Personal Protection Equipment, DEVO-style

May 28, 2020

The Akron-bred new wave band DEVO found their fame mixing danceable music with satiric takes on American culture. They also sold humorous fan merchandise, including buttons, action figures, and bumper stickers. The coronavirus pandemic has inspired the band’s latest promotional items ⁠— personal protection equipment.

DEVO's entry into the personal protection equipment market is a modification of the band's iconic piece of headgear, the Energy Dome. A clear, plastic face shield is attached to the front of the stair-stepped red hat, sometimes described as an upside-down flowerpot. Band cofounder Gerry Casale said they were actually inspired by an art deco lighting fixture he used to stare at at his Catholic elementary school in Kent, Ohio.

“And so I found a [vacuum forming] plastics manufacturer that did small batches in L.A., and he would make about a hundred at a time for us,” he said. “And then, we decided to try to sell them to make back the cost. And when everybody got done laughing at them, they all wanted them.”

According to Casale, pushing promotional swag in 1980 wasn’t very common.

“In fact, all the supposedly, you know, hard rock bands with credibility frowned upon it. That was a sellout,” he said. “So when DEVO came up with all these ridiculous products that were on purpose, like a wink and a nod - our fans were in on it.”

Over the past couple months, the market for pandemic-inspired facemasks has exploded.

Everyone from famous fashion designers to major sports teams are marketing branded merchandise aimed at curbing the spread of COVID-19.

While it may not be surprising that DEVO is marketing its own masks, the band has upped the ante by offering face shields.

“That's because the company that we found to [vacuum form] our red hats was making shields for people in the restaurant and medical industries,” Casale said. “And they came to us and said, ‘Hey, you guys want a shield?’ And I said, well, can you make it to fit inside the Energy Dome? And they said, ‘Sure. No problem.’”

Wearing protective gear has always been part of the band’s look, and they use humor to make a point.

Forty years ago, they sported yellow hazmat suits and goggles as a satirical comment on the threat of environmental degradation. Today, Casale thinks that the satire has caught up with real life, and the need for personal protection is all too real. He sees the merchandising as its own commentary on a consumer culture distracted by owning the latest branded item while the world outside is mired in political discord and deep decay.

“We were kind of cautioning people to not be lemmings and to not be mindless conformists,” Casale said, pointing to their 1980 song “Freedom of Choice.” “Right now, you have it. But you're choosing to lose it, and you better do something with it, before you don't have a choice. Which is where we're at.”