Talk about an apt album title. Oh no, indeed. Here’s why Devo were such a great band for a teenager in 1985 – they were an alternative to mainstream synth pop, that is, a way out of the blandness of top 40 radio into something quite weird and strange but still utilizing electronics in exuberantly poppy ways. There are far better Devo albums than this one of course, but sad to say, my teenage tastes were usually magnetized towards the poppier, easier listening end of things. The first couple of Devo albums still hold up as post-punk pioneering LPs that skillfully blended guitars with midi keyboards and sequencers. Oh, No! It’s Devo however, with thirty years of hindsight, is truly awful, formulaic rubbish. That’s not to say I can’t still somehow enjoy it—but mostly my distaste comes from having heard this thing far too much. When I was a kid I knew how to play albums to death and then some. These were the days of cassette tapes, the early days of the Walkman.
I don’t take complete responsibility for my teenage love of Devo. I was deeply impressionable back then and it was a friend’s enthusiasm for this album that I caught like a particularly nasty virus. It was my first Devo and from there I worked my way backwards. Q. Are We Not Men? A. We Are Devo is still not a bad album in my opinion, while Duty Now For The Future has its moments. The other one that features in my top 20 for the eighties (and the fact that there are not one but two Devo albums in there shows just how much Devo I consumed in those heady mid-teenage years) is Freedom Of Choice, which isn’t such a bad choice at all. I’m pretty sure I thought Oh, No! It’s Devo was a hilarious album – the lyrics made me think and smile and I diligently paid them a lot of attention. I wasn’t oblivious to the fact that Devo were taking the mickey, though I’m not sure what their targets were exactly—presumably, the whole American continent. Once upon a time I thought this was the stuff of poetry but one glance through the lyrics now and they irritate the hell out of me. So er…let’s play it out and see just how bad it is…
Time Out For Fun… seems like an ironic anthem for not worrying and just having fun, a kind of precursor track to the silliness of this record—after all, the five members of Devo are wearing potato suits on the sleeve jacket. It’s immediately self-referential—cue silly robotic style of singing: “Hello / We are / Devo / We would like / To say / Things go / Both ways / New ideas / Stupid moves / Nightmares / Or dreams come true.” The music is entirely electronic, a pre-programmed, deeply tacky sound, mixed with precision perfect effects, something like ping-pong noises bouncing back and forth across the sound field. The singing voice is pure nerd. A big drumbeat bursts into action, and that too sounds entirely processed, electronic. The clockwork timing fits with the geeky voices. “Don’t you lose it / Now listen to us / Everything’s gonna be all right / Take a break, take some time / Everything’s gonna be all right / Don’t you lose it / Remember to take / Time out for fun.” That’s the chorus, augmented by echoey drums bouncing back’n’forth. It’s pretty catchy, a noodly high synth twiddles around in the background.
Peek-A-Boo!… electronic bassline, lots of other electronic blurps twittering around, a siren like effect, and again, an insanely catchy rhythmic section, with more of what I call their “TV voice” singing. Lyrics are kind of annoying: “Peekaboo / I know what you do / Cos I do it too / So put your hands on your face / And cover up your eyes / Don’t look until I signal / Peekaboo / Har har har har.” More ping pong effects (they love those ping pong effects), more siren type sounds, lots of fuzzy, old school electronics, perfect 80s music really. I like the little angelic flourish they perform on the chorus. Seems to be a song about revealing yourself to yourself. Very very irritating.
Out Of Sync… oh man, I used to think this song was so deep and meaningful, when really it’s a trashy alienation thing about a girl who’s out of touch with everyone around her, a girl who “knows that something is wrong.” She’s “a piece of ancient history, a walking mirage … She’s out of orbit / She’ll never connect / She’ll run out of time before she accepts / She’s out of sync.” The music is nauseating video game soundtrack kind of stuff. It’s so punchy and poppity-precision timing perfect and full of idiotic effects you just want to choke them all with piano wire. Boom cha boom cha bassline, all programmed to never skip a beat. On most of these songs, there’s a nerdy voice guy singing one part, a much deeper radio-DJ comedy voice singing counterpoint to him, and the rest of the band adding a choir effect. Ugh.
Explosions… every single song here is pukeworthy earwormish, including this videogame soundtrack full of funny little highpitched mosquito buzzing squeals, and that same fuzzy electronic flange effect. What is cool, however, are the guitar parts. They have some pretty neat riffs, although the guitar parts often end up sounding like they exist only to replicate electronic effects too. This song is all about how Devo like explosions and other things such as ideas, new places and music. ie. “Loud shots from the big spud gun.” There’s a squeaky voice going “yes” in back’n’forth counterpoint with a deep voice going “oh yes” in between the “we like explosions” refrain. They love to play ping-pong with sound effects. Very catchy video-game noir.
That’s Good… here’s the only Oh, No! It’s Devo song I think I can say I still like. “Everybody / It’s a good thing / Everybody / Wants a good thing / Everybody / Aint it true that / Everybody’s looking for the same thing / Aint it true / There’s room for doubt / Maybe some things that you can do without / And that’s good.” Very poppy, fast punchy syncopated rhythm. There’s a line in here I once stole for a Form Five essay on Catcher In The Rye. “Holden Caulfield is like a bee without a buzz,” my sixteen year old self wrote: “It was going great until he got stung by the rules of society.” The metaphor was wholly lifted from this song. My teacher gave it a big tick and said “well done.” Ha.
Patterns… is all electronic web-bouncy with more spaceage effects pip-popping through the mix, while one of the Casale or Mothersbaugh brothers sings about cod psychology: “Patterns all around you / Patterns everywhere / Patterns of behaviour / Sometimes seem unfair.” This is actually quite a lot less ‘perfectly programmed’ sounding than the material on side one. It sounds more like something off Freedom Of Choice with the guitar parts. It’s kind of tedious.
Big Mess… more spongy electronic riffing, four-four time introducing items one by one into the mix. Song is based on some real life incident about a schizophrenic dude called Cowboy Kim who sent a bunch of letters to a radio DJ. The chorus: “I’m a man with a mission / A boy with a gun / I got a picture in my pocket of the lucky one / Who doesn’t know / I’m a big mess / I mean a really big mess,” and the backing choir add, “Big big mess / He was all mixed up in a big mess.” Again the rhythm, beat and vocal are all heavily syncopated and interwoven through each other. I suppose a number of these songs point to certain current events topical around the time the album was made. The songs after this all seem pretty nauseating however, owing to their simplicity and irritating repetition. Nevertheless, Devo lyrics do leave themselves open to all sorts of wide interpretation.
Speed Racer… presumably this has something to do with the TV program of the same name. Essentially we get a bunch of different characters telling us who they are, opening with “I’m a speed racer and I drive real fast,” followed by several other characters telling us “He’s a speed racer and he drives real fast.” They each recite their lines in what can only be described as cartoon voices. We got Speed Racer, Big Pirate, Barbie Doll, who has brains but also likes sex, and lastly the Doctor, who likes to steal: “He likes to steal so here’s your bill.” Mostly the music is a simple electronic rhythm that frames itself around all these silly voices. Amusingly childish.
What I Must Do… we get more TV voices and odd chicken noises. There’s an extended but quite nauseating chorus section that goes, “I must do what I must do / And I do / Though I know better.” The music is pretty much the same old thing – a set of percussive elements, electronic chords, and various old school video-game sound effects burbling through the mix. Too repetitive; painful to listen to. I don’t even care for looking at the lyric sheet to remember what the song’s about.
I Desire… is a little better. It has a neat post-punk vibe, with simple angular and pogo-ing rhythm section, like a Spoon song, minimalist in its trivial urgency. “Don’t let me torment you / Don’t let me bring you down / Don’t ever let me hurt you / Don’t let me fail because / I desire / Your attention / I desire / Your perfect love / I desire / Nothing more.” There’s a twisted humour here too though: “I pledge allegiance to the flag / That you’re wise to walk away / For nothing is more dangerous / Than desire when it’s wrong.” Urgh, big wide brushstrokes; none too subtle from everyone’s favourite 80s American pop nerds. This just in: apparently the lyrics to this song were pilfered from a poem by some madman called John Hinckley Jr. Speaking of Spoon, I’ve occasionally heard a slight Devo influence in Wilco too at times. I mean even the name – Wilco (will comply) – is quite Devo-esque if you think about it.
Deep Sleep… that every song on side two sounds identical is something I’ve only just realized. Spaceship whizzing by effects, programmed beats, programmed bass and a semi-robotic, nerd vocal: “I’ve been running on remote control / In a deep sleep / A very deep sleep.” And then this line which I always thought was so clever as a kid, but which now just sounds tragic. “A smile / Is just a frown / Turned around / On the face of a clown with a mean streak.” More UFOs zapping people on the ground or beaming people up or beaming them down. In this song the singer has been in a deep sleep but he’s just woken up. Interestingly, this song always put me to sleep.
And that’s it. I realize now this was music made to go with the advent of the video game era – Space Invaders, Pong, Donkey Kong and Frogger etc. and to appeal to nerdy kids who liked computers, which was ..er … me, to a T. Oh, No! It’s Devo has little or no redeeming features. It’s utterly throwaway. Amazing now, to think how many gazillions of times I played this record when I was kid, without getting bored with it. One spin’s all I can muster now before I want to break the thing over my own head……
This was Alan Bumstead’s 19th Most-Loved (Hated) Album in the 80s