The making of Devo’s Freedom Of Choice
By A.D. Amorosi
Saying that Devo once found itself in an oddly uncomfortable position is, simply, odd in and of itself. The toast of Akron, Ohio’s skanky underground music and DIY avant-garde art scene built its entire career’s aesthetic to make its audiences weirdly uncomfortable, as it moved from being the product of Kent State student Gerald Casale’s satirical anti-corporate anarchy and Mark Mothersbaugh’s quirkily humorous motorik feel for new de-evolution into something proto-punkish by 1973.
“It’s not as if we were ever looking to be in the mainstream, or even thought that it was possible,” says Gerald Casale, Devo’s co-founder. “We figured that we spelled that out from the start.”
Theirs was an entrée filled with leg-baring trash-bag costumes, earnestly sinister big-fat-baby masks, flower-pot hats, science-fiction-meets-military-complex themes, Chi-Chi Rodríguez references, off-kilter rhythms and cheaply primal synths (the key to their scorched-earth vibe) that made them the faves of art-school punks, Captain Beefheart wonks and frat-boy curiosity seekers alike. Whether for its onstage performances or through Ohio director Chuck Statler’s creepy, homemade videos, Devo was quickly becoming a sought-after commodity by 1976 going into 1977.
“Before we had even one legitimate album out, there were 14 or 15 studio-quality bootlegs of our stuff on the market,” says Mothersbaugh. “People knew and loved our live sound.”
What Devo’s Casale and Mothersbaugh—to say nothing of the Two Bobs, keyboardist Casale and guitarist Mothersbaugh, along with drummer Alan Myers—really wanted was a clear shot at having that un-prissy, primal sound ably represented. “We were Kraftwerk from the waist up, and Elvis Presley from the hips on down,” says Casale. “We wanted those smarts and that raw energy to translate to our albums.”
Once Devo signed with Warner Bros. in 1977 at the urging of high-powered father figures such as David Bowie (who was to have produced them but didn’t, as filming on Just A Gigolo began when Bowie was dragging the band off to a studio in Tokyo) and Elliot Roberts (Neil Young’s manager), Devo never got the shot to produce itself. (At least not within the frame of its first three albums, as Devo actually teamed together to produce 1981’s New Traditionalists and 1984’s Shout as part of its deal with Warner Bros.)
This is a bizarre reality to most listeners, as the band’s brain trust knew exactly how it should sound during its golden inception, and what was famously recorded by Brian Eno (1978’s Q: Are We Not Men? A: We Are Devo!) and Bowie’s Ziggy Stardust producer Ken Scott (1979’s Duty Now For The Future) wasn’t it. Not even a little bit.
These heroes of new music—Eno (of Roxy Music fame) and Bowie’s main man—couldn’t give Devo what it needed. “Songs of ours like ‘Smart Patrol’—that was rock power Devo,” says Casale. “The crowds went crazy for them. On record, though, they got blunted. Badly.”
What then was the album that Devo finally thought was its most concise and direct, the one that did exactly what the band told it to do and sounded exactly like it had written and envisioned in its minds? 1980’s Freedom Of Choice; weirdly enough, the band’s biggest seller, its cleanest, sharpest record and one that paired its oddball vision of America (who else would be inspired by both Norman Vincent Peale’s The Power Of Positive Thinking and Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow, according to Casale?) with its most dedicatedly electronic output yet.
“We set out to make Freedom Of Choice with an R&B feel, and that’s what we got,” says Bob Mothersbaugh. As opposed to dipping into its deep well of tunes written between its inception and 1978’s debut (some 60 of them split between Are We Not Men? and Duty Now with plenty left over), Devo wanted newer songs. With that came the expectation of how the band should and could come across—its feel for off-putting, askew rhythms, discordant guitars and such. Freedom Of Choice gave Devo a cleaner, fresher shave as it was cuttingly executed and warmly produced by Robert Margouleff of Stevie Wonder and TONTO’s Expanding Head Band fame.
The popularity of Freedom Of Choice—a top-20 Billboard pop album in the United States, with its ever-present “Whip It” performing likewise on the singles charts—often takes the bloom from the rose when considering the jerky version of the dream was Devo’s ugly-beautiful debut album. Repeated listenings of all three of Devo’s first LPs (the golden inception mentioned earlier) prove that this third record—made under label duress and increasing pressure from within to go more guitar (Casale) or more synthesizer (Mothersbaugh)—features its strongest melodic bass without eschewing all of its rhythmic oddity. Yes, Mothersbaugh won out, and Freedom Of Choice became Devo’s first most-realized, magnetically percolating, most electronic album to date (Duty Now came close in what Mothersbaugh called its “sleek K-Rock-iness”). But Casale’s sense of snark was also appeased (“Whip It” was intended as a song for Jimmy Carter to use as part of his second run at the presidency), and the title song has the frenetic feel of crunching guitars and quickly wiry solos to go with its mega-watt hammering drum tones.
“We were mutating ourselves on purpose, with that purpose being to make something bolder and funkier, still with guitars and energy, and still maintain the energy of our stage show,” says Casale.
Still, what the hell happened with Are We Not Men? and Duty Now?
Mothersbaugh recalls that when Bowie—who caught on to Devo after Iggy Pop gave him a cassette—had to pass on producing the quintet, the members of Devo had already quit their day jobs and left their apartments to relocate to the West Coast. “We were homeless and had to survive,” he says of the whirlwind touring that brought them to Manhattan, where Brian Eno and Robert Fripp found Devo at CBGB. There, Eno offered to produce Devo in Cologne, Germany, at Conny Plank’s studio (he of Ultravox, Guru Guru and Moebius & Plank fame) and pay the band’s travel expenses while its Warner Bros. deal came to be.
“What’s funny about that is Bowie wanted to sign us to his Bewlay Brothers production company, but the money wasn’t so great,” says Mothersbaugh. “I always thought Bowie’s lawyer reminded us of Bruce Wayne, and we wouldn’t have been surprised if he had Batman costumes in his closet.”
While Eno started work on Are We Not Men?, Bowie would stop by the studio on weekends and filming breaks to noodle around. “Neither one of them had a clue what to do with us, at least not to our liking at that time,” says Mothersbaugh.
Casale adds that the Eno they got wasn’t the Eno they imagined from the days of Roxy Music and Eno’s noisy avant-glam solo album, Here Come The Warm Jets. “We expected feather boas and synth squeals, and what we got was this nice man with short hair who had embraced beautiful sounds and ambient waves rather than the grotesque Minimoog stuff we associated with him,” he says. “Eno wanted to make our stuff less cacophonous, industrial, brutal, and inject harmonies and soft drum pads.”
Mothersbaugh mentions that going into the record business and their first label project, what they wanted was “big brothers to hold their hand” and not guide their sound. “We knew what we wanted to sound like,” says Mothersbaugh, who mentions one recent and interesting find. “Before he passed, Bob Casale and I were transferring old tapes onto digital and stumbled onto Germany recordings we didn’t know existed. Brian and David recorded extra tracks on every song—they wanted to be on our first album.” Excitedly, Mothersbaugh mentions Bowie/Eno backing vocals on “Uncontrollable Urge,” Eno’s additional Eventide harmonizers and bucket-dumping sounds on “Too Much Paranoias” and gamelan twitters and monkey chatterings throughout the found tapes.
“I think we let Eno down, bummed him out because we were more radical than he expected, and he hoped to have more influence over us,” says Casale, faintly praising the producer’s take on “Mongoloid” with its gated delays and snare limiters that made its pulse splash and snap like white noise.
“Maybe we did know those extra take tapes existed, but, in the end, were so positive that we knew what Are We Not Men? should sound like that we didn’t have an open mind for it,” says Mothersbaugh.
Mothersbaugh and Casale didn’t want the Bowie/Eno imprint. Devo wanted to be protected.
Devo album one was a cutting-edge, critical success and all the hipsters dug it, but in Casale’s words, it didn’t “clear the radio barrier with stations run and maintained by fat pseudo-hippies in satin baseball jackets accepting whores and coke from independent promoters like Joe Isgro.”
Casale laughs, but he’s clearly still annoyed about the major-label record business of 1977-1978, reminding us that the only reason Devo did get any radio spins was due to its strangely syncopated cover of the Rolling Stones’ “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction.” For their second album, then, Casale and Mothersbaugh believe that Warner Bros. wanted more of a new-wave synth hit à la the Cars.
“I think at first they were all proud because, ‘Hey, we have Beefheart, we have Zappa, we must be cool,’” says Mothersbaugh of Warner Bros. seeming prepared to put Devo on its mantle of curios. “They wanted to prove they had taste and were hip. They signed us because David Bowie thought we were interesting. But they wanted to recoup some money, too.”
Casale believes that Warner Bros. was hoping that its sophomore effort would find Devo mainstreaming its avant-skronky sound for a hit like the “Loverboys of that time.” So the label pushed the quintet toward a number of producers “of which Ken Scott was the most palatable because of his history with Bowie,” he says. “Now, this is where things got weird.”
Again, neither Casale nor the Mothersbaughs wanted a producer—they simply wanted an overseer of sorts.
“I didn’t like Ken Scott because, from the start, he didn’t ‘get’ Devo: our ideas and vision,” says Bob Mothersbaugh. “He was still into Supertramp.”
Casale reminds us that, after the Eno experience, they just hoped to have someone who would listen to them: “The best-laid plans of mice and men, right?”
Mark Mothersbaugh mentions that Scott was no conversationalist and that his vision of the future and Devo’s future(ism) was much more literal than the band’s own. “He sterilized us,” he says. “He had a specific take on us—very K-Rock friendly.” As before, Casale sounds even more bitter about the Duty Now process, as several of his self-penned songs—like Are We Not Men?, taken from some 40 or 60 tunes written before its first album was recorded—were made plainer than beige under Scott’s watch.
“‘Clockout,’ for example,” says Casale of a tune written in 1976, pointing out how Duty Now eschewed the wonky punkish guitar sounds that made his version more primitive and the album’s version more pristine. “He just anesthetized that. Scott played up to Mark because he knew about his love of synths and sequencers. Mark already wanted to move away from guitars. Bob Mothersbaugh was never egotistical enough to fight in the studio.”
To that charge of losing a punkish guitar’s edge, Bob Mothersbaugh says, “I think Devo had worked through a lot of the angst that propelled Are We Not Men?—what was left was the song craft. The first album had great songs, delivered with anger and youthful insanity. Look, we watched the Sex Pistols implode. We weren’t really interested in mosh pits.”
To make matters worse, Scott excluded Devo from the album’s mixing process, only begrudgingly letting the band hear tracks after all had been decided. “We barely knew how bland it sounded,” says Casale. “Scott took our suggestions but rarely incorporated them.” So yes, Casale is frustrated about that album to this day.
“Actually an old girlfriend of mine had a copy of Duty Now on eight-track that she played through her beat-up old Volvo’s cheap auto-mall speakers—you know the inexpensive retro-fitted speakers,” says Mothersbaugh, laughing of its crude, tinny, bass-y sound. “That was great. Just distorted enough. If you can find the eight-track, do it.”
Bob Mothersbaugh adds that “Duty Now contained the rest of the songs we had been playing live that weren’t on our first album. Plus, ‘Day My Baby Gave Me A Surprize,’ ‘Swelling Itching Brain’ and ‘Triumph Of The Will’ were written just before going in the studio for Duty Now. We had been touring extensively after the first album; maybe we rushed to get another album out.”
Casale is less humorous about Duty Now. That album in his mind had powerful songs that should have translated as vicious but didn’t. These were tunes that had been written in dingy basements and played in dirty clubs. “That’s how Duty Now should have sounded,” he says. “Scott wanted something processed. We wanted something aggressive.”
For album three, then, Devo had one last shot with Warner Bros. In Mothersbaugh’s mind, the label didn’t care if the band had a seven-record deal. “They even said as much to Elliot Roberts: ‘Make these guys make a hit or we’ll see you in court,’” he says. “Look, this was a label that used to shut down on Friday and start partying around noon. The workers would set up a rotisserie or get carry-out food and booze. It was acceptable to them to pull out canisters of cocaine during meetings like somebody taking orders for Starbucks today. That wasn’t us.”
What was “them” was Robert Margouleff, a highly respected and wildly commercial synth pioneer and producer who aided in Stevie Wonder’s Motown label transition from Little Stevie Wonder into an innovative funk wunderkind whose every move ruled the charts and defined the new revolutionary soul movement. “We didn’t particularly like Scott, and since Duty Now didn’t sell as well as Are We Not Men?, we wanted a different producer,” says Bob Mothersbaugh. “We settled on Bob Margouleff because of his involvement with TONTO, the modular Moog synth, and because he had produced Wonder.”
Mark Mothersbaugh mentions that while he was interested in technology—pushing for the use of computers, drum machines and the (then) new toy of MIDI machinery—Casale was more interested “in getting a radio sound, whatever that meant, for the next album,” he says. “Robert was somebody who satisfied what I was interested in and Jerry was interested in.” Along with that decision, the Devo brain trust had decided that pursuing a funk album for the band was a way to go in writing new songs (some of its first since Devo’s start) and considering new grooves that could satisfy the band and Warner Bros.
“A Devo funk album, right? Whatever that would be?” says Mark Mothersbaugh. “We were into Bootsy Collins and Prince. But we couldn’t quite make out what our take on that soul sound would be. We grew up loving Motown. That’s probably how we came to Margouleff, because Stevie Wonder was ubiquitous, and he was a giant of electronic music. The underground film world, too, when you consider he lived with and produced that Edie Sedgwick movie.”
Mothersbaugh and Co. rented space along Wilcox Avenue in Hollywood—an old row of storefronts long abandoned—where Margouleff was a constant visitor. To Mothersbaugh, the producer was a fascinating presence, always interested, engaged and engaging, and looking to do the next thing. “He was demonstrative and optimistic—super optimistic—which I think grated on Jerry’s nerves, but I kind of liked that,” he says. “He reminded me of General Boy from our films.”
Bob Mothersbaugh goes on to say that unlike Scott, who made Alan Myers and Bob Casale play to metronomes in the initial sessions for Duty Now (“So demeaning,” says Casale), Margouleff was dream-date-great in the studio. “He made our parts sound good together,” says the other Mothersbaugh. “When Jerry’s bass synth didn’t sound like the demo tapes we’d made, Bob said to go get the same amp he had played through at the rehearsal room. He created a good atmosphere to play live.”
This obviously won over the ever-doubtful Casale, who talks about penning “Girl U Want” and the like with a focused intent, to do something robotic and R&B-ish with a thick bass sound. “It wasn’t a sound that we had to push through someone else’s meat grinder, because this was fresh meat straight from our brand-new cow—mutating ourselves on purpose with Bob’s help, not hindrance,” says Casale. “Margouleff was excellent in bringing synth sounds to two-inch tape. That was the real marvel there. That’s what he had done going back to TONTO.”
Devo wanted to be R&B and got just that, with R&B twomp that kicks “Gates Of Steel” and “Ton O’ Luv” into hyper-funky, super-stupid overdrive. Mark Mothersbaugh still rhapsodizes about Freedom Of Choice and what he learned from Margouleff: interesting recording techniques that he could have never gleaned from his other producers at that point. “Robert taught us how to run synthesizers and get sounds we liked, especially on our guitars,” he says. “He would yell, ‘Check this out,’ like a kid, show us how to blend different sounds from different settings into one. From there, on Freedom Of Choice, we made technology sound better and different than anyone out there at that time. That became something that for the rest of our measly careers, we kept doing. Not making synthesizers sound smooth but making them do their own thing—maybe human, maybe just weird machines.”