Devolutionary Design

RM: This is 99% Invisible, I’m Roman Mars.

It’s hard to overstate just how important record album art was to music before we downloaded everything. Our experience with a record or CD used to be visual. The design of the record cover was your first impression of what was to come. I would stare at the fonts on the cover and pour over the liner notes the first time I put a record on; it was a ritual. I’m not saying that era music was better, it wasn’t, it was just different. The art on the records tried to encapsulate the essence of a band and then that essence was transferred to you because you were a fan, and it became part of your identity too. At least that’s what it felt like. Album art was certainly important to my friend, and reporter, Sean Cole. One certain album, and one certain band, in particular.

SC: Roman, were you ever a DEVO fan?

RM: I was more of a DEVO appreciator, I don’t think I was really a fan. Like, I liked the songs I heard, I remember Whip It when I was a kid.

SC: You were not a DEVO-tee…

RM: (laughs) I was not a DEVO-tee. I remember the red hats. And I have a particular memory of them doing a cover of “I Can’t get no Satisfaction” by the Rolling Stones on Saturday Night Live wearing these yellow Hazmat Suits. You know like, they were really weird.

SC: Yes, weird, yes. So this story is about that DEVO album, the one that they were promoting on that Saturday Night Live performance you saw. More specifically, it’s about the album art of that record. Because the story of the image that ultimately ended up on that record is this crazy rabbit hole that I fell down. But before I get there I just need to cover some things about Devo that you might not know. Do you know where the name comes from?

RM: I do not.

SC: So, a lot of people think of DEVO as this really silly, you know, nutty band and jumping around, but they were actually very serious and had a very considered philosophy. And that was that the human race is in a state of devolution. Hence, DEVO. So their songs are all, you know, other than Whip It, are mostly about corporate control, and blind conformity and they were actually visual artists before they wrote any songs. This was in the early 70’s in Akron, Ohio. So I talked with one of the founders of DEVO, Jerry Casale, who says that back then they were mostly trying to figure out what devolutionary art would look like.

JC: You know, because we were very, very enamored and put off at the same time by pop culture. Like, the lowest end of like, ad graphics, terrible TV commercials. We were kind of drawn to kitch.

SC: And occasionally they would go out shopping for kitch.

JC: So, we’re walking through the K-Mart…

MM: Nope, it was the predecessor to Kmart. It was Click.

SEAN: And this is Mark Mothersbaugh, he’s another member of the band. This is probably the point to mention that this was more than 4 decades ago, and not everybody’s memory is too clear.

ROMAN: Okay, so independent of what department store they’re in, they are IN a department store.

SEAN: They are in a department store.

MM: We were looking for supplies, we were collaborating on a visual art piece together and walking through the sports section…

JC: And there are these six practice golf balls in a clear plastic pouch, sealed shut at the top with a cardboard display head.

SEAN: So can you picture this? It’s like that display head, uh, with the hole in it that hangs on a hook?

ROMAN: Yes, I can picture it. Kinda like the racks with the bags of generic candy at the gas station? Like a clear bag full of candy, and it just says, “gummy bears” at the top.

SEAN: And so on that display head, is an illustration of the smiling face of Chi Chi Rodriguez.

ROMAN: And who was Chi Chi Rodriguez?

SEAN: Chi Chi Rodriguez was one of the most famous golfers in history. Um, he was like…I don’t know what Chi Chi Rodriguez was like… He was like, he was like the Elvis of golfers (laughs) He was just like a big showman.

MM: I saw it and I just loved it, it was a picture of him in front of a golf ball.

SC: So his head’s kind of haloed by a big golf ball.

MM: Kind of imitating something that I’d already been printing, which was human heads in front of the moon, and it made us laugh.
JC: We chuckle. We have to have that. And of course, golf was almost symbolically like the most lame, kind of, you know, bourgeois pursuit that you could have, especially that time. Unless your parents were rich, you didn’t get to go golfing.

MM: If we ever imagined ourself on a golf course, it was probably a caddy.

JC: And how boring it looked then on TV and the announcing. But the one guy who stood out was Chi Chi, because he didn’t fit with the rest of the golfers at all. He wore these loud pants and uh, bright shirts. And he had this famous hat that only he wore, which had a specific hat band, and you know…

SC: A Panama hat.

JC: A straw Panama kind of hat, yeah.

RM: So did they buy those golf balls?

SC: They bought the golf balls…and Mark used the Chi Chi picture in a manifesto he was writing about being a “Spud Boy in the Rubber Town of Akron” but other than that…

JC: Nothing really happened with it until we were already putting out our self-produced single, Be Stiff.

RM: Oh I like that song.

SC: It’s uh, this is my favorite one. So it’s like this kind of jokey anthem, celebrating like, literal stiffness, like uptightness talking about televangelists, politicians, and how stiff they are.

JC: Somehow, and I don’t really remember the moment, but we had the idea of putting Chi Chi on that cover.

SC: And so they used that picture of Chi Chi on the cover of the 45, of the single. And it was like this commentary on commercialism. You know, our obsession with selling.

JC: And in this case selling plastic golf balls, and the Americana of the golfer.

SC: Be Stiff comes out in 1978, and you know,they’re still not famous. They’re just weird, obscure, art rock band. BUt then about 4 months later, DEVO gets their big break. Um, Warner Brothers signed them to their first full-length album.
And that, according to Jerry, is when the real de-evolution began.

JC: We’ve laid that whole thing out, and working up to this moment, and then comes the real Devo twist that only a corporation could provide. In other words, what we’re talking about we become part of.

ROMAN: So they’re about to be on Top 40 radio, and broadcast on the TV screens of middle America. So what was this new record called?

SEAN: It’s a long title, It’s called “Question: Are We Not men, Answer: We Are Devo.”

ROMAN: (laughs) And this is their first major label album?

SEAN: Yeah, I know. Exactly, right? (Laughs) So Mark and Jerry and the other members of the band, they’re like, “Well, that picture of Chi Chi worked so well on the single, let’s just stick with it. You know, that’s kind of our brand now. Let’s just put that on the cover of the full-length record.”

RM: And this is like, a picture of Chi Chi Rodriguez, the original picture from that thing they bought at K-Mart. They just took that, lifted it directly, and put it on to their album.

SC: Exactly.

RM: And they’re gonna put that now, onto a major label album.

SC: Yes, exactly.

RM: (laughs) Okay.

SC: So they head to California…uh, you know, movie montage theme music here, Beverly Hillbillies, whatever. Um, and they go to Warner Brothers HQ and this is like the process back then; and maybe now, I don’t know. But like, they’re heading from department to department at Warner Brothers, you know, dealing with all the new album things that need to happen.

JC: And we’re told to go see I think Rick Seireeni was his name. He seemed like an okay guy.
SC: He’s in the Art department?

JC: Yeah, he’s the head of the Art dept.

RS: I was creative director at Warner Brother Records.

JC: He seemed to like what we were up to.

RS: The one band that I appreciated the most was Devo. I love the fact that they just never took anything very seriously.

SC: Do you remember that first meeting with them?

RS: Not only to I remember it, I have a polaroid of it.

JC: We show him the image, he… he chuckles.

RS: I thought it was clip art.

SC: Yeah. Chi-Chi does look a lot like clip art.

RS: And I guess I never asked. Uh, I only found out that it was him sometime later.

SC: I guess, what did it evoke for you?

RS: Absurdity. (laughs) I mean, you have to think about what was going on back in the day. Artwork, you know, on album covers had rules attached to it. Most of the, most of the albums were delivered to little mom and pop music stores all around the country.

SEAN: Right.

RICK: And there’d be some kid who would come in at 4 o’clock after school, and his job was to open up the box of records from Warner Brothers or Columbia or whatnot and then rack them, right?

SC: Mhmm.

RS: So, the one thing that they told all of us in the Art department is, “Don’t screw that up. A rock band has to look like a rock band, a country western has to look like country western.” They better have cowboy hats on. Otherwise, you get mis-racked, and then if people can’t find them in the rack of the genre that they’re interested in, and they don’t buy it. But in Devo’s case the music was so unusual, that it could have something completely absurd on the cover and make perfect sense.

RM: So even though it makes no sense that a picture of a flamboyant golfer, stolen from a package of golf balls… is the mascot of DEVO, it does make perfect sense, because that’s who DEVO is.

SC: Exactly. It’s just like, “Pick something impossible!” and Rick is just psyched. Like, he loves working on this um, on this with them. You know, it’s just, they’re doing all the little design-y things and giving him the font, double bold, and you know, al this stuff and you know, getting everything ready.

JC: He laid it all out, specked the colors. You know, did the whole serious thing where they give you a transparency that’s a mock up, right?

SC: Mmm-hmm.

JC: And we approve it, and then about two days later we get this call and it’s a big crisis.

SC: The call was from the Vice President of Business Affairs for Warner Brothers.

JC: David Berman, who was a guy that you would cast in a movie about the music business.

SC: As the villain or as the hero?

JC: Well, it just depends on your point of view. He was very smart, very good at what he did, and played hardball. And the first communication is, “I’m a golfer, and I’m a fan of golf, and I know Rodriguez. I’ve met Chi-Chi Rodriguez. You cannot use Chi-Chi Rodriguez.”

DB: That is completely and totally false.

SC: This is David Berman. I told you not everybody’s memory is crystal clear regarding this story.

DB: Not only have I never met, I have never seen Chi Chi Rodriguez; other than on television.

JC: I’m not going to make fun of a friend of mine.

DB:I’ve never met him, I’ve never spoken to him.

JC: I’m not going to get this company sued.

SC: That part is accurate, says David Berman, about maybe being sued. Yes he did play hardball, but he says his objection was purely a legal one.

DB: Purely. In California law it’s crystal clear. You can’t use somebody’s name or likeness for commercial purposes without their permission. It had nothing to do with my being a golfer other than, because I was, I knew that it was clearly Chi Chi Rodriguez. It wasn’t the fact that he was likable, it could have been Rory Sabatini and I would have done the same thing.

SC: Wait who is Rory Sabatini?

DB: He’s a golfer. But nobody likes Rory Sabatini.

RM: (laughs)Wait why does no one like Rory Sabitini?

SC: I don’t know, but also, Rory Sabatini was born in 1976 and would have been two years old when this DEVO record came out. But anyway, this all came as a real blow to the band.

JC: We’re dumbfounded and crestfallen. We don’t know what to do. And but of course we’re stubborn, we’re not giving up.

SC: So they’re like, “Let’s just write Chi Chi a letter, and ask his permission.”
BUt in the meantime, corporate gears are running, and money’s been paid, and you know, Warner Brothers is expecting a product. So DEVO is like, “Let’s come up with a Plan B.” And they had this idea that actually involves another piece of devolutionary art.

JC: It’s an artist rendering of what the last four presidents would have looked like, had you combined them.

SC: So Ford, Nixon, Johnson, and Kennedy. All of their faces mashed together. Mark Mothersbaugh had this picture lying around.

MM: And it was this hideous, bizarre face that had John Kennedy’s hairline, and it had Lyndon Johnson’s uh, ears and Richard Nixon’s nose.

SC: So the band brings that image to the Warner Brothers art department…

JC: On an idea that, why couldn’t we just mutate Chichis face? (laughs) So that it isn’t Chi Chi anymore?

RM: So what did they end up doing to Chi Chi’s face?

SEAN: So they basically like, it was like building a Mr. Potato Head toy. Like, they grafted Johnson’s ears and Nixon’s nose onto Chi Chi’s head, and reversed the mouth… I should actually, I should say that David Berman from, who was in business affairs at the time, he doesn’t remember the image being altered. So I sent him the original Chi Chi image from the golf balls and the potato head collage just so he could, he could compare them.

DB: Looking at it today, I wonder why I approved it because to me it still looks like Chi Chi. BUt obviously I must have.

SC: Here’s Jerry Casale.

JC: About three weeks later, a letter comes back from Chi Chi’s representatives.

SC: No.

JC: Saying, “Yes, Chi Chi thinks it’s fine to use that image.” He just wants 50 records at Christmas time to give out to his friends and family.”

SC: He wanted to say to his friends and family like, “Look, I’m on a record!”

JC:Right? He liked that.

SC: This is Mark Mothersbaugh.

MM: And so, it was at that point it’s like, we couldn’t go back. They’d already printed the cover, so now we had this mutilated Potato Face for an album cover and it didn’t really look like the handsome Chi Chi anymore. So I’m sure he was quite surprised when he got a box of them in the mail.

JC: All our efforts were in fact in earnest, but what it looked like in the end is that DEVO had meanly tricked Chi Chi Rodriguez, and put out something that made him look hideous. It was, you know it was a mess.

SC: Now, they did send Chi Chi a couple thousand dollars also, as well as the record, so it wasn’t a total loss for him. Um, but then they just never heard from him again.

RM: Wow. So they never got his take on the album art. Or even, the songs on the album or anything like that?

SEAN: Which is my reigning question in all this. I really want to know if Chi Chi ever listened to that record and what he thought of it.

JERRY: Yeah that would be the big question. Well why don’t you interview Chi Chi Rodriguez?

CCR: Hello?

SC: Hello Chi Chi Rodriguez?

CCR: Yeah, who is this?

SC: It’s Sean….

SC: I reached Chi Chi at a country club, naturally, in West Palm Beach Florida. He’s in his early 80’s now, still handsome, still plays golf, not professionally. Does a lot of philanthropic work through his foundation and an annual charity event.

SC: It’s really an honor to talk to you.

CCR: It’s my honor to talk to you, Johnny!

SC: It’s Sean. But that’s OK.

RM: (laughs) Oh he sounds like the best, Johnny. I love him!

SC: He’s so sweet. I love him. Chi Chi says he remembers getting this letter, and he says he did give out those records to his friends and family.

SC:Did you notice when you got the record that it didn’t quite look like you that much?

CCR: Well, it looked like me, I look at the pluses, and looked like me a little bit! At least the hat looked like me.

SC: But he didn’t know anything about them messing with his face. And he had no idea they were worried he would sue them.

CCR: Sue them? Well anyone that worry about somebody suing them, that means that they’re so crooked that they sue people. and they think that people are going to sue them. I thought this young people trying to make a career out of it, and I could help them, and that’s it. Because I like I like to do something good every day of my life, and I want to leave the earth better than I found it.

SC: So even young, sort of avant garde, punk musicians you want to help?

CCR: Yeah.

SC: Did you listen to that record?

CCR: Yeah, I listened to it one time.

SC: Just once?

CCR:I put it away.

SC: You didn’t like it?

CCR: No, I didn’t like it. I like Frank Sinatra, and Nat King Cole, and Dean Martin… who was my favorite, you know, because music is not supposed to rile you up, music is something to bring you down.

RM: So the most important question, answered! He did not like it. (laughs)

SC: Right, and like, but as I was talking to him, I was like, but there’s like a kind of greater question here. Which is like, what did he think about his face, or a mutated version thereof, being on the cover of this apocalyptic, weirdo, art rock band’s first record? Like, did that make sense to him? And…it did, in a way. Because Chi Chi knows he’s “Chi Chi.” He knows how much he stands out.

RM: Right.

SC: And how outlandish he is. None of that is lost on him. And he fact, he said it’s pourposeful.

CCR: Golf, golf is showbusiness. And when you’re on stage, you’ve got to give the people a show. And that’s what the DEVO did. DEVO came out and gave people a good time.

SC: So that is the similarity between you and DEVO?

CCR: Yes.

SC: So in a way, it really makes sense that they used you on the cover of their record?

CCR: I think they were geniuses. And it takes a genius to recognize another.

(laughter between Sean & Chi Chi)

RM: Whoa. You guys sound almost diabolical there.

SC: Yes. Me and Chi Chi, at the bottom of a volcano….

RM: Planning the devolution of the human race

SC: The devolution of the human race, exactly.

JC: One could argue that…

SC: Again Jerry Casale.

JC: …What we were put through by David Berman, actually achieved something here better than just using a found image.

SC: So what you’re saying is, corporate interference, plus the faces of four American presidents who prosecuted the Vietnam War and its aftermath, and this wonderful, dandy-ish golf legend, All of this together….

JC: Yeah!

SC: It’s more DEVO than the original Chi Chi image.

JC: That’s what I’m saying. It’s DEVO in action. Like, do you need an example of what we’re talking about? Here it is.

RM: So this whole story takes place at the beginning of DEVO’s career. They go on to play for decades and got extremely famous. They were just nominated for the Rock and Roll Hall of fame. Do they think about Chi Chi as kind of part of their origin story?

Sean: Yeah, Mark Mothersbaugh sort of raised that when we were talking.

MARK: I really, I don’t think anyone ever tried to measure how much that album cover had in the success of DEVO, but it could possibly have been the tipping stone that just like, changed everything. It gave us a chance to have a public career so just in case, thank you Chi Chi.

SC: Hey Roman.

RM: Yeah?

SEAN: The Story’s not over. There’s one more diabolical DEVO twist. Here’s Jerry Casale.

GERRY: I have to say now that I’m a senior citizen, I competely changed my attitude about the game of golf.

SC: You did not, REALLY?

JC: Yeah, I like it now. It’s changed so much from those days, and who got to play it, and how it’s played. I mean those guys really are athletes.

SC: I never thought I would hear a member of DEVO say that.

JC: I know. Here’s a doubly hideous secret unfolding right now, I really like professional football.

SC: (laughs)

Credits

Production

Reporter Sean Cole spoke with Jerry Casale and Mark Mothersbaugh from the band Devo; David Berman, former vice president of business affairs for Warner Brothers; and Chi Chi Rodriguez, professional golfer.

A version piece originally aired on the NPR sports show Only a Game.

Comments (8)

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  1. Carlos Corrada

    Two episodes with Puerto Ricans in a row? Woo-hoo! It sort of fits the podcast, as we are “99 porciento invisibles”.

  2. Dave

    It should be noted that the altered cover art image foretold the arrival of Tom Brady 25 years later

  3. To (some) DEVO purists, references to anything after the “Duty Now for the Future” album deviates from the core original aesthetic of DEVO. So using the “Whip It” references is more of a nod to their Top 40 popularity than it is a nod to their original aesthetic: the dirty Chuck Statler avant- garde non-conformity of The Men Who Make the Music and other imagery in the “hardcore DEVO” years. But it’s all good. Keep up the good work.

  4. Dave Cull

    I’m kind of surprised they didn’t mention that “Are we not men?” comes from The Island of Dr. Moreau, and how the patchwork face Devo ended up using for their cover was a very Moreau-like creation.

  5. A great episode, as almost always. But this time with some great unexpected quotes by Chi Chi in the interview at the end: “leave the earth a little bit better than it was”, and “golf is showbusiness”, and “they are geniuses, it takes one genius to recognise the other”. Beautiful extras to the design story.
    By the way, when is the story on the universal ugly hotel luggage trolley design coming up?

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