Rolling Stones: Celebrating 50 years since the release of '(I Can't Get No) Satisfaction'

'I could just as well have been singing, ‘Auntie Millie’s caught her left tit in the mangle’'

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The Independent Culture

It came to Keith Richards in a dream. The way he remembers it, it was early May 1965, and he was staying at the Park Lane Hilton on a breathless stopover in London for some boring meetings, before flying out for the Rolling Stones’ third US tour. That night, he went to sleep, possibly a little squiffy, with an acoustic guitar and a prototype Phillips cassette recorder by his bed.

When he awoke, he noticed the tape in the recorder had spooled through to the end. At first, he imagined maybe Mick or Brian had sneaked in during the night and left obscene messages on there. Certainly, he had no recollection of having recorded anything himself, but when he rewound it, there was about a minute of him strumming what to him sounded like a basic and uncommercial riff, and shouting along, “I can’t get no satisfaction!” Then, 29 minutes of snoring.

“I could just as well have been singing, ‘Auntie Millie’s caught her left tit in the mangle’,” he later told Stones biographer Phillip Norman. “It was just a working title. I thought of it as just a little riff, an album filler.” Thus was born what could justifiably be called the greatest riff in rock’n’roll – and the one song which, more than any other, ripped pop music from its straitjacket of showbiz decency and made it into an ungovernable voice of dissent on prevailing social mores.

“(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction” changed everything, but its initial architect wasn’t too chuffed with it. When he presented it to Mick Jagger a few days later, by the pool at the Fort Harrison Hotel in Clearwater, Florida, his co-writing partner was a good deal more enthusiastic.

Many years down the line, Mick told Rolling Stone: “Keith’s lyric called to mind the Chuck Berry song ‘Thirty Days’, which features the words, ‘I can’t get no satisfaction from the judge’. It’s not any way an English person would express it. I’m not saying he purposely nicked anything, but we played Chuck’s records a lot. I wrote the verses that very day by the motel pool.”

Unthinkable as it may now seem, Jagger and Richards were new to songwriting at that point, having spent the band’s early years working up rip-roaring versions of old r’n’b tunes. It took their manager, Andrew Loog Oldham, to alert them to the financial rewards involved. In March 1965, their first serious effort, “The Last Time”, replicated the chart success of their covers, but maybe Richards at least wasn’t yet confident of his own talents in that direction.

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The Rolling Stones perform at Glastonbury in 2013

He still didn’t think it was hit material, when the Stones took a couple of days out of their touring schedule to record tracks at Chess studios in Chicago. Wasn’t that riff a bit close to “Dancing in the Street” by Martha and the Vandellas? The first stab at “Satisfaction” at Chess was based on acoustic guitars, with Brian Jones, in Oldham’s words, “blubbering like a sitcom outtake” on harmonica over the top. It simply wasn’t working.

By the time the tour rolled into Los Angeles, it was decided to give the track one more go, during two days of sessions at RCA’s studios on 12-13 May, with house engineer Dave Hassinger, and, guesting on keyboards, Jack Nitzsche. Charlie Watts, jazz enthusiast extraordinaire, was in awe to be in the hallowed birthplace of Duke Ellington’s “Take the ‘A’ Train”. Again, though, “Satisfaction” wasn’t falling into place, particularly in the intro, where, to Keith, the riff sounded too flimsy. He wanted it to “hang hard and long” in the sound. According to legend, it was keyboard player Ian “Stu” Stewart, the band’s canny elder-brother figure, who quietly left the room, returned an hour later, and said, ‘Try this!’, handing over a brand new guitar pedal from Gibson called the Maestro Fuzz-Tone.

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The Rolling Stones at the Roundhouse in London in 1971: from the left, Keys, Charlie Watts, Mick Taylor and Mick Jagger

Bingo! The resultant sound fleshed out Keith’s riff, and in the months ahead would spawn a craze of literally hundreds of copycat beat-pop singles, all hopefully toting a Fuzz-Tone riff. None had the alchemy of “Satisfaction”: Charlie Watts’s propulsive Motown beat, Bill Wyman’s spidery bass, Brian Jones’s equally scampering guitar parts, and Mick Jagger singing like a man possessed, from a wheedling sneer to a holler of frustration.   Back in Britain, there were contractual wrangles, which would hold up release there for several months. Everything was kosher in America, however, and such was the high-velocity world of top-flight pop in 1965 that the Stones opted to rush-release the single in June 1965, while the song, and that demonic Fuzz-Tone sound, remained fresh.

“(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction” came out in early June, and by the first week in July was No 1 on the American  charts. By the time it came out in the UK in August, it had already sold 1.5 million copies in America. Within a week, 250,000 sales had sent it to the same spot at home. Within a year, it had sold 4.5 million copies worldwide and topped the charts in 38 countries – although it would take the band a while to get a wage rise from their regulation 50 quid a week.

 

On the surface of it, “Satisfaction” took all the innuendo of preceding pop and made it more explicitly sexual than any white record before – the wiggle of Elvis’s hips finally turned into an unequivocal thrust. The Stones’ teenage fanbase undoubtedly connected with it, en masse, on that level, and the moral outrage they soon faced from commentators and establishment figures certainly focused on its lascivious intent. Some of its more risqué lines were almost entirely overlooked, however, thanks to Mick’s emerging command of American street jive. Radio and TV programmes like The Ed Sullivan Show bleeped out the line where he bristles about “trying to make some girl”, but they obviously hadn’t given as much thought to the ones where the girl replies, “baby, better come back later next week, ’cause you see I’m on a losing streak” – ie she has her period.

“It’s just life,” Jagger responded insouciantly, when Time magazine finally called him to account on it. “That’s what really happens to girls. Why shouldn’t people write about it?”

Yet there was a more polemical edge to Mick’s dissatisfaction. Even at 22, he couldn’t help picking up the emptiness of America’s post-war economic prosperity. He may be merrily “ridin’ round the world… doin’ this… signin’ that”, but it hasn’t escaped him that he’s being bombarded by “useless information, supposed to fire my imagination”, and a TV talking head who “tells me how white my shirts could be/ But he can’t be a man ’cause he doesn’t smoke the same cigarettes as me”. The critic Robert Palmer branded Mick’s stance as “a quasi-Marxist critique of consumerism”, which might’ve been taking it a bit far. What he was very adeptly doing was documenting the rising temperature of America’s youth – those who, like him, had no part in defeating Hitler, and had no appetite for gorging themselves at the never-ending victory banquet.

Keith says he came to a better understanding of his own creation once it had been covered by the likes of Otis Redding, who rendered his insistent riff with a barrage of horns. Only then did he realise that the sound he’d always had in his head was never even meant to be a guitar at all, but brass. The Stones have rendered “Satisfaction” with an additional blare of trumpets and saxes ever since.

The Rolling Stones stage their first major exhibition, ‘Exhibitionism’, at Saatchi Gallery, London in April 2016.  Tickets now on sale (www.stonesexhibitionism.com)

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