LIVES OF THE GREAT SONGS / Sneers'n'leers'n'rock'n'roll: '(I Can't Get No) Satisfaction' - More than any other hit, it sums up the Sixties. But if Jagger and Richards had had their way, it would never have been a single. Jasper Rees continues our series
Sunday 21 November 1993
For the first time the electric guitar spoke not in the exhilarated language of pop, nor in the weeping tones of the blues, but with a darker purpose. The opening riff, the mother and father of all riffs (and nowadays the grandparent), howled of menace, threat, real rebellion. Here, at last, the Rolling Stones found a sound to match their fury. It was the first great burst of music, and perhaps still the greatest, to emanate from the songwriting pair known as Jagger-Richards.
It's all ancient history now - the flouting of authority that caused such dyspeptic outrage - and nearly 30 years down the line, the ceasefire long in place, it can all look a bit twee. But the impact of '(I Can't Get No) Satisfaction' is as fresh as the day it was recorded. Of the many artists who have invited the song to shine a little light on them, even Samantha Fox, idiotically singing 'I can't get no girlie action', couldn't destroy it utterly.
THE SONG'S birth was preceded by a brief but troubled labour. On 6 May 1965, during their third American tour, the Stones were staying in a motel in Clearwater, Florida. The increasingly unstable Brian Jones had just administered a beating to his date and was paid back that morning by one of the band's entourage. 'Brian was given two cracked ribs,' recalls Bill Wyman in his autobiography, Stone Alone, 'to the satisfaction of everyone.' Trust Wyman to use that word so unknowingly.
The same day Keith Richards played a riff to Mick Jagger and said, 'The words that go with this are I can't get no satisfaction.' He had put it on tape in the middle of the night: 'I dreamt this riff,' Richards recalled later. 'That was the first time it had happened to me. I just woke up, picked up the guitar and . . . 'I can't get no . . . satisfaction . . .' On the tape you can hear me drop the pick (the plectrum) and the rest of the tape is me snoring.' It would not be the last time Richards fell asleep in mid-performance.
Jagger sketched out some lyrics but by the time the band reached the Chess studio in Chicago on 10 May the song had grown on neither of its composers, who saw it as an album-filler. It must be stressed that the fame of the Stones at this stage had virtually nothing to do with songwriting. It was based on their looks, their attitude, and their interpretation of rhythm-and-blues classics penned by black Americans - Chuck Berry, Bobby Womack, Willie Dixon. 'The Last Time' and Marianne Faithfull's 'As Tears Go By' were the only hits to date on which they had a writing credit.
At the Chess session the song didn't take wing. The Stones flew to Los Angeles to continue work on their album Out of Our Heads. They booked into RCA's studio in Hollywood and, according to Wyman, 'the song just gelled'. The difference was down partly to Charlie Watts finding a tempo he was happy with, Wyman delivering a quirky, jumping bass line, but mainly to the fuzzbox Richards used to give his playing that distinctive shimmering leer. Blending in Jagger's seductive, breathy vocal, that rapidly mutated into a declamatory howl, this was suddenly a song to get excited about, except that Jagger and Richards remained unpersuaded that it was the best thing the Stones had ever done. The rest of the band, plus keyboard player Ian Stewart, manager
Andrew Loog Oldham and engineer Dave Hassinger, thought it should be their next single. It was put to the vote, the men who wrote the song lost and it was released in the States on 5 June, less than a month after Richards had nodded off in mid-composition. It went to No 1 and stayed there for four weeks, their first US chart-topper. In Britain, it was released on 20 August and spent three weeks at No 1.
'In later years,' recalled the ever-neutral Wyman, 'Mick always said that only Keith was doubtful about it.' Sure enough, Jagger confided to the Stones' biographer Philip Norman that 'doing 'Satisfaction' was the only real time we ever had a disagreement'.
Richards worried that 'the song was basic as the hills, and I thought the fuzz-guitar thing was a bit of a gimmick'. He also fretted that his intro was too like Martha and the Vandellas' 'Dancing in the Street'. In fact 'Satisfaction' was the Stones' debut as a band with their own sound, rather than one pastiched from the swamps of Mississippi. It was, to all intents and purposes, the first rock song.
It was also one of the first songs, if not the first, about the rock lifestyle. Though the title is Richards's, the words are Jagger's. Richards later described it as 'just a working title. It could just as well have been 'Auntie Millie's Caught Her Left Tit in the Mangle'.' For Jagger, however, the phrase was fortuitous: it provided a launchpad for an inspired moan about the protected, pampered life on the road, about 'drivin' round the world, and doin' this and signin' that, and tryin' to make some girl'.
This was the first sophomore lyric, written not in pursuit of stardom but on the crest of it, on the road, in a faraway hotel room. The defining song of the 1960s did not celebrate the libertine age to come; it lamented the cynicism of the media, the coerciveness of advertising:
When I'm watching my TV
And a man come on and tells me
How white my shirts should be.
'That's what I say,' sings Jagger, and to let you know that he means it he drops into the chorus almost as soon as the song starts. 'I can't get no,' he screams three times, and thanks to the brief repetition of the title that is more of a preamble than a first verse, you already know what it is he can't get. Then comes the verse proper, delivered, almost shouted, on all but one note:
When I'm driving in my car
And a man comes on the radio
He's telling me more and more
About some useless information
Supposed to drive my imagination
I can't get no . . .
No no no.
It is at this point that most people switch on to the song's lyrical content, to hear if not to listen, and that is why most assume that is exclusively about sex: they certainly thought so on The Ed Sullivan Show, bleeping out the line 'trying to make some girl'. The lyrical core tends to disappear in the frenzy of the atmosphere in which it is usually heard - parties, discos, Stones concerts. It is a song about personal experience that has been co-opted as an anthem for the herd mentality. Most herds tend to miss the nuances in the verses and are picked up by the hook in the chorus. 'Girlie action' is only a small part of the picture: Jagger doesn't get round to mentioning it until the last third of the song. A classic can rarely have been so misinterpreted.
There would never be another version like it. With a song so umbilically linked to the playing of the guitarist who came up with the tune, you half-expect there to be no versions at all, but all the baggage that 'Satisfaction' carries with it has proved too great a temptation for soul deities and talentless starlets alike.
The carcass was still warm when the instrumentalists ripped into it. The cover most faithful to Richards's guitar came that same year, from the rock'n'roll drummer Sandy Nelson. A parping saxophone fills in for the lyrics, Nelson's bashing is mechanical and already the song has lost some of its sheen.
In the same year a much better instrumental came from David Rose, the veteran composer of 'The Stripper', and his orchestra. This was the other side of the Sixties coin - sassy and hedonistic, with foxy, swinging strings that are lush but just a bit sinister. The Stones' first brush with a big band yielded a hugely sympathetic reinterpretation.
Richards's tune was still there but its perfect fit, Jagger's lyrics, had been lost. Oddly, things hardly changed when a major singer tackled 'Satisfaction' the following year. For all their fame, Otis Redding had not heard of the Rolling Stones when Steve Cropper of Booker T and the MGs played him the song in 1966. He liked it and promptly recorded it in the Stax studios. It was only appropriate that the next person to have a hit with the song should be not a pale English imitator but an artist who sprang from the tradition that had first seduced the Stones into music.
Redding's version has overwhelming internal energy, with furious, belting horns and a speeding bass line. So overwhelming that two days after his death in December 1967 a journalist alleged it had been a Redding original all along, that the Stones had bought it from him in Memphis and that they owed him dollars 50,000 in unpaid royalties. Not only did the Stones first visit Memphis six months after they recorded the song, but Cropper has said that he copied down what he thought were the lyrics from the record and gave them to Redding. So it might not just be the frenzied pace of the rendition that makes some of Redding's vocals difficult to unravel. This is the closest a Jagger lyric ever came to scat.
The Stones' concert albums being universally dismal, the version on Otis Redding in Person at the Whisky A Go Go is probably the best live recording of the song, unless you count Aretha Franklin's on Live in Paris, another frenetic affair in which Franklin's backing singers have to hurry to keep up. Her studio version from 1967, which was the song's third incarnation as a hit single, is a typical Aretha cover.
The queen of soul, who was also a daughter of gospel, flies around the melody as only she can, offering something that is at once wild and yet utterly under control, a meshing of vocal fervour and technical discipline - which is a fair definition of gospel. More than any other, this version shows you where the Stones got it all from, even more, perhaps, than Buddy Guy's live version at the Chicago Blues Festival (which the sleeve, intriguingly, dates 1964), a raunchy busk that slows the whole thing down.
From here on, 'Satisfaction' became less satisfying. Herbie Goins and the Nightimers (1967) and Mac & Katie Kissoon (1969) brought solid soul versions of the song to Britain. The Shadows had a go in 1970, giving it a tricky organ intro before letting Hank Marvin loose, but it isn't a song for musical virtuosity, as the big-band Latin inflections and twirly flutes of Jose Feliciano's version from the same year also suggested.
It required a rocker even older and more sexually threatening than the Rolling Stones to put the intimidating scowl back on the face of the song. In 1973 Jerry Lee Lewis slowed it down and swathed it in swirling blues tones - crashing cymbals, fingers slinging their way down the piano keys, nasty guitars - but whatever dash of humour belonged to the original was buried.
In the mid-1970s the reformed Troggs gave the song a psychedelic intro and mixed Reg Presley's wild Andover burr to the forefront. A much more innovative version gave Devo, Ohio's premier New Wavers, an early hit. They changed the title to '(I Can't Get Me No) Satisfaction' and delivered the song in their trademark dippy, robotic style. The riff, transferred to a synthesiser, only crops up just before the fade. In spirit, if not in sound, this is as close to the original version as anyone gets - frenetic, irreverent, novel, but rather wittier.
On the whole, in the song's dotage the wrong people got hold of it. None was more wrong than Jonathan King, who had a hit with it in 1974 under the name Bubblerock. The instrumentation - acoustic guitar and strings - give it a country flavour, but King's laid-back vocal is indistinguishable from boredom. In Jagger's phrase, his best song was 'on a loser's streak'.
It is one of those songs minor artists sing to earn kudos by association. Samantha Fox's tediously sultry version fails to change the sex of the line 'trying to make some girl', unlike Aretha or Tania Maria (1990), who delivers a slow salsa in a sub-Nina Simone tenor. Tom Jones mines the past more thoughtfully, but this was his Art of Noise phase and his version is over-produced and colourless. It's probably best to draw a veil over Vanilla Ice's reading, however much his view of the opposite sex may resemble Jagger's at the same age. 'Oh yeah, remember this one?' he drawls. Not the way that he does.
All the best songs end up as advertising jingles, a fate which has not escaped the song that rubbished 'all that useless information'. That, and the sampled massacre perpetrated by Ice, brought the song full circle. An artist who is no more than a product of hype covered a tune about the cynicism of hype. You suspect the irony was lost on him, just as the real intentions of the lyrics are masked from most of the song's admirers, who are too busy losing themselves to listen in. In the end, the greatness of '(I Can't Get No) Satisfaction' is down to the genius of Keith Richards, visited in a dream by two phrases: a musical one to play on the guitar, and a vocal one, to sing along to it. The durability of the song proves that nothing else in it matters. Has rock ever been so simple?
To hear '(I Can't Get No) Satisfaction', tune into Virgin 1215 between 9.30 and 10am today, when Graham Dene will be playing two of the versions discussed here. Virgin is on 1215 kHz on the medium waveband (AM).
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