Back in 1980, a new cable channel called MTV desperately needed music videos -- that's how a crudely produced film snippet by this oddball Cleveland-area cult band got such heavy airtime. That Marlboro Man rancher, lashing the clothes off of his frontier wife -- was that kinky or what?
Some folks would say that MTV "made" Devo's career; on the contrary, I think Devo was responsible for making a whole generation want our MTV. You absolutely HAD to get wired for cable, because where else on 80's TV could you see stuff like this?
Normally I don't go for high-concept bands, but I bought Devo's package one hundred percent. Devo stood for "de-evolution," synonymous with mindless conformity, which we Devo fans were supposed to combat by being free-thinking individuals. How hard is it to get 20-somethings to buy into an agenda like that?
And Devo carried it off in perfect deadpan style, dressed in hazmat coveralls with industrial goggles and inverted flowerpots strapped to their heads. Their robotic stage movements matched those jerky synthesized arrangements (only Devo could cover "Satisfaction" and "Working In A Coal Mine" with all the blues drained out of them). Everything, down to the album covers, was executed with retro flair. Devo was post-modern long before it became a hipster cliche.
At the time, Mark Mothersbaugh and Jerry Casale were happy to let their audiences think "Whip It" was all about S&M (either that or whacking off). Casale now says he wrote those lyrics to imitate the parody poems Thomas Pynchon scattered throughout Gravity's Rainbow. And it's true, the song is packed with a rousing Horatio Alger/Dale Carnegie can-do spirit -- "Now whip it / Into shape / Shape it up / Get straight / Go forward / Move ahead / Try to detect it / It's not too late / To whip it / Whip it good." Yessirree!
This track's got an absolutely driven drumbeat, an obsessive-compulsive guitar riff, and a completely daffy synth motif; it's so tight, so uptempo, it sounds just like it came off an assembly line -- and that's the point. "Crack! That! Whip!" is followed by slapping whip cracks, calibrated precisely to a millisecond behind the beat. And I love those lock-step twinned vocals, finishing each other's sentences in the verses: "Step on a crack / Break your momma's back" or "When a problem comes along / You must whip it" or "No one gets away / Until you whip it."
Irony? Satire? Tongue-in-cheek? So old hat. Devo was way ahead of the curve, daring you to suggest that they were anything other than the factory-produced artifacts they claimed to be. Next to them, the Talking Heads looked like art-school posers and the B-52s were simply a party band. Best of all, they were unabashedly American in an era when the U.K. seemed to OWN New Wave music. I adored all those British acts, but I was glad we had at least one band from our side of the ocean, and a lunatic bunch of Midwestern nerds at that.