Jerry Casale and Mark Mothersbaugh formed Devo when they were at Kent State University. Jerry told us how this song came together:
"'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. I thought, 'I'd like to do one like Thomas Pynchon,' 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. We started practicing it every day, until we got it 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." (Here's our full Devo interview.)
This became a hit when it was picked up by a radio programmer from Florida. He played it on some stations there and created the buzz that made it a hit. Says Jerry: "It spread around the country. All the DJs and people hearing it assumed it was a song about beating off or sadomasochism, 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."
When MTV launched in 1981, they had very few videos to choose from. Some European and Australian artists had been making videos, but very few came from US artists, and most of those were concert videos. Devo had been making interesting videos for a while because they thought Laser Discs were going to catch on and wanted to make film shorts with music soundtracks that people could watch on them. Laser Discs never caught on, but MTV did, which gave this video lots of exposure.
Jerry Casale: "We made a video to it for like $15,000 that was shot in our rehearsal studio. We kind of magnified that myth that this was a song about whipping and sadomasochism. We decided to make the video feed that popular misconception and had a lot of fun doing it. 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 sadomasochism, 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 a 1962 men's girlie 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."
Mark Mothersbaugh told us: "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."
This was one of the first hit songs that used a synthesizer as the lead instrument.
Devo's music and videos were based on the concept of "De-Evolution," meaning that mankind is regressing. They dressed alike in their videos to convey the lack of individuality in the world. Said Casale, "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.'"
Jerry Casale: "From the beginning, on purpose, Devo was a multimedia 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."
In 2003, this was used in a commercial for Swiffer wet mops. In the ad, a woman cleans the house with a Swiffer while doing robotic motions like Devo. When her daughter, who appears to be a junior-high Goth girl, sees her, she says, "I hope it's not genetic."
Jerry's thoughts: "The concept of that commercial is a generation gap where 'Whip It' is being used as a put-down of the girl's 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, 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. They 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 into 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 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.' By misusing it so badly, they've created something that amuses us, entertains us."
Proctor & Gamble, who make the Swiffer, originally had them re-record this for the commercial as "You must swiff it," but their lawyers found out that copyrighting "Swiff It" and the product implications down the line could cost them hundreds of thousands of dollars, so they changed the lyrics to "You must Swiffer" so they wouldn't have to copyright "Swiff It."
Because of a bad publishing deal Devo made in 1978, they control only half the rights to their songs. When they allow their songs to be used in commercials, they insist on re-recording them so they can keep all the performance rights. In the Swiffer commercial, that is Mothersbaugh's vocal with lyrics written by Proctor & Gamble.
This has also been used in ads for Gateway, Twix and Pringles. In the Gateway commercial, the chairman of the company is driving an 18-wheeler with the Gateway cow riding shotgun. The cow produces a CD labeled "Cow Mix," and when they listen to it, this comes on and the chairman and the cow sing along. That ad is one of Mothersbaugh's favorites.
This was Devo's only hit, but they have a large cult following, and many of their songs have been resurrected for commercials. Members of Devo started a company called Mutato Muzika (www.mutato.com) that develops music for movies, TV shows and commercials. Jerry is a successful director, and has worked on videos by Rush, The Foo Fighters, Soundgarden and many others.
This song is playable in Donkey Konga for the Nintendo GameCube.
Suggestion credit: Matthew - Milford, MA
Senior citizen singers the Del Rubio triplets made this song a big part of their stage show, performing it on acoustic guitars. They made many TV appearances in the '80s, usually performing in a campy style and wearing skimpy outfits.
The Brian Welch fronted nu-metal band Love and Death covered this in 2013 for their Between Here & Lost album. Their version features Matt Baird of the Arkanas hard rock band Spoken. Welch recalled to Noisecreep: "He was just in town during the recording and Jaren (Rauch, producer) mentioned it. He said it would be cool to have a guy to scream on there and so I totally tried it. You wouldn't believe it, at nine in the morning, he got up - you're hearing him with morning voice and everything and we just threw him on there."
Jonas from Springfeild, KsShaylah Spitz Ober appears (uncredited) in the video "Whip It." Shaylah has her clothes whipped off by Mark throughout the video which refers to a cowboy who whipped off his wife's clothes in a corral for the entertainment of people staying at his dude ranch.
Chris from Germany This song is a masterpiece. It is not known in Germany or in Europe in general but in the US the song is very famous. It is played on every marriage party. And DEVO were groundbreaking.
In 1980 they made a great video with low budget and mind that was the time before MTV and the video is kind of funny and scandalous.
Barry from Sauquoit, NyDevo guitarist Bob Casale passed away on Monday (Feb. 17th, 2014) at the age of 61... Devo's biggest hit was "Whip It!"; it entered Billboard's Hot Top 100 chart on August 24th, 1980 at position #85; and on November 9th it peaked at #14 (for 3 weeks) and spent almost a half-year on the Top 100 (25 weeks)... Mr. Casale is the 2nd member of the group to pass on; drummer Alan Myers passed away on June 24th, 2013 at the age of 58... May they both R.I.P.
Karen from Manchester, NhIt's so wierd to see Mark Mothersbaugh involved in the children's show "Yo Gabba Gabba", although it did act as a "gateway" for introducing my daughters to Devo and other '80s groups. Now they love watching a video show that's on every night called "'80s at 8"!
Willie from Scottsdale, AzMy brother bought a whippet for the sole purpose of naming it "Devo." :-)
Mike from Norwalk, CtToo bad it has the reputation it has because if you listen to the lyrics of this song, its very positive. Face your problems directly is the point.
Steve Ober from Hollister, CaAgain ! Please include my wife Shaylah Spitz Ober in your fact archives on this video ! Shay is the featured girl getting her clothes whipped off ! Please check out this link !!!! http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1gbuZpZb4mc She need to be given credit for this appearance !Please contact me at email@example.com - Steve Ober, Hollister, CA
Steve Ober from Hollister, CaPlease include my wife Shaylah Spitz Ober in your fact archives on this video ! Shay is the featured girl getting her clothes whipped off ! Please check out this link !!!! http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1gbuZpZb4mc She need to be given credit for this appearance !Please contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org
Matthew from Milford, MaI absolutely LOVE this song in Donkey Konga! Whip it, whip it good!
Musicmama from New York, NyIf this song doesn't get you to dance--or move--the only excuse you could have is that you're in an iron lung.
Madalyn from Greensburg, Pai like how they were different and did their whole this but this pitular song was just to weird for me but i downloaded it and listen to it anyways because its a part of music history and i have to respect it...i guess its not too too bad i mean i've heard worse music...so from one to ten ten being best i give it a 6.79
Krista from Elyria, OhGreat song. See the video on YouTube. Its odd.
My 'rents say that we should appreciate Devo better.
Liam from Manchester, EnglandCheers guys. I never knew about the origins of Devo's greatest song until now! But is it an urban myth that Whip It was partly inspired by Roy Orbison's Pretty Woman?? Just listen...
Ekristheh from Halath, United StatesIt has always been my understanding that Neil Young produced this; also, that he picked up the phrase "rust never sleeps" from them, because they were repeating the phrase during sound checks. As the story goes, two of the band members had worked in advertising and had come up with the slogan "rust never sleeps" for a Rustoleum commercial. Are these rumors or true facts? One thing's for sure; this was extremely popular on community and college radio in the Midwest.
Fyodor from Denver, CoDevo fans call themselves Devotees. There was an annual Devotee convention I think maybe in Cleveland for a while, but I don't know if it's still happening.
Maggie from Chapel Hill, NcUsed in the movie "Raising Helen" with Kate Hudson and John Corbett. Great chick flick. GO RENT IT RIGHT NOW!
Dee from Indianapolis, InI was 11 when this was all the rage. It was different, and the video is pure classic MTV, before the over extended multi-million dollar videos of today. Regardless of what you think it's about, it's a fun song.
Matt from Pawtucket, RiBlue Man Group played the riff for this on an instrument called the "Tubulum" on the tour for their album The Complex
Sam from Boise, Id/Darn straight. Being born in '86, for me, the flower pots ARE Devo.
Tom from Adelaide, AustraliaThis song is gold, a classic. It just pulses with energy and I can't get out of my head the red flower pots... Brilliant..
Digi from Sydney, AustraliaA GREAT song and it absolutely cracks on the dancefloor. There isn't anything better by Devo except maybe Girl You Want.
Steph from Ottawa, CanadaThis song is really bad. 'Mongoloid', though, is very good, and 'Working in a Coal Mine', well, its somewhere in between.
John from Alexandria, Ky."Thanks for the info, 'Very' interesting." (Always willing to learn something new) john email@example.com
Mike from Kansas City, KsAs a music reporter in the 1990s I met the guys from Devo when they played on the Lollapalloza tour. I asked them about the song "Whip It" and asked what it was suppose to be about. The guy with the glasses, the lead singer, said it was about whatever a person wanted it to be about but that it had a decidedly sexual theme. He also said it was a great song to get a crowd roudy. The singer proved it by jumping into the crowd during the song while swinging a belt (or something) wildy around - it got the crowd so wound up that kids were being tossed onto the stage and bloodied from head to toe. I guess you could say a good time was had by all!:)
John from Boca Raton, FlThis song was inspired by Gravity's Rainbow by Thomas Pynchon. In the book there are several intentionally corny self-help poems. Mark Mothersbaugh was reading through the book when he decided to write his own self-help song which turned into Whip It.
Kei from Salem, OrWeird Al Yankovic's music video for "Dare to Be Stupid" was loosely based on the video for "Whip It". Members of Devo were later heard to comment that he had done things with their music they never thought possible - and would never forgive him for it ^-^.