NOTE: This is a pre-production transcript and may not match the final show precisely.
Hi There! And welcome to the next episode of How Good It Is, a weekly podcast that takes a closer look at songs from the rock and roll era, and we check out some of the stories behind those songs, and the artists who made them famous.
My name is Claude Call, but that’s OK, right?
Hey, don’t forget to check out the website, How Good It Is Dot Com, and the Twitter, and the Instagram, and of course the Facebook page, which can be found over at Facebook dot com, slash, How Good It Is Pod.
[DOCK OF THE BAY clip]
This week’s trivia question could be considered a little bit morbid, I guess: the first song of the Rock Era to go to #1 in the US after the artist died was “(Sittin’ On) The Dock of the Bay, by Otis Redding in 1967. What was the second song to do that? I’ll have the answer for you later on in the show.
We’re talking about Devo today, and Devo is a band that’s been around longer than you probably think. The band’s name comes from the concept of “de-evolution”; the idea that we’ve stopped evolving and are instead beginning to regress. A couple of art students at Kent State University, Gerald Casale, and Bob Lewis, created a few art pieces around this concept. Around the same time, Casale was performing with a local band called 15-60-75, which later became known as the Numbers Band. They met keyboardist Mark Mothersbaugh around 1970 and he brought a more lighthearted feel to the operation.
It wasn’t long after that, in May of 1970 that the Kent State shootings took place, and the whole de-evolution joke became more serious in their heads. Kent State has frequently been cited as the event that launched Devo.
[JOCKO HOMO clip]
They first played as “The Sextet Devo” in 1973, at the Kent State Performing Arts Festival, and the performance wound up in a short film called The Complete Truth About De-Evolution. Eventually the video, which won a prize at the Ann Arbor Film Festival, caught the attention of David Bowie, who managed to get the group a contract with the Warner Music Group. By this point the lineup was Mark Mothersbaugh and his brother Bob, who played electric guitar, Alan Meyers on drums, Gerald Casale on bass and his brother Bob on keyboards and rhythm guitar. The track you’re listening to now, “Jocko Homo” was the B-side of their first single, but they gained national attention when they re-recorded their cover of the Rolling Stones’ “Satisfaction”, something I talked about briefly back in Episode 35, and they performed that song and “Jocko Homo” on Saturday Night Live on October 14, 1978.
[GIRL U WANT]
But it was two albums later, in May of 1980, that they released the album Freedom of Choice, which contained their best-known hit, “Whip It.”
Devo was showing a definite move toward a synth-pop-slash New Wave direction, and Freedom of Choice really cemented it. The first single was “Girl U Want”, which Warner Brothers wanted to release as a single because they thought it sounded a little like The Knack’s “My Sharona”, and in fact it was compared to that song by a music critic. But “Girl U Want” didn’t do much at all, although a cover by Robert Palmer was a moderate success in the UK and peaked at Number 22 in Japan.
“Whip It” was the second single from the album, and while nobody really thought it was going to do much, either, a couple of things came together to make it a hit. But I’ll come to those in a minute.
In an interview with Songfacts dot com, Gerald Casale said that “Whip It” started out as a pastiche of the parodies that Thomas Pynchon had written in his book Gravity’s Rainbow. Both Casale and Mothersbaugh have said in a few different places that the lyrics were meant to be a kind of pep talk for President Jimmy Carter during the 1980 presidential election. The song has a bit of a Dale Carnegie, “you can do it” attitude, and at the same time there are some violent undertones in those lyrics. Steve Huey, in his review for AllMusic, called it (quote) “a sardonic portrait of a general, problematic aspect of the American psyche: the predilection for using force and violence to solve problems, vent frustration, and prove oneself to others”. (Unquote)
In the meantime, the band was still putting together song ideas, and the songs usually arose out of snippets of stuff that they’d bring in and assemble together. Mark Mothersbaugh came in with a few different things, and one of them was a drum beat that Casale found interesting, and that became the basis of “Whip It’s” drum beat. Casale said that there were several pieces that went into “Whip It” but they all had different tempos and such, so it took a bit for him to layer them together into a single song, then they took his lyrics and put them on top of it. Mothersbaugh created the main riff by changing the ending slightly from the main riff in Roy Orbison’s “Oh Pretty Woman”:
[OH PRETTY WOMAN clip into WHIP IT]
So I mentioned before that there wasn’t a great deal expected to come from “Whip It”, but a couple of things brought it into broader focus for listeners. One was that a disc jockey named Kal Rudman took a liking to the song. Rudman was a bit of a tastemaker in those days because he had a syndicated radio program, so the song got some airplay and became especially popular in the southeast, particularly in Florida. That got the buzz going.
The second thing that spurred interest in the song is the misconception that the song was about masturbation, or sadomasochism, or some other such kinky thing. And frankly, nobody wanted to disabuse them of the notion, because nobody would have enjoyed the truth.
Finally, and in a similar vein, there’s the promotional video, which the band made in their rehearsal studio on a pretty small budget. Originally they didn’t have much of an idea for the video, but then they learned about the weird theories that people had about the lyrics, and that gave them an idea. Since people thought the song was about S&M, why not give them a little S&M? The tough part was doing it in a way that was TV-friendly. Gerald Casale says he found an old girlie magazine from the early 1960s, and in the magazine was an article about an actor who’d fallen on hard times. So he moved to Arizona and opened up a dude ranch, where he and his wife would charge people money to stay. And every day around noon, he’d go to the corral and use a 12-foot bullwhip to whip is wife’s clothes off. The clothes were breakaway so they’d come apart easily and he never injured her doing this. The band thought this was a laugh and made that the basis for the video: the band would play in the corral while Mark Mothersbaugh whipped off a pioneer woman’s clothes. Now, the whip never actually struck the woman in the video; her clothes were attached to fishing line and yanked off with each whip crack, though the whip did manage to knock the cigarette holder out of the actress’ mouth for real.
Crazy? Of course it was. But at that point the video industry was still pretty much in its infancy, and MTV had maybe three cable companies as affiliates, plus they were starved for material. There wasn’t much in the way of gatekeepers then, nobody really cared so MTV started playing the video a lot. By then the record had been out for nearly a year, and in fact had made it to Number 14 on the Billboard Hot 100, but it actually made a small comeback as a result. Unfortunately, that relationship between Devo and MTV soured, and subsequent videos wound up being either censored for their content or rejected because the song wasn’t a hit.
[DEVO 2 point zero]
And while Devo has maintained a devoted following for over forty years, “Whip It” remains their only song to make it to the Top 40 on the Billboard chart.
The song has been covered a few times by artists such as Pearl Jam and Love and Death, and oddly enough there’s this version, by a band called Devo 2.0, which was a Disney creation that covered Devo songs for a teenage audience. Gerald Casale re-wrote a bunch of lyrics to make them Disney friendly, but “Whip It” didn’t need any revisions.
The song has also been used in a few commercials, perhaps most recently for the Swiffer line of cleaning products. In the Swiffer ad, a woman cleans her house while performing jerky, robotic motions while we hear a slightly altered version of the song wherein “Whip it good” becomes “Swiffer’s good”. Now, because Devo got a bad publishing deal back in 1978, they only have control to half the rights to their songs. So when they allow the songs to be used in commercials, they actually re-record the songs so they can keep the performance rights. So that’s genuinely Mark Mothersbaugh, and the rest of Devo performing in the Swiffer commercial, with the new words provided by Proctor and Gamble. Originally they were going to sing it as “You must swiff it” but it turned out that copyrighting the phrase, and all the future implications, would cost a huge amount of money, so they left it as “Swiffer”.
But the song has been used in a couple of other commercials, including Twix candy bars, Pringles chips and Gateway computers. In the Gateway ad, which Motherbaugh says is one of his favorites, we see a truck driving down the highway.And riding shotgun beside the driver is a cow, because Gateway was founded in Iowa and the boxes that the computers are packed in had cow markings on them. The cow produces a CD marked “Cow Mix”, and when they play it, this song comes on and the driver and the cow sing along with it. It’s weird and it’s cute and I’ll link it on the website.
[DOCK OF THE BAY clip]
It is time to answer today’s trivia question.
Back on Page Two I noted that “Dock of the Bay” by Otis Redding was the first song of the Rock Era to go to #1 on the Billboard chart posthumously. Redding finished recording the song on December 8, 1967 and he died two days later in a plane crash, so they did some hurry-up work on the post-production and released the song quickly. But the question today was what the second song was to top the chart after the artist’s death.
[ME AND BOBBY McGEE clip ]
That would be this song, “Me and Bobby McGee”, by Janis Joplin. And as it turns out, the circumstance was much the same in that she finished recording on October 1, 1970 and then she died three days later. The band took their time finishing the entire Pearl album, however, so the single wasn’t released until January. It went to Number One on Billboard’s Hot 100 the week of March 20, 1971 and stayed there for two weeks.
Some of you might have come up with Jim Croce’s “Time in a Bottle”, but that was the third. Also interesting is that “Time in a Bottle” was recorded and released two years prior to his death, but when Croce died, radio stations started playing it as an album track, which pressured the label to release a single that eventually went to Number One.
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Next time around, we’re going to find out How Good It Is when you have a Total Eclipse of the Heart.
Thanks for listening and I’ll talk to you next time.