BY MIN CHEN
Four decades ago, with the release of its 1978 debut record Q: Are We Not Men? A: We Are Devo!, Devo unleashed upon the world its indelible art rock, its jumpsuited avant-absurdism, and its theory of de-evolution. When not deconstructing rock traditions (on their cover of “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction”), wringing hooks from angular frames (“Praying Hands”), or decrying the postmodern condition (“Too Many Paranoias”), the Akron, Ohio outfit made hay out of its B.H. Shadduck-borrowed philosophy, proposing that humanity was in a regressive state of reverse evolution. As “Jocko Homo,” one of the LP’s centerpieces, went, “God made man / But he used the monkey to do it / Apes in the plan / We’re all here to prove it.” It then asks the album’s titular Q, before the A, chanted continually, unveils the band’s ideological spine: Devo = de-evolution.
That motif spared not the album’s cover art. In line with their ethos, band founders Gerald Casale and Mark Mothersbaugh were intent on presenting an image of devolved art, “because,” according to Casale, “we were very, very enamored—and put off at the same time—by pop culture, like the lowest end of ad graphics, terrible TV commercials.” On a shopping excursion for supplies and ideas, the pair wandered the sports aisle of a department store and spotted a bundle of six golf balls. It came packaged with a cardboard flap depicting a headshot of golfer Chi Chi Rodriguez, framed by a giant golf ball. The thing was weird, if not risible, and Mothersbaugh decided, “I just loved it.”
If they weren’t already captivated by the Rodriguez’s style (Casale: “He wore these loud pants and bright shirts, and he had this famous hat that only he wore”), they saw in the illustration the potential for a kitschy reflection of the twin enterprises of commercialism and consumerism. Plus, as Casale puts it, “golf was almost symbolically the most lame kind of, you know, bourgeois pursuit that you could have, especially at that time.”
Hence the image’s very prominent place on the cover of Devo’s “Be Stiff” single, released early in 1978 by (aptly enough) Stiff Records. But when the members, in addition, wanted the same picture on the sleeve of their first LP, their record company Warner Bros. balked. Casale recalled David Burnam, the company’s vice president of business affairs, “was a golf fan and felt we were making fun of Chi Chi,” and also feared that Rodriguez might sue. So Devo fired off a letter to the golfer, formally requesting to use his likeness on their LP’s sleeve, while, in order to meet the album’s slated release date, formulating an alternative cover.
In a stroke of (d)evolved inspiration, Mothersbaugh approached Warner Bros.’ art department with an image he’d found in a local newspaper of a “hideous, bizarre” face that combined the features of American presidents John F. Kennedy, Lyndon B. Johnson, Richard Nixon, and Gerald Ford. The idea: to recreate that composite face, but to further fuse it with Rodriguez’s. It fell on artist Joe Heiner to, in Casale’s words, “mutate Chi Chi’s face so that it isn’t Chi Chi anymore.” By the time Rodriguez wrote back approving the use of his image, it was far too late. The record had been pressed and the band got, according to Mothersbaugh, “a mutilated potato face for an album cover.”
It was hardly what they wanted, but also, what they wanted: a piece of devolved art. Degenerated from their original idea—subject to corporate intervention, morphed by circumstance, and deformed in the image of not one man—the final product endures as a logical entry in the band’s surreal, oddball canon, giving legs to its central philosophy. The being portrayed on the sleeve is no golfer or U.S. president, and as uncanny and unusual as he looks, might well be unfit for survival. And yet here he is. He is no man; he is Devo!