Its ideology was patently stupid and misanthropic, its cartoon gimmickry was just silly, and its eventual embrace of synthesizers produced some of the least funky dance music every released. But for a few years in the Seventies and early Eighties, Devo was a goofy, intriguing, and occasionally inspired quintet that paired bargain-basement art rock with punk rock at its most accessibly avant-garde. And for its first hour or so, the double-disc anthology Pioneers Who Got Scalped chronicles the band's evolution from home-taping weirdoes to, well, studio weirdoes who somehow managed to net several hits, including the definitive "Whip It," and influence a legion of altrockers, including Nirvana, Soundgarden, and Superchunk (all of whom have honored the band through covers).
Devo had been formulating its skewed world vision as far back as the early Seventies, when the Akron-based group was making bizarre home movies and crude four-track recordings of songs that celebrated everything from car wrecks and Mongoloids to sexual perversion and paranoia. Following a few self-released singles and some seven-inches released on England's influential Stiff label, Devo landed a stateside major-label deal with Warner Bros. First to arrive was 1978's Q: Are We Not Men? A: We Are Devo, a Brian Eno-produced set that presented only slightly polished reworkings of early classics such as "Mongoloid," "Jocko Homo," and "Uncontrollable Urge." Thanks in part to a bent cover of the Rolling Stones' "Satisfaction," the album was a critical and commercial hit; amazingly it still holds up more than twenty years after the fact. Ditto the 1979 followup Duty Now for the Future, home of the anthemic "Smart Patrol/Mr. DNA" and another screwy cover via Johnny Rivers's "Secret Agent Man."
With 1980's Freedom of Choice and the accompanying single "Whip It," Devo stumbled on to the upper rungs of the pop chart and hit its creative zenith. Despite the group's inherent hokiness, the album's best songs ("Girl U Want," "Gates of Steel," "Snowball," and the title cut) offer definitive takes on the band's obsession with sex, authoritarianism, and electronic gadgetry. Even better was New Traditionalists, a great record from 1981 that contained Devo's best song: "Beautiful World," a brilliant wise-ass assessment of society's moral and political decline and catchy as all get-out.
From there the band devolved, so to speak, into ludicrous, synth-heavy garbage, and Pioneers unwittingly presents this decline with a generous 24-song helping culled from Devo duds such as Oh, No! It's Devo and Shout and their contribution to soundtrack bombs, including Dr. Detroit, not to mention a rancid interpretation of Jimi Hendrix's "Are You Experienced?" that represents the once-inspired spudboys' nadir. But on the first disc (where a few choice rarities stand alongside well-chosen album cuts) Pioneers makes a good argument for the value of Devo's playful innovation and its pivotal role in the shaping of postpunk's sound and style.
Get the Music Newsletter
Keep your thumb on the local music scene each week with music news, trends, artist interviews and concert listings. We'll also send you special ticket offers and music deals.