You Can’t Always Get What You Want: The Rolling Stones; the film The Big Chill; Al Kooper

Hello there! This is a continuation of our series Tim’s Cover Story Goes To The Movies. This week our blog features a wonderful late-60s rocker, You Can’t Always Get What You Want. We will first discuss the original song by The Rolling Stones. Next, we will show how it is featured in the movie The Big Chill. Finally, we will review a cover of this song by Al Kooper.

The Rolling Stones and You Can’t Always Get What You Want:

The Rolling Stones have been one of our most popular groups.  We have previously reviewed Stones songs here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here and here.  So in this post we will concentrate on the period when You Can’t Always Get What You Want was recorded and released.

The year 1969 was a tumultuous one for the Rolling Stones. In June of that year, the other members of the band informed Brian Jones that he was being kicked out of the group. This was ironic as Jones had been the initial leader of the band, and had assembled the other members of the Stones.

Only four weeks later, Jones was found dead at the bottom of his swimming pool. Below is a 1969 photo of the Rolling Stones with their new member, guitarist Mick Taylor (center in the photo), who had replaced Jones.

Embed from Getty Images

The song You Can’t Always Get What You Want was the first song recorded for the Stones’ 1969 album Let It Bleed. It was written by Mick Jagger, and recorded in two different versions. One version checks in at over 7 minutes in length, and it contains backing by the London Bach Choir. A second version is roughly 5 minutes long and is lacking the choir.

Apparently before they recorded the song, Mick Jagger was discussing the possibility of getting some choral backing.
I’d also had this idea of having a choir, probably a gospel choir, on the track, but there wasn’t one around at that point. Jack Nitzsche, or somebody, said that we could get the London Bach Choir and we said, “That will be a laugh.”

Well, the Stones ended up with the London Bach Choir, and the result was absolutely stunning. Here is the audio of the Rolling Stones in You Can’t Always Get What You Want. This is the 7-minute version that includes the choir.

Isn’t this astonishing? The choral backing could easily end up being completely ineffective, or insufferably cute. Instead, it is just terrific. The song describes a series of drug-related episodes that take place in the London area.

I saw her today at the reception
A glass of wine in her hand
I knew she would meet her connection
At her feet was her footloose man

No, you can’t always get what you want
You can’t always get what you want
You can’t always get what you want
But if you try sometime you find
You get what you need

[REPEAT verse + chorus]

But I went down to the demonstration
To get your fair share of abuse
Singing, “We’re gonna vent our frustration
If we don’t we’re gonna blow a fifty-amp fuse”

The first verse and chorus is sung at a stately, doleful pace by the Bach Choir. Backed by an acoustic guitar and introduced by a haunting French horn, Mick Jagger repeats the verse and chorus.

A couple more verses and chorus are accompanied by the Bach Choir, complemented by some backing vocals, a soulful organ and a piano.

After a few more verses, the Bach Choir appears again. The pace of the song picks up while the choir swells, a piano trills and various percussion instruments (particularly conga drums and maracas) emphasize the beat.

At the end of the song, the choir is in full throat, and the Stones provide a pulsating rock beat that carries the song to a climax.

The version that included the Bach Choir appeared only on the Let It Bleed album. The shorter single minus the choir was released in July 1969 as the “B” side of Honky Tonk Women. Amazingly, it failed to chart.

So here are the Rolling Stones live in 1969, being introduced by David Frost and “performing” You Can’t Always Get What You Want.

It is obvious that Mick is simply lip-synching to the record. First, there is no sign of the piano, organ or chorus that appears on the song. Second, although Charlie Watts appears in this video clip, Watts was not the drummer on this tune, instead being replaced by producer Jimmy Miller. And finally, Mick Taylor appears with an electric guitar, although Taylor was not in the studio in November 1968 when the record was cut.

Despite the poor chart performance of this song, it has become an iconic rock tune and one of the Stones’ signature songs. You Can’t Always Get What You Want is rated #100 on the Rolling Stone compilation The 500 Greatest Songs of All Time.

And this tune appears on seven different Stones compilation collections! Recently, when the Stones perform this song at concerts, Mick Jagger modifies the lyrics to include the question “What is your favorite flavor?” to which the audience responds “Cherry red!”

Although the song is in many respects a downer (it is filled with drug references, discusses unfaithful lovers and mentions attending a demonstration “to get your fair share of abuse”), the final words of the chorus hold out some hope. Although you can’t always get what you want, “if you try sometimes, you might find you get what you need.”

It is believed that this song is a Stones’ response to Beatles songs that included a full orchestra. For example, Mick Jagger was impressed by Beatles tunes such as Hey Jude, and some of the songs that appeared on the Sgt. Pepper album. Mick was quoted in 1969,
“I liked the way the Beatles did that with ‘Hey Jude’. The orchestra was not just to cover everything up—it was something extra. We may do something like that on the next album.”
Well, the Stones certainly followed up on that promise!

You Can’t Always Get What You Want in the movie The Big Chill:

The Big Chill was a 1983 film about a group of friends from college who gather at the funeral of a friend who has committed suicide. The film was directed by Lawrence Kasdan, from a script by Kasdan and Barbara Benedek.

Kasdan was a brilliant writer and director who had previously written the scripts for Raiders of the Lost Ark and The Empire Strikes Back. The Big Chill was the second picture he directed, following his debut with the clever 1981 thriller Body Heat.

For The Big Chill, Kasdan assembled an ensemble cast with a group of largely unknown young actors. In retrospect, this was a brilliant cast that included Kevin Kline as Harold Cooper, Glenn Close as his wife Sarah, William Hurt as Nick Carlton, Mary Kay Place as Meg Jones, Jeff Goldblum as Michael Gold, JoBeth Williams as Karen Bowers, Tom Berenger as Sam Weber, and Meg Tilly as Chloe.

Album of songs from the 1983 movie The Big Chill.

At left we show the album containing music from The Big Chill. This includes a photo of the ensemble cast.

Kevin Costner “played” Alex, the friend who committed suicide. Kasdan had originally anticipated Costner having a significant role in the movie, with flashbacks showing episodes in Alex’s life. However, those scenes were progressively cut as the film was shot. In the final cut, not only are flashbacks of Alex missing from the movie, but the only thing we see of Alex is parts of his corpse being dressed for the funeral – and we never see his face.

The clip below focuses on the funeral. Everyone has assembled in the church, and the pastor announces that Karen Bowers will play one of Alex’s favorite songs. After she goes to the organ, the congregation realizes that she is playing the Stones’ You Can’t Always Get What You Want.

They smile wryly at the irony of the song’s message (at a funeral for a suicide), coupled with the fact that a rocking Stones tune is being played on a church organ. We hear only a few bars of Karen’s contribution, until the song switches to the Rolling Stones version with the London Bach Choir. Here is the clip.

The video provides us with snippets of dialogue between various congregants. Each of these provides a pithy excerpt that reveals the character of the friends and a summary of their current circumstances.

On the way to the cemetery, Nick and Meg smoke a joint in Nick’s Porsche. Sam, Michael and Chloe drive together. The actor Sam is upset about an article that journalist Michael wrote about him, while Chloe appears desirable but weird (when journalist Michael says that he does much of his work in a limo, she asks if he is a chauffeur; and she has clearly never heard of Sam, a famous actor). We also view the tension between Karen and her critical husband Richard, and we sense Karen’s frustration.

The Big Chill deals with the experiences of this group of friends. The baby boomers are 15 years out of college and are coming to grips with the trajectory of their lives, in the light of their friend’s suicide. At the same time, they are negotiating their passage from the heady idealism of their college days to the daily routine of middle age.

One of my friends said that a good question for a 25th college reunion should be “How are you doing on Plan B?” That is, for many people their subsequent life and career bears little resemblance to their expectations in college. This would be painfully clear to students from the 60s, when many envisioned themselves making significant contributions to progressive societal change.

Commenting on the movie, actress Mary Kay Place said
“When you’re in college, you think you can do anything, be anything, accomplish anything…Then suddenly you reach a point where you’re settled into what you’re going to be and once you realize it, everything stops. Then the questions begin.”

In this group, while Harold has become a successful businessman and Sam a world-famous actor, Alex has committed suicide, Nick is dealing with serious addiction issues, Meg is desperate to have a baby, and Karen is seriously considering leaving her unsupportive husband.  Meanwhile, Harold and Sarah are dealing with the fact that at one time, Sarah had a brief affair with Alex.

I thought The Big Chill was a brilliant movie. Lawrence Kasdan assembled an all-star cast and provided them with incisive dialogue that revealed each character’s issues. The story was enhanced by a wonderful set of 60s songs, chosen by Kasdan’s wife Meg.

These are not only great tunes, but the movie makes it clear that the songs have a deep meaning for these college friends. In addition to the Rolling Stones tune, Meg Kasdan included songs by The Temptations, Creedence Clearwater Revival, Marvin Gaye, The Beach Boys, and the Steve Miller Band.

The Big Chill won the People’s Choice Award at the Toronto International Film Festival and the “best comedy” award from the Writers Guild of America. It was also nominated for three Academy Awards and two Golden Globe Awards, and received much critical acclaim.

Alas, it appears that the appeal of The Big Chill has not continued to the present. Younger viewers seem less able to identify with the emotions experienced by the characters in this film. At present The Big Chill has only a 66% rating on Rotten Tomatoes.

Nevertheless, our opinion is that The Big Chill is an exceptional ensemble picture, and one that most successfully incorporates iconic 60s music into a film.

Al Kooper and You Can’t Always Get What You Want:

Al Kooper was born Alan Kuperschmidt in Brooklyn in 1944. He started off in music at quite an early age. At 14 he was a guitarist in the group Royal Teens, who had one big hit, the 1958 novelty song Short Shorts. Then at age 16, he began writing songs for Sea-Lark Publishing.

Below is a photo of a young Al Kooper playing guitar.

Embed from Getty Images

At age 21, Kooper moved to Greenwich Village where he joined the music scene. His first major break was playing guitar and organ when Bob Dylan went electric. Kooper was a member of the backing group when Dylan first appeared with an electric band at the 1965 Newport Folk Festival. And he played organ on the great Dylan classic Like A Rolling Stone.

In 1967, Kooper formed the group Blood, Sweat and Tears. This was an ensemble inspired by the jazz band Maynard Ferguson Orchestra, a group that featured a blazing horn section. Kooper’s idea was to re-create this idea with a rock-jazz fusion band.

Blood, Sweat and Tears began to attain commercial success. However, creative differences soon surfaced within BS&T. Several band members felt that the group needed a new lead vocalist, and suggested that Kooper (the original lead vocal) move strictly to keyboards and composing. Kooper resisted this and soon left the band.

Unfortunately for Kooper, after BS&T recruited a new vocalist, David Clayton-Thomas, they became a supergroup. The band produced several hit singles and inspired other similar groups such as Chicago.

During that period, Kooper also performed on over 100 recording sessions for a series of artists including The Who, Jimi Hendrix, B. B. King and Cream. By all accounts he was a fabulous session player and was able to play several instruments.

Here is Al Kooper in a live performance of You Can’t Always Get What You Want and Season of The Witch. This took place at the Regatta Bar in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

I know that Kooper appeared at the Regatta Bar in 2012, where he celebrated his 68th birthday. This could be a clip from that concert. I have to say it is a rather disappointing performance.

This is particularly sad, because Al Kooper was one of the performers on the original Stones recording of You Can’t Always Get What You Want. He can be heard on the organ (a rather significant instrumental part), and also piano and French horn.

But here, I am afraid that the performance is lackluster. Kooper’s contributions on organ are impressive, but his vocals leave much to be desired, and he does not seem that energized. The audience sings the chorus (but not particularly well), and the song ends with a thud.

In 1972 Kooper moved to Atlanta, where he discovered the group Lynyrd Skynyrd and produced their first three albums. Later, Kooper wrote an autobiography of his life in the music business titled Backstage Passes and Backstabbing Bastards: Memoirs of a Rock and Roll Survivor.

In his role as a writer, Kooper was a member and musical director of the group Rock Bottom Remainders, a band that included fellow writers Steven King, Dave Barry, Amy Tan and Matt Groening.

For a number of years, Al Kooper was on the faculty of the Berklee College of Music, where he taught songwriting and recording production. Kooper continues to perform today with his groups the ReKooperators and the Funky Faculty.

We wish this rock ‘n roll survivor all the best.

Source Material:

Wikipedia, You Can’t Always Get What You Want
Wikipedia, The Rolling Stones
Wikipedia, The Big Chill
Turner Classic Movies, The Big Chill
Wikipedia, Al Kooper

About Tim Londergan

Tim Londergan is professor emeritus of theoretical physics at Indiana University-Bloomington. He studies the properties of the quarks and gluons that form the internal structure of protons and neutrons. He also writes a blog "Tim's Cover Story" that compares covers of important songs in rock music history. From 2002 to 2018, he and his wife shared their college-town experiences with two delightful cats, siblings Lewis and Clark, who enormously enriched their lives. Together with his colleague Steven Vigdor, Tim is co-author of a blog "Debunking Denial," that discusses the difference between skepticism and denial as manifested in various current issues. He is also co-founder of "Concerned Scientists of Indiana University," a group that supports evidence-based science, funding for science research, and policies based on the best available scientific information. His hobbies include tennis and ornithology, and he is a life-long fan of the St. Louis Cardinals baseball team.
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1 Response to You Can’t Always Get What You Want: The Rolling Stones; the film The Big Chill; Al Kooper

  1. Taylor Gibson says:

    Saw the Stones perform this in Toronto and a local performing arts high school provided the choir. Had 2 $750 floor seats which i scooped one night prior for $250 each. Sometimes you do get what you want.


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