Greatest Songs, #490: “Brown Sugar” by The Rolling Stones

Album: Sticky Fingers (Rolling Stones Records)
Year: 1971
Written by: Mick Jagger & Keith Richards
Billboard Hot 100: #1

 From Rolling Stone:

Here the Stones lay waste to a battery of taboo topics — slavery, sadomasochism, inter-racial sex — and still manage to be catchy as hell. The song got its start at a session at Muscle Shoals studios: Jagger scrawled three verses on a stenographer’s pad, and Richards followed with an impossibly raunchy riff. Add some exultant punctuations (“Yeah! Yeah! Woooo!” ) and you have a Stones concert staple.

From Wikipedia:

Though credited, like most Stones compositions, to singer Mick Jagger and guitarist Keith Richards, the lyrics were primarily the work of Jagger, who wrote it sometime during the filming of Ned Kelly in 1969. Originally recorded over a three day period at Muscle Shoals Sound Studio in Muscle Shoals, Alabama during December 2-4, 1969, the song was not released until over a year later due to legal wranglings with the band’s former label though at the request of guitarist Mick Taylor, they debuted the number live during the infamous concert at Altamont on December 6.

The song, with its prominent blues-rock riffs, dual horn/guitar instrumental break, and danceable rock rhythms, is representative of the Stones’ definitive mid-period and the tough, bluesy hard-rock most often associated with the group. However, its lyrical subject matter has often been a point of interest and controversy. Described by rock critic Robert Christgau as “a rocker so compelling that it discourages exegesis“…

In the liner notes to the 1993 compilation disc Jump Back, Jagger says, “The lyric was all to do with the dual combination of drugs and girls. This song was a very instant thing, a definite high point.”

From the BBC, reviewing the album:

By 1970 the Stones had earned the right to take a little time to turn out their next album. Bedding in new boy, Mick Taylor, on their well-documented tour of the states the year before had also involved a little studio time at Muscle Shoals studio. The results of these sessions and songs held over from Beggars Banquet were also brought to the table when they reconvened, still a little bruised from the apocalyptic events at Altamont. These were now grown-up men with families, demons and more to cope with who assembled at Jagger’s Stargroves mansion with their mobile studio in the summer of 1970.

The incessant touring meant that the band were now world citizens, but they still moved closer to their American roots. Using the usual support cast of Bobby Keys, Ry Cooder, and Nicky Hopkins they turned their experiences into ten tracks of narcotic misery and sexual frustration

Narcotics are a major theme, of course, but also loss, frustration and incredible world-weariness. Reviews at the time complained that Sticky Fingers lacked the bite of previous releases like Let It Bleed or Beggars Banquet, but it’s this very quality that makes the album special.

While many hold their next album, Exile On Main St, as their zenith, Sticky Fingers, balancing on the knife edge between the 60s and 70s, remains their most coherent statement.

From, reviewing the album:

In 1969, Brian Jones was found face-down in his pool, the victim of what a coroner called “death by misadventure.” The Stones were prodigious drug users, and narcotics seeped into this ramshackle masterpiece, especially “Sister Morphine,” a terrifying overdose song. The themes are dark—even party-hearty single “Brown Sugar” has lyrics about rape and the African slave trade—but the playing is festive, with Jones’s replacement Mick Taylor blazing in guitar-hero mode.

From Rolling Stone‘s original review of the album in 1971:

It begins with some magical raunch chords on the right channel. In the tradition of great guitar intros (“All Day and All of the Night,” “Nineteenth Nervous Breakdown,” and “Satisfaction” itself) it transfixes you: instant recognition, instant connection. Suddenly the electric guitar is joined by an acoustic guitar on the left channel, an acoustic that is merely strumming the chords that the electric is spitting out with such fury. It washes over the electric to no apparent purpose, stripping it momentarily of its authority and intensity. and so, in the first 15 seconds of the albums first cut we are presented with its major conflict: driving, intense, wide-open rock versus a controlled and manipulative musical conception determined to fill every whole and touch every base.

As soon as the voices come on, the acoustic recedes into inaudibility: on “Brown Sugar” wide open rock wins by a hair, but it is a hollow victory. Opening cuts on Stones albums have always been special, from the early ones – “Not Fade Away,” “Round and Round,” and “Everybody Needs Somebody to Love“: – with their promise of rock and roll to come, to the tour de force openings of the later albums – “Sympathy for the Devil” and “Gimme Shelter” – which served as overwhelming entrances into a more complex musical world view.

At their best these opening cuts were statements of themes that transcended both the theme itself and the music that was to follow. As I listened to “Sticky Fingers,” for the first time I thought “Brown Sugar” was good, but not that good. I certainly hoped it wasn’t the best thing on the album. As it turns out, there are a few moments that surpass it but it still sets the tone for the album perfectly: middle-level Rolling Stones competence. The lowpoints aren’t that low, but the high points, with one exception, aren’t that high.

As to the performance itself, the chords, harmony, and song are powerful stuff. The instrumentation however, is too diffuse, occasionally undermining the vocals instead of supporting them. But when Richards joins Jagger for the last chorus they finally make it home free.