Armed with a subversive view of society and a command of catchy synth-pop, Devo burst into the charts in 1980 with weird classic 'Whip It'. Producer Robert Margouleff talks de-evolution...
The outfits aren't what most people wear down on the farm: sleeveless black turtlenecks, black shorts and black boots, topped off by flowerpot hats — futuristic on a budget. But then, the central characters in Devo's 'Whip It' video aren't exactly your prototypical farm workers — while one woman is seduced by a cowboy, another has her clothes expertly removed by the band's bullwhip-wielding lead singer as he and his colleagues tell their audience to:
"Now whip it, into shape, shape it up, get straight, go forward, move ahead, try to detect it, it's not too late, to whip it, whip it good!"
Such was the philosophy of the 1980 single that, although only peaking at number 14 on the Billboard Hot 100, has since become a cult classic, not least because of the self-financed, S&M-laced video that still enjoys plenty of airplay on American TV. And all this despite the fact that it initially only served to fuel the widespread misinterpretation of the band's message.
Formed in Akron, Ohio, in 1972 by Kent State University art students Mark Mothersbaugh, Jerry Casale and Bob Lewis, Devo was founded on the theory that US society's regression — or 'de-evolution', hence the name — had resulted in dysfunctional, repressed, subservient citizens who were being forced to march to the same highly mechanised, assembly-line beat. This view had been reinforced when, on 4th May 1970, the Ohio National Guard wounded or killed several Kent State students who'd been protesting the American invasion of Cambodia, and the result was a synth-and-electronica-based group that boasted a series of clone-type outfits and harshly robotic, sometimes atonal music.
Originally supplementing Mothersbaugh on vocals, Casale on bass and Lewis on slide guitar were Mothersbaugh's brothers Bob on lead guitar and Jim on home-made electronic drums, along with Casale's own brother Bob, also playing guitar. Then, in 1976, both Bob Lewis and Jim Mothersbaugh departed the band and Alan Meyers took over on drums. This was the five-piece line-up that would remain intact throughout the next decade and the peak of Devo's success. Indeed, it was in 1976 that the group's first music video, The Truth About De-Evolution (filmed two years earlier with Gerald Casale and all three Mothersbaugh brothers), won first prize at the Ann Arbor Film Festival, and after this stirred the interest of David Bowie and Iggy Pop it led to a Warner Brothers record deal.
In the meantime, film commitments prevented Bowie from producing Devo's debut album, so Brian Eno stepped into that role and, due to ongoing negotiations over the aforementioned record deal, also funded the sessions. The result, 1978's Q: Are We Not Men? A: We Are Devo!, peaked at 78 in America and made number 12 in the UK. Nevertheless, the likes of Rolling Stone magazine totally missed the point, labelling the band members fascists due to the misperception of them embracing the social ills that they were in truth condemning — dehumanisation, conformity, repression.
In the studio, the new-wave band's meticulous work methods didn't match Eno's more intuitive style, and Ken Scott was therefore in the producer's seat for the 1979 follow-up, Duty Now For The Future. Robert Margouleff then helmed the third album, 1980's Freedom Of Choice, a far more synth-pop-oriented affair that, in addition to spawning several numbers that would be covered by other artists — the title track, 'Girl U Want' and 'Gates Of Steel' — also included 'Whip It', Devo's most well-known song and their biggest hit, peaking at number 14 on the Billboard Hot 100 and being played in heavy rotation on MTV. Both the single and the album sold over a million copies.
A native New Yorker whose production and/or engineering credits have included Stevie Wonder, Quincy Jones, Jeff Beck, Billy Preston, Bobby Womack, the Doobie Brothers, Depeche Mode, Dave Mason, Minnie Riperton, Joan Baez, the Isley Brothers, Steven Stills, Weather Report, Wilson Pickett and Little Feat, Robert Margouleff actually started out as a cinematographer and alumnus of Andy Warhol's Factory. Warhol's first Superstar, '60s counterculture icon Edie Sedgwick, was the subject of the cult classic movie Ciao! Manhattan that Margouleff shot for and co-produced. Yet, by the time he became involved with Devo just over a decade later, it was with a background that was steeped in synth work.
In 1969, Margouleff and engineer/musician Malcolm Cecil collaborated with Robert Moog on developing the world's largest analogue synthesizer, TONTO — The Original New Timbral Orchestra. Then, in 1971, having used this device on various albums and film soundtracks, Cecil and Margouleff featured it on their own groundbreaking record, Zero Time, credited to Tonto's Expanding Head Band and one of the first albums to consist of completely electronic music.
This in turn led to not only more studio work and a second Tonto album, but also to a highly successful, award-winning relationship with Stevie Wonder, comprising the early-'70s albums Music Of My Mind, Talking Book, Innervisions (for which Margouleff and Cecil won a Grammy) and Fulfillingness' First Finale. All benefited immeasurably from the assorted contributions of the two men as associate producers, engineers, synth programmers and/or electronic musicians. As for the TONTO synthesizer, having had its Moog parts replaced with Serge Modular components, it was retired during the 1980s and, before moving in permanently with Malcolm Cecil, lived for a year as a guest in the Sunset Boulevard studio of Mark Mothersbaugh.
"I was sitting in the front office at the Record Plant when I first set eyes on Devo," Margouleff now recalls. "A Volkswagen with dark windows pulled into the parking lot and all of them got out wearing jumpsuits, black rubber boots, red helmets, tanks attached to the helmets, and hoses from the tanks running up their noses. Everyone at the studio was completely nonplussed but we didn't show it — this was the Record Plant, so any freak was alright with us. Anyway, Devo knew of my work with Stevie Wonder, and when they came into the building they were very upfront, asking me if I'd be interested in working with them on the production of Freedom Of Choice. Having finished working with Stevie, I was looking for interesting things to do next, and since Devo's music related to my roots in electronica this seemed like a very natural match."
Given the themes and targets of Devo's message — mankind's de-evolution due to conformity, emotional repression, domination, dehumanisation and toxic waste — and the fact that the robotic, sometimes discordant music was intended to convey this every bit as much as the lyrics and the band's physical image, I ask Margouleff how this fits smoothly with his R&B influence.
"It was basically in the grooves, in the bottom end," comes the reply. "We set up the grooves for the songs so that the songs were not self-consciously about the top end. If you play the record, you'll hear that the bass, the kick and the rest of the drums are very, very prominent and dry in the mixes, so you feel like you're standing next to the kit. In the case of the drums, I always put the hi-hat on the left because that's where the drummer would hear it from his own perspective, at least if he's right-handed. He's the only one who actually hears the drums in surround and stereo — if you're 10 feet away from the kit, it's mono. So, when you hear the tom-toms move around in a fill or you hear the rhythmic pattern of the hi-hat — whether it's on one of Stevie's records or on Devo's record — you hear it from the point of view of the drummer, and the result is that the whole track is much more tactile, and that the listeners stop viewing it as an object and become subjectively involved in the sound.
"The motion of music is as important as the sound. In other words, I might put a rhythm guitar on one side and then an opposing rhythm on the other side so that the music moves back and forth from left to right, providing a motif energy that's musical. On the other hand, when you do a fill on the tom-toms that moves through the mix from left to right, that motion itself is in time and is musical. The idea, therefore, is to understand that there's motion in music, and to take advantage of that emotive motion to help convey and move the track forward. Even the slightest differences can make a track more powerful — OK, let's play another rhythm guitar track so that there's one on the left and one on the right. Or, if the hi-hat's on the left, let's put an opposing instrument on the right, like a shaker with another rhythm so that the rhythms are in motion. That's another R&B trick."
LA's Record Plant on Third Street was the venue for the recording and mix of the album, with the equipment in Studios A and B based around API consoles, 24-track 3M tape machines and Tom Hidley-designed Westlake monitors. Robert Margouleff co-produced with the band and co-engineered with Howard Siegel, who progressed from being his assistant to being the man in charge of the faders when Margouleff was in production mode. And while this naturally resulted in Freedom Of Choice being more synth-based than Devo's previous efforts, the record also had more of an R&B flavour, due to Margouleff's experience with that particular genre.
"It was a communal thing," he says. "You have to understand that Mark and Jerry are very smart and extremely talented, and so my job was really just to help channel that and bring a different point of view to the mix. Which I did. There were several weeks of rehearsing and routining the material, and when we got to the studio they were writing all the time. They're so creative. All I did was try to provide some parameters. Music, you see, is sort of like screwing — you don't think about the past or the future and you don't think about what makes the wheels turn. You're inside the creative space, you're in the moment, and so there are no thoughts of manipulation. You know, 'If I tell Mark this, I'm sure he'll do that.' There weren't any producer mind-games on the Devo album. We were all equal in the studio environment, and it was an especial privilege to work with Mark, who's an awesomely talented man, writing the songs, writing the lyrics and singing them. While Jerry was more the visual guy in terms of what the band looked like, Mark was its musical soul.
"Those guys were not undisciplined. They knew where they were going and what they had to say. Theirs was a very strong political message that only now, nearly 30 years later, is on the front burner. Back then, they were the ones who were talking about global warming and toxic pollution, which is why they wore those funny clothes to protect themselves from the environment. That's what I liked about the record — it's really very political, and that's why I was so fervent about it."
There was plenty of mic experimentation on Freedom Of Choice, no two tracks were recorded the same way, and Margouleff's preference for constantly rolling tape meant there was always the chance of capturing happy accidents."Generally speaking, the drums were recorded with an [Electro Voice] RE20 on the kick," he says, "as well as [a Shure] SM57 on top of the snare, an SM58 underneath, a [Neumann] KM84 on the hi-hat, [Neumann] U87s on the tom-toms and [AKG] 414s for overheads. Depending on the track, boom mics were either 87s or 414s. I also used an RE20 on some of the vocals and an 87 on others. I like the quality of those mics — I used an RE20 on Stevie, as well. It's a dynamic microphone with a very nice presence, and you have to work it very, very close, but the results are quite spectacular.
"In the studio, the drums were positioned in front of the window, facing toward the control room where the other musicians often played. To me, the control room and the studio are one space, and from early on in my career I would have loved to completely do away with the glass between them. On this record, the bass and the keyboards were DI'd, while the guitars were a combination of amps and directs. There would have been three or four mics on each amplifier, but I don't now recall what they were.
"Basically, we would lay down a scratch track, the guys would work to it, and then Mark or Jerry would come into either the control room or the studio and sing their ass off. What I would do was take a pair of small speakers and put them out of phase so that there'd be a cancellation in the centre, and then I'd put the vocal mic right there. Again, that's a technique that Malcolm Cecil and I often used when working with Stevie Wonder.
"I like very dry-sounding records. If you listen to the ones that Malcolm and I worked on with Stevie, you'll note there's very little effect on anything. The vocals are very close and there's not a lot of reverb. To me, reverb implies distance, whereas what I want to do is have the audio occupy the same space as the listener. That has always been my credo in terms of how I mix records. Very close and not too effected; that's the feel I aim for, and you can hear it on Freedom Of Choice. My only regret is that we couldn't remix it for surround back then, because it would have been really fantastic."
Indeed, given the opportunity, Margouleff would remix the album in 7.1 surround right now at Mi Casa Multimedia in Hollywood, which is the three-studio, state-of-the-art, audio-for-DVD complex that he co-owns with musician and engineer Brant Biles.
For Margouleff, another aspect to a record's subjectivity is the manner in which the music is created serially — although it takes three and a half minutes to hear the song, it might have taken six weeks to record it one track at a time. All of which brings him to the subject of overdubbing; of decompressing the minute.
"There was a certain amount of overdubbing on Freedom Of Choice," he says, "but the real aim was to get as much down in one pass as possible, and also for me to keep that feeling of closeness. That's what I think really made Devo happen. With the vocals we'd sometimes do three or four passes and then I'd comp them all together, but it was very different to today when people do things on Pro Tools or Nintendo or whatever they call it. It's turned music making into a very solitary activity, whereas for me the tribal quality of people performing together in the studio is something that cannot be emulated by somebody sitting alone in the living room or bedroom, plinking one note at a time in some sort of serial fashion with a mouse. It is not the same kind of experience.
"There was a tribalism about Devo that really lent itself to people working together, and of course that was helped by the fact that there were two sets of brothers. Those guys grew up together in Ohio and had a very close relationship all their lives, and that created a very different kind of ambience which, in itself, was an important part of the overall structure. At the same time, they really knew they had something going on, and I, too, had a sort of feeling of invulnerability. During the five years I'd worked with Stevie, every record I touched had gone gold or platinum, and when I worked with Devo the planets were all still converging. It was like a blinding flash of light, a moment in time when everything was right, and so there was a collective confidence about what the Devos and I were doing. Those guys brought me a great blessing, and for that I'm eternally thankful. Their message was really, really important, and I still believe in that message."
"We have to serve the music," Margouleff continues. "The music can't serve the engineering. So, if, for example, there was leakage between the instruments when I was working with Devo or Stevie, then there was leakage. In fact, in terms of recording drum sounds, leakage is beneficial. I don't want to make every drum completely separate and try to get total isolation between one tom-tom and the next as well as the kick drum. On the contrary, I will sometimes even put close but ambient mics in the room to help create a sense of space without creating a sense of distance. You have to place things, you have to create a space for the song, and at the same time you also have to understand that, in many cases, the recording process is not a tool of reportage relating to a real event. You know, here's the band, here's the stage and you're sitting in the first, second or third row. That just doesn't happen on a pop record.
"A pop record is not objective but very subjective. You might place instruments where they aren't traditionally supposed to be. You can put them anywhere, and I was always striving to get the band as close as possible, falling off the proscenium arch and into the audience, so that the listeners would feel like they're moving inside the band. It wasn't about the bass player standing to the left and therefore his bass sound coming out of the left speaker. Then again, there were rules that we did have to adhere to back then in terms of vinyl — in some cases the bottom end had to be placed in the centre or else it would pop the needle out of the groove.
"There's a physiological need for people to hear things a certain way. Our brains are very interesting. Things that we hear behind us can be considered a threat because we can't see them; we can't attach a visual cue to the audio. However, what's so beautiful about the record world is its subjectivity. It creates a space within which we're allowed to do our own visualisation of the song. Unfortunately, what's happened since the late-'80s is that every song has become a report for a gymnastic exercise — if you look at an R&B video, everyone's doing a hula dance, thrusting their hips, whereas the Devo video for 'Whip It' told a very specific story. It had very deep, psychological overtones. And that was fine, even though the video was just a commercial to help sell the record.
"The record itself is a very subjective thing. When I was young, we'd go down into the cellar, light up a big joint, turn off the regular lights, turn on some red lights, sit between the loudspeakers, crank up the volume and listen to the Jefferson Airplane or Pink Floyd, and it really took us to a different place that wasn't attached to our eyeballs. It was only attached to our ears. It didn't make any difference if the guitarist weighed 300 pounds, hadn't taken a bath in two weeks and was playing in dirty underwear. Devo, on the other hand, had to hook a visual image to what they wanted to say because they had a very strong message. Still, the reality of the record is that there is no visual cue other than what they chose to create after the fact.
"The subjectivity is really what we were reaching for, although not in a conscious way. It was something that felt natural to me. What's more, having worked for several years with Stevie, who is blind, I gained a very, very different point of view about the tactile nature of audio — how it feels and where the sound is coming from. Freedom Of Choice was mixed with that in mind, and that's what made it different. It has that subjective, close feel to it, and that was sort of my hallmark."
Working on three or four tracks at any one time, Devo and Robert Margouleff crafted a record that was not only more musically cohesive than the first two albums, but also boasted a greater level of sophistication, as the synthesizers blended with guitars to create a more dehumanised yet less dissonant sound. Such was the case with 'Whip It', whose sonic appeal was based on the kind of mid-tempo, 4/4 'motorik' beat favoured by German bands such as Neu! and Kraftwerk, as well as a lead guitar riff inspired by the one that Roy Orbison plays on 'Pretty Woman', some Minimoog synthesizer parts, a bass line produced with the 'Devobox', which was a custom-made Moog synth, and, of course, those good old whipping sounds, created with an Electronic Music Laboratories [EML] ElectroComp 500 synthesizer.
Devo performing on American Bandstand, 1980.
Where many people missed, and continue to miss, the point on 'Whip It' was in the fact that the lyrics, alternately sung by Mark Mothersbaugh and Jerry Casale, aren't offering sage sadomasochistic advice — "When something's going wrong, you must whip it. When a good time turns around, you must whip it. You will never live it down unless you whip it" — but are cynically mocking how Americans often resort to violence in order to overcome adversity or claw their way to the top. Ditto the chorus, on which Mothersbaugh barks a bunch of orders that culminate with "Whip it good!" Despite the sexual overtones and provocative visual imagery, the song really isn't about S&M or auto-eroticism. Some people would just prefer it to be.
"Jerry's idea for the 'Whip It' video was just a master stroke," Margouleff continues. "It looked so amateur that it felt like early YouTube, yet it became a total classic because those guys really had their finger on the pulse. They came up with the precursors of rap and of YouTube, and that was not totally unconscious on their part.
"Although the chorus is catchy, it's actually less melodic than the verses, and that was a precursor of rap," Margouleff remarks. "Neither Mark nor Jerry were super-great singers, but they were talented as songwriters, both lyrically and musically. They were able to present the unexpected and make people work to understand it."
Supporting that contention are not only the aforementioned lyrics, but also the trademark non-standard time signatures — for its instrumental break, 'Whip It' reconfigures the main riff into a 6/4 tempo.
From start to finish, Freedom Of Choice took about six weeks to complete, with Margouleff having a pretty strong concept of what each finished track should sound like by the time he was ready for the mix.
"The important thing is to enhance it, hold it, blow on the coal a little to make it glow and sort of create a homogenous entity," he states. "The reality is that the record itself is the performance. It's different pieces of the same entity, and in the end it's not a bunch of instruments being recorded together, but one humongous instrument with a lot of tentacles. When you play a synthesizer you begin to realise that a synth is not something that imitates real instruments. That's been something of a misnomer over the years. It's really about taking vibrating electrons and creating a new reality. So you have to create a space for that reality to live in, and to be able to blur the line between where the real instruments end and the electronica instruments begin is part of the art of making this kind of unified entity. After all, the synthesizer is a musical instrument. It is its own thing, and on Freedom Of Choice it conveys the feeling of being displaced from the mainstream of society, which was part of Devo's message. Many people did tap into that.
"Anyone whose job is to massage the medium and store the information must have an understanding of what's going into the microphones. While someone's playing the piano, I'm playing the recording console, and once the music is down on tape it's then a totally subjective thing as to what the perspective should be; what I want to hear more of or less of. That's about art and how you hear things. It has nothing to do with any report of reality. For this record, the guys and I all had ideas, we all had our areas of expertise, and they knew what they wanted to hear, too. So they had to have smiley faces when I was finished with the mix. There was no negativity in the studio. We were all going in the same direction, but we just played different instruments.
"Howard Siegel and I mixed with what I like to call 'armstrong automation' — that's when you move the faders with your hands. We liked that. And while every song had its own perspective, in the case of 'Whip It' we knew it needed to have maximum energy. It really does hang on the groove — bom-bom-bom-bom-bom, 'Whip it good!' — which is a very strong motif figure, and we really wanted to make sure that was clear. 'Whip it good' has a veiled S&M energy..."
"OK, I'm being kind. There's definitely a masked brutality, but it also means you're going to whip the trials and tribulations of life. You're going to beat the world. You're going to whip it good. 'Whip It' hurts so bad and hurts so good. Pain is supposed to be bad, but here it's 'Whip it good'. And the song is good. It's a great track, absolutely perfect. Some people didn't understand it at the time, but art comes back to haunt us."