When in 1980 I first jammed my eight-track cartridge of Q: Are We Not Men? A: We Are Devo! into the maw of my father's massive console stereo, and he heard the boinky-squeaky sounds emerging from his speakers, he looked at me like I'd lost my natural 9-year-old mind. I still remember that face. So I won't be recommending Pioneers Who Got Scalped: The Anthology to my old man. But I will recommend it to you, because your folks hated Devo, and maybe you did, too, for the same reasons, and those reasons are -- it can now be told -- seriously misguided.
The good news first: Neither a predictable greatest-hits list nor a sprawling junk-drawer boxed set aimed at completists only, Pioneers is a historically solid compilation, which means (no surprises here) important songs like "Whip It" and "Uncontrollable Urge" are, of course, included. But -- the better news second -- just under 20 of the 50 cuts here consist of early single versions, film performances, soundtrack contributions or remixes of familiar tracks previously lost to cutout vinyl bins. The most valuable aspect of Pioneers -- the best news last -- is that it allows us to see the 25-year (so far) creative arc of one of rock's most challenging bands in the context of their never-ending satirization of American mass culture -- a two-decades-old project whose consistency is blazingly evident here.
Not that it was always a tense project, by any means; Devo was also, we shouldn't forget, a screamingly funny and endlessly inventive band, as the de-volved renditions of "Bread and Butter," "Itsy Bitsy Teeny Weeny Yellow Polka-Dot Bikini" and "Are You Experienced?" illustrate. From the early, non-LP versions of "Jocko Homo" and "Mongoloid" (rawer and more jolting than the album takes) to the bizarro faux-beat recitation in "Communication Break-Up" and a surprisingly straight-ahead cover of Nine Inch Nails' "Head Like a Hole," Pioneers offers historically essential tracks in relatively equal measure with the unexpected and rare cuts.
And, let's be honest if only for a second: In a month when Britney Spears' horrific de-fanging of "(I Can't Get No) Satisfaction" seems poised for radio release, it would do us good to remember how five weirdos from Akron were able to locate and amplify the lustful tension in that song, so much so that it almost hurt to listen.
Come to think of it, maybe that talent was why we hated them to begin with. No one likes to be reminded that mass culture (and rock music too, no less than advertising or television) is predicated on keeping us spuds wanting, driven by an endless but essentially artificial urge to consume. Devo, by contrast, embraced that element of American life, talking openly about it. Like most brazen prophets, they were rejected by many of their countrymen. Now, inundated as we are with a slew of less talented performers talking about far less consequential things, Pioneers illustrates just how far ahead of the curve Devo turned out to be.
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