Music

Devo 50 – UK farewell tour review: Boy, they can Booji

Marking 50 years of de-evolution, Devo's farewell tour is a visually, aurally, emotionally and politically intense assault. With dancing.

Devo on stage at the 02 Academy Edinburgh

Devo on stage at the 02 Academy Edinburgh. Photo: Laura Kelly

Fifty years after they first posited the theory of de-evolution – arguing that man had stopped evolving and started to slide back to the primordial ooze – new wave heroes Devo take the stage in Edinburgh for the first of their UK farewell dates, a celebration of 50 years of the band.

“Who here believes in de-evolution?” asks Gerald Casale, singer, bassist and torchbearer for the band’s politics. The O2 Academy takes little convincing, punching the air in approval as he lists the failures of humanity in 2023 – America “buried in shit”, “the world on fire”. When he puts it that way…

Granted, he’s pushing at an open door. As satirical record label exec character Rod Rooter – played with relish by Michael W. Schwartz and, in Devo lore, a higher-up in Big Entertainment, the conglomerate that owns the band – says in a hilariously spiteful video message before they take the stage, these spud-boys are “preaching to the converted tonight”.

But there’s absolutely no sense that they’re resting on their laurels. What follows is a visually, aurally, emotionally and politically intense assault on the senses – with enough costume changes to almost put them in Taylor Swift’s league.

Opener Don’t Shoot (I’m a Man), a critique of the post-9/11 “American Police State”, sets the tone. It’s both deathly serious, as the numbers of unarmed (particularly Black) people killed by cops continues to go, but also shot through with humour. As the chorus starts, inflatable arm-waving tube men (the kind you get at car dealerships) throw their hands in the air in surrender on the backing screens. Satire has always been a powerful weapon against the powerful and the stupid – and Devo have spent 50 years sharpening their bayonets.  

A volley of danceable gut punches follows. Within the first 20 minutes we’ve had both Girl U Want – the song record label bosses believed would bring Devo to the world (“it’s about a girl you want, right?”) – and the unexpected song that in fact did break them into the public consciousness (and ultimately kick started the new wave movement of the 80s).

Despite Warner Bros initial lack of faith, if you’ve only heard one Devo song, it’s undoubtedly Whip It. Still a staple of cheesy 80s nights, it’s been covered by Pearl Jam and parodied on the Simpsons (with Smithers in chaps, cracking a liquorice whip). Live, those layers of familiarity are peeled back to reveal the song’s innovative oddness, and whet its satire of blind American optimism.

A less confident band would certainly close with Whip It, but Devo have never been ones to pander. The next hour is a reminder of the depth of their catalogue, as if anyone in this room needed it. Putting Mick Jagger through a woodchipper, (I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction is still gunning for the title Best Cover in the History of Rock – even if (as Casale told Big Issue) no one can quite play the guitar lick like his late brother Bob.

Jocko Homo, the most concise espousal of the de-evolution ideology, is electric. Its call and response – Mark Mothersbaugh: “Are we not men?” crowd: “WE ARE DEVO!!” – is explosive, angry and celebratory all at once. Freedom of Choice (as Casale says in the intro “you have to use it, or you’ll lose it. America has lost it”) is an existentialism anthem.

All too soon, we’ve whipped through five decades of defiance, but maybe it’s not quite over? Behind the band, the screen changes to a promo poster for Devo 100, tour dates to come in 2073. “You’ll all join us here again in 50 years, won’t you?” asks Casale. It’s funny, yes – but also pitch black, as the crowd looks around and does a quick bit of maths. This isn’t a Taylor Swift audience. None of us are seeing 2073.

Finale Beautiful World sees another beloved Devo character to take the stage. Creepy Booji Boy is an emblem of infantile regression in Western culture, played by singer Mothersbaugh in a baby mask and brandishing an eardrum-piercing falsetto.

Behind the band, now in their mid-70s, the screen shows a shot of them as they began. Standing together, shot from below, sarcastically saluting. It’s almost unbearably poignant. They’ve fought stupidity, cruelty, and wave after wave of prevailing cultural winds to be here. They’re still standing, and still fighting. Devo have earned this rabble-rousing lap of honour, they’re owed a salute.

Devo play Green Man Festival on 18 August and London Eventim Apollo on 19 August. clubdevo.com

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