus a 3” CD, which is probably as playable to most people nowadays as a cassette. Luckily the set also comes with a download card.

The commercial career of Devo, outside of the USA is one of frustration, bad luck and setbacks. They were one of the cleverest bands to emerge from the new wave; built around not just musical ideas but philosophical ones. They were pioneers in pop video, first coming to attention when they made a short-form film in 1976. They described their band as being the ‘sound of things falling apart’ or how man was devolving back to the primitive. Devo are probably having a hollow laugh at the current incumbent in the White House.

Aside from the videos, the costumes and the clothes Recombo DNA serves up nearly 50 demos or alternative versions of Devo songs. The previously issued Hardcore Devo albums made an impressive vault sweep of the band’s early ‘70s garage demos, where they mixed punk guitars with Eno-ish synths. Devo’s sound mutated from the late ‘70s; the guitar became less dominant as synths took over from providing the occasional sound effect or weird noise to pure synthpop, with little or no guitar and even drums replaced by drum machines, which led to the late Alan Myers quitting the band in the mid-1980s.

Recombo DNA mainly covers the decade from 1977 to 1987, with an annex at the end of off-cuts from Devo’s 21st century revival. It is presented in largely chronological order and this approach means it follows Devo rise and fall in the eyes of critics and fans. The first half includes Devo’s biggest selling album, Freedom Of Choice, appearing almost in its entirety in demo form, recorded on the turn of 1979 into 1980. This is the album where the synth/guitar balance is about 50:50 and for many people is the high spot of the band’s recorded output. The versions here are primitive but also show a band at the peak of its powers as a unit, producing 2-3 minute pop songs that sound as close to the epitome of 1980-ness as one can get.

Devo’s two joint leaders and songwriters, Mark Mothersbaugh and Gerald V Casale alternated singing leads on the band’s studio albums, with Mark tending to sing all the songs live. Recombo DNA shows a few songs with a different lead singer to those that fans would be used to. Two tracks even feature identical backing tracks, but with different vocals and different lyrics, one from Mark and one from Gerry. The second half of Recombo DNA takes in the year in which many fans (although not me) see as Devo rapidly losing the plot. Few people good words to say about Shout (1984) or Total Devo (1988).  The demos for the latter album in particular sound almost identical to the released versions and this makes for the most unsatisfactory portion of Recombo DNA, although an early version of Baby Doll, here titled Satan and not included on the original CD issue, makes it worthwhile. A lot of the unreleased tracks here are stronger than those that ended up on the proper albums. For example Red Alert is better almost every track on the Total Devo album. These strong songs really make me question the judgement of whoever was selecting which tracks went on to Devo’s albums and which stayed in the vaults.

The sleeve notes, included new commentary from Gerry Casale, tantalisingly hint at many more tapes in the Devo archive that have never been heard which raises my hopes for a second volume somewhere along the line. If you missed out on the original CD issue this set is an absolute must, and if you’re a hardcore Devo nut you’ll need to get it too for the extra tracks not on the CD. If you order directly from Futurismo you even get a choice of colour vinyl variants. I went for the yellow splatter ‘molecular mutation’ edition and even ordered the Devo lab-coat as an extra. This is a beautiful package with more than enough great music to overcome the slight dip towards the end.

‘Recombo DNA’ is out now from Futurismo as a 4xLP & 1×3” CD package. Buy it here:

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