December 1, 2023

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Devo: Duty Now for the Future Album Review

Sophomore albums are a doomed enterprise. Caught in the crossfire between the demands of your original fanbase, hungry for more of the same but slightly different, and the knee-jerk antagonism of critics, nursing a masochistic thirst to chronicle your inevitable fall from grace, the endeavor hinges on figuring out who to disappoint while keeping your ego intact. Devo learned this lesson the hard way with 1979’s Duty Now for the Future. Ever the innovative pranksters, the new-wave iconoclasts found a way to not only confuse fans and lose the critics, but shatter their own inflated confidence in the process. Consider this: Greatest Misses, a companion to 1990’s crowd-pleasing Greatest Hits, features seven of Duty Now for the Future’s 13 tracks—a confirmation of the colossal nature of their second-record flop. Even bassist Gerald “Jerry” Casale, usually the band’s most stalwart defender, would later admit it. “Album one is like the Bible—you make your statement once,” he told the Los Angeles Times. “What you do next is produce the goods—that is, show in substance what it’s all about. The criticism on the second album is that we didn’t do that.”

Depending on your love for the band at the time, this disproportionate hate might have been a blessing in disguise. In 1990, when they cherry-picked its tracks for Greatest Misses, Duty Now for the Future was still four years away from reissue, shelved by Warner Bros. until Henry Rollins sought to put it out on his own label. And what better, more perverse—more Devo—way to reward the faith of hardcore fans than to repackage their greatest failure alongside such obvious winners as the superior, gloriously sludgy “Booji Boy” mix of “Jocko Homo”?

Only a true Devotee could embrace this record, where art rock’s finest wore out the punchline on their way to defining new wave’s bleeding edge. To critics and the public at large, Devo got caught lacking on Duty Now for the Future, but the resultant surge of embarrassment was just the lift they needed to leave behind their infancy for greener pastures.

Before David Bowie introduced the band onstage at New York City venue Max’s Kansas City in 1977, calling them the “band of the future,” Devo had already amassed enough subversive cred to fuel multiple careers. They’d opened for Sun Ra at Cleveland radio station WMMS’ 1975 Halloween party, extending their 15-minute slot by jamming “Jocko Homo” into a 30-minute punk-rock riot that got them kicked off stage. The Truth About De-Evolution, the self-produced short film that would open their concerts to wild cheers from their cult-like audience (affectionately known as “spuds”), had charmed critics enough to win first prize at the 1977 Ann Arbor film festival. They’d even managed to update the Rolling Stones’ existentialist masterpiece “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction” well enough to earn the approval of Mick Jagger himself. Playing it for the rock icon in a bid to win his consent for its inclusion on their debut, the band looked on as Jagger “stood up and started dancing around on this Afghan rug in front of the fireplace… the sort of rooster-man dance he used to do,” Casale remembered with awe in a 2017 interview. “I like it, I like it,” Jagger exclaimed, prancing across the floor to its dilapidated rhythms and frantic yelps, jumping down from his lofty perch to bounce around with the rest of the underground. 

Born in the working-class suburbs surrounding Akron, Ohio, Casale made a beeline for art school at Kent State University in 1966, eager to leave behind the rubber-factory town’s cultural malaise. “The Goodyear Museum, and the Soapbox Derby and McDonald’s and women in hair rollers beating their kids in supermarkets,” Casale would later groan to an interviewer regarding Akron’s all-American landscape. “Just reaction, without knowing what was going on. Getting fat, getting mellow, getting drugged out, getting married.”

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