Hello there! In this week’s blog post we consider the song (I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction. This was a blockbuster British Invasion rock and roll song. We will start with the original version by the Rolling Stones, and then discuss covers by Otis Redding and Devo.
The Rolling Stones and (I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction:
The Rolling Stones began their career in the early 60s as part of a flourishing British blues movement. At that time, the Stones covered songs by American blues artists such as Muddy Waters, Robert Johnson and Howlin’ Wolf.
Below is a photo of the Rolling Stones very early in their career, from 1963. From L: Mick Jagger, Charlie Watts, Brian Jones, Bill Wyman, Keith Richards.
When they branched out from blues revival into rock and roll music, the early Stones’ songs were mainly covers of R&B and rock and roll songs by other groups. However, in 1964 Mick Jagger and Keith Richards began writing their own songs.
At this point, the Stones were waiting for one of their original songs to become a break-out hit. That hit would be (I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction. And the genesis of that song was an original guitar riff developed by Keith Richards.
Richards came up with the idea for the iconic guitar lick in Satisfaction while in a hotel room. He recorded the guitar part just before falling asleep in his room.
Richards’ original idea was that on the record, his guitar riff would be played by a horn section. When I first heard Satisfaction, I assumed that Keith’s guitar part was being played by a saxophone – it was a couple of years before I realized that I was listening to an electric guitar.
The iconic brassy sound was obtained by running the output from Richards’ guitar through a Gibson Maestro fuzzbox. Although Richards intended that this sound would be replaced by horns in the final recording, Jagger and the producer and sound engineer overruled him, and the guitar part was retained on the recording.
(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction expresses the singer’s frustration regarding several issues. First, he is sexually frustrated (“I can’t get no girl reaction”). In addition, he is upset with the commercialization of modern society, and the “useless information” he receives from advertising.
[CHORUS] I can’t get no satisfaction
I can’t get no satisfaction
‘Cause I try and I try and I try and I try
I can’t get no, I can’t get no
When I’m driving in my car
And the man comes on the radio
He’s tellin’ me more and more
About some useless information
Supposed to drive my imagination
I can’t get no, oh no, no, no
A hey, hey, hey, that’s what I say
When I’m watchin’ my TV
And a man comes on and tells me
How white my shirts can be
But he can’t be a man ’cause he doesn’t smoke
The same cigarettes as me
Here is the audio of (I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction.
Although the Stones had significant success on the pop charts with earlier songs, Satisfaction was clearly the monster hit that established them as a premier hard-rock band.
For example, (I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction is ranked #2 on the Rolling Stone magazine list of the 500 Greatest Songs of All Time. Also, the opening lines of Keith Richards’ guitar riff has been labeled ‘the five most memorable notes in rock music history.’
Mick Jagger described the impact of Satisfaction on the Stones’ career and image:
“It was the song that really made the Rolling Stones, changed us from just another band into a huge, monster band… It has a very catchy title. It has a very catchy guitar riff. It has a great guitar sound, which was original at that time. And it captures a spirit of the times … which was alienation.”
It also was a terrific first hit for the Jagger-Richards songwriting partnership. Alas, this would eventually result in original group leader Brian Jones being pushed out of the band.
Jones wanted the Stones to concentrate more on the blues, the genre that they had originally played. However, the hard-rock anthems written by Jagger and Richards became blockbuster hits for the Stones. As a result, Brian Jones began increasingly to recede into the background, and to withdraw as his influence in the group waned.
Here is video of the Stones in a live performance of Satisfaction.
What a terrific live video! This was shot by Peter Whitehead in September 1965, at a time when Satisfaction had been #1 in the US pop charts for four weeks, and was about to hit #1 in the UK where this video was filmed.
You can see the manic reaction from the young crowd, who were enjoying the Stones’ first big Jagger-Richards hit. Mick Jagger as usual is cool and professional in dealing with the frantic crowd.
Look for brief shots of bassist Bill Wyman in this video. He has a rather unique style, holding his bass vertical while he plays; and Wyman looks on at the crowd hysteria with detached bemusement.
It is interesting that Satisfaction had peaked in the US charts before it hit #1 in the UK. One reason for this is that the BBC initially refused to play the tune, because it was too sexually explicit. As a result, for a while the song was played exclusively on ‘pirate radio’ stations reaching the UK.
Nowadays we tend to forget how disturbing it was, particularly to our parents’ generation, to hear the sexually-charged lyrics in songs like Satisfaction. Of course, if one listened to blues tunes, none of this would be shocking. However, my parents didn’t listen to Howlin’ Wolf – their musical tastes ran more to Perry Como and Glenn Miller.
Today, the lyrics in songs like (I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction seem unremarkable, even fairly tame, compared to what one hears in hip-hop music. But it was not that long ago when these songs were considered risqué and, according to the BBC, dangerous to impressionable young minds.
The Rolling Stones continued to write songs whose lyrics were disturbing to various groups. One thinks of songs like Under My Thumb, covered in an earlier blog post, that contains unsettling references to subjugation of women.
And of course, the champion of songs with taboo lyrics has to be the Stones’ 1971 song Brown Sugar, the subject of an earlier blog post. In Brown Sugar, one can find references to slavery, racism, sado-masochism, and treatment of women as objects. As a last straw, that song’s title is also a nickname for a South American brand of heroin!
When pressed about their disturbing lyrics, Mick and Keith tend to remark, “Hey, it’s only rock and roll, don’t take it seriously.” On this topic, the boys appear to be laughing all the way to the bank.
To paraphrase the 1989 slacker movie Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure, “Party on, dudes!”
Otis Redding and (I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction:
We discussed Otis Redding in our blog post on his song, Respect. Here we will briefly review his life and career.
Otis Redding was an R&B singer who grew up in Macon, Georgia, which was also the home town of rock legend Little Richard. Redding’s recording career began when he drove his band-mate Johnny Jenkins to a session at Stax Record Studios.
When Jenkins was finished and there was still time remaining in the recording session, Redding asked if he could audition. Otis blew away the skeptical session musicians with his version of These Arms of Mine. Following the audition, he became one of the stable of artists at Stax Records.
Below is a photo of Otis Redding in live performance in 1967.
Stax Records in Memphis was a great venue for Otis Redding. First, the studio was unusual for the times in that they were a fully multi-racial record company. A second important aspect of Stax Studios was that most of their records featured the Stax “house band,” originally called the Mar-Keys.
The Mar-Keys were a group of virtuoso session musicians. Although they had a few solo records, their major success consisted of backing up most records cut at Stax Studios. Mainstays of the group included Booker T Jones or Isaac Hayes on keyboards, guitarist Steve Cropper, bassist Donald “Duck” Dunn and drummer Al Jackson, Jr.
There was also a horn section, notably Andrew Love and Wayne Jackson. This was a group of first-rate musicians, hence the production values of songs from Stax Studios were exceptionally high.
Things became more complicated when four of the Mar-Keys (Jones, Cropper, Dunn and Jackson, Jr) began recording as Booker T and the MGs. That group scored some major hits and thus began to overshadow the Mar-Keys. We will refer to the group as the Mar-Keys when they include a horn section, and Booker T and the MGs without the horns.
Otis Redding gained fame for his R&B recordings; but his success was regional, and he was performing primarily for black audiences. However, some record executives believed that Redding had the potential to reach a much broader audience on the national stage.
In particular, producer Jerry Wexler was convinced that Otis Redding’s music had widespread appeal. And Wexler was in a good position to know about this. A decade earlier, he had convinced the Billboard people to change their rating classification for gospel, blues and soul music from ‘race records’ to the less offensive category ‘rhythm and blues.’
In early 1967, Jerry Wexler heard of plans for a major pop festival in Monterey, CA in June of that year. Wexler strongly urged the organizers to include Otis Redding on the program. At left we show the poster for that festival. The Monterey International Pop Festival was an event that really kicked off 1967’s Summer of Love.
In retrospect, this was a brilliant move on the part of Wexler. ‘Monterey Pop’ turned out to one of the most influential festivals in pop music history, and it made Otis Redding an overnight sensation.
Here is Otis Redding in a live performance of Satisfaction.
Isn’t this great? The film-maker D.A. Pennebaker made a terrific documentary of the Monterey Pop Festival, and this is footage from that film. The documentary does a wonderful job of capturing Otis Redding’s high-voltage performance.
Otis Redding became famous for his growling voice, visible intensity and staccato style. His mannerisms, together with rather jerky motions of his body when he sang, were attributed by some to the fact that Otis was personally extremely shy.
If you are paying close attention, you will note that the lyrics sung by Mr. Redding are significantly different from those in the Rolling Stones’ official version. Apparently Booker T guitarist Steve Cropper wrote out the lyrics to Satisfaction and gave them to Redding.
When they were first rehearsing the song, Otis attempted to follow the lyrics; however, when he got going in live performance, he simply discarded the lyrics and replaced them with his own.
The Monterey Pop festival served as a break-out event for a number of young rock stars. In particular, Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix and The Who gained tremendous popularity from the exposure they received at this festival.
However, Otis Redding was one of the musicians who gained the most from his appearance at Monterey Pop, because few white audiences had seen him perform before this.
Another reason for the tremendous reaction to Redding at Monterey Pop was that he was backed by the great Stax “house band,” the Mar-Keys. Finally, Otis Redding benefited from the relative lack of R&B competition at the festival. For example, several Motown groups had been invited to the festival, but Berry Gordy refused to allow them to participate, because the artists were donating their appearance fees to charity.
In 1967, everything suddenly came together for Otis Redding. His triumphant appearance at Monterey Pop followed shortly after the release of Aretha Franklin’s cover of his song, Respect.
At this point, people were beginning to call Otis Redding the “King of Soul.” It began to look as though Redding might enjoy a long career as a renowned R&B artist, but fate intervened.
Later in 1967, Otis Redding began touring the Midwest along with his backup group The Bar-Kays. In early December he played some concerts and appeared on a TV show in Cleveland. The group then boarded Redding’s Beechcraft H18 plane and headed for the University of Wisconsin.
They never made it. Flying through heavy fog and rain, the plane crashed into Lake Monona in Wisconsin on Dec. 9, 1967. Miraculously, trumpeter Ben Cauley of the Bar-Kays survived the crash, but all others including Redding were killed. Otis Redding died tragically at age 26, only months after his career really took off.
Just days before he died, Redding had recorded Dock of the Bay, a song written by Booker T and the MGs guitarist Steve Cropper. The song was controversial because it marked a dramatic departure from Redding’s usual harsh R&B style, and several at Stax records were opposed to recording it on the grounds that it might distract from his trademark sound.
They need not have worried – the song shot up to #1, the first posthumously released record to hit the top spot on the charts.
However, the success of Dock of the Bay makes Otis Redding’s death just that much more tragic, when his first release featuring a new, mellower sound became a colossal cross-over hit.
Devo and (I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction:
Devo was a new-wave band comprised of members from the Kent, Ohio area. Their ‘classic’ lineup consisted of two sets of brothers – Bob and Mark Mothersbaugh on guitar and keyboards, respectively; Gerald and Bob Casale on bass and guitar; and drummer Alan Myers.
The name Devo was taken from a bogus philosophy called “De-evolution.” The idea was that instead of evolving upwards, mankind was actually regressing, “as evidenced by the disfunction and herd mentality in American society.” This satirical notion was developed by Gerald Casale and Bob Lewis when they were art students at Kent State University in the late 60s.
Below is a photo of Devo in live performance in 1981.
In the photo above, Devo are wearing their red ‘energy domes,’ the hats that look like ziggurats or inverted flowerpots. With tongue firmly in cheek, Devo co-founder Mark Mothersbaugh explained the function of the energy domes:
‘Your orgone energy goes out the top of your head and it dissipates out the top, but if you wear an energy dome it recycles that energy. It comes back down and showers back down on you and, among other things, you remain manly, shall we say, for maybe another 150 years of your life.’
Here is video of Devo performing (I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction. This is from Saturday Night Live on Oct. 14, 1978.
The group is dressed in what appear to be yellow HazMat suits, topped off by weird-looking sunglasses. The look Devo aspired to was ‘robotic,’ and I would say they are extremely successful.
Their jerky motions are consistent with what we would expect from a group of robots. The vocals are clipped and monotonic, and the instrumental accompaniment emphasizes the electronic sounds.
It is notable that Devo appeared on SNL just one week following the appearance of the Rolling Stones on that same program. Also, the Devo cover of Satisfaction was featured in Martin Scorsese’s 1995 crime film Casino.
Devo had one big hit, the 1980 song Whip It. That tune made it to #14 on the Billboard pop charts. The combination of the song Whip It and the accompanying music video made Devo cult sensations.
I was never much of a Devo fan, but I had to admit they were memorable. Many groups that followed them were strongly influenced by their music; this is particularly true for new wave and electronic artists.
For example, at the beginning of Devo’s career, both David Bowie and Iggy Pop were instrumental in helping Devo secure a record contract.
Devo was also noted for their highly theatrical performances. Several musicians who followed them also incorporated ‘performance art’ into their live appearances.
For example, Devo occasionally opened for themselves, posing as a Christian soft-rock group called Dove (the Band of Love), which was supposedly part of their parody religion The Church of the Subgenius.
Note that “Dove” is an anagram of “Devo.” The group also created several fictional characters, such as Booji Boy and The Chinaman, who appear in various of their performances.
One final area in which Devo was a leader was in their creative use of music videos. They were especially influential in their use of the short-lived Laser disc format. In particular, their music video for Whip It received tremendous airplay on MTV. In recognition of their pioneering work in electronic music, Devo received the first Moog Innovator Award at Moogfest 2010.
Devo disbanded in 1991 but re-united in 1995. Since that time they have toured occasionally, and have appeared at a few festivals. However, two of their founding members, Alan Myers and Bob Casale, have passed away in recent years.