“There was no industry around, there was no watchdog, there was no hierarchy, there were no video inspectors, there were no spokespersons who said, ‘No, you can’t do that, we’re not going to teach that.’ There was not enough money or powers for anyone to care. “
Two authors as disparate as Thomas Pynchon or Roy Orbison were key to Devo’s greatest success, ‘Whip it’. A song that was not well understood by all and that was accompanied by a fun video clip that parodied the culture of deep America and that emerged thanks to an article in an old used magazine.
A section by HÉCTOR SÁNCHEZ.
Thomas Pynchon was about to win the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 1974 thanks to his third novel, “The Rainbow of Gravity” (1973), however, the jury backed down as it was considered obscene. The one who did enjoy Pynchon’s style and sarcastic character was Jerry Casale, one of the founders of Devo, since it served as the starting point of one of the songs that would become essential for the group: “’Whip it’, like many of Devo’s songs, it had a long gestation process. I wrote the lyrics as an imitation of Thomas Pynchon’s parodies in his book ‘The Rainbow of Gravity’. He had parodied limericks and ideas poems from obsessive, cult American personalities like Horatio Alger and ‘You’re number one, there’s no one like you’ style poems, which were very funny and clever. I thought, ‘I’d like to do something like Thomas Pynchon,’ so one night I wrote ‘Whip it.’
The lyrics to ‘Whip it’ needed music, and Devo’s other founder, Mark Mothersbaugh, had recorded various ideas for future songs in his apartment. When Casale listened to the tape, one of those tests caught his attention: “I had a tape with about eight recorded pieces, and one of them had a very interesting drum beat that ended up being the beat of the ‘Whip it’ drums”. Of the musical sketches Mothersbaugh had recorded, three of them also became part of ‘Whip it’. With that medley of ideas and a guitar riff borrowed from Roy Orbison’s classic ‘Oh, Pretty Woman’ (1964), Devo began working on the new song successfully. “We started rehearsing it every day until it got to the point where we liked it and we thought it was energetic,” recalled Jerry Casale. “Then we recorded it. We didn’t like it any more or less than the rest of the songs we were doing and we had no idea that it would be a hit. “
Indeed, ‘Whip it’, included in the third album of the group, “Freedom of choice” (1980), would become Devo’s most successful song. But by repeating the expression “whip it, whip it” so many times, listeners began to find its own meaning: “It spread throughout the country. All the DJs and the people who listened to it assumed it was a song about masturbation or sadomasochism. ” And what did Devo do about it? According to Casale, they let the snowball grow: “We let them think that. We didn’t want to spoil it and tell them the truth, because they weren’t going to love reality. ” Instead of being a praise of sadomasochism or self-satisfaction, ‘Whip it’ was intended two things: on the one hand, it was a critique of the American character of solving problems with violence; on the other, it was a song to overcome adversity, As the record’s producer, Robert Margouleff, asserted: “There is undoubtedly a masked brutality, but it also means that you have to lash out with life’s difficulties and problems. You are going to beat the world. You’re going to spank him good. ‘Whip it’ hurts a lot and it hurts good. The pain is supposed to be bad, but the song says ‘whip it good’. And the song is good. It’s a great theme, it’s perfect. There were people who did not understand it at the time, but art comes back to haunt us ”. Nonetheless, Mark Mothersbaugh regarded it as a self-help issue for an American president: “We had just done our second world tour when we started preparing the third album. There was one thing that impressed us: we realized that everywhere the world was scared by the politics and foreign policy of the United States. At the time, Jimmy Carter was in office. And I thought ‘Whip it’ was a kind of ‘You Can Do It’ song by Dale Carnegie (self-help book author) for Jimmy Carter. “
To accompany the song, the band raised about $ 15,000 to record a video and, rather than deny the misinterpretation of the song, Jerry confessed that they chose to fan it: “We made the myth grow a little that the song was about spanking and sadomasochism. We decided that the video would feed that popular misunderstanding and we had a great time doing it ”When Devo emerged, his objective was to criticize the involution of society, in fact, his name was taken from the concept of“ de-volution ”and his projects were one step ahead. Beyond the simple songs, as Casale explained: “From the beginning, and by the way, Devo was a multimedia idea. There was no name for Performance Art at the time. The term didn’t exist, although I think that’s what we were doing when I look back. It was exactly that, Devo represented an attitude, a point of view, a philosophy. It was like a combination of filmmaking, theater, some kind of innovative synthesizers and rock rhythm in a great performance with a lifestyle message behind it, which was basically to mistrust illegitimate authority and think for yourself. ” . When the band went to work on the video after recording the song, according to Jerry, it was a different way of working for the group: “It was one of the few times that Devo worked like this, we often used to start with a visual idea or a story and we wrote music to fit it into. In this case, we didn’t have the original idea for the ‘Whip it’ video, and when people started thinking it was a song about jerking off or sadomasochism, we had books about charlatans that we used to collect from thrift stores or junk stores. old magazines that served us as inspiration or to laugh at ”.
Among the collection of used magazines, Casale found a funny story in a copy of a publication called “Dude” from 1962: “There was a front page article about a guy who had been an actor who was going through difficult times, they no longer gave him no paper. He moved with his wife to Arizona, they opened a ranch for tourists and charged people to hang out at the ranch. Every day at noon in the corral, for entertainment, he would strip his wife with a whip over 10 feet long. She would sew the clothes and hook them with Velcro. In the magazine they told the story about how good he was and how he never hurt. We had a laugh at that and said, ‘Okay, this will be the basis for the video. We’ll have cowboys drinking beer and cheering for Mark while he’s in the corral whipping clothes off a pioneer’s wife while the band plays in the corral. “
For Margouleff, that occurrence was brilliant: “Jerry’s idea for the ‘Whip it’ video was a masterstroke. It looked so amateurish it looks like an old YouTube video, and yet it became a true classic because these guys knew what was going on. They were the forerunners of rap and YouTube, and it was not entirely unconscious on their part ”. However, the producer was not entirely in agreement with a song being associated with a video: “People have a physiological need to hear things in a certain way. Our brains are very interesting. The things we heard behind us can be considered as a threat, because we do not see them; we cannot add a visual cue to the audio. However, the most beautiful thing in the world of records is subjectivity. A space is created in which we are allowed to visualize the song in our own way. Unfortunately, what has happened since the late 1980s is that each song has become a gymnastic exercise; If you watch a rhythm and blues video, everyone does the hula dance, shaking their hips, while Devo’s video tells a specific story. It had deep psychological overtones. And that was fine, even though the video was an advertisement to help sell the album. “
On the other hand, what would happen if a video were presented today in which a woman is whipped by a man? According to Casale, no one was shocked by the video at the time: “There was no industry around, there was no watchdog, there was no hierarchy, there were no video inspectors, there were no spokespersons who said, ‘No, you can’t do that, we’re not going to teach that.’ There was not enough money or powers for anyone to care as well. that we were only considered crazy artists who did crazy things. So we made the video and one day we started showing it at concerts and then MTV started broadcasting it. “
For Jerry Casale, ‘Whip it’, condensed the group’s philosophy: “I think there is a lot of Devo in ‘Whip it’. There is American culture mixed with something menacing, there is irony and humor, there is a hook and a good rhythm to dance, there are interesting synth parts, lyrics that are not typical about getting laid or losing your partner. Although we didn’t mean to, there is a small dose of Devo concentrated in ‘Whip it’ ”. No matter how many lashes Devo threw later during his career, none sounded as loud as ‘Whip it’.
Previous installment of The Hidden Face of Songs: ‘Rock Lobster’, or when the B-52′s reactivated John Lennon.