“You Can’t Always Get What You Want” is a song by the Rolling Stones on their 1969 album Let It Bleed. Written by Mick Jagger and Keith Richards, it was named as the 100th greatest song of all time by Rolling Stone magazine in its 2004 list of the “500 Greatest Songs of All Time”.
Although it was the closing track, “You Can’t Always Get What You Want” was the first song recorded for the album. It exists in two versions, a 4:49 single mix and a 7:30 album mix. “You Can’t Always Get What You Want” was recorded on 16 and 17 November 1968 at Olympic Sound Studios in London. It features the London Bach Choir opening the song (the choir opening is only on the album version), highlighting throughout, and bringing it to its conclusion. Jimmy Miller, the Stones’ producer at the time, plays drums on this song instead of Charlie Watts. Al Kooper plays piano and organ, as well as the French horn intro, while Rocky Dijon plays congas and maracas.
Of the song, Jagger said:
“ “You Can’t Always Get What You Want” was something I just played on the acoustic guitar—one of those bedroom songs. It proved to be quite difficult to record because Charlie couldn’t play the groove and so Jimmy Miller had to play the drums. I’d also had this idea of having a choir, probably a gospel choir, on the track, but there wasn’t one around at that point. Jack Nitzsche, or somebody, said that we could get the London Bach Choir and we said, “That will be a laugh.” ”
In his review of the song, Richie Unterberger of AllMusic said: “If you buy John Lennon’s observation that the Rolling Stones were apt to copy the Beatles’ innovations within a few months or so, ‘You Can’t Always Get What You Want’ is the Rolling Stones’ counterpart to ‘Hey Jude’.” Jagger said in 1969, “I liked the way the Beatles did that with ‘Hey Jude’. The orchestra was not just to cover everything up—it was something extra. We may do something like that on the next album.”
The three verses (along with the varied theme in the fourth verse) address the major topics of the 1960s: love, politics, and drugs. Each verse captures the essence of the initial optimism and eventual disillusion, followed by the resigned pragmatism in the chorus.
“ Much has been made of the lyrics reflecting the end of the overlong party that was the 1960s, as a snapshot of Swinging London burning out. That’s a valid interpretation, but it should also be pointed out that there’s also an uplifting and reassuring quality to the melody and performance. This is particularly true of the key lyrical hook, when we are reminded that we can’t always get what we want, but we’ll get what we need. ”
A man named Jimmy Hutmaker of Excelsior, Minnesota, claimed that he was the “Mr. Jimmy” mentioned in the song and that he said the phrase “you can’t always get what you want” to Jagger during a chance encounter at a drug store in Excelsior in 1964.
David Dalton, a writer for Rolling Stone who witnessed the filming of The Rolling Stones Rock and Roll Circus claims in his commentary track for the DVD of the concert that “Mr. Jimmy” refers to Jimmy Miller, the producer of all of the Rolling Stones’ albums from Beggar’s Banquet (1968) through Goat’s Head Soup (1973), and the drummer on “You Can’t Always Get What You Want”.
The song was originally released on the B-side of “Honky Tonk Women” in July 1969. Although it did not chart at the time, London Records re-serviced the single in 1973 and “You Can’t Always Get What You Want” reached number 42 on the Billboard Hot 100 and number 34 on the Cashbox Top 100 Singles chart. One of the Stones’ most popular recordings, it has since appeared on the compilations Hot Rocks, Singles Collection (single version), Forty Licks, Rolled Gold+: The Very Best of the Rolling Stones (2007 edition), Singles 1968-1971 (single version), Slow Rollers (single version) and GRRR! (single version).
The song is also very popular at Rolling Stones shows in part because of its sing-along chorus, and is played at almost every show, where it is customary for Jagger to change the lyrics from “my favourite flavour, cherry red” to the question “What’s your favourite flavour?” to which the audience replies “Cherry red!” Live recordings appear on the albums Love You Live, Flashpoint, Live Licks, and Sweet Summer Sun: Hyde Park Live, as well as on The Rolling Stones Rock and Roll Circus, filmed in 1968. Stones concert films that contain the song include: Ladies and Gentlemen: The Rolling Stones, From the Vault – L.A Forum – Live in 1975, Let’s Spend the Night Together, Stones at the Max, Bridges to Babylon Tour ’97–98, Four Flicks, The Biggest Bang, and ‘Sweet Summer Sun: Hyde Park Live.
The musical Hedwig and the Angry Inch includes a reference to the song, where the lead character explains she was dismissed from a university after delivering a lecture on the influence of German philosophy on rock and roll, entitled “You, Kant, Always Get What You Want.” The 2014 revival on Broadway added the line, “But If You Try Sometimes You Just Might Find You Get What You Nietzsche.”
The song was performed live with members of Voce Chamber Choir and London Youth Choir for the Stones’ 2012 reunion shows in London, November 25 and November 29. The same choir also performed on the track at Glastonbury and two performances at Hyde Park in 2013.
In November 2016 MP4, a rock group comprising four British politicians, recorded a single of the track with Ricky Wilson of the Kaiser Chiefs, KT Tunstall, David Gray, Steve Harley of Cockney Rebel and members of the UK Parliamentary Choir under the band name “Friends of Jo Cox” in tribute to the late MP Jo Cox who was murdered earlier in the year. A 6 minute full version of the track and a 4 minute edit, together with a video, were the first releases on the newly re-established Chrysalis Records on 16th December with all proceeds going to charity. In support of this initiative, Mick Jagger and Keith Richards agreed to waive their royalties from the release. This version of the single peaked at number 2 on the Official Independent Singles Breakers Chart. 
Mick Jagger – vocals, acoustic guitar
Keith Richards – acoustic and electric guitars, backing vocals
Bill Wyman – bass guitar
London Bach Choir – choral arrangements by Jack Nitzsche
Al Kooper – piano, organ, French horn
Jimmy Miller – drums
Rocky Dijon – congas, maracas, tambourine
Madeline Bell – backing vocals
Nanette Workman – backing vocals (credited as ‘Nanette Newman’ on the LP)
Doris Troy – backing vocals