… for years I’ve been mishearing that lyric as “flea bit beat-up monkey”, what the hell is a peanut monkey?!
I’m not a huge Rolling Stones fan. But there’s a lot of Rolling Stones songs that I love.
Monkey Man is one of em.
Id say I have a handful of Stones albums – a couple of compilations, Their Satanic Majesties Request, Sticky Fingers and Exile… I couldn’t say that I’ve listened to them all that much – more a cherry picking of tracks. Until I read Life by Keith Richards.
But… in that imported-non-event Black Friday and the subsequent weekend of discounts, my local chain music store (if I can I still buy independent but we’re all on a budget) dropped the price on a handful of albums – going so far as to slap “1 purchase per customer” on them as if the £5 discount was as monumental as a signed cover – and I grabbed Let It Bleed.
It’s already been round the turn table a good three or four times. I’ve often sought it out and for three reasons: Monkey Man, Gimme Shelter and You Can’t Always Get What You Want. Any album with those on it is automatically elevated to great status.
One of my favourite song writers – Mr Bill Janovitz of Bufallo Tom – is a huge Stones fan. He’s even written a couple books; a 33 1/3 on Exile On Main Street and one called “Rocks Off: 50 Tracks That Tell the Story of the Rolling Stones”. I don’t know that I could list 50 songs of theirs that I enjoy, probably a dozen or so.
A review for said book in the Wall Street Journal kicks off with this:
“I used to work with a salesman who wore a Rolling Stones tongue-logo tie every day. His Stones were the Stones of “Satisfaction,” “Start Me Up,” and even (yuck) “She Was Hot”—huge arena-rock songs with instantly recognizable guitar-riff intros. Then there is the Stones fan of the classic-rock variety—the “Under My Thumb” and “Jumping Jack Flash” fan for whom the group, and the world, ceased to matter around 1968. My Stones are more about “Moonlight Mile,” “Monkey Man,” “Gimme Shelter,” “Rocks Off”—tracks that have the rambling, wide-open blues and rock sound that the band perfected in the 1970s. All three of us will devour Bill Janovitz’s “Rocks Off: 50 Tracks That Tell the Story of the Rolling Stones.”
I fall in the middle – my favourite tracks are, for the most part, of that “rambling, wide-open blues and rock sound that the band perfected in the 1970s.”
So, in the spirit of Top 10s (if it was Top 5 there’d be very little that wasn’t on Let It Bleed) and lists…. they are, in no real order:
Can’t You Hear Me Knocking
It’s not Brown Sugar, nor is it Sway or Dead Flowers… the standout track on Sticky Fingers, to my ears, is Can’t You Hear Me Knocking. I first heard this when it was used in Tedd Demme’s drug-smuggling, Scorsese-like Blow (more on Scorsese and the Stones to come of course) . I love the nasty, dirty-feeling power of that guitar riff, the breakdown and resolve of the saxophone (the hugely talented Bobby Keys appears on so much of their best work) and the fact that the breakdown happened, according to Mick Taylor because “toward the end of the song, I just felt like carrying on playing. Everybody was putting their instruments down, but the tape was still rolling, and it sounded good, so everybody quickly picked up their instruments again and carried on playing. It just happened, and it was a one-take thing.”
It’s a powerful, swaggering monster of a Stones song that contains every element of that blues rock sound that they nailed down so hard and perfectly in the Seventies.
Another belter and, of course, also used in a few films – Goodfellas being the most memorable for me. Mick Jagger has said of it that “That’s a kind of end-of-the-world song, really. It’s apocalypse”. I read that Keith came up with the tune while stuck indoors as it was pissing down outdoors, meanwhile Mick was off filming Performance in which he beds down with Keith’s then-girlfriend Anita Pallengberg. Keith was just starting to use heroin and the anxiety and dread are palpable in the tune and it’s just a glorious tune that – while Satisfaction, Start Me Up or Brown Sugar might be the most well known – is undoubtedly their best.
So; I’m a flea bit peanut monkey…. Whatever that means. The lyrics here are filled with snarl and bite (“I’ve been bit and I’ve been tossed around by every she-rat in this town”), the guitars even more so with Keith giving it some hard bluesy blasts, the piano is cracking and, like so much on Let It Bleed, pinned down by some ominous, urgent sense of menace. While Jagger’s line of “I hope we’re not too messianic or a trifle too satanic” is a classic, for me it’s all about the yell of “I’m a MONKEY…….”
You Can’t Always Get What You Want
For me, one of the best few seconds of any tune comes 50 seconds into the last Stones song of the Sixties. The choir finishes, the acoustic guitar has a few seconds alone and then the French horn pipes in with what could easily be considered a lament to the decade and the first chapter of the band’s life – the song was essentially all Mick in creation, Keith was beginning his journey into heroin addiction and Brian Jones was practically gone. And yet… it’s hopeful. Despite the universal doom and gloom Jagger sings of the song comes across as a near-rousing song of hope. The gorgeous arrangement, the keys, the horns, the shuffle of the drums and the kiss-off of the chorus “you just might find, you get you need” sung with a joyous sounding choir.
She’s A Rainbow
This is here almost entirely for personal reasons – it’s a song loved by my wife and I and played during our wedding – but it’s still a great Stones tune. Undoubtedly the prettiest thing they ever did and really the only one on Their Satanic Majesties Request that stands up on repeated listen. The delicate, pastoral piano, the shakes of the tambourine and then the dissonant breakdown with sharp, stabs of strings and the lewd “she comes in colours…” If the album was their attempt to take on Sgt. Pepper this song shows they could have knocked the Beatles into a hat and then jumped on it.
Their Satanic Majesties was a turning point in a way probably not intended. However, from here they went into an unbroken run of classics up to and including Exile On Main Street and kicking off with Beggars Banquet, featuring…
Street Fighting Man
To me, more so than Sympathy for the Devil, this one marks the start of the next chapter for the Stones. The lyrics came after a massive anti-war protest Jagger had witnessed, there’s no electric guitar on it with Keith building layer upon layer of distorted acoustic (via a cassette recorder!) and Brian Jones adds sitar and tamboura into the mix, keeping it rooted in the Sixties.
Thru and Thru
Ah Thru and Thru… Perhaps not the most obvious choice and I’d be surprised if it turned up in too many critical lists but this is my list and I love this. I first heard it when used on an episode of the Sopranos and the subsequent soundtrack. That it’s a Keith-sung number threw me off at first as I didn’t realise it was a Stones song. I love the slow build up, the layered vocal of “waiting on a call from you…” and Keith’s bluesy growl (though the ‘love as a takeaway’ lyric might not be his best). You know the subtle strings, build up and minimal guitar is going to break, has to break – especially with the thunder-crack drums appearing around the two minute mark – and yet the build up continues perfectly for more than half of the song and when the full-band does kick in, it’s glorious.
Mother’s Little Helper
“What a drag it is getting old….” An absolute ripper of a song about pill-popping mothers all wrapped up in under three minutes with a gleeful “oi” at the end. I continually find myself singing that opening line.
Yeah, yeah… but it had to be on the list really. But it’s only lately that it’s snuck in there (over, say, Honky Tonk Woman) for me. Why? Because I read that Keith had written the chorus for his infant son as they were about to head off on tour. As a father I know that sentiment all to well. That it’s also among the best examples of how Mick and Keith wrote together – Keith had the riff and chorus, Mick added the rest (supposedly his relationship with Marianne Faithful going into his lyrics) and the pair of them sharing the mic for the chorus. The music is that most Gram Parsons inspired acoustic strum Keith had down at the time andsounds like it could sit on the Almost Famous soundtrack, underpinned with some beautiful electric lines and piano and is so well known it really won’t benefit from my prattling on about it.
Paint It, Black
Of course you can’t have any kind of Best Of list for the Stones and not have this song. That drone, that sinister sitar (Brian Jones’ legacy, to me, is in how much of their early work he got that instrument into), the drums and those lyrics that would no doubt inspire only Bailey knows how many ‘moody’ emo lyrics –
“I look inside myself and see my heart is black
I see my red door I must have it painted black
Maybe then I’ll fade away and not have to face the facts
It’s not easy facing up when your whole world is black”
Even if, according to Keith, it was written as a bit of a joke, they penned a classic here. Aftermath is the first Stones album to benefit entirely from the Jagger / Richards song-writing partnership, a move which meant Brian Jones got a tad bored with guitars and began exploring instruments like the sitar. This song is the perfect summation of the early-Stones’ parts.