Last week was the 40th anniversary of the release of Devo’s debut studio album Q: Are We Not Men? A: We Are Devo! Produced over the fall of 1977 through early 1978 by Brian Eno, the album was initially met with mixed reviews. Famously, Tom Carson of Rolling Stone wrote about the album “there’s not an ounce of feeling anywhere, and the only commitment is the distancing aesthetic of the put-on.” Over the years, the album would eventually receive the acclaim and recognition it deserved and is considered not only Devo’s best album, but one of the greatest albums of all time.
While there are a lot of great tracks from the album, I want to specifically highlight their cover of the Rolling Stones’ “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction” for the purpose of this blog. This oddball cover that abandoned the original’s signature guitar riff and melody represents the right way to approach a cover and served as the gateway for audiences to discover the surrealist and satirical art collective from Akron.
Prior to the release of their debut studio album, Devo released a self-produced version of “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction” on their own label Booji Boy Records. In 1977, a tape of Devo demo songs was sent to David Bowie and Iggy Pop. Both rockers expressed interest in producing Devo’s first album, but it was ultimately Brian Eno that landed the role and the band flew to Cologne to record.
The recording sessions were contentious for both Eno and Devo. Devo were very resistant to Eno’s ideas which led to Eno being frustrated with their unwillingness to deviate from the style of their demos. Very little of the added synths and sound effects were used for the final release.
The album nearly contained completely original material written chiefly by Mark Mothersbaugh and Gerald Casale with additional support from Gary Jackett and Bob Mothersbaugh, but the only exception was “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction”. For whatever purpose they deemed necessary, that song had to make the cut.
Normally, covering songs typically results in the band covering the song to pay royalties to the original performers or writers. Ray Padgett succinctly explains the process of how bands cover songs in the opening chapter of his book Cover Me; The Stories Behind the Greatest Cover Songs of All Time. If the song is a straight cover, then the solution is simple if the band can afford to pay the royalties. Things become more complex if words and music are changed. However, Devo didn’t change too much of the song to not be considered a proper cover (unlike their cover of “Secret Agent Man” which changes the verses to reflect new lyrics). Warner Brothers felt the song was just too odd and they deemed it necessary to receive Mick Jagger’s blessing before including it on the album.
In 1978, Mark and Gerald met with Peter Rudge, the manager of the Rolling Stones, in his Manhattan office. Jagger was present and looked disinterested in the meeting and like he had just woken up. The tape of the song was played and all eyes were on Jagger. For roughly thirty seconds, Jagger sat stone-faced and didn’t seem to be responding to the song. Then, suddenly, he gets up and starts dancing on the rug doing his typical rooster strut.
The story behind their cover is quite fascinating. Mark and Gerald were fans of the Rolling Stones and tinkered with several songs during the early stages of Devo prior to the release of their first album. The band couldn’t quite sync other Rolling Stones songs with their jerky rhythms, but they eventually started working with “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction” and found it to be the song that best fit with what they were trying to accomplish which was not to cover it but, in their words, correct it.
Despite all the work it took to develop the song to meet Devo’s standards, they still had to get through that major hoop of getting Jagger’s approval. Again, cover songs don’t need anyone’s approval as long as you pay the proper royalties and don’t change the words. However, for whatever reason, Warner deemed it necessary to get approval which created the possibility that the song could’ve been refused by Jagger and dropped from the album.
Good thing it didn’t because it became a boon for the band. They performed the song live on Saturday Night Live in 1978 in a performance that would be many people’s first introduction to the band. I have friends who were old enough to see the performance when it ran live. They often describe seeing that performance and knowing that music and their lives would never be the same.
Three years later, MTV would launch the music video would garner new interest in the band due to the increasing visibility with audiences. Being an art collective, they understood the creative potential blending music and visuals to create a unique spectacle that made an impactful statement. It can be considered that their early music videos helped MTV thrive. While their television breakthrough had already happened, they managed to utilize MTV to keep people interested and watching.
The history of the song and the band’s exposure on Saturday Night Live and MTV with their respective gateways to home audiences was important, but it cannot be forgotten that the band made really great music. However, the music was weird by the standards of most people at that time. I have difficulty believing that Devo would’ve connected with the television audience if they played “Jocko Homo” over “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction.” Creating a spin on a well-known hit was, in my opinion, the key to connecting with the audience. Plant the seed with something recognizable, though different, and go from there.
Devo’s version of “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction” does what cover song should do. Cover songs should not be faithful renditions of the original. You must add your own style and flare. An example of a song that is the opposite of what a good cover song should be would be Roxy Music’s cover of John Lennon’s “Jealous Guy.” The song is such a straight carbon copy of the original that Bryan Ferry even included the whistle that Lennon improvised during the recording. As a result, Roxy Music delivers a cover that is boring, unimaginative, and creates no motivation for casual listeners who are not hardcore Roxy Music fans to listen. They can just listen to Lennon’s original.
Think of the truly great cover songs that everyone knows. These would include Jim Hendrix’s version of Bob Dylan’s “All Along the Watchtower,” Aretha Franklin’s version of Otis Redding’s “Respect,” or the Beatles’ version of the Top Notes’ “Twist and Shout.” All those songs add personal creative touches that elevate them. So much so that they no longer belong to the original performer in the popular consciousness. They were taken, improved, and given new life. That isn’t to say that Devo’s version of “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction” is superior to the Rolling Stones’ original. IT is not because the original is a masterpiece on its own, but not every cover has to have the responsibility of elevating the original. All a good cover must do is serve as a reinvention and reflection of the performer covering the song thus giving it new direction and creating something that newer and younger audiences can grasp onto and explore the source material that would otherwise be forgotten.
I’m featuring the original version of “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction” for this blog. Though it was released a year prior to the album version, they sound very similar. Devo had a complete and consistent vision with where they wanted to go with their music and they stuck to their principles. And by doing that, they would eventually get some satisfaction.