FREEDOM OF CHOICE
The beginning of arguably the most musically schizophrenic decade yet to be saw Devo on the precipice of relative stardom. The band members–specifically creative linchpins Mark Mothersbaugh and Jerry Casale–were not in it to wind up pioneers who got scalped (though that’s precisely what happened). Nimrod record execs and their rock-dumb bottom lines damned to hell, Devo had a plan for global domination that would emphasize their art-driven paradigm. Moles envy pandas for good reason.
Old Akron cronies may have clucked their tongues when the band relocated to L.A. and then shuddered as synths grew more prominent and Devo’s songs came out sounding increasingly poppy, but Devo had outgrown pissing off audience’s waiting for Sun Ra. They were fated to create new wave nonpareil.
Buoyed by the top 20 hit “Whip It,” Freedom of Choice went platinum and immortalized Devo–a band that evolved their visual aesthetic literally album to album–as the “flowerpot guys” (not to be confused with The Flowerpot Men, the “Ferris Bueller guys”‘). The energy domes would define Devo like nothing they donned before or after, red ziggurat-shaped plastic hats that, per master mythologist Jerry, collects energy “that escapes from the crown of the human head and pushes it back into the Medula Oblongata for increased mental energy. It’s very important that you buy a cheap plastic hardhat liner, adjust it to your head size and affix it with duct tape or Super Glue to the inside of the Dome. This allows the Dome to “float” just above the cranium and thus do its job. Unfortunately, without a hard hat liner, the recirculation of energy WILL NOT occur.”
There are several origin stories for the dome, of course. Either the “Little Lulu” comic, a household lamp, or The Beginning Was the End, aka the most cannibal-tastic book ever written. I know, of course, that the true inspiration was the Snoopy Sno-Cone Machine.
“Girl U Want”–The first sound we hear is Bob1’s cranky old bastard of a guitar, soon enough twinned with some tangy, Christmas-in-July key work. Inspired by “My Sharona,” but leagues ahead of it, of course. Oops oh my, milkshake all over the exercise equipment, way to multi-task, fat boy.
This is the rare love ditty with enchanting lyricism. There are a multitude of fresh ways to say you’re besotted with someone, but most people traverse the tried and true trail. Thankfully, while we are all Devo, Devo were not most people.
“She sends down an aroma of undefined lust/That drips on down in a mist from above.” She ain’t sprayin’ Febreze, sweetie. See, that’s an accessible alternative for the word “pheromones” (which I don’t even think Burt Bacharach could have made fit into a pop song) and a sharp substitute for the phrase “messy pink pussycat.”
“It’s Not Right”–An early indicator of how exceptional an album Freedom of Choice is comes with “It’s Not Right.” This is, superficially, another “baby” song, the type of songs Jerry claimed Devo was above and beyond yet still produced in bulk anyway. (‘Cause a dog licks its balls then your face, I guess.) Vapid, certainly; but the presentation is relentless, tugging your ear, tapping your temple, zapping approaching enemy aircraft into purple mist. Unbelievable, truly; you don’t experience heartbreak when you traffic in groupies!
“Whip It”–The hit. The one. Devo and The B-52s would both have the hit, that song that rocketed them into mainstream awareness, making it possible for them to have “casual” fans, and dividing the more devoted supporters into multiple camps of, alternately, gratitude, weary acceptance, or churlish bitching.
First, about the actual song “Whip It.” No question can there be that a great deal of its appeal to radi-yokels was its potential interpretation as a masturbation anthem. Never mind the reality, which is that the lyrics were penned as parodies of Norman Vincent Peale’s happy little motivational nuggets (with a pinch of Pynchon as well).
“When a good time comes around/You must whip it…/I say whip it! Whip it good!”
Subtle for a parody, and not especially gratuitous for a lewd lullaby, but subtlety done even half-assedly will zoom by most heads most times. Is it one of their all-timers? In context, yes. For content, well, that’s up to us. I never skip the song, but it wouldn’t make my personal top 5 on the album.
So “Whip It” exposed Devo to the molasses masses. It earned them some tidy cash, though nowhere near what went to the exec at WB who couldn’t understand why his kids liked that gay New Wave shit anyway. It made the very word “Devo” a catch-all insult for high school/collegiate lunkheads to hurl at any peers who didn’t share their ideas of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Better to live in a world where this all transpired, for us as fans and for the members of Devo as artists. Imagine if “Whip It” hadn’t been a smash. What would have been their next move? Dissolution? Desperation? If a few Devo-tees felt betrayed having to share their favorite music with a few thousand folks who “don’t really pay much attention to lyrics” so what? Put yourself in the band’s domes. At some point the artist needs to receive resonant recompense for their efforts. Otherwise they’ll feel like they’re stocking the shelves with vodka accidentally labeled as “Fourth Ward Tap Water.”
“Snowball”–If I ever met the dude Sisyphus, I’d shake his hand. Then cringe as he got crushed by that big ol’ rock. Sorry, dude. Big fan!
Mark Mothersbaugh was kinda born to press down and sweet-talk frequencies. The B-52s would, on their next full-length after Wlld Planet, try and take the keybs in that direction as well, less alien mating caterwaul, more dance floor call-to-arms, but never got the chance to let it play out. It’s hard to imagine, even with the combined talent and vision of Ricky Wilson and Keith Strickland, that the B’s coulda matched Devo on that front. ‘Cause making you move with synthetic sounds is not hard to do; but to make ya feel? To make the listener hear the whine and weal and groan of the organ as an emotional pinwheel is a talent. Freedom of Choice is the whole damn show.
“Ton O’ Luv”–Sometimes we hear what we want to. If someone wants to believe “Whip It” is about frosting the pastries, all the citations and references under the milky way ain’t gonna convince ’em otherwise. That’s maddening, but also, life. I like to think this is Jerry’s paean to fat broads. It resonated a bit more when I was among their ranks, but I still dig on it. The music even wobbles and jiggles. If Jerry Casale is, as I like to claim, the esoteric Gene Simmons, then he has pounded the pillowed pavements with some wide-circumference chicks in his time. Bless you, sir.
“Freedom of Choice”–Devo are drawing the lines all right, same way a coroner does. Same sense of duty, too.
“Freedom of choice/Is what you got/Freedom from choice/Is what you want.” Imagine being a middle American picking up the album ’cause you like that funny jack-off song and hearing this! Pepsi or Coke? Black or white? Democrat or Republican? Honda or Chevy? I come from a Pepsi family, we always vote this way, same vacation every year, I guess I could do something a little different, but the way it is is just so comforting. I don’t what to overthink anything.
“Gates of Steel”–With a simple as a handstand riff jacked from Chi-Pig’s “Pimple on My Plans” slashing over emergent synth, Devo offers up a riveting yet fundamental plan of attack for the sick-of-it-all spudlings craving more.
“Give in to ancient noise/Take a chance on a brand new dance/Twist away those gates of steel!”
Love the contrast. We the people, driven by the same basic impulses since time immemorial, no matter how the way we communicate with each other has changed in all that time. You will never change history if you do not know history.
“Cold War”–“A boy and girl/Two separate worlds/The endless tug of war.”
Men are from Mars, women are from Venus. Remember that hokey book/shirt/mug/towel/Lifetime movie/Pop Tart flavor? It’s got some years on it, so perhaps you don’t. The nifty link I have provided gives you the overview on this philosophy of love amongst the humanoids, and it’s a tidy phrase to be sure. Did absolute bubkes-cheeks to actually improve relations between the genders, however. The reason for that failure to bring about revolution is, now check this out…men are from Earth, women are from Earth. Now the dude’s head might be all Sweden and the girl may have a brain like Brazil, but it is most assuredly all taking place on the same goddamn planet. Stop with all the cutesy pithy bull, it wears down the horns. And ain’t nobody runs the streets of a year ’cause they’re afraid of getting a massage.
While “Cold War” doesn’t stimulate me much mentally, the total sonic package is nothing less than bagels ripped outta the toaster and tossed to the starving Booji Boys and Girls.
“Don’t You Know”–Similar to “Cold War.” A little punchier, a little better.
“That’s Pep!”–Lyrics straight-jacked from a poem by Grace G. Bostwick. Oh but do I love me a literate smart-ass.
Intro rules. The music that plays over the opening credits to “For Death It’s a Wonderful Toy,” the horror flick about a child’s Slinky possessed by the soul of a serial killer recently executed by the state of Ohio.
“Mr. B.’s Ballroom”–I maintain that a rewrite of this track could be done transforming the subject to a frat orgy and you wouldn’t have to change the words much at all. One of the rare Devo songs without an overarching message.
“Planet Earth”–The best merger of keys and strings on this entire album, but man check out bee-smasher Jerry over here. Talkin’ ’bout the world and all the craziness. People buy, people cry, people die.
It’s justice that Devo’s best-selling album is also their best. Inevitably, though, there will be downsides to having your audience grow exponentially seemingly overnight. Not everyone will get the joke/message/warning/ethos. Devo’s next record would attack this phenomenon head-on.
Mesopotamia was slated to be the B’s third album, under the auspices of one David Byrne (the number one white boy from Baltimore for years and years, right up until David Simon started writing and then ah, usurped! But it was a good run). Byrne and the band clashed. See, with all the outside musicians (including horn players and bongo-bashers) taking the B’s in a decidedly more exotic direction, the vibe was that Byrne wanted less to educe an organic sound from the group, and more to mold them in his own image. Sessions were cut short, and a planned ten-track full-length was released as a six-song EP, in two distinct versions. The first, released through Warner Bros. in the U.S., is the one I heard. Island Records released Mesopotamia in the U.K., a longer version, featuring Byrne’s original mixes. This release did not grace my ears till 2010, thanks to magic fairies of obscure music Fed-Ex’ing to me in a dream. This “alternate” EP is nothing revelatory, but certainly dancier and more adventurous.
Three of the four “lost” songs would be re-recorded for Whammy! the following year: “Queen of Las Vegas,” “Big Bird,” and “Butterbean.” Of these, only “Queen” was later released in its original form, on the anthology Nude on the Moon. The fourth track, “Adios Desconocida,” was a Fred-sung ballad. See, you know you wanna hear it now.
“Loveland”–Cindy solo, baby, you know it’s a guaranteed good time when Miss Wilson’s on the mic, blonde wig built for a Baltimore hon but made for a Georgia peach. She won’t be thwarted in her quest to find the ultimate thaw.
Is that accordion? I love it to syrup-drenched pieces, whatever it is. Ricky’s picking and choosing his spots here, and his touch is deft as ever, even buried as his sounds ultimately are here.
The Byrne mix is eight-and-a-half minutes, with spastic breakdown filler the reason for the season. Also a different vocal take (not better, not worse; always interesting).
“Deep Sleep”–Michael Stipe named Mesopotamia as one of his favorite releases of the 1980s in Rolling Stone, way back in the days when a person could reasonably expect to pick up a copy of Rolling Stone and find good writing. He wasn’t given space to expound on any of his choices, but I bet this was one of his favorites.
Kate only, though she double tracks herself like a super falling stereo star. The band won an elephant in a radio station contest as well, and had to keep it in the studio.
This one’s short and quirky. Seems like shared sex dreams between a sleeping couple in “the coldest part of the night”? Hmm. The end is the best part, and that’s not meant smart-ass. It really is, it’s quite spooking.
“Mesopotamia”–The enduring classic, and a staple of their live show to this day. All 3 B’s if you please. I hate to think of this delightful song used in a history class by some misguided teacher seeking to impart some catchy wisdom unto a bunch of hysterically unworthy Rhianna fans.
“Before I talk/I should read a book!”
Fades on in with that pharaoh strut, stays a spell. “THEY LAID DOWN THE LAW!” Oh God, the vocal contrast on that line makes me want to suplex a bag of potatoes into the vent of a volcano and make fuckin’ lava taters for dinner.
“Cake”–Kate and Cindy talkin’ all sassy, pushing each others words around, y’all play nice! Is this song about cake? The hell it is. Take the sensuousness of red velvet, the familiar sweetness of chocolate on chocolate, and toss out the delicacy associated with lemon chiffon. Nonesuch here.
“Take a little/Take a little nip.” Oh Lord, child. “If you want a better batter, better beat it harder.” The vapors, they are acquired.
“Throw That Beat in the Garbage Can”--To get their shit together and write some new material, the B’s got a house in Mahopac, NY and commenced to the creatin’. Unfortunately, their neighbors were crotchety douchebags with no concept of homosexuality, as the band’s presence not only incited noise complaints, but also disapproving looks for the mere fact five young single men and women were sharing a home. Fortunately, they got a crackerjack tune out of the whole ordeal, from Ricky’s recombinant riff and a bad-ass horn section loud as they wanna be. Fred’s awesome here as well; not vitriolic, just pissed.
Byrne’s imagining of “Garbage” includes some back-masking and judicious pruning of the guitar so’s to highlight the percussion and sound effects. Yes, you actually hear a BOING! in there.
“Nip It In the Bud”–A whole lotta ado about not a whole lotta in general going on here. Ricky Wilson was just born to be the most underrated guitarist in the rock genre, is all.
So, uncomfortable though the aborted sessions were, they gave us one absolute classic for the canon, and a handful of other memorable tunes that showed the B-52s could still entertain without coming off as the band who plays three shows a week at Fellini-themed house parties with their equipment set up on the picnic table. Eager to explore on their own terms, they set about recording their real third album.
(Just a song before I go…doing some searching ’round, I’ve found several references to The B’s and Devo performing a gig together (Devo headlining, is the implication) in Austin, TX ‘circa 1980/81. The fuck? And no one ever got a pic of the two bands together backstage? Then how do we know it really happened?)