Mark Mothersbaugh, Devo’s singer, was a passionate fan of the Sex Pistols. The respect was reciprocated and – as luck would have it – both bands hung out together in 1978 after what would become the Sex Pistols final show (prior to their 1996 reunion).
“I didn’t know that they were breaking up then. Maybe they didn’t even,” Mothersbaugh recalled during a recent appearance on the Broken Record podcast. “They knew that we liked them and they liked us.”
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Flash forward one year. As Devo was negotiating a new record deal, Branson was angling to make Virgin the group’s European label. He invited Mothersbaugh to join him in Jamaica, an offer the singer quickly accepted considering Devo’s hometown, Akron, Ohio, was covered in snow at the time.
‘I’d Never Seen That Much Marijuana Before’
Once in Kingston, Mothersbaugh and bandmate Bob Casale met Branson and his associates at a hotel.
“Richard Branson and a bunch of guys, South Africans that he’d started Virgin with, were sitting on this sofa, and they were rolling these gigantic joints,” Mothersbaugh recalled. “I’d never seen that much marijuana before. In Akron, it was always three-fourths oregano anyhow by the time it got you. So he rolled these joints, and they’re passing them around. Everybody is taking hits off these giant joints, and I never was a smoker, but I gave it a try. I took a couple puffs. And then Bob Casale was a smoker, so he’s just doing big hits.”
As the weed’s effects started settling in, Branson mentioned the Sex Pistol’s breakup. The topic sparked Mothersbaugh to relay his story of hanging out with the band following their final show.
“At this point, I’m just like blabbing away,” Mothersbaugh admitted. “And [Branson] goes, ‘Well, I’ll tell you why you’re here. I’ve got reporters from Melody Maker, Sounds and New Music Express, the three English papers, they’re all in the hotel right now. And Johnny Rotten is here. Johnny Rotten wants to join Devo. If you want, we can go down to the beach right now and make an announcement and sign something on the beach and Johnny Rotten can join Devo.”
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Stunned by Branson’s offer — and still feeling considerably high — Mothersbaugh struggled to respond.
“I remember at that point, all of a sudden I hit this break,” the Devo frontman recalled. “And I’m looking at Richard and he’s staring intently at me with this crazed look on his face. Because, even to him it must have sounded crazy in a way to say that. And he’s smiling really wide and I’m like, ‘Oh my god. His teeth are protruding like a brain-eating ape.”
“I started stuttering and sputtering,” Mothersbaugh continued. “And Bob is totally smashed. He doesn’t even have anything to say about anything. He’s just so high.”
After taking a second to compose himself, Mothersbaugh explained why adding Rotten seemed like a bad idea.
“We love the band and I love Johnny Rotten, he’s so amazing,” the singer explained. “But Devo, we’re different. And we have our own thing. But we love them and that’s actually really complimentary that he would even think [about joining Devo].”
As you’d expect, Branson and his colleagues were disappointed by Mothersbaugh’s response.
“They thought they were going to do this big crazy stunt,” the singer explained. “I was not up for that at all. And I just remember thinking, ‘Oh, shit. Does that mean we don’t have any place to stay now? Because I don’t have any money. I can’t even afford a ticket back.”
In the end, Mothersbaugh and Casale spent a few days in Jamaica with Branson, though they never saw Rotten, who reportedly returned home quickly.
“Once we didn’t say let’s get together [Rotten] was like, ‘Fucking Richard. What a jackass,’” Mothersbaugh noted. “He couldn’t believe that Richard did that.”
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Gallery Credit: Michael Gallucci