Freedom of Choice (1980)
Thoughts Before Listening
Devo is weird. There, that pretty much sums up my Devo knowledge. That’s not entirely true – I know they wore those cool red hats, I know that “Whip It” is forever in my brain, and I know that somewhere along the years I picked up a vinyl copy of their ‘84 critical and commercial flop “Shout” and never particularly enjoyed it. And there’s the exhaustive list of my Devo knowledge.
To compensate for my tragic lack of Devo anecdotes, here is a selection pulled from their Wikipedia page:
- In ‘78, they performed a cover of “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction” on Saturday Night Live the week after the Stones performed it.
- In concert, Devo sometimes performed as their own opening act, pretending to be a Christian soft rock band “Dove (the Band of Love)”. It’s even an anagram for Devo.
- In the early ‘80s, they recorded two complete albums of their own songs as elevator music for their fan club.
All of this cracks me up, and really helps drive home my very first point – Devo is gloriously and unapologetically weird. Let’s see if that’s all they’ve got or if this album has some hidden gems.
I was first introduced to Devo through Weird Al, so this is a full circle moment. Without “Dare to Be Stupid”, which of course you remember from the classic animated movie Transformers: The Movie (1986) as it is plays during the introduction of the Junkions. Heh, so awesome.
Side note: that movie traumatized me just a little.
I remember watching the video for “Dare To Be Stupid” and thinking “this Weird Al guy sure is weird” before realizing I was watching the video for “Whip It”. I mean, that one guy has a pretty sizeable portable keyboard that kinda looks like an accordion, right?
Side note: that video also traumatized me just a little.
Other Songs of Note
The icing on the cake
“Snowball” – 9 points
Weh-Ming (5 points)
It’s goofy and weird and I like it. I feel like I should say more, but that’s all I got.
Scott (4 points)
I’m not sure why this one works for me, but it does. It feels incredibly simple in its structure, but I’m really enjoying it. It doesn’t hurt that I can picture the “I Wish It Was Christmas Today” team of Horatio Sanz, Jimmy Fallon, Chris Kattan, and Tracy Morgan performing this in my head. The synth tone absolutely screams 1980 but that isn’t a bad thing for me – I know some can’t get past it.
“Girl U Want” – 8 points
Scott (5 points)
I’m liking the start. Ooooh, real guitars – maybe I was mistaken in thinking they were all synth. This song is tight – I’m enjoying it way more than I anticipated I would. There’s a really infectious energy to it.
Weh-Ming (3 points)
Oddly catchy synthesizer. It has that early 80’s sound like it was recorded in a bathroom. He sings so quickly that I can’t actually get the lyrics, but it’s catchy. I like it. It has a rhythm that makes me think of the start of an 80’s teen movie. Have you noticed how often I relate things to movies?
“Freedom of Choice” – 5 points
Scott (3 points)
I like it. It’s got a great drum groove and a catchy guitar riff. It’s got tricky lyrical content and a hooky chorus.
Weh-Ming (2 points)
Like this one too. Sort of pop, sort of punk, sort of folk? I think that listening to it today, there may be a certain type of person who would latch on to the chorus without actually understanding the full song.
“That’s Pep!” – 3 points
Scott (2 points)
I have no idea what this song is really about, but it amuses me for some reason. It has an extremely odd structure and the wackiness works for me.
Weh-Ming (1 point)
A surprisingly odd song about perseverance… and pep? Or maybe not? It is strange, but after a while I relaxed and just enjoyed the delivery.
What we would put on our personal mixtapes
“Ton o’ Luv“
Weh-Ming (4 points)
I like this one too. It’s very proto-Talking Heads. Listen to it, you’ll hear what I mean.
There’s almost a robotic Talking Heads quality to this one.
Scott (1 point)
Despite the somewhat depressing nihilistic point of view presented, I enjoyed this one.
The music is 100% the intro to a video game. Most of the songs have intros that sound like the intro to video games. This seems to be an indictment of civilization?
I ended up enjoying this album much more than I anticipated. I’d always kind of thought of Devo as a novelty act and hadn’t really thought of them as associated with the post-punk and New Wave movements. Once listening to this helped me make that connection, a lot of things fell into place. I heard Talking Heads in a few songs, I heard The Cars in a few songs – don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying it’s the exact same, but you can definitely hear that they’re reading from the same book.
It’s plenty weird, but it can also be pretty great. I see myself going back to this album in the future, and probably exploring their other releases as well. When you move past the novelty, there’s some really good music here, especially if, like me, you’re into post-punk / New Wave.
My daughter was playing in the room when I started listening to this. She stopped and asked if this was the album I had to listen to “for the Internet thing with Uncle Scott”. I told her it was and it was a band called Devo. She said “I like it” and went back to playing her game. So there you have it, everything you need to know about whether it’s good summed up by an 8-year-old.
Generally, I like this album. It has a real old school feel to it. Would I listen to it a lot? Probably not anymore, though there was absolutely a time I would have. Now, I think that nostalgia plays heavily here.
But I think it would be a mistake to think that they are a novelty act. They may be a One Hit Wonder, but there is talent and skill at work here and you can hear other bands and styles in this.
Yeah But What Else
Down the Rabbit Hole (Additional listening inspired by this week’s review.)
This week let’s focus on some of the post-punk songs that will likely never fall off of my personal playlists:
Gang of Four – “Damaged Goods” – Coming off of their 1979 debut album Entertainment!, I absolutely love this song. That bassline alone is worth the price of admission. This is killer stuff. Did they influence future bands? Listen to Bloc Party’s amazing debut Silent Alarm (seriously, check it out – it’s very, very good) and you can hear Gang of Four all over it.
Talking Heads – “Psycho Killer” – Off of Talking Heads ‘77, this is probably the definitive Talking Heads track. Honestly though, just about everything through to (and definitely including) their 1984 live album Stop Making Sense could be seen as definitive Talking Heads.
Joy Division – “Disorder” – When I was but a teenager, I dismissed Joy Division as an odd precursor to a much, much more accessible New Order. While it IS that, I’ve really grown to appreciate it as its own thing. There isn’t much Joy Division out there, but what there is is pretty darn good.
The Fall – “Totally Wired” – Imagine my surprise, finding an LCD Soundsystem song twenty-two years before they formed! I joke, I joke. But not really.
Echo & the Bunnymen – “The Killing Moon” – Classic.
The Cure – “Boys Don’t Cry” – Another 1979 debut, and another killer song. Robert Smith hadn’t fully leaned into the goth image that defined him, but he had definitely started the whole writing and performing great music thing.
STYLE PARODY TIME!
“Weird Al” Yankovic’s – Dare To Be Stupid was one of his first style parodies that got a video and major play on MuchMusic and MTV. Check it out here:
It turns out that the video is also a style parody, something I learned while writing this. I thought it was just Weird Al being as weird as Devo could be, but turns out that the stuff that happens in the video are all parodies of stuff that happens in other Devo videos.
It turns out that Mark Mothersbaugh of Devo actually loves this song too. In this video – The Weird Al Story 4/6 – it sounds like he hates it out of context (you don’t have to watch long to see that part), but apparently this is how Mothersbaugh talks and is actually a huge compliment.
Final side note: these videos also traumatized me a little, but only because they made me realize how much I have aged.