Robert Greenberg

Historian, Composer, Pianist, Speaker, Author

Music History Monday: How We Love Our Toys!

Keith Richards
Keith Richards (born 1943) in 1965

It was most likely sometime during the evening of May 6, 1965 – 54 years ago today – that Keith Richards, the lead guitar player for the Rolling Stones, worked out the opening riff for the song (I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction. Satisfaction went on to become one of the most important rock ‘n’ roll songs of all time; in 2004, Rolling Stone Magazine went so far as to rate it number two on its list of “The 500 Greatest Songs of All Time.” (Number “two” on Rolling Stone Magazine’s list of “The 500 Greatest Songs of All Time?” Duh. Perhaps, maybe, “The 500 Greatest Rock ‘n’ Roll Songs of All Time,” although I’m not sure I’d even go that far. I will rant about this rather extensively in tomorrow’s “Dr. Bob Prescribes” post, which can be accessed on my Patreon site.)

But back to Satisfaction and what makes it truly memorable. I would assert that more than Richard’s rising/falling eight-note riff that generates the song’s melody; and much more than Mick Jagger’s cynical, rebellious, but nevertheless (we must be honest, here) borderline-insipid lyrics, it is the “sound” of Keith Richard’s guitar that gives Satisfaction its dramatic edge and its wonderful sense of sleaze: its defining character. (It is a defining character that, to a huge degree, went on to define the Stones as well!)

A 100% reliable account of the creation of Satisfaction has yet to emerge because the one person who could provide it – Keith Richards – keeps changing the story. For example, writing in his autobiography entitled My Life (Little, Brown, & Co., 2010), Richards claims that he recorded the riff that powers Satisfaction on a portable cassette player while he was asleep. (I must assume this means that he was experiencing the effects of some non-prescription pharmaceutical or another.) Whatever: Richards asserts that had no idea he had recorded anything until he listened to the tape the next day, which consisted of two minutes of guitar playing followed by forty minutes of snoring. The given location of this parasomnial recording session has been variously identified as being the Jack Tarr Harrison Hotel in Clearwater Florida; a house in the Chelsea section of London; or the London Hilton Hotel.

The location momentarily aside, the one irrefutable fact is that Richards’ immediate inspiration for Satisfaction was a toy he acquired, presumably on the day of Satisfaction’s creation. The most commonly told version of the story goes like this.

The Rolling Stones – in the middle of a North American tour – were performing in Clearwater Florida, on the Gulf Coast. Sometime immediately prior to or on the day of May 6, 1965, Keith Richards acquired a device called a “Maestro Fuzz-Tone”, made by the Gibson (guitar) company of Kalamazoo, Michigan. 

Maestro Fuzz-Tone advertisement, 1962
Maestro Fuzz-Tone advertisement, 1962

Gibson released its Fuzz-Tone FZ-1 pedal under its “Maestro” brand in 1962; the unit retailed for $40.00. Here’s how it works. You plug an electric guitar or bass into the unit and the unit into an amplifier. The Fuzz-Tone converts (“clips”) the smooth, rounded sine-waves received from the guitar (or electric bass) into square waves, which are sent on to the amplifier. These amplified square waves produce a gritty, dirty, raw and distorted sound which can resemble horns: saxophones and brass instruments. 

According to its patent application, filed on May 3, 1962, the Fuzz-Tone was designed:

“to provide a tone modifying attachment and circuit for electrically produced signals which will permit stringed musical instruments such as guitars, banjos and string basses to produce tones simulating other instruments such as trumpets, trombones and tubas.”

Gibson was convinced that with the Fuzz-Tone it had a gold mine on its hands, and so did guitar dealers across the United States. Those dealers bought out the entire inventory of Fuzz-Tones produced in 1962: 5000 units. 

And then?

And then nothing; the Fuzz-Tone became the Edsel of guitar accessories. In 1963, Gibson shipped all of three Fuzz-Tones; in 1964 they shipped none.

The Fort Harrison Hotel in Clearwater Florida
The Fort Harrison Hotel in Clearwater Florida; in 1965 it was known as The Jack Tar Harrison Hotel

We can pretty much assume that the Fuzz-Tone Keith Richards acquired on or immediately before May 6, 1965 was deeply discounted and labelled “no returns.” 

On the evening of May 6, 1965 (it was a Thursday), the Rolling Stones played a concert at Clearwater Florida’s Jack Russell Stadium. The concert was a fiasco; the fans rioted and the boys were whisked off the field in a white station wagon and returned to their hotel, the palatial Jack Tar Harrison Hotel, today known as the Fort Harrison Hotel.

Most accounts indicate that on returning to his hotel room, Richards began fooling around with his Gibson Fuzz-Tone and fell in love. Soon enough he was banging on Mick Jagger’s door, anxious to demonstrate his new toy and to play for Jagger a rising/falling, eight-note earworm that he could not get out of his head. 

Jagger couldn’t get it out of his head either. According to Keith Richards, writing in his memoirs, 

“Mick wrote the lyrics by the pool in Clearwater, Florida.” 

That would have been on the following day, on May 7. However, the pool the Stones were lounging around was not the one at the Jack Tar Harrison Hotel but rather, at the nearby and decidedly less impressive Manger Motor Lodge.

Mick Jagger (born 1943) kickin’ back with a Bud
Mick Jagger (born 1943) kickin’ back with a Bud by the pool at the Manger Motor Lodge on May 7, 1965, presumably contemplating the lyrics for Satisfaction

Why did the Stones spend May 7 at a motel pool rather than at the pool at their hotel? Did they have to check-out at noon? Did the Jack Tar Harrison Hotel ask them to go elsewhere as a result of the incident at the concert the evening before? The reason remains unknown.

What we do know is that five days later, on May 12, 1965, the Stones recorded the version of Satisfaction that we know today at RCA studios in Hollywood, California.

Keith Richards at RCA studios in Hollywood California
Keith Richards at RCA studios in Hollywood California, May 12-13, 1965

When (I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction was released in the United Sates on June 6, 1965, it flew to the top of the charts. 

No one will mistake Mick Jagger’s lyrics for being decent, or even passable poetry, and the song’s tagline – the grammatically disastrous “I can’t get no satisfaction” – is a double negative that in fact means “I can get satisfaction.” Here’s verse One (of three):

I can't get no satisfaction, I can't get no satisfaction
'Cause I try and I try and I try and I try
I can't get no, I can't get no
When I'm drivin' in my car, and the man come on the radio
He's tellin' me more and more about some useless information
Supposed to fire my imagination
I can't get no, oh, no, no, no, hey, hey, hey
That's what I say.

Rather artless though they may be, Jagger’s gritty, abrasive words resonated with the spirit of alienation, impatience, and even contempt that many young people felt towards the “establishment” in those days of increasing commercialization, sexual liberation, and growing involvement in Vietnam.

Regarding Satisfaction, Mick Jagger told Rolling Stone Magazine in 1995: 

“It was the song that really made The Rolling Stones, changed us from just another band into a huge, monster band. You always need one song. We weren’t American, and America was a big thing and we always wanted to make it here. It was very impressive the way that song and the popularity of the band became a worldwide thing. It’s a signature tune, really – a signature that everyone knows. It has a very catchy title. It has a very catchy guitar riff. It has a great guitar sound, which was original at that time. And it captures a spirit of the times, which is very important in those kinds of songs. Which was alienation.” 

Once more, Mick:

Satisfaction has a great guitar sound, which was original at that time.”

That it does, and that it was, and thanks to Keith Richards and Satisfaction, sales of Gibson’s Maestro Fuzz-Tone went through the roof. 

The song offers a rather fascinating paradox: a lyric that insists that “satisfaction” is unattainable that’s set to music that is remarkably satisfying! 

Keith Richards and Mick Jagger in 1965
Keith Richards and Mick Jagger in 1965 looking like the kids that they were

Listen on the Music History Monday Podcast