This month marks the passing of 35 years since, in 1980, influential dork-rock gods Devo dropped their third and only platinum record, Freedom of Choice. A new 33 1/3 book out by rock critic Evie Nagy describes this brief moment in time when the forces of a conservative shift were gathering in America and the pre-AIDS party was about to hit its peak. At the same time, people were increasingly hopeful when it came to technology and the possibilities it held for the future. Enter Devo, a band of brothers (literally– founding members included Mark and and Bob Mothersbaugh and Gerald “Jerry” and Bob Casale) whose mission was to call out the greater society for being a bunch of sheepish nitwits. The author, who’d interviewed Devo regarding their new album for Billboard back in 2010, was inspired by this unique moment in American history as well as a band that she said “there just isn’t really anything like them.”
But even a sort of serious band (but only in their devotion to not taking themselves seriously) like Devo, a satirical art-band that adapted its name from the concept of Devolution, that understands mankind as developing backwards and becoming increasingly more primitive, subservient, and thoughtless as time passes, was in on the depravity of the era. Shaylah Spitz-Kalmus, who stars as one particularly stunning victim of the whip in the iconic music video for the album’s hit (and the band’s only gold single ever) “Whip It,” described the lengthy filming process to Nagy. The anecdote appears in the book. At one point she grew hungry “and they said, ‘Oh, you can just go into the back.’ So I go back there, and there’s nothing but coke lines. I said, ‘No, no, I mean like, food.'”
Nagy takes bits like these and creates a fascinating patchwork detailing historical context, band infighting, complex relationships, and the backlash of rock critics against a band that, despite their ideological explicitness, seemed to never be cool with letting the press in on the joke. It feels somehow definitive to read an account of Devo that involves the band so closely, and one that seems to really understand their project. As Nagy said, “In all the accounts I read, the press were tying themselves up in knots trying to figure Devo out instead of being able to appreciate it for what it was.”
Tomorrow night at Littlefield, we’ll all have a chance to celebrate the release of the Freedom of Choice book at Comedy Tribute to Devo, where a panel of comics as well as Devo co-founder Jerry Casales will be on hand. But in the meantime, we spoke with author Evie Nagy over the phone about writing the book and her sense that Ke$ha is “more Devo than she gets credit for.”
What makes 33 1/3 so awesome is there aren’t too many constraints. It’s just like, write about this album, however you want to do it. You ended up writing a pretty straightforward historical account, but there’s also some analysis of the songs. What motivated you to write the book in that way?
I had interviewed Devo for a long feature in the past, so I knew how to get in touch and it all worked out. And I really wanted it to be their story. It’s not an oral history in the strict sense, it’s not just a series of long quotes or anything. But I think a lot of it reads that way. I think if you were to do the percentage of words, a very large percentage of them are direct quotes from either the band or people who were around them in some way or another.
In many 33 1/3 books there’s a little bit, or sometimes a lot about the author’s personal connection to the band or album, which you touch upon in the introduction. Do you identify with Devo’s ideology or their worldview?
Oh yeah, absolutely. I do mention it in the intro, but I leave the rest of the book first-person free. I have that sort of deep connection from my youth and my own sensibilities. I do think they were a very big influence on me when I was much younger. I come from a politically liberal and questioning sort of background, and their absurd sense of humor was something I latched onto at a very young age. They represent a lot of things– politics, art, comedy, music– that I’ve identified with my whole life.
And I thought they just had a really interesting story. This is the band that, by a lot of less knowledgeable accounts, they’re basically an ’80s one-hit-wonder. But that’s like such a tiny, tiny part of the story. And so many musicians have long been influenced by them and still are huge fans. And their fans are very, very loyal and dedicated. I wanted to tell that story because I thought there are people who aren’t very familiar with them who should be.
It’s really hard, because they are one-of-a-kind in a way. As they told me when I was writing the book, they weren’t going to just be a band. They were going to be a whole sort of art movement in a way.
I think the way she was presented to the world originally was as a party-girl pop princess. And she worked with very big producers like Dr. Luke and I think she was considered just another Top 40 singer. I actually haven’t seen her live, but I know people who have, and she really does have this very rebellious attitude, this fuck-you/the-industry streak. And she’s even come out and really taken a stand against the pressures that were put on her when she was at her peak. She’s a lot more of a rebel and a lot more subversive than people give her credit for.
You write about the critical response to Devo and how there was this tension between critics and the band. It was almost like critics were mad that they didn’t get what they were doing. Or do you think it was more the fact they felt threatened by not being in on the joke?
Music journalism was a slightly different thing back then. Some of the articles I read about Devo were these epic essays, people trying to figure them out. I think they really wanted to be able to put them in a box, either these guys are a joke band, they’re a novelty act, or they’re a super serious, politically subversive art band, or they’re really going for pop, mainstream appeal. But they couldn’t put them in any one of those boxes and I think that’s because Devo was in all of those boxes at the same time. Critics and the press had a really hard time figuring that out and they wanted to be able to save definitively, this is what Devo’s doing.
But what’s interesting is that, all along, Devo said what they were doing. There wasn’t any ambiguity if you really payed attention. They were very outward and transparent about what their thing was. But because it was so left-of-center and strange and had all these different elements to it, the press was sort of convinced that they were being conned in a way. And they didn’t like that, so there was the consensus was, ‘They’re bullshitting us, but they’re good at it, so they should be given some credit.’ I think it’s just a really fascinating kind of dynamic there.
Just from speaking with them and what I could figure out, the main thing about Freedom of Choice was that artistically and musically they were all just really on the same page. It was something that had taken a while to get, and then afterwards it really started to break down a bit.
But at this particular moment, the connection was R&B, and the direction they wanted to go in, all of them agreed, including the producer. It was just a really creative and productive period, musically. Their philosophy and their approach didn’t change or anything, they were still continuing to innovate in all the ways they had aesthetically, but musically speaking they were in a really unified space. That translated into music that was a little more widely accessible than what’d they’d done before.
Oh yeah, absolutely. I mean I love “Whip It.” I think it’s a fantastic song. And I asked all the members of Devo, “Does it bother you?” Because a lot of times bands will say that it makes them mad that’s their hit song, or they got sick of it, or whatever. But they actually don’t feel that way.
Jerry Casales said he actually thought it was the perfect song to have taken off that way. Because it is weird and interesting and quirky and kind of twisted, which is exactly what the center of their work was. But then it’s also a great song to listen to and a great song to listen to over and over again. It has all these interesting meanings and ways you can interpret the meanings.
The only thing I regret, and I think that Devo does too, is that more of their songs didn’t achieve that sort of status. I think there are others that definitely deserved to, musically and thematically and everything.
One of the myths you dispel about “Whip It” is that it’s not an S&M song, which a lot of people interpreted it to be. But do you think the band enjoyed that misunderstanding? Was it intentional to make it a double entendre?
As I start that chapter, they’re very adamant that was never the intention and they were quite ambivalent when it was interpreted that way. Obviously it meant people were paying attention to the song, which probably made it more popular, which was hugely important. But it also completely misinterpreted what they were doing, which was their constant frustration. They told me very strongly that was not at all what they wanted to happen, but they suppose it was a good thing commercially. But deep in their hearts they would not have wanted it to be interpreted that way.
It makes the song more fun, I think to be like, is that what it’s about? And I think that’s one of the reasons why it gets so much attention.
It’s also interesting that there’s this central tension between Mark and Jerry. Jerry sees the band as his life’s work and then Mark thinks of it as just another project and he gets more into writing scores for films and TV and stuff. But how did you deal with that? Because in a way it can make for opposing narratives.
It’s a very important part of the band’s story. I approached it by talking to each of them and presenting each of their stories. That was the best thing I could do. It’s a long, extremely complicated relationship that I don’t think anybody but the two of them can understand. So I just got the stories of their memories and their perspective on all the things that went into this album and just tried to present it in a straightforward way so I wasn’t pitting them against each other. I didn’t feel I had the authority to do that, so the best thing I could do was to present them objectively.
There was so much more overlap in their accounts than I anticipated. They personally have a lot of conflicts, and they have their own perspectives on Devo in particular, but in remembering what writing and recording Freedom of Choice was like, the overlap was really strong. So I felt pretty good about the story of that album because of that. They both remembered it being their strongest point creatively and the most unified time for the band.
I haven’t heard from Mark. I’ve heard from Jerry. I haven’t talked about it to him as much as I’d like to, but I mean it’s a book by a journalist so there are things he wishes were different. But his voice is very much there. He was so involved from the beginning. I really organized and identified all the important themes in the book based on what he told me. I mean, I’m a journalist telling the story from multiple perspectives. I think in any case you’re not going to make everybody completely happy.
A Comedy Tribute to Devo will be held at Littlefield Performance and Art Space, 622 Degraw Street, Brooklyn at 8 pm, Thursday, May 28th. 33 1/3: Freedom of Choice is now available from Bloomsbury.