The Story Behind “Can’t You Hear Me Knocking” by The Rolling Stones and the Memorable Jam that Was Originally an Afterthought

The Rolling Stones were recording their album Sticky Fingers at Olympia Studios in London, England. The band often played past the end of a song and in this session the tape rolled on without the band knowing it, leading to one of the longest songs released by the Stones. There are two distinctive parts: the traditional song and the jam. Let’s take a look at the story behind “Can’t You Hear Me Knocking” by The Rolling Stones.

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Yeah, you got satin shoes
Yeah, you got plastic boots
Y’all got cocaine eyes
Yeah, you got speed freak jive now

The Composition

Keith Richards opens the song with a signature open-G guitar riff that lets the listener know exactly what they are in for. In 2010, Richards wrote in his autobiography Life, “‘Can’t You Hear Me Knocking’ came out flying—I just found the tuning and the riff and started to swing it, and [drummer] Charlie [Watts] picked up on it just like that, and we’re thinking, ‘Hey, this is some groove.’ So it was smiles all around. For a guitar player it’s no big deal to play—the chopping, staccato bursts of chords, very direct and spare.”

Can’t you hear me knockin’
On your window
Can’t you hear me knockin’
On your door
Can’t you hear me knockin’
Down your dirty street
All right now

The Lyrics

As Watts steers the band through the song, singer Mick Jagger comes in with the first verse. It fits perfectly with the rhythm. So perfectly, in fact, it was the meter of the words Jagger was more concerned with than the meaning. When the album was released, the band’s legal team realized they didn’t have the lyrics written down to copyright them. They listened to an advanced pressing to hear what Jagger was singing. They couldn’t agree on all the words, leading to the line, I’ve got flatted feet, now. Jagger says he didn’t write that but couldn’t recall the actual line, so that’s what is copyrighted.

Help me, baby
I ain’t no stranger
Help me, baby
I ain’t no stranger

The Jam

Though The Rolling Stones aren’t typically a “jam band,” this tune goes on a journey after they finish the main body of the song. Only a few songs clock in longer than “Can’t You Hear Me Knocking”— “Goin’ Home” on Aftermath, “Miss You” on Some Girls, and “You Can’t Always Get What You Want” on Let It Bleed are the only songs that come in longer. Keyboardists Bily Preston and Nicky Hopkins, percussionists Jimmy Miller and Rocky Dijon, saxophonist Bobby Keys, and background vocalists Ronnie Lane and Pete Townshend appeared on the recording.

“We did this at Olympic, and the jam at the end was an afterthought,” Jagger said in 2015. “It comes in two pieces. This rock song with this added jam. It’s slightly Carlos Santana-like. Mick Taylor plays a bit of that style, I think. I don’t think we meant that, but somehow it added on, and I think this was done really quickly, too. I remember very clearly doing it. It’s very high for me, 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.”

Can’t you hear me knockin’
Are you safe asleep
Can’t you hear me knockin’
Down your gaslight street
Can’t you hear me knockin’
Throw me down the keys

The Saxophone Solo

Texan Bobby Keys plays the sax on quite a few Rolling Stones albums, including Let It Bleed, Sticky Fingers, Exile on Main St., Goats Head Soup, Emotional Rescue, Flashpoint, Stripped, No Security, and Shine a Light. He also appeared on All Things Must Pass by George Harrison and Mad Dogs & Englishmen by Joe Cocker. In 2014, Richards told Rolling Stone magazine, “He was the epitome of the rock and roll sax-playing man. He used to tell me about listening to Buddy Holly rehearse in his garage just down the road from his house. That’s one of the reasons he wanted to get into music. That’s pretty early rock and roll, so he was right in there at the very beginning. He was playing on the road by the time he was 15. He was a piece of history in himself and had a deep knowledge of it. When we brought Bobby in, we were listening to the great soul bands of the sixties. We wanted to give the band a bigger sound and were influenced by all of the beautiful R&B records with the Memphis horns—the Otis [Redding] and the [Wilson] Pickett bands—so adding saxes seemed quite natural to us.”

Hear me ringin’
Big bell toll
Hear me singin’
Soft and low
I’ve been beggin’
On my knees
I’ve been kickin’
Help me, please

The Guitar Solo

Mick Taylor had joined the band the year before. He was often playing the lead to Richards’ rhythm guitar. In 1995, Taylor recalled, “Very rarely were guitar solos overdubbed—I mean other things may have been overdubbed, but very rarely were guitar solos overdubbed. They were usually sort of done with the backing track, so they were done live.”

Hear me howlin’
I wanna take you down
Hear me growlin’
Yeah, I got flatted feet now now now
Hear me prowlin’
All around your street
Hear me knockin’
All around your town

Influence on Others

Guns’ N’ Roses guitarist Slash was among those listening. In 2009, he told Classic Rock magazine, “Mick Taylor had the biggest influence on me, without me even knowing it. My favorite Stones records were Beggars Banquet, Let It Bleed, and Sticky Fingers. … One of the greatest Mick Taylor solos is ‘Can’t You Hear Me Knocking.’ It’s the kind of stuff that’s almost like old Eric Clapton—it’s very simple stuff, but it’s about how the notes are placed and how you approach them.”

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Photo by David Redfern/Redferns

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