Classics Revisited: A Ton of Love

Yes, you’ve heard “Whip It.” Good for you. And yes, “Whip It” is by far Devo’s most popular song. Here’s the part where I say, “That one single doesn’t do the band justice.” But the truth is, if you’re going to start on your way toward Devo-fandom, “Whip It” is both an obvious entry point and an appropriate one. Everything that’s great about Devo is present in that song; we’re not dealing with a “Butthole-Surfers-‘Pepper'” situation in which the most well-known song sounds nothing like the rest of the band’s catalog. I have a feeling that a number of unsuspecting consumers purchased The Surfer’s 1996 album Electriclarryland hoping for more of the same and were surprised and horrified to find, well, a Butthole Surfers record.

This is not like that. What I’m trying to do is gently encourage you to explore the album around “Whip It,” Devo’s 1980 classic Freedom of Choice. Not coincidentally, that album celebrates its 37th anniversary this week (today, in fact, as I am writing this on 5/16), and I thought we’d discuss it briefly.

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First of all, as you may or may not know, Devo was formed by Kent State students Gerald Casale, Bob Lewis and Mark Mothersbaugh around 1970. The trio had already been kicking around the idea that mankind was progressing backward, not forward (a philosophy called devolution), but were really moved to take things seriously after the infamous Kent State Massacre. From there, the newly-dubbed “Devo” married stinging satire and dystopian subject matter with their own tightly wound and edgy version of punk rock.

Though the group released two great records prior to Freedom, this album really marks the point where Devo’s artistic leanings collide with pop music. With songs like “Girl U Want,” “Ton O’ Luv,” and the titular track, Mothersbaugh and company present a scathing send-up of pre-packaged, consumerist culture that works as something with mainstream appeal. Can you dance to “Whip It” without thinking about loss of personal identity in favor of brand-loyalty? Of course you can. That’s really the genius at work, here: Devo presents a chilling vision of humanity’s future, to be sure. But it’s hard not to laugh along with them.

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