How the Rolling Stones Created Their First No. 1 Hit
“(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction” is one of rock’s definitive songs, with a simple but snarling riff that serves as the benchmark for everything that's followed. But the Rolling Stones' classic number might never have happened if it hadn’t come to Keith Richards in a dream.
"I woke up in the middle of the night,” the guitarist told Rolling Stone. “There was a cassette recorder next to the bed and an acoustic guitar. The next morning when I woke up, the tape had gone all the way to the end. So I ran it back, and there's like 30 seconds of this riff – 'Da-da da-da-da, I can't get no satisfaction' – and the rest of the tape is me snoring!"
The Stones were in the middle of their third U.S. tour, supporting The Rolling Stones Now!, with their most recent single, “The Last Time,” becoming their second Top 10 hit. They were still relying heavily on R&B covers, but Richards and Mick Jagger, under manager Andrew Loog Oldham’s directions, were applying themselves to songwriting more steadfastly.
On May 6, 1965, Jagger took Richards’ title, which was inspired by Muddy Waters’ “I Can’t Be Satisfied,” and wrote lyrics in 10 minutes while resting near a hotel pool in Clearwater, Fla. He would later tell Rolling Stone that it was “my view of the world, my frustration with everything” – in particular, “simple teenage aggression. It was about America, its advertising syndrome, the constant barrage.”
Listen to the Rolling Stones Perform '(I Can't Get No) Satisfaction'
Four days later in Chicago’s Chess Studios, they tried to recapture the magic of the previous year that resulted in the 5 X 5 EP. But all the session yielded was an acoustic version that was almost country in its style. They tried again on May 12 at RCA Studios in Hollywood and found magic with the help of Richards’ recently acquired Gibson Maestro Fuzz-Tone pedal.
“I was imagining horns, trying to imitate their sound to put on the track later when we recorded,” Richards wrote in his autobiography, Life. “But we didn’t have any horns, and I was only going to lay down a dub. The fuzz tone came in handy so I could give a shape to what the horns were supposed to do. But the fuzz tone had never been heard before anywhere, and that’s the sound that caught everybody’s imagination.”
But it wasn’t just the guitar tone that changed in the new arrangement. Drummer Charlie Watts added a bit more muscle by copping a drum part from the pop charts.
As he told NPR, “I don't know if [Roy Orbison’s] '[Oh] Pretty Woman’ was before this and there's another one that Stevie Wonder did [“Uptight (Everything's Alright),’ which came out in 1966] that had that sort of beat in it. It came about the same time maybe. You know, a lot of pop songs, as you call them, they're based around a rhythm that's become fashionable – you know, disco, something. And that one was a fashionable one at that time.”
Listen to Otis Redding Sing ‘(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction’
Richards may have wanted to overdub horns, but Oldham thought it was perfect as it was. Less than a month later, on June 6, "Satisfaction" was released as a single. It caused no small degree of controversy with its sexually suggestive third verse (and most likely frustrated English teachers in the U.S. and U.K. for the use of a double negative in the title). But teenagers didn’t mind at all. It topped the Billboard Hot 100 chart for four weeks in July and August.
At the very moment “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction” was the Rolling Stones’ first No. 1 single, Otis Redding was in Memphis with Booker T. and the MGs recording his own version for his groundbreaking Otis Blue/Otis Redding Sings Soul album. The horns Richards originally wanted for the riff appeared, and Redding improvised the second verse and ignored the third. Redding’s take on the song hit No. 31 on the Hot 100 and No. 4 on the R&B chart in 1966. The Stones were so taken with his interpretation that, to this day, Jagger sings “I can’t get me no,” as Redding did on the chorus, instead of “I can’t get no.”
While Redding’s cover could be seen as a full realization of Richards’ vision for “Satisfaction,” Devo took a radically different approach in 1977. True to their name (a shortening of “de-evolution”), they deconstructed the tune — stripping it to its barest elements — and put it back together. In the process, they changed it from sneering rock n’ roll to an angular nerd-pop song. Some considered this reinvention of one of rock’s most iconic songs to be everything from irony to blasphemy, but Martin Scorcese, an authority on the Stones, loved it enough to use it to great effect in a pivotal moment in his 1995 movie Casino.
Listen to Devo Sing ‘(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction’
Still, Devo loved the song. Besides, they had the full endorsement from the song's original singer. "I thought it was the quintessential rock song," Devo frontman Mark Mothersbaugh told Rolling Stone. "In those days, to do a song cover, you had to get permission from the artist. So [we] went to the Rolling Stones' manager's office in Manhattan, and Mick Jagger came in and he just kind of looked at us. We put the record on the turntable, and after about 30 seconds, he jumps up and starts dancing around to it. Then he said to us, 'That's my favorite version of this song!' To us, even that he was in the same room was pretty overwhelming."
As for other covers, it's best not to go near Britney Spears' abomination or that time Vanilla Ice sampled it. But it remains a standard for any halfway decent bar band looking to prove itself and get a crowd on the floor on Saturday night. That’s “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction"'s legacy. Decades removed from its release, the song continues to thrill and inspire you from the second its opening riff hits your ears.
At a press conference in 1969, Jagger was asked if he was “any more satisfied now then when you last came over here.” He asked for a bit of clarification, “Do you mean financially, sexually or philosophically?” The reporter said, “Financially and philosophically satisfied.” Jagger’s response: “Financially dissatisfied … Sexually satisfied … Philosophically … trying."
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