To celebrate The Rolling Stones’ first gig in the Middle East, we’ve gone back to the records and picked our all time favourites tunes, ranking them in a manner that lacks all science and reason, but packs plenty of love for the music. And now for your listening pleasure, here we give you the inside track on how these classic tracks happened, what they mean and why they matter.
You almost certainly won’t agree with all our choices – but with more a back catalogue of the size and depth of The Stones’, there’s no way we could include everyone’s favourites. Tell us what you think we missed in the comments box below.
But whether you’re a hardened fan or a new convert looking for some tips, we hope this (far from definitive) chart inspires you to do one thing – go back to your favourite records and stick on The Stones. Enjoy!
20. Get Off My Cloud (1965) 1965 was a year of transition for The Stones. January saw the release of two more soul and blues covers of the kind the band had built their name on so far, Chuck Berry’s ‘Route 66’ and The Drifters’ ‘Under the Boardwalk’. But by February they’d struck out with their first Jagger/Richards composition ‘with a beat’ (Keith’s words), ‘The Last Time’, before turning rock upside-down just three months later (and scoring their first US number one) with ‘(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction’. That was a loose demo recording the band didn’t want to release – but it sounds like a symphony compared to the proto-punk precursor that is ‘Get Off My Cloud’, Jagger raging against parking tickets, advertising and conformity over relentless, ramshackle guitar chords. Of course darker things were just around the corner, but this throwaway hit caught the Stones enjoying their knew found ability to pen original material, without seemingly taking the thing seriously at all.
19. Let Me Down Slow (2005) Now nearing a decade old, it looks entirely likely that the Stones’ 22nd studio album proper will be their last – but what a way to go out. While every fresh LP for decades has been held up as a return to form on release, there’s enough hindsight here to legitimately claim A Bigger Bang as the band’s best since Some Girls (1978). Stripped back sonically, the band recaptured a raw rock approach free from session musicians, while conversely the album’s bulging structure – 16 songs – reflects the creative stride and renewed urgency the band rekindled. Amongst A Bigger Bang’s best is ‘Let Me Down Slow’, a mid-tempo rocker which holds the intimacy of a ballad. With an irresistible guitar hook and a catchy-yet-aching refrain from Jagger, there’s a maturity here which nearly matches the Stones’ age. Listen to Let Me Down Slow now
18. Start Me Up (1981) Originally tested as a reggae number at the Black and Blue sessions in 1975, and then cut instrumentally and shelved at the Some Girls sessions three years later, it seems a mystery that no one in The Stones – nor their studio crew, for that matter – realised quite what a gem they were sitting on with ‘Start Me Up’. Thankfully it was unearthed for the last-minute grab-bag that was 1981’s Tattoo You. The chiming open-G guitar riff is quintessential Keef, while today the universal feel good chorus sees ‘Start Me Up’ wheeled out as a trundling warhorse that announces the band’s arrival on stage more often than not. Listen to Start Me Up now
17. Low Down (1997) After the relative triumph that was 1994’s Voodoo Lounge, Bridges to Babylon – the second of just two Stones albums in the ’90s, and one of just five in the last 30 years – was a record defined by its patchiness. After his botched solo career Jagger’s desperation to remain relevant was transferred to the band, and the legion of producers he brought in for different songs – Don Was, Danny Saber, Pierre de Beauport, The Dust Brothers and more – lent the record a decidedly schizophrenic air. But like Black and Blue 20 years before it, there’s brilliance to be found amongst the wreckage, most notably on ‘Low Down’, a relentless, driving rocker built almost entirely on Richards’ chiming two chord attack. A diamond amongst the rough. Listen to Low Down now
16. Hot Stuff (1976) Proof The Stones can groove with the best of them. No doubt inspired by hearing The Meters open for them nightly on their 1975 US tour, The Stones made their first foray into the funk world. ‘Hot Stuff’ is a sprawling, messy, aimless but darn groovy jam, which opens up the relatively messy, aimless but sometimes-groovy set which is Black and Blue. Having lost guitarist Mick Taylor a year earlier, and with Ron Wood yet to join full time, the album’s sessions acted as an open audition for a new six string slinger. Sitting in the test drive seat for ‘Hot Stuff’ was former Canned Heat guitarist Harvey Mandel, who contributed the distinctive wah-guitar which Wood never would have played in a million years, while Billy Preston – notable for grooving up The Beatles sound on Let it Be – performed the same trick here for their formal rivals. A precursor to the more focused ‘Miss You’ and ‘Emotional Rescue’ to come.
15. Sympathy for the Devil (1968) There’s much about ‘Sympathy for the Devil’ which is brash, over the top, and faintly ridiculous. With Jagger channelling Satan, sitting in with the Russian czar and watching Kennedy’s assassination, in lyrics chanted over demonic tribal drumming, and counterpointed by Keith’s jagged, unstructured guitar break, the whole thing feels like a mighty swirling tornado which threatens to tear off at any moment. But it holds the poise artfully for six minutes, just (contemporary live versions are less successful). ‘Sympathy’ also gave Primal Scream a straight-lifted hit with ‘Movin’ on Up’, offered the (original) Guns N’ Roses their final recording (for the Interview with a Vampire soundtrack in 1994), and – with its theatrical approach and literature references – gave an example and excuse to less intelligent prog and metal bands for decades to come.
14. Little Red Rooster (1964) Before they were a rock band they were a pop band (to paraphrase Jagger), and before they were a pop band they were a blues band. And they were a darn fine one at that. It’s a well-worn anecdote that Richards introduced himself to Jagger at a train station, in October 1960, because of the Muddy Waters LP Mick was carrying. It’s believed they came face to face with Waters just four years later when the Stones stopped by Chicago’s hallowed Chess Studios to record on an early tour – he may have helped them ‘lug equipment’, remembers Marshall Chess. Waters, and the rest of America for that matter, didn’t know what to make of the fop-aired British boys playing Black American music, but it was clear to all they could pull it off with panache. Never better than ‘Little Red Rooster’, appearing in November 1964, this restrained, respectful take of the Howlin’ Wolf number was their final blues single before the Jagger/Richards songwriting juggernaut kicked into gear. Listen to Little Red Rooster now
13. Street Fighting Man (1968) ‘Street Fighting Man’ is a watershed moment in The Stones’ development for two reasons. Lyrically, it’s a political statement stronger than the band have made before or since, inspired by both an anti-war rally Jagger attended in London in March 1968, and the student riots in Paris a few months later. But it was the revolution held within the music which became the dominant factor in the longevity of The Stones. The first single to overtly feature Keith’s now-trademark open-G tuning – here with an additional distorted edge created by recording an acoustic guitar onto a portable tape deck – it introduced the world to the ‘five strings, three chords, two fingers’ approach which defines legions of Stones hits to come, from ‘Honky Tonk Women’ and ‘Brown Sugar’ to ‘Start Me Up’ and beyond. Listen to Street Fighting Man now
12. Miss You (1978) There was a certain discontent in the self-dubbed ‘greatest rock n’ roll band in the world’ when Jagger elected to lead them towards the flash-in-the-pan disco craze of the late ’70s, largely inspired by his increasingly frequent presence at New York’s Studio 54 nightclub. But Keith was too distracted with his own issues to offer an alternative, and so it was that at the sessions for the otherwise stripped-back, punk-reactionary LP Some Girls the band laid down this unmistakable groover, which has outlived much of the disco craze it was inspired by. Listen to Miss You now
11. Tumbling Dice (1972) The closest thing to a hit on the sprawling career high that was Exile on Main Street, ‘Tumbling Dice’ is built on a classic boogie rhythm. Packing the same rootsy, timeless swagger as the rest of the LP, this one makes the concession of an arena-ready chorus which has seen it rank among the most played Stones songs ever, with a recorded 984 live airings – more even than ‘Satisfaction’.
10. Jigsaw Puzzle (1968) As tangled, messy and oblique as anything the Stones have recorded, winding folk-blues ‘Jigsaw Puzzle’ is as mentally anguished as its name suggests. A six-minute, largely acoustic dirge, peppered with pained electric guitar bends and scattered with surrealist lyrics and a self-mocking nod and wink, the Stones were clearly drawing influence from Bob Dylan’s great ‘wild mercury sound’ of the mid-‘60s, and the results are completely captivating and utterly unique.
9. Before They Make Me Run (1978) Any true Rolling Stones fan has learned to love Keith’s croaked, off the cuff turns on the mic – a tradition which began with 1967’s ‘Connection’, from Between The Buttons, and reached its apogee 30 years later with three Keef vocals on Bridge to Babylon (so enraged was Mick he refused to release the LP until two tunes were merged onto one CD track). Alongside live stalwart ‘Happy’ is ‘Before They Make Me Run’, a scarily pertinent (but typically irreverent) response to Richards’ run-in with the Canadian law. Keith writes at length in his autobiography Life about the scores of takes it took the band to get the groove he was looking for, but the energetic, around-the-beat bounce is proof it was time well spent.
8. All Down the Line (1972) The Stones’ enforced tax exile in the south of France, and subsequent chaotic nocturnal recording sessions in the basement of Keith’s rented mansion Nellcôte, are the stuff of legend. The resulting magnum opus Exile on Main Street – the band’s only double album – is wide-regarded at the high-benchmark of the Stones work, and ‘All Down the Line’ ranks among the album’s best moments. Opening the final, fourth side, it’s one of The Stones’ most straight-up, adrenalin-fuelled rockers. For three minutes and 49 seconds the band maintain a tight, rampant groove, based around a trademark open-G riff as good as ‘The Human Riff’ can make them. While it was never a single, it’s been a perennial live favourite, featuring on every tour since it was recorded 42 years ago.
7. Can’t You Hear Me Knocking (1971) The Stones have never sounded meaner, rougher or harder than the gnarling, stacato guitar riffs that introduce and drive the first two and a half minutes of ‘Can’t Your Hear Me Knocking’. But then with the extended outro, starring Mick Taylor’s searching guitar solo (his greatest recorded moment, surely) and Bobby Key’s bluesy, blustery sax, the band have never showed such technical virtuosity or instrumental flair. A long, beguiling and uncommercial rock symphony, it’s little surprise the song was rarely played live, thankfully rescued from the archives for 2002’s Licks Tour. Listen to Can’t You Hear Me Knocking now
6. Shine a Light (1972) Alongside the upbeat rockers and the groovy blues stompers, Exile also offered up some of The Stones’ most affecting ballads, including ‘Let it Loose’, ‘Loving Cup,’ and ‘Shine A Line’. From the unmistakable, telephoto-zoomed first line – ‘Saw you stretched out in Room Ten-O-Nine’ – and conscious listener is captivated by this naked portrait of a bedraggled victim of the rock n’ roll dream. The fact Jagger penned it about Brian Jones – before, in fact, the original Stones guitarist was found drowned in his own swimming pool – explains the poignant delivery, uncharacteristically meticulous arrangement, and legendary status this song has attained, despite remaining unperformed live until 1995. And yes, there’s little doubt it was an influence on Oasis’ ‘Live Forever’. Listen to Shine a Light now
5. Honky Tonk Women (1969) Is there a song as shamelessly, struttingy, celebratory of chance encounters than ‘Honky Tonk Women’? From the cheeky (and ever-so-slightly out of time) cowbell intro onwards, the recording is a riotous ball of late night swagger and testosterone. Charlie grooves with a relaxed, voyeuristic beat while Keith’s scaly, raunchy guitar licks snaking over the fretboard with a blistered bluster no player has quite copped since (again, open G is the key). Yet where this ode to life would sound seedy on so many other bands’ lips, The Stones’ delivery is packed with so much sheer fun and funk, it’s hard not to view it as a life-affirming celebration of experience. Tellingly, this non-album cut was their last UK number one single. Listen to Honky Tonk Women now
4. Gimme Shelter (1969) From the hypnotic opening seconds of ‘Gimme Shelter’s’ twinkly, ethereal guitar chords it’s clear this is a song unlike anything else recorded before or since, a barbed, jagged musical landscape inspired by political unrest and the fading idealism of the ’60s hippy dream. Richards’ chewing, minor-key riff – supposedly written while Jagger was off filming Performance with Keith’s other half, Anita Pallenberg – recalls the violence of the Vietnam War, Jagger’s wailing harmonica a cry of distress brimming over the tide of six-string bloodshed. The chorus refrain, leant power by Merry Clayton’s wailing counterpoint to Jagger’s embittered chant, jams down the listener’s throat’s the message that grotesque violence is ‘just a shot away’, a statement so cinematic Martin Scorsese has thrice used the song onscreen, in Goodfellas (1990), Casino (1995) and The Departed (2006). A recent Rolling Stone poll of journalists, musicians (and Scorsese) ranked ‘Gimme Shelter’ as The Stones’ finest moment. While we think there are more enjoyable cuts out there, The Stones have never been so revolutionary or reactionary in capturing the public zeitgeist. Listen to Gimme Shelter now
3. Jumpin’ Jack Flash (1968) There’s a bite and purpose to ‘Jumpin’ Jack Flash’. After 1967’s misconstrued flirts with psychedelia – happy hippy just didn’t suit The Rolling Stones – the band needed a distilled shot of rock n’ roll to announce a return to their bare, primal, seething roots. Often quoted as being Richards’ favourite Stones riff (despite Bill Wyman claim’s to the composition), ‘Jack Flash’ is ranked The Stones’ most-played-ever song, with a recorded 1,064 live performances. The banal lyric, as myth would have it, inspired by Jagger’s gardener ‘Old Jack Flash’, only serves as a welcome counterpoint to the heavier conceptual material is was to introduce. Listen to Jumpin’ Jack Flash now
2. (I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction (1965) There are few more seething statements of teenage rebellion that ‘Satisfaction’. Perfectly encapsulating the transitional attitude of the mid-’60s – the straight-laced ’50s a thing of the past, the ‘Summer of Love’ yet to dawn – ‘Satisfaction’ is a relentless, raging soul-rock-punk rant, a universal message any money-less, girlfriend-less, disillusioned young man could leap on and chant. It also had an irresistible hook – it’s three-note run painfully simple in composition, but killer in execution, largely thank to boasting one of the first recorded uses of a fuzz pedal, lending the guitar an urgent, biting – and at the time, utterly alien – tone. Never mind the fact Keith wanted the riff played by a horn section (something Otis Redding later tried to great effect), by releasing this ‘incomplete’ (in the band’s eyes) demo the record label changed the course of rock n’ roll forever. Listen to (I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction now
1. Brown Sugar (1971) ‘Brown Sugar’ is the sound of the world’s biggest band swaggering into Alabama’s legendary Muscle Shoals Sound Studio, in the midst of a triumphant US tour, utterly unperturbed by the soul legends that have recorded there before, and letting rip. This unique road snapshot of December 1969 catches The Stones at their grooviest, sleaziest and most confident – just two days before they were slammed tragically back to reality at Altamont, where ‘Brown Sugar’ was first played live. Jagger’s lyrical mishmash hints at the decadence of a life lived on the road, but never explicitly throws its cards of depravity on the table, instead creating a quixotic mood of contraband lust and excitement. Ironically, while it features Keith’s most iconic guitar riffing, the song was pretty much entirely penned by Jagger. But whatever hotel room it was thought up in, it’s clear ‘Brown Sugar’ wouldn’t have come out sounding anything like this had it not been recorded by The Rolling Stones, on this date, this place, and at this point in the band’s storied Rock n’ Roll career. The greatest rock song on record. Words: Rob Garratt