Remembering Devo’s Bob Casale: Punk-Rock Guitar God

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My first guitar was a piece of garbage that cost me 50 bucks. It was ugly, it was nicked up, it sounded terrible, and it represented the height of my career as a guitar player. I could hardly play it, but I was operating under the assumption that that was the entire point, that punk was supposed to be by and for people who couldn’t play their instruments just as much as it was for the ones who could.

That wasn’t totally the case, and once I got past the three-chord starter pack of bands that went for loud and fast above all else, I discovered albums like Television’s Marquee Moon, Robert Quine’s work on Richard Hell’s first solo album, Crazy Rhythms by The Feelies, and other albums that blended punk’s quirk and irreverence with great musicianship. I loved and dreamed of being able to create something even remotely as great as those albums, but Devo’s 1978 debut, Are We Not Men? We Are Devo!, was the record I related to the most — largely because Devo were weirdos, but also because I figured Bob Casale’s guitar parts were easier to replicate. The more I tried, however, the more I found out that this was not the case.

Mimicking Casale, who died yesterday at the age of 61, was not as easy a task as I’d assumed. I gave up almost as quickly as I started, ditching the album’s opener, “Uncontrollable Urge,” for “Lexicon Devil” by the Germs, which shares a bit of the same intro, but is ultimately an easier song to play.

I never became an even halfway decent guitarist; I couldn’t solo, couldn’t hear a song and then play it, and according to some guy with a ponytail at Guitar Center, I didn’t play with “balls.” I just wasn’t good. At first I chalked it up to this idea that I was part of some grand tradition of crappy punk musicians, but listening to Devo and their contemporaries helped me realize that the whole “music for non-musicians” thing wasn’t totally true. Just like Devo, who are remembered by most of America solely for their weird red hats and “Whip It,” people have always misunderstood punk and new wave music. A good listen to the guitars on any album by The Clash, X, or Joy Division — and their influence on The Edge from U2 (who, regardless of what you think about his lead singer, is an amazing guitar player) — quickly dispels the whole notion that punks couldn’t play.

Casale was the best example of all of this, so it’s a shame that Devo still tend to get far less credit for their musical innovation than for their conceptual antics. The fact that his band is remembered as “punk” means that Bob Casale will never go down in history as a “guitar god.” That was never the point of his virtuosity, and maybe that’s for the best.