I was given a list of 3 songs by The Rolling Stones and asked to rank them – “Paint It Black”, “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction” and “Beast of Burden”. But this list of 3 has now become 4 because my favourite Stones’ song of all time is “Gimme Shelter” and I think it deserves a proper shout out.
So, here’s how I would rank 4 of The Rolling Stones’ best songs …
4. “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction”
In 1965, the Stones played at Jack Russell Stadium in Florida. Four songs in, a large group of fans got into an altercation and the show stopped. That night, Keith Richards says he woke up with the riff and lyrics for “Satisfaction.”
The Stones released the song later that year, though Richards didn’t think it would be the success it was. Mick Jagger explains, “It sounded like a folk song when we first started working on it and Keith didn’t like it much, he didn’t want it to be a single, he didn’t think it would do very well. I think Keith thought it was a bit basic. I don’t think he really listened to it properly. He was too close to it and just felt it was a silly kind of riff.”
The song topped the charts for 4 weeks and was certified gold.
3. “Paint It Black”
“Paint It Black” is a song about grief and loss. Originally, the song was supposed to be slower and more soulful. But during a recording session, Bill Wyman started fooling around with the song on the organ. His take mimicked music often played at Jewish Weddings. Charlie Watts joined in with a double-time drum pattern, resulting in the upbeat sound that contrasted the darker lyrics well.
The sitar, which was used in place of guitar, was added when the band was in Fiji. “We were in Fiji for about three days. They make sitars and all sorts of Indian stuff. Sitars are made out of watermelons or pumpkins or something smashed so they go hard. They’re very brittle and you have to be careful how you handle them,” Richard shares in an interview. He continues, “We had the sitars, we thought we’d try them out in the studio. To get the right sound on ‘Paint It Black’ we found the sitar fitted perfectly. We tried a guitar but you can’t bend it enough.”
2. “Beast of Burden”
A beast of burden refers to an animal that carries heavy loads or performs hard work. While Richards wrote the song, many of the lyrics were improvised during recording.
In the liner notes of Jump Back, Richards explains, “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.”
In 2003, he shared that looking back, he has realized the song was a thank you to Jagger. “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.”
1. “Gimme Shelter”
The Stones wrote “Gimme Shelter” during a time when people were looking for protection from the Vietnam War, race riots, Charles Mansion and other political and social unrest.
Gospel singer Merry Clayton did the background vocals for the track. Jagger recalls in an interview, “Mary Clayton who did the backing vocals, was a background singer who was known to one of the producers. Suddenly, we wanted someone to sing in the middle of the night. And she was around. She came with her curlers in, straight from bed, and had to sing this really odd lyric. For her it was a little odd – for anyone, in the middle of the night, to sing this one verse would have been odd. She was great.”
The song never charted as it wasn’t released as a single but it has regularly been ranked one of the band’s best songs.
If I asked you to rank these 4 iconic Stones’ tracks, what order would you put them in?