In the spring of 1965, The Rolling Stones could be forgiven their frustration. Even though they had scored three number-one UK hits in the past year, the American market remained a challenge. Beatles recordings had already thrice dominated the US charts since New Year’s Day and Brits Petula Clark, Herman’s Hermits, Wayne Fontana and the Mindbenders, and Freddie and the Dreamers had all topped Billboard between January and May. Meanwhile, even the Jagger and Richards breakthrough hit “The Last Time” had only reached number 9 in the United States. The Rolling Stones were, essentially, a novelty act and an object of some derision in the American media. If they were to survive, they needed a song and a recording that would force America to reconsider them.
Keith Richards writes in his 2011 autobiography Life that he began the song while at home in London. Inspired by Martha and The Vandellas’ “Dancing in the Street,” he recorded an idea late at night on a cassette recorder next to his bed and then infamously dozed off, filling remainder of the tape with his snoring. The song offered a new spin on a classic rhythm-and-blues musical cliché that had even more recently been given voice by the Ad-Libs in their “The Boy from New York City.” Isolating one melodic line from this accompaniment, Richards created the iconic motivic germ that would generate an entire song.
The only lyrics he had were “I can’t get no satisfaction, I’ve tried and I’ve tried, but I can’t get no satisfaction.” Chuck Berry may have inspired the words, but the articulation was new and Richards’ version took these ideas down a new path. While on their American April-May tour, Mick Jagger sat by a Florida swimming pool, palm trees waving over him, and took a crack at adding verses to Keith Richards’ refrain. Although Bob Dylan and others critiqued racism and violence in America, Jagger’s attention was drawn to something he seldom saw on the British television and certainly did not hear on BBC radio: commercial advertising. Detergent and cigarettes in particular caught his ear as some of the most heavily promoted products in the United States. At first, two verses seemed enough to make his point. The song didn’t seem to warrant any more consideration given that it would probably end up as album filler. But, while he was at it, Jagger added another verse about the frustrations of a failed seduction attempt that ends when the object of his attention puts him off until after her menstruation. Satisfaction denied.
Arriving in Chicago in May, the band headed to the Chess studios where they had been inspired on earlier recordings and where they had notably produced “It’s All Over Now,” which had given them their first British number one. Giving Richards’ catchy riff to the harmonica seemed appropriate in the studio where Little Walter and others had previously wailed, but this country blues interpretation still fell short of what they thought might be possible. They would take it up again in a couple of days when they arrived in Los Angeles.
The RCA studios in Hollywood were certainly sophisticated and, while they lacked the urban edge of South Chicago, they held the possibility of something more aggressive. Drummer Charlie Watts would kick off the new version with a driving groove that drew in the other musicians, who now included session pianist Jack Nitzsche, as well as band members Brian Jones and Bill Wyman. Sensing he had something special, Richards now wanted a horn section for his theme, but that lacking, he settled for a distortion pedal fetched from a local music store by road manager Ian Stewart. The recording reveals Richards’ unfamiliarity with the device, with noisy clicks and sloppy entries; still, the take held excitement. When Jagger dubbed his vocal over the backing track, manager-producer Andrew Oldham, perhaps concerned about censors, had engineer Dave Hassinger bury the vocals in the mix, rendering them ever so slightly difficult to hear.
Neither Jagger nor Richards thought the recording was ready for prime time, even if they did hear its possibilities. However, Andrew Oldham heard adrenaline that he feared would be lost if they recorded it again. When put to a vote, the band overruled Jagger and Richards to release it as a single. Jagger would later acknowledge that “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction” was the recording that transformed The Rolling Stones from just another British group into a “huge, monster band.” London Records released the disc in the United States in June 1965. Decca would release it in the UK on 20 August.
Featured image credit: The Rolling Stones getting off an airplane at Amsterdam Airport Schiphol on 8 August 1964. Photo by Hugo van Gelderen (ANEFO). gahetNA (Nationaal Archief NL): Aankomst van de Rolling Stones op Schiphol, Nationaal Archief, Den Haag, Fotocollectie Anefo, 2.24.01.03 916-7420. CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.