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With the three most famous notes in rock and roll history, Keith Richards kicked off the song that gave the Rolling Stones their first American #1 hit. "(I Can't Get No) Satisfaction" accelerated the band's climb to the top of the musical mountain and, according to Rolling Stone, turned "rock and roll into rock" (source).
Richards claims to have heard the notes in a dream, as a dead-asleep epiphany in a Florida hotel. Of course, this is Keith Richards we're talking about—the distinctions between awake and asleep, day and night, are a bit sketchy for the hard-living rocker. But whatever nocturnal state he was in, Richards was wise enough to record the historic riff on a cassette player before slipping back into it. And the tape with the rock-changing riff (and about forty minutes of snoring) was enough to give Richards and his songwriting partner Mick Jagger a rolling start in the studio.
The song the Stones recorded in May 1965 was not the one they planned to release. Richards used one of his newest toys, a Gibson fuzz box, to add a buzzy edge to his midnight riff. But he viewed his guitar work as a placeholder for the horns that would fill the space on the final track. (It was actually Otis Redding who realized Richards' original concept, when he covered the song later in the year.) But the Stones' producer, Andrew Loog Oldham, liked the distorted guitar effect. And he convinced the band to forget about the horns, leave the song as it was, and release it as a single.
It was good advice. The song shot to the top of the charts, even in the U.S., where the closest the Stones had come to the top spot was their #6 hit, "Time Is On My Side." But "Satisfaction" jumped to #1 within a month of its release, and sat there for four weeks.
With Richards' guitar hook and Jagger's distinctive vocals, the song hit a raw musical nerve. And in fact, it was this combination that Rolling Stone emphasized in 2004 when it anointed the song the second greatest of all time. Richards' "primal temper," Jagger's "sneering" vocals, and the "avenging strut" of the rhythm guitar, bass, and drums all combined to take rock and roll beyond the comparative innocence of its early years. Edgy and filled with attitude, this was "the sound of a generation impatient to inherit the earth" (Rolling Stone, 9 December 2004, 68).
True enough. But it was the song's lyrics, not its sound, that drew the most heated discussion when it was released. Richards had provided the title and tag line; Jagger worked out the rest. He begins with a somewhat uncharacteristic folk song-like critique of ad-driven consumerism: radio shills peddling "useless information," television hacks hawking whiter shirts and brand-dependent manhood, and so on. But then the song shifts abruptly to a more visceral theme, as Jagger's Madison Avenue dissatisfaction gives way to his international girl-chasing frustration.
The anti-commercial rant rubbed some folks the wrong way, but Jagger's blunt recapitulation of his failed attempts to "make some girl" was the real problem. Radio stations hesitated to play the songs. Funnily enough, they were actually hung up on one of its tamer lines. When the Stones appeared on Shindig, a variety TV show, standards-sensitive execs bleeped "And I'm tryin' to make some girl." Meanwhile, the reference to a woman being on her period—"better come back later next week, 'cause you see I'm on a losing streak"—made it on air with no problems at all.
Despite all this, the song changed the Stones' history. "It was the song that really made the Rolling Stones," Jagger recounted, and "changed us from just another band into a huge, monster band." It became their "signature tune" because, as Jagger added, "it has a very catchy title. It has a very catchy guitar riff. It has a great guitar sound [...] And it captures a spirit of the times [...] which was alienation." (Source)
But here's where things get a little tricky. Jagger's anti-commercial critique was probably sincere at some level. He was supposedly disgusted by the relentless advertising that suffocated America's media. And sure, it's possible that Jagger was a closet disciple of Herbert Marcuse, the post-war neo-Marxist who argued that modern capitalism had stripped life of its more authentic sources of meaning. Perhaps, like Marcuse, Jagger felt that because we are unable to find self-value in our work, and unable to realize true fulfillment through our relationships, we are forced to accept a faux meaning through consumption—to carve out a bogus facsimile of "satisfaction" through the acquisition of valueless, ad-fluffed goods.
Yeah, maybe—but probably not. In fact, that whole argument is a bit hard to take from the band that would ride this anti-consumer rant to over a million copies sold. And it's even harder to take from Jagger, who developed an addiction to Britain's aristocratic high life that equaled Richards' more blue-collar rock and roll addictions.
And what about the sexual frustration vented in the final verse? Jagger's ambitions in these lines sound real enough. But when he complains that he "can't get no satisfaction," you might be tempted to roll your eyes. This is the man VH1 named the fourth sexiest artist of all time; this is the international rock star who married models Bianca De Macias and Jerry Hall and has been linked romantically to Janice Dickinson, Carla Bruni, Sophie Dahl, and Angelina Jolie.
So, let's stop and think a little bit about rock and roll and the generation that gave it life. Rolling Stone is probably right. "Satisfaction," complete with fuzzy-edged guitar, abrasive lyrics, a strutting rhythm and an even struttier Jagger, does sound like the voice of a new generation. The song probably did capture the impatience and contempt for much of the world that this generation was anxious to inherit. But when all was said and done, how much did this new generation really change? How much did it really reject? How much of its "alienation" was real?
The Rolling Stones may not be the right band to hold up for an answer. Despite their social commentary, they were still far from the most political or the most socially conscious band to take the stage during the 1960s. Their music was always more visceral than cerebral, their lyrics and posture more petulant than political. Still, we can't quite write off the self-designated "world's greatest rock and roll band." They did make a political statement or two, for example, in "Street Fighting Man," and "Gimme Shelter." And Jagger still claims to be revolutionary, frequently describing himself as an anarchist.
Yet if the Stones are allowed to be the stand-in for their generation and its philosophical evolution, it's not the most inspiring picture. Sir Mick has pandered after everything royal—his own girlfriend suggested in her memoir that he would accept an invitation from "any silly thing with a title and a castle" (source). The Stones still took their music to the masses—but only to those that could afford triple-digit tickets. And via their "official website," they bring their fans news and band history—along with an "Official Rolling Stones store" that will ensure you have a uh, relevant shopping experience.
But at least their music survives. Even if the Stones lost their "alienated" edge a long time ago (either when they scored their first million, bought their first Lear Jet, or fled England to avoid their country's tax laws), songs like "Satisfaction" still survive, disembodied but nonetheless sounding like a "primal...sneering...strutting" damnation of the shallowness and commercialism that riddles contemporary life.
Except, not always. At the 2000 Video Music Awards, Britney Spears la-la-la'd her way into a verse of "Satisfaction" before segueing into the less than lyrically inspired "Oops!...I Did It Again." If the tabloid fodder former Mouseketeer can take the stage to thunderous applause at an industry event, strip down to her body suit, and feed her voice through Richards' fuzz box, then perhaps even the music is just another product.
We'll let you decide, but if that's the case, at least it's a darn good one.