Music

The Rolling Stones' "(I Can't Get No) Satisfaction": A History

Michael E. Ross

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.

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.

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