Forty years ago this month, American art-rock band Devo released their breakthrough record, “Freedom Of Choice.” The album not only spawned the new wave smash “Whip It,” but the full-length still stands the test of time, with singles such as “Girl U Want” and especially the title track, still resonating today with fans (actor Jack Black and Tony Hawk played the song at a jam session earlier this month alongside Devo’s Mark Mothersbaugh).
Variety caught up with Gerald Casale, the band’s co-founder and co-principal songwriter, to get his thoughts on the album four decades later, his take on China, Trump, disinformation and the pandemic, the act’s Rock and Roll Hall of Fame snub, and more.
VARIETY: How does it feel to see “Freedom Of Choice” turn 40 years old this month?
CASALE: “Freedom of Choice” is where the gods smiled on Devo. Everything came together for that record. Our experience at the Record Plant with Bob Margouleff was great, and he brought just the right kind of tone and energy to the fact that we were using mini-Moogs. I was playing synthesized bass rather than real bass and it all just started sounding right. It was an election year (1980) and the feeling in America was just lining up with Devo. There we were in silver suits, with red energy domes on an album cover of a record called “Freedom of Choice” where we looked like conformist mannequins — and that was the joke! I have nothing but fond memories of recording and touring behind the record. We were innovative and we found something in “Freedom of Choice” with those songs that also was commercial.
“Whip It” turned into a massive hit for you. Were you surprised by its early success?
“Whip It” was a fluke. Warner Brothers put all their chips on the first single, “Girl U Want.” They released that first, and it just stiffed. Then suddenly this guy named Kal Rudman [the founder of Friday Morning Quarterback, a noted radio trade publication that covered the radio and broadcast industry] — he was a regional programmer, he had a tip sheet, and this was a guy who had ears — he actually listened to the albums people sent him. And on his own, he decided that he loved “Whip It” and started playing it. Warner Bros. wasn’t sending him money to play it; he just loved it. And it took off down south first, then quickly spread up the east coast and by the time it hit New York, it was over. We had to recalibrate our whole tour that year, and we suddenly were no longer playing 400-seat clubs; instead, we were playing 2000-5000 seat venues.
What are your thoughts on “Freedom Of Choice,” the song, 40 years later? It seems to have staying power, and you guys were ahead of the times with the video for it, which featured some top skateboarding names like Tony Alva and Stacy Peralta.
I think that song should have been a single; I have no recollection of it ever being a single. It’s more relevant now than ever. We are right back where we were, except worse off. Now, if you don’t exercise your “Freedom of Choice,” you could lose it forever. This whole country is going down, dictatorship-style. This is a fork in the road for America.
What was the Inspiration for the song, lyrically? It seems to be about the illusion of real choice in America.
We had many of the same problems back then as we do now. There were the beginnings of this move to the right back then with the rise of [Ronald] Reagan. He was empowering the evangelicals. Pat Robertson and all those guys were being taken seriously and pressuring congressmen and senators. So “Freedom of Choice” was about if you don’t take it seriously, there are despots and tyrants that will take away from you. That’s the war that never ends… between leaders who are sane, democratic, tolerant and have egalitarian tendencies versus those with dictatorial tyrannical tendencies. We were trying to warn people by saying “freedom of choice is what you got.” People will choose mindless conformity because it’s more convenient. Because it’s comforting to not have to think about things and make a decision. Devo was always kind of sugarcoating heavy subjects with a dollop of satire and humor.
Do you remember the tour after “Freedom of Choice” was released? You played three shows in a row in the summer of 1980 at the Santa Monica Civic Auditorium, which seems like it might have been a big deal for you at the time.
Oh yeah, we had a great time that year. KROQ was always a big booster for us and they were definitely promoting us and made a huge difference for us in Southern California. We had to add lots of shows when “Whip It” took off. Playing those three shows at the Santa Monic Civic was for sure a result of that song taking off. We had celebrities starting to come to our shows then, and a fair amount of other musicians coming as well. They [the musicians] got it. They knew what Devo was doing. They knew the musicianship was real. They couldn’t believe the sounds we were producing live on stage using a combination of synths and guitars with effects.
You generated a fair amount of press over the weekend with the news you are selling “energy dome” face shields now at Devo’s online store. Why do you think so many news outlets picked up on that?
I have no idea. It’s one of those things that hardly ever happens with Devo. Usually we get ignored with innovation, but somebody picked up on the hat, it went viral, and in this case, it wasn’t even a big idea. Some company came to us to make those face shields and we said, “Yeah, you’re right —can you make them fit our energy domes?” They just lost it with excitement, made them, and here we are.
Some of your older press photos and stage outfits seemed futuristic and dystopian at the time, with you guys wearing hazmat suits. Did Devo know a pandemic was coming?
We had hazmat suits back in 1977. Back then, we did four photo shoots with surgical masks. We even wore face masks on an airplane once back then [for a shoot]. We did not want to be right. Devolution was supposed to be a canary-in-a-coalmine warning, and it wasn’t supposed to really happen. We’re not happy about it.
You were nominated for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame a few years ago, but didn’t make it in. Thoughts?
We were nominated for the Rock Hall in 2018. Nominated and then dissed. But things may be looking up because John Sykes used to be at MTV and he remembers us from the old days [John Sykes now serves on the board of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame]. We became synonymous with MTV for a while.
Who handles the publishing for “Freedom of Choice,” and are you still getting a decent amount of sync requests from the record?
We formed a publishing company and it was the entire group that was the pub entity “Devo Music.” Then we did our deal with EMI back then, but now it’s with BMG. They administer the publishing but we own the masters now, so you ask us about the masters, and they have the publishing side. All these big companies do nothing. They just wait for the phone to ring; they don’t pitch our songs. It’s sad. But both “Freedom of Choice” and “Whip It” have generated a lot of sync money. They made Devo more money over the last 15 years then we ever made back then. We didn’t make money on touring back them; our tours were a loss. When you came to see Devo back then, that was putting us in the hole! We were using our money from record sales to fund the tour. So, we were nuts that way. We wanted to give fans a dimension that they couldn’t get from the record. We wanted to use theatrical props and special lighting to give them an experience.
How are you holding up during the pandemic?
It’s an alternate-reality nightmare, let’s be honest. Worse than that, it didn’t have to happen, not like this. It starts with one authoritarian control-freak leader of one of the most powerful nations on the planet doing the typical things that kind of government does, which is trying to hide the f—-up. They spent about six weeks trying to suppress reporting it, then they realized, ‘Okay, we have to report it.’ Then they do, and then Trump, because he’s also an authoritarian control freak, just the same as [President] Xi….. he does the same thing for another six weeks. So, you’ve got a virus that’s got a three-month jump on people. And that’s what happened. And it didn’t have to happen.
What are your thoughts on some of the disinformation online surrounding the virus?
It’s typical. Chaos serves right-wing trolls and authoritarian governments. Because if people are numb to facts, and they can’t distinguish between information and disinformation, then people are paralyzed. And if people are paralyzed, then these people can carry out their agenda, which they are doing, under the cover of COVID-19. They are taking away more liberty than ever before, transferring vast amounts of wealth to even the fewer cronies… It’s a playbook that’s so predictable, and so offensively part of human nature, so this chaos and disinformation is a tactic. Ever since the 1970s public education has been attacked in America by the right wing. I had the greatest education growing up. It was incredible. But that’s all gone now. Kids are being ripped off today and the population is dumbed down as a result. What I’m getting at is that I was taught critical thinking. I was taught logic. But that’s gone now. So, people are just mindlessly repeating disinformation and bulls— they hear to reinforce their own bubble. It’s kind of like the novel “Animal Farm” where the sheep keep reading the rules on the side of the barn, but they keep changing. But the sheep deny that they’re changing, because they can’t remember what it said last week. That’s where we’re at. We’re a mindless mob ADD culture and it’s horrible.