It’s one of those well-known, quirky facts that Delia Smith baked the gateau on the front of the Rolling Stones’ album Let it Bleed. Much as I love Delia, I’ve always hated that gaudy sleeve, with its glace cherries and pink icing. It’s like the cake in ‘Macarthur Park’, the one that someone left out in the rain. Maybe it’s meant to be ironic; the songs on Let it Bleed are about the darkest and profoundest the Stones ever recorded, and have little to do with bake sales. Unless it’s a nod to the wedding in ‘You can’t always get what you want’. I don’t think so, though. I think it’s deliberately awful, like most Stones album covers. All those Mick Jaggers in wigs on Some Girls – nightmarish. The graffitied toilet on Beggars Banquet – the model putrid loo of every dive venue you’ve ever gigged at. Worst of all are those nasty leather trousers on the front of Sticky Fingers. Yuck. As if anyone would want to pull down that infamous zip. Great tunes, guys, and congratulations on this year’s fiftieth anniversary, but you really are the ugliest band in pop history.
Now, Stones covers, on the other hand, are often rather ace. There’s a long history of fruity and zany takes on the Jagger-Richards canon. Being a huge teenage Bowie fan, I was disappointed to discover that the original ‘Let’s spend the night together’ was so mimsy and midtempo; the Aladdin Sane treatment, built around the mother of all piano tantrums and a hyperventilating Ziggy, prefigures Bowie’s subsequent Hollywood psychoses and remains the best non-original track he ever recorded. The Mo-dettes’ post-punk ‘Paint it black’ is another all round good thing, swapping the melodrama of the original for gleefully off-colour harmonies and ticklish bass; bright Dulux spatters instead of portentous brow-furrowing. But the wonkiest of all, and the cleverest of all, has to be a 1977 rendition of ‘Satisfaction’ from a load of high-school geeks with flowerpots on their heads.
‘Satisfaction’ is one of the original mythical outlaw songs of youth culture: a pillar, a monolith, a UNESCO world heritage site of rock ‘n’ roll. So ubiquitous, so emblematic is it, that it’s hard to reassess what makes it revolutionary. It undoubtedly marks a key cultural moment. Chuck Berry’s carefree road trips take an abrupt turn into Europe, and in the old, dark continent, having no particular place to go is seldom a liberation; it’s more like a burdensome angst you carry from one drizzly, ruined cityscape to another. All the base elements are there – cars, girls, cigarettes – but there’s no syncopation, no funky looseness, no air anywhere. The Stones’ ‘Satisfaction’ was designed for uptight white British men to dance to. Warping the Funk Brothers’ crashing Motown rhythm section, Charlie Watts’ rigid four-four tattoo instead spawned a legion of laddish terrace singalongs: the cock-waving karaoke of Primal Scream’s ‘Rocks’, the Carlsberg and ketamine hubris of The Stone Roses’ ‘I am the resurrection’. Pale imitations all, though uncannily on the button; when the wind’s in the right direction, that particular British arrogance that leads to a sort of triumphant failure can be thrilling for some, and the ‘I try, and I try, and I try’ of ‘Satisfaction’ makes effort sound so effortlessly sexy. Still, it’s a song that doesn’t recognise borders. Otis Redding’s early cover is a fantastic take. Just as Aretha redefined Otis’s own ‘Respect’ as a feminist rally, so does he translate ‘Satisfaction’ into a razor-sharp comment on African-American frustration and belatedness. The anarchic mid-seventies Residents version, on the other hand, makes a big meta-noise of it; only a power cut would bring satisfaction there. But for me, Devo’s reworking is a triumph of antiheroic nerdism, and a fantastic justification (as if any were needed) for the year-zero, deconstructivist stratagems of post-punk.
Devo’s reputation is a rather curious thing. In Britain, they registered early, but then only slightly. Their first album, the absurdist cult classic Q: Are We Not Men? A: We Are Devo sold well, and ‘Satisfaction’, as the lead-off single, just stalled outside the Top 40. In the USA, on the other hand, they attracted quite a following, and became an early MTV presence. Nevertheless, people didn’t really know what to do with them. They were a mutant pop act from a parallel universe, aliens who accidentally landed in America and found her cultural baggage and customs strange and ripe for rip-off. And America didn’t always approve. They were accused of being cold and calculated. They were fey and faggy, or else, fascist. No doubt this had something to do with their love of synthesizers, or their associations with Brian Eno (not to mention their sometime scout shirts and plastic Kennedy wigs combo). But if they were a kind of Ohioan Kraftwerk, their satire was way more gleeful than any deadpanned ode to motorways and pocket calculators. They were electro-pop as designed by Looney Tunes, blowing up an ACME bomb in the face of primetime network television. Meep meep! It’s Devo!
And who were the Wile Coyotes Devo sought to outwit? Carters. Reagans. Televangelists. Cowboys. Hipsters. Right-wingers, left-wingers, it was all fair game. The early highlight ‘Mongoloid’ looks awful on the track-listing, a hangover from a pre-PC age, and yet as soon as you play it you realise it’s a critique of bigotry. Still, the crunchy guitars and police-siren keyboards flirt with danger, so you never know; Devo’s songs are often double-messaged. Perhaps their most recognisable number (and certainly their most infamous video), ‘Whip it’, lashed through the mythology of the ranch and scored a blow against American machismo just as Ronnie made his way to the White House. It even deconstructed the riff from Roy Orbison’s ‘Pretty Woman’ (devo-lved it, as they would have it). Their cover of Lee Dorsey’s ‘Working in a coalmine’ is also vicious underneath the goofy surface. Miners here are all but dehumanised machines working to the metronome, and certainly no sentimentalised proletariat, that’s for sure; the dignity of labour is dead. These mid-period Devo anti-classics would be rather chilly were it not for their love of beefed-up Moogs and souped-up Korgs. Listen to ‘Jerkin’ back and forth’ and marvel at how big it sounds. I’ve been waiting for it to come on at clubs and get-togethers for years so I can flail around to its ludicrous largeness; looks like I’ll have to programme it into my party list, because no-one I know seems to have ever heard it. Shame really. Devo’s most consistent target for spoofery was always pop itself, as testified by that other tribal chant, ‘Through being cool’: ‘Eliminate the minis and the twist’, they order, taking a swipe at the iconography of the sixties and their own newfound cult celebrity in one fell blip-bloop.
Of course, they’d already done this on ‘Satisfaction’, which manages to deconstruct the Stones original to extraordinary levels while still sounding (just about) like pop. In an age of radical reinterpretations (The Slits skanking Marvin Gaye, the Flying Lizards doing ‘Money’ with teaspoons and rolling pins), it gets the gold medal for fearlessness, taking perhaps the most iconic rawk behemoth and, well, jerking it back and forth. As I mentioned earlier, the Stones’ original gains its libido not just from restlessness, but relentlessness. Devo turn this inside out. The rhythm section hits on a groove so single-minded, so tunnel-visioned, that it’s almost impossible for the guitars and the vocals to keep time with it. They slide on and off course, batted away by crisp hi-hats and toms that seem to be running at a completely different time signature, such that words carry odd emphases: backing vox get trapped into ‘sat-TIS-faction’, while Mark Mothersbaugh wonders how white his shirts ‘COULD’ be. Jagger’s lyrics begin to sound by turns surreal, by others inane, never more so than when the word ‘baby’ is repeated over twenty times in a rapid-fire spasm; the repetitions of rock cliché are condensed and intensified, and Devo’s ‘Satisfaction’ becomes a stuck record satirising all the other stuck records of rock history, a history barely twenty years old at the time of recording. Perhaps there’s a ‘baby’ for every one of those years, rock lock-jammed and gibbering, caught in a spiral of diminishing returns. The very fact that Devo are covering this song is symptomatic of this decline, this de-evolution.
But then it isn’t anything of the sort, is it? Because this ‘Satisfaction’ doesn’t sound like any other. It’s newly minted, diamond-hard and still feels radical to this day, fresh every time you hear it. Yes, it’s postmodern; yes, it’s ironic; yes, it takes the piss. But it can do all these things and still love what it’s doing. It enjoys fiddling with the beat and fucking with the legend. Mark’s yelps aren’t paranoid tics. They speak of a man who rather enjoys being goosed, rather likes being surprised by the tickling stick. And that’s what Devo did for moribund American rock; they reached out from the undergrowth and pinched its bum when it wasn’t looking. Their ‘Satisfaction’ is the sound of five grown men who should know better plunging their faces into that lurid Let it bleed gateau and licking the cream off each other’s noses. Just thank God they never got round to spoofing Delia Smith.