by Carl Wiser

What would you do if the National Guard came to your school and shot your friends? That's the question Neil Young posed in his song "Ohio," written in the aftermath of the horrific Kent State University shootings on May 4, 1970.

Mark Mothersbaugh and Jerry Casale responded by forming Devo. Short for "De-Evolution," the idea is that humankind is regressing rather than evolving. It goes against everything Darwin taught us, but he wasn't at Kent State.

With Devo, Mark and Jerry created a futuristic form of performance art with punk sensibilities. Their vision extended well beyond music, and in the late '70s, Devo became the first American band to make big-budget videos. In this interview, they discuss the evolution of the band, their techniques for misdirection, and "Whit It."
Devo in 1981 with their plastic hair look. Photo: Robert Matheu.

Jerry Casale: We stupidly believed that laser discs were about to happen because we read all the scientific magazines and Popular Mechanics and audiophile mags and they were saying this was on the verge of happening, and certainly the technology existed. We didn't realize that what American business would do, which is typical of American business and human nature in general, was create three competing systems to confuse the consumer and make it impossible to buy a unit that would play laser discs except for that person's catalog. You could have 10 titles that you couldn't play on yours but somebody else could play on theirs and vice versa.

Obviously, they killed it, but what we were going to do was put out laser discs. Devo would be like The Three Stooges, you'd watch these film shorts that were music-driven with stories. We were going to put out one a year, we didn't even want a record deal. It all just became a fantasy, there was no such medium and there was no such market and there was no way to get them out there that we knew of. We started investigating putting out VHS cassettes at the time, but even then, it was a fledgling industry with VHS and Beta competing, two incompatible formats that people were waiting on to see who won. Nobody understood what we were tying to do, so they weren't offering any distribution deals for us. So we just gave up and signed a record deal.

Misdirection is one of Devo's specialties, which you'll find out if you ask them about their Energy Domes. Mark threw VH1 off the scent when they asked him about "Whip It."
Mark Mothersbaugh: We just did a VH1 thing. I made a joke, I had my two pugs with me and I got interviewed and kept referring to them as my whippets - talked about cruelty in the animal world and the importance of recognizing animal rights. I just went off on that for a while. I got a call afterwards and they were upset. They wanted to know why I didn't do the interview right.

If I had to give you a real answer: We had just done our second world tour when we started writing our third album. The one thing that we were impressed with that we noticed everywhere around the world was that everybody was totally freaked out by American politics and American foreign policy. At the time, Jimmy Carter was in charge. I thought of "Whip It" as kind of a Dale Carnegie, "You Can Do It" song for Jimmy Carter. We were like, "Jimmy Carter's a good guy, but he vacillates on his foreign policy."

Those aren't flower pots - they're energy domes. Photo: Allan TannenbaumThose aren't flower pots - they're energy domes. Photo: Allan Tannenbaum
Casale: "Whip It," like many Devo songs, had a long gestation, a long process. The lyrics were written by me as an imitation of Thomas Pynchon's parodies in his book Gravity's Rainbow. He had parodied limericks and poems of kind of all-American, obsessive, cult of personality ideas like Horatio Alger and "You're #1, there's nobody else like you" kind of poems that were very funny and very clever.

So I thought, I'd like to do one like Thomas Pinchon, so I wrote down "Whip It" one night. Mark had recorded some sketches for song ideas in his apartment, and when we'd get together every day to write, rehearse and practice, we would listen to everybody's snippets of ideas. He had this tape with about eight things on it, and one of them had a drum beat that was very interesting, it became the "Whip It" drum beat. Then three other songs had pieces of what became the "Whip It" song, except they were in different time signatures and different tempos. I put them all together into one composition. All the parts of the song got rolled into one song. Then we started putting the lyrics over the top of it and liked the idea of how it was working out, so we started practicing it every day, until it got to the point where we really liked it and we thought it was really snappy. Then we recorded it. We didn't like it any better or any less than any of the other songs we were doing, and we had no idea it would become a hit.

Cal Redmon, who was a big radio programmer in the Southeast out of Florida - he had the Cal Redmon tip sheet - he latched onto that song off the Freedom Of Choice album and started playing it on some stations down there when the record business was still decentralized, when people could still do that. He created the buzz and made it a hit. It spread around the country. All the DJs and people hearing it assumed it was a song about beating off or sado-masochism, so we let them think that. We didn't want to ruin it and tell them the truth, because they just wouldn't get off on the truth.

I think a lot of Devo is in "Whip It." There's Americana mixed with something menacing, there's irony and humor, there's a hook and a big dance beat, there are interesting synth parts, lyrics that aren't the typical lyrics about getting laid or losing your baby. Although we weren't trying, it was a pretty concentrated dose of Devo in "Whip It."

From the beginning, on purpose, Devo was a multi-media idea. There was no name for performance art at the time. That term didn't exist, although I think that's what we were doing when I look back at it. It's exactly that, Devo represented an attitude, a point of view, a philosophy. It was like combining film making and theatrics and cutting-edge kind of synthesizers and rock beats all rolled into one big performance with a lifestyle message behind it, which was basically to beware of illegitimate authority and think for yourself. Hardly a revolutionary idea, but it turns out to be more revolutionary as people's freedoms are slowly eaten away.

MTV went on the air in America on August 1, 1981. Suddenly those Devo videos had an audience, and "Whip It" remains one of the most memorable.
Casale: MTV only had about 20 videos. They had a couple of David Bowie videos, they had Rod Stewart, they had The Buggles' "Video Killed The Radio Star," and they had our early stuff like "Jocko Homo," "Come Back Johnny," "Satisfaction" and "My Baby Gave Me A Surprise."

We made a video to "Whip It" for like $15,000 that was shot in our rehearsal studio. We kind of magnified the myth that this was a song about whipping and sado-masochism. We decided to make the video feed that popular misconception and had a lot of fun doing it.

Mothersbaugh: It was mom out on the great western prairie, she's whipping up a batch of whipped cream for the motley crew that's staying there, including Devo dressed like third world boat people and whipping another third world woman with a blindfold and a cigarette and a cigarette holder in her mouth, doing sort of a whip tease.

Casale: It was one of the few times Devo worked like that, usually we would start with a visual idea or story and write music to fit it. In this case, we didn't originally have a video idea for "Whip It," and when people started thinking it was a song about whacking off or sado-masochism, we had these quack books that we would collect from junk stores or vintage magazine stores that served as inspiration or jokes. There was this one magazine that I found in a store in Santa Monica. It was like a 1962 men's girly mag called Dude, I think. There was a feature article on a guy who had been an actor and fell on hard times, he wasn't getting parts anymore. He moved with his wife to Arizona, opened a dude ranch and charged people money to come hang out at the ranch.

Every day at noon in the corral, for entertainment, he'd whip his wife's clothes off with a 12-foot bullwhip. She sewed the costumes and put them together with Velcro. The story was in the magazine about how good he was and how he never hurt her. We had such a big laugh about it, we said, 'OK, that's the basis for the video.' We'll have these cowboys drinking beer and cheering Mark on as he's in the barnyard whipping this pioneer women's clothes off while the band plays in the corral.

Back then, nobody cared. MTV had just started up in three cities, we had already shot five videos before "Whip It," and nobody cared. There was no industry around it, there were no gatekeepers, there was no pecking order, there were no video commissioners, there were no representatives going, No, you can't do that, we won't show that. There wasn't enough money or power involved for anybody to care, so we were just considered crazy artists that went out and did whacko things. So we made the video and one day we started showing it in concerts and then MTV started playing it.

1980 in the The Freedom Of Choice era. Note the curtains. Photo: Jules Bates.

"Freedom Of Choice" is a Devo classic. It's often misinterpreted as a song celebrating personal freedom.
Mothersbaugh: There's an old Aesop's fable about a dog that's walking across a bridge with a bone in his mouth, and he looks down in the water and he sees another dog with a bone and he gets so upset that he finally goes to attack the other dog and loses his bone.

Or it could have been about the cocker spaniel that lives in my house. There's two pugs, and if I give the cocker spaniel a pig ear or a treat, she's happy until I give one to the other dogs, and then she drops hers and can't believe that they have the treats too. She doesn't stop and think, there's one in my mouth, I can taste it, I should just keep going. Instead, she thinks they've gotten her treats, so she's upset until that's over.

Casale: We loved that song very much when we were creating it. It was about how people were throwing away their freedom of choice into meaningless choices like between Pepsi and Coke, or pink fur shoes or blue suede shoes. Just mindless consumerism. They'd rather not be free, they'd rather be told what to do, because that's what appeared to us was the case, especially in the Reagan years. That was a very Devo position: Freedom of choice is what you've got, freedom from choice is what you want.

That commercial for Miller Lite shows a guy making his freedom of choice by stepping out of the way of this line of human dominoes that has been falling for 30 seconds. He's finally smart enough to back up and let it pass him by as he grabs his beer.

Mothersbaugh: Instead of singing "He went in circles 'til he dropped dead," I changed it to "He went in circles 'til he dropped down." They didn't want you to think the people were all dead. That was a good commercial. I liked that one as much as the Swiffer one gives me goose bumps of repulsion.

There's something really intriguing and strangely subversive about Devo's songs that keep showing up in commercials. It might look like a sell-out, but it's really an inside job.
Mothersbaugh: For the commercials, if we do a performance and we re-perform the song, they don't have to get permission from Warner Bros., because they own the original performance. So then it becomes something we can sell them, we can sell second and third performances. If we do a new performance of something, we control it.

Casale: Today, when people use Devo's music in commercials, they either completely miss the point or on purpose, excise the irony. Target used "Beautiful World," and of course, left out the line "For you, for you, but not for me." They just made it a beautiful world straight up. The same with "Whip It," which was used to sell Swiffer.

The concept of that commercial is a generation gap where "Whip It" is being used as a put-down of the girls' mother. She's stuck in the '80s and swiffing away to "Whip It" and the kid thinks she's weird and is embarrassed by her. It's perfect that while Devo, when we came out we were a critical success and loved by people, but we were pretty much overlooked by radio and MTV.

MTV turned on Devo around 1981 and quit showing stuff and didn't want anything to do with us and said, Unless your song's a hit, we're not playing your videos. What's funny is, we never made any money, and only through publishing now, are we making money, ironically for the wrong reason. But built in to Devo was that comment on how society works and how people see things different ways and there is no one explanation of reality and that people do not share one idea or logical idea of reality. This just proves it. We don't feel bad about the little bit of money that trickles to us now that we never got in the first place because they used these songs in a terrible way. It's almost more subversive because you go, 'This can't be, it's all wrong.' It's almost like Dada, it's like something the artist Jeff Koons would do. By misusing it so badly, they've created something that amuses us, entertains us.

Mothersbaugh: I liked the Gateway one with the cows singing. He's riding in a truck with a cow singing Jerry and my's voices.

Casale: We only half control our songs because of a terrible publishing deal we made in 1978 with Richard Branson, who basically tricked Devo. Our lawyers, who were supposed to be looking out for us, encouraged us to sign this deal, which turned out to be more than an administration deal, it turned out to be a publishing deal when it came to ancillary use, which has to do with TV and film. Every time these things come up, we only control the song for song use, like on a record or compilation. When it comes to synching it to movies and TV, we are now in bed with EMI, who bought the publishing from Richard Branson long ago. They have as much say as us and make the lion's share of the money. We can say no, but we shoot ourselves in the foot by doing so. Better to make a little money for the wrong reasons 20 years later than to never make any money at all.

We only did so because Warners was injuncting release of the record because they were at war with us over the fact that we signed with Virgin Records for European territories, and signed with Warners for The United States, Japan, Australia and Canada. Their manager of business affairs said that because they had paid for our equipment to be shipped to Germany where we were recording, that was an implicit agreement that we had a worldwide deal and English barristers assured Devo that was nonsense and then proceeded to lose the case. There we were with no money, an album that had been in the can for six months, with fighting between the two record companies and preventing Devo from performing or doing anything.

Richard Branson said, "I can get you some advance money on a publishing deal so you could live on that," so that's how that happened. They control every song that was written under that contract. He did that to a lot of people. Sting had to sue him for his publishing because he's big enough and powerful enough to do something like that, but they suddenly "found" 9 million dollars they owed Sting.

Mothersbaugh: We were so far out of left field, that we were always intrigued with the idea of making commercial art and fine art intersect. We were always really impressed with people that did a good job of it and felt like there was much more of a chance to change things then to just butt heads. Some of our better successes were things that were more subversive.

Devo is 2007. Photo: Jay Spencer.

On May 4, 1970, the United States National Guard shot four unarmed students at Kent State University in Ohio. Jerry witnessed this low point in American history.
Casale: Mark wasn't a student at the time, he was working on his art at the art department without actually being enrolled. I was a student, I was a member of SDS - an antiwar group called Students for a Democratic Society, trying to restore Democracy at a time when LBJ and Nixon were running roughshod over it. There were several anti-war groups. The protest that day where everybody got shot was a protest against the expansion of the Vietnam War into Cambodia. It was a secret expansion, Nixon had done it the night before and we found out about it the next day, the whole nation did. They did it without an act of congress, without passing any new law or having any meetings. It was completely unconstitutional, so we're out there at noon, about 3,500 students at Kent State were out there. The governor, who certainly was a pro-war kind of guy, Governor Rhodes, he had placed the National Guard inside the heating plant of the school the night before anticipating what would happen when the students found out about Cambodia. Not only did he do that, but he waited until about 9am on May 4th to declare martial law, which suspends all first amendment rights of the Constitution, meaning that any assembly is automatically illegal, you're automatically committing a crime.

These National Guardsmen poured out of the heating plant, surrounded the protesters, and with a bullhorn announced that martial law had been declared and that we were all going to jail. Everybody starts chanting and screaming and they start shooting tear gas. Some of the more ballsy protesters, while they're coughing and choking and puking, are trying to throw it back, but most of the kids were anywhere from 50 to 100 yards away from these lines of National Guardsmen with guns. Nobody believed that the guns were actually loaded with live ammo.

They just suddenly formed a row. The first one knelt and the second one stood, and they just shot right into the crowd, shot at all of us. Down the hill at all of us. The worst thing about it is that two of the four students killed weren't part of the demonstration, weren't part of an anti-war group. They'd just come out of class from the journalism building at that time and come out on their way to their next class and were looking at the protest - just seeing what the hell's going on - and they got killed.

The bullets just went everywhere, it was like a scattergun approach, like shooting geese. A lot of the bullets went over the heads of the protesters and kept going straight down the hill. One of the kids that's paralyzed for life was getting into his car to leave campus after his class, and they shot him in the back. He was at least 200 yards away and wanted nothing to do with what was going on. It was shocking. It pretty much knocked any hippie that I had left in me right out of me that day.

I had been a member of the honors college and the only way I went to school was with a scholarship. What I had to do every year to earn my scholarship was work three months in the summer for the university admitting new students to the honors college - the incoming freshman - and helping them arrange their curriculum, taking them through the registration process. The summer before May 4th, I had befriended Jeffery Miller and Allison Krause, two honor students, and they turn out to be two of the four killed on May 4th. So I'd known both of them nine months before this happened, and when I realized that this girl on her stomach with a huge exit wound in her back with blood running down the sidewalk was Allison, I nearly passed out. I sat down on the grass and kind of swooned around and lied down. I was in shock, I couldn't move.

We knew Chrissie Hynde really well. I was in a band with her brother, Terry Hynde, who was a saxophone player. I was in a blues band called The Numbers Band 15 60 75, which were very popular in Kent, Akron and Detroit. She used to hang around Kent State every day with all of us in the student union. She was younger, but she didn't really get along with kids her age - she liked to hang out with the older guys. She'd always go, "When are you going to let me sing and play harmonica in your band?" Mark was in a band with her briefly in Akron.

It refocused me entirely. I don't think I would have done Devo without it. It was the deciding factor that made me live and breathe this idea and make it happen. In Chrissie Hynde's case, I'm sure it was a very powerful single event that was traumatic enough to form her sensibility and account for a lot of her anger.

The government and the press tried to lie about what happened as well as they could. The fact that anybody knows what happened is amazing because they did such a good job of muddying it up and lying, it was amazing. The final chapter there was that the parents of the students who were shot and killed banded together and went on a class-action suit against Governor Rhodes and the state of Ohio and the National Guard, and summarily lost across the board. These kids that were shot were 18 and 19 years old. Two of them were 18 and two of them were 19. They lost because by law, no one was allowed to be having a protest once martial law was declared, and they threw it out of the court system.

I don't think anyone wants to know. It ruins the myth of freedom in America to find out how easily it can be gone.

Another musician at Kent State during the shootings was Chris Butler of The Waitresses, who brought us the seasonal favorite "Christmas Wrapping." He explains how the shootings impacted him in this interview.

Jerry and Mark also spoke with us about some of Devo's most important songs, which you can find in these Songfacts entries:

"Jocko Homo"
"Beautiful World"
"Whip It"
"Freedom Of Choice"
"Girl U Want"

Updated January 31, 2020
The interviews took place in December 2003

More Songwriter Interviews

Comments: 6

  • Sp from PdxI've got no regrets loving the song "Whip It".
  • Erik from Los AngelesI remember that Target commercial, and remember laughing out loud at a big Corporation being fooled by their own shallow view of music. I have always appreciated Devo (the video for Beautiful World was brilliant), but never knew about Jerry's connection to Kent State. No matter how many times I hear about the Kent State shootings, they still make me sad and angry. Jerry's story only added to both. Thanks for posting this interview.
  • Harold Bryant, Bsn/emt from California, Usa And Mindanao, PhilippinesI have been enjoying the artistic and musical talents of DEVO since about 1979 when I was 8 years old. Their work is even more relevant these current days than they were back then for certain. As a former Special Ops team member and Medic, then and currently Federal Law Enforcement Agent, I got a front-line view of stupid government policies in numerous countries in addition to that of the USA, so I can authoritatively say, DEVO got it right!
  • Otterpopthis was fascinating to read. shamefully, i've only recently discovered devo, but i thoroughly enjoy their music, and it makes me feel a lot better about myself to know that it isn't just pop garbage ;)
  • AnonymousThey are so funny and they're geniuses. It is sad and annoying what happened to them with the record companies and the school shootings.
  • KpFantastic Interview. The devolution in the world is so evident it's scary. we educate our young for technologies that don't exist, we support death of innocent people, we kill people due to religion and money. The band has also been way too overlooked. Their early stuff could possibly be some of the best music I've heard.
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