In its “50 Most Essential Punk Records”, Spin magazine praised Devo’s Q: Are We Not Men? A: We Are Devo! for being “laced with acrid shots of synth-slime, uncontrollable urge overkill, and riff after killer riff”. I never thought of Devo as a “killer riff” band—they were hardly Deep Purple, hardly even the Amboy Dukes. I wonder if Spin understands the “killer riff” in relation to rock ‘n’ roll—whether the magazine can differentiate between the catchy guitar refrain in Led Zeppelin’s “Whole Lotta Love” and the one in, for example, Devo’s “Shrivel Up”. The first is a guileless face-splatter of unbridled machismo; the second, although the song’s lyrics allude to the journey of the sperm (“dyin’ under daddy’s cap” as metaphor for prophylactic birth control?), is a bafflingly off-key finger-exercise that threatens to uproot the tonal center of the bass melody.
If you were a musician in the late ‘70s, you were part of the new guard, or the old boomer regime, or completely under the cultural radar. There was the scary, fashionable “punk”; to the right of that there was radio-rock, progressive rock, disco, and funk. To the far left—the experimental music that developed out of 20th century classical, synthesizer technology, free jazz (and fusion), and the theories and practices of the LSD ‘60s (Sgt. Pepper, Timothy Leary). Devo were, in fact, progressive, experimental-minded punk rockers with a rhythm section that sounded like the crazy spaceman-outfits the P-Funk wore.