The Rolling Stones, “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction” – Devo vs Cat Power
My image of The Rolling Stones was formed by a comment I read comparing their appearance on “The Ed Sullivan Show” to The Beatles’ edition. This came at a point where I still loved the boys from Liverpool while the Stones were barely on my radar. The writer said that while the Beatles wanted to hold your hand, the Stones had something more adult in mind. This was a reference to “Let’s Spend the Night Together” – infamously rewritten to “let’s spend some time together” for the show – but the idea of a bunch of sex-hungry wild boys stuck in my head. Why I didn’t immediately beg my mother for money to buy their records is beyond my present-day comprehension.
I don’t know when I first heard “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction“, but it sure feels like it’s always been a part of my listening experience. It is one of those songs that everyone seems to know the chorus to without actually having paid all that much attention to the verses. Count me among those until recently, although I did recognize that there was a lot more happening there than the title would suggest. It is, of course, about sexual frustration, but it is also about being frustrated with the world in general and its commercialism specifically. It’s also about fitting in, about wearing the right clothes and smoking the right cigarettes. It is both cynical and idealistic in that way that only the very young would even dare to try and pull off. And, yes, Mick, Keith and company were once very, very young. That is sometimes forgotten since they’ve been in our lives in one form or another for over 55 years.
It, of course, opens with that all-time Top 5 riff from Keith. Mick slides in, loose and carefree at first, calm on the I-can’t-get-no’s, then getting amped up. A lot of shit is bothering Mick, and he needs to tell us about it. As the verses roll along, he becomes more impassioned, but he never completely loses his cool, pulling back just in time. It’s like when Zuko and Kenickie get caught up in the moment and hug in “Grease”, then quickly act like they didn’t just show some genuine human emotion. And throughout it all, Keith and company roll along, the comb sliding through the greased-back hair of life (I’m stretching this metaphor to its absolute limits, I know).
Picking the contenders gave me a wealth of options. Should I pit the Queen of Soul Aretha Franklin against a fellow R&B master in Otis Redding, or, for the greatest mismatch since the 1992 U.S. basketball Dream Team decimated Angola, have her take on Page-3-girl-turned-pop-star Samantha Fox? What about Fox against fellow dance pop hottie Britney Spears? Or maybe borderline paedophile Jerry Lee Lewis matching up with mid-60s celebrity sons trio Dino (Martin), Desi (Arnez) and Billy (okay, they didn’t all have famous parents)? In the end, because I prefer covers that put a unique spin on the original, I went with quirk versus cool.
For the former we have Devo, an all-time quirk great. Their take on the song is a sort of robotic funk. If you have ever wondered (and let’s be honest here, we know you have), what a horny robot would sound like, well, I give you Devo. The vocal is something of a monotone, and at first it seemed to me that he never really gets worked up, because that is just how shit goes. Then I realized he is always worked up, with that slight rise on “satisfaction” suggesting it’s a bit of a fight to keep things together. The song has a rhythm that keeps you off balance, and the monotony of his voice and the song’s tone gradually wear you down. In the end, no one really feels satisfied.
Satisfaction seems besides the point in Cat Power’s dreamy guitar-only acoustic take: she doesn’t sing the chorus, so the key word never passes her lips. It’s a sultry and world weary take on the song, slowed down and sluggish, played late in a sweaty bar as last call approaches. You are forced to pay attention to those oft-overlooked verses, and, as if to hammer home the point, the last verse is sung twice, slightly modified, and then ends in the middle. There is no catharsis, and the song just drifts off.
The Winner: Cat Power
The Devo version is fun, but Power’s take has more of a pull than even the original, because you never get that jolt from the chorus. There is no satisfaction, but it’s pretty clear Devo isn’t satisfied either. Devo’s reads as resignation, while Power’s is a more adult acceptance, and maybe more about someone who has control over the situation, as well as a clearer understanding of why things are the way they are, and thus maybe a better chance of fixing them. More importantly, of course, is that I think her piano bar version opens the song up, shows new tones and levels, while Devo’s, while an absolute reinvention, doesn’t really tell you anything new about the song, only about the performer. That Power somehow does both puts her in the winner’s circle this time around.