The Story Behind The Song: ‘(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction’, The Rolling Stones’ classic they wrote in their sleep
It’s hard to imagine a life without The Rolling Stones. For many of us, they are as ever-present as death and taxes. Equally, it’s hard to imagine a world without their astonishingly forward-thinking song ‘(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction’ which was recorded on this day alongside Andrew Loog-Oldham in 1965.
The track is forward-thinking largely because, regardless of when you first heard this song, be it back in the sixties or indeed the present day, the track is an electrified injection of rock and roll adrenaline. It doesn’t stop for breath and instead powers through the air with a riff-fuelled jetpack.
The song was originally written by the Glimmer Twins, AKA Keith Richards and Mick Jagger, who were beginning to use their newfound fame and ability to transfer the soul of the Delta blues to a mainstream audience. They were making something entirely unique. It is largely regarded by many as the moment the Stones were truly free of their early shackles, which relied heavily on others’ songwriting. Now, The Rolling Stones were now making classics of their own.
It was a big step forward and one that was needed if they were to compete with the growing stature of The Beatles. The song was produced by the band’s manager Andrew Loog Oldham and was first released as a single in June 1965 where it quickly rose to the top of the charts in the US.
Meanwhile, in their native Britain, The Rolling Stones were having difficulty getting the song played on mainstream radio stations as the lyrics were considered too ‘sexually suggestive’. It would be a medal of honour the band would wear with pride, knowing perhaps the allure of the shiny banning order would be too much for people to withstand.
With a song like ‘Satisfaction’, a track which has ambled into all our lives at some point or another, you’d expect the story of how the song was initially conceived to be like something out of a fairytale. That perhaps Jagger and Richards had pulled the song’s structure from a mythical stone and were proclaimed Kings of England in the process. Instead, this song was conceived in a whole other kind of ‘dreamland’.
The legend goes that Keith Richards wrote the song in his sleep while on the band’s second tour of the US. He proclaims he “woke in the middle of the night” and recorded a poky version of the now-iconic riff on his Philips cassette player before falling back to sleep. On that rinky-dink cassette player, there’s a recording of around two minutes of guitar strumming before the music stops, a pick hits the floor and “then me snoring for the next forty minutes” he explained.
Considering Richards once spent nine days in the studio without sleep, it’s not inconceivable to believe that he could also write songs during his period of shut-eye.
It was perhaps this reason that Keith Richards was rather flippant about the song, “I never thought it was anything commercial enough to be a single,” he once said. But Jagger knew better, remembering, “I think Keith thought it was a bit basic. 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.” Little did he know it would change the band’s lives.
For some reason, perhaps because it is Richards, the validity of this tale remains completely unchallenged. What is consistently challenged, however, is the location of the sleep-writing masterclass. There are several options as to where it was written. Some suggest it was at the Fort Harrison Hotel in Clearwater, Florida, others suggest a house in Chelsea, while others still think it was written at the London Hilton. The truth is, going by Richards’ memoir Life, that the guitarist wrote it in his flat in St John’s Wood, London. But, to add confusion, ‘The Human Riff’ also said that Jagger wrote the lyrics poolside in Clearwater just four days before the track was recorded. In all honesty, it’s not really important where they were written in comparison to what they were saying.
The feverish fandom that swept across the globe for the Stones and The Beatles at the time was beginning to become a little unbearable for all those parties involved. Equally, so was the continuous comparisons between the two bands—something which has bizarrely reared its head once again. Many would argue that it was on this track that The Rolling Stones made their sonic statement and laid out their intentions for their career.
The Beatles may have been the family favourites but the Stones were the dangerous and debauched outsiders, and ‘Satisfaction’ was the beginning of it all.
It’s easy to be flippant about the lyrics in ‘Satisfaction’, after all, judging by today’s standards they are pretty tame, to say the least. But in 1965, 55 years ago, the older generation was not only shocked by the sexual references and the slights on capitalism, but they were also supremely threatened by it. Jagger’s lyrics range from all the way from the simply suggestive to the rallying cries of an untethered generation.
Despite the sexual connotations of the song, the singer largely points his gun at the pitfalls of commercialisation rather than anything too specific. Lambasting the modern world, Jagger shares his confusion with a society where the radio is all “useless information” and he is constantly told by the TV “how white my shirts can be—but he can’t be a man ’cause he doesn’t smoke the same cigarettes as me,” a reference to the Malboro cowboy. It’s a song pumped with the steroids of a struggling society.
Jagger also reflects on how he is now placed in all of this madness. Having quickly reached a level of fame previously unmatched, the singer speaks of his tensions with being a celebrity and the imposing pressure touring can enact. It’s a testament to the band’s clear direction and authenticity, even in their fledgeling state.
Despite protestations that the song isn’t only about sex, there is a fair chunk of the track dedicated to lude behaviour the Stones were becoming famed for. In 1965, as the contraceptive pill became available and the grey clouds of World War 2 became a distant memory, a sexual revolution exploded across the globe, with Jagger and Richards at the epicentre of it in swinging London.
It was only fitting then that the ideas of sexuality which had been circling the streets would find its way into songs.
References are made throughout ‘Satisfaction’ to the sexual revolution, with the particular term “girl reaction”, apparently a reference to a girl wanting to have sex—unthinkable in 1965—ensuring that radio play was minimised. It was a point of amusement for Jagger who commented that they “didn’t understand the dirtiest line” as the girl in the song asks him to return next week as she’s “on a losing streak”, which was allegedly a reference to being on her period. The song also ends with a climatic yelp of ‘Satisfaction’ as if to offer up the final nail in the coffin to the censors.
Of course, we know looking back that it wasn’t the nail in the coffin at all. No, this was the start of something truly legendary. ‘(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction’ was the moment The Rolling Stones laid out their intentions for all to see; they were dangerous, they were honest, they were freedom personified. Hell, they were rock and roll personified.
Jagger once said of the track, “It was the song that really made the Rolling Stones, changed us from just another band into a huge, monster band… It has a very catchy title. It has a very catchy guitar riff. It has a great guitar sound, which was original at that time. And it captures a spirit of the times, which is very important in those kinds of songs.”
If there was one song to typify rock and roll. To show the highs and lows, the dark and the light, the struggle and the release of music throughout the years than you’d be har depressed to find a better song than The Rolling Stones’ sleeping giant, ‘Satisfaction’.