To celebrate the upcoming release of our 104th 33 1/3 on Freedom of Choice, we’re pleased to bring you the second installment of Devo week by author Evie Nagy!
A critical plot point in the story of the runaway success of Devo’s May 1980 third album Freedom of Choice has to do with one of its early failures. Album opener and first single “Girl U Want” was supposed to be the hit, the song that broke on radio and put Devo on the mainstream map. It recalled the drive of the Knack’s 1979 chart-topper “My Sharona,” and tapped into the straightforward, universal theme of romantic frustration. “The Girl You Want” was even floated for a few minutes as the title of the album. Warner Brothers spent everything they were willing to spend on Devo promoting the song. And it tanked, ironically playing out just like the denied hopes in the song’s own lyrics.
Before “Whip It” became the album and band’s totally organic, unexpected savior (whose story you can read in Chapter 3 of Freedom of Choice), Devo went on tour as planned to promote the album, without a charting single, which Jerry Casale says was a tense situation. But Europe had always been a little more ready for Devo’s sensibility than the U.S.–Mark Mothersbaugh cites Fernand Leger’s 1924 dadaist film Ballet Mechanique as well as European art movements between the two world wars as important influences on Devo’s aesthetics, and a vast majority of the substantial pre-Freedom of Choice press I found on Devo came from overseas.
One of my favorite Devo video clips is this appearance on French TV from June 1980, when they were still pushing “Girl U Want,” in which the band “performs” the song in the middle of the street. I say “performs” because there is almost no effort to hide the fact that they’re lip-synching–Mark is singing into and occasionally eating an ice cream cone. The audience members don’t seem to have any idea what’s going on, as if they were each grabbed off the street and given 20 francs* to stand there, but even that seems part of the gag. It’s a relaxed, fairly absurd scene in broad daylight, and aside from the fact that Alan Myers is “playing” electronic drums, which he didn’t use on Freedom of Choice, perfectly Devo.
Despite its failure to make the band famous and drive sales, “Girl U Want” became one of Devo’s best-known songs, and has probably been covered by more artists than anything else in their catalog. But the song’s real-life story makes its lyrics even more effective–it’s pop’s truest anthem of unachieved satisfaction.
– Evie Nagy
*Equal to about $5 in June 1980, I want to be precise with my unsubstantiated speculation.