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

on November 14, 2020, 3:11pm
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Freedom of Choice marked a significant transformation from your earlier sound. So, let’s discuss the song “Smart Patrol/Mr. DNA” from your preceding second album, Duty Now for the Future. That song both presages the electronic ethos of Freedom of Choice and celebrates the crunching guitars that drove your songs in that earlier time – and ties them together. You had done this previously in songs like “Gut Feeling (Slap Your Mammy)” from your first album, where you have two seemingly very different ideas that come together and collide effectively. So, tell me the story behind “Smart Patrol/Mr. DNA”.

My biggest regret about “Smart Patrol/Mr. DNA” is that when we finally got to record it with Ken Scott [the record’s producer], he was the wrong guy. That song live brings down the house every time. And it has brought down the house for 40 years, every time. And when we recorded it, this guy [Scott] poured salt all over the power of that mix. He took all the male hormones out of that song and just ruined it. That song deserves a new recording.

I wrote “Smart Patrol” in 1975, and it was not married to “Mr. DNA” at all. There was no “Mr. DNA”. We were still practicing as an early, early iteration of Devo in West Akron with Mark Mothersbaugh, Bob Mothersbaugh, and his brother, Jim, on drums. There were only four of us, and the equipment was there because Bob Mothersbaugh had a rock and roll band called The Jitters. We really liked the way Bob played the guitar, and we convinced him to play with us. And in 1975, I showed everyone this progression and the lyrics to “Smart Patrol”.

How did you come up with that concept? What inspired it?

“Smart Patrol” was my earliest idea of almost creating an alter ego for the band Devo, although Devo wasn’t real yet. This alter ego could be used in a play or in a film so that we didn’t have to be in them. We could hire actors playing our music. It’s a band song. Not a name-check song. A band song where one guy sings one verse, and the next guy sings the next verse, and the next guy sings the third verse, and we each tell the audience that “We are tired of the soup du jour” and “we want to end this prophylactic tour.” So, it’s sad. It’s a lament. And then boom, the chorus! Now, all three of us are singing it together. We’re the Smart Patrol. “Nowhere to go. Suburban robots who monitor reality.” This was a kind of a call to arms, like here’s our terrible condition as blue-collar spuds in Akron, Ohio, navigating this awful culture that we found ourselves part of in 1975. And it was awful.

Tell me more about that.

This was right after the impeachment of Nixon. This was really nasty stuff. And that’s where we developed that real group thing, where everyone is singing. Some people sing one part. Some people sing another part. Then we all come together and sing, and it’s a round. It’s a trade-off. It’s an anthem. And we worked on that. At first, it was very low in energy. It was very protean. By late 1976, we’ve written a lot more songs and we’re playing a few live gigs and we’re getting really good live. We have Alan now as our drummer, and we’re really firing on all cylinders reaching that critical mass. And in one of our rehearsals, it was either Mark Mothersbaugh or my brother Bob Casale, who joined the band in early 1976, who started playing that two-chord progression [Gerald sounds out the music as he says this]. And Alan started drumming. It was very punky, and we liked it. Mark had written some lyrics based on this whole conversation we had ongoing about de-evolution and about the altruistic gene in human beings — the only thing that kept us from being total murderers.

devo The Story Behind Devos Surprise Breakout Hit Whip It

Had you always felt that way?

I had a theory that Christianity is based on an anthropomorphism of the altruistic gene. In other words, Jesus was espousing that it was the altruistic gene in humans that drive them to not just be oriented toward themselves selfishly at the expense of their brethren, their children. That they have a sense, predisposed, pre-conscience just like good animals do of trying to save their tribe, their herd, their family. We had read a lot about DNA and the altruistic gene, so he [Mark] had written some funny stuff about that. You know, “Mr. Kamikaze, Mr. DNA”. So, I worked on those lyrics with him, and suddenly we had the idea of putting them into this progression and doing another round like “Smart Patrol”, where one guy got to sing one line, and another guy got to sing the next line, and then we sing together.

During rehearsals for live shows, when Alan was going to finish “Smart Patrol”, I think Bob Casale was starting to play the progression of “Mr. DNA” instead of ending the song, just kind of jamming it together because everybody’s energy was up. And we all laughed and liked that, so we started practicing, making it a medley. It just seemed like mashing those two things up that were thematically related worked. They complemented each other. It made sense out of “Smart Patrol” to sing “Mr. DNA”. And then the song kicks into a faster BPM and more insanity and then finishes with the reprise “Smart Patrol” [sounds it out for me]. Once we did that a couple times live, and the audience went nuts, of course, it just became part of our lexicon of live stuff.

It’s very theatrical.

It’s totally theatrical, and it was designed that way. What I had in my mind at the time was the Devo movie that never happened or the Devo musical that never happened. And that this band called the Smart Patrol is keeping this legacy alive about this band called Devo that had been suppressed and written out of history. These young guys who refused to go with the program. They’re bringing their music to the people in the future. That was the idea behind it back in 1975, and it still works today. It is like a standard. It’s a part of the set that you cannot eliminate. You can’t not do that song. That’s like a 10-minute orgasm live. That’s just powerful to this day and non-stop and the audience goes over the edge.

I saw that happen first-hand at your Desert Daze show late 2019. Let’s go back to your creative process with Mark. When you were talking about “Smart Patrol” and “Mr. DNA” and the altruistic gene, you were speaking as philosophers and not just artists.

Yes, unfortunately. I mean de-evolution really started in my graduate school days with my friend Bob Lewis who was a poet and literature major. We started using the term not even politically, but philosophically about what we were noting about the culture. We didn’t see progress happening; we saw entropy. We saw things declining. We saw people with critical faculties and reason crumbling in favor of conformity and tribalism and embracing sound bites. This coincided with the political landscape that was so frightening at the time and the dissolution of the economy.

Are we talking about today or 45 years ago?

Exactly. We’re talking about 45 years ago, and what is happening today quote “Trumps that.” What we’re dealing with today makes that look like a precursor, like a kindergarten version of the assault on reason and truth and democracy. This is why there is a global push towards Fascism, authoritarianism — because you have a dumbed-down populace who is also in trouble. They just want to keep their little gigs. Maybe two different gigs just to make the rent and just to find food and water that isn’t totally contaminated. And they have been beaten down, and the rest have their heads in the sand. Then there are those people that embrace illegitimate authority. They like the strong man because they’re weak themselves and it gives them hope. That’s where we’re at. We’ve seen it in history, and we thought we were beyond it. But given human nature, No! [he places great emphasis on this as he says it]. It always gets back to square one. The fight for reasonable people to establish liberty is never-ending. It only takes a little bit of concentrated goodness to defeat massive evil. But it takes more than you think, and we’re right back there.

Does the altruistic gene give you hope?

Well, it used to [he laughs darkly as he says this]. But it seems like the negative dark side of human nature — you know, like in the Jungian nature of the universe that we talked about, the shadow and the light — it’s the shadow that’s winning.

How do you and the band beat that back in your own way?

You saw what we tried to do, and that’s what we were doing in our own way. Either you do that or you would have joined a radical organization like the Weathermen back then and fought the power that way. But you’ll end up dying or in jail. So, we tried to make a creative response that would resonate. And in fact, with a small group of people, it just lasted over time, like we did something right that has nothing to do with trends and withstood the test of time. That’s why we’re here.

So, what’s next for Devo?

Good question, isn’t it? You mean, besides the cutout bins, I don’t know.

Come on now!

Let’s just see if at some point people are allowed to get back together and we can play some concerts. What would be the best is if Mark would get the spirit again and we’d write songs. Or I get this musical off the ground, which I’m trying hard to do, and then we write some original material for that musical in addition to using our catalog to drive the narrative.

devo 2010 The Story Behind Devos Surprise Breakout Hit Whip It

Devo

Alas, we end our conversation where we began — looking at the state of the world.

“It’s like the allegory of the cave where we’re like the sheep and we don’t know that we’re in a cave and we’re reacting to the shadows on the wall,” Casale explains. He then shares that, even in its earliest days, Devo was not so naive as to how things really were. Even so, they thought that there was at least some functioning democracy – in his words, “that ultimately affirmative action on the part of people could stop the bad apples.”

But maybe even Casale and Devo’s other very real, human band members were hoodwinked by the sheer scale of de-evolution that followed 40 years later here, in our current times, even as their music sought to prepare us for it. Casale expressly concedes as much. “I have to laugh,” he concludes, “embarrassed about what I know now and about how silly and naïve I was.”

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