Duty Now For The Future
Warner Brothers Records, 1979
REVIEW BY: Mark Feldman
ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED: 06/29/2000
The trouble with most one hit wonders is that you don't know it at the time. You hear this great new song on the radio, run out and buy the album, only to discover that the rest of it is either uninteresting or just more rewrites of the successful song, you never listen to the album in its entirety again, and the owner of the used record store you eventually try to sell it to laughs and says "we've already got 17 of these that have been sitting in the store for months."
Devo is not one of those cases. They are, in fact, that variety of one hit wonder along with The Tubes, Thomas Dolby, and Midnight Oil, to name a few, whose "hit" wasn't a bad song per se, but a vastly watered down example of what their music was all about. True Devo fans, of course, think that "Whip It" was perhaps the worst thing that happened to them - after breaking into the top five in the summer of 1980, it can be argued that the rest of Devo's musical output consisted largely of attempts to break into the top five again. And while that's not completely true, the real essence of the innovative and experimental Devo died with the onset of the '80s. The essential recordings of this oft-misunderstood Akron Ohio outfit can be found on Hardcore Devo volumes 1 and 2, both fascinating compilations of their days as an independent Akron phenomenon, Q: Are We Not Men, A: We Are Devo, their groundbreaking 1978 major label debut, and finally, their darkest, most overlooked, and most complex album, 1979's Duty Now For The Future, which, Booji boys and girls, is today's topic of discussion.
While Q: Are We Not Men? contained some disturbing thoughts, the music itself was mostly upbeat. Not so with Duty Now For The Future, the cover of which portrays a magic square of animations of the band superimposed over bar codes, immediately capturing the degeneration-of-society-into-machines aesthetic that was the signature of early Devo. We're hit with the quick instrumental "Devo Corporate Anthem," a one minute quasi-patriotic march on a futuristic (well, '70s faux-futuristic) synthesizer. Side one continues with the frenetic punk rocker "Clockout," the loopy "Wiggly World," and another instrumental, "Timing X," which features some wickedly tight playing, nearly forcing us to take Devo seriously as a band.
Then you get to "Blockhead," which appears to be a disco anthem for a robot, and a perfect musical arrangement for one - a verse in a danceable 11/8, an insistent-and-simple wah-wah guitar, and a sing-along chorus - "Squared off / Eight corners / 90 degree angle / step straight ahead / snake eyes / blockhead!" The first side closes with the distantly-spooky "Swelling Itching Brain," in which Devo has a "painful yellow headache."
Side two contains more full-fledged songs than side one. "Triumph Of The Will" is a love story for the de-evolutionized future, with more of the plodding rhythm that the corporate anthem introduced. "The Day My Baby Gave Me a Surprise" is about as happy as the album gets - but vocalist Bob Mothersbaugh sings it with such a unique detachedness that it still fits in quite well. The verses with nothing but a distorted guitar and a bass drum in this song are one of the earliest examples of this I can think of.
Surprisingly, one of the centerpieces of the album turns out to be a well-placed cover of Johnny Rivers' "Secret Agent Man." Well, it's not completely a cover - the verses have a different melody and mostly different (and less sincere) words, such as "But after the day has passed / I don't get up off my ass". And a James Bond-like instrumental coda is added for effect. It's a brilliant rewrite of a song that deserved, but didn't get, this kind of overstatement in the first place.
"Secret Agent Man" sends the final section of the album into overdrive. The Devo classic "Smart Patrol / Mr. DNA" comes right afterwards and still sounds exciting and unique. Motherbsaugh's delivery is equal parts apocalyptic and ridiculous ; he repeats "I'm tired of the soup de jour / I wanna end this prophylactic tour / 'Fraid nobody around here understands my potato / Guess I'm a spud boy looking for that real tomato" until the cows come home. No, it makes little if any sense, but that's vintage, abstract new wave for you, take it or leave it. The manic "Red Eye" closes out the album with the catchiest guitar hook Devo ever created (yes, better than "Whip It") and a prophetic statement of life on the go that would become synonymous with the decade that was upon us at the time.
One can imagine the surprise that Devo fans must have expereienced back in 1979 upon first hearing the dark and impersonal musings of some of these songs. For better or worse, this record must have influenced much of the eerie side of '80s synth-pop. And although a better case can be made for Q: Are We Not Men? as Devo's definitive statement, Duty Now For The Future is the record that contains the band's best actual music, and is the strongest case against Devo as a mere novelty act. All lovers of classic new wave should own them both.