The name "Devo" comes "from their concept of 'de-evolution' - the idea that instead of continuing to evolve, mankind has actually begun to regress, as evidenced by the dysfunction and herd mentality of American society." This idea was developed as a joke by Kent State University art students Gerald Casale and Bob Lewis as early as the late 1960s. Casale and Lewis created a number of satirical art pieces in a devolution vein. At this time, Casale had also performed with the local band 15-60-75 (The Numbers Band). They met Mark Mothersbaugh around 1970, who introduced them to the pamphlet "Jocko Homo Heavenbound", which includes an illustration of a winged devil labeled "D-EVOLUTION" and would later inspire the song "Jocko Homo". However, the "joke" became serious, following the Kent State shootings of May 4, 1970 (a song about which, "Ohio", would later be covered by Devo). This event would be cited multiple times as the impetus for forming the band Devo.
The first form of Devo was the "Sextet Devo" which performed at the 1973 Kent State performing arts festival. It included Casale, Lewis and Mothersbaugh, as well as Gerald's brother Bob Casale on guitar, and friends Rod Reisman and Fred Weber on drums and vocals, respectively. This performance was filmed and a part was included on the home video The Complete Truth About De-Evolution. This lineup only performed once. Devo returned to perform in the Student Governance Center (featured prominently in the film) at the 1974 Creative Arts Festival with a line-up including the Casale brothers, Bob Lewis, Mark Mothersbaugh, and Jim Mothersbaugh on drums.
Devo later formed as a quartet. They recruited Mark's brothers Bob Mothersbaugh and Jim Mothersbaugh. Bob played electric guitar, and Jim provided percussion using a set of homemade electronic drums. Their first two music videos, "Secret Agent Man" and "Jocko Homo" featured on The Truth About De-Evolution, were filmed in Akron, the hometown of most members. This lineup of Devo lasted until 1976 when Jim left the band. The lineup was occasionally fluid, and Bob Lewis would sometimes play guitar during this period. In concert, Devo would often perform in the guise of theatrical characters, such as Booji Boy, and The Chinaman. Live concerts from this period were often confrontational, and would remain so until 1977. A recording of an early Devo performance from 1975 with the quartet lineup appears on DEVO Live: The Mongoloid Years, ending with the promoters unplugging Devo's equipment.
Following Jim Mothersbaugh's departure, Bob Mothersbaugh found a new drummer in Alan Myers, who played with mechanical precision on a conventional, acoustic drum set. Casale re-recruited his brother Bob Casale, and the popular line-up of Devo was formed. It would endure for nearly ten years.
Devo gained some fame in 1976 when the short film The Truth About De-Evolution by Chuck Statler won a prize at the Ann Arbor Film Festival. In 1977 Devo were asked by Neil Young to participate in the making of his film "Human Highway". Released in 1982, the film featured the band as "Nuclear garbagepersons." The band members were asked to write their own parts and Mark Mothersbaugh scored and recorded much of the soundtrack, his first of many.
In 1976 Devo released their first single Mongoloid b/w Jocko Homo, the B-side of which came from the soundtrack to The Truth About De-Evolution, on their independent label "Booji Boy", followed in 1977 by the re-working of the Rolling Stones' "(I Can't Get No) Satisfaction".
In 1978 the "Be Stiff EP" was released by English independent label Stiff Records, which included the single "Be Stiff" plus two previous Booji Boy releases. "Mechanical Man", a 4 track 7" EP of demos; apparently a bootleg, rumored to be put out by the band themselves, was also released that year.
Devo caught the attention of David Bowie and Iggy Pop, who championed the band and enabled Devo to secure a recording contract with Warner Bros. Records. After Bowie backed out due to previous commitments, their first album, Q: Are We Not Men? A: We Are Devo! was produced by Brian Eno and featured re-recordings of their previous singles Mongoloid and (I Can't Get No) Satisfaction, their cover version of the Rolling Stones classic. On October 14, 1978, Devo gained national exposure with an appearance on Saturday Night Live, a week after the Rolling Stones, performing "Satisfaction" and "Jocko Homo."
In 1978, co-founder Bob Lewis asked for credit and compensation for his contributions to the band. The band refused to negotiate, and sued Lewis in Los Angeles Superior Court, seeking a declaratory judgment stating Lewis had no rights to the name or theory of De-evolution. Lewis then filed an action in United States District Court for the Northern District of Ohio, alleging theft of intellectual property. During discovery, Lewis produced articles, promotional materials, documentary evidence and an interview recorded at the Akron Art Institute following the premiere of In the Beginning was the End in which Mothersbaugh and other band members credited Lewis with developing the theory of de-evolution, and the band quickly settled for an undisclosed sum.
The band followed up with Duty Now for the Future in 1979, which moved the band more towards electronic instrumentation. While not as successful as their first record, it did produce some fan favorites with the songs "Blockhead" and "The Day My Baby Gave Me a Surprize" [sic], as well as a cover of the Johnny Rivers hit "Secret Agent Man". "Secret Agent Man" had been recorded first in 1974 for Devo's first film and performed live as early as 1976. 1979 also brought Devo to Japan for the first time, and a live show from this tour was partially recorded. Devo also appeared on Don Kirshner's Rock Concert in 1979, performing "Blockhead", "Secret Agent Man", and "Mongoloid".
Devo gained a new level of visibility with 1980's Freedom of Choice which included their best-known hit, "Whip It", which immediately became a Top 40 hit. The album moved to an almost completely electronic sound, with the exception of acoustic drums and Bob 1's guitar. The tour for "Freedom of Choice" featured the band performing in front of large custom light boxes which could be laid on their back to form a second, smaller stage during the second half of the set. Other popular songs from "Freedom of Choice" were "Girl U Want," the title track (both of which had popular music videos, along with "Whip It"), and "Gates of Steel". Devo made two appearances on the TV show Fridays in 1980, as well as on Don Kirchner's Rock Concert, American Bandstand, and other shows.
Devo remained popular in countries such as Australia, where the nationally broadcast 1970s–1980s pop TV show Countdown was one of the first programs in the world to broadcast their video clips. They were given consistent radio support by Sydney-based noncommercial rock station Double Jay (2JJ), one of the first rock stations outside America to play their recordings. The late-night music program Nightmoves aired The Truth About De-Evolution. This paid off, as in August 1981, they found commercial success in Australia when their Devo Live E.P. spent 3 weeks at the top of the Australian charts. Later in the year, they came out to Australia and appeared on the TV show Countdown
In 1981, Devo contributed a cover of "Workin' in the Coal Mine," recording during the Freedom of Choice sessions, to the film Heavy Metal. "Coal Mine" would be a pack-in bonus single with their 1981 release, New Traditionalists. This album brought a new look for Devo, who wore self-described "Utopian Boy Scout uniforms" topped with a plastic "New Traditionalist Pomp," a plastic half-wig modeled on the hairstyle of John F. Kennedy. Among the singles from the album was "Through Being Cool," written as a reaction to their newfound fame from "Whip It," an attack on their new fans that misinterpreted the song—and Devo's—message. The album's accompanying tour featured the band performing an intensely physical show with treadmills and a large Greek temple set.
Oh, No! It's Devo followed in 1982. Produced by Roy Thomas Baker, the album featured a darker, more sinister sound than its predecessors. According to Gerald Casale, the album's sound was inspired by reviewers calling them "fascist clowns" in articles. The album's tour featured the band performing seven songs in front of a 12-foot high rear-projection screen with synchronized video, an image recreated using blue screen effects in the album's accompanying music videos.