Spud Boys' Revenge: Devo's Innovative Videos Drive U of H Crowd Nuts
On November 30, 1982, two years after "Whip It" made its rounds through radio and television airwaves, Devo's spazzy music had become the encapsulation of everything pop culture at the time had to offer. Though their catchy synths and calculated kitsch had brought them to fame, come the band's second performance in two back-to-back shows at the Cullen Performance Hall in the University of Houston, a good chunk of the crowd could care less. The venue was far over capacity, and few expected to hear Devo's one Billboard hit.
But on this night, a brand-new technology was expected to premiere to many eyes. It was going to be a video-synchronized concert, with Devo performing in tune to their own video clips projected on large screens behind them, equipped with simultaneously moving props and lighting.
This is a period where Devo had already run into censorship troubles on MTV due to the video for one of their latest singles, "That's Good," which involved a cartoon french fry going into the hole of a donut followed by clips of a girl's expressive face. Devo had been producing their own videos (falling more or less along those lines of wit) since the '70s, and a few were expected to be projected within the next several minutes. The band had already played one concert in the same spot an hour before, and seats kept filling up.
At this point Oh, No! It's Devo was Devo's latest album, said to be inspired by critics who accused the group of being "fascist clowns." The first of these published remarks came from Rolling Stone magazine writer Chris Morris who, after watching a show of theirs back in 1979, said, "Devo's show bore all the orgiastic earmarks of a Nuremburg rally for spud boys."
And Devo did call themselves potatoes and spud boys in a few of their older songs, so that comment sort of stemmed from that stuff. But now their latest album cover featured the members' above big white collars and the rest of their bodies as spuds.
Lights changed, and out appears Devo in front of the closed curtains dressed in their "spud boy" collars and all-black suits, which given the lighting, made it look like they were floating. Synths dropped, Devo charged through songs from their latest album, and people started dancing.
"So, it was said a riot broke out?" I, cutting straight to the chase, asked my dad, who attended the concert in an upper-level seat. I wasn't even an idea at the time.
"Yeah, no. Kids were slam-dancing a bit in the general-admission pit, but it wasn't riotous," he answered. "They had their space, and we were crammed in ours, though it's a bummer that we were so way up that we felt like we were spectators instead of fully part of the concert.
"But there were just so many people there," he added. "I do remember seating was pretty liberal at this venue because people with seats could move up the aisles to get a closer look at the show without trouble or complaint, honestly. But on this night it was impossible because the aisles were packed."
The lights changed, curtains went up, and Devo came onstage with their classic yellow protective gear and energy-dome hats. They began going through a few b-sides of that album. Lights changed again, and video appeared. They began walking in place, in sync to their video and staged surroundings.
"Yeah, see, no one was doing video yet like that in such a large-screen background, like you were used to seeing at your Backstreet Boys concerts," said my dad. "Only a few psychedelic acts played around with this before, sort of, but never yet to that caliber. It was crazy."
"At some point they were projected on these screens walking through woods, and then they were actually walking on a moving sidewalk-like setup with all that in the background, all in a row, doing the same exact steps as each other and as they were doing on that projected video," he added. "It was complete entertainment."
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Freedom of Choice, 1980, featuring Devo's energy domes
So Devo rolled into their groundbreaking debut album Q: Are We Not Men? A: We Are Devo!, and the crowd danced some more all through a couple more songs, when lead singer Mark Mothersbaugh disappeared.
Mothersbaugh then reappeared swinging on a rope towards the stage, and ended up crowd-surfing over the pit, kind of bopping attendees on the head with his microphone along the way. He landed back onstage and the lights went out. Fire marshals then barged in with flashlights, ordering the audience to settle down or they would stop the show.
"It was just so well-timed," added my old man. "The crowd just grew more excited because they thought it was part of the act. I mean, I really thought it was part of the act too."
Eventually the lights went back up, and there were what looked like four cops onstage, batons at the ready. This was all clearly visible from at least a few of the upper seats.
Bassist Gerald Casale proceeded to grab his microphone and tell the audience that the "piggies" would arrest Devo and stop the show if the crowd didn't calm down. That only resulted in a shower of jeers and cheers, with most people excited thinking it was all part of the show. Mothersbaugh plowed into the next song.
A few seconds afterward, the house lights went up, and the cops escorted the band members off the stage. They then ordered all of the audience members out.
"That show was still fantastic, though it sucked it had to be cut short like that," my pops said. "After all that anticipation, I think the show lasted less than an hour. I really still hadn't fully grasped what could have incited the arrests until talking about it now."
"I thought, did someone whine about losing their seat or something?"
Turns out someone (the son of a local judge) did ruin the whole shebang by complaining about losing his seat. Casale further described his arrest and spending the night in jail in a 2011 Houston Press interview.
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