Fifty years ago, the Rolling Stones released their breakthrough single (I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction, which debuted in the US during the first week of June 1965. The band’s previous singles had done well enough stateside: the country-influenced Heart of Stone had risen to 19 on the charts in late 1964, and the gospel-tinged The Last Time had reached 9.
But Satisfaction catapulted the band’s into superstardom, hitting number one on both sides of the Atlantic.
The song kicks off with a now-classic guitar riff, enhanced by the sound of the Fuzz-Tone – an innovation of the era that adds an enormous amount of distortion to the guitar tone, fattening up its sound in a way that’s both pleasing and aggressive.
But that iconic guitar lick was not initially intended to be on the final record – at least, as far as Keith Richards was concerned – and in the early stages of the recording process, there was little the others could do to satisfy the band’s lead guitarist.
A fuzz and a click, and Satisfaction
In the spring of 1965, while the Rolling Stones were touring the US, Richards awoke one morning and noticed that the cassette tape in his portable recorder had wound to the end.
He couldn’t remember using it the night before, so he rewound the tape and listened. Apparently, he had recorded a few snatches of Satisfaction and gone back to sleep, leaving the machine to record a long stretch of snoring.
The song’s seeds had been planted.
The band needed a follow-up single to The Last Time and liked to record stateside, so they tumbled into Chess Studios in Chicago to work on some material, including Satisfaction.
The Rolling Stones were influenced by a wide variety of music. Keith has said that the initial idea of the song was spurred by the music of Martha and the Vandellas, and elements of the Motown group’s singles of the time – Dancing in the Streets and, especially, Nowhere to Run – are present in the track.
From there, they headed to the West Coast, where they gathered in Hollywood’s RCA Studios with engineer Dave Hassinger to continue working on Satisfaction.
At one point, a Maestro FZ-1 Fuzz-Tone was brought in. It was likely given to the group by the Gibson guitar company, along with Keith and Brian’s distinctive Firebird guitars. Other accounts say someone was sent out to a local music store in search of something to spice up the track.
The band then recorded the track with the fuzz-drenched guitar part. But initially, it was only supposed to serve as a placeholder for what would be a horn line.
During the playback, everybody assembled – the band, producer Andrew Loog Oldham and Hassinger – immediately believed they had a hit on their hands. Richards, however, wasn’t pleased with this version, and demanded a vote.
According to Rolling Stones bass player Bill Wyman, Keith (together with Mick) lost in a landslide. The song was released as we know it.
If you listen carefully at about 0:35 in the track, you can actually hear the Fuzz-Tone switch click. For whatever reason, the click was never erased, and it forever exists as a reminder of the Fuzz-Tone’s original role as a “demo” placeholder.
A scandal of circumstance for the Rolling Stones
Then there’s the aftermath of the song’s release, and the legendary scandal it created.
Listening to the lyrics today, it’s tough to understand why they were so controversial. Likely prompted by a line in Chuck Berry’s Thirty Days, they discuss dissatisfaction with a range of everyday events, mostly having to do with advertising hype.
One verse does describe a woman on a “losing streak” who asks the man to come back next week. This was widely thought to refer to the woman rejecting a sexual advance because she was menstruating. And somehow, a number of listeners thought the song was about masturbation – or, at least, sexual dissatisfaction – which is something of an interpretive stretch.
The scandal surrounding the lyrics has to be understood in the context of two issues. First, Andrew Loog Oldham had worked hard to establish the Rolling Stones as the anti-Beatles. Already, the Rolling Stones had been promoted as the bad boys of pop in the UK, though in the US the worst anybody had been able to say is that they were shaggy and, perhaps, rude.
Second, just before the release of Satisfaction, the Kingsmen’s Louie, Louie had created a stir with lyrics that were purported to be obscene. The FBI was even called in to investigate the track (though a cursory listen to the Richard Berry 1957 original or the Rockin’ Robin Roberts 1961 cover makes it clear that the lyrics are far from obscene).
In the case of Louie, Louie, the seriousness of the charge significantly outweighed the validity of the evidence, at least in the popular imagination. The idea that a rock song could be dirty, after all, was not too far removed from the swiveling hips of Elvis Presley a few years earlier, or hokum blues tracks like Big Joe Turner’s Shake, Rattle, and Roll (1954). The Rolling Stones were simply the most recent example of the of rock music troublemakers.
(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction established at least one template the Stones would return to many times over their career: the idea of bad boys singing dirty songs, of misbehaving rebels eager to shock adults while delighting fans.
But the practice of experimenting with new sounds in the studio would also become increasingly central to the band’s music, especially in the second half of the 1960s. The use of the Fuzz-Tone on Satisfaction was only the beginning, and seems quite tame compared to the trippy 2000 Light Years from Home, recorded just two years later.
By 1967, the scandal involving the band became drug use. But throughout the Stones’ long, storied career, the band refused to express regrets over being provocative, never giving anyone the satisfaction of an apology.
To read about The Last Time, the Rolling Stones’ first US hit, click here.