The Story Behind Devo’s Iconic Cover of the Rolling Stones’ “Satisfaction”
By Ray Padgett / The New Yorker
One afternoon in 1978, Mark Mothersbaugh and Gerald Casale—the two prime architects of the band Devo—were fidgeting in Peter Rudge’s office, near the Warwick Hotel, in Manhattan, with Mick Jagger. Rudge was the Rolling Stones’ manager, and Devo had recorded an odd cover of the band’s hit “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction”—so odd that their label said they needed Jagger’s blessing to release it. Mothersbaugh put the tape in a boom box and pressed Play. As the sounds of the cover filled the room, Jagger sat stone-faced. What he was hearing didn’t sound much like the “Satisfaction” he’d written. Keith Richards’s iconic riff was gone, and the original melody was nowhere to be found. Was this a homage, Mick must have wondered, or were they mocking him? “He was just looking down at the floor swirling his glass of red wine,” Casale recently remembered, adding, “He didn’t even have shoes on, just socks and some velour pants. I don’t know what his habits were then, but this was early afternoon and it looked like he had just gotten up.”
For thirty seconds or so, the men sat in silence, listening to the weird robo-funk coming from the boom box. Then something changed. “He suddenly stood up and started dancing around on this Afghan rug in front of the fireplace,” Casale said, of Jagger, “the sort of rooster-man dance he used to do, and saying”—he impersonated Jagger’s accent—“‘I like it, I like it.’ Mark and I lit up, big smiles on our faces, like in ‘Wayne’s World’: ‘We’re not worthy!’ To see your icon that you grew up admiring, that you had seen in concert, dancing around like Mick Jagger being Mick Jagger. It was unbelievable.”
“We were less than nothing,” Mothersbaugh said. “We were just these artists that nobody had ever heard of, from Akron, Ohio.”
The description is an exaggeration, but only a small one. After forming, in 1972, Devo had spent the subsequent half decade building up a huge fan base in the Midwest, but had not made a dent beyond. To get gigs, they would lie to clubs and say they were a Top Forty covers band. Once promoters figured out that they were not, they were rarely invited back. One impediment to the band’s wider success was that, as far as Devo was concerned, Devo wasn’t a band at all but, rather, an art project, created to advance Casale’s theory of “de-evolution,” the concept that instead of evolving, society was in fact regressing (“de-evolving”) as humans embraced their baser instincts. Inspired by the Dadaists and the Italian Futurists, Devo’s members were also creating satirical visual art, writing treatises, and filming short videos. The first of those videos included the band’s first-ever cover, of Johnny Rivers’s spy-show hit “Secret Agent Man,” in which the band interspersed their grainy performance with decidedly odd footage of two people in monkey masks spanking a housewife. Devo’s version of that song provided a template for “Satisfaction.” It was a pop hit everyone knew, radically deconstructed. Devo’s secret agent was “more like a janitor than a gigolo,” as Mothersbaugh put it. They released their cover on a nine-minute film called “The Truth About De-Evolution,” which they would screen before gigs.
The band used to rehearse in their practice space outside of Akron, in an abandoned garage behind a car wash. They had no heat and would rehearse wearing winter coats and gloves with the fingers cut off, so that they could play their guitar strings. One January afternoon in 1977, Casale’s brother Bob came up with a guitar line, the robotic seven-note opening that would replace the original “Satisfaction” riff. The drummer Alan Myers joined in with a typically bizarre Devo beat. “It sounded like some kind of mutated devolved reggae,” Casale said, of the rhythm. “I started laughing, and I came up with a bass part that I thought was a conceptual reggae part. We just kept playing it, and Mark just started singing.” The song Mothersbaugh sang wasn’t “Satisfaction” but “Paint It Black.” (Mothersbaugh was a huge Stones fan.) But, as the band futzed around, they couldn’t get the lyrics to match their jerky rhythm. Then, Casale recalled, “Mark started singing ‘(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction’ to our jam, and that did it.”
The band soon realized that “Satisfaction” offered an ideal vehicle to bring their de-evolution philosophy to the masses. They weren’t covering the song, they would say; they were “correcting” it. “I think those are some of the most amazing lyrics that were ever written in rock and roll,” Mothersbaugh said, “dealing with conspicuous consumption and the stupidity of capitalism and sexual frustration all in one song. It pretty much encapsulated what was going on with kids at that time, much more than any of the hippie songs, as far as I was concerned.”
The more Devo played the song, the more it evolved—or devolved. Early videos show a version much slower than it would become—a mid-tempo rumble that wore out its welcome by the end. It was interesting conceptually, and no doubt a fun surprise for concertgoers, but not necessarily something you’d want to listen to repeatedly. “The versions that we were doing of all our songs in the early days were very slow and more bluesy, like Captain Beefheart material,” Mothersbaugh recalled.
“We started off at Akron speed,” Casale joked. “But then, once we went to New York and saw the amazing energy of the Ramones and the Damned, it just put a fire under us.” The quintet started getting some music-industry interest. David Bowie even introduced the group onstage, at one of their 1977 New York shows, calling them “the band of the future.” Their first single, “Mongoloid,” released earlier that same year, had got little buzz; now, the band decided to capitalize on its momentum by recording “Satisfaction” as their second single, releasing it on their own label. Soon after, as labels were bidding over the Ohio eccentrics, the band decamped to Germany, to record their début album with the producer Brian Eno and with Bowie, who wanted to help. Warner Bros. signed the band.
From the start, there was tension during the recording sessions. “They were a terrifying group of people to work with because they were so unable to experiment,” Eno later said. “When they turned up to do this record in Germany, they brought a big chest of recordings they’d already done of these same songs. We’d be sitting there working, and suddenly Mark Mothersbaugh would be in the chest to retrieve some three-year-old tape, put it on, and say, ‘Right, we want the snare drum to sound like that.’ I hate that kind of work.”
“Our goal was to just try and make it as faithful to what we were doing as we could,” Mothersbaugh recalled. “But Brian and David added on extra harmony vocals, and they put in synth parts. When we weren’t in the studio, Eno would go in on his own and record extra parts over the top of our songs. Most always, we took all the stuff out that they did.” In the end, the song basically emerged unchanged from Devo’s prior recording.
It’s a little unclear why Warner, once they learned that Devo wanted to include “Satisfaction” on their début album, demanded that Devo get it approved by Jagger’s people. Cover songs don’t need anyone’s approval: you can cover anything you want as long as you pay the original copyright holder and don’t change the words. Casale thinks Warner may have been worried that their cover was so different that it might have been considered satire—a separate legal entity for which one needs permission. (Devo had run into a similar issue covering “Secret Agent Man,” and ended up using a sneaky runaround to get permission from his Japanese publisher since Rivers himself refused.)
Warner also mentioned in a meeting with Devo that they had a five-thousand-dollar promotional budget. When the band asked what that would go toward, Warner suggested cardboard cutouts of the band for record stores. Mothersbaugh and Casale had a counter-offer: that Warner give them the money to make a music video. At the time, the idea of using video as its own creative medium to promote music was novel. “They thought we were crazy,” Mothersbaugh recalled.
The first thing the band did with that five thousand dollars was get a wardrobe for the video. But they didn't want to look like rock stars—they wanted to look like anything but. “We didn’t want to be lumped in with rock and roll, and we thought the way people dressed in rock and roll was stupid,” Mothersbaugh said. “We were looking for something more interesting and more theatrical and more dramatic. What can we do to let people know we’re not the same?” For the better part of a year, Casale had worked by day designing a sales catalogue for a janitorial-supply company. Often, he would bring home the brochures for inspiration, searching for the ugliest janitorial outfits he could find. It was in one of these catalogues that he found the yellow waste-disposal suits that the band decided to wear in the video. “The yellow suits were great, because they had this look that was totally the opposite of something that hugged your balls or your butt, or showed off your physique in any way,” Mothersbaugh said. “It was kind of the opposite: they hid us.” Devo rented out an Akron theatre to perform the song in, filmed the video on the cheap, and got it ready for its big début.
When MTV launched, in 1981, very few bands had videos ready for the network to play. As a result, Devo’s “Satisfaction” video earned endless rotations. But the band’s big break came when they performed the song on “Saturday Night Live,” wearing the suits and pitch-black sunglasses, and doing the same jerky robo-motions, as in the video. (At the beginning of the performance, you can briefly hear Mothersbaugh play Keith Richards’s original “Satisfaction” riff, before segueing into his own.) A little-known band like Devo would not ordinarily merit consideration on “S.N.L.” but the band’s manager dangled the possibility of a performance by Neil Young, whom he also represented, over the television producers’ heads to persuade them to book Devo.
People at home watching weird comedy on a Saturday night were, as it turned out, exactly Devo’s target demographic. “Overnight, we went from being this little club band to having to rebook our upcoming tour to larger venues,” Casale said. Without “Satisfaction,” Devo might not have had a career. Four decades and many hits later, Mothersbaugh still calls it “the quintessential Devo tune” and says that none of that success would have happened without that meeting with Mick Jagger: “When I walk out in front of a car later today, not paying attention to traffic, and get squashed like a bug, and I’m watching all the good moments of my life zip by, I know that one will appear a couple of times.”
This piece was adapted from “Cover Me: The Stories Behind the Greatest Cover Songs of All Time,” by Ray Padgett, which is out October 3rd from Sterling Publishing.