The Rolling Stones arrived relatively late to the British Invasion. Most of the band’s compatriots scored major hits almost overnight after “I Want to Hold Your Hand,” often on their first or second US single. With the exception of “Time is on My Side” (#6, Dec ’64), though, the Stones’ blues and R&B covers that made up the bulk of their early material mostly failed to move US record buyers. The band’s luck improved stateside when they began focusing on their own poppier material: “Tell Me” (the first Jagger/Richards A-side and the group’s Top 40 debut, Aug 1964), “Heart of Stone” (Top 20, Feb ’65), “The Last Time” (Top 10, May ’65). By the time the band netted their first US chart-topper, though, they weren’t just contending with The Beatles and Herman’s Hermits. The Byrds’ success with “Mr. Tambourine Man” heralded the first real threat to the British Invasion: soft, sunny folk rock, pop that was supposed to have a message.
But while The Byrds were dressing Dylan’s ragged clown in a fringe vest and a vacant smile, The Rolling Stones were topping the charts with a more potent kind of protest music. The hero of “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction” rails against everything around him, from TV advertising and “useless information” on the radio to his inability to get off with a girl. But “Satisfaction” is too sharp-witted to be mistaken for a litany of grievances. A line like “he can’t be a man ’cause he does not smoke/ the same cigarettes as me” seems to parody the self-righteous folkie moralist, while the sneering vocals frame the complaints in quotation marks, as if to acknowledge the absurdity of a rock star whining about how hard he has it. The Rolling Stones didn’t just score a hit with an anti-establishment message; they mocked the self-indulgence of it, made it seem as solipsistic as moaning about not getting laid.
Of course, all suggestions of social critique and irony are secondary to the song’s shocking-for-1965 salaciousness (“tryin’ to make some girl”!), and all lyrics period are secondary to that guitar riff, as fuzzy and unshakeable as a hangover headache. It’s the first sound you hear on the single, and it’s pushed to the front of the mix, dominating the rest of the record. The riff cycles without changing, heavily syncopated as if scoffing at the confines of the beat. Even when it knocks off for a bit, the bass keeps circling in place, the snare drum snaps on every beat, the tambourine gets its three shakes in at the end of each measure. There barely needs to be a verse or a chorus, and there barely is; the song wants to be a 12-bar blues, but it never gets to resolve itself. There’s no middle eight or guitar solo to churn up the monotony — and at nearly four minutes long, it does get monotonous. You don’t need to hear the lyrics to tell you the song’s about being stuck in a rut without release or escape.
Nor do you need them to understand Mick Jagger’s chewy, drippy, overly-underenunciated drawl, simultaneously a frank come on and a caricature of our narrator’s sexual/societal frustration. The real Mick Jagger may want satisfaction, but he certainly doesn’t have trouble getting it; the real Mick Jagger will write a song bemoaning advertising, then spend the royalties on a Bentley. Perhaps it’s this duality that’s helped the song withstand decades of over-exposure. “Satisfaction” is pro-hedonism and anti-consumerism, social commentary and a mockery of social commentary, an ain’t-got-no blues for middle class white kids self-aware enough to know they don’t have real problems but are going to complain anyway. That, and it’s got a massive guitar riff. 9
Hit #1 on July 10, 1965; total of 4 weeks at #1
140 of 1010 #1’s reviewed; 13.86% through the Hot 100