‘Can’t You Hear Me Knocking’: The Story Behind The Rolling Stones Song
Fortified by new guitarist Mick Taylor, the group redefined themselves in a fresh decade with an iconic song.
As the 1960s gave way to the 70s, The Rolling Stones entered the new decade as an enhanced and revised model of their former selves. The death of founding guitarist Brian Jones in July 1969 and the tragedy of Altamont that December may have bookended the Stones’ first incarnation as the dandified blues boys of Swinging London, but that year would also gift them the secret weapon that would steer them assuredly into a new era in which they’d crown themselves The Greatest Rock And Roll Band In The World.
Mick Taylor was only 20 when he was recruited to replace Brian Jones, joining the band in May 1969 when it became clear that Brian’s mounting addictions, unreliability, and disinterest warranted his dismissal. Mick was young, healthy, reliable, and, crucially, a virtuoso guitarist, making him the perfect foil to play alongside Keith Richards. “Mick Taylor turns up and plays like an angel,” Keith said of their introduction, “and I wasn’t going to say no.”
Enlivened by this new addition, the Stones undertook their first American concert tour in three years, finding themselves galvanized not only by their improved musicianship, but also by the advanced sound technology that allowed their performances to be heard properly in venues. Recordings from this tour, which would later be released as the live album Get Yer Ya-Yas Out, exhibited the exceptional interplay between Taylor and Richards. On Sticky Fingers, the Stones’ next studio album, the effect of Taylor’s accomplished skills would be fully felt.
Listen to The Rolling Stones’ “Can’t You Hear Me Knocking” now.
The Sticky Fingers sessions begin
A week after the release of Let It Bleed, the Stones spent the first few days of December 1969 in Muscle Shoals Sound Studios in Alabama recording three new songs: “Brown Sugar,” “Wild Horses,” and “You Gotta Move.” Three months later, they convened at Stargroves, Mick Jagger’s country estate, to record more songs. By June, they were in Olympic Sound Studios in London, with producer Jimmy Miller, adding more songs to the Sticky Fingers pot.
It was here, a whole year after Mick Taylor’s enlistment, that the fully integrated unit would take flight in the studio. “I really think Mick Taylor had a big influence on the direction the band took,” said Andy Johns, the engineer on these sessions. “They started working with Jimmy Miller… [and] obviously it got very much more rock and roll. Then Mick comes along, and it really sort of puts the icing on the cake. They went in that direction because they could start jamming again. They hadn’t been jamming for a long time.”
Taylor’s fluid, melodic style contrasted Keith Richards’ chunky riffs and choppy rhythms. “I could sit and listen to Mick Taylor all night,” Andy Johns. “He would never make a mistake, and every take would be different. And he’d make you cry. It really was good… I loved listening to him play night after night after night. It was not boring.”
Recording the song
Like most of the other songs from these sessions, “Can’t You Hear Me Knocking” didn’t come from the Stones’ usual process of endlessly replaying a number in the studio until it attained perfection. It was actually brought to the sessions fairly complete. “They never used to go into the studio without any ideas,” Taylor would say, “but I can’t remember any occasions when they would actually go into the studio with a completely finished song, with words and everything.”
And so, confident in the song’s direction, the group began to tackle it with aplomb. “‘Can’t You Hear Me Knocking’ came out flying,” said Keith Richards. “I just found the tuning and the riff and started to swing it, and Charlie [Watts] picked up on it just like that, and we’re thinking, hey, this is some groove. So it was smiles all around.”
Keith had composed the song in open G tuning, a relatively new method for him and one that he was still exploring, which allowed for an exotic and expressive use of notes and textures. “On that song,” he said, “my fingers just landed in the right place, and I discovered a few things about that tuning that I’d never been aware of. I think I realized that even as I was cutting the track.”
His jagged, coruscating riffs kick the song off, before Charlie’s sharp, solid beat joins in, followed by Bill Wyman on bass, and Mick Taylor with a mellifluous counterpart to Keith’s harsh licks. “For a guitar player, it’s no big deal to play,” said Keith, “the chopping, staccato bursts of chords, very direct and spare.”
After just a couple of run-throughs, the master cut of “Can’t You Hear Me Knocking” was recorded in just one take. Despite this, the tape never stopped rolling, and neither did the Stones.
“Towards the end of the song, I just felt like carrying on playing,” said Mick Taylor. Seconds after the climactic crash heralded the end of the prospective new song, as the others were putting down their instruments, Taylor began picking out a playful, repetitive pattern with a light Latin feel. “It sounded good,” he said, “so everybody quickly picked up their instruments again and carried on playing. It just happened.”
Following Mick’s lead, Charlie locked in on a percussive groove. “He had such a good ear,” Charlie said of Mick, “and I would help push him along.” Bill and Keith rejoin, but having dominated the main song, here Keith decided to keep time with some spiky chops and allow Mick to career off into an incredible, euphonic, and note-perfect solo. When the group finally stopped playing, rounding off the impromptu jam in climactic bursts, they’d put to tape a seven-minute masterpiece that would stand as a definitive showpiece of Mick Taylor’s supple talents.
“Generally, I tried to bring my own distinctive sound and style to Sticky Fingers and I like to think I added some extra spice,” Taylor would say. “I don’t want to say ‘sophistication’ – I think that sounds pretentious. Charlie said I brought ‘finesse.’ That’s a better word. I’ll go with what Charlie said.”
Guest stars and overdubs
With this dramatic and thrilling track in the can, the Stones moved on to embellishing its features. Billy Preston, fresh from his work with The Beatles, was drafted in to supply his organ skills. His high, trilling Hammond flourishes heightened the devotional yearning of the song’s first half, while the second is punctuated by some sprightly gospel fervor.
Kwashi “Rocky Dijon” Dzidzornu, the Ghanaian percussionist who’d previously pounded the congas on 1968’s “Sympathy For The Devil,” returned on “Can’t You Hear Me Knocking.” It’s his thumping, along with other percussion courtesy of Jimmy Miller, that bridges the two halves, and emphasises the song’s Latin flavor.
Also appearing on the track is Bobby Keys, who had debuted his saxophone for the Stones on “Live With Me” back on Let It Bleed. Staying with Mick Jagger during the “Sticky Fingers” sessions, he was invited back in to inject some horns into “Can’t You Hear Me Knocking.” “That was the influence of people like Otis Redding and James Brown,” said Charlie of what would become the Stones’ brass section, “and also Delaney and Bonnie, who Bobby Keys and [trumpet player] Jim Price played with. It was to add an extra dimension, a different color, not to make the band sound any different.”
Egged on in the studio by Keith, Bobby produced an extended, improvised solo that snaked in and out of the jam, and paved the way for him to become a full-time touring musician for the Stones (with the exception of a few years in the late 70s/early 80s) until his death in 2014.
Vocals and lyrics
From the moment he enters the fray, Mick Jagger is fantastically pointed, his barbed howls piercing through the bristling backdrop. He sounds scornful in the opening verse, putting someone down for their “satin shoes,” “plastic boots,” “cocaine eyes,” and “speed freak jive.”
In the chorus, he’s beseeching the protagonist to let him inside: “Can’t you hear me knocking?” The bridge finds him somewhat more appealing: “Help me, baby,” he pleads at first, then we find him “begging on my knees.” His urgings are made all the more expressive by the fact his voice – at its absolute best – is similarly strained, exuding grit and desperation as it stretches to hit the notes.
“It’s very high for me,” Jagger would say, “and I remember saying, ‘Oh, this is not really my key, but I’ll try. I did lots of harmonies to hide the fact I didn’t really hit the notes that great in the chorus.”
Much like the jam that would define “Can’t You Hear Me Knocking” as a classic Stones tune, there is a distinct sense of spontaneity to Jagger’s spirited vocals – a theory borne out shortly afterward, when Jerry Pompili, the Stones’ head of security, was tasked with transcribing the lyrics to Sticky Fingers for copyright purposes, and presenting them to Jagger for verification. “We had one disagreement,” Pompili later revealed, “and it was on ‘Can’t You Hear Me Knocking.’ There was one line that sounded to me and everybody else like, ‘Yeah, I’ve got flatted feet now, now, now,’ but Mick swore that was not what he had sung. He couldn’t remember what it was, so we just went with, ‘Yeah, I’ve got flatted feet now, now, now.’”
Sticky Fingers was released on April 23rd, 1971. It was the first release on Rolling Stones Records, and was distributed through Atco Records, as part of a new deal with Atlantic Records. Propelled by lead single “Brown Sugar,” which preceded it by a week, the album followed the single to Number One around the world. As the opening gambit of a new and decisive chapter in the Rolling Stones’ story, it was an accomplished and eclectic sign of things to come.
“Can’t You Hear Me Knocking” is arguably the album’s centerpiece. Pitting the Stones’ savage, strutting rock ’n’ roll against a loose, fiery display of artistry, it laid the groundwork for the musical adventuring the Stones would embark on throughout the 70s.
The song’s legacy
Apart from one outing in Newcastle in March 1971, it took 30 years for the Stones to recreate “Can’t You Hear Me Knocking” live on stage. In that time, Sticky Fingers was heralded a classic album, considered by many to be the Stones’ finest, and “Can’t You Hear Me Knocking” became a towering representation of the Stones at their most delightfully ferocious.
It’s perhaps the song’s inherent menace that has led “Can’t You Hear Me Knocking” to regularly appearing in movies as the audio accompaniment to scenes of depravity. Martin Scorsese played the song in its entirety in his 1995 movie Casino, scoring Joe Pesci’s character’s description of how his Las Vegas criminal empire quickly expanded. Likewise, as the drug dealing pursuits of notorious trafficker George Jung are acted out by Johnny Depp in the 2001 movie Blow, we hear this song played in full.
The associations between “Can’t You Hear Me Knocking” and these dark exploits, as well as the correlation with the Stones’ own image as outlaws, may explain why few have dared to replicate it. Jason Isbell kept faithful to the hard rocking original in his version with the 400 Unit, while Australian soul outfit The Bamboos upped the brass in their funky version. Only Carlos Santana, whom many have credited as having originally inspired Mick Taylor’s melodic Latin-flavoured solo in the song, would credibly challenge the frenetic guitar-slinging in his 2010 take with singer Scott Weiland.
“I think this track’s really interesting,” Mick Jagger once conceded. “We’ve never done anything else like it since.”
Listen to The Rolling Stones’ “Can’t You Hear Me Knocking” now.