"Satisfaction" at 50: Revisiting the Riff That Rocked the World
Keith Richards at L.A. Coliseum in 1989
Photo by Ted Soqui
On June 6, 1965, London Records released The Rolling Stones’ “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction" in the United States. Keith Richards’ devastating fuzz distortion riff launched a salvo on the Beatles-dominated pop music scene every bit as powerful as the Allies landing on Normandy Beach, 21 years earlier to the day. The song went to No. 1 and rock & roll was never the same again.
"The fuzz riff that opens and runs through 'Satisfaction' is the most instantly identifiable in rock history, bar none,” says rock historian Richie Unterberger.
It completed the transformation of rock & roll from its piano-and-saxophone–heavy roots to a genre dominated by the electric guitar. Until “Satisfaction” hit the airwaves, typical of rock guitar was George Harrison’s meatless solo on The Beatles' 1964 No. 1 hit “Can’t Buy Me Love."
Richards was far from the first guitarist not content to work within the framework of the instrument and a simple amplifier. In 1955, Chuck Berry introduced himself with a long, raucous, muddy solo on “Maybellene” that was groundbreaking. In the ensuing decade, Bo Diddley, Link Wray, Dick Dale, The Kinks' Dave Davies and others used vibrato and distortion to great effect.
But most electric guitarists did not venture beyond the limits of their instrument’s tone control knob. Part of it was the limited technology available. “I slashed my amp with a razor blade,” Davies recalls, explaining how he got the growling fuzz riff behind The Kinks' “You Really Got Me,” a No. 7 hit in the United States in late 1964. “The Stones used a regular fuzz box.”
In fact, Richards used a Gibson Maestro Fuzz-Tone pedal, which was first marketed in 1962. About 5,000 were shipped to dealers, but few guitarists were interested or even aware of it, and many were shipped back. That all changed when “Satisfaction” hit the charts, as musicians took notice, along with teens holding AM transistor radios to their ears.
“The Byrds were working at Ciro's on the Sunset Strip in 1965 when ‘Satisfaction’ came out,” recalls Byrds bassist Chris Hillman. “It was in constant rotation between sets at the club.”
“I was at Billy Preston’s house and he played it for me” on his stereo, recalls Johnny Echols, Love’s lead guitarist during its heyday. “I was blown away by the riff. At first I thought [Richards] was playing through a blown speaker but soon realized it must be some kind of electronic device.”
Later the same day, Echols headed over to Wallichs Music City at Sunset and Vine. “Seymour Drugan — the guitar expert at Music City — brought out a Maestro Fuzz-Tone by Gibson and I was able to duplicate the sound. It was my first time using a pedal,” he says. In response to demand resulting from “Satisfaction,” Gibson manufactured another 40,000 fuzz pedals and quickly sold out.
It was the perfect marriage of new technology with a great song. In his 2012 autobiography Life, Richards claims that he composed the riff in his sleep, waking up just long enough to put it on a cassette tape. “It was just a rough idea. There was just the bare bones of the song, and it didn’t have that noise, of course, because I was on acoustic,” he wrote, describing that initial recording. “And 40 minutes of me snoring.”
Richards supplied the immortal double-negative title line, while Mick Jagger added the verses. The Stones cut a demo with Richards playing acoustic guitar at Chess Studios in Chicago. Richards wanted the riff played by horns (as was later done by Otis Redding on his cover version), but was voted down by his bandmates.
The Stones recorded the final version — with the fuzz tone — at RCA Studios in Los Angeles.
Not only does “Satisfaction” contain Richards’ iconic riff, it also has drummer Charlie Watts’ simple but effective mini-solos adding a coda to each of three biting verses, sung by Jagger at his gritty best, all bemoaning the singer’s frustrations with lack of sexual success. At a time when singles rarely exceeded three minutes, “Satisfaction” checked in at three minutes and 45 seconds but had enough raw energy to sustain its extended running time.
Rolling Stone ranked "Satisfaction" No. 2 on its “500 Greatest Songs of All Time,” eclipsed only by Bob Dylan’s “Like a Rolling Stone,” released later that same summer. It made the Stones — until then primarily known as an R&B cover band — a creative force equal to The Beatles.
According to Richards, the Stones never again recorded with a fuzz pedal. However, in short order, “Satisfaction” engendered psychedelic rock (Jimi Hendrix's “Purple Haze”), garage rock (The Count Five's “Psychotic Reaction”) and early punk rock (The Stooges' “I Wanna Be Your Dog”).
“By thickening the texture of the guitar, Keith Richards helped set the template for hard rock that was anchored by insistent, hypnotic riffs that burned their way into your brain,” Unterberger says. Meaning that we can indirectly thank Richards for decades of heavy metal, too.
“I’ve never got tired of hearing Keith's guitar intro kicking off the song,” Hillman, now 70, says of the riff he first heard in an L.A. club as a young man. “Fifty years later, still love it.”
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