Devo’s Freedom of Choice is “The Devo Album With ‘Whip It’ and The Funny Hats.”
As you may have noticed if you checked my upcoming gigs calendar, I’m going to perform in a book release show at the end of the month for my friend Evie Nagy’s entry into the 33 1/3 Music Nerd Book Series (not its official designation). It’s titled Devo: Freedom of Choice, and is a book-length exploration of the band using the titular album as a launching point. It’s a good read; her writing is easy and breezy, while never losing the sense that permeates, of a music fan’s conviction that their favorite album, their favorite band, is important. That it’s important that the world listens to it, and understands why it’s important the world listens to it.
As I say, she uses the album as a launching pad to explain the music and context of Devo, a band that, for a more casual fan like myself, can feel frustratingly, and intentionally, opaque. As a music fan, I am almost entirely self-educated. You would think that a native New Yorker like myself would have grown up hearing the music of a million cultures, but being exposed to something and understanding it are two different things.
I grew up in the middle of Queens, and while it wasn’t exactly a cultural dead zone, like the small backwards town of the movie Footloose, it wasn’t exactly the cutting edge either. Which is odd, because Central Queens was seemingly Ground Zero for the punk movement. The Ramones were from Forest Hills, a neighboring, um, neighborhood, and The Dictators were nice Jewish boys from Jackson Heights not too far away, and so on and so forth. Simon and Garfunkel were from Forest Hills as well, and I guess my point is that hip acts are often formed in defiance of their environment, not in encouragement by it.
Rego Park, Queens, where I grew up, was a strictly Mainstream Top 40 Zone. If you were young, you listened to whatever hit the Z-Morning Zoo and Casey Kasem’s Countdown Show. If you were young and angry, you were a Metalhead, and grew your hair long and wore black shirts with album covers from Metallica, Megadeth, Motley Crüe. Everybody had parents that reared them on Classic Rock, and in my house my mother often played folk music from the Greenwich Village coffee houses of the ’50s and ’60s. (But no Bob Dylan! She was one of the folkies that felt personally betrayed when he turned his back on the protest movement and “went electric.” She still holds that grudge.)
New Wave didn’t exist, except for the inescapably huge acts like Blondie, and The Talking Heads. Hip hop in my world was nonexistent, unless it was in the form of someone goofing on it like Rappin’ Rodney, or an act that had crossed over like Run-DMC or the Beastie Boys or, to a lesser extent believe it or not, someone like L.L. Cool J. Otherwise, it was “thug” music (because, if you haven’t gotten it yet, my neighborhood was integrated in many ways; Jews, Irish, Puerto Rican, Asian, but there were just no black families). Punk was “weirdo” music, and arty music didn’t exist, and jazz, like classical, was something it was understood was “good,” but not fun. It was like sitting through homework.
I got my real hip-hop education at the sleepaway camp I attended when I was a little kid. It was situated in South Jersey, near Philadelphia, and I went to camp with many kids from all over Philthy. And they all came to camp with their cassettes, and so it’s where I first heard Slick Rick, and Eric B. & Rakim.. The news had been full of stories about the horrors of 2 Live Crew’s “dirty rapping” that was poised to rip America apart, but that camp was where I first actually heard Nasty As They Wanna Be, and immediately thought, “Huh, this is actually pretty bad.”
And it wasn’t just rap. I was exposed to nerd-rock icons They Might Be Giants via their seminal album, Flood, (loved it, bought it and several others when I got home) and a counselor who was a huge fan of the Dead Milkmen played their music for me one afternoon (I was less enthralled. Sorry).
All of this is my way of explaining, as you can imagine, ironic post-societal decay robot rock was not going to be on the musical menu for me when Devo was really at their peak. I had to come to it on my own, which is no easy feat when you are a teenager by the time Freedom of Choice, their biggest hit and, in my view (again, as an admittedly stiill-casual fan), greatest accomplishment, is already over a decade old. The album, as I say, with the funny hats and ‘Whip It.” And to me and my shitty friends, Whip It was the thing you goofed on, the old ’80s video and the weird clothes and the music. My second attempt came in my very early 20s, but with Devo, their music and culture can seem to an outsider almost intentionally opaque. It didn’t help that my next attempt in came after being lectured by a friend about how their cover of the Rolling Stones’ Satisfaction was one of the most culturally-significant, and therefore beautiful, songs in history.
Devo’s Satisfaction is many things, but “casual and easy” is definitely not one of them. My second entry came when I was browsing a record store a few years later in Providence, Rhode Island. There was a really great selection playing in the background, and during one particular song that I was connecting to, I went to the clerk and asked what we were listening to.
“Freedom of Choice, Devo,” he said, in the way record store clerks used to have, back when they couldn’t be replaced entirely by a Spotify playlist, as if I had just stumbled out of a cave and proudly announced that I’d discovered The Secret of Fire.
“Oh yeah, man, great song,” I replied, as if I was a Super Cool Dude who just happened to get hit over the head and temporarily forgot every single great song that us Super Cool Dudes know, obviously.
“No man,” the clerk said, as if telling a retarded kid that winning the gold at the Special Olympics doesn’t mean you get to go to the real Olympics, “That’s the name of the album. This is Planet Earth.”
I gave him a look, and said, “Yeah,” as if to say, yes, of course, everyone knows that, what do you think I just fell off the turnip truck?
And when I finished out my weekend in Rhode Island, I went home and bought the album.
Evie’s book, 33 1/3: Devo: Freedom of Choice is a very well-written, casual read, and good for newcomers and Devotees alike. (And if you buy it through the link below, I get 40 cents! Woohoo!)