By the time Devo rubbed their sweaty mitts all over the Rolling Stones’ “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction,” it had already been covered by everyone from soul singer Otis Redding to the singing eyeballs in the Residents. Devo’s take on the song was rigid, mechanical and otherworldly – perhaps less of a plea for sexual attention than an explanation of why five guys in yellow jumpsuits weren’t getting any. It was all the more startling when the group performed the tune – their first single, which was a hit in the U.K. – on Saturday Night Live in October 1978, just a week after the Stones hosted and guested on the show.
Devo were there to promote their debut LP, the Brian Eno-produced Q: Are We Not Men? A: We Are Devo! – a classic record that turns 40 today – and they certainly drew attention to themselves with their bizarre Stones cover. After an introduction by host Fred Willard, drummer Alan Myers kicked into the tune’s jerky rhythm and Bob Casale started playing a guitar line that seemed to invert Keith Richards’, while Mark Mothersbaugh played the more familiar riff before singing Jagger’s lyrics. The rest of the band, all in their yellow biohazard suits and sunglasses, spasmodically jerked their bodies back and forth to the drums all leading up to Mark’s brilliant stuck-stylus recitation of “babybabybabybabybaby” until they stopped short. The applause was staggered, but those who got it cheered loudly.
The band remembered how the cover had came together in their recent book, Devo: Unmasked. It began with a bizarre beat that Myers had come up with during a Devo rehearsal. Mark sang a little “Paint It Black” over the top of it, then Bob suggested doing “Satisfaction.” “‘Satisfaction’ made us laugh,” Mark wrote. “It was kind of the right timing, because it was 10 years after the original.”
They also wrote an account of playing “Satisfaction” for Mick Jagger for the first time. “It’s about 30 seconds in, just starting the first verse after the intro and he gets up and there’s hardwood floor where the rug’s stopped and he started dancing around,” bassist-vocalist Jerry Casale wrote. “Mick Jagger in his stockinged feet is sliding on the floor and he goes, ‘I like it, I like it.’ … We flew back that weekend and went into our manager Elliot Roberts’ office on Monday with the news, and he’s sitting there with no expression on his face. And he says, ‘Yeah, I told Peter to tell Mick two days before you got there to just say he likes it, because it’s going to make him a lot of money.'”
In a recent interview with Rolling Stone, Mark Mothersbaugh said one of the reasons he wanted to do a Rolling Stones cover was because he wanted to give some shine to Jagger. “I feel like Mick Jagger is one of the underrated lyricists of his generation,” he said. “‘Satisfaction’ has some of the best ever lyrics written for rock & roll. There are so many other great things about the Rolling Stones that perhaps people don’t give him enough credit.”
Getting the band on Saturday Night Live was a feat, considering Lorne Michaels’ lack of interest in the Akron, Ohio, band. Their manager promised a Neil Young appearance if the producer would let them on, and eventually he relented. More tension followed, since Devo wanted to use a clip from their The Truth About De-Evolution film against Michaels’ will; the SNL producer ended up showing a 30-second clip before the band performed another Q: Are We Not Men? single, “Jocko Homo.”
That performance found Mark Mothersbaugh playing two keyboards arranged in a 90-degree angle and singing about how they were all a bunch of pinheads and monkey men. By the end of the song, Devo had stripped down to black T-shirts, short-shorts and knee and elbow pads. Video of the performance isn’t readily available on YouTube, but the applause was a little louder this time.
It was enough to change the band’s fortunes at the time. In the book Cover Me, as adapted for The New Yorker, Jerry Casale said, “Overnight, we went from being this little club band to having to rebook our upcoming tour to larger venues.”