To celebrate the upcoming release of our 104th 33 1/3 on Freedom of Choice, we’re pleased to bring you the very first installment of Devo week by author Evie Nagy!
In May 2014, I went to L.A. to spend the morning at Mutato Muzika with Devo co-founder Mark Mothersbaugh, and the evening at dinner with Devo’s other co-founder Jerry Casale. My book on Freedom of Choice was due in three months, and my second child was due a month after that. I had hundreds of pages of research and interviews collected, but many thousands of words left to write, and stamina that was deteriorating daily. While I’d spent hours on the phone with both Mark and Jerry, these would be my first substantive in-person meetings with either of them, and likely my last chance to confirm a number of ideas and solidify the direction I was taking with the story of Devo’s most successful album. During those meetings, among many helpful and generous insights, they each said one thing that went a long way to corroborate my thinking so far, and clarify the significance of the album that turned a group of subversive performance artists into mainstream rock gods.
When I asked Mark for his thoughts on the album in the context of his career, he matter-of-factly answered that, despite six subsequent albums and decades of intermittent touring, “Freedom of Choice was the end of Devo.” He didn’t mean that stardom had ruined them, or that with the album Devo had compromised their original irreverent ideals for commercial success. He meant that the band’s approach to collaboration, and their shared sense of mission and creative drive–as well as the public’s hunger for it–had never been as strong as it was in 1980, and it never was again.
Jerry and I had already talked on the phone at length about Freedom of Choice at least half a dozen times, so dinner was less of an interview than a chance to sit back and talk about anything else–politics, the current music business, his new wine label. But at one point, when he asked me how the writing was going and I dithered, he volunteered that the one thing I needed to make sure my book had was conflict. Both internal and external, don’t shy away from it, because there is and was a lot. Since everything I knew about Devo and the album was defined by contradiction–the intense loyalty and tension among the members; the band’s embrace of capitalism and the major label system in order to tear it down; the media’s indecision between respect for and scrutiny of Devo’s intentions; MTV’s vindication and then betrayal of Devo’s art-and-music vision–Jerry’s advice was certainly reassuring.
But the 33 1/3 volume on Freedom of Choice definitely isn’t all strife; among the things that Mark, Jerry, and others involved in the album agree on are that de-evolution is real, and the period around the writing, recording and touring of Devo’s third album was fun as hell. The album produced one of the greatest pop hits of the late 20th century, and includes other tracks that deserved to be, all while rallying millions of spuds around the world to question the system and use their heads. My hope is that like Devo, this book strikes a balance between serious discussion and absurd comedy, and between attention to musical detail and a colorful but culturally relevant bigger picture.
– Evie Nagy
P.S. Happy birthday Mark!