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Tuesday, January 06, 2004

REACTION FACTION ACTION 

Aaron Haspel's God of the Machine has been one of my favorite hangouts for a while, and he's had a number of first-rate offerings lately (though he appears to disagree). But he was only half right when, in briefly commenting on what other bloggers had been saying on the topic of great cover songs, he weighed in on "(I Can't Get No) Satisfaction." It's true that the Rolling Stones' version isn't the best one, but neither is Devo's. They're the first runner-up. The winner--and I can't believe nobody got this one right! It's so easy!--is Otis Redding.

"Satisfaction" is all about frustration, and (as Aaron noted) the Stones just don't do frustration very well. I doubt whether Sir Mick has endured a single unfulfilled desire since roughly 1963, and Keith gives his almost moronically simple riff such a languid and leering performance that you wonder at several points if he's going to make it all the way through. They don't sound like they can't get what they want. They sound like they can't be bothered to try. (A few years later they found that if they tried sometime they'd get what they needed, but that's beside the point.)

Otis, on the other hand, doesn't just sound frustrated. He sounds pissed off. Otis was a genius at melding toughness and vulnerability, but his "Satisfaction" is unalloyed aggression. The band is with him all the way, too. In the incomparable hands of Steve Cropper, the riff flips open and glints like a switchblade. When he's not playing the riff, Cropper smacks out clipped chords, beat by beat, and the horns, drums, and bass follow suit. It's a minimalist version, spare, taut, and lean--all muscle and no fat, in the typical Stax/MGs fashion. What makes this version truly great, however, is the way Otis explodes at the end. He has spent the first two minutes straining against the lyrics, trying to shake them off and just get into the groove of the thing, and in the final verse he succeeds. He starts free-associating on snippets of stock soul phrases. The effect should be banal; instead it's invigorating. It's as if he's punching you out with his voice.

Devo's "Satisfaction" ably mines another vein of frustration, namely anxiety. It's all twitchy clankiness, and it's brilliant in its way, especially the "baby" times 34 (if I've counted right). But Otis nailed this song so thoroughly that he can't be topped. My last bit of evidence, from Peter Guralnick's book Sweet Soul Music:
One time Cropper played him the Rolling Stones' record of "Satisfaction"; Otis didn't know the group, and he didn't know the song, but he wanted to record it, so he did a new version, and when his "Satisfaction" came out in 1966, it was so convincingly his own many people thought that the Rolling Stones had gotten the song from him. His music had its own structure, defined by the beat, transformed by the sense that Otis was zeroing in on something with the full force of his personality, set off by the lean muscularity of the Stax sound.
By the way, you can actually vote on this issue. (I'm generally opposed to voting, of course, but vital matters invite desperate measures.)

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