This week at the Sonos Store in New York a panel which included Devo frontman Mark Mothersbaugh took turns sharing their memories of David Bowie. And Mothersbaugh’s surprising revelation that he was in possession of some unreleased Bowie material got the audience very excited.
He recalled the night in the summer of 1977 when Bowie approached Devo after a set at Max’s Kansas City: “David Bowie came up and he said, ‘I’d like to produce you guys.’ And we said, ‘Well, we don’t have a record deal.’ And he said, ‘Don’t worry about it, I’ll pay for it.’”
To show he meant business, Bowie “came out on stage when we played our second show at Max’s that night,” Mothersbaugh said. “He came out on stage and goes, ‘This is the band of the future, I’m going to produce them this Christmas in Tokyo!’ And we’re all like, ‘Sounds great to us. We’re sleeping in an Econoline van out in front on Bowery tonight, on top of our equipment.”
Bowie ended up taking the band out on the town, putting Mothersbaugh up in his hotel room, and introducing the Akron, Ohio innocent to sushi.
A couple of months later, Bowie, Brian Eno, and Devo were in Conny Plank’s studio on the outskirts of Cologne, Germany, recording Q: Are We Not Men? A: We Are Devo!. Well, most of Devo was there. The band’s bassist had missed his connecting flight because he was fighting with his girlfriend on an airport pay phone, Mothersbaugh said. Everyone else made the best of it: “Devo jammed with David Bowie, Brian Eno, Holger Czukay [of Can], and a couple other odd Germans that were electronic musicians that happened to be hanging out there.”
Recently, while bringing his Devo archive back to his studio, Mothersbaugh found a recording of the epic jam session. “I haven’t listened to it yet because I just found this tape,” he said, as jaws dropped in the audience.
That isn’t the only gem Mothersbaugh has happened upon. He also found the 24-track master tapes that the album was recorded on, along with sheets of paper on which Eno had documented each song’s instruments, effects and audio settings. “There’s these tracks down below that say things like: ‘David’s vocals’ and ‘Brian’s extra synths.’ And I’m like, ‘I remember turning that stuff off when we were doing our final mixes.’”
Why would an unsigned band kill David Bowie’s vocals from their mix? (Even then, Bowie was famous enough to need a bodyguard and driver to protect him from raving fans, Mothersbaugh had noted during an outing with him.) The way Mothersbaugh explained it, Devo had dealt with so many fraudulent managers and unauthorised releases that Mothersbaugh was “totally paranoid about people interfering with our stuff.”
Will the lost Bowie and Eno tracks ever surface? “I’m thinking we should see what’s on those tapes,” Mothersbaugh said, adding, “I’m really curious to see what the heck they did.”
In the meantime, he’ll have to wonder what would’ve happened if he had used the tracks. “We might have been more successful.”