The newest volume in Bloomsbury's 33 1/3 series of books about important albums is on Devo's 1980 mainstream breakthrough Freedom of Choice, written by Evie Nagy, a staff writer at Fast Company. While most people associate Devo and Freedom of Choice with songs like "Whip It" and "Girl U Want," the exclusive excerpt below discusses the origin of the album's weird, disorienting tenth track "That's Pep!" and its relationship to one of Devo's central ironies: that they communicated a dead serious message about the fate of society by being full of shit most of the time.
Vigor, vim, vitality and punch.
That's Pep!" fits pretty solidly in the category of Freedom of Choice songs that Mark Mothersbaugh describes as "complicated things where people go, 'OK, that was interesting one time.'" Not that it doesn't lend itself to repeated listening, but, as Jerry says, the song is "so not rock & roll, so outside any of the structure, any of the lexicon of sounds and beats of rock & roll."
The music in the verse is dominated by a languid minor bass arpeggio that alternates with a pert guitar's (admittedly within-rock-lexicon) Bo Diddley beat, like it's trying to force a good mood on an ill-fated predicament. Even when the chorus comes in with a more regular stride and promising build, the verse comes sulking back before any real resolution; the overall vibe is the rush-slash-dread of a game of musical chairs.
While Mark wrote the music, the lyrics are in fact taken from the poem "Pep" by Grace G. Bostwick, published in The American Magazine in 1919 and reprinted widely in the years following (because the poem was written before 1923, it was not subject to U.S. copyright law when Mark adopted it):
Vigor, Vitality, Vim and Punch —
The courage to act on a sudden hunch —
The nerve to tackle the hardest thing
With feet that climb and hands that cling,
And a heart that never forgets to sing —
Sand and grit on a concrete base —
Friendly smile on an honest face —
The spirit that helps when another's down,
That knows how to scatter the darkest frown,
That loves its neighbor and loves its town —
The source material is earnest motivational rhetoric, and therefore in the hands of Devo is satire by definition. Like "Whip It" and "Ton O' Luv," it's a parody of cloying American optimism that is blind to the industrial realities around it.
"It's like a twisted version of something you'd imagine Robert Preston singing in The Music Man," says Jerry Casale. " 'We got trouble right here in River City!'"
Indeed — Preston's lovable shyster Harold Hill was warning his naive marks of a non-existent danger in order to sell them things they didn't need; with "That's Pep," the essence of Devo's message was, "if you honestly believe what we're saying right now, you're fucked."
In 1974, Mark and Jerry drove out to L.A. to try to get a demo tape into the hands of labels. Exploiting a Kent State connection, they stayed on soon-to-be Eagle Joe Walsh's floor, hoping the fellow Ohioan would get what they were about and lend them a hand. "Halfway through the first song on the demo tape, he ran into the other room," says Mark. "Him and this other guy with really long hair, they're in the dining room smoking a joint, trying to stifle laughter."
At a loss for what to do, Mark and Jerry were watching TV and stumbled on a local proto-reality show called Help Thy Neighbor. "On one episode," says Mark, "these two Mexican kids came on, and the host goes, 'What's going on with you guys?' 'Well, we dropped out of school and we're thinking about gardening, but it's so tough right now, because all our friends are joining gangs, and we're thinking about joining a gang. If we had some tools, we'd start a gardening company instead.' And the host, he said, 'Well, you heard it here. Help thy neighbor, people.' And people started calling in from all over L.A. They got lawnmowers, they got clippers. Before the show was over, they got a pickup truck. So we thought, we're going to go on — we're going to say we're Devo, that we're ex-Vietnam vets, and we're going to go on in wheelchairs. We're going to say we all met at a rehab at Walter Reed, and we've all been paralyzed while we were in active service in Vietnam. But we got together in Walter Reed and we wrote all this music, and we're just happy that we got a chance to sacrifice our mobility for the U.S. of A. Then we were going to play the songs — we actually called up and tried to get on the show. We were just trying to get a record deal — we figured at some point we'd start walking, and go 'Oh my God, it's like a miracle.' And we were obsessed with miracles, because Akron, Ohio, had televangelists in town that were incredibly transparent charlatans."
Fortunately Devo avoided the shitstorm that would inevitably have befallen them if the plan had worked, but the idea was classic Devo — some number of people would have fallen for the ploy, and they would only have had themselves and de-evolution to blame.
The Freedom of Choice press kit included a typed insert titled "Devo Meets the Press," formatted as twenty frequently asked questions to give journalists a primer on the band. Naturally, it was largely bullshit. The answer to "What is it about Ohio that inspired the formation of Devo?" was "Clean living"; what Devo looked for in a girl was "Defects"; their next upcoming commercial venture was "A TV ad for nuclear energy sponsored by the F.E.C. using H-bomb test footage coupled with a Devo soundtrack."
But other answers were relatively sincere, or at least prescient, such as "Q: If you could name one thing that upsets Devo, what would it be? A: Human behavior," and "Q: Are the weird electronic effects that are so important to the Devo sound a permanent part of today's pop music or just a passing fad? A: Yes and yes. Today's noise is tomorrow's hootenanny." The final question, "What is Devo trying to tell us?" was answered with "Just this. Anyone who is really honest will like this stuff!"
Even if some people found this kind of double talk irritating, it was very obviously double talk, and the message was clear: nothing we do should be taken at pure face value, and therefore it should not be that difficult to invert it and extrapolate what we're about. And even if you're still a little confused, that's part of the fun. As Mark said in 2010 when discussing the band's super-focus- grouped, ultra-corporate approach to developing and marketing Something For Everybody, "Devo at our best is people going, 'Is that real or not?' It's a little bit Andy Kaufman."
Excerpted from Devo's Freedom of Choice by Evie Nagy, published by Bloomsbury in the 33 1/3 series, May 2015.