In December 1967, The Rolling Stones released their now infamous expedition into the world of psychedelia, Their Satanic Majesties Request. The album was met with a large amount criticism it was seen as a direct and inferior rip-off of the Beatles far superior Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, which had made waves only a few months prior. It became abundantly clear after Satanic Majesties that the Stones did have some talent in introducing minor psychedelic themes and instrumentation into three-minute excursions, such as the poppy “Ruby Tuesday,” “She’s a Rainbow,” or the more menacing “Paint It, Black,” but full on forays into LSD-induced dreams were clearly not the bands specialty.
Luckily, 1968 saw the band turn back to their blues and rock and roll based roots and revive the “dangerous” attitude that they had become famous for. With new producer Jimmy Miller at the helm, the band released a series of classic and increasingly blues-based albums over the following few years, including Beggar’s Banquet (1968), Let it Bleed (1969), Sticky Fingers (1971), and Exile on Main St (1972), leading promoters to dub them as “The Greatest Rock and Roll Band in the World” during this time. While there are numerous highlights from this classic period in the Rolling Stones career (“Gimme Shelter,” “Tumbling Dice,” “Sympathy For the Devil,” “Street Fighting Man” [the list goes on and on]), perhaps no song is more representative of the Stones during the peak of their creativity than the lead single and first track on Sticky Fingers, “Brown Sugar,” which hit #1 on May 29th, 1971 and stayed there for two consecutive weeks.
“Brown Sugar” is one hell of a song for a number of reasons – the incessant blues guitar rhythms and riffs (courtesy of Keith Richards, and recent addition Mick Taylor), the honky-piano going at it in the back, the saxophone solo, Mick Jagger sounding like he’s gonna throw his voice out at any moment, and his slight but important change in when he says “how come you taste so good” in the second half of the song. All of this could make someone easily overlook how unbelievably racist and downright sexist “Brown Sugar” is lyrically, with references to lewd sexual acts, slavery, and rape, in addition to the obvious reference to heroin, but because “Brown Sugar” is riding such a great blues-rock groove, no one in 1971 really cared, and it has become one of the Rolling Stones signature live songs.
I can only imagine if a song with the unrelenting lyrical rawness and bluntness of “Brown Sugar” was released by a high profile rock act today – they’d be the subject of never ending internet criticism, be black-balled from performing, and lose millions of dollars and fans. Alas, 1971 was a much different time than 2017, and for that most part, that’s a good thing – but, that also means that we’ll never get a mainstream artist willing to take those sorts of chances in the name of being “dangerous” in this exact manner. If you ask me, amid the continuing claims that “rock and roll is dead,” one way to fix rock is to have more rock acts who were “all in” like the Rolling Stones in the world nowadays to push boundaries and shock the masses.
I’m not promoting racism and sexism in music (or anywhere for that matter), but I’m also not offended by the ridiculous lyrical themes of “Brown Sugar.” I’m a firm believer that the Stones weren’t racist – their entire musical output is pretty much indebted to black musicians, and they wrote “Brown Sugar” fairly quickly without much second thought. It’s dirty, gritty, and raw rock and roll at its finest by one of the greatest rock bands to ever walk the planet, and I love every second of it. The fact that they got away with it completely unscathed shocks me much more. The controversial lyrical themes of “Brown Sugar” wouldn’t hold The Rolling Stones back – they’d go onto record the drug-addled (and frankly, wildly overrated) double album Exile on Main St, and would enjoy another large career resurgence with the release of Some Girls in 1978, before regularly touring the world on the strength of their seemingly never-ending list of hits and classic songs.