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Video vanguard

Meet the Midwest artist who whipped together music and film to inspire the music video landscape-and helped save DEVO along the way.

By Leah Pietrusiak

Before MTV, there was Chuck Statler. One of the pioneers of the music video, Statler turned a band’s tunes into an instant soundtrack by piecing together images—not always of the band or its performances—to make a work of experimental cinema. Like many great things, this art came about as kind of an accident. It all started with “The Beginning Was The End: The Truth About De-Evolution” (1977), a 10-minute film for new-wave experimental art rockers DEVO. He did most of the videos for the band, regularly enlisting characters he found on the street to appear in cameos spliced between performance footage (in “Secret Agent Man,” two guys in monkey masks spank a masked woman using ping-pong paddles).

The Minneapolis resident has worked with Elvis Costello, Pere Ubu, Graham Parker, Madness and Prince, and continues to work with musicians. Twenty-five of Statler’s videos, shot mainly on 16mm film (and recently screened at MoMA in New York), will show at the Movieside Film Fest at the Music Box on Thursday 7, when Statler is the guest of honor. See Film.  

You met DEVO at Kent State University, in an experimental sculpture class. Did anything really crazy come out of it?
You could basically do anything you wanted…I built boxes with motors in them that just kind of vibrated.

That’s cool.
Ha, I don’t know how cool it was…. But Mark [Mothersbaugh] and Gerry [Canales from DEVO], we shared kind of the same aesthetics, and all came from Akron, Ohio, the industrial Midwest; they were visual artists as much as they were musicians. Once when I was visiting from Minneapolis, Gerry talked about the band splitting up…he said they felt like they’d kind of run the gamut in terms of pitching their stuff around town—which was sending out [audiocassettes].  They got some responses, but the music was really offbeat, far from pop music in 1975. But I knew what these guys were up to [artistically], and it would’ve been a shame if it [weren’t] captured, and I said, “Well, we have to document it. Let’s make something.” We’d talked about doing a film—it wasn’t a video, it was  a film, there was no MTV.

And that changed things.
[“The Beginning Was The End: The Truth About De-Evolution” ] really did cement a record deal because labels actually saw what DEVO was about.

How do you feel about being called “the godfather of the music video”?
I think it’s kind of a misnomer—but I’ll accept it because I’m an enormous James Brown fan, and he’s the godfather of soul. No, but, it’s about trying to create images. It’s silent film. And I think it’s my penchant for real characters, who I think are infinitely more interesting than the beautiful people cast in million-dollar productions. I do a lot of streetcasting. I used to cast by teeth—large teeth, small teeth, broken teeth—now I think it’s hair. I’m working on an electronic press kit for Fog from Minneapolis, and I have a female Elvis impersonator with huge mutton chops, an older light-skinned African-American guy with a silver Don King Afro and a bald guy.  

Where’d you find the crazy woman with the rolling pin in DEVO’s “Satisfaction”?
[She] owns the house. We needed a location, and a friend of DEVO said, Oh, you can use my parents’ house. And we got there, and of course there’s her mom…she and the rolling pin came with the location.

For more trivia tidbits, read the full interview at


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