Welcome to our “Psychedelic Lunch” series, “80’s New Wave Bands Edition,” where we find out how deep the rabbit hole really goes and explore psychedelic tunes from the 60’s to today. Weekdays At Noon EST. Enjoy the trip!
DEVO Whip It
Over 40 years ago, David Bowie called Devo “the band of the future.” What he didn’t realize is just how bleak that future would be—and how right Devo would be about it.
On May 4, 1970, the Ohio National Guard opened fire on a crowd of unarmed Kent State University students protesting the US military bombing of Cambodia. An art student named Gerald Casale was there among the chaos, running to escape the miasma of tear gas and bullets as two of his friends, Alison Krause and Jeffrey Miller, succumbed to gunshots from an M-1 rifle. The incident, which left a total of four dead and nine injured, would go down in history as a cultural loss of innocence, a particularly harrowing example of American political and social unrest during the Vietnam War. It also marked the birth of Devo, the band and multi-disciplinary project that Casale would start with a cast of friends impacted by the shooting in the months that followed.
Though Devo’s synth-heavy sound and driving hooks often see the band billed as a New Wave act, the group occupies a more singular place in pop music’s trajectory, fusing the radical electronic experimentation of Kraftwerk and Bob Moog with punk’s wiry intensity. Some tracks, like “Whip It” and “Beautiful World,” were pop Trojan horses, with their deadpan critiques of American conformity and consumerism subverting infectious riffs and rhythms. Others, like the band’s deconstructed 1978 rendition of The Rolling Stone’s “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction,” would be more overtly confrontational—less a cover than a “correction,” as the band described it, bewildering Mick Jagger and television audiences alike with its clanking, mechanical samples and Mothersbaugh’s arhythmic yelps.
“I was at a birthday party earlier this year for some little kids, and they had this clown that the kids were all picking on,” Mothersbaugh, now a composer for filmmakers like Wes Anderson and Phil Lord, recalls at his LA studio on a recent summer afternoon. “He said to one of the little girls, ‘What do you want to be when you grow up?’ And she goes, ‘Rich!’ And then they all went, ‘Yeah!’— and started high-fiving each other.”
As he replays the moment, Mothersbaugh’s eyes widen. Almost half a century after Kent State, he still looks bewildered. “The devolution of humans, you know, it’s continuing,” he says. “We were pessimistic, but not this pessimistic. We didn’t think it was going to move this fast.”