How ‘SNL’ Introduced Devo to the Masses: ‘What the Hell Is This?’
Viewers were greeted with an unexpected image on Oct. 14, 1978, when they tuned into Saturday Night Live. Instead of a grizzled rock band or the hottest pop star, the night’s musical guests were five guys in yellow biohazard suits who called themselves Devo.
The Akron, Ohio, group had just released their debut album, Q: Are We Not Men? A: We Are Devo! Produced by Brian Eno, the LP was initially met with mixed reviews. Critics didn’t understand the band, though they developed a passionate underground fan base.
Are We Not Men? fared better overseas, specifically in the U.K. where the album climbed to No. 12. The lead single, a reworking of the Rolling Stones’ "(I Can't Get No) Satisfaction," was a modest hit.
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Mick Jagger was actually a fan of the cover. When Devo played him their version prior to including it on the album, the Rolling Stones frontman reportedly jumped up and started dancing.
How Did Devo Get on 'Saturday Night Live'?
Jagger’s seal of approval aside, there seemed to be very little reason that Devo would be handed a coveted SNL gig. But, as it turned out, the band’s manager had an ace up his sleeve.
Elliott Roberts was a music industry veteran, having worked with some of the biggest names in rock and pop. He believed (correctly) that SNL creator Lorne Michaels had little interest in having Devo on the show. However, Roberts also knew that Michaels was keenly interested in another one of his clients, Neil Young.
A deal was proposed: Have Devo on the show now and Elliott would ensure that Young performed later. Michaels accepted, and Devo was booked for Oct. 14, 1978.
The band was nervous about their Saturday Night Live performance, and Michaels' disinterest in the group didn’t help matters. “Lorne didn’t give a shit,” Devo bassist Gerald Casale explained on The Vinyl Guide podcast. “But the cast, John Belushi decided we were cool. Laraine Newman decided we were cool.”
Watch Devo Perform "(I Can't Get No) Satisfaction"
Meanwhile, "Belushi snorted the entire contents of the first gram of coke I ever purchased," Casale said in a separate interview, while also noting that Devo's Mark Mothersbaugh ended up in a long-term relationship with Newman.
Stress hit a high point moments before Devo took the stage for their national television debut. “The lights go off and Lorne Michaels comes over with an assistant with a flashlight pointing at his face from below him, like Ghoulardi on Halloween. And he goes, ‘Alright, you guys. Don’t make a sound,” Casale recalled.
He remembered exactly what Michaels said to do once the band was introduced: “‘You start playing your asses off. I don’t care if the lights don’t come on. I don’t care if your amplifier doesn't work. I don’t give a hell what’s going on. You’re live and you’re in front of 15 million people. Don’t blow it.’”
Twenty seconds later, the band was on. “If you could shit your pants,” Casale added, “you would.”
Watch Devo Perform 'Jocko Homo' on 'Saturday Night Live'
Like Nothing Fans Had Ever Seen
The result surprised even Casale. “When I see an old clip of us from that night … it’s outrageous,” he admitted. “It doesn’t seem plausible, what you’re looking at. And of course, we were so pumped up and so nervous, that we played faster and tighter than ever – and it doesn’t look real. People said, ‘Oh, you manipulated the video that night, didn’t you?’ It’s like, ‘No, Lorne Michaels would never do that.’ It had to be real, and it was all live.”
For their first song, the new wave group robotically delivered their quirky Rolling Stones cover, dressed in bright yellow hazmat suits and moving spasmodically. Later, the band ripped off the jumpsuits during their second song of the night, “Jocko Homo.”
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“People didn’t believe what they were seeing or hearing," Casale noted. "The audience at home said, ‘What the hell is this?’”
Devo’s performances only got a spattering of polite – and possibly confused – applause from the studio audience, but the impact SNL had on their career was monumental. A previously planned tour had to be completely rescheduled as demand skyrocketed.
“It just went from nobody knowing who the hell Devo was to that night of Saturday Night Live,” Casale recalled. After “we started playing … 2000, 3000 [capacity venues], and it just mushroomed.”
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Gallery Credit: Corey Irwin
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