The Rolling Stones’ “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction”: A History

Deconstructing the impact of the Rolling Stones' “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction” and remembering how the song has fired our imaginations for the last 50 years.
The Rolling Stones
Out of Our Heads

The Double Negative World-View

It was released in the United States 21 years to the day after D-Day, 6 June 1944 — by design or by accident—something that resisted the still-rising militarist mindset from WWII to the era of the Vietnam War.

It’s three minutes and 43 seconds long. It seems to emerge from the basement of our subconscious, leaning tight and sinewy in our minds, a vaguely metallic template of thematic economy, an angular expression of everyday unease. Its everyman protagonist is a victim of “useless information”, somebody trying against all odds to find comfort and peace of mind; resisting the brutal obligations of everyday life; pushing back against television and radio, the media, the great dissemblers and the masters of war; and lamenting a failure to connect with, for the heterosexually inclined, the opposite sex. It was a righteous pushback against the two-minutes-and-change diktat of song duration in the AM-radio-driven era of the early and mid-’60s it was born into.

The full title of the song — “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction” — is itself a contradiction, what etymologists call a negative concord or, put more colloquially, a double negative. This titular no-but-yes embodies, possibly by accident, the contradictions inherent in our own lives, the tension between what we want and what we say we can’t get, between what we get and what we say we don’t want. The song ushered in the era of rock music as the truly democratic experience it was always purported to be. It’s feeling was already ubiquitous — its sound would soon be.

Anybody could (and can) play the riff in nothing flat. No capos are necessary, no exotic fingering needed, no translation by a guitar teacher required. Tablature doesn’t really even do it justice. The riff’s basic structure couldn’t be simpler. A three-note ostinato. Standard guitar tuning. Second fret, fifth string. Fourth fret, fifth string. Open fourth string. Then it’s back to fourth fret, fifth string, and then back to second fret, fifth string. Rinse. Repeat. That’s it. Three notes on two strings, in three positions on the fretboard. That’s the basis for the guitar riff of our time, the heart of what Rolling Stone judged the second-greatest rock song of all time, the foundation for what BMI called the 91st-most performed song of the 20th century.

It’s three minutes and 43 seconds long, and it embodies the disquiet and unease of modern life, an unease that persists to this day. Acid, muscular, pugnacious, it’s a clarion expression of the collective unconscious, the drift of life in the nuclear age, that sense that everything could come crashing down at any given moment, that feeling at the heart of the frowns we wear, the scowls we can’t seem to shake. But the song’s no funeral dirge, no mopey, woe-is-me, minor-chord lamentation. Its rhythm, its dogged persistence, its relentless beat is at the heart of the uplift in the human experience, Dylan Thomas’ force driving the green fuse through that flower, the human drive perfectly described by Samuel Beckett: “I can’t go on, I’ll go on.”

It’s all there: the tension, the warring impulses of surrender and determination, capitulation and resolve, despair and hope — the same polar forces that power our lives today. Indeed, “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction” changed everything in music because it revealed everything that was going on at the time. And it’s no less pertinent today than it was on 6 June 1965 — 50 years ago.

The Year That Exploded

Of course, the year 1965 was already destined to become a memorable one for music, culture, and society. Bob Dylan, early philosophical soulmate of the Stones, had already tapped into the collective unconscious with “The Times They Are a-Changin’”, the year before, and he’d release “Like a Rolling Stone” just around the time “I Can’t Get No Satisfaction” took the world by storm. In July, folk-music purists lost their minds when Dylan went electric at the Newport Folk Festival. Nothing was as it was. “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction” is a distilled example of how society gave rise to a song, and how the song gave voice to a world-view that resonates with us to this day.

On 4 January 1965, President Lyndon Johnson made his second State of the Union address, and announced his initiatives for creating a “Great Society”. It was war, however, that was destined to be the order of the year. In April, the first march sponsored by Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) took place in Washington, attracting as much as 25,000 protesters against the Vietnam War. Protesters returned to Washington in June for an anti-war “teach-in”, a five-hour event in which thousands of leaflets were distributed in and around the Pentagon.

The battle between anti-war activists and the US government was accelerated in July, when President Johnson ordered an increase in the number of US forces in Vietnam, from 75,000 men to 125,000. Making matters worse, he ordered the number of American eligible men drafted every month to be doubled to more than 35,000. The number of Americans serving in Vietnam climbed to about 400,000.

The Book of a Genesis: The Origin Story

Short of a session specifically convened for the purpose of writing a song, it’s a fool’s errand trying to pinpoint the precise moment of inspiration, synaptic firing and availability of an instrument that leads to a song entering this world. A song is realization of a process as much as an event, its birth subject to a number of midwives.

At least two locations are or may be central to the “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction”’s birth: There’s Keith Richards’ flat on Carlton Hill, in the posh St. John’s Wood section of London. That’s where Richards lived for a time, at least briefly without a relationship (prior to that, he’d been living there with Linda Keith). Numerous reports (including Richards’ own account) have it that Richards woke up in that London flat early one morning, hounded into consciousness by the riff that would come to move the world.

Bloomberg News reported in October 2010: “The Rolling Stones guitarist was temporarily without a girlfriend and home alone in St. John’s Wood, London, in 1965. Moaning about his lack of a companion, he picked out the riff on an acoustic guitar and dozed off, leaving his cassette recorder running.”

That’s consistent with the account of Richards’ own writing. From Richards’ 2010 autobiography, Life: “I wrote ‘Satisfaction’ in my sleep. I had no idea I’d written it, it’s only thank God for the little Philips cassette player. The miracle being that I looked at the cassette player that morning and I knew I’d put a brand-new tape in the previous night, and I saw it was at the end. Then I pushed rewind and there was ‘Satisfaction.’”

In Keith Richards: Satisfaction, Christopher Sandford, claims that all began in the Jack Tar Hotel in Clearwater, Florida: “Keith went up alone to room 3 (there were only seventeen in the place), watched The Tonight Show and nodded off. Towards dawn he woke up with a riff … ringing in his head. Keith, who was in the habit of keeping a tape recorder by his bed to capture such moments, grabbed his new Gibson Firebird, taped the lick, then fell asleep again.”

You might think the specificity of Sandford’s reporting — the number of the hotel room, what Keith was watching on TV, the particular guitar he used — would give him the edge, but with a contrary assessment straight from the horse’s mouth, you’ve gotta go with Keith.

Other dates and facts related to the song’s creation are just as tantalizingly imprecise. Some reports have Stones frontman Mick Jagger writing most of the lyrics in his Jack Tar hotel room. Others say he was poolside at the hotel. Some reports say that happened on 6 May, others claim it was May 7, if we’re going to quibble about it. Richards has been thought to have been the one to come up with the title. “That was just a working title,” he said in an oft-quoted passage. “It could just as well have been ‘Auntie Millie’s Caught Her Left Tit in the Mangle.’”

Well, maybe. The title has a legitimate provenance with Chuck Berry, whose song “30 Days”, recorded in 1955, contains this lyric:

If I don’t get no satisfaction from the judge

I’m gonna take it to the FBI and voice my grudge

But the second and third points of genesis for this song was a studio in Chicago. “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction” was first recorded in an acoustic version on 10 May, at the legendary Chess Studios, after a Stones concert the day before. Bill Wyman, the former Stones bass player and informal band historian, has said the iconic version was recorded two days after the Chess session, on 12 May at RCA Studios in Hollywood. That was when Richards connected his guitar to a Vox AC30 amplifier and a Gibson Maestro fuzz-tone effects box and recorded The Posterity Lick.

He didn’t think the song was ready for prime-time. “I thought of it as an album filler,” Richards said, as quoted in the book Mick: The Wild Life and Mad Genius of Jagger by Christopher Andersen. “I never thought it was anything like commercial enough to be a single.” The rest of the song – the lyrics that have endured as long as the music — were perhaps largely Jagger’s ironically world-weary invention, and it’s here that “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction” succeeds beyond the purely visceral music.

From the viewpoint of the song’s unnamed protagonist, we’re witness to the pressures and challenges of life during the tumultuous ’60s, and it rings true for the uneasy and violent times we live in today. It’s a riff everyone can relate to.

But He Can’t Understand / Cause He Doesn’t Wear / The Same Color Skin As Me: “Satisfaction” in the Civil Rights Era

Whether African Americans listened to it or not, “Satisfaction” spoke to their experience in the era of the civil rights movement, if only in general terms. It wasn’t adopted by black America. James Brown would speak to black people on a more positive tip in the turbulent years to come, most notably on songs like “Say It Loud, I’m Black and I’m Proud” (1968). But however unwittingly, “Satisfaction” got to the psychic core of the dissatisfaction of black Americans pushing back against the punishments of the Jim Crow era like nothing else on the radio in the years before Brown and other African American artists took point on the defining social issue of the American 20th century.

The year 1965 was a bitter crucible year for African Americans; it was as if the corrosive qualities of the Jim Crow South and a more generally segregated, race-fearful America had come to a continually rising crescendo. If anyone could relate to feeling that they “can’t get no satisfaction,” it was the 20 million black people enduring in a country that didn’t seem to want them around.

The year of “Satisfaction” started badly for African Americans. Malcolm X, the charismatic human rights activist and intellectual firebrand, was assassinated on Feb. 21 in New York City, during a speech before supporters at the Audubon Ballroom in Harlem.

Barely two weeks later, on March 7, about 530 civil rights demonstrators intending to march from Selma to Montgomery, Ala., were trampled and beaten by 200 Alabama state troopers on the Edmund Pettis Bridge in Selma. It was the first such confrontation at the site; two days later, on March 9, demonstrators returned to the bridge for a prayer service before returning to Selma, after troopers offered to let them pass. A third march, on March 21, went off without incident (and with federal protection). The civil rights activists reached Montgomery, Ala., on March 25, not long after President Johnson’s moving “We Shall Overcome” speech.

The crowded year for civil rights had its high point when Johnson sent a bill to Congress; the legislation was the foundation for what would soon become the Voting Rights Act of 1965. With lightning speed (certainly compared to the U.S. Congress of today), Congress passed the bill by July, and Johnson signed it — one of the landmark laws of American history — in August … less than a week before the Watts riots exploded in Los Angeles.

Cover Me: The Other Flavors of ‘Satisfaction’

In the years since the 1965 release of the genuine article, hundreds of artists have put their own spin on “Satisfaction,” with wildly varied results.

Artists from Otis Redding to Devo, from Cat Power to Britney Spears, Aretha Franklin to Jerry Lee Lewis have interpreted the song with treatments as varied as the artists themselves. Listening to these alternate flavors of “satisfaction” is something of a Rashomon experience, with each successive artist offering a different, unseen side to the message of a classic.

When Redding performed the song at the 1967 Monterey Pop Festival — a few years after recording it on his “Otis Blue” album — it got the full Memphis R&B treatment, with a horn section filling in what the Stones recorded on a lead guitar part. In fact, Keith Richards is on record saying that he envisioned the Stones recording the song with horns:

[T]his was just a little sketch, because, to my mind, the fuzz tone was really there to denote what the horns would be doing. Sometimes an artist’s sketches are better than the finished painting, and that’s probably one of the perfect examples. Richards said as quoted in the book According to the Rolling Stones by Jagger, Dora Loewenstein, Philip Dodd and Charlie Watts.

(It was soon out of his hands. In one of the more unsung but important exercises of rock band majority rule, Richards was apparently overruled by producer Andrew Loog Oldham and the rest of the Stones when the song was chosen as a single.)

In 1966, a group called The Eyes recorded a compilation tribute EP of Stones hits. Renaming themselves The Pupils on the EP disc, the band recorded a version of “Satisfaction” that is, not surprisingly for so soon after the original, very faithful to that original. It’s clear that they were riding the Stones’ coattails to as close to the top of the charts as they could get. But it is a tribute, one that brings much the same energy to the proceedings.

On her “The Covers Record,” released in early 2000, Cat Power offers a version is almost sorrowful, tapping into the song’s lyrics as a downbeat experience. With one guitar and her voice, and nothing else, Power revealed another, more downbeat dimension of the song’s message of alienation and missed connection. In 2007, however, the singer Jackie ‘O’ released a disco-driven interpretation that’s also uncannily faithful to the original.

In February of 2015, the Twilight Soul Cats (featuring Tony Grant) offered a completely different take on “Satisfaction”: slowed down and soulful, with the buzzy guitar dropped out completely.

On the NBC talent program “The Voice,” contestant Moses Stone performed an upbeat, pop-infused version, horns and piano in place — all in all perfectly serviceable when Stone collapses some of the lyrics into a hip-hop cadence.

The song’s made its way into the movies as well. It was featured in a celebrated surf scene from Francis Coppola’s Vietnam War classic Apocalypse Now (1979), with a beanpole-thin Laurence Fishburne rockin’ out as the ill-fated boat moves up river in search of Colonel Kurtz. In the 1986 action film Raw Deal, the song gets Arnold Schwarzenegger juiced for battle; he plays the track from a cassette tape on his car stereo before kicking ass in a gravel pit, with a machine gun as counterpoint.

It’s more than coincidence that, in 2004, a panel of judges by Rolling Stone declared “Satisfaction” to be the second-greatest song of all time — coming in second to Bob Dylan’s “Like a Rolling Stone.”

Both songs, of course, tap into the 20th/21st-century collective unconscious in much the same way; both give voice to those warring emotions we can’t quite nail down in ourselves, although we know they’re there.

But while Dylan’s approach is deeply poetic, lyrical, almost a ballad by comparison, “Satisfaction” has a bark and bite that’s almost willfully confrontational; its way to the je ne sais quo of modern life is announced as a challenge, a raw yawp, a short sharp shock that suits the times both then and now. The search for satisfaction — for money, for love, for peace, for power, for social and economic justice — is the Holy-Grail hunt that animates all our lives. One of the best songs to explore that search, with wit and power, still contains the multitudes. After all these years.

Michael E. Ross writes frequently on popular culture, politics, media, race and ethnicity. A former adjunct professor at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, he’s been a reporter, critic and editor at various news outlets, including The New York Times, the San Francisco Chronicle, the San Jose Mercury News and NBCNews.com. His reviews, essays and commentary have appeared in The New York Times, Essence, Wired, Entertainment Weekly, the San Jose Mercury News, Salon, the San Francisco Chronicle, PopMatters, The Root, TheGrio.com and other publications. He lives in Los Angeles.