When the Whip Comes Down: Music Inspired by Flagellation

The imitation of the sound of a whip as percussion has a history going back at least to the classic 1949 recordings of the western favorite “Mule Train” by Frankie Laine and Tennessee Ernie Ford, and Laine would also sing Dmitri Tiomkin’s popular lash-licked theme for TV’s Rawhide, which debuted in 1959. The 1949 and 1950 renditions of “Sleigh Ride” by the Boston Pops Orchestra and Leroy Anderson, respectively, are decidedly whip-happy realizations, with seven resounding strikes apiece. Strategic cracks of the whip would similarly enliven Dolly Parton’s sassy 1970 cover of “Mule Skinner Blues,” and the Rankin-Bass animated production The Return of the King (1980) would even include a disco scourge-march by Glenn Yarbrough, “Where There’s a Whip, There’s a Way.” With the acceleration of the sexual revolution, the proliferation of pornography, and the advent of electronic music, however – the years that would make stars of Grace Jones, Lynda Carter, and Dyanne Thorne, witness the release of Paul Schrader’s Hardcore (1979), and produce the “specific Southampton milieu” sketched by Anthony Haden-Guest in his 1980 New York article “Melonie Haller’s Lost Weekend” – the whip, or its synthetic likeness, would see revival as a percussion effect in records of a sometimes colder, more punishing nature than the lighthearted country-and-western or novelty ditties of bygone days; and, as the following selection demonstrates, the subgenre lends itself to a variety of meanings. “One slash is all you get,” dancefloor disciplinarian Asha Puthli teases in her 1979 disco curiosity “The Whip,” but here, for those who would taste them, are six flavors of the lash – the cream of the crops! 

20 Jazz Funk Greats by Throbbing Gristle 

For the uninitiated, the sociopathic 1979 prank 20 Jazz Funk Greats is not a collection of jazz funk songs, nor are there even twenty tracks. “We had this idea in mind that someone quite innocently would come along to a record store and see [the record] and think they would be getting 20 really good jazz/funk greats, and then they would put it on at home and they would just get decimated,” band member Cosey Fanni Tutti explains. Born from the death of the sickening “performance art” nuisance COUM Transmissions, Genesis P-Orridge’s Throbbing Gristle were, along with Cabaret Voltaire, foremost (if not the most likable) among Britain’s industrial innovators. More contemptuously scaly and alien even than NPR “humor,” the suicide-soundtrack Report albums of 1977 and 1978 hardly commend themselves to any but the hardiest and most self-loathing of noise aficionados; but with 20 Jazz Funk Greats, the introduction of pop elements results in material that sounds rather shockingly like actual music. My favorite track may be “Convincing People,” but the closest Throbbing Gristle ever came to producing something conventionally beautiful is the whip-punctuated “Hot on the Heels of Love,” which, as vocalist Cosey remembers, “was a bit of a spoof on the Donna Summer single, ‘I Feel Love,’ because disco was very big then,” but with Throbbing Gristle predictably laying down a touch of resentful discipline. The predilection for flagellation, incidentally, has for centuries been called “the English disease” in Europe. 

Freedom of Choice (Deluxe Remastered Edition) by Devo  

With its campy futuristic cover design and possibly mock-Friedmanite title, the eighties have very much arrived with Devo’s Freedom of Choice. The album’s great hit, “Whip It,” according to lyricist Gerald Casale, was intended as a pastiche of “all the American, capitalist, can-do clichés,” whereas band member Mark Mothersbaugh claims they “wrote it as a ‘you can do it, Dale Carnegie’ pep talk for President Carter.” “Whip It” would also occasion the creation of perhaps the most memorable (though not the most feminist-friendly) music video in all the ghastly annals of MTV. Whatever the band’s original conception of the song’s content, it takes on a sexual meaning with the video’s outrageous depiction of Mothersbaugh literally whipping a woman’s clothes off. The western ranch setting, moreover, links the deviant whip music subgenre of the electronic era with its rugged Americana precursors like the aforementioned “Mule Train” and “Rawhide,” emphasizing in zany, tongue-in-cheek fashion themes specific to US culture, politics, and economy. “Several tunes – like the oft-covered ‘Girl U Want’ – have a geeky (but pragmatic) romantic angst that was new to Devo albums,” writes Steve Huey at All Music Guide, “although the band’s view of relationships is occasionally colored by their cultural themes of competition and domination.” Residual punk energy is in evidence on Freedom of Choice, with an arcade atmosphere prevailing and sci-fi touches giving it all a characteristic nerdy charm. Appearing as a bonus on the deluxe reissue is the DEV-O Live EP documenting a 1980 show at San Francisco’s Warfield Theatre. 

Keep It Live by Dazz Band 

The crazed-looking partygoer on the cover seems to beckon to danger and nighttime excitement as she casually breaches a red and forbidding chain-link fence, suggesting something of what awaits the listener on the 1982 funk classic Keep It Live. Cleveland’s Dazz (i.e., “Danceable Jazz”) Band brings a mix of soulful, saxophone-stroked slow dances like “Gamble with My Love” and rowdy zappers like “Can We Dance,” “Keep It Live (On the K.I.L.),” and the irresistible “Let It Whip,” which won the group a Grammy and gets listeners on the floor here in its glorious four- and six-minute versions. Written by Reggie Andrews and Leon “Ndugu” Chancler, “Let It Whip” originated as an attempt at creating a dance sensation. “What kind of lyric content could we talk about,” Chancler remembered, “that could end up being a dance? And Reggie came up with the idea of a whip.” On closer inspection, though, those lyrics might indicate something other than dancing. The song perhaps began as a stab at a catchy track like Fatback’s sexy 1981 disco single “Kool Whip,” but Dazz Band’s line “Let me be your paper man, I’d love to be at your command” suggests an exchange of cash for something – perhaps from someone “learning a trade” like the protagonist of the Rolling Stones’ 1978 slummer “When the Whip Comes Down.” At any rate, “Let It Whip” is a great dancefloor-filler and Keep It Live is a guaranteed good time for anybody who enjoys eighties soul or funk performers like Prince, Rick James, Cameo, and the Gap Band. 

Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This) by The Eurythmics 

One of the synthpop genre’s most distinctive statements, this elegant and rather sinister 1983 release gave the world the eponymous hit, the striking video for which would feature singer Annie Lennox dressed for corporate cruelty, brandishing a riding crop, and characterizing the human condition as sadomasochistic – which obviously amuses her. Curiously, the marketing for “Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This)” serves as another visual bridge between the more innocent pastorally themed whip songs of yesteryear and the (more typically British) icy electronic lashings of the eighties, with Lennox and partner Dave Stewart depicted serenading a herd of confused and manipulated cattle. (It furnishes an interesting comparison with “Whip It” and with the following year’s reactionarily romantic “Holding Out for a Hero,” which finds lusty frontier lass Bonnie Tyler helpless on her knees before a trio of shadowy outlaws and haunted by visions of menacing glow-in-the-dark whips.) Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This) has much more to offer than the title song, however. Eerily sublime and soaring moments vie with harsher intrusions of bitterness and suggested violence in songs that perfectly showcase the versatility of both artists. In Lennox’s prophylactically gloved hands, Sam and Dave’s soul hit “Wrap It Up” becomes an expression of detached lust evocative of the age of casual, nonprocreative sex and AIDS, while the immersive “Love Is a Stranger” surpasses even Mercer and Bloom’s “Fools Rush In (Where Angels Fear to Tread)” or the Beatles’ “I Want You (She’s So Heavy)” as an evocation of the madness of infatuation. CD bonus tracks include alternate versions of “Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This)” and “Love Is a Stranger”; seductive invitation-to-the-irrational “Monkey Monkey”; and, most notably, an energizingly ecstatic rendering of Lou Reed’s “Satellite of Love.” 

Some Great Reward by Depeche Mode 

Though its architecture of profundity might not have weathered the decades entirely intact, this 1984 effort from Depeche Mode remains an essential musical document of its era. On the album’s cover, a bride and groom appear dwarfed against a gloomy industrial background, their new life together heroic or doomed as the onlooker must determine. The photograph was taken at the Round Oak Steelworks at Brierley Hill shortly before the facility’s demolition – a casualty of the dismantling of Britain’s industry. Longing and idealism consequently compete with nihilism, despair, hedonism, and cuckoldry on Some Great Reward, with the opening track, “Something to Do,” introducing the theme of bored descent into perversion that finds full expression in the pertinent prurience, the abusively percussive “Master and Servant.” Mining the same vein as the group’s more overtly political 1983 album Construction Time Again, the song can be read as an attack on Thatcherism. “Forget all about equality,” drones David Gahan: “Let’s play master and servant.” The “Master and Servant” music video – inexcusably gauche and horrible like most of Depeche Mode’s videos – complements the Eurythmics’ “Sweet Dreams” with its juxtaposition of images evoking consumerism, big business, and political intrigue with chains-and-leather silliness. The whip effect, Depeche Mode revealed to Melody Maker, was achieved with producer Daniel Miller hissing and spitting after an attempt at using an actual whip proved unfruitful. Other standout songs are the cynical “Lie to Me” and the rakish “Stories of Old,” which is my favorite after “Master and Servant.” Bonus tracks include the danceable “(Set Me Free) Remotivate Me” and several live performances illustrative of the band’s surprising capacity to translate its production-heavy aesthetic into effective crowd engagement.   

The Covenant, the Sword, and the Arm of the Lord by Cabaret Voltaire 

This dark 1985 masterpiece from Sheffield’s pioneering cacophony artists again echoes the American West, with the pounding “Whip Blow,” for example, featuring a voice sample of the Spahn Ranch’s own Charles Manson and following the tangy dance provocation “Motion Rotation” with its repetitive cowboy exclamations of “yippie-yo” and “yippie-yay.” Other highlights are the otherworldly butt-jerker “Kickback,” the nasty workout “Warm,” and the future-drip and gangster exotica of the entrancing “Golden Halos,” another one of the tracks ridden by the enigmatic Manson. Scott Wilson, in an insightful review at Spectrum Culture, writes that Cabaret Voltaire “increasingly faced towards the West and a grimly romanticized vision of America in a way that differed from others of the early Industrial stable, with Throbbing Gristle much more obviously interested in the rotten heart of Britain and Europe than in what was happening across the Atlantic,” adding that “through it all, what links the 10 tracks of this album is a focus on the decay of popular culture that the United States had come to represent for [Cabaret Voltaire’s Richard] Kirk and [Stephen] Mallinder, the anonymous voices, static and manipulated sounds coalescing around the figure of the album’s narrator, Charlie Manson, providing a fascinating insight into how the United States might reveal its underbelly to the rest of the world.” The Covenant, the Sword, and the Arm of the Lord takes its name from a Christian Identity militia that had been active in Missouri and Arkansas and had been targeted by the FBI a few months before the release of the album, which in the US was simply titled The Arm of the Lord at the nervous insistence of Virgin Records.