From Rolling Stone:
By 1978, the Stones were in turmoil, after trouble with drugs, women and the law. On “Beast of Burden,” they faced up to their adult struggles, with world-weary defiance propelling the ragged harmonies. On other takes — one lasting more than six minutes — Jagger tried the song in falsetto, but his straight-ahead version went to the Top Ten.
A “beast of burden” is a semi-domesticated animal that labors for the benefit of man, such as oxen or horses. The music and some lyrics were primarily written by Keith Richards. In the linernotes to the 1993 compilation disc Jump Back, Richards said, “[‘Beast of Burden’] was another one where Mick just filled in the verses. With the Stones, you take a long song, play it and see if there are any takers. Sometimes they ignore it, sometimes they grab it and record it. After all the faster numbers of Some Girls, everybody settled down and enjoyed the slow one.”
In those same notes, Jagger says, “Lyrically, this wasn’t particularly heartfelt in a personal way. It’s a soul begging song, an attitude song. It was one of those where you get one melodic lick, break it down and work it up; there are two parts here which are basically the same.” The song can be seen as allegorical, with Richards saying in 2003, “When I returned to the fold after closing down the laboratory [referring to his drug problems throughout the 1970s], I came back into the studio with Mick… to say, ‘Thanks, man, for shouldering the burden’ – that’s why I wrote “Beast of Burden” for him, I realise in retrospect.”
Recording on “Beast of Burden” began in October 1977 and ended in December of that same year. Although written before entering the studio, many of the lyrics were improvised by Jagger to fit with the smooth running guitars of Richards and [Ronnie] Wood. Note the rolling, fluid licks traded off by the two. Neither is really playing lead or rhythm; they both slip in and out, one playing high while the other is low. The song is another of the famed Some Girls songs which feature each member of the band playing their respective instruments without any outside performers; both Richards and Wood play acoustic and electric guitars, with Wood performing the solo.
With the advent of punk rock, The Rolling Stones, among many of their musical contemporaries, were being targeted by some in the movement as cultural dinosaurs, compromising their standing. Mick Jagger felt invigorated by the provocations and was determined to answer them lyrically. It helped, however, that almost all the punks had, openly or not, idolized the Stones in the 1960s and were heavily influenced by the band’s rebellious records from that era.
At least as important for the band’s reinvigoration was the addition of Ronnie Wood to the lineup, as Some Girls was the first album recorded with him as a full member. His guitar playing style meshed with that of Keith Richards. Wood’s pedal steel playing would become one of the band’s hallmarks, and his unconventional uses of the instrument are prominent on Some Girls.