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The Story Behind Devo’s Surprise Breakout Hit “Whip It”

on November 14, 2020, 3:11pm
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2020 has been a year that represents de-evolution on a global scale. The pandemic rages. Economies crumble. Inequality and racial strife run rampant. Authoritarianism is on the rise. Massively. Negative forces that have always simmered below the surface — much like in a seemingly serene David Lynchian universe — have now been exposed. And what we see isn’t pretty.

If ever there were a time for Devo, this is that time. The band’s creativity, impact, and overall philosophical ethos are all more relevant now than ever — and that notion isn’t lost on co-founding member Gerald Casale. “Times are more devolved than we could have even projected, ever,” Casale admitted over Zoom from his Los Angeles home a mere four days before the 2020 Election.

This year was supposed to be a celebration for Devo. “Whip It”, the band’s signature smash from their third studio album, Freedom of Choice, turned 40 years old. In commemoration, the band had planned a number of major tour dates, all of which which would have kicked off with a co-headlining appearance at the first Cruel World festival in LA.


Instead, COVID-19 put the kibosh on any and all live music, creating a crueler world that mirrored the underlying sarcasm of Casale’s favorite track, “Beautiful World”. It’s this environment that housed our discussion, a chat that found Casale sharing the stories behind not just “Whip It”, but a personal favorite deep cut: “Smart Patrol/Mr. DNA” off 1979’s Duty Now for the Future.

So, grab your energy dome hat, and escape into the world of Devo below. If that’s not enough for you DEVOtees, you can join the band in their DEVOtional 20th Anniversary Tribute Livestream Event, which begins tonight, November 14th, at 6 p.m. EST.


“Whip It” is perhaps your best-known song, and it reached a major milestone this year by turning 40. How did it come to be, and what inspired you to write it?

Obviously, with that we lucked out, because we finally got radio airplay. Until then, Devo were really the pioneers who got frozen out by the prevailing aesthetics and politics of FM radio programmers where Devo was “verboten.” You know, “What the hell is this stuff? We want rock and roll!” Those stations were controlled by guys that were still mired in late ’60s early ’70s rock and roll lore. And that involved the independent promoters with the drugs and prostitutes and the satin record company ball jackets and the long hair and the mutton chops and the whole thing. And so Devo comes along in the midst of that, and they were so off put and so disgusted like, “What the hell is this? These guys are all clean-shaven with short hair, and they’re wearing these yellow, plastic suits, and they’re talking about de-evolution. Get them out of here!”

But by 1980, obviously, there was a sea change. There was a shift, and radio was coming around, and people understood that this new music that had been so rejected — that had become a pariah — it wasn’t going away. In fact, it was getting better. There was something building, and it was a big deal. So, when we were recording Freedom of Choice, we were feeling all that. We were in a rehearsal studio in Hollywood, California, in 1979. We were young and motivated and this functioning unit, this collaboration, where everybody was excited to be there and everybody was excited to work on these songs. And we had basically exhausted our previous catalog of songs that we had written for four or five years in our basement and garage days in Akron, Ohio. Now, we were interested in moving forward to the next phase of Devo. Of course, as artists and musicians, we were no longer interested in just repeating what we had done with the same sounds and the same beats and the same type of lyrics. We had new ideas. That’s what Devo was. We were experimental. We were moving, changing artists.

What did that transformation look like?

We were being driven by this group idea that we all agreed on to be Devo’s version of R&B-influenced electronic music, as hilarious as that sounds. Because nobody would listen to Freedom of Choice and say, “Oh yeah, R&B!” They wouldn’t. But there were basic agreements, like we were going to change the kinds of beats we would play to. They would be more danceable, coming from funk and R&B. And I was going to play a Minimoog bass, not bass guitar, because we were very influenced by songs from Stevie Wonder and other groups.

That’s unexpected.

I know. Nobody would know. The Gap Band — “You Dropped a Bomb on Me” — we loved them. And we loved the Ohio Players and early Prince. Oh my god, Prince. He really did it for us. We actually saw him at some place that had been a roller rink at the corner of La Cienega Blvd. and Santa Monica Blvd. [in Los Angeles] in 1979 when he still hadn’t really broken through, but Warners had signed them. We were invited to the show down there, and Prince comes out in a Burberry beige trench coat, bikini underpants, garter belts and hose and six-inch high heels and nothing else. And he starts doing songs from Controversy before it was released. And here we were as artists just blown away. We were jealous. It was amazing. We were just listening to what he was doing, and it was so good. It was just so good.

Prince - Controversy

I don’t think it’s obvious to people that Devo would be inspired and influenced by Prince.

I realize that. But Bob Mothersbaugh and I, in particular, were really big fans of historical R&B that was coming out of Detroit in the mid-’60s through the early ’70s. And so we were big fans of stuff like “Working in a Coal Mine” [written by Allen Toussaint, and later covered by Devo] or Smokey Robinson & The Miracles with James Jamerson on bass with “Tears of a Clown”. So, all that was being factored into the music we were writing. I loved learning how to play the Minimoog bass and what that was doing to the songs that we wrote, because I was interacting with Alan [Myers, Devo’s most well-known drummer], and Alan was laying down more two/four funky dance beats and we were very excited. That was it. Nobody would expect this from Devo. So, long before we picked Robert Margouleff to produce our record, because he had worked with Stevie Wonder, we were already doing this stuff. And it worked out because he was the perfect guy to record music that was based on a drier drum set with funky synthesizer lines on bass.

Once you chose your producer, what happened next?

Mark and I kept sketch books and lyric books. We were both artists. We would bring in and share everything we had come up with creatively into the studio, and we would lay it out on a table, and anybody in the band could look at what we had been trying to write or what we were thinking. Mark, at that time, had set up a rudimentary recording system in his bedroom so that he could play sketches and riffs onto a cassette machine and then mix it back. So, he would start bringing in things that we didn’t create together in the rehearsal hall for us to listen to if we liked something. I would diligently listen to everything he had brought in, in addition to him listening to everything I would play in the studio like here’s an idea for a song.

“Whip It” came about from four different cassette tapes at different times over a two-week period, and they were each sketches that embody pieces of the composition that became “Whip It”. But they were in different BPM’s [beats per minute], different instrumentations. In fact, the chorus to “Whip It” was a piece he had done just with a keyboard running through some harmonizer de-tuner. And it was in different time signature than 2/4, but that’s the part that became [here, he makes a loud synthesizer sound], you know [he makes different pitched, louder synth sounds]. It was almost just like abstract classical music meets [Arnold] Schoenberg [referring to one of the most famous classic expressionist composers of the 20th century].

How did all those elements cohesively come together?

There were things in each of them that I liked, and I started saying, why not combine these things over a central beat? And Alan came up with what became the famous “Whip It” beat, which we thought at the time was so cool and strange, and we just loved it because it didn’t really sound like any other beat that anybody was doing. It was kind of like jazz meets disco, and only Alan could do a beat like that because he came from a jazz background where he was a super-accomplished drummer before Devo. He had an amazing metronomic feel. You know that guy was a human metronome. So, he laid down this beat, and we all liked it so much that we started putting together the parts of these four different tapes into one composition.

And I had these lyrics I had written already, that for six months I had no uses for because they were so strange. I thought nobody’s going to like them. They’re not rock and roll. And I wrote them only because I had been reading Thomas Pynchon’s book Gravity’s Rainbow, and in it he created all these poems and limericks that were satires of American exceptionalism. Like, “Horatio Alger, you’re number one. You’re special. It’s only you. You can do it.” And it’s this whole propaganda of America that keeps people and capitalism going. And I thought they were so funny and so clever. I’m laughing out loud in my own bedroom alone reading this book. I thought, I want to make one of those. I want to make a Tom Pynchon kind of limerick, and I wrote “Whip It” in one night in my bedroom.

Thomas Pynchon - Gravity's Rainbow

Is that how most ideas come to you? Do you have a typical process when it comes to writing lyrics?

No. The main process was to write them down now because you’re going to forget them in the morning. You’d come up with these brilliant ideas, and then you think there’s no way you’re going to forget that, and then you do. It’s like a dream where you have this amazing poignant dream, and it’s so significant to you, and so potentially life changing, and then you wake up and you start getting interrupted by your housemate, your girlfriend, phone calls, and then three hours later you’re like, “What was that dream?” And so much of creativity is like a dream, because you’re best when you get past the effort, the conscience effort, the constipated forced logic effort of coming up with something. That’s not creativity. Creativity usually comes in an inspirative [his word] moment. Like boom! It’s the lightbulb, so you better get some evidence of it.

When we started putting these pieces together, everybody liked it so much I went back to the “Whip It” lyrics and showed Mark and said to him, “Hey, I could sing this here, and you could sing that there,” and they just fit. And suddenly we had the right music for these lyrics that had no music previously. When you’re a band that is collaborating freely, when there’s no real hierarchical politics, and when you’re sharing this information, great things can happen. That’s when the best stuff gets made. And people are on the same page, so nobody’s resisting going, “Wait a minute. Well, I didn’t write those lyrics, so we can’t put them on there.” And so, that’s why when you look at the Devo catalog of over 150 songs, 90% of them are 50/50 collaborations between Mark and I, because we worked well together. Almost without exception, the best songs were done that way.

You two are almost like the Lennon and McCartney of New Wave.

I would like to think so.

It was that type of collaboration, where there was no need to parse out who did what. It was a team, simply creating.

Right. What I revere and respect and love in memory so much is that in that point in time, how “Whip It” got written was in the true spirit of Devo. Excitement. Openness. Collaboration. Working together for the greater good. Let’s throw out the dumb stuff and what sucks and just keep the best. If the rest of the band wasn’t into it, I knew that that means I went off on some tangent. Regardless of who writes the stuff, the real test is if people who didn’t write it, love it. And the band was all there. They cooperated and collaborated and they did things that were so essential to the recording of the song — the nuances of the details of the song – that without them, those songs wouldn’t sound like that. There’s no way. Everybody was there.

In Devo, it wasn’t like we had session guitar players. We couldn’t even find a guitar player that was worth his salt that would touch what we were doing. They had no respect for it, and we couldn’t have talked them into it. We could have had only our brothers, Bob Mothersbaugh and Bob Casale, because they understood us, and they trusted us. They didn’t think they were being made fun of or taken for a ride when we said, “Well, could you do something like this?” And, it’s a ridiculous guitar line that no cool musician would ever play, because Devo was not cool.

Well, you were through being cool, right? [my homage to another one of Devo’s hits].

That was the joke, right. As if we ever were.

Devo - Freedom of Choice

Did you feel once you had caught that internal magic with the band, and you recorded the song, that you had a hit on your hands?

No. Not at all, because Devo probably couldn’t have written a hit on purpose if our lives depended on it. But what we did do as artists is only pursue things that we thought were really good and we were really proud of. So, when you hear [the album] Freedom of Choice, you as an audience may quickly make judgments about which songs are great, and which are silly, and which aren’t worked out enough, or whatever. We thought these are great, we’re putting them on this record. We didn’t assign this one’s a hit, this one’s a deep cut. We didn’t think like that. And of course the record company was searching desperately for a hit, because the other story is that Freedom of Choice was going to be our last record.

Tell me more about that.

Warner [Devo’s record label at the time] sent an A&R man out to us in 1979 before we started recording any demos for Freedom of Choice, and we were playing a tour supporting Duty Now for the Future, our second record. We were at the Palladium in New York City and just before the show, our road manager is called into the green room and it was some guy from Warner. They had this long discussion behind this closed door, and we’re backstage getting our costumes on to start the show for the concert. Our tour manager, Ron Stone, tells us, “Hey guys, I was just in this conversation with so and so.” And we say, “Yeah, what’s going on in there?” And he says, “Well, bad news. If this next record doesn’t have a hit on it, it’s your last record. Don’t worry about the contract, they’re going to breach it and they will then invite us to sue them. So, they aren’t going forward with your five-album deal because they don’t like Duty Now for the Future.” This is the message we get before we go on stage.

Thank you record company, right?

Yeah, and thank you Ron Stone for not waiting until after the concert! But Devo had enough fight in them and enough disrespect for illegitimate authority that I think we went out and played with more intensity than ever that night. But then, our response to this threat was fuck it! We’re just going to do everything we were just talking about amongst ourselves, which was this R&B-influenced music with a Minimoog bass. If they didn’t like Duty Now for the Future, fuck them.

Was this a conscious, direct reaction to that moment at the Palladium?

No, not at all. All that moment did was to pique our resolve to what we were saying informally, and to do it on purpose. We thought, well okay, they’ll really hate this because this is a completely new direction for Devo. It would piss off our cult members. It would piss off the punks. We knew that. We knew that the hardcore people that are orthodox would just go [he says, in a mocking voice], “What the hell? This isn’t Devo, man! Where’s the heavy rock and roll?”

Did you have any fear about that reaction?

No. It was more like, if we’re going to go down, let’s go down in flames. And that’s in retrospect the only proper reaction an artist can have, because obviously there is risk to being creative. Jimi Hendrix releases his first record, Are You Experienced. If you would have told anybody six months previously with some kind of surreptitious time warp, “Here’s the music you’re going to love. Here’s the music you won’t take off the turntable.” They would have said, “You’re nuts. That shit is noise!” And guess what, Jimi releases it, and what happens? Every kid wears out the vinyl in the first months, and he changes music forever. [As an artist] you have to be willing to jump off the cliff or jump into the void like Luke Skywalker. You got to do it. So, we did it.

Once you “jumped,” how did the record company react?

The only song that they focused on, because they were desperately searching for some reason to make money and not cut us from the roster, was “Girl You Want”. They decided “Girl You Want” was it, and that’s where they put their marketing efforts. And so it was their one last paean to Devo. It’s like a roulette wheel. They put all their money on black. And guess what? It stiffed. And we don’t understand why it did. It wasn’t like we didn’t like that song, because we did. It sounded very digestible. Very accessible. But it didn’t catch. And so it was a foregone conclusion when we started our tour for Freedom of Choice that this was it. “Girl You Want” had failed. They weren’t going to follow that with anything. They thought the title track was a nonstarter, which is also pretty silly. I love that song. I guess If Axl Rose covered it, it would have been a No. 1 hit.

What turned things around just when things looked so bleak?

So, we are playing 400- to 500-seaters and cool clubs around America. And this guy named Kal Rudman down in Florida, who was a regional programmer who had quite a lot of power, had some morning report sheet that went out to all disc jockeys in the southeastern US. DJs had a lot of individual autonomy at the time. Kal was an old-style programmer. He didn’t just take pay-off money or drugs. He actually sat down, listened to Devo’s record and he decided “Whip It” was an incredible song. So, on his own, with no graft from Warner — no bribes — he started playing “Whip It” in a few stations down in Florida and up into Georgia. That part of the United States playing Devo, well that’s ridiculous. But it caught the ear of several DJs, and within three weeks, it was in New York City. And once it hit the New York City FM airwaves, we had to stop our tour.

Why?

We had to reconfigure the whole thing for bigger places. Suddenly, we start the tour up once again and we’re in 2,000-seaters, 3,000-seaters, and 5,000-seaters, and this thing is spreading around America. And by the time that we’re done with our American tour, it’s moving up the charts. And that’s when Warner said, you got to do a video. Up until then, they thought, why are you doing videos? Videos are stupid. Why are you spending your money on making videos? There was no MTV. There was nothing. There were about a dozen videos at that point, and they weren’t called music videos.

So, on a break before we went to Japan, I shot the video to “Whip It” in one 16-hour day in the rehearsal studio. And immediately, I think within a month, MTV broke it. Boom! They started playing “Whip It”, and it went through the roof. And by then in 1981, Bob Pittman and John Sykes, who started MTV, came to us because they now needed the programming and said, “We need all your videos, man. We’re going to make you big stars. But we can’t pay you!” [he says this in a deep cynical music executive voice]. So, we had five videos in the can at that point not including “Whip It”, and they started playing them all. “Whip It” went into the Top 10 and well, then, that was that. Devo exploded.

So, without Kal Rudman focusing on that song, we wouldn’t be having this conversation today.

Yeah, I don’t think so. So much of it is chance and luck and serendipity. No matter how hard you try, or how much talent you have or don’t have, here’s 10 people with immense talent. One of them hits because the gods smiled on that person with other things that cannot be qualified. If it hadn’t been for Kal, very possibly nobody else would have picked up the ball, and that would have been our last record. Devo would be a small footnote in New Wave history.

Did “Whip It” and its success change your creative process and the overall dynamics of the band?

Unfortunately, it did. Not right away. But for me, I just felt elated because I had always worked from concepts, plans and ideas. I felt vindicated. This was the idea. I was working for the idea of Devo. To make Devo bigger than any of the individuals, so that even like a good corporation, diversify and do these things we had always talked about. Movies, soundtracks, a play. You know, this was it. Now somebody’s going to take us seriously. We’ll have a bigger voice. We can take meetings with more important people and get these ideas done that were all in our heads.

So, it wasn’t like Devo was opposed to mass commercial appeal.

Not for me.

It seems like it was more about having a platform to get your ideas across. When you thought about it in that way, was your intent to entertain? Make people think? Drive a political agenda?

Yes to all that for me, and I thought that was shared by the band. But I think, in retrospect, after years gone by, it really wasn’t. I was the idealist. I was the guy who was the cheerleader for Devo. My heroes were the bands that were both artistically valid and popular, because that’s the hardest juxtaposition in the world. It’s easy to be artsy and obscure and bum everybody out. And it was easy to create crap that was so dissolute that the next year you couldn’t even remember it because it was so bland. My heroes were The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, The Who, Jimi Hendrix, David Bowie. These guys were artists, and they were accessible. They wrote great hit songs that have endured the test of time — that people still love 30, 40, 50, 60 years later. That’s art.

Read ahead to hear about “Smart Patrol/Mr. DNA”…

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