In 2005, Rolling Stone magazine ran a story on the “500 Greatest Songs of All Time.” The songs were voted on by journalists, musicians, and others in the music business. There is a lot that could be said about the results, and most of it can be said by focusing upon the song that came in at number two – “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction” by the British band coincidentally also called the Rolling Stones.
To get straight to the point, the suggestion that “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction” is the second best song of all time is one of the most absurd things ever printed. A more implausible suggestion would be hard to find. If there is one thing we can be sure of in this uncertain world, it is that ‘Satisfaction,’ (as I will now call it), is not the second best song of all time. There are a few simple reasons for this, and the more interesting question is why anyone would make such an absurd claim in the first place.
You might protest that it’s pointless discussing such polls because they’re only a matter of opinion and ‘art is subjective.’ Yet even if art is subjective, that’s no reason for common sense to go out the window. The fact is that Rolling Stone magazine set up what claims to be an evaluation of the best songs of all time. The results are based on opinion. While an opinion is not the same thing as a fact, it has substance enough that we can judge whether it is closer to wisdom or lunacy.
‘Satisfaction’ by the Rolling Stones is not the second best song of all time. One way we can be sure of this is by realizing that ‘Satisfaction’ is not even the second best – or the best – song by the Rolling Stones themselves. If ‘Satisfaction’ is not the best or second best song by the Rolling Stones, then it is hard to see how it could also be the second best song out of all the songs ever written by anyone. Pick up any Stones ‘best of’ album, and it will probably contain ‘Satisfaction,’ but it will also have half a dozen songs which are better. There is another Stones song, relatively obscure, and that is ‘Time Waits For No One’ which is better than any other song they have done. More of that later. For now, the point is that it is logically impossible for ‘Satisfaction’ to not be one of the best songs by the Rolling Stones, and at the same time also magically be the second best song of all time out of all the songs in the world, including those by every other band in the history of music.
To illustrate this simple logical point with another example, cricket fans will remember that a few years ago the brothers Steve and Mark Waugh were both playing for Australia. For a while, Steve was rated as the best batsman in the world, although some of Mark’s fans did not agree. Indeed, Steve was once sledged on field with, ‘Best batsman in the world? You’re not even the best batsman in your own family.’ Yet if Rolling Stone had been a cricket magazine, it would probably have said that while Mark was actually a better batsman than Steve, Steve was indeed the best batsman in the world.
Getting back to music, there have also been polls in which the best heavy metal song of all time has been proclaimed to be ‘Paranoid’ by Black Sabbath. But it is hard to see how this could be true because ‘Paranoid’ is not the best song by Black Sabbath. It is not even the best song on the album of the same name on which it appears. At the very least, ‘War Pigs,’ ‘Iron Man,’ and ‘Fairies Wear Boots’ are all better songs on that particular record. So, if ‘Paranoid’ is not the best song on its own album, and it is not the best song by Black Sabbath, then it’s hard to see how it is simultaneously also the best heavy metal song of all time by anyone.
While the value of songs may be a matter of opinion, we can still use various criteria to analyze them in a meaningful way. In thinking about the greatness of a rock song, we can consider several aspects of what it is that make up a rock song: the guitar riffs and chord structure; the lyrics, title, and meaning; the musical and vocal performance; the arrangement; the production quality; the structure; the beat or groove; and the instrumental solos.
Let’s see how ‘Satisfaction’ goes in these areas – although it’s really quite unfair that it should be put to such a stringent test in the first place. In truth, it’s a good but unremarkable song and does not deserve to face such close scrutiny. But if Rolling Stone magazine is going to call it the second best song of all time, then bad luck for the song. Really, this critique is not directed at the song itself, but at the magazine.
We’ll begin where many truly great songs do begin and that’s with the riff. For those who don’t know, the guitar riff is the part of a song which most identifies that song. Think of the guitar riff from ‘Smoke on the Water,’ for example.
We’ve all heard the guitar riff from ‘Satisfaction.’ It’s a somewhat infantile, three note melody that begins on B, rises audaciously to C#, ascends to the summit of D, then returns from whence it came. Da da, da da da, da da da da. B B, B C# D, D D C# C#. It’s not a bad riff and is quite catchy. It’s very simple, as I know from experience, because it is one of the first riffs that I teach to young kids learning the guitar at school. It is so simple to play that a six year old child who has never touched a guitar before can play it within five minutes. That’s how simple it is.
Not that there’s anything wrong with that. Simplicity can be profound. AC/DC’s ‘Highway to Hell’ is one of the greatest songs ever recorded, and that is a very simple song. But the riff from ‘Satisfaction’ is not in that league. Reportedly, Keith Richard wasn’t even sure it was worth recording when he came up with it.
In the context of the song itself, the riff works well, interacting as it does with Mick Jagger’s shouted chorus. But as a musical entity in itself, the riff is quite unremarkable. There are hundreds, indeed thousands, of guitar riffs which are better and more interesting than the riff from ‘Satisfaction.’ So, if that song has any claim to be the second best song of all time, it is not on the strength of the riff.
As for the chord structure itself, the song is in the key of E, and all the chords are either E, A, or B. It’s your original ‘three chord song.’ In theoretical terms, these are the I-IV-V chords in the key of E. There are many fine songs based on the I-IV-V chords. It is perhaps the most commonly used chord sequence in all of popular music, and with blues, it forms the basis for an entire genre. But if we’re talking about great songs, surely we can find something less obvious and a hell of a lot more groundbreaking than the old I-IV-V.
Having ruled out the guitar riff and the chord structure as grounds for greatness, how about the lyrics, title, and meaning? Song titles can be rather beautiful. A song title can have a certain monolithic quality. Again, ‘Highway to Hell,’ is a good example. A strong title announces a song, much as a great guitar riff does. In that case, ‘Satisfaction’ would actually be quite a strong title. But for reasons best known to himself, Mick Jagger decided to erode its strength by placing the words ‘I Can’t Get No’ in brackets before it. As in ‘(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction.’ The reason for this remains a mystery. The title ‘Satisfaction’ on its own would have been adequately ironic, given that Jagger is singing about frustration. Did the record company fear a class action law suit from literal minded listeners over false advertising. You can just imagine the outraged consumers of 1963 wanting their sixpences back when they found out the song was about frustration rather than satisfaction.
Apart from this, it’s hard to see how the title benefits from the three words in brackets. It’s not even correct. It should be I Can’t Get Any Satisfaction, if you’re going to split hairs. But Jagger’s put-on street talk was standard pop fare for the day. As for the rest of the song’s lyrics, they’re ok, but no Shakespeare by any stretch. But, why bother with the brackets in the title? Either call the song ‘Satisfaction’ or ‘I Can’t Get No Satisfaction.’ Make up your mind! I mean, how would the following titles sound to you: ‘Highway (To Hell),’ ‘(Smoke On the) Water?
As for whether the song has any profound meaning, this is one of its few claims to quality. Jagger rages against the emptiness of consumerism and the loneliness of his rock star life, and it is here that you can glean some kind of emotional substance. For what it is, in its own context, the song’s lyrics express that well. But if the lyrics are angry and despairing, where is the anger and despair in the music? There is none. It’s a three chord pop song in a major key. If you want to hear despair, the song is utterly dwarfed, for example, by ‘Buried Dreams’ from Carcass, and for anger, by the entire “Lights, Camera, Revolution” album from Suicidal Tendencies. These comparisons are of course unfair, because ‘Satisfaction’ is quite fine in its own small context as a 1960s three chord pop song. It is only when ‘reputable’ music journals publish wild claims about it that there is a protest.
As mentioned, simplicity can be profound. On AC/DC’s ‘Highway to Hell,’ within the space of two verses and a chorus, Bon Scott releases an almighty, blood curdling howl from his very soul. The song is a triumphant, unapologetic acceptance of early death via hedonism. Bon Scott summed up his whole life in that song. He was dead within a year of its release, but the song remains an immortal monument to his short, powerful life. While ‘Satisfaction’ is also a simple song, it is not especially profound. When you strip it down, it’s just Jagger having a whinge about the crappy ads on tv and the autographs he has to sign for fans after driving around in his big car.
So far, you could not possibly make a case for the greatness of ‘Satisfaction’ on the basis of guitar riff, chords, lyrics, title, or meaning. As for the other criteria, they can be quickly dealt with. We can forget guitar solos, because the song doesn’t have one. The musical and vocal performances can be described as adequate, as can the production. There’s nothing wrong with them, but also nothing extraordinary. They are just adequate.
Having looked at the criteria by which a great song might be judged and come up empty, it is hard to see on what grounds a case could be made that ‘Satisfaction’ is the second best song of all time. The absurdity of the idea is shown when you place ‘Satisfaction’ up against another, vastly superior, Stones song, ‘Time Waits For No One, which came out in 1973, ten years after ‘Satisfaction.’ The irony is that this song, almost unknown, has everything that ‘Satisfaction’ lacks. It has a good and unusual riff, more interesting chords, excellent poetic lyrics from Jagger, profound emotion and meaning about the passing of time, great vocal and musical performances, and even an excellent guitar solo. It is without doubt a great song, and if Rolling Stone magazine had said that it was the second best song of all time, the idea would have had a hint of credibility. Yet the song was nowhere listed among their so called ‘500 greatest songs of all time,’ while ‘Satisfaction’ somehow came in at number two. This is simply insane. If you don’t believe me, go and listen to the two songs side by side and decide for yourself.
So, what does it matter – why get worked up about a silly poll on pop music? There are a few reasons. First, if you care about an art form, such as music, and a supposedly reputable music journal runs a story on the 500 best songs of all time, then you hope that they will be somewhere within a light year of getting it right. If they get it so wrong that they end up in an whole other galaxy, then you wonder what they are doing writing about music and how they got their jobs in the first place.
Second, if you love humanity and wish it well, you can get frustrated by the state of the world. While our species is quite brilliant and has achieved marvelous things, there is no denying that our world is a bit of a mess. Over time, it seems more and more likely that we cannot blame God, Nature, or bad luck for the state of the world, it is largely a mess of our own making, and a lot of that is to do with our boundless capacity for getting things wrong.
When Rolling Stone magazine publishes a claim that ‘Satisfaction’ is the second best song of all time, this serves as a small, trivial, but particularly inventive reminder of our species’ unlimited capacity for getting things wrong, and reminds us that similar types of folly will be employed in other, more serious, areas of life.
Third, we are reminded once again of subjectivity’s tyranny over objectivity in the arts world. It is fascinating to read Rolling Stone’s statistical analysis of their own poll results. Among them is a decade by decade breakdown of which songs made the top 500, and – who’d have thought – 346 of the ‘top 500 songs of all time’ come from the sixties and seventies. One might argue that almost 75% of the best rock / pop music of all time was actually produced between 1960 and 1979. But a more likely theory is that it reflects the subjectivity of the judges. For it seems that nearly all the ‘best songs of all time’ were made when the judges were in the prime of their youth.
It seems that most of those who work for Rolling Stone magazine are from the baby boomer generation, that blessed post war group who lived through the golden days of the sixties. Hence the poll results. I really wouldn’t mind as long as the article was called ‘The 500 sentimental song favourites from my vanished and idealized youth,’ because that would be a fair description. But no, the article is called ‘The 500 best songs of all time,’ which is something quite different. Do the baby boomers really believe that they are at the centre of the entire cultural universe of all time and space?
If they do, perhaps we can understand why. In Australia at least, it was their good fortune to live out their youth in the days of free tertiary education, when artistic grants, record deals, and publishing contracts were handed out like sweets at a kids’ birthday party. Many of them entered the cultural establishment then and are there to this day, still imposing their politics, worldview, and artistic tastes upon everyone else. In many cases, the awarding of prizes, scholarships, and contracts is now decided by people who, in a manner of speaking, believe that ‘Satisfaction’ is the second best song of all time.
Although the appreciation of art and culture is indeed a matter of personal taste, it is a pity that subjectivity plays such a big part in the cultural world, and in the arts faculties of universities as well. To act fairly for the benefit of all, every effort should be made to put one’s own subjectivity aside. For example, if you are asked to judge the best 500 songs of all time, you should try to step outside of your own mind and use objective criteria. It is unlikely that nearly all the best songs of all time just happened to be written when you were in your golden youth. They may be your personal favourite songs, but that is very different from being the best songs of all history.
The fact is that there have been very many great songs recorded since 1979! It is true, and it is undeniable. So, if you are a music critic trying to name the best ever songs, you must accept this. Suppose that someone asked me to name the top 100 heavy metal songs of all time, and I said that ‘War Pigs’ by Black Sabbath was in the top ten, that would be a silly thing to say. It was probably true in 1972, but it is not true forty years later in 2012. There have been a lot of great heavy metal songs released since 1972, and much as I love and revere Black Sabbath, many of them are better than ‘War Pigs.’
For the Rolling Stone journalists, however, it seems that very little has happened since the 70s. I have already said that the best song Jagger and Richards ever wrote was ‘Time Waits for No One.’ Yet Jagger could do an update on that song, and he might even use one of his famous bracketed titles. He could call it ‘Time Waits for No One (Except the Baby Boomers)’. You see, for the people who produce Rolling Stone magazine, it will always be 1972. The Vietnam war will have just ended through the power of Bob Dylan’s protest songs; education, arts grants, and love will be free; and ‘Satisfaction’ will always be the second best song of all time.
I actually wrote this piece a couple of years ago. It comes across as a little over-serious at times, but it is actually fun to have a good rant every now and then! Sometimes one can take a stance and exaggerate it for rhetorical effect and to make a couple of points.
My shot at the baby boomer generation is an example. I don’t mean to over-generalize too much. Every generation has its own unique perks and obstacles. I do believe the baby boomers were one of the luckiest in recent history and that they have to some degree over-dominated public life since then. Still, I suppose anyone in their position would do the same.
I do believe that most of these top 100 songs / albums / guitarists polls are wildly inaccurate. This is often due to flawed methods of measurement, but that’s no excuse.
Also … there’s no way ‘Satisfaction’ is in the top 2000 songs of all time, let alone the top two.