In 1964, the Beatles initiated a pop music renaissance and music became important to young baby boomers in a way it had never been for previous generations. Children, some not yet in double digits, were immersed in Top 40 radio, often listening under the covers long after our parents thought we were asleep.
With earnest curiosity, we engaged with lyrics that were becoming increasingly complex, even for our older brothers and sisters. By ’65, we heard the simplicity of “Gee, I really love you,” give way to “the twisted reach of crazy sorrow.” And fresh new sounds and rhythms from British and American groups made it hard to keep still. Not yet burdened with the self-consciousness of puberty, we danced.
It was the height of the British Invasion, and we couldn’t get enough of the new bands from across the pond. The Beatles were, of course, a thing apart, but the Dave Clark 5, Herman’s Hermits, Peter and Gordon, Gerry and the Pacemakers and the Animals also called out to us. The Rolling Stones had a few minor hits and a TV appearance in ’64, but we weren’t paying much attention to Mick and the boys. Then, in June ’65, “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction” happened.
Only three months after the Beatles shocked parents with “She said that living with me was bringing her down,” the Rolling Stones snarled “I can’t get no satisfaction,” and alluded to sex during menstruation. As I discuss in Beatleness, the Fab Four’s arrival in ’64 heralded a new frontier of youth empowerment, self-expression and freedom. The following year, with “Satisfaction,” the Stones — labeled a “leering quintet” by Newsweek — pushed that frontier forward.
The song comes at you with an assaultive riff and doesn’t let up for three minutes and 44 seconds. Using his new Gibson Maestro fuzzbox, Keith Richards attempted to simulate horns, which is how he wanted the song recorded. He thought the fuzz guitar, intended only as a placeholder, was too gimmicky. Outvoted by the rest of the band, the distorted guitar prevailed. The riff has become something almost beyond music, like a naturally occurring sound one just hears out in the world. It’s hard to imagine the last 50 years without it.
Unrelenting percussion, layers of driving guitar, subtle piano and elegant tambourine support and sometimes teasingly obscure incessantly complaining lyrics. This mélange, delivered with Jagger’s then-newfound swagger, was an audacious “fuck you” to the World War II generation. The double negative in the title and chorus, a form of speech used by the powerless and marginal, adds urgency, angerand a touch of menace.
Stones manager Andrew Oldham consciously marketed the band as the antithesis of the Beatles. But marketing strategy or not, young music fans could hear, see, and perhaps more importantly, feel the inherent differences between the two bands. The Beatles were a boomer obsession at this point, so when the Stones suddenly grabbed our attention further along that frontier, you had to have an opinion. “Satisfaction” began the “Stones v. Beatles” (or “Beatles v. Stones”) conversation that has occupied fans and critics alike for 50 years.
Unlike the protagonist in Chuck Berry’s “Too Much Monkey Business” who doesn’t bother complaining because he knows his objection will be overruled, or the guy in Eddie Cochran’s “Summertime Blues,” who was powerless because he was too young to vote, the Stones complained loudly and persistently — and empowered young listeners to do the same. The rousing critique of vapid media, consumer culture, conformity and sexual rebuff was number one for four weeks — quite an earful for a mass audience of very tuned-in children.
When the Stones performed the song on ABC’s “Shindig” in May ’65 and then on “The Ed Sullivan Show” the following February, young viewers saw a band more androgynous than the Beatles, and overtly sexual. They were intriguing, even off-putting at times, but we didn’t look away. We didn’t even look away when pouting Mick tried to stare us down in tight close-ups. Jagger’s persona, with its fluid sexuality, enigmatic energy and oppositional stance, became a significant presence in boomers’ lives.
The Stones’ misogyny became as integral to the package as Jagger’s androgyny, an odd contradiction that, in retrospect, could have been challenging for fans of all ages and added to the sense that the Stones were “darker” than the Beatles. Yet, both boys and girls wanted the look and many tried out Jagger’s moves. Father and son battles over hair and tight pants heated up, as the Stones’ effeminate, punk style spread through junior highs and high schools across America. In fact, “Satisfaction” could arguably be called the first punk rock song.
The similarly-themed “Get Off of My Cloud” followed a few months later. By the time the Who’s “My Generation” hit the states, the media was obsessed with the so-called generation gap. The sixties were in full swing. Young people were seeking satisfaction.
One of the main Beatles takeaways was “all you need is love.” We now know this isn’t quite true. Love is essential, but, pragmatically speaking, it’s not all we need. The Stones classic speaks a greater truth. The media still offer uninspiring, useless information. Advertisers continue to exploit our insecurities to drive consumption (which is, by the way, destroying the planet), and boomers, with our high divorce rates, are still often frustrated as they try to navigate gender relations. Listening to “Satisfaction” today, I hear a tirade against a culture that thwarts the basic human need to feel fully alive and engaged — intellectually, emotionally and physically. “Satisfaction” sounds as fresh today as it did 50 years ago, and fires our imaginations.
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