Devo’s third (and best?) album, Freedom Of Choice

Devo - 1980 (clubdevo.com)

Devo – 1980 (fltr Bob Casale, Bob Mothersbaugh, Mark Mothersbaugh, Alan Myers, Gerald Casale)

Freedom of choice is what you’ve got
Freedom from choice is what you want

© Devo, 1980

Introduction

Early 1981 I bought Devo’s Freedom Of Choice. I don’t have a clue how or where I got it or why, but I’m glad I did. I still listen to this album and love the band.

Devo

Devo - First 2 albums (amazon.com)

Devo – First 2 albums

As is written in the story on the fantastic Satisfaction cover, Devo, at David Bowie and Iggy Pop’s recommendation, was offered a deal with Warner Bros. in 1978. The debut album Q: Are We Not Men? A: We Are Devo! was produced by Brian Eno and also contained re-recorded versions of their singles Mongoloid and (I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction, which had both been previously released on their own Booji Boy label. On October 14th, 1978, the band gained their first national exposure when they performed two songs on the satirical night show Saturday Night Live.

In 1979 the second album Duty Now For The Future was released, seeing the band incorporating electronics. Unfortunately, the second album was a commercial and artistic failure. That same year Devo deserved their second national television performance at Don Kirshner’s Rock Concert, showing four songs, which were recorded earlier in Japan.

In the meantime Devo were still busy with their concept of ‘de-evolution’ (the band name stems from it): instead of consequential evolution, in reality mankind is regressing, which shows itself by the dysfunctional herd-like behavior within American society.

In 1979 Devo played an active role in the religion parody called Church Of The SubGenius, a hilarious cult that particularly parodies Christianity. At times Devo acted as their own support act, the Christian soft rock band Dove (The Band Of Love). In 1980 they were filmed as Dove for the movie Pray TV, a satirist view on ‘televangelism’ that was gaining influence in America.

Just because it’s funny, I researched the Church Of The Subgenius. There’s an entire website dedicated to the religion, which contains a handbook. Click the line below to read a part of the handbook.

The band’s appearance stood out as well. As can be seen in the (I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction video, which shows the band dressed in yellow garbage bags, the band had its own unique way of presenting themselves. The band was embraced by nerds and obviously flirted with that. Their fans were called spudboys (in short ‘spuds’), which in itself is ironic, because the term ‘spudboy’ is used in songs to refer to adapting ‘devolvers’ (they who represent ‘de-evolution’).

Are you still with me? However, all of the above made sure the band wasn’t taken too seriously, especially by the press. Was the band just a joke or were they serious, was it a pop band or an underground art project, were they subversive or straight up clean mainstream pop? The band was deadly serious when it came down to their music, just as they were about their theory on ‘de-evolution’.

Devo - 1980 (clubdevo.com)

Devo – 1980

The road to Freedom Of Choice

Warner Bros.‘ disappointment about Duty Now For The Future, as well as the band’s own, nearly ended the band. Something needed to be done. When it was time to focus on album number three and decide the new direction, the band members kept on returning to R&B. They all loved early Motown, Bootsy Collins and the relatively new and fresh artist Prince. Also, the band was really fond of the sound of the Moog synthesizer bass. The first decision was to replace the regular bass with the Moog. And it was decided to introduce a robotic sound and theme.

Luckily, the band was quickly enthused again. The usual way of working, playing, playing and some more playing together to work on the songs over and over, paid off once again. Faith had been restored and they had the results to show for it. New, fresh, exciting music, heavily based on electronics, but accompanied by analog drums and guitar. But who was going to produce the upcoming record? The band hinted to taking on those duties themselves.

When someone suggested Robert Margouleff, the band was interested. Margouleff was a highly respected producer who was the co-conspirator behind Little Stevie Wonder transition into the innovative funk wunderkind in the early 1970s, giving black music genius and exciting new sounds on albums like Music Of My Mind, Innervisions and Talking Book. Together with Malcolm Cecil, Margouleff had developed the enormous analog synthesizer TONTO (The Original New Timbral Orchestra), that was responsible for the typical new sound on those Stevie Wonder albums.

The new partnership worked like a charm. Margouleff kept the band focused and made sure that the sounds the band was looking for were put down on tape. Besides, the band learned a lot about sound, recording and studio techniques, the band would all use themselves later on in their career.

Of course, Devo wouldn’t be Devo, if they didn’t come up with a new image as well. The band donned itself with red hats, called ‘energy dome hats’, a way to charge the ‘robots’. An iconic, highly recognizable look that represents Devo even to this day.

Devo - Freedom Of Choice (amazon.com)

Devo – Freedom Of Choice

Freedom Of Choice

On May 16th, 1980, the third Devo album Freedom Of Choice was released. The album contained a huge hit with Whip It that would, accompanied by the remarkable video, lead to huge album sales.

The album contains no less than 12 songs and lasts just under 33 minutes. Only two songs break through the 3 minute line. Even though the band had gotten more electronic and funkier, the band hadn’t let go of the punk/new-wave ethos, that had dominated the first two albums.

Devo - Freedom Of Choice - Back cover (genius.com)

Devo – Freedom Of Choice – Back cover

Song by song

The album opens with the fantastic Girl U Want, a great pop song that appears to be about love, but with the usual Devo twist the girl in the song is a metaphor for everything man can’t have, but still wants. Consumerism as a symptom of ‘de-evolution’. It’s Not Right is a nice up-tempo rocking song, propelled by a synthesizer bass. Love sickness with a wink (“I love you darlin’ it’s a cryin’ shame / The way you run around like you’re in a big game / I’m so unhappy I could cry every time I think about you / Boo hoo”).

And then there’s Whip It, a synthpop classic with an addictive rhythm, staccato guitar, synthesizer bass and a catchy chorus (“When a problem comes along / You must whip it / When something’s going wrong / You must whip it”). A big hit for the band and a song that was added to the album at the very last minute.

It’s followed by yet another catchy song, Snowball, which tells the tale of one the band member’s girlfriend who wants to make a snowball while going uphill. Inevitably, the snowball gets too big and rolls down the hill, time and time again. The story is compared to love, hoping for the best, even though it’s clear it will not last.

Ton O’ Luv contains a lyric that stands out, “When woman takes a back seat to man / She has to tell him where to go if she can / And she decides / To wear his ring”. Is this another reference to ‘de-evolution’? Is this a feminist point of view? How is it possible that someone who supposedly needs permission to do what they really want, enters a marriage voluntarily?

If that’s the theme, it is a perfect match for the album’s title song, Freedom Of Choice, which closes the original A side. The song is about the responsibility to make use of your freedom of choice (“I’ll say it again, in the land of the free / Use your freedom of choice / Freedom of choice”), yet people tend to not want it. They’d rather let someone else decide for them, instead of thinking themselves (“Freedom of choice / Is what you got / Freedom Of Choice / Is what you want”). The ultimate ‘de-evolution’ song and thus one of the key songs in Devo’s body of work.

We loved that song very much when we were creating it. It was about how people were throwing away their freedom of choice into meaningless choices like between Pepsi and Coke, or pink fur shoes or blue suede shoes. Just mindless consumerism, they’d rather not be free, they’d rather be told what to do, because that’s what appeared to us was the case, especially in the Reagan years. That was a very Devo position – Freedom Of Choice is what you’ve got, Freedom From Choice is what you want.

Jerry Casale

Devo - Freedom Of Choice - Poster (dangerousminds.net)

Devo – Freedom Of Choice – Poster

Side B opens with Gates Of Steel, another song about the Devo theme. Oscar Kiss Maerth’s book The beginning was the end is referenced, a tale about how mankind came about, partly through cannibalism. Cold War is colder and more distant than the previous songs. The lyrics “I heard it said that all is fair / In love and war so what’s life for” aren’t particularly cheerful.

The following Don’t You Know is a love song that’s basically about sex, or is the line “I got a rocket in my pocket / I don’t know what to do” a reference to the dangers of nuclear war? That’s Pep! sounds happy, but always leaves me with a kind of Stepford Wives feeling, an entire world of tragedy is hidden behind the happy facade, buy maybe I read too much into it.

Mr. B’s Ballroom could very well have been part of Ultravox’s Vienna. The closer Planet Earth seems to have been written from an alien’s point of view on earth, commenting on all the contradictions in emotions, dreams and habits.

Reactions

Reactions to the album were mixed. Some, like Rolling Stone and Lester Bangs, were very negative. Nonetheless, the album was a huge success, especially for Devo. The album reached the 22nd position in the Billboard Pop Albums charts. In comparison, Whip It was even more successful.

Nowadays, the albums is viewed differently. Devo was light years ahead of its time when they released Freedom Of Choice. The combination of electronics, new wave, short songs and pop sensibility hadn’t been done so ingeniously before.

We thought Freedom of Choice was our funk album. That’s as funky as Devo gets, I guess.

Mark Mothersbaugh

Devo - Freedom Of Choice - Singles (discogs.com)

Devo – Freedom Of Choice – Singles

Singles

Three singles were culled from Freedom Of Choice:

  • Girl U Want
    (released on April 24th, 1980)
  • Whip It
    (released on August 13th, 1980)
  • Freedom Of Choice
    (released on December 29th, 1980)

The success of Whip It was in no small part caused by its accompanying video. It was based on a story published in a 1962 issue of Dude magazine, about the owner of a ranch who undressed his woman using a whip. The video fueled the rumor that the song was basically about sadomasochism.

Devo - Freedom Of Choice - Inner sleeves (discogs.com)

Devo – Freedom Of Choice – Inner sleeves

Songs

All songs written by Mark Mothersbaugh and Gerald Casale, unless stated otherwise.

  • Girl U Want
  • It’s Not Right (written by Mark Mothersbaugh)
  • Whip It
  • Snowball
  • Ton O’ Luv (written by Gerald Casale)
  • Freedom Of Choice
  • Gates Of Steel (written by Gerald Casale, Mark Mothersbaugh, Sue Schmidt and Debbie Smith)
  • Cold War (written by Bob Mothersbaugh and Gerald Casale)
  • Don’t You Know (written by Mark Mothersbaugh)
  • That’s Pep! (written by Mark Mothersbaugh)
  • Mr. B’s Ballroom (written by Mark Mothersbaugh)
  • Planet Earth (written by Gerald Casale)

Musicians

  • Mark Mothersbaugh – vocals, background vocals, keyboards, guitar
  • Gerald Casale – vocals, background vocals, bass, keyboards
  • Bob Casale – guitar, keyboards, background vocals
  • Bob Mothersbaugh – guitar, background vocals
  • Alan Myers – drums, guitar on Freedom Of Choice

Freedom Of Choice Tour

Devo - DEV-O Live - Rolling Stone Ad 05/14/1981 (collectors.com)

Devo – DEV-O Live – Rolling Stone Ad 05/14/1981

The Freedom Of Choice Tour had already started even before the album’s release, in Japan on May 8th, 1980 and lasted until August 25th, 1980. It was their most ambitious tour up til then. The podium was illuminated by industrial walls and towers with flickering lights. The band donned their red ‘energy dome hats’ and changed into several costumes during the shows.

During the tour multiple concerts were recorded which would be released at a later time, either on LP (initially as a promo), EP (as DEV-O Live, see below) or as a DVD in 2005, called Devo Live 1980.

DEV-O Live

About four months after the release of Freedom Of Choice, Warner Bros. pressed a promotional album especially targeted at radio stations containing recordings of a Devo show, which was staged on August 16th, 1980, at The Fox Warfield Theater in San Fransisco. Beautiful, almost complete, recordings of a top notch show by the band.

In November 1980 an EP version with four songs was made, also targeted at radio stations. It led to the eventual commercial release on March 25th, 1981: DEV-O Live.

The songs on the EP:

  • Freedom Of Choice Theme Song
  • Whip It
  • Girl U Want
  • Gates Of Steel
  • Be Stiff
  • Planet Earth

In 1999 Rhino Records released the original radio promo as DEV-O Live. I ordered it directly from Rhino at the time. A beautiful release, which consists of the EP (shown above) and:

Devo - DEV-O Live (discogs.com)

Devo – DEV-O Live

  • Freedom Of Choice Theme Song
  • Whip It
  • Snowball
  • It’s Not Right
  • Girl U Want
  • Planet Earth
  • S.I.B. (Swelling Itching Brain)
  • Secret Agent Man
  • Blockhead
  • Uncontrollable Urge
  • Mongoloid
  • Be Stiff
  • Gates Of Steel
  • Smart Patrol/Mr. DNA
  • Gut Feeling/(Slap Your Mammy)
  • Come Back Jonee
Devo - Freedom Of Choice - Instore signing (fastcompany.com)

Devo – Freedom Of Choice – Instore signing

Interview

When I was researching for this article I stumbled upon an interview on the site Dangerous Minds. To complete the time picture I enclosed it below.

But this didn’t stop the band from trying to enlighten the public and their fans about what made them tick. This brings us to the point of this post—a fantastic interview with both Mark Mothersbaugh and drummer Alan Myers published in Record Review magazine in December of 1980.

(politics in 1980)

Q: Is there political significance behind the title of (the album) Freedom of Choice?

Alan Myers: Yes, there is. The significance is that people are being asked to use their freedom of choice in the presidential election. But it’s really ludicrous. It’s like a non-choice.

Q: Will you be voting in November?

Mark Mothersbaugh: We might be voting for Ronald McDonald. We’re going to put on blindfolds and just walk in, waving our arms.

Q: Do you find that your concepts keep proving themselves?

Mark Mothersbaugh: Yeah, look at the Republican Convention.

Alan Myers: It’s really true, though. Every time we come to New York, it’s filthier than the last time we were here.

Q: On the subject of nuclear power, if you were asked to do a benefit like the MUSE (the Musicians United for Safe Energy formed in 1979) shows which were filmed for No Nukes, would you do it?

Mark Mothersbaugh: I would do a pro-everybody that has anything to do with the nuclear power plant, as far as corporate structure and the people that govern it, being made to live within one mile of the nuclear site benefit. If they can get all those smart missiles together and they can’t even make nuclear power plants… that’s the worst end of capitalistic values. It’s perverse.

(groupies)

Q: Does DEVO have groupies?

Mark Mothersbaugh: I don’t think you can call them groupies. If you mean do we have fans…

Q: No, regular groupies.

Mark Mothersbaugh: The kind of girls that are interested in DEVO and that we are interested in, are not your typical girls who take drugs and get as much out of you as they can and trade it in for a suck.

(understanding “their potato”)

Alan Myers: A few people do, though.

Mark Mothersbaugh: We’re misunderstood, that’s true. But we’re holding on, and we keep restarting the case.

Alan Myers: We keep trying to say things in more common terms. We always thought we spoke in common terms, but people think…

Mark Mothersbaugh: that we’re too bizarre and oblique.

Alan Myers: In their private conversations and things, people are capable of applying irony and interpreting things. But once you become a mass object of investigation, then people don’t take things past the first level of comprehension. So we’re learning how to communicate exactly what we want to say.

(future of Booji Boy)

Mark Mothersbaugh: Probably future mutations.

Alan Myers: Marriage, family. Nine-to-five job.

After Freedom Of Choice

Devo - Freedom Of Choice - Gold record (ha.com)

Devo – Freedom Of Choice – Gold record

1981 saw the release of the next Devo album New Traditionalists. A new look was part of the deal. In 1982 Oh No! It’s Devo was released, two years later followed by the poorly received Shout. The deal with Warner Bros. wasn’t renewed and the band was without a record deal. Not long thereafter, drummer Alan Myers left, as he felt his creative needs weren’t fulfilled anymore.

In 1988 the band, with new drummer David Kendrick, released Total Devo on Enigma Records. This album was also poorly received. In 1990 Smooth Noodle Maps was released. Once again a commercial and artistic failure. The following tour was cut short due to slow ticket sales and the bankruptcy of Enigma Records (who financed the tour. In March 1991 disagreements within the band led to their last concert, for now anyway.

In January 1998 Devo played a reunion show and followed it by being part of that year’s Lollapalooza tour. During the following years Devo kept on playing live on a regular basis and many of their albums were re-released, often containing extra material. In December 2007 the first new single since 1990 was released, Watch Us Work It. In 2009 the band debuted three new songs live, which turned out to be phase one on the road to a complete new album Devo album, Something For Everybody, which was released in June 2010.

On June 24th, 2013, former drummer Alan Myers died of stomach cancer, he was just 58 years old, which was quickly followed by the unexpected death of Bob Casale on February 17th, 2014. He was 61.

The (for the time being?) last shows by the band stem from 2018. That same year the band was nominated for a place in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, but wasn’t elected.

In closing

The band would never equal the success of Freedom Of Choice. What’s your take on Freedom Of Choice and Devo? Let me know!

Video/Spotify
This story contains an accompanying video. Click on the following link to see it: Video: Devo’s third (and best?) album, Freedom Of Choice. The A Pop Life playlist on Spotify has been updated as well.