Inside a Rock Classic

Trevor Weston unpacks the Rolling Stones’ hit “You Can’t Always Get What You Want.”

Courtesy Wikipedia Commons.

By Christopher Hann

[Editor's Note: In his Fall 2011 Drew Magazine column, President Robert Weisbuch teases readers with a brief mention of a fascinating conversation he and Associate Professor of Music Trevor Weston had about the richness of the musical traditions in the Stones’ song “You Can't Always Get What You Want.” We made a beeline to Weston for details.]

When Trevor Weston hears the Stones perform “You Can’t Always Get What You Want,” he hears more than a 1960s pop anthem. He hears a gumbo of musical tastes, beginning with the opening harmonies, sung in the English choir tradition that Weston knows so well.

“There are so many different musical traditions represented in the song,” says Weston, an associate professor of music at Drew. “Maybe it’s an example of the zeitgeist of the time. People were just interested in mixing different things.”

The opening verse is sung a cappella, in an impossibly high pitch, by the London Bach Choir, which brings Weston, who grew up in Plainfield, N.J., back to his days as a choirboy at St. Thomas Choir School in New York City. As the choir recedes, a guitar strums, backed by a mournful French horn—an instrument, Weston notes, more commonly associated with classical music. And when Mick Jagger concludes the iconic refrain (“But if you try sometime you might find/You get what you need”), maracas shake and conga drums beat, recalling the traditional sounds, Weston says, of Latin America and Cuba.

“Then eventually you hear what sounds like gospel music,” he says. “This is important, because in the ’60s American pop music changed because of the work of Ray Charles and Aretha Franklin, where popular artists were using music more from the gospel tradition.”

At the song’s close, the choir singers return, their voices rising higher and higher, this time backed by all manner of instrumental accompaniment, from maracas to electric organ to Keith Richards’ guitar. For the Rolling Stones, Weston says, a British band inspired by American musicians such as bluesman Muddy Waters and the rock ’n’ roll avatar Chuck Berry, the result is the sound that Jagger and company were always aiming for.

“The overall sentiment is the blues,” Weston says. “The Stones were always connected to the blues—you can hear that in this piece. But what is striking to me is the refrain—‘You can’t always get what you want/But if you try sometimes you just might find/You get what you need.’ The blues deals with fixing a problem in the immediate.

“Since I teach a course in African-American music, I’m really interested in pinpointing aspects of the African-American musical tradition in pieces that we don’t necessarily always associate with the tradition. This one always jumps out at me just because of my background as a choirboy in the English tradition. Maybe that’s why I’m so enamored with the song, because it represents me as a musician.”

Read how Trevor Weston rescued a 1930s piano concerto nearly lost to history.

One Response to “Inside a Rock Classic”

  1. deirdre curran says:

    For the past 40 years, I was 13 when Sticky Fingers came out, I have gotten so many things out of the Stones. I like to say that album taught me how to dance (Brown Sugar, etc) and I’m a white chick. Like Jagger I like the musical elements that are well explained in Keith’s autobiography. It was fun to see this posted on my son’s college website. But since he’s a guy, a freshman, I’ll resist a mama’s temptation to email it to him. He is starting to see why his mom’s favorite band of all times is the Rolling Stones. I still dream of having enough money for Mick and the boys to play my slightly belated 50th birthday bash. I doubt one of them could be reading this, but in case the idea of playing for a 53 year old creeps them out…. I am always taken for a woman in her late 30′s. We would bring down the block blasting Brown Sugar in my big white tent. Even though my husband and I are well paid docs, I doubt we will ever make enough to host such musical geniuses. But then you can’t always get what you want…………

Leave a Reply