This is the first Rock ‘n Roll Keltner List, and I wrote the questions to closely model the standard formula. Here’s Mac’s standard preamble to Keltner lists: The Keltner List was developed by Bill James as a device to evaluate a player’s Hall of Fame candidacy. In The Politics of Glory James says that it is probably his favorite tool to do that. (You can read about the background in that book, or do a Google search, for further information.)
The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame sets out its official criteria for enshrinement here:
To be eligible for induction as an artist (as a performer, composer, or musician) into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, the artist must have released a record, in the generally accepted sense of that phrase, at least 25 years prior to the year of induction; and have demonstrated unquestionable musical excellence.
We shall consider factors such as an artist’s musical influence on other artists, length and depth of career and the body of work, innovation and superiority in style and technique, but musical excellence shall be the essential qualification of induction.
So let’s run it for Devo…
- Were they ever regarded as the best band in the country? Did anybody, while they were active, ever suggest that they were the best band in the country?
- Were they the most popular band in America?
Not at all. Other than one fluke hit, “Whip It,” they were a cult band, wearing distinctive hard plastic “energy dome” hats, creating a mythology around a character named “Booji Boy” (pronounced “boogie”) and referring to their devoted fans as “spuds.”
- Were they the best band in their genre?
No. They may have been in the top five American “new wave bands,” at least in the year 1980, depending on how you define it. I think my pick for best in genre is probably Talking Heads.
- Did they continue to have hits after passing their prime?
No. Their 2010 album Something for Everybody marked the fifth decade in which they have released music (1970s, 1980s, 1990s, 2000s, 2010s), but nothing on that album would remotely approach being called a “hit.” They really only have one hit by conventional definition, “Whip It,” which peaked at number 14 in the US.
- Are they the very best band in history who is not in the Hall of Fame?
No. Kraftwerk was nominated but denied this year, and they’re one of the most influential bands of all time.
- Are most artists who had comparable careers in the Hall of Fame?
Generally not. Devo was sort of the Gene Tenace of bands: beloved of hobbyists who adore underappreciated things from the 1970’s, but they had a relatively short peak, overshadowed both at the time and in retrospect by Hall of Fame contemporaries — in Tenace’s case, that would have been his teammate Reggie Jackson, and in Devo’s case, that would have been Hall of Fame punk/new wave bands like Blondie and the Police.
- Are they the best band in their genre who is not in the Hall of Fame
Probably not, but they’re not that far from the top of the list. Among new wave bands of the 1970s and 1980s, I would put XTC and Roxy Music in before Devo. However, I’d put Devo in before Oingo Boingo, a band to which they were often compared. (Then again, that’s like saying I’d put Javy Lopez in before Lance Parrish. Neither’s getting in.)
It is worth noting that despite the fact that the Hall of Fame is in Ohio, many of Ohio’s greatest artists are poorly represented in the Hall. Along with Devo, The Dead Boys, Pere Ubu, and the Raspberries are all on the outside looking in. I don’t think anyone’s banging down the door for Eric Carmen, and the Dead Boys imploded after two albums, but I think there’s a significant case to be made for Pere Ubu. The Hall of Fame may be in Ohio but most of the voters ain’t, and it may well be that there’s a blind spot that ignores the museum’s back yard.
(Akron native Chrissie Hynde is in the Hall with her band The Pretenders — but they’re really a British punk band. And though the O’Jays were largely from Canton and they received their name in Cleveland, they were known as a Philly Soul band.)
- How many great albums did they have?
This is one of the more damning arguments against Devo. They had exactly two great albums, their debut Q: Are We Not Men? A: We Are Devo!, and their third album,
New TraditionalistsFreedom of Choice, which was also their biggest seller because that’s the one that had “Whip It.” They had good songs scattered elsewhere — many of them on soundtracks, including “Huboon Stomp” from South Park: Chef Aid — and some of the pre-album home recordings are good too (released by Rykodisc as Hardcore Devo). But the other albums were hit and miss.
- How many number one singles did they have? How many top 10 singles did they have?
None. Whip It never cracked the top 10, but it has had a remarkably long life, one of the songs that can instantly be played to evoke the 1980s.
They had other singles, though, and I’ll just go by what Wikipedia marks as the chart positions.
“Be Stiff” (1977), referring to their label Stiff Records, peaked at #71 on the UK singles charts.
Their cover of “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction” (1977) reached #41 in the UK.
“Jocko Homo” (1978) reached #62 in the UK.
“Girl U Want” (1980) reached #22 in Japan and #57 in the UK.
Their cover of “Working in the Coalmine” (1981) reached #20 in Australia and #43 in the Billboard Hot 100.
- What impact did the band have on musical history? Did they introduce any new equipment or style? Did they change popular music in any way?
This is the strongest argument in favor of Devo. Their stripped-down synthesizer-heavy music and edgy satirical lyrics proved very influential, and have kept them more relevant than many of the contemporary bands who outsold them in the ’70s and ’80s. The band members met as art students at Kent State University shortly before members of the Ohio National Guard fired into a crowd and killed four students in 1970, and the band named itself after the belief that the human race was devolving. Their cold, tinny, cheap-sounding synthesizers similarly represented a devolved musical sound, as shown by their aggressively weird song and video “Jocko Homo.” (The title was a play on the notion that homo sapiens had de-evolved into a jock.)
Their “devolved cover” of the Rolling Stones’ classic “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction” is probably the best example of this, taking the lyrics but reworking the melody entirely. This version was featured in the movie Casino by Martin Scorsese, a director famous for using rock songs on his soundtracks. Devo repeated the formula with Jimi Hendrix’s “Are You Experienced?,” fueling a sinister, paranoid intensity into another classic rock staple.
And they were one of the most influential bands in the art-punk underground that would soon give way to new wave, partly under the tutelage of Brian Eno, the man who produced their first album. Eno produced four albums in 1978, and it is a remarkable set: along with Devo’s debut, he produced Talking Heads’s second album, More Songs About Buildings and Food; the No Wave compilation No New York; and the first album by composer Harold Budd. That was a year after he produced Low and Heroes by David Bowie. Devo could not have been closer to the beating heart of rock and roll than they were in 1978.
Then there’s the Weird Al connection. Yankovic is a noted Devo fan, and covered part of “Jocko Homo” in “Polkas on 45,” from a song from Yankovic’s second album, In 3-D. Then, Yankovic wrote an homage to Devo called “Dare to Be Stupid,” of which Devo frontman Mark Mothersbaugh said, “I was in shock. It was the most beautiful thing I had ever heard. He sort of re-sculpted that song into something else and, umm … I hate him for it, basically.” It is the title track of Yankovic’s third album.
Yankovic’s video references a number of original Devo music videos, which were influential in their own right in the early days of MTV — none more so than “Whip It,” of course.
Conclusion: This band belongs in the Hall of Very Good, but does not belong in the Hall of Fame.
I love Devo, but they really fit nobody’s definition of a Hall of Fame band. On a commercial level, they never really mattered enough to fit a mainstream definition; on an artistic level, they were generally more concerned with satirizing mainstream culture than seeking enshrinement by it. There are bands in the Hall who never made a single album as good as “Q: Are We Not Men? A: We Are Devo!”, but every Hall of Fame has a few Rabbit Maranvilles. Devo may not be a Hall of Famer, but they’re a great band.