By Wil Forbis
Devo is a band whose credentials I have always pushed. Whether it be in various articles I have written or random discussions Iíve had with people at parties and shows, I am constantly trying to make people aware of the merits of this oft misunderstood band. Sometimes, I try to calmly convey this message through the discipline of verbal argument, other times I tie the disbelievers to a chair and beat them with large clubs until they admit Devoís greatness. Whatever works.
The reason Iím so adamant about the Devo gospel is because I feel that they have been vastly shortchanged by the rock press and society in general. Devo are regarded at best as a novelty act, parading amongst the likes of The Archies and Right Said Fred. The impact that Devo had on this now burgeoning alternative scene has largely been ignored. This sort of slight is a national atrocity and a scar on the otherwise unblemished face of American culture. (Please note: This article is now a few years old and Iím the first to admit that music critics have actually come along way towards accolading Devo. Iíve also realized that The Archies were a very serious band, operating on a level of lyrical profundity that rivaled Yes.)
In this piece Iím focusing on the merits of Devoís 1980 album Freedom
of Choice. I do this for several reasons. For one, the album featured
their biggest hit, "Whip It", and is probably most familiar to the reader.
The album also occurred in their middle period i.e. theyíd already put
out several albums and this could arguably be the period where they
achieved full "Devoness." (In retrospect, I disagree with this statement
as well. I now believe they achieved full "Devoness" on Saturday, January
6th, 1976 as a result of the aligning of Jupiter with one a Saturnís
smaller and lesser known moons, Howard II.) Iím sure it is a matter
of great debate among Devophiles, but I feel Freedom of Choice
is a hearty example for dissection.
I plan to focus on two aspects of the album to prove my case (whatever that is.) One: the musical side of Devo, and, Two: the lyrical side. However, it should be noted that Devo was one of the few bands to so brilliantly unite those two components. An examination of Devo music will show how well the music (riffs, chords, melodies) supported the lyrics and vice versa. For example, the words and general theme to "Whip It" would not fit over the spicy and alien music of "Planet Earth." As opposed to being two foreign components haphazardly joined at the hip, the words and music of Devoís songs act as one, united in Devo-filled bliss.
!# THE MUSICAL ASPECTS (of Devo):
Now Devo music has always been basically weird. This is partly why they never gained continous commercial success. The music simply never fit into a prearranged category like Rhythm and Blues or Heavy Metal. It wasnít even a combination of styles, the motif of some bands like Mr. Bungle or Living Color. Nope, Devo was strictly Devo. Akin to bands like Primus, they drew from unidentifiable influences to create something new and unique.
While early Devo was more guitar driven and the bandís later efforts more focused on keyboards, Freedom of Choice was a consistent unification of the two instruments. While the riffs of "Mr. Bís Ballroom" and "Freedom of Choice" (note: Throughout this article I refer to album titles with an underline and song titles with quotation marks.) are designed for the keyboard, it is impossible not to notice the buzzsaw power chords being played on the guitar. Devo was unwilling to relinquish themselves to being simply a synth-pop band and made sure that the guitar remained a driving force in their music. Sometimes this was accomplished with the guitar taking on a rather simple punk-rock feel, while other times, it approached a sixties surf sound (check out the guitar "solo" on "Freedom of Choice.") It simply depended on what fit into their twisted vision. Of course, this heavy use of the guitar is probably responsible for Devoís inability to crack into the audience enjoyed by smoother keyboard bands like The Pet Shop Boys or Erasure, but I always thought those people were sissies anyway.
The keyboard element of the band does deserves separate discussion as well. Instead of going for the lush, choral-like chords made popular by 80ís Brit-Pop bands, Freedom of Choice depended more syncopated single note lines ("Girl You Want") and just plain wacky effects ("Donít You Know.") One gets the feeling, listening to the album, that a substantial portion of it was composed by simply twisting knobs and throwing switches on various synthesizers to see what kind of sounds came out.
*%THE LYRICAL ASPECTS (of Devo as well.)
Before I discuss the lyrical elements of the Freedom Of Choice album, let me create a brief pretext on the subject of lyrics in general. Sometime ago, someone decided bands were more "real" and culturally valid if they sang about generally depressing and existential subjects, like suicide or moral decay. Bands such as The Doors, the Cure, Pearl Jam and Nirvana, all of whom harangued us with long tirades of doom and gloom, received insurmountable accolades from the rock press for their neo-romantic jabbering.(well, maybe not the Cure.) Now to be honest, when I succumb to my occasional downward moodswings, the last thing I want to hear is Eddie Vedder moaning and groaning about the sorry state of the world (Iíd rather hear him moaning and groaning from a gaping stomach wound created by those newfangled "cop killer" bullets.) I suspect that it is those who live rather upbeat lives whom buy into the dark mythology of bands like Pearl Jam. Letís be honest, depression is hip. And if you canít be depressed, you can at least buy albums by bands who are.
I realize that Iíve gone off on quite a tangent there, now let me attempt tie this in with some relevancy. The point is, that Devo, unlike bands such as Pearl Jam or Nirvana, have never let their anger out in so obvious a way. Instead tossing out cheap Bukowski imitations disguised as meaningful lyrics amidst slow minor key progressions, Devo pursued a stance of robotic apathy. The pretense being, as evidenced by their synchronized appearance and unemotive singing, that the life has been beaten out of the men of Devo, leaving uncaring voids. Emotion, any kind of emotion, is simply too painful to feel. Really, that is a much more frightening statement the dispirited sentiment of so many of todayís groaners.
#@TWO CATEGORIES OF LYRICS:
With this in mind, there are really two distinct categories you can put the lyrics of Freedom Of Choice into: Relationship songs and non-relationship songs. (well, okay "non-relationship songs" isnít exactly a "distinct category", but fuck you.) For the most part, Freedom of Choice was the first album to feature many relationship songs, as earlier albums depended more on such ponderous subjects as evolution or burger advertisements. F.O.C however, has quite a few tunes examining the intricacies of human romance. I like to hold to Devo purity and say that the influx of this subject was not an attempt to garner commercial success, but hell, thatís probably exactly what is was. Nobodyís perfect. Devoís relationship songs tended to at least focus on the less explored territory of unrequited love, an area at odds with the songs of the day that weíre more based on themes of "Iím gonna rock you baby," or "I sure am missing your loving." But titles such as "Girl You Want" or "Itís Not Right" give the general gist of the tunes contents. Probably drawn from experiences of members of the group (you got the impression that these guys werenít exactly Lotharios) the tunes tend to tell the age old story of "Boy meets girl, Girl thinks boy is a dweeb, Boys sulks off and forms popular synth rock band."
The songs in the second category do provide interesting material for discourse, though. The songs "Whip It" and "Thatís Pep" are decidedly optimistic ditties about the virtues of self reliance. ("Whip It" was not, as so many have assumed, an ode to masturbation.) "Freedom Of Choice" (the song) considers the ramifications of political apathy. "Planet Earth" discusses the inanities of modern society. To be honest, Iím not really sure what "Mr. Bís Ballroom" is about, but no doubt, it contains great wisdom.
THE BEGINNING OF THE END (of the beginning).)(&
Many Devophiles will claim that Freedom Of Choice
was the last great Devo album and that it was downhill from there (truthfully,
this claim has been made by members of Devo themselves.) The statement
would follow, that it was commercial success wracked itís damage on
Devo's creative psyche as it as so many others. I could augment this
point myself by saying that I do think Devoís Hardcore albums
(recorded mostly on four track before the band had any commercial following)
were their unequivocal best. However, I also think that much of the
material following Freedom Of Choice was quite good, including
albums like Shout, Total Devo, and Smooth Noodle Maps.
And at the very least, those albums were still head over tails past
90% of pop musicís offerings past and present. But if people gave a
damn about what I think I suppose I wouldnít be being published a publications
such as this.