The Essential Rolling Stones
With the new Rolling Stones documentary, Crossfire Hurricane, (dir. Brett Morgen) premiering this Thursday at 9pm on HBO, we put together some Stones Essentials. Here are twenty must-have songs by the Rolling Stones.
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- (I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction. Frustration – personal, professional and sexual – wrapped around one of the greatest guitar riffs in rock n roll history. You can go to just about any place in the world, pump this through the speakers and everyone will sing, tap or dance along.
- Jumpin’ Jack Flash. After dabbling in psychedelia, The Stones’ returned to straight ahead rock n roll with a vengeance. Loaded with blues metaphors (I was born in a cross-fire hurricane/And I howled at my ma in the driving rain) and featuring another monster Richards riff, the message was clear: The Stones were back in all of their ragged rock n roll glory.
- Brown Sugar. After a chaotic American tour and a sea of legal squabbles, the lead track of Sticky Fingers found the band both reinventing itself and staying true to their bad-boy roots at the same time. Keith’s transition to open-G tunings makes the riffs more definitive and Jagger’s lyrics – which suggest that the old slave masters were having their way with the female help – spun more than a few heads. Since its release in 1971, it has remained a concert staple at Stones shows.
- Start Me Up. It’s hard to believe that this iconic rocker – which has opened up every Stones show for decades – almost never saw the light of day. The roots of the song dated back to 1975 and various attempts at the song had more a reggae slant to it. When the band wanted to release new material to coincide with their 1981 tour, producer Chris Kimsey found several takes that had more a rock edge to it. Kimsey suggested that the band keep this arrangement and a rock anthem was born.
- Gimme Shelter. Dark, ominous and edgy, this track perfectly sums up the darkness that would engulf the latter part of the 1960s. Jagger’s transformation into the premier frontman in rock is complete and on full display. Merry Clayton’s counter vocal and solo is sublime.
- Sympathy for the Devil. The Stones had always represented the darker side of the British Invasion, but on this track, they fully embrace it. Working off a hypnotic samba groove, Mick never sounded more sinister and seductive. Richards performs double duties on bass and provides the searing guitar solos. ‘Please to meet you. Hope you guess my name’…
- Tumblin Dice. This exceptional track off Exile On Main Street shows the band putting its R&B roots through a new filter with exceptional results. Another song that has been an automatic on the Stones set list.
- Honky Tonk Woman. Originally written as a country song (which appeared on Let It Bleed under ‘Country Honk’), the song got a rock n roll makeover once Mick Taylor joined the band. After that ear catching cowbell opener, the guitars get down & dirty as Mick tells the tale of rough encounters with shady ladies. It was the
- Paint it Black. Brian Jones’ growing interest in Middle Eastern music drives the band’s hit 1966 single. Jones plays the signature riff on sitar while Charlie Watts provides the track’s heart-racing rhythm. Released a year before The Summer Of Love, ‘Paint It Black’ would foreshadow the darkness that would engulf the counterculture scene at decade’s end.
- Let’s Spend the Night Together. This pop-rock ode to casual sex caused considerable controversy when it was released as a double A-side single in January 1967. When the band performed the song on The Ed Sullivan Show, Jagger was forced to change the lyrics to ‘let’s spend some time together’ to appease the censors. The controversy ended up working in the band’s favor: It became a hit on both sides of the Atlantic.
- You Can’t Always Get What You Want. This majestic track that closes out Let It Bleed beautifully sums up the optimism and ultimate disillusionment of the counterculture movement. The London Bach Choir serves as a Greek chorus while Al Kooper’s searing organ playfully counters Jagger’s vocals (Kooper also plays French horn on the song’s dramatic opening). The song is also notable for being one of the few times Charlie Watts isn’t the featured drummer. Producer Jimmy Miller plays the now memorable drum parts.
- Miss You. The Stones going disco? It wasn’t as big of a stretch as you might think. Jagger and bassist Bill Wyman frequently attended clubs such as Studio 54 and Charlie Watts loved the drum work heard on Philly International records. So when the decision was made to do a straight up disco/dance jam, the band’s head – and chops – were already in the right frame of mind. It was also one of the few times outside musicians were featured: Sugar Blue plays the distinctive harmonica riff; former Faces keyboardist Ian McLagan plays electric piano and saxophonist Mel Collins (formerly of King Crimson and The Alan Parsons Project) has an extended sax solo. Their sincerity to the medium paid off: It became the band’s eighth #1 hit – and still makes people move on the dance floor.
- Beast of Burden. Keith claimed to have offered this song as an allegorical thank you to Mick for keeping the band together while he battled drug addiction and legal problems. Whatever the reasons behind it, this slinky slab of rock and R&B just oozes with groove and attitude.
- Street Fighting Man. Inspired by the political protests happening in London and Paris, the opening track to Beggars Banquet was, and remains, the most politically pointed song in the band’s catalog. Artists ranging from Bruce Springsteen, Rod Stewart to Motley Crue and Rage Against The Machine have all covered this rebel anthem. Springsteen called the lyric, ‘What can a poor boy do except sing for a rock n roll band’ as one of the greatest lines of all-time. He’s absolutely correct in that assessment. It’s a song for the streets.
- Dead Flowers. The band’s new found love for pure C&W (courtesy of Keith’s friendship with Gram Parsons) was never more evident on this Sticky Fingers era gem. Guaranteed to start a sing along when played at a party or a bar. ‘Take me down little Susie, take me down’…
- Ruby Tuesday. The guys show their sensitive side with this glorious ballad about a free-spirited former love (Keith Richards claims in his book, Life, that it was written about former girlfriend Linda Keith, who left him for Jimi Hendrix). Ruby Tuesday also is a showcase for Brian Jones, who plays piano and the haunting recorder part that closes it out.
- It’s Only Rock n Roll. Mick Jagger claims that the moment the song was written it was going to be a single. Keith knew it was a classic just from the title alone. Both were right: It’s the Stones at their toughest, defiant and the song swings like it’s nobody’s business.
- Under My Thumb. Featuring a sneering Jagger vocal, this tale of a man’s (sexual?) triumph over a previously pushy woman, reinforced by the band’s status as the Bad Boys of Rock. It also singled the group stretching out its sound to include fuzz bass and Brian Jones playing the song’s signature riff on marimba.
- Waiting on a Friend. This elegant track from ‘Tattoo You’ features one of Mick’s best vocal performances and a searing sax solo by jazz great Sonny Rollins. The accompanying video was shot on New York’s East Village and features a cameo by reggae great Peter Tosh.
- Happy. Featuring Keith on lead vocals, the jaunty rocker from Exile On Main Street is a pure joy from start to finish. Keith has had other great moments when singing lead (‘You Got The Silver’, ‘Before They Made Me Run’, ‘Thru And Thru’) but they never matched the level achieved on ‘Happy’.
What are your essential Stones tracks?