August 1980: Devo Release WHIP IT

Friday, August 13, 2021

It was the dog days of summer 1980 when Devo released the second single from the band's do-or-die third album, Freedom of Choice: "Whip It." The group's label let them know in no uncertain terms that the future of Devo rested on the album's success, and the Akon, Ohio, outfit took the message to heart. As such, they created a virtual hit factory to churn out New Wave smashes.

"Bob Mothersbaugh and I had always loved R&B. And we had always listened to stations out of Detroit and we loved Motown," DEVO's Gerald Casale told American Songwriter about the making of the album, which found the band relocated in Los Angeles, and basically starting from scratch. "We were pushing to go that direction with beats and bass lines and to think of the music like Devo robots doing R&B with futuristic overtones. Mark really got into it, and thought if that's what we're going to do, let's go all the way. Nobody understood that was our theoretical construct or our inspiration when they were listening to that music, because it's so mutated from the inspiration."

Devo's international touring itinerary ended up being a big influence on the record's political leanings: "We had just done our second world tour when we started writing our third album," Mark Mothersbaugh told Songfacts. "The one thing that we were impressed with that we noticed everywhere around the world was that everybody was totally freaked out by American politics and American foreign policy. At the time, Jimmy Carter was in charge. I thought of 'Whip It' as kind of a Dale Carnegie, 'You Can Do It' song for Jimmy Carter. We were like, 'Jimmy Carter's a good guy, but he vacillates on his foreign policy.'"

After the first single from the album, "Girl U Want," failed to chart, "Whip It" was tapped as single number two. The label wasn't exactly excited about the track, and it took radio DJ Kal Rudman to start spinning the tune on the airwaves for it to start getting some traction. Released on August 13, 1980, "Whip It"--thanks in large part to Rudman's support--picked up steam and revved up into a genuine hit. It stormed the Hot 100 all the way to a peak position of #14 over the week of November 15, 1980. The #1 song in the country at the time: "Lady" by Kenny Rogers.

The song was such a success that Warner Bros. asked Devo to make a promo video for the track, sliding the band some cash to make it happen. In the pre-MTV era, it was a pretty big deal. Devo made the most of the moment.

"There was this one magazine that I found in a store in Santa Monica. It was like a 1962 men's girly mag called Dude, I think," Gerald Casale told Songfacts. "There was a feature article on a guy who had been an actor and fell on hard times, he wasn't getting parts anymore. He moved with his wife to Arizona, opened a dude ranch and charged people money to come hang out at the ranch. Every day at noon in the corral, for entertainment, he'd whip his wife's clothes off with a 12-foot bullwhip. She sewed the costumes and put them together with Velcro. The story was in the magazine about how good he was and how he never hurt her. We had such a big laugh about it, we said, 'OK, that's the basis for the video.'"