MAY 7, 2017
“GIRL U WANT” (WRITERS: MARK MOTHERSBAUGH, GERALD V. CASALE)
RELEASED 1980 ON 7” 45 AND ON FREEDOM OF CHOICE LP
Following their first two albums, Q. Are We Not Men? A. We Are Devo! (1978) and Duty Now for the Future (1979), the Ohio surrealist band Devo faced a choice. The five could continue as a quirky, weird, culty “new wave” act or try and broaden their appeal without, they hoped, diluting their sound or distressing their fans.
Devo, still recording for powerful Warner Brothers, made several important moves. First, the band committed further to electronic keyboards. Second, but related to the first, they hooked up with experienced synthesizer guru/producer Robert Margouleff, who could teach the band to embrace and integrate new sonic possibilities. And third, leaders Mark Mothersbaugh and Jerry Casale wrote an album full of hits.
Most of the resulting album, 1980’s Freedom of Choice, was built on simple hooks with mechanical, keyboard-driven rhythms. Instead of epics, multi-part anthems, and bizarre experiments, the band created 12 easy-going-down pop songs with subversive touches, reaching critical and commercial peaks and influencing the music of the future.
Somehow, the band combined synthesizers, drums, keyboard-generated bass, and processed guitars into a new kind of rock music. It was fun, catchy, bizarre if you scratched the surface, and most important for the band, very successful. The album nearly reached the top 20 in the States, while the album’s second single, the undeniable “Whip It,” got to the top ten.
Both Mark Mothersbaugh and Bob Casale were now mostly using synthesizers, leaving Bob Mothersbaugh’s acerbic lead guitar to color the songs. Devo’s gambit of making guitars sound less like guitars, which started in earnest on Duty Now for the Future, continued on much of Freedom of Choice. But the git box played a huge rule on the album’s lead track and first single, “Girl U Want,” a perfect expression of the new manifesto.
Nearly 40 years on, “Girl U Want” remains a tasty, demented hunk of rock with an odd but logical rhythm. Over Alan Myers’ propulsive and intricate beat floated a minimal melody, a difficult-to-decipher lyric, and a snaky guitar run that sounded as if it had been recorded by Captain Beefheart’s Magic Band, turned inside out, and fed through a cheap transistor speaker.
Though not as overtly rockist as his playing on earlier pieces such as “Uncontrollable Urge” and “Clockout,” Bob Mothersbaugh’s dirty, bluesy riff placed “Girl U Want” one foot in fuzzy blues rock and the other in the avant-garde. As did the fact that Mark Mothersbaugh sang the conventional, conversational lyrics with an almost icy precision.
As it turned out, the outré but extremely catchy music from Freedom of Choice sounded mighty comfortable in 1980 next to AC/DC and Van Halen on conventional FM rock radio. While “new wave” acts like the Police, the Pretenders, and Talking Heads had already made inroads toward mainstream success, Devo’s inclusion on radio playlists was weird and completely unexpected.
I’m sure it was a mix of catchy songcraft, up-to-the-minute production quality, and the marketing muscle of Warner Brothers, which knew how to push when it had a hit on its hands.