At the dawn of 1980, Devo found itself facing an uncertain future. Although they had developed a rabid cult following for their radical reinvention of rock and roll on their first two albums, they hadn’t dented the charts. Their record company made it clear to them that they probably wouldn’t get another chance past their next release.
That next release, 1980’s Freedom Of Choice, contained “Whip It,” an unlikely hit single made up of four different pieces of music that were melded together with Gerald Casale’s lyrics parodying American sloganeering. The album as a whole might be the band’s most cohesive artistic statement, one in which their skewed approach on music was applied to traditional forms for a relentlessly catchy record that still contained the heady, de-evolutionary themes the band had always propagated.
As Gerald Casale told American Songwriter in a wide-ranging interview to commemorate the 40th anniversary of Freedom Of Choice, the band didn’t process the pressure placed on them by their label as they made the album. “It didn’t register what course of action we’d take,” Casale says. “Because Devo was Devo. We did what we did. We were an experimental art band in our view of ourselves. We were already discussing among ourselves this idea of letting an R&B influence into our music. Moving away from punky beats and stuff. Because we were changing. We were constantly reinventing ourselves and changing our look and our sound each record. That was part of what made us excited. We didn’t want to keep statically doing what we did.”
The band, which consisted at that time of brothers Gerald and Bob Casale and Mark and Bob Mothersbaugh as well as drummer Alan Myers, needed new material, since they had exhausted their supply of older songs on their first two records (1978’s Q: Are We Not Men A: We Are Devo! and 1979’s Duty Now For The Future.) “Freedom Of Choice really came out of living in LA and starting to create new material that had no history of basements and garages in Akron,” Casale remembers. “The first two records were an amalgam of everything that we had done that we liked the most, and we divided it between the first two. This was turning the page and starting tabula rasa.”
“Bob Mothersbaugh and I had always loved R&B. And we had always listened to stations out of Detroit and we loved Motown. We were pushing to go that direction with beats and bass lines and to think of the music like Devo robots doing R&B with futuristic overtones. Mark really got into it, and thought if that’s what we’re going to do, let’s go all the way. Nobody understood that was our theoretical construct or our inspiration when they were listening to that music, because it’s so mutated from the inspiration.”
Devo chose Bob Margouleff to be associate producer on the album, in part because of his familiarity with the Moog synthesizer, but also because of his work with Stevie Wonder. Songs from the album like the title track, “Girl U Want” and “Gates Of Steel” grab you by the lapels with instant instrumental hooks, which Casale explains was a conscious effort. “One of our favorite songs in the history of rock and roll was ‘Satisfaction.’ That’s why we covered it. From the first two seconds, you’re hooked, and now you’re on a ride. The ride doesn’t stop. We were structuring these songs where, if there was something that excited us about the song that was the primal foundation or base of the song, we stuck it right up front and we stuck it up there alone.”
“Bob Margouleff encouraged us to leave everything more raw and dry and quit using so many layers and effects. So we stripped things down and each sound was very dry and precise. We played everything in the studio live. Bass, drums and guitars were laid down at the same time, then Mark would overdub synths and then we’d put on the vocals. But everything was played. We would pick one take and that was it. And Alan was such a metronomic, mind-blowing machine of a drummer.”
On top of how great the album sounded, Freedom of Choice also proved that the band could be great songwriters as well. “We actually liked traditional songcraft, but we liked our own twist on it,” Casale says. “And we had nothing to prove in terms of being experimental and progressive. Because if you listen to the first two records, they had the strange timings, the whacked beats, the conscious destruction of verse-chorus-bridge ideas. This was a self-imposed challenge. Can we write songs? Because we always thought that was a little bit beneath Devo was, but in the end, not really. You have to be able to deliver.”
With ingratiating hooks and melodies in place, Devo found they could slip in their big ideas almost unsuspectingly. “You make it taste good so that they don’t realize there’s medicine in it,” Casale laughs. “Devo was getting dance-y with a message. Certainly, we were watching the rightward shift to the country leading up to Reagan. And that inspired me to write the lyrics to ‘Freedom Of Choice.’ It was a message certainly consistent with Devo’s worldview and de-evolution.”
And it’s a message that, according to Casale, has the album seeming more timelier than ever. “40 years later, it’s completely contemporary as if time hasn’t shifted at all. We’re right back there. I did say, ‘Freedom of choice is what you got/Freedom from choice is what you want.’ People have used their freedom of choice to vote away their freedom.”
“Unfortunately, we saw it coming. We were trying to be clever about it, inventive about it, even upbeat about it. Devo sounds happy, but when you start listening to it, it’s like, oh, there’s substance here. It’s not so happy. It’s not such a rosy picture. But we didn’t want to be right.”
Political concerns aside, Freedom Of Choice came along at the perfect time in music history in Casale’s view. “Suddenly, It was accessible. Freedom Of Choice is a very accessible sound that hit at the right time when suddenly these were these buzzwords “New Wave” and there were all these bands starting to cop Devo’s style without the substance. In a way, we kept ourselves in the game by doing what we did. Why we did it was certainly not what it might have looked like from the outside. We were certainly not trying to conform. We took a lot of shit for this record from our cult-like base because it was a big departure.”
Any losses from the cult were more than compensated by new converts to the Devo army. And Casale can look back at the making of the record fondly when he thinks of the band’s democratic creative process. “Devo was totally a collaboration. Yes, Mark and I were the principal driving creative forces writing the songs. But it really took everybody’s input to make the ideas work. You couldn’t find people to play those kinds of songs and those kinds of parts. No self-respecting rock and roller would have ever done it. You would have gotten a lot of pushback and friction.”
“But with our brothers, there was a shorthand. We grew up together. They understood our aesthetic. They weren’t questioning it and didn’t have a giant rock and roll ego to say, ‘I won’t play a part like that.’ We didn’t have that going on. We wrote that record together. It was a great period, because it was just open, cooperative creativity.”