Ohio art-rockers’ 1980 record opened the floodgates for the new wave genre in America
It all started at Kent State University in Ohio on May 4, 1970.
DEVO founder/bassist/vocalist Gerald Casale was friends with two of the four students shot and killed by the Ohio National Guard on during a protest against the expansion of the Vietnam War.
This event profoundly changed Casale’s life and is often cited as the main impetus for forming Devo in 1973 after meeting fellow art student / vocalist / keyboardist Mark Mothersbaugh.
Devo’s 1978 debut album Q: Are We Not Men? A: We Are Devo! was met favorably by fans and critics alike, featuring the herky-jerky cover of the Rolling Stones’ “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction.” However, 1979’s disappointing follow-up album, Duty Now for the Future, didn’t fare as well.
Heading into the writing and recording process for Devo’s third album, 1980’s platinum-selling Freedom of Choice (released May 16, 1980 via Warner Bros.) — which peaked at No. 22 on the US Billboard 200 chart — the band knew they had to knock it out of the park. Devo’s main songwriters, Casale and Mothersbaugh, were joined by Mothersbaugh’s brother guitarist Bob 1, guitarist Bob 2 (Casale’s brother) and drummer Alan Myers, which was considered to be Devo’s classic lineup.
Produced by Robert Margouleff — the chief engineer at the Record Plant in L. A. and producer for Stevie Wonder’s classic ’70s albums — the album’s sound has a dry texture with minimal reverb effects and a robust bottom end. Musically, the band’s computerized style, based on synthesizers and digital-analog hybrid systems, influenced many bands of the 1980s and ’90s. The use of a keyboard called an Ondioline, which achieves a tremolo/vibrato effect, was used throughout the album, while Casale — as told to Evie Nagy in her 33 1/3 Freedom of Choice book — ditched the standard bass guitar for the Moog, giving the tracks a robotic, R&B marching vibe.
The album opens with the oft covered “Girl U Want,” boasting one of the catchiest and most memorable synth riffs ever written (also doubled with distortion-laden guitar). The lyrics, in typical Devo fashion, deal with unrequited love. Follow-up track, “It’s Not Right,” is another Devo “relationship” song, decorated in the band’s typical romantic cynicism. With its hypnotic and pulsating synth melody, the band create a massive sense of urgency, decorated with an immensely catchy chorus. The song is credited solely to Mothersbaugh, which was one of four tracks he wrote exclusively on the album.
Third track, “Whip It,” the band’s biggest hit, is a gold-certified single that reached No. 14 on the Billboard Hot 100 charts. The lyrics began as a tongue-in-cheek anthem for then-president Jimmy Carter with trade-off vocals between Casales and Mothersbaugh, while Myers’ consistent and driving drumbeat anchors the track. The “whipcracking” noises were recorded using an Electrocomp 500 synthesizer and Neumann KM 84 and U 87 condenser microphones. The infamous video is vintage Devo imagery, which saw heavy rotation in the early days of the fledgling MTV.
VIDEO: DEVO “Whip It”
“Snowball,” one of the more eclectic tracks on Freedom of Choice, consists of droning, pulsating electronic pulse synth melodies and a stuttered drum beat, before a delightful cascading synth melody is introduced. This track isn’t as energetic as other tracks on the record and contains a slightly darker vibe. However, it’s one of the few tracks with lead duet vocals between Casale and Mothersbaugh. Another tongue-in-cheek track, “Ton o’ Luv,” appears fifth in the sequence. The song’s marching, rhythmic thrust of a tribal/surging drum beat and electronic synth melody has a memorable and chantable chorus. Casales wrote and sang it in a warped, Elvis vocal twang.
Side A (album version) ends with the straightforward, anthemic title track “Freedom of Choice,” featuring a memorable and recognizable industrial marching rhythm section. Mothersbaugh’s engaging and nasally croon begins the verse, decorated with a riveting guitar riff. The band’s de-evolution concept was front and center in the lyrics of this track.
Side B opens with the pulsating synth melody and bouncy rhythm section of “Gates of Steel.” Freedom of Choice was the band’s last album before it began to exclusively use programmed drum machines. Therefore, Myers’ innovative rhythmic drum patterns on a real acoustic drum set makes this song a highlight of the album. Eighth track “Cold War” isn’t a commentary on the US/Soviet Union tension after World War II, but actually the lyrics are a metaphor for the war of the sexes. Devo’s Midwestern troubles with women is told through methodical, synth-driven beats and oddly-timed vocal patterns. On “Don’t You Know,” it’s easy to figure out what Mothersbaugh is talking about, especially with the line, “I got a rocket in my pocket, but I don’t know what to do.”
The off-beat “That’s Pep” is far from the standard rock and roll structure. With its low-end pulsating bass intro and odd synth sounds, this track is highly infectious and upbeat. Mothersbaugh took the lyrics from a poem called “Pep” by Grace G. Bostwick, published in The American Magazine in 1919, and adopted his own interpretation. “Mr. B’s Ballroom,” based on a real nightclub in L.A. where the band was recording the album, consisting of a bouncy melody, pulsating synth accents and a vibrant chorus, is a highly infectious and danceable tune.
By the time album closer “Planet Earth” rolls around, it’s easy to tell that Devo has ushered in a new sound that would continue with its next album, New Traditionalists, most notably on the hit track “Beautiful World.” With a battering of synth and drums, accompanied by the mesmerizing melodies, chiming chorus and driving, rock-based guitar riffs, “Planet Earth” proves to be the perfect song to end Freedom of Choice.
After Freedom of Choice, the band abandoned acoustic drums and started to write more overtly political songs. The band’s vision of art and music truly merged as one on Freedom of Choice and propelled Devo into the upper stratosphere. It was the new sign of the times for the genre and nobody did it better than Devo on this record.