What defines a cool Rolling Stones song? Everyone has their own definition, but for me the answer is very simple – you never, ever tire of hearing it. It’s the kind of song you want to have stuck in your head. Here are my picks, in no order whatsoever.
Gimme Shelter [Let It Bleed, 1969] – There are no words to describe the coolness of Gimme Shelter. It’s so cool that Keith once recorded it live for a B-side for one of his own singles [Eileen if you’re looking…]. This song is Keith Richards’ vision of the apocalypse. Merry Clayton did the female vocals. They were so good that this song is primarily for what she is known. Once you hear the arpeggioed beginning, you know something ominous is about to happen.
Live With Me [Let It Bleed, 1969] – What makes this song cool? It starts with the very first notes played on the bass by Keith Richards. When he felt like it, he'd relieve Bill Wyman of the bass and play it himself. This is one of those times. The bass is very prominent in the mix – it’s like he’s playing “lead bass.” Bobby Keys takes the solo instead of one of the guitar players. Live With Me is one of the first songs with Mick Taylor. Mick Jagger’s lyrics are about as racy as they come. This song was never released as a single, but it should have been. In my humble opinion, the only song better than this from Let It Bleed is Gimme Shelter.
No Expectations [Beggar’s Banquet, 1968] – Brian Jones played a very good acoustic slide here. It’s one of the last best things he did before he left Planet Earth. Nicky Hopkins accompanies with an understated piano that doesn’t get in Brian Jones’ way. The song has the feel of an old-time blues classic.
Stray Cat Blues [Beggar’s Banquet, 1968] – Before there was Live With Me, there was this tale of backstage debauchery with under-aged girls. This is Mick Jagger at his sleaziest. He was 25 when he first sang it – now he’s 67 [ew...]. About the only thing missing from the lyrics are the words “would you like some candy little girl?” Keith Richards played all the guitars, and I think he played the bass as well.
You Got the Silver [Let It Bleed, 1969] – Keith Richards takes the lead vocal for the first time on this tune. Critic Richie Unterberger from Allmusic describes this song as the closest the Stones would get to the roots of acoustic home-down blues. I disagree – it could be the flip side to No Expectations. Keith performs it on-stage today, and without a guitar! Ron Wood plays acoustic slide on the Shine a Light version.
Can’t You Hear Me Knockin’ [Sticky Fingers, 1971] – Play this one back-to-back [this one first] with Sister Morphine. The classic Keith Richards human-riff rhythm playing sets the table, and then keeps the song going while first Bobby Keys delivers a blistering sax solo, to be followed by Mick Taylor soloing out of his mind. By the time it’s over after seven minutes of jamming, you think the song was over too soon. It ends with you wanting more.
Sister Morphine [Sticky Fingers, 1971] – This song is best heard while driving around Los Angeles at night. If you can’t get to LA, just turn off all the lights, sit back and enjoy this very dark overdose tale. The scream of the ambulance is sounding in my ears/Tell me, Sister Morphine, how long have I been lying here? What am I doing in this place? Why does the doctor have no face? Sticky Fingers has lots of songs with a drug reference or two. Ry Cooder plays the slide guitar, Jack Nitzsche on piano. Both of these contributions contribute to the scary atmosphere [which seems to work better for me after dark].
Sweet Virginia [Exile on Main St, 1972] – the Stones go country. Here the influence of Gram Parsons emerges [he might even be in the chorus]. Got to scrape that shit right off your shoes…
Turd on the Run [Exile on Main St, 1972] – no particular reason – I just like the song, and it segues into…
Ventilator Blues [Exile on Main St, 1972] – I think of all the songs on Exile this one captures the essence of the whole thing.
Street Fighting Man [Beggar’s Banquet, 1968] – This one is inspired by riots in London and Paris during the summer of 1968. The cool factor - the song sounds electric, but in fact the only electric instrument was the bass. Keith played an acoustic guitar into an overloaded cassette player that gave it a metallic sound, and Brian Jones provided the sitar and tambura. The rhythm section was solid. The drums were very loud and in your face. It’s a very good song that starts off Beggar’s Banquet.
Jumpin’ Jack Flash [single – 1968] – This one was recorded during the Beggar’s Banquet sessions but released only as a single. It took me many years to figure out what Mick Jagger was singing. I could not for the life of me decipher the words. But then Al Gore invented the Internet, and presto…instant comprehension! What makes this song cool – the riff. It’s one of the most indestructible riffs in rock music, like Sunshine of Your Love or Smoke on the Water. Once you hear the riff, you never forget it.
The Last Time [Out Of Our Heads, 1965] – This is the first big UK single written by Mick & Keith. The reason for this song’s coolness is the same as Jumpin’ Jack Flash – the riff. It digs into your ear and stays there for several years.
Paint It Black [Aftermath, 1966] – Another great riff, but with a twist; Brian Jones plays the riff on a sitar, which gives the song a Middle Eastern flair. This song has death written all over it - I see a line of cars and they're all painted black…With flowers and my love both never to come back…I could not foresee this thing happening to you…You’ll find it at the end of Full Metal Jacket.
Under My Thumb [Aftermath, 1966] – This is the musical equivalent of The Taming of the Shrew. Brian Jones shows off his musical versatility again by playing the signature riff of this song on marimbas.
2000 Light Years From Home [Their Satanic Majesties Request, 1967] – the Stones succeed at getting trippy. It’s a bit dated, with Brian Jones getting to show off on the mellotron. This is the furthest that the Stones would stray from their blues roots, a mistake they would correct with Beggar’s Banquet. But despite the album’s flaws, I love this song.
Satisfaction [Out Of Our Heads, 1965] – Do I really need to explain this one? Even my mother liked this one. This is probably the best rock-and-roll song ever done. Period. End of discussion.
Bitch [Sticky Fingers, 1971] - the riff, the horns, Charlie Watts kicking the band’s ass.
Moonlight Mile [Sticky Fingers, 1971] - one of the best ballads the Stones ever recorded about life as a rock star on the road. It closes Sticky Fingers.
Wild Horses [Sticky Fingers, 1971] – a country ballad written originally by Keith about him missing his son Marlon. This is one of two country songs on the album, the other one being Dead Flowers.
Dancing With Mr D [Goats Head Soup, 1973] – This is the leadoff song from the first of the Junky Trilogy, Goats Head Soup. The song begins and ends with a riff that repeats often throughout the song. Mick Taylor plays a stinging electric slide as well as the bass. Charlie is flawless as always. Mick Jagger’s lyrics allude to dalliance with death: Down in the graveyard where we have our tryst/The air smells sweet, the air smells sick/He never smiles, his mouth merely twists/The breath in my lungs feels clinging and thick/But I know his name, he's called Mr. D/And one of these days, he's going to set you free. I wonder if Keith’s descent into full-blown heroin addiction prompted this song.
Doo Doo Doo Doo Doo (Heartbreaker) [Goats Head Soup, 1973] – This song tells two stories: the accidental shooting in New York of a ten-year-old boy, and a ten-year-old girl dying in an alley of a drug overdose. Billy Preston plays clavinet on the intro, then is joined by Mick Taylor playing wah-wah guitar in unison. Keith plays the bass. But what makes the song standout from other Stones songs is the horns. Usually they’d have Bobby Keys’ sax, but this song uses sax and trumpet giving the horns a beefier sound. Underneath it all is Keith’s bass playing holding down the fort while Mick Taylor plays one of his many lyrical solos.
Time Waits For No One [It’s Only Rock ‘n’ Roll, 1974] – There are two cool songs on It’s Only Rock ‘n’ Roll; this is one of them. Why is this song cool? Mick Taylor. Like Can’t You Hear Me Knockin’, Mick Taylor starts his solo about 2/3 of the way through the song and carries it to the end. He just carries the song, period.
Hand of Fate [Black and Blue, 1976] – After finishing Exile on Main St, the Stones recorded three more albums which I have dubbed The Junkie Trilogy. I gave these albums this name because they were made as Keith Richards slipped deeper and deeper into the grips of heroin addiction. This had the effect of Mick Jagger taking over as the Stones’ musical director. Mick Taylor left the band after the release of It’s Only Rock ‘n’ Roll [the second of the Junkie Trilogy], so the Stones used several lead players to make Black and Blue, the third and last Junkie Trilogy installment. Who else but the Stones would use recording sessions as auditions for a departed guitarist? American Wayne Perkins did the honors on this song. His solos are as fluid and blistering as anything Mick Taylor laid down during his tenure in the band. In fact, the first time I heard it I thought it was Mick Taylor. The ever-present Keith Richards rhythm playing locks in tightly with Charlie Watts. Hand of Fate is without a doubt the best song from Black and Blue.
Fingerprint File [It’s Only Rock ‘n’ Roll, 1974] – This is the other cool song from It’s Only Rock ‘n’ Roll, the second installment of The Junkie Trilogy. Mick Jagger plays the heavily-phased rhythm guitar, Keith plays the guitar with the wah-wah pedal, Mick Taylor plays the bass, Bill Wyman on synthesizers, and Billy Preston and Nicky Hopkins also join in the fun. The lyrics express paranoia about wiretapping and other FBI surveillance activity, which actually did happen to John Lennon. The funky/dance sound of this song is so uncharacteristic of the Stones one has to put it in the “cool” category.
Thru and Thru [Voodoo Lounge, 1994] – Another Keith vocal, quiet and menacing, this one sounds like it was recorded in a small blues club after hours. There’s minimal instrumentation – one or two guitars, piano, bass & drums. Keith uses that nasty rhythm tone of his again. Why is this one cool? It appeared on The Sopranos, dammit. What could be cooler?
Too Much Blood [Undercover, 1983] – This song has Mick Jagger written all over it. It’s a horn-driven dance song where Mick Jagger laments the amount of violence depicted in pop culture [wanna dance, wanna sing, wanna bust up everything…]. Consider this pseudo-rap from Sir Mick:
Did you ever see "The Texas Chain Saw Massacre"? Horrible, wasn't it. You know, people ask me "is it really true where you live in Texas, is that really true what they do around there, people?" I say, "yea, every time I drive through the crossroads I get scared, there's a bloke running round with a fucking chain saw. Oh! Oh! oh No, he's gonna cut off, Oh no. Don't saw off me leg, don't saw off me arm.
Ok, it might not fit any definition of “cool,” but it’s damn funny and that’s good enough.
One Hit (To The Body) [Dirty Work, 1986] – This is the lead-off track from Dirty Work. This was recorded at a time when Mick Jagger and Keith Richards couldn’t stand to be in the same room. The cause of so much discontent? Mick Jagger wanting a solo career. Keith’s guitar tone throughout is big, nasty, loud and very angry. Ron Wood’s acoustic backing cuts through the noise like the Grim Reaper wielding a scythe. Jimmy Page provides all the solo work. Mick Jagger spits out the lyrics with much vitriol. Put all these pieces together and you’ve got a very aggressive track. The video that was filmed for this song barely disguises the ill-will between Mick & Keith. This is a great song from an otherwise crappy album.
Worried About You [Tattoo You, 1981] – This was an outtake from Black and Blue. I can’t figure out why it was an outtake because this song is far better than Black and Blue [with the exception of Hand of Fate]. This is a “sleeper” track on Tattoo You. Start Me Up and Waiting on a Friend were the singles that got all the radio airplay. Worried About You sticks out from the rest of Tattoo You, but in a good way. As with Hand of Fate, Wayne Perkins provides the soloing. That’s the bit that sticks out for the listener because when you hear it, you know immediately it isn’t Keith or Ron playing the solo. Neither of those guys could play as fluidly as what you hear Wayne Perkins doing on this song.
Almost Hear You Sigh [Steel Wheels, 1989] – This one is a leftover from Keith’s Talk Is Cheap album from 1988. A song about a difficult breakup, this one is a very melodic, medium tempo song with an acoustic guitar solo from Keith. It also has the classic Keith Richards rhythm guitar sound that I have no idea how to replicate. Charlie’s timekeeping is flawless.
Slipping Away [Steel Wheels, 1989] – Keith sings! I guess having done Talk Is Cheap the year before gave Keith the confidence to sing more on Stones albums. Both Slipping Away and Almost Hear You Sigh are excellent ballads. Both songs are tearjerkers without a doubt – a sign of a great song.
Love Is Strong [Voodoo Lounge, 1994] – this slow, snakey song kicks off Voodoo Lounge. To me it sounds a lot like Keith’s Wicked As It Seems from his second solo album [Main Offender]. Where Steel Wheels had a fairly slick production, Voodoo Lounge sounded like the producer [Don Was] was trying to get back to the Exile on Main Street sound. It has the same dry, sparse sound of Keith’s Main Offender, which is ok with me.
Low Down [Bridges to Babylon, 1997] – on Bridges to Babylon, there were really two albums in one. Mick worked with the Chemical Brothers [he was always trying to get the latest club sounds onto a Stones album], and Keith worked with Rob Fraboni to keep the Stones doing what they do best. This one is one of the Fraboni tracks. Big, beefy horns, and Keith’s snarling rhythm guitar – just what a good Stones song needs. How does he get that sound? I know he plays in Open G with only five strings, but he has a very distinct sound I would kill for.
It Won’t Take Long [A Bigger Bang, 2005] – see Low Down, only without the horns. Keith and Ron Wood practice their ancient form of weaving.
Does anybody care to disagree with my choices?