The Stories Behind 50 Rock Classics (Vol. I), 1970-1982
Yours truly took all three of these pointers into consideration while painstakingly whittling it down to 50 entries for a new book, A+ Albums: The Stories Behind 50 Rock Classics (Vol. I), 1970-1982; plus 50 more for A+ Albums: The Stories Behind 50 Rock Classics (Vol. II), 1982-2000.
The set-up is simple – set in chronological order vis-à-vis release date, each entry contains a brief artist history, where the album fits in their history, an analysis of the material, and in most cases, quotes from either the artist or someone associated with the recording, and/or a renowned admirer (as well as chart placements and certifications, where applicable).
Below is the entry for Devo’s new wave classic, Freedom of Choice, included in Vol. I.
Freedom of Choice (Devo, 1980)
Some found it difficult to look past the highly visual aspects of Devo (the biohazard suits, the “energy dome hats,” their obsession with potatoes, etc.). Which is unfortunate, as they were responsible for creating some truly amazing rock n’ roll – particularly their stellar 1978-1982 period, which included their biggest hit album and single in 1980, Freedom of Choice and “Whip It,” respectively.
Originally formed in 1973 in Akron, Ohio, the group took its name from a concept called “devolution” (i.e., mankind’s backwards evolution behavior-wise), and played their highly robotic form of music to baffled local crowds – also combining thought-provoking concepts with a video accompaniment. By 1976, the classic Devo line-up was formed – singer/keyboardist Mark Mothersbaugh, singer/bassist Gerald Casale, guitarists Bob Mothersbaugh and Bob Casale, and drummer Alan Myers. And soon after traveling east to perform at CBGB’s in NYC, the quintet were awarded a recording contract with Warner Bros.
A now-classic debut followed in 1978 (produced by Brian Eno), Q: Are We Not Men? A: We Are Devo!, which spawned a popular cover of the Rolling Stones‘ “Satisfaction,” followed by a solid sophomore effort, Duty Now for the Future. But despite mucho press coverage (and even a memorable appearance on Saturday Night Live during the show’s immensely popular Aykroyd-Belushi-Murray era), it did not translate into strong sales nor leaving much of an impression on the US charts – peaking at #78 and #73, respectively.
Their third LP would be co-produced by Devo and Robert Margouleff (a gentleman who had served as associate producer, engineer, and synthesizer programmer on Stevie Wonder‘s string of classic synth-heavy albums from 1972-1974), with sessions running from late ’79 through early ’80 at the Record Plant in Hollywood. And it just happened to turn out that the resulting material would be incredibly hooky and concise (twelve tracks clocking in at a tight 32 minutes and 33 seconds).
Case in point, the album opener, “Girl U Want,” which as the title suggests, deals lyrically about unobtainable love (and includes one of the more imaginative descriptions in a song lyric concerning hanky panky – “pleasure burn”). Musically, although the group is thought of primarily for their synth work, there have been a few memorable guitar riffs spotted in their discography. And “Girl U Want” certainly contains one of them – proven as fact a little more than a decade later, when Soundgarden covered it exceptionally, at a much slower tempo (and totally bypassed the synths and put the emphasis solely on the guitar riff). However, guitar was to take a backseat on the remainder of the material, including the next tune, the herky jerky “It’s Not Right.”
And next…the tune that would put Devo over the hump commercially, “Whip It.” Think “classic new wave,” and most people would automatically name this speedy little number – which contains several different memorable synthesizer bits, the memorable phrase “Break your mama’s back,” as well as a repeated single-note synth solo. Another tune that easily could have been another hit is the melodic “Snowball,” which lyrically seems to be a tune about “love gone bad” (a recurring topic on several tunes here…perhaps one or two of the Spud Boys were experiencing troubles in the romance department around this time?). Side one of the vinyl/cassette version closes with quite possibly/probably your humble narrator’s favorite tune of the entire LP – the title track, which lyrically deals with the cons of consumerism (a message which has proven to ring even truer over the years, particularly in the modern day/Internet age).
While side one was chock full of goodies, side two would admittedly prove to be padded with a bit of filler and/or forgotten tunes – including “Cold War,” “Don’t You Know,” “That’s Pep!”, and “Mr. B’s Ballroom.” However, a pair of gems open and close the second half – the uptempo ditties “Gates of Steel” (which contains the standout lyric, “A man is real, not made of steel!”) and “Planet Earth” (not to be confused with the popular Duran Duran tune of the same name).
Released on May 16, 1980, Freedom of Choice featured a now-iconic front cover shot of the five band members standing side-by-side, sporting their soon-to-be trademark red energy domes. But it was not a big seller straight out of the gate – that all changed once “Whip It” was issued as a single on August 13th. “The way [‘Whip It’] happened was Warners had never focused on that song, and frankly, neither had we,” Casale told me in the book MTV Ruled the World: The Early Years of Music Video. “We weren’t sitting down going, ‘Let’s write a hit.’ We just wrote songs we liked and only put the songs on the record we liked. The record company said, ”Girl U Want’ – that’s your hit!’ And, of course, it went nowhere. So they had us make a video for ‘Girl U Want,’ and then somebody at the label said, ”Freedom of Choice!” So we made these two videos. They released ‘Freedom of Choice’ when ‘Girl U Want’ tanked, and ‘Freedom of Choice’ went nowhere.”
“We were on tour for like three months, and while we’re out there, ‘Whip It’ starts being played by Kal Rudman, who was a major programmer/radio mogul in the Southeast. Back when people could start things regionally. He did, and it grew out of there and went up to New York City, and the Rudman Report had it on fire, so all these other stations started picking it up. So in the middle of our tour, they had to keep changing venues, canceling shows and putting them in other places, because suddenly, we were playing to twice as many people…and sometimes even more than that. And when we got back off that leg of the tour, they go, ‘You’ve got to make a video for ‘Whip It’.”
“We were rather burned out and really on a schedule, and Chuck Statler, the cinematographer that had been my college friend that we shot everything with, was busy. He was working with Elvis Costello. So I planned the whole video with my friend, John Zabrucky, who is a prop designer and an artist. We planned the whole thing out, and Mark and I storyboarded it, and we cast it and built a set out of a rehearsal space we had in a warehouse outside of Beverly Hills. Chuck flew in with just a four-man crew, and we started shooting at something like 7:00 in the morning, and we ended at like 1:00 in the morning. We shot the whole thing in like 16 hours. And then the editor, Dale Cooper, followed the storyboard, we tweaked it a bit, and it went out. It was one of the quickest videos we ever made. Other than ‘Beautiful World,’ it’s the most favorite Devo video I ever directed.”
As a result of the popularity of the “Whip It” single (peaking at #14 on the Billboard Hot 100) and video, Freedom of Choice would go on to become Devo’s highest-charting album in the US (#22), and best seller – certified platinum by the RIAA, and even coming in at #61 on the Billboard 200 year-end charts. The band would keep their winning streak going with two more stellar releases, 1981’s New Traditionalists and 1982’s Oh, No! It’s Devo, and would be introduced to a whole new audience in the early ’90s, when two of the leading grunge bands would cover Freedom of Choice-era material – Soundgarden with the aforementioned “Girl U Want” and Nirvana tackling “Turnaround” (the non-LP b-side of “Whip It”). And let’s not forget Pearl Jam covering “Whip It” on Halloween 2009 in Philly…while dressed as Devo.
Greg Prato is a longtime AllMusic contributor and author of several books, including A+ Albums: The Stories Behind 50 Rock Classics (Vol. I), 1970-1982.