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New book traces Devo's journey from Akron to Kent and back again

Janet Macoska
The members of Devo grew up in Akron, met in Kent in the 1960s, and debuted 50 years ago. They're the subject of a new book by David Giffels and Jade Dellinger, expanding and updating their 2003 book on the band.

For 50 years, Devo has tracked the evolution of de-evolution in its film, multimedia and music projects. The collective from Kent has been nominated for the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, sold millions of records and proven widely influential on music videos and ‘90s grunge. And their core message grows more prescient with time according to author David Giffels.

“Devo was short for de-evolution, the theory that humankind is evolving in reverse,” he said.

That’s the basis of “The Beginning Was the End: Devo in Ohio.” Giffels calls it his “sixth-and-a-half book,” since it’s actually a comprehensive update of his 2003 book about the band. Both of them were co-written with Jade Dellinger, whom Giffels met at a DEVOtional, the Devo fan conventions held since the late ‘90s.

Giffels drew on his decades of work as a Northeast Ohio reporter, social commentator and University of Akron English professor to explain why Devo could only have come from Akron.

“The fascinating story is basically the decade before anyone knew who they were: This thriving, roiling multimedia, multi-conceptual art project that took place in Kent and Akron and, by extension, Cleveland,” he said.

Interviews with the bandmembers and dozens of never-before-seen photographs touch on Devo’s influences: The irreverence of local B-movie host Ghoulardi, the infusion of creativity at Kent State University and progressive rock radio on WMMS and WKSU. All of that could’ve been negated, however, by the shootings at Kent State on May 4, 1970.

“The core members of Devo were friends with two of the students who died,” Giffels said. “Jerry Casale says… that was ‘the most Devo day of his life.’ The theory that humankind is evolving in reverse. That was the first evidence that hit him square in the gut and the heart and the mind that this was true.”

In the book, Giffels moves from the shootings to the band’s nascent forays into film, poetry and music, which he said could only happen in a fully industrialized, but declining, city.

“In places like Akron, nobody's paying attention to something like this,” he said. “There are garages and basements and barns and clubs that don't have any activity going on where they could experiment and not be under the gaze of radio or music executives.”

The Akron look

Nearly a decade of experimentation led them to craft a look which was decidedly Akron. Their yellow hazmat suits came from a janitorial company which supplied product to the rubber industry. The band’s iconic red hats, known as energy domes, were inspired by light fixtures at Casale’s elementary years at St. Patrick's in Kent.

“These old Art Deco light fixtures - the initial visual concept came from upside down versions of what those hats look like,” Giffels said. “Their shape was intended to focus the energy of the universe downward into the mind of the wearer and make that person smarter and more able to operate in a world of devolution.”

That world, according to Giffels, is frighteningly apparent today.

“There’s this new round of current events where they can say, ‘We predicted that,” he said. “Look at what's happening in the world now… in October of 2023… we could open up the newspaper and say, ‘Here's proof that devolution is real.’ So, their message has always contained a truth. It’s a sad truth, I think.”

Giffels will discuss his book at the Beachwood branch of the Cuyahoga County Public Library on Oct. 26, at the Learned Owl book shop on Oct. 27 and the Akron Press Club on Nov. 9.

Kabir Bhatia is a senior reporter for Ideastream Public Media's arts & culture team.