I have long been a fan of the Rolling Stones. I’ll admit, though, that I can’t really count myself among those who idolize and revere the band. I know that there is a devoted legion of people who love “the Stones” above all others and I can’t really count myself among their number. I’ve had experiences with them over the years though and have always enjoyed not only their music but their standing in the rock & roll pantheon. Considering they are one of the most resilient outfits in rock, I thought it a good time to look at some of their best music and share my memories.
I came in around 1989. The Rolling Stones released their 21st American studio album, Steel Wheels, in the summer of that year and my friends and I got into it. As a teen, I had a group of friends who understood the music of the past. Big in our gang were artists like Meat Loaf, Boston, Sweet and Queen and we would often consume new material by these acts but would also explore their back catalogues. This is exactly what happened with the Stones and Steel Wheels.
Turns out, Steel Wheels is not just a significant Stones album in my world but it also is in Stones World. Their previous record had been 1986’s Dirty Work, an album the critics did not like. It also bears the taint of an odd, Technicolor jacket and features a curious cover of the old Bob & Earl tune, “Harlem Shuffle”. After this album was released, tensions emerged between Mick Jagger and Keith Richards owing mostly to Mick’s interest wandering into his solo work but another contributing factor was the release of Keef’s solo album, the excellent Talk is Cheap. With the band itself and certainly their legacy hanging in the balance, the two leaders mended fences and found their old collaborative mojo. They met in January of ’89 and soon had written upwards of 50 songs together.
Steel Wheels was a Top Ten album in 14 countries. It hit Number 3 in the US, Number 2 in England and topped the album charts in Canada. It spawned three hit singles including “Mixed Emotions”, their last significant North American hit to date. Today, Steel Wheels maintains its importance as the album that carried the Rolling Stones – in terms of hit albums of new material and prominently played singles – into the new millennium. Perhaps what makes it most seem like a denouement is that it was the last studio album to feature bassist Bill Wyman. The album served as a comeback, though, healed relations between the Glimmer Twins – Mick and Keith – returned the band to classic rock & roll and was the launch point of a new method of generating revenue for the band; the ambitious, large-scale world tour.
The Steel Wheels/Urban Jungle Tour kicked off on August 12, 1989 with a surprise gig at Toad’s Place in New Haven, Connecticut and then with shows at the old Veteran’s Stadium in Philly that took place two days after the album was released. All 121,897 seats in Toronto’s CNE Stadium were sold out for both the Sunday, September 3rd and Monday, September 4th shows. I went with my older brother and his friends to the show on the 4th, Labour Day. I remember a huge blow-up doll inflating during “Honky Tonk Women”. I stayed over at my brother’s that night and my most sustaining memory of that night has to do with Meat Loaf, actually and not the Rolling Stones. Late that night, laying alone in the dark, I had an experience with the Bat Out of Hell album that was significant and cemented the record in my heart and mind. The next day, I was traveling home and therefore missed the first day of school which screwed me up for the rest of the year, having missed the chance to properly register.
The first album I purchased in the wake the Rolling Stones concert was Let It Bleed on cassette. The record is a great place to start and perhaps only Beggar’s Banquet and Exile on Main Street could be actually considered better. Let It Bleed contains fan favourites like “Gimme Shelter”, “You Can’t Always Get What You Want” and “Midnight Rambler”. But I found a couple other gems on the album that are still among my favourite Rolling Stones songs. “Live With Me” could almost be my favourite of all their songs and Keef chipped in with the beautiful “You Got the Silver”. “Monkey Man” features some bold howling from Mick. Add these to the previously mentioned tunes, throw in the title track and you’ve got what adds up to my favourite Rolling Stones album.
The next time I met up with the lads was when I decided to build a playlist of my favourite songs of theirs. I began cruising through their discography – of which I knew minimal – and jotting down the songs I liked. I often will explore an artist this way and I think its fascinating to track a band through their album releases. You can really trace their arc this way. It was fun with the Rolling Stones to see their early LPs and the cover versions they included. I was particularly struck to find “Under the Boardwalk” on The Rolling Stones No. 2 in the UK and 12×5 in the US and many examples of the blues music that defined the band’s early sound. This brings up a sticky wicket; like the Beatles’ early albums, the Stones’ records were released in “UK” and “US” versions and featured differing track listings.
What really killed me, though, was this. Starting with 1966’s Aftermath, with some exceptions, every track on the band’s albums were written by Jagger/Richards. This I hadn’t realized and it added greatly to the Rolling Stones’ standing in my book. I wondered if they had brought in hired guns for the records released in the 2000’s and beyond but even here, for the most part, Mick and Keith wrote every word, every note. Still. After all those songs and all those years. Impressive.
Additionally, it was fascinating to learn that the Rolling Stones had basically started out as a blues band, a Chicago blues band founded and lead by Brian Jones. It had been Jones who placed an ad in a trade paper looking for men to join an R&B band, an ad that first pianist Ian Stewart responded to, followed by Jagger who later brought Richards around. Like Peter Green’s Fleetwood Mac, Jones’ vision of the band was closer to a gritty, blues-based club band and it didn’t take long before that changed. The Stones young manager, Andrew Loog Oldham, steered the boys into more straight ahead, chart-friendly material. Also, instead of multi-instrumentalist Brian leading the way, the partnership of Jagger/Richards emerged as the creative force of the band. While we the fans may be all the happier for the direction the boys began to take, Brian Jones became disillusioned, more dependant on drugs and eventually estranged from the band he had created. Finally unable to contribute meaningfully to the Rolling Stones, Brian Jones was fired during the sessions for Let It Bleed. He was dead within a month.
2022 marks the 60th anniversary of the Rolling Stones. I am going with 12 July as their birthdate. On that day, they played their first gig billed as “The Rollin’ Stones” and so that date may be as good as any. As Mick Jagger, Keith Richards, Ron Wood & Co. spend their 60th year touring the world, it becomes clear that their ability to remain relevant through the multitude of changes that have gone on since the early 1960s places them alone at a rock & roll pinnacle. For the record, the Beach Boys were introduced to the world under that name on November 27, 1961 and the Mike Love-led unit is still touring today. I find other similarities between the two groups, mostly in their front men. Both Jagger and Love helped define the role and both have made immeasurable contributions to their bands and to popular music in general. Sadly for fans of the Beach Boys like me, the comparisons end there. In terms of consistent relevance, no one can touch The World’s Greatest Rock & Roll Band.
For the record: the Rolling Stones have released 30 albums and 121 singles. It’s estimated that they have sold 66.5 million records, good enough to make them the 7th biggest-selling band of all-time. They scored 10 Number One albums in their homeland including 4 in a row between 1969 and 1973. Stateside, they placed one less LP at Number One but topped the charts with 8 consecutive albums starting with Sticky Fingers in ’71 and ending with 1981’s Tattoo You. Their singles fared just as well in the States as they did in England; they topped the charts in both countries 8 times.
In celebration of the 60th anniversary of the Rolling Stones, I humbly submit my list of their 50 greatest recordings. Let’s rip this joint!
- “I Wanna Be Your Man” (1963)
- “One Hit (To the Body)” (1986)
- “Ruby Tuesday” (1967)
- “Beast of Burden” (1978)
- “She’s So Cold” (1980)
- “Play With Fire” (1965)
- “Angie” (1973)
- “Ain’t Too Proud to Beg” (1974)
- “The Last Time” (1965)
- “It’s All Over Now” (1964)
- “Hand of Fate” (1976)
- “Dance Little Sister” (1974)
- “Can’t You Hear Me Knocking” (1971)
- “Gimme Shelter” (1969)
- “Respectable” (1978)
- “Dead Flowers” (1971)
- “Around and Around” (1964)
- “Mixed Emotions” (1989)
- “Let It Bleed” (1969)
- “Shattered” (1978)
- “Time is On My Side” (1964)
- “Off the Hook” (1965)
- “Under My Thumb” (1966)
- “Memory Motel” (1976)
- “Bitch” (1971)
25. “Can’t Be Seen” from Steel Wheels (1989) — Me and my buddy, Ruby, were all about Keith Richards at this time, loving his solo record and this track from the “comeback” album. Keef’s non-singer’s voice and his exclamations as he would finish a line of lyric we found so cool and lackadaisical. I’m Keith Richards and this is how I do.
24. “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction” from Out Of Our Heads (US, 1965) — Nothing less than one of the ten pillars of “oldies”; songs that define pop/rock music of the Sixties. This strutting classic is a staple of classic rock and oldies radio. A Number One song in 5 countries; first US Number One.
23. “It’s Only Rock & Roll (But I Like It)” from It’s Only Rock & Roll (1974) — More strutting and defiant braggadocio from the band and particularly Mick. He sings a mantra for an entire generation. Number 3 in France, Top Ten UK.
22. “Undercover of the Night” from Undercover (1983) — Borrowing from new wave, this track was largely written by Mick and the lyrics reference South American politics. Jagger wanted to explore the then-current sounds on the Undercover album with Keef pulling the other way. An exciting track from a fractious time. Number 4 in the Netherlands, Top Ten US.
21. “Start Me Up” from Tattoo You (1981) — Another classic opening riff from Keith Richards and another blustering vocal from Jagger. A left-over from Some Girls, “Start Me Up” was the lead single from Tattoo You, the Stones’ patchwork entrance into the Eighties. The video – in heavy rotation in MTV’s early days – is actually hilarious in a wonderfully audacious way. Number One in Australia, Top Ten in eight countries.
20. “Miss You” from Some Girls (1978) — Written by Mick while jamming with Billy Preston, “Miss You” was heavily influenced by the music heard in discotheques at the time. Half the band has said it wasn’t meant to be disco, while the other half says it was “calculated” to be a disco record. Whatever; the tune has an infectious groove and great falsetto vocals from Jagger. A Number One single in the US and Canada, Top 3 the world over.
19. “Wild Horses” from Sticky Fingers (1971) — The Rolling Stones understood all music, country music included. This emotional song was a classic writing collaboration between the Glimmer Twins and charts its inception to Keith’s relationship with Gram Parsons and the legendary Muscle Shoals Sound recording studio in Alabama. A Top 40 single in the US.
18. “Doo Doo Doo Doo Doo (Heartbreaker)” from It’s Only Rock & Roll (1974) — The clavinet. I have discoursed before on my love for this my favourite instrument and here it opens this gritty tune. The percussive keyboard is played through a wah-wah pedal by Billy Preston. Funk-influenced urban R&B. Solid. Number 5 in Canada, Top 40 US.
17. “Tumbling Dice” from Exile on Main St. (1972) — “You got to row-whoa-ol me and call me the tumblin’ diiiiice” A fully check-it-out-tasty boogie-woogie rocker with an inscrutable tempo and an irregular lyric structure. Recorded in France after the Stones fled the UK’s tax noose. Mick is aided and abetted by sparkling female background vocalists. What we call a stone groove. Number Five UK, Top Ten worldwide.
16. “19th Nervous Breakdown” Single release (1966) — A bluesy rocker featuring fuzz guitar from Richards and Bo Diddley-inspired work from Brian Jones. The boys had enjoyed five consecutive Number One songs in England until this broke the streak, stalling at #2. Number Two in the US, too, actually and topped the charts in Germany.
15. “Not Fade Away” from The Rolling Stones (US, 1964) — Look at the Stones’ early singles; a gritty take on Chuck Berry’s “Come On”, a driving rendition of a gift from the Beatles, “I Wanna Be Your Man” and then this Buddy Holly number. A shaking and quaking, blues-rocking 110 seconds of unbridled energy. This sounds like bombing down the road in a beloved, old heap with Mick hand-clapping and maraca-shaking while Jones honks away on blues harp. A joyous cacophony. Their first US single. Number 3 in England.
14. “Paint It Black” from Aftermath (US, 1966) — One of the group’s most known and loved singles owing much to the sitar playing of the late Brian Jones. Poor Brian was being left behind as Jagger/Richards penned every song on Aftermath. To alleviate his boredom, he explored Eastern music and the sitar in particular. The result is a track that stands out in a stellar discography. Popular in the Eighties as the theme to the TV show about the Vietnam war, Tour of Duty. Number One in five countries including the UK, the US and Canada.
13. “Jumpin’ Jack Flash” Single release (1968) — Yet another in the long line of classic guitar riffs from Keith Richards. Their most performed song in concert – 1,100 times – the song has been described by the group as one that was about getting out of all the acid and psychedelia of Their Satanic Majesties Request and returning the band to “funky, essential essence”. Notably, this was Billy Blaze’s favourite song in the movie Night Shift. A Number One song in the UK, and Germany, Top 5 worldwide.
12. “Monkey Man” from Let It Bleed (1969) — Mick’s guttural screams never sounded better. Recorded for Let It Bleed with neither Brian Jones nor his replacement, Mick Taylor, on hand, the funky, gritty tune features vibraphone played by bassist Bill Wyman and robust slide guitar punctuations from Keef. Never released as a single, it was one of the over 40 tunes that Martin Scorsese chose to be in GoodFellas (1990). It plays during the iconic sequence in which the late Ray Liotta’s Henry Hill races the streets thinking he’s being chased by the Feds.
11. “Crazy Mama” from Black and Blue (1976) — I received this album on cassette as a birthday gift from my friends when I was a teenager. I was grateful but thought it was an odd choice for them to make. Turns out I was happy I had it. While not the Rolling Stones record you’d make a point of seeking out to buy, it contains several pretty good tunes. “Crazy Mama” slowly grew on me until one day I realized it was a full-on, balls out groove. Something out of a roadhouse out on Route 109. Just a rockin’ good time. Features guitar work by both Mick and Keith and the bass is played by Keith. My man Billy Preston on piano.
10. “You Got the Silver” from Let It Bleed (1969) — “Country is Keith’s bag” I wish I could remember where I read this quote from Jagger but I’ve always loved it. And I’ve always had a special place in my heart for this tune. This was the last Rolling Stones song to contain a musical contribution from Brian Jones and the first of their tunes to feature only Keith’s lead vocal throughout (but KR cites 1967’s “Connection” as his debut as lead vocalist). I love Keith’s singing here in much the same way I love the singing of one of his cronies, Tom Waits. There is no finesse to Richards’ singing voice but a passion and soul can be heard. I love the choruses – “Hey, babe, you got my soul…” – and Keith’s slide. Mick Jagger does not appear on this recording.
9. “She’s a Rainbow” from Their Satanic Majesties Request (1967) — Ahhh, the piano. I’ve talked before of my love for this instrument. And ahhh, the piano of Nicky Hopkins. The legendary session man made a stirring contribution to my 18th-favourite song of all-time. The lilting melody he plays on “She’s a Rainbow” helps make this song “the prettiest and most uncharacteristic song” the Glimmer Twins ever wrote. It is a delightful romp through the meadow – something you just don’t expect from the Rolling Stones. A tune like this, though, is a wonderful addition to their canon. Strings arranged by John Paul Jones during his session days before joining Led Zeppelin. Top Ten in four countries, #25 US.
8. “Get Off of My Cloud” from December’s Children (and Everybody’s) (US, 1965) — Back to the strutting of the early days when the records began to fill up with Jagger/Richards compositions. The charm of this tune is Mick’s vocal. Never the greatest vocalist in rock, “Get Off of My Cloud” showcases what Jagger did so well. His voice at its best is all about attitude. Tasked with the impossible job of following up a record like “Satisfaction”, this song – like “Satisfaction”, also recorded in Hollywood – was about the Stones’ wish to be left alone as they were continually being pressured to feed the beast with music. Though Mick once claimed to have never “dug it as a record”, the tune followed-up “Satisfaction” nicely; “Get Off of My Cloud” was Number One in the UK, the US, Canada and Germany.
7. “Brown Sugar” from Sticky Fingers (1971) — Though problematic in today’s world due to its lyrical depictions, what “Brown Sugar” is actually about is enigmatic enough that it has stood the test of time. Much of its infectious blues/boogie-rock sound can be traced to its having been recorded at Muscle Shoals. Debuted live at the infamous Altamont concert. An alternate version was recorded later with Eric Clapton on slide. Top 5 worldwide, Number One in the US.
6. “Out of Time” from Aftermath (UK, 1966) — I’ll be honest: I had never really heard this song before it was used in stunning fashion by Quentin Tarantino in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. QT used it to signal the end of many things; “you’re out of time”. One of the things Tarantino is so good at is making us reassess and revisit songs from the past. A reappraisal of “Out of Time” reveals a melancholy, melodic and poignant song from Jagger/Richards. There were three different versions released; the one from the compilation Metamorphosis (1975) is used – in its entirety – on the OUATIH soundtrack. Released as a single from Metamorphosis, hitting #45 in the UK.
5. “Honky Tonk Women” Single release (1969) — This classic tune started life as “a real Hank Williams/Jimmie Rodgers/1930’s country song” called “Country Honk” that later appeared on Let It Bleed. With inspiration from the newly-arrived Mick Taylor, it was transformed into a tasty, riff-based rocker and released as a non-album single. One of the Rolling Stones’ most popular numbers. The single was released the day after the death of Brian Jones and remains their last Number One song in the UK. Also Number One in three other countries.
4. “Let’s Spend the Night Together” from Between the Buttons (US, 1967) — Driven by the energetic piano sound of Spector arranger Jack Nitzsche, this exciting track was a double A-sided single with “Ruby Tuesday”. Out of all their suggestive songs, this one was famously censored several times, first most notably by Ed Sullivan who had the boys sing “let’s spend some time together” on his Sunday night institution. Interesting that the Stones would do this, considering their rep and the fact that it was the song’s very title they were changing. Gives the Doors the edge for sticking with “we couldn’t get much higher”. The eye-rolling the Stones did on Ed Sullivan earned them a short-lived ban from the show. In my review of a Sullivan bio, I mentioned Ed’s comical dislike of the Stones’ perceived lack of hygiene. “You know I’m smilin’ BABY!” Number Three UK, Number One in Germany.
3. “Street Fighting Man” from Beggar’s Banquet (1968) — The song starts with another trademark Keith Richards riff but this one is thinner than most and more ringing; as if a bell starting a fight is sounding. I feel like if I say anything about this song I’ll have to say everything. Considered both the band’s most political and subversive song, it was written in response to violence then occurring in London and Paris. Interesting to note that Brian Jones plays a barely discernible sitar and Traffic’s Dave Mason pitches in on an instrument called a shehnai. Banned in Chicago in the wake of the 1968 Democratic National Convention, the song was later performed live by Bruce Springsteen who said “That one line, ‘What can a poor boy do but sing in a rock and roll band?’ is one of the greatest rock and roll lines of all time”. Mick however is not crazy on the song anymore. It does however usually feature in their live shows just before the closer, “Jumpin’ Jack Flash”. “Street Fighting Man” was not a hit single but reached the Top Ten across Europe.
2. “Live With Me” from Let It Bleed (1969) — Probably my favourite Rolling Stones song. Out of the gates with urgent bass guitar played by Keith and staccato drums from Charlie Watts. Jagger comes in sneering some of his most salacious lyrics. This being the first song on which Richards and Mick Taylor employed their 2-lead guitar sound, they sound great trading licks. The song builds as horns and piano make their statements; this is also the first time tenor sax man Bobby Keys joins the lads and the only time Leon Russell played with them. The song is a freight train, a stone groove.
"Sympathy for the Devil" from Beggar's Banquet (1968)
“Live With Me” may be my favourite but “Sympathy for the Devil” has got to be the best song the Rolling Stones ever recorded. Never mind that, it is one of the best songs of the early rock era and no song from the time sounds quite like it. It was written mostly by Mick Jagger who conceived it as a Bob Dylan-type folk song. Jagger, borrowing from the classic literature he consumed, wrote it from the point of view of Lucifer who details all of the carnage he has wrought over the centuries. The kicker though is that the devil condemns us the listeners as co-conspirators in everything from the death of Christ to World War 2 to the assassination of the Kennedy brothers; “after all, it was you and me”.
The darkness of the lyrics goes a long way to giving the song its sinister tone but then there’s the music. It was Richards who suggested changing the folk tune to a samba with a hypnotic beat aided by percussion and shaker. Dig the piano (Nicky Hopkins) and a mind-blowing bass line from Keith. Poor Bill; was he expendable? The final recording is stunning, flawless, from the danger in Mick’s vocal to the “woo woo”‘s. Provided by Marianne Faithfull, Anita Pallenberg, Brian Jones, Charlie Watts, producer Jimmy Miller and Richards, the chanted “woo woo”‘s seem to poke fun at the song’s scariness and ground the proceedings. “Ah, yeah! Get down, baby!”. After this exclamation from Mick, Keith Richards lays down one of my five favourite guitar solos. I love Keef and always have and respect his ability to create licks that will last forever but I’ve never counted him among the guitar greats. But his searing solo on “Sympathy for the Devil” – compelling in its simplicity – is for the ages. Listen to how he ends it! Mick has spent the last 50 years dismissing the idea that the Rolling Stones were “into” the devil. Check out Jean-Luc Godard’s film that chronicles the recording of this classic here.