Let’s call this latest Oral Hit-story unforeseen gonzo journalism.
Late last year, I found myself in that bustling tourist trap, Times Square, in a special media-only pit, surrounded by photographers at a DEVO show. And the band’s bespectacled, wild-eyed frontman, Mark Mothersbaugh, was making his move.
The next thing I know, the 64-year-old—wearing a black DEVO t-shirt and matching black shorts and kneepads—is bounding down the stage stairs and taking a running leap towards me. I narrowly escaped a direct hit, escaping with a shot to the shinbone. And after he let a few audience members sing into his microphone, he whirled around, promptly tripping over my journalist satchel and doing a faceplant right in front of yours truly, mid-song (thank goodness for those kneepads). All in the name of rock and roll—and for me, the story.
“Mark’s whip had clear monofilament line on it attached to the outfit the girl was wearing. I had gotten the seamstress to take all the clothes apart, put it back together with Velcro only, so when he whips, it comes off.”
This all went down at the CBGB Music & Film Festival, where DEVO was playing a set of its classic tunes—and after which I would be whisked away for a face-to-face with Mothersbaugh and co-band-leader Gerald Casale to talk about the lone hit song they’d written together: ‘Whip It.’
It occurred to me that this sort of sequence was probably de rigueur at the old CBGBs on Bowery in New York City—a nightly mosh pit of sweaty rock fans before mosh pits were even a thing. Throughout its storied history, packed-in audiences at the popular music venue saw the likes of punk-rock pioneers the Ramones, Television and the Talking Heads perform on the dingy stage.
One of the acts lucky enough to play the famed spot was DEVO. Founded in the early ’70s in Ohio, the band, which takes its name from the word “devolution,” consisted of two sets of brothers—Gerald and Bob Casale and Mark and Bob Mothersbaugh, along with drummer Alan Myers. And their punk-rock cult-classic Q: Are We Not Men? A: We Are DEVO! put them on the map as one of the weirdest and most inventive art-rock outfits of the decade. They were among the first to experiment with a mixture of synth- and punk-rock—calling cards of the ’80s New Wave movement—and it’s hard not to hear their influence on a lot of modern indie-rock bands these days.
Their chart fluke hit, ‘Whip It,’ wouldn’t arrive for another two years, when the band released its third album, Freedom of Choice. A little under a year later, a little-known cable station named MTV launched, and one of the first videos that made its way onto the daily rotation featured the band on a dude ranch, wearing their now-famous red “Energy Dome” helmets. So when I caught up with Casale and Mothersbaugh (far right and center above, respectively) after nearly maiming one of them, I asked about it…
You guys have performed with a lot of famous bands—and you said on stage you had played CBGBs. Tell me a good CBGBs story from back in the day.
Casale: Well, CBGBs was completely seedy and nasty and scary, especially for guys from Ohio, but what was important about CBGBs was who was there the day before you and the day after you. I mean, when we came into town the night before we played, [and] I walked in and saw The Damned. And then when we were onstage, The Dead Boys attacked Mark, when he started going, ‘Are we not men?’ in the audience, you know. And then he grabbed Stiv Bators [and said] ‘Are we not men?,’ and Stiv lost it, and they jumped on us. But you had to have that; it was part of the punk experience. That made us OK.
You guys were two bands of brothers and a drummer. What was that dynamic like as brothers in a band?
Mothersbaugh: Well, we were the older brothers, so we got to tell the younger brothers what to do.
Casale: But they didn’t mind it. [laughs]
Mothersbaugh: They were used to it; they’d had a lifetime of it already, so…
Casale: …there just was a shorthand; everybody understood everybody, and there was this thing where we shared an aesthetic without having to talk somebody into it. [You ask] someone to play fucked-up guitar parts, and most self-respecting guitar players will go, ‘I’m not doing that. That’s not cool.’ Well, your brother goes, ‘Oh yeah!’
We read that Rolling Stone magazine called you guys ‘fascists’ at the time.
Casale: One time they called us ‘fascists,’ and one time they called us ‘clowns,’ and then we were like, ‘Fascist clowns! That’s it! That’s what we’ll be!’ [laughs]
For many people who grew up in the ’80s, DEVO can be summed up by that single song, ‘Whip It.’ But there’s so much more to your catalog. Are you sort of bummed that ‘Whip It’ was the song that blew up?
Mothersbaugh: We’re glad there was a hit.
Casale: We never calculated hits. I mean, we’re not bragging; we weren’t the kind of people that just sat down and went, ‘Let’s write a hit.’ We wrote songs we liked and then we only put songs we liked on the records, so if one of those songs became popular, we didn’t mind playing it, because we liked it before it was popular. You know, bands that calculate—those are the ones that get bummed out, because somebody else wrote the song for them.
Now as far as the song is concerned, do you remember exactly where you were when you wrote it?
Casale: Well, [Mark Mothersbaugh] was in his bedroom, [and] he brought in a tape that had four different pieces on it. This is California in 1979. And I had been reading a Thomas Pynchon book, and [Mothersbaugh] had brought in these tapes, and we would listen to the tapes and share lyrics. It was four different pieces of music and actually four different tempos and everything, and it wasn’t until we got that drum beat and started, almost like a puzzle, say, [to go], ‘Well, let’s take that one and that one and actually put it in the same song.’ So it came from four different pieces of music recorded at different times and then put over one drum beat and composed into an arrangement. [For] the lyrics, I was basically doing my own Thomas Pynchon imitation on purpose as an exercise, and we put ‘Whip It!’ over it, and it seemed to make everybody laugh, so we did it.
Eternal flame: The current incarnation of Devo with Arcade Fire in Chicago last year.
That the main riff is swiped from Roy Orbison’s ‘Oh, Pretty Woman,’ right?
Casale: [Mothersbaugh] took Roy Orbison and deconstructed it.
Mothersbaugh: The deconstructed version.
On the recording, there’s that whip sound incorporated as part of the backbeat. Did you guys hire a dominatrix to whip some poor guy in a ball-gag in the corner of the studio to get that sound effect?
Casale: We didn’t know any dominatrixes then.
Mothersbaugh: No, I think Bob Casale dressed up like a dominatrix, and he whipped us.
Casale: That was just backwards white noise.
Mothersbaugh: It was an EML-500 synth that was terrible for anything else. The only thing that it really did good was noises, so it did the factory noise for ‘Freedom of Choice.’
Casale: But then it was played backwards and cut.
Mothersbaugh: So it was only good for coming up with abstract sound effects, it was terrible for anything that you tried to tune it for, but it was an invaluable synth.
Casale: We also used it for ‘Working in a Coalmine.’
We have to talk about the video, because that’s part and parcel of the song’s lore. We always wondered about those hats. The Energy Domes. Did you guys render those yourselves in an art studio, or were they given to you…?
Casale: Well, they had to be fabricated by the use of a vacu-form technique. But the design, we did that. I drew it out on graph paper and took it over to this guy Brent Scrivner, and then he took that 2-D design and made a 3-D mold. And we had to make some changes to it so the mold would pull off …
It sounds like an intricate process; you’re not just putting a flowerpot on your head.
Casale: Oh, not at all. No, no, the proportions of that … you can’t find a flower pot that looks like that.
Has either of you ever used a leather device to unclothe a woman?
Casale: Oh, we did that for real in the video, but it was trick photography; Mark’s whip had clear monofilament line on it attached to the outfit the girl was wearing. I had gotten the seamstress to take all the clothes apart, put it back together with Velcro only, so when he goes like this [mimics whipping motion], it comes off.
So it actually happened!
Casale: Yeah, he goes like this [makes whipping motion], and cut it.
Mothersbaugh: We were inspired by a film we’d found called Whiptease, where there was a magician in Las Vegas or something that was doing that for real.
Casale: He’d whip off his wife’s clothes in a corral as part of the entertainment at a dude ranch, because he had been a stuntman in Hollywood, and he moved to Nevada and had a dude ranch, and his wife would dress up, and at noon, he’d whip her clothes off in the corral down to her underwear for all the guests.
Mothersbaugh: It just made us laugh. So 34 years [after] we did that video, I just found last week, because I’m selling a house that I used to live in, a piece of the log cabin [from the ‘Whip It’ video]. I still have one-quarter where the logs overlapped.
Casale: Put it on eBay!