On May 7, 1965, Keith Richards woke up in the middle of the night with a melody in his head. He was in a room at the Gulf Motel in Clearwater, Florida. His guitar was on the bed beside him. Fumbling around in the dark, he found his portable cassette recorder on the nightstand. He pushed the record button and played an eight-note riff. It was accompanied by the mumbled vocal line, “I can’t get no satisfaction.” Then he fell back asleep.
“On the tape you can hear me drop the pick,” Richards recalled. “The rest is me snoring.”
The Rolling Stones were in the middle of their second US tour as headliners. The band had already scored two Top 10 hits – “Time Is On My Side” and “The Last Time” – but in the ranks of the British Invasion, they were still a notch below Herman’s Hermits. They needed a defining single that would put them over the top.
Keith didn’t initially recognize that his motel room riff was exactly what the Stones were looking for. “I never thought it was anything commercial enough to be a single,” he told Philip Norman in Sympathy For The Devil. Indeed, Stones bassist Bill Wyman later said that Richards had conceived it “as a folk song, probably a good filler track for our next album.”
“I think Keith thought it was a bit basic,” Mick Jagger has said. “I don’t think he really listened to it properly. He was too close to it and just felt it was a silly kind of riff.” But Jagger was inspired by the idea and quickly wrote a lyric.
During their tour, the Stones had been making pit stops at various American studios to record their ideas. On May 10, just three days after Richard’s midnight ramble, they entered Chess Studios in Chicago. As home to some of their biggest influences—Chuck Berry, Bo Diddley and Muddy Waters—Chess seemed the perfect location to lay down their new song-in-progress (it couldn’t have been lost on Jagger and Richards that Muddy had once cut a song called “I Can’t Be Satisfied”).
With manager Andrew Loog Oldham producing, the group did an acoustic country-ish version of “Satisfaction” that sounded more like Bob Dylan. The sexy swagger that would mark the finished version was completely absent. Oldham diplomatically called the chorus hook “subliminal.”
Two days later, in Los Angeles, the Stones checked into RCA Studios on Hollywood Boulevard. Inspired by the potential of Richards’ recently acquired Maestro FuzzTone pedal, the Stones launched into a much more aggressive feel. “Charlie [Watts] put down a different tempo,” Richards told Blender, “and with the addition of the fuzzbox on my guitar, which takes off all the treble, we achieved a very interesting sound.”
In addition to the band, famed LA arranger Jack Nitzsche pitched in with tambourine and piano, adding a kind of Motown four-on-the-floor propulsion.
The band was elated with the result. But Richards wasn’t convinced. He said that his fuzz guitar line was intended only as a sketch for a horn section when the band came to record the final version (he was now hearing the song as a tribute to Martha & the Vandellas “Dancing In The Street”). “I left it in the studio thinking, ‘This is good, but it needs working up,’” Richards said.
As the Stones resumed touring, Oldham started promoting the new song. Richards told Blender, “I guess he thought, ‘They can work it up all they want, but it’s about the freshness and the timing.’ Which is, after all, everything.”
Knowing that the song’s suggestive lyric (especially the line about “trying to make some girl”) might prevent the song from getting airplay, Oldham decided to bury it in the mix.
“I never heard the damn lyrics to ‘Satisfaction’ for years,” said RCA engineer Dave Hassinger. “They kept telling me to bring the voice down more into the track. I thought they were crazy. I didn’t know it had to do with the lyric and getting radio play.”
The single was released on May 27. Despite the murky vocals, the song became a target for the anti-rock establishment. Newsweek dubbed the Stones a “leering quintet” and said “Satisfaction” was full of “tasteless themes.” A select ban in certain cities couldn’t stop the song’s rise. On July 10, it hit number one for the first of four weeks.
In 1988, when Rolling Stone voted it the greatest pop single of the past 25 years, Richards confessed, “I hear ‘Satisfaction’ in ‘Jumping Jack Flash.’ I hear it in half of the songs that the Stones have done.”
In 1990, the Stones’ former manager Allen Klein signed a $4 million deal allowing the song to be used in a TV commercial for Snickers candy bars. In 2000, a VH1 poll of 700 music-industry movers and shakers voted “Satisfaction” as the top rock song of all time.
Though he’s been happily playing the song in concert for the last 40 years, Richards admits, “If I’d had my way, ‘Satisfaction’ would never have been released. The song was as basic as the hills, and I thought the fuzz-guitar thing was a bit of a gimmick.”
— By Bill DeMain