Devo on Rock Hall nomination, the true meaning of 'Whip It,' and what Jagger really thought of their 'Satisfaction' cover

Devo have been nominated for the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame once again, and it seems like the third time might finally be the charm. While the Ohio eccentrics might have been considered a comedy band or novelty act at first — with their energy-dome hats, kooky characters, and bonkers early music videos — their message about the de-evolution of society turned out to be prescient, and sadly resonates more than ever in 2022.

So… how does it feel to be right, so to speak, almost 50 years later?

Not good!” quips Devo co-lead vocalist an bassist Gerald Casale. “I mean, humans just keep proving us right, you know?”

“It's depressing. We were hoping that we were just a little overly paranoid,” frontman Mark Mothersbaugh adds drily.

“A lot of people didn't understand our message, or our sense of humor,” Mothersbaugh tells Yahoo Entertainment. “And so, from the very beginning, there were people that were just like, ‘Oh, it's a joke.’ Or the record company would call us ‘quirky.’ Which kind of one way to just defuse anything serious.”

“What we were doing was making connections between dissimilar things and fusing them together to show people that you could be innovative and think for yourself. And that was the real warning. We were telling people to quit conforming and start thinking for themselves,” Casale elaborates. “I mean, we always intended to be a multimedia performance band. We never had an intention of being a rock ‘n’ roll act. It was a conceptual multimedia band, a collaboration of artists.”

“We saw ourselves as like a contemporary Dadaists in a real sense. It wasn't like you just played a guitar in the corner,” says Mothersbaugh. Our message was a manifesto for a way to think about the future and a way to work yourself through all the obvious things that were happening, coming downward. We were for positive mutation in the beginning, but it is true that we questioned man's very centralized view of their selves being the most… important species on the planet, when we might very well just be the most dangerous species on the planet.”

Devo in 1980. (Photo: Ed Perlstein/Redferns/Getty Images)
Devo in 1980. (Photo: Ed Perlstein/Redferns/Getty Images)

One of the ways in which Devo got their message across was through their groundbreaking music videos — most of them co-directed by Casale years before MTV. It was right around the time of MTV’s debut that the world started to catch up with the new wave trailblazers, and suddenly Devo were an unlikely mainstream pop act thanks to their massive hit “Whip It,” a single off their 1980 album Freedom of Choice.

And so, the MTV brass requested that Devo make a video for the song. What Casale came up with for a meager $15,000 — a sort of S&M peep show on a dude ranch populated by beer-swilling cowboys and cowgirls — probably wasn’t quite what the network expected.

“The idea there was to just make a video that almost ludicrously hit every lyric on the nose and gave 'em exactly what these radio programmers were thinking,” Casale recalls with a chuckle. “Because Mark and I would have to do a lot of interviews and they always would go, ‘Hey, you guys whipping it?’ They’d make the jerk-off move where they’d go, ‘Oh, yeah, whip it. Whip that bitch!’ And we'd be like, ‘Oh my God! Jeez!’ And then we would be trying to explain to them what it really meant, and they'd get really turned off and bummed out when they found out it wasn't about masturbation or sadomasochism. … So, I made sure the video hit all those notes.”

As it turned out, “Whip It,” like most Devo songs, was subversive, but in a multi-layered way that went over most listeners’ heads. “It was a humorous exercise. We were talking about how in America there's that obsession with obsession-ism. Like, ‘You're number one! Individual! Everybody's a winner!’ And so, it was lyrics that were parodying that kind of go-get-'em positivism,” says Casale.

“It had kind of a Thomas Pynchon feel to it, but we also told people back in the day, this was for Jimmy Carter. Because from touring, we'd find out that people all over the world thought his foreign policy was crazy and lame. And we were trying to give him a pep talk to beat Reagan [in the 1980 presidential election],” Mothersbaugh reveals.

Some editions of the “Whip It” single featured a B-side of an earlier released cover, of the Rolling Stones’ “(I Can't Get No) Satisfaction” — one of the most radical remakes of all time. But Devo had always had the support of various classic rock artists (for instance, Davie Bowie was instrumental in helping them land a record deal, and they later made the movie Human Highway with Neil Young), so perhaps it’s unsurprising that the Stones were totally on board with Devo’s cover. Their version even had the one-and-only Mick Jagger doing his famous chicken dance.

“Back in those days, when you did a rearrangement like that, you had to get permission from the writer to be allowed to do it. And we wanted to put it on our album, so Gerry and I went to New York and we went to the Rolling Stones’ manager's office in Manhattan,” Mothersbaugh recalls. “And Jagger showed up and listened to it. And when he was about halfway through the song, he got up and started dancing around the room…”

“…like Mick Jagger,” Casale interjects.

“He did a very good impression of himself,” Mothersbaugh laughs. “And I read somewhere once where he said that our cover was his favorite Rolling Stones cover.”

While the above-mentioned doubters who thought Devo were a joke band probably assumed Devo were poking fun at the Rolling Stones, Mothersbaugh and Casale insist that was never the case.

“Because we got a reputation of being smart-ass or disrespectful, people thought we were ‘taking the piss’ out of the song. But that's not true at all,” Casale clarifies. “That was probably with us, as it was with millions of people, the penultimate rock song ever written. We thought it was incredible. We were kind of crazy to take it on, in a way, but we were fearless. So, we did it.”

“We were updating it. It was 10 years from the song originally coming out. And so, we just updated it,” adds Mothersbaugh. “We were in this room, a storage room for a car wash, and the snow was about three feet deep outside. We were freezing. And so, we're all wearing coats and gloves while we're playing. And [keyboardist/rhythm guitarist] Bob Casale started playing this little riff, and everybody started filling in, and we put the lyrics to ‘Satisfaction’ to it.”

Bob Casale, Gerald’s younger brother, sadly died of heart failure in 2014. Mothersbaugh had his own brush with death in May 2020, when he contracted a serious case of COVID‑19 and had to be placed on a ventilator in the intensive care unit at Los Angeles’s Cedars-Sinai Medical Center for 18 days. He is still dealing from the effects from the virus nearly two years later.

“It wasn't fun,” Mothersbaugh says flatly. “Gerry and I both got it. He luckily went to the doctors right away. I was isolated on my own and I just kept thinking, ‘Oh, I'm just tired because I'm working so hard.’ And I just ignored it for at least a week while I was sick, and that was my big mistake. ICU was no fun. Somehow my vocal cords got torn from the tube that they put down my throat into my lungs. And then, I've lost use of one of my eyes. It's now just a souvenir, my right eye. The hospital took very detailed notes about every time they took my temperature or fed me or something, but then they neglected to mention when my eye turned bright red and I no longer could see anymore.”

But Mothersbaugh hasn’t lost his wry, dry sense of humor. When asked about the virus’s long-term effect on his ability to sing, he answers, “I've lost about an octave, but we found ways around it with most of the Devo songs. [Childlike Devo character] Booji Boy might be the one who's suffered the most in that. I believe our songs didn't really involve, like, really amazing vocals.”

Mark Mothersbaugh performs Devo's classic 1978 album 'Q: Are We Not Men? A: We Are Devo' in 2009. (Photo: Jim Dyson/Getty Images)
Mark Mothersbaugh performs Devo's classic 1978 album 'Q: Are We Not Men? A: We Are Devo' in 2009. (Photo: Jim Dyson/Getty Images)

Amazing vocals or not, it seems Devo’s time for Hall of Fame glory has finally come, and thankfully Mothersbaugh, who’s been touring with Devo since last year, will be able to perform at the Class of 2022 ceremony. As for who will induct the group if they make the final cut, Mick Jagger seems like a great choice. “Wouldn't that be nice?” laughs Casale.

Watch Devo's video interview above for additional conversation about their "Girl U Want" and "Freedom of Choice" videos, as well as their iconic 1982 performance on the sitcom Square Pegs.

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— Video produced by Jen Kucsak, edited by Jimmie Rhee