The Rolling Stones’ “Satisfaction” was not inevitable.

“It Was Not Inevitable”: How the Rolling Stones Found “Satisfaction”

“It Was Not Inevitable”: How the Rolling Stones Found “Satisfaction”

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May 10 2016 9:00 AM

How the Rolling Stones Found “Satisfaction”

It did not have to happen. If it had not been written and recorded when it was, who knows? It prevented us from being just another good band with a nice run.”

From left to right, Brian Jones (1942 - 1969), Bill Wyman, Mick Jagger and Charlie Watts, and (seated) Keith Richards of the Rolling Stones, circa 1965.
From left to right, Brian Jones, Bill Wyman, Mick Jagger, and Charlie Watts, and (seated) Keith Richards of the Rolling Stones, circa 1965.

Terry O'Neill/Getty Images

Excerpted from The Sun & the Moon & the Rolling Stones by Rich Cohen. Out now from Spiegel & Grau.

You can get very blasé about a song like “Satisfaction.” It’s been around forever, was written and recorded so long ago, has been played on so many radios so many millions of times, it vanishes. You don’t think about it, maybe get tired of talking about it. But it was not inevitable. It did not have to happen. If it had not been written and recorded when it was, who knows? It prevented us from being just another good band with a nice run. That big early hit is essential. You might have a lot of success without it, sell a lot of records, but you won’t get over. “Satisfaction” did that for us. You absolutely need that one song.
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This was Mick Jagger talking circa 1998. I was trailing him, taking in every word and gesture in a vain attempt to unlock the mystery.

* * *

Jagger and Keith Richards were under tremendous pressure on the road. Between shows, they were expected to write the hits that kept everything going. “We traveled at night,” Gered Mankowitz told me. “They’d come off the stage, go into the limo and straight to the airport. We’d fly until 2, 3, 4 a.m., check into some dump. Nobody to welcome us. Nothing open. No food. Deadsville. The bulk of the tour was like that. You do the show, you’re gone. And in all the between times, Mick and Keith were working. They had orders to come up with material. And struggled because the schedule wasn’t conducive. But they pushed through, taking down the ideas whenever they came. You’d see them all the time, jotting little notes throughout the tour.”

When it wasn’t working, it was pain. When it was working, it was pleasure. Prizing a song from the void. Summoning a melody from nonexistence. If a Stones song begins as a riff, where does the riff come from? It’s a mystery. In the case of “Satisfaction,” it happened while Richards was asleep. Reports have placed the dreamer, variously, at a hotel in America, a house in Chelsea, or the London Hilton. In Life, Richards says he was at his flat on Carlton Hill, in St. John’s Wood.

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I sleep with an inhaler and a glass of water at my side. My son sleeps with a stuffed seal named Sealy. Richards sleeps with an acoustic guitar and a Philips tape recorder. One morning, in 1965, he noticed the guitar had been moved, the recorder turned on. Examining more closely, he saw that someone had recorded over the entire tape. When he rewound and pressed play, he heard his own guitar being picked up and played. Five notes: second fret on the A string played twice slowly, once quickly, followed by the fourth and fifth fret on the A string. Baa-Baa Ba-Ba-Ba ... The guitar was set down, a body hit the sheets.

Richards put the tape in an envelope marked “Can’t Get No Satisfaction.” He’s never explained the origin of that phrase. Years later, in an interview I worked on with Jann Wenner at Rolling Stone, Jagger said Richards was probably influenced by Chuck Berry’s “Thirty Days,” which includes the lyric, “If I don’t get no satisfaction from the judge.” “Keith might have heard it back then, because it’s not any way an English person would express it,” Jagger explained. “I’m not saying that he purposely nicked anything, but we played those records a lot.”

The riff seems part Chuck Berry, part something else. The four- or five-note progression, that dirty garage-band sound, was in the wind. When I listen to “Satisfaction,” it’s less “Maybellene” I hear than “I Can’t Explain” by the Who or “Where Have All the Good Times Gone” by the Kinks. To me, these tunes play like elaborations on a theme. It’s the mood of the moment translated into guitar. As Richards himself has said, you operate, on the best days, less as composer than as medium. The fact that he received the riff in his sleep only emphasizes the point.

Jagger and Richards did not take up the song until several weeks later, by which time they were back on the road. Jagger filled in the missing pieces: chords, chorus, bridge. One afternoon, they sat poolside at the Fort Harrison Hotel in Clearwater, Florida, working. The hotel had been built in 1926 and managed by Ransom Olds, the namesake of the Oldsmobile. To mark its opening, the daredevil Henry Roland had climbed the exterior in a blindfold. It’s since become Scientology headquarters. Shortly after the Stones checked in, multi-instrumentalist Brian Jones and bassist Bill Wyman hooked up with groupies, the sort that haunt astronaut bars and speedways. Jones’ girl showed up black-eyed by the pool in the morning. Paranoid and increasingly jealous of the Mick/Keith writing partnership, Jones spent his rage on women. The keener his paranoia, the more violent the outburst. As Richards has said, “He was not a good man.” As drummer Charlie Watts has said, “He was a little prick.” Mike Dorsey, a British actor who drove and protected the Stones, told Brian off, then punched him out. In addition to the moral offense, it was just stupid to beat up a local girl in the Bible Belt.

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Meanwhile, Jagger and Richards were finishing “Satisfaction.” If the riff was all Keith, the lyric was all Mick. You know the plot: a young man, a lot like Jagger, big but about to become much bigger, decrying the pressures and people and commercial concerns closing in from every side. It’s a pose as much as a song, Jagger’s way of carrying himself in the world. It plugged into the cynicism of a generation beset by advertising. “When I’m watchin’ my TV/ And a man comes on to tell me/ How white my shirts can be ...” In a few lines, you have the disdain for parents and received wisdom, as well as the omnipresence of “the man,” who represents authority and discipline, and who, according to that seminal film School of Rock, it’s our primary task to confront. It’s one of Mick Jagger’s talents: this freakish ability to capture the zeitgeist in a phrase. He’s a social historian working from the inside, observing the moment as he remakes it.

satisfaction cover.

When I asked Jagger about this—Where do the songs come from? How do you capture the moment?—he paused, then said, “It’s about being a social animal. We’re all in an anthill. We’ve all got these antennas.”

The other Stones first heard “Satisfaction” in one of the hotel rooms. Richards played acoustic guitar as Jagger mumbled the lyric. At the beginning, it sounded less like an anthem than a dirge. It bitched and complained. “Neither Mick nor Keith saw it as a potential single, and certainly not a hit,” Wyman writes, “Keith’s instinct must have told him it was worth some effort, because he kept working on it.” The biggest influence on the lyric was probably Bob Dylan, whose album Bringing It All Back Home had been released that year. There’s actually a picture of Jagger, poolside in Clearwater, studying the back of the record cover. Dylan was rewriting the rules, giving composers permission to write about their own lives in a personal language that, like a private joke, could never be fully understood by an outsider. It’s a trick Dylan borrowed from the Beats—a modernist trick that obscures a song toward enigma. By withholding, the writer invites repeat listening. What’s more compelling than the half-heard table talk of a rock star, the story you have to complete yourself?

On May 9, 1965, the Stones played the Arie Crown Theater in Chicago. The next afternoon, they returned to Chess Records, where they cut “Try Me,” “That’s How Strong My Love Is,” “The Under Assistant West Coast Promotion Man,” and “Mercy, Mercy.” At the end of the nine-hour session, they recorded “Satisfaction.” Band manager Andrew Loog Oldham later described this early version as “acoustic-driven, wayward,” and “harmonica-laden”: “[It] just would not do ... the hook registered as marginal to nowt.” Jagger and Richards were ready to ditch the song, but Oldham urged them to keep after it. Because of that riff! It was buried, but there, tolling like a bell: B–B–B–C#–D. The band flew to Los Angeles the next day, where, at RCA Studios in Hollywood, they hooked up with sound engineer David Hassinger and producer and musician Jack Nitzsche, who’d prove essential. Nitzsche, who deserves a book of his own, urged the band through each iteration of “Satisfaction.” He played piano on the sessions. Though his track was later removed, it was, according to Oldham, essential in delineating and holding together the groove. In other words, even though you can’t hear him on the record, he’s there.

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Jagger nailed the vocal, but the rest of the song had to evolve. The first RCA take was weak. Oldham compared it to “Walk Right in” by the Rooftop Singers—“[it] called for striped shirts, Brylcreem, basketball slacks and a time-out.” The grit was missing. In the early morning of May 12, at the end of a 14-hour session, Watts switched tempo on the drums and everything else began to fall into place. When Richards listened to the new version, he knew what was missing. The riff! He had to crank it up. The next morning, keyboardist Ian Stewart, who also functioned as a kind of road manager, came back from the music store with a Gibson Maestro fuzz box, a new gizmo that distorted guitar, junked it up. The sound was akin to the lead on the Kinks’ “You Really Got Me,” which, according to legend, resulted from a fight between Dave Davies and Ray Davies. One of the brothers cut a speaker with a razor blade, causing the same sort of snarled line Richards achieved with the fuzz pedal. It’s exactly what was needed to emphasize the lick that opens “Satisfaction.” “It was a miracle,” Richards told Guitar Player magazine. “I was screaming for more distortion. ‘This riff’s really gotta hang hard and long.’ We burnt the amps up and turned the shit up, and it still wasn’t right. And then Ian Stewart went around the corner to Wallach’s Music City or something and came around with a distortion box: ‘Try this.’ It was as offhand as that. It was just from nowhere. I never really got into the thing after that, either. It had a very limited use, but it was just right for that song.”

Oldham took a vote: Should “Satisfaction” be the next single? According to Wyman, it was close, with Watts, Wyman, and Jones voting yes, while Jagger and Richards opposed. Jones’ vote is the most surprising, as he later claimed to hate that song. Fleur du mal—an evil flower that signified ruin. Richards did not consider the song a hit. Jagger does not remember voting. Oldham says no vote was necessary as everyone realized “Satisfaction” was going to be a monster. And yet Richards says he was surprised when it was released, only learning of it when the song came on the radio as the band drove through Minnesota in June. “We didn’t even know Andrew had put the fucking thing out!” he explained. “At first, I was mortified. As far as I was concerned, that was just the dub.”

But it’s that raw, unfinished quality that gives the single its power. Of course, you can’t understand it in isolation. You have to consider the context. If you want to appreciate Marlon Brando in 1954, compare him to Gary Cooper. If you want to appreciate Elvis Presley in 1956, compare him to Perry Como. If you want to understand “Satisfaction” in 1965, compare it to the “The Birds and the Bees” by Jewel Akens or “This Diamond Ring” by Gary Lewis and the Playboys. Beside them, “Satisfaction” is raffish and strange, a kid wearing motorcycle boots at a prep school. It went up the charts like a projectile, surpassing “Help” (the Beatles), surpassing “Crying in the Chapel” (Elvis). It hung like a crescent moon, the Stones’ first No. 1 in America, the sound of summer in 1965, blasting from every transistor radio. It was 10 times bigger than anything the Stones had experienced—a quantum leap that resolved all doubts. In the commercial world, there are generally two of everything. It’s either/or, the dialectic of consumerism. Pepsi or Coke, Marlboro or Kool. It was not going be the Kinks, nor the Who, nor the Dave Clark Five. From the release of “Satisfaction” to the entrance of Yoko Ono, rock ’n’ roll was going to be either the Beatles or the Rolling Stones.

From the book The Sun & the Moon & the Rolling Stones by Rich Cohen. Copyright (c) 2016 by Tough Jews, Inc. Published by Spiegel & Grau, an imprint of Random House, a division of Penguin Random House LLC.

Rich Cohen is the author of the New York Times bestsellers Tough Jews, The Avengers, Monsters, and (with Jerry Weintraub) When I Stop Talking, You’ll Know I’m Dead. He is a co-creator of the HBO series Vinyl and a contributing editor at Vanity Fair and Rolling Stone and has written for the New Yorker, the Atlantic, and Harper’s Magazine, among others. Cohen has won the Great Lakes Book Award, the Chicago Public Library’s 21st Century Award, and the ASCAP Deems Taylor Award for outstanding coverage of music. His stories have been included in The Best American Essays and The Best American Travel Writing.