Tuesday, May 19, 2015

"Whip It" / Devo
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.


NickS said...

Fun! I'm a fan of Devo, but I haven't thought to listen to them in a while.

Two thoughts: First, I have a poster from a Devo concert at the university in my hometown (I didn't go, I was too young, but it's a fun artifact), and so when I think of Devo it reminds me a comment that my older brother has made about 80s alternative music. He said, at that point, bands toured a lot more and played smaller venues (and, in particular, the college circuit) then the do now. He remembers both Devo and R.E.M. playing locally (and Nirvana, back when they were just starting to get big), and that it just doesn't seem like you see that caliber of bands these days.

Secondly, going along with your comment that, "they were unabashedly American in an era when the U.K. seemed to OWN New Wave music." Devo is one of the few American bands discussed in Simon Reynolds (great) book on post-punk music Rip It Up And Start Again. He says, of the video.

Devo made the video [for "Whip It"] into a surreal commentary on America's shift to the Right. The result was a video that twenty-five years later is not the least bit dated looking and is still a huge hoot. It was Devo's one true moment of mass-culture triumph.

Pitched somewhere between a John Ford Western and David Lynch's Eraserhead, the genuinely creepy video for "Whip It" perfectly crystalizes Devo's "freak show aesthetic." As a bunch of Texan stud muffins and blonde bimbos gawk and giggle, Mothersbaugh wields a whip and one by one lashes away the garments of a strange Grace Jones-like amazon of a woman, whose legs start trembling in an indescribably abject way as she waits for the final crack of the whip to strip off her last shred of modesty. Meanwhile the rest of Devo performs the song cooped inside a cattle pen -- pasty-faced spud-boys wearing shorts that show off their scrawny knees and the famous "flowerpot hats." "We were horrified by Regan's ascent." says Casale. "So we were just making fun of myths of cowboys in the West." It was based on a magazine I'd found, one of those 1950s gentlemen's magazines with soft-core nudies. It had an article about a dude ranch owned by an ex-stripper and her husband. As part of the entertainment, he'd whip her clothed off in the corral for all the guests to watch."

Reynolds also talks about Pere Ubu, another Ohio band, along with Devo but I noticed, when looking up that passage, a reference to The Cars as well, who would be a much better known American New Wave band.

NickS said...

In case you didn't see it -- there as an interesting interview with Art Garfunkle last week: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/music/rockandpopmusic/11626027/art-garfunkel-interview-paul-simon.html

It just makes me think that he's had a very unusual life -- in ways that are mostly good fortune but, as always, not entirely, and not necessarily easy.

Holly A Hughes said...

Good interview -- really got a complex sense of Garfunkel. Not entirely positive, that's for sure. He does have a right to be bitter, but he could be a little more generous.