Devo’s cover of Satisfaction takes the Satisfaction cake. The Rolling Stones were lying when they said they weren’t getting any, and Otis Redding simply went for an elephantine stomp (which, when you think about it, is a fair way of dealing with not getting any), but Devo truly convince you that they have never been laid, and, the way things are going, never will be. Which, after all, is the idea behind the song.
So, the world-beating riff is missing (which is daring of them), as is anything approaching a beat-pop groove (which, being Devo, is predictable), but, for once, the song makes total sense.
Moral of the story: take away a man’s hopes of sticking his willy somewhere nice, and you can expect jerkiness to follow.
What were the boffins at Motown thinking? The Martha Reeves & the Vandellas two disc remasters set has all her good stuff in one place, true, but which bit of the word “remaster” says “split it to stereo and pan the channels hard to each side”? Martha Reeves’ big-breasted singing is meant to charge out of the speakers in glorious mono, like the Uzbek hordes breaching the walls of Samarkand. Heatwave has been totally neutered here; its poor love-nuts were last seen rolling down the footpath, hard left and hard right respectively. Stereo is for the limp-wristed who can’t handle a punch to the face, and want their guitars tinkling in one ear whilst the drums plod in the other; mono’s the only way to make a great big fuss sound like a great big fuss. And Martha Reeves, for better or for worse, is all about making a great big fuss.
It’s a sin is what it is.
The two best things a song can have are screaming girls on backing vocals, and a brass section. Kai Winding’s recording of Time is on my Side has both, ergo, it is the best song. Irma Thomas did it first, and the Rolling Stones limped through it early in their career, lacking either the balls or the chops to work up a real head of steam, but it’s Winding who really smokes. Being an instrumental, most of the lyrics are missing, which is no great loss: like all good pop songs, the lyrics here are functional – bits of phrasing to keep the song’s eggs on the boil – and he phrases as well with his trombone as normal people do with their throats. The band gets into a nicely filthy grind by the time the bridge comes around, and the girls get positively hysterical; towards the end, their howling and Winding’s horn hit a climax that’s almost religious. There’s very little more a boy could ask of a three minute single.
This is about coming to pieces, about unravelling, about falling apart. I Call Your Name is a little-known Beatles song – if anything the Beatles did can possibly be called “little-known” – which, in the capable hands of the Fab Four, comes out as a rock ‘n’ roll gem on the lines of You Can’t do That. I’m not saying the Mamas & Papas did it better, but they certainly hit a different vein in that particular mine of emotion. When Cass Elliot says she calls your name, she doesn’t mean she’s howling in pain like John Lennon: she’s really going under in her own slow, messed up way, and she hits enough high notes with enough woozy conviction to prove it.
If you’ve been left on your own, and you find yourself losing your mind in the middle of nowhere, then this one ought to make sense. “I can’t sleep at night“, she says, “I can’t go on“, and it sounds exactly as if the hounds of insanity are about to line up outside the gates.
Alex Chilton wasn’t in great shape when he made Sister Lovers: his bandmate, Chris Bell, had left the Big Star operation, and Chilton himself was in what Wikipedia charmingly calls a “declining mental state”. The dishevelled, beautiful Stroke it, Noel sounds like a last stand: a desperate attempt at mustering good cheer up out of total hopelessness, the drunken dance of someone who hears the air-raid siren go off and the whine of the bombers overhead, and knows that the morning will never come.
Chris Bell, meanwhile, wasn’t doing much better. In 1978, shortly before he met his death in a car crash at the shamefully young age of twenty seven, he recorded I am the Cosmos. For all its ringing, churning Abbey Road inspired production, the song doesn’t deliver much by way of drama; like all tragedies, its terror lies in its articulation of the most mundane, everyday fears. You might keep telling yourself everything’s perfect and you’re perfect, but, in your heart of hearts, you know your world is about to fall. Academics will maintain that the song is a typical single in the idiom of late seventies pop-rock, but academics could make the pyramids sound like a pile of rocks.
Going back eighty five years, we have Blind Blake’s You Gonna Quit Me. Nobody has yet figured out who Blind Blake is, what his real name was, where he lived, or when he died. And yet, when he sings “you’re gonna quit me, baby, good as I been to you“, he puts down in writing the mutual suspicion that holds down every relationship, that keeps people huddling together through the long, dark night. Because nobody wants to, as he would have it, be “put out of doors“.
The best music comes out of the worst of nightmares; this is some of the best music ever made.