If there was a Hall of Fame for early ’80s New Wave music, Devo‘s “Whip It” would be a shoo-in for induction. Undoubtedly the band’s most recognizable song, “Whip It” elevated Devo from an underground art-rock outfit to a (briefly) mainstream pop act, albeit one that still retained its pointed and satirical view of society. And, of course, who can forget the song’s surrealist and now-iconic video that was a staple of MTV during the then-fledging channel’s early years? The fact that The Simpsons even paid homage to both the song and the video in an episode demonstrates how much “Whip It” has transcended pop culture.
In a sense, Freedom of Choice, Devo’s third album released in May 1980, was the breakthrough for the Akron, Ohio band. Its unlikely success, not to mention its accessible sound, seemed to promise bigger and better things for the band at the start of the ’80s. Yet, such a breakthrough would never happen again on subsequent records, due to several factors both within and beyond Devo’s control.
The fact that Freedom of Choice retains a unique and special place in the band’s history is the focus of a new eponymous book by author Evie Nagy, part of Bloomsbury’s 33 1/3 series, whose titles spotlights a particular record. Featuring interviews with the surviving members of Devo — Mark Mothersbaugh, Gerald Casale, and Bob Mothersbaugh — the book not only breaks down each of of the original album’s songs but offers an account about the making of the record as well as Devo’s career during and after the success of Freedom of Choice. It also contains a foreword by Portlandia actor Fred Armisen, himself a Devo fan.
A staff writer for Fast Company, Nagy had previously worked at Billboard and Rolling Stone. She spoke with PopMatters recently about the significance of the album Freedom of Choice in the context of the band’s long and influential career.
Why did you want to write a book about this particular Devo record, as opposed to the 1978 debut album Q: Are We Not Men? A: We’re Devo!, produced by Brian Eno, which is generally considered the band’s definitive work?
I was really interested in this particular moment in their career, their mainstream breakthrough. They were always an underground art-rock band that had lots of rock star fans and artsy fans. But Freedom of Choice took this weird group and made them a mainstream phenomenon. So I wanted to find out why that happened and how that happened, and why that particular album was the thing that did that and not one of the earlier ones, and then why also they dropped off very quickly after that. I knew that the story had to be more than “Whip It” was a radio hit and therefore the album sold a lot.
I was able to talk to the co-founder, Jerry Casale, before I wrote the proposal, which was a huge help. And I asked him: “My instinct is to propose a book on Freedom of Choice instead of the debut. What do you think about that?” And he instantly said, “Absolutely”. That was the turning the point; there’s a much better story in that album. So my instinct was corroborated, and then Mark Mothersbaugh said the same thing when I talked to him later.
After making two albums that were kind of avant-garde for their time, what accounted for the mainstream accessible sound on Freedom of Choice? Supposedly, it wasn’t the band’s original intention.
There were just doing what they always did. I think also they knew that it had to do well after the second one didn’t do well, or else they would be dropped from the label and the band would probably be over. Mark said he wouldn’t even know how to write directly for a radio hit, which I believe, that it wasn’t intentional. But I do think they had it somewhere in their artistic process that the music had to be a bit more accessible if they wanted to move on.
I think also working with Robert Margouleff as the producer – he produced all of Stevie Wonder’s albums in the ’70s – they had a very strong R&B inspiration for this album, even though it doesn’t sound directly like R&B. I think that probably helped a lot as well because it made the music danceable in a lot of ways and gave it that funk feel that also kind of directs the music towards a more accessible kind of swing. They were very much in a good writing groove on this album because they were really committed to this artistic direction together. When you’re on the same page, the music is going to be better, and they had been working together for so long that the songs were just really strong.
Some of reviews of the record at the time of its original release — from Rolling Stone and the late Lester Bangs — were negative. There’s was always an uneasy tension between the band and the media in the early part of Devo’s career.
It started early with the UK press. The UK press were super obsessed in trying to figure Devo out. They wanted to be able to say definitively whether this was a joke band or a serious band, or a pop band or an underground art band. They couldn’t figure out that because Devo was all of those things, and they were self-consciously all of those things. They were politically subversive but also super sleek and pop friendly.
People might not know that “Whip It” (the group’s only Billboard Top 40 hit) was seen as an afterthought compared to the other terrific songs on the album — the title track and “Girl U Want” — that were initially the designated singles from the album.
“Freedom of Choice” and “Girl U Want” were much less weird lyrically and thematically. If you listen to the songs now, it makes a lot of sense that “Whip It” was the one that caught on from a sonic standpoint. Both Jerry and Mark would say that they didn’t have any sense of what the single would be and they just left it to Warner Bros., and Warner Bros. said “Girl U Want” would. I think there’s no denying that it was right after “My Sharona” [by the Knack] had been a big hit. “Girl U Want” is not modeled on “My Sharona” but it definitely has a similar kind of feel. If you’re evaluating it as somebody who listens to music and knows what was going on at that time, I think that was at least one of the factors that made them think that “Girl U Want” would be the hit. Also, it’s a very straightforward song about romantic frustration and everyone could relate to that, whereas “Whip It” is this crazy, very weird song that could be a whole bunch of different things.
“Whip It” is certainly the most popular track, but the song “Freedom of Choice” is really outstanding for its driving sound and lyrics.
To me it’s the quintessential Devo song in a lot of ways. It puts the message right out there that at the core of Devo, people have free will but they don’t want it. They would rather be told what to do, and if they don’t recognize that, then they are going to lose all their free will. That’s kind of the core of “devolution”. But they were able to communicate that in a very straightforward and also great kind of party-song way. It’s like a rallying cry, it’s a great singalong song. It just distils the Devo message into something very palatable that’s easier to understand. It’s also a song that I personally listen to over and over again. It got their message and talent all in one package.
Equally important to the success of “Whip It” was the video, which became a cornerstone clip for MTV when the network started in 1981. One would have assumed that band and MTV were a going to be a match made in heaven, but it didn’t turn out that way.
That’s what they [Devo] thought, too. In their mind, their visuals and music are all part of the same art to them. The videos weren’t afterthoughts; they were very much part of the original vision. They thought MTV as a way to put these things out there, and they were making videos since the early ’70s. So, for them, it was like finally mass media is catching on to that visual art and music should go together. But MTV was more about making almost commercials for songs and that other bands that would do videos were doing it in order to promote their albums as opposed to doing it because the art of the video is what they cared about. [Devo’s] content didn’t jive with what MTV ultimately ended up becoming. They will say they were devastated by it because they thought MTV in their initial talks with them as being the format they were made for. MTV’s creative and commercial priorities did not have room for the kind of stuff Devo was doing.
The band was never able to replicate the success of Freedom of Choice for the rest of its career.
The record label had been so thrilled with the success of “Whip It”, that for the next record they said, “It doesn’t matter what you do, but just make sure you write another ‘Whip It’”. The record label didn’t know what they meant by that; Devo didn’t really know what they meant by that other than write another huge hit song. The other thing is that they didn’t work with a producer again [for the next record New Traditionalists]. I think Bob Margouleff had been a really good producer for them and did great things for Freedom of Choice. They decided moving forward that they wanted to do everything themselves for better or worse. Margouleff didn’t form their sound but kind of pushed them to do things that they might’ve not thought on their own. Who knows if they had stuck with him for the next album it would have been a big hit as well.
Because of internal tensions and because Mark’s other creative outlets, they stopped working together, they started writing separately and bringing things together at the last minute. They got rid of a lot of the real instruments and leaning more heavily towards synthesizers. And 1980 was a really receptive time to the kinds of message and image that they were putting across. Things had started to a little more move conservatively, and New Wave and rock were taking on a different shape; the moment wasn’t there as much anymore. I think that’s why Freedom of Choice is so interesting because they all agreed that it was the best time of the band, and then all these things changed right afterward.
From your conversations mainly with Jerry and Mark, what are their thoughts about Freedom of Choice decades later?
A lot of bands will say they hate their most popular work because they’re sick of it – and [Devo] absolutely don’t feel that way. They all agree this was their strongest album and most enjoyable to make because they were working together really well. Everything kind of fell into place. When I asked Jerry, “Does it bother you that “Whip It” is the song that is most popular?”, he said, “Absolutely not. It’s a perfect Devo song. I have no problem with that being the one that’s played over and over and over.” That didn’t happen with “Freedom of Choice”, “Girl U Want”, and “Beautiful World” on the next album. I was very lucky as somebody writing about this album that I didn’t have to do all of the heavy lifting in terms of figuring out why it was their most popular. They related why this album worked so well. It wasn’t a case of them being like, “I don’t know. People are crazy.” It was very much, “It was the strongest set of songs that we had.”
What do you hope people will take away from not only the book but the album 35 years later since its original release?
They’re much more than the one-hit wonder that’s the general population thinks of them as. I think the general public think of them as the guys in the red hats and “Whip It”. I want to people to realize that it’s not the case, that there’s a lot more to them, they have this ongoing influence, even if they haven’t been selling platinum records anymore. Obviously hardcore fans I think are going to read it, and I know that they are. Some of them may come out of it saying things, “Oh, I already knew a, b and c, but I didn’t know d, e and f.” I think the whole R&B angle on the album — I had multiple hardcore Devo fans who read the book come to me and say, “I did not know that… everything makes sense now.” I just want people to come out of it saying, “I didn’t know that about Devo and now I appreciate them more.”