First, the good news. Despite the recent death of drummer Charlie Watts, the Rolling Stones are back among us, playing a series of sold-out US stadium shows between now and Thanksgiving. It’s not just that the three surviving band members, now all in their seventies, refuse to grow up. They seem actually to live in a time warp: in an era when most rock stars dress like they work at UPS and offer a relentless diet of screwed-up nihilism and phony salves, the Stones are still out there in their skimpy, Day-Glo T-shirts and leather pants, serving up great meat-and-potato rock songs garnished with lyrics about sex and drugs, and generally carrying on like it’s 1967 all over again.
Now the bad news. For the first time in 50 years, the Stones have dropped their iconic — and latterly ‘problematic’ — classic hit ‘Brown Sugar’ from their repertoire. For once, it’s not even a case of a public figure falling prey to a relatively few malcontents venting their spleen on social media. Instead, it seems the Stones have taken the initiative and canceled themselves.
What’s up with the song? Musically, it’s a libidinous party rave-up, which purists might call derivative, but which still zips along like a Maserati. Unfortunately, the lyrics are a smorgasbord of every taboo subject likely to cause palpitations in today’s woke listener.
The number kicks off with the evocative lines ‘Gold coast slave ship bound for cotton fields/Sold in a market down in New Orleans’ and goes from there. By the time it breathlessly hits the finish line three minutes later, we’ve also touched on matters such as heroin, cunnilingus and rape, all set to Keith Richards’ chugging guitar and an insinuating drumbeat that owes a surprising amount to Freddy Cannon’s 1960 ditty ‘Tallahassee Lassie’.
“God knows what I’m on about on “Brown Sugar”,’ the song’s principal composer Mick Jagger remarked in 1995. ‘It’s such a mishmash. All the nasty subjects in one go… I’d never do that now. I would probably censor myself. I’d think, “Oh God, I can’t. I’ve got to stop. I just can’t write raw like that.”’
Of course, it’s much to the credit of Sir Mick, a man who’s long since preferred to lay pipes of port rather than groupies, that he should have evolved to the point where the social niceties that were once the target of his satire should now constitute the guardrails defining the limits of acceptable behavior. But what about the rest of the Stones’ current setlist? There’s ‘Street Fighting Man’, for instance, once thought sufficiently potent to be banned by the BBC (the best thing that could happen to a song back in the 1960s). Or, for that matter, ‘Under My Thumb’, with its lilting reference to a discarded lover as a ‘squirming dog’.
And what of ’19th Nervous Breakdown’, so clearly insensitive to those living with a mental health condition? If it’s old-fashioned misogyny you want, there’s the enduring Stones chestnut ‘Start Me Up’, in which the singer generously invites his partner to ‘slide it up, slide it up’ while complaining ‘My hands are greasy, she’s a mean, mean machine’. Sometimes it takes only a song title to conjure up that spirit of irreproachable family entertainment that we’ve come to associate with the Stones over the years: ‘Sympathy for the Devil’ or ‘Let’s Spend the Night Together’ or ‘Let It Bleed’, all of which somehow continue to adorn the band’s current tour.
When you throw in other Stones warhorses like ‘Satisfaction’, a paean to the singer’s desire to ‘make some girl’, among other activities, or ‘Jumpin’ Jack Flash’, with its triggering crucifixion metaphors and general unpleasantness (quite apart from the swingers at the FBI stealing its lyrics as the code name for their Russiagate investigation), and ‘Midnight Rambler’, with its knowing wink to the so-called Silk Stocking Killer, aka the Boston Strangler, responsible for the brutal murders of 13 women in the early 1960s, suddenly you’re struggling to fill the band’s allotted stage time with acceptable material.
We needn’t even dwell on ‘Gimme Shelter’, with its hollered reference to ‘Rape, murder, it’s just a shot away’, nor ‘Tumbling Dice’, a tune of no little charm but with a troubling gambling addiction subtext. For that matter, what about the mysterious case of ‘Paint It Black’? When originally released, its title featured a comma between the second and third words, which was surely to give the song a different quality than the one audiences still happily boogie along to today. One way or another, that’s a lot of baggage for the Stones to carry. Of course, they could always play a two-hour instrumental set, provided that was sufficient representation of their role as the greatest rock and roll band in the world.
The Stones’ late-period twinge of conscience might be seen as especially poignant in light of the fact that for many years, to quote Keith Richards, they ‘didn’t give a shit’ for polite society. Even as recently as 1978, Mick Jagger was singing of his amorous plight to moving effect, allowing that French, Italian, American, English and Chinese women all had their merits, but that ‘black girls’ were troublesome in bed. (‘But they are,’ he protested, when challenged on the point.) And that was surely part of the core attraction.
Like it or not, there was a vicarious buzz to seeing the Stones behave badly. Because they were so brazen, so funny, and so refreshingly upfront about it, they gradually acquired special status as the officially tolerated moral slobs of the middle class. On some fundamental level, we needed the Rolling Stones, if only as a living reminder that one of rock music’s chief initial functions was to act as a tonic for a weary public, not merely to kowtow to social pieties.
A major part of the group’s appeal was that they democratically offended all socio-ethnic groups equally, and when they ran out of external targets, they cheerfully took potshots at each other. When Mick Jagger released his solo album Goddess in the Doorway, for example, many in the press broadly agreed with the eminent BBC critic who described the record as ‘a gutsy Big Statement, showcas[ing] Mick’s ever-deepening interpretative skills and use of subtle phrasing techniques to broaden the scope of even the simplest lyrics’. Keith Richards, by contrast, called it ‘dogshit’. Now that’s rock and roll.
Will the Stones now drop ‘Brown Sugar’ for good? I don’t know. I hope not. They used to stand in opposition to precisely the sort of nauseating smugness that would have us only patronize entertainers on communally approved lists, shop primarily at officially sanctioned outlets, and in general deport ourselves as beacons of moral virtue. Somehow I’m reminded of the time in 1974 when the politically active Bianca Jagger challenged her husband to write a song with a ‘serious message’. Mick’s response was a defiantly raucous number with the title “It’s Only Rock ’n’ Roll (But I Like It).” I notice the old codgers are still doing it on some nights of their current tour, so perhaps there’s hope for us yet.