The Rolling Stones, who recently wound up their successful Fifty and Counting Tour, have never been known as a political band. They began their five decades-plus career as a blues and rhythm and blues cover band, turning out raw and raucous versions of songs by Muddy Waters, Chuck Berry, Howlin’ Wolf, Bo Diddley and other great African American artists. When they began to write their own songs, Mick Jagger’s lyrics hewed closely to the blues’ focus on sex and sexual relationships, with more than a dash of irony, even cynicism, about heterosexual love.
But that doesn’t mean they’ve ignored political or social concerns. From the late 60s to their most recent recordings, The Stones have touched on such issues as police brutality, government surveillance, military intervention in the Middle East by America and Great Britain, political violence in Latin America and hydrofracking. Other songs, while not directly referencing particular topics, evoke an ominous mood of social conflict and political strife.
And although Jagger has spoken of his esteem for Margaret Thatcher, the recently deceased Tory prime minister, his politically-minded lyrics often reflect a liberal, even left-wing point of view. Sometimes Jagger makes his points bluntly, leaving no doubt where he stands. At other times, he’s more indirect and allusive. The following roundup of 10 Stones tracks released between 1968 and 2012 — beloved classics and lesser-known, even obscure numbers – covers both bases.
1. Street Fighting Man (1968)
Released as a single in August 1968 and included on the album Beggar’s Banquet, “Street Fighting Man” was banned by many American radio stations because of its allegedly subversive lyrics. “Everywhere I hear the sounds/of marching charging feet, boy,” Jagger sings. “’Cause summer’s here and the time is right/for fighting in the streets, boy.” Jagger said that the song was inspired by a March 1968 anti-Vietnam war rally at London’s U.S. embassy that he attended and by the student uprisings in Paris that same year. But the hard-charging number is hardly a call to insurrection: It’s much more ambivalent. Jagger identifies with the angry young people in the streets, but questions whether he should join them: “What can a poor boy do/Except to sing in a rock ‘n roll band?”
2. Salt of the Earth (1968)
The closing track on Beggar’s Banquet, the Stones’ return to greatness after what Keith Richards, in his memoir Life, called the “flim flammery” of Their Satanic Majesty’s Request, begins with a reedy-sounding Richards singing, “Let’s drink to the hardworking people/Let’s drink to the lowly of birth.” The rest of the song hails the grit and endurance of working class people and deplores their betrayal by politicians, “gray-suited grafters” who offer “a choice of cancer or polio.” As on “Street Fighting Man,” Jagger’s lyrics are sympathetic but also distanced: the workers are a “faceless crowd” whose members “don’t look real to me.” But when Jagger and Richards performed the song at the Concert for New York City in 2001, a benefit for the families of 9/11 first responders, Jagger changed the lyrics, replacing ambivalence with sincere identification: “They look so real to me,” Jagger sang, to an audience full of New York cops and firemen.
3. Gimme Shelter (1969)
The eminent rock critic Greil Marcus declared in his Rolling Stone review of Let it Bleed that The Stones “have never done anything better” than that album’s astonishing opening track. Marcus was right then and his judgment still stands. Superbly arranged and performed, and steeped in The Stones’ beloved blues, “Gimme Shelter” may be the greatest rock song ever recorded. The lyrics are allusive rather than specific, and all the more powerful for that. Jagger and Richards wrote the song in an era convulsed by the Vietnam War, assassinations, race riots and widespread social upheaval. The song’s images of a “storm that’s threatening/my very life today” and of fire in the streets like “a red coal carpet” create an apocalyptic mood of fear and dread. And then, midway through, comes backup vocalist Merry Clayton’s chilling, unforgettable gospel wail, “Rape, murder, it’s just a shot away!”
4. Doo Doo Doo Doo Doo (Heartbreaker) (1973)
From the uneven album Goats Head Soup, “Doo Doo Doo Doo Doo (Heartbreaker)” represented a new musical direction for The Stones, a foray into funk, with Mick Taylor on wah-wah lead guitar, Keith Richards on bass (instead of main bass man, Bill Wyman), Billy Preston on clavinet and a horn section. The urban R&B sound fits the lyrics, which tell two grim inner-city stories, one about New York City cops who “chased a boy right through the park/In a case of mistaken identity/They put a bullet through his heart”; the other about “a ten year old girl on a street corner/sticking needles in her arm” who “died in the dirt of an alleyway.”
5. Fingerprint File (1974)
The last track on the album It’s Only Rock ‘n Roll, “Fingerprint File” continues the exploration of funk the Stones began on Goats Head Soup. The lyrics most likely were inspired by the exposure of COINTELPRO, the decades-long program of covert actions carried out by the FBI to disrupt left-wing political groups, “Fingerprint File” denounces government surveillance, with Jagger worrying about “some little jerk in the FBI” who is “keepin’ papers on me six feet high.” In a line that seems remarkably prescient in light of the recent (and ongoing) revelations about the National Security Agency’s snooping, Jagger concludes, “These days it’s all secrecy; no privacy.”
6. Undercover of the Night (1983)
When The Stones recorded the album Undercover in late 1982, the Jagger-Richards partnership was fraying, with the partners sparring over the band’s direction. The album’s opening track and first single, the funk-oriented “Under Cover of the Night,” was written entirely by Jagger: “I just played on it,” Richards later remarked. Jagger’s lyrics were inspired by the political violence then occurring in Central and South America: “All the young men they’ve been rounded up/and sent to camps back in the jungle.” Jagger, in the liner notes to the 1993 compilation album Jump Back, said that the song also was heavily influenced by William Burroughs’ novel, “Cities of the Red Night.” The Burroughs influence is evident in lines about “the screams of center 42” and “the sex police.” But there’s one howler: Jagger mentions “100,000 disparos lost in the jails of South America” but “disparos” means shots. What he surely meant was “desaparecidos,” i.e., “the disappeared ones.” Back to Berlitz, Mick.
7. Rock and a Hard Place (1989)
With the release of the album Steel Wheels in 1989, The Stones were back, as a recording unit and a touring band. Jagger and Richards repaired their relationship after years of venomous feuding and began writing together again. Although Steel Wheels was generally well-received by critics and fans, it’s only a fair album with traces of the band’s former greatness. Jagger’s lyrics for “Rock and a Hard Place” mention poverty, environmental crisis and human rights violations, but the best response to these ills he can come up with is, “You’d better stop /put on a kind face.” As the New York Times critic Jon Pareles acidly remarked in his Steel Wheels review, “Mr. Jagger, meet Mr. Bush.”
8. Highwire (1991)
One of two studio tracks included on the otherwise live album Flashpoint, recorded during the Steel Wheels tour, “Highwire” is a rare venture by The Stones into topical political commentary. The song isn’t anything special but the lyrics, about the buildup to the first Gulf War in 1990, are sharply observed and trenchant. One verse mocks the rationale for the war: “Our lives are threatened, our jobs at risk/Sometimes dictators need a slap on the wrist/Another Munich we just can’t afford/We’re going to send in the 82nd airborne.”
9. Sweet Neocon (2005)
A no-punches-pulled critique of the policies of George W. Bush and the neoconservatives who advised his administration, “Sweet Neocon,” from A Bigger Bang, the band’s most recent studio album, is the most explicitly political song The Stones have ever recorded. Its bluntness made Keith Richards, and others in The Stones’ camp, a bit nervous about potential backlash from Bush supporters. The caustic lyrics hit Bush and the neocons right from the first lines: “You call yourself a Christian/ I think that you’re a hypocrite/You say you are a patriot/ I think that you’re a crock of sh_t.” Jagger goes on to mock the disingenuousness of right-wing rhetoric: It’s liberty for all/’Cause democracy’s our style/Unless you are against us/Then it’s prison without trial.”
10. Doom and Gloom (2012)
The lead single from GRRR!, The Stones’ fiftieth anniversary compilation album, “Doom and Gloom” was the first new recording from the band in the seven years since A Bigger Bang. The hard-rocking number is Jagger’s show all the way: he plays the aggressive rhythm guitar riff that runs through the song and he delivers a punchy, urgent-sounding vocal that ranks with the best work of his career. The lyrics pinpoint a host of social and environmental woes, from the squandering of billions on the Iraq War to economic inequality to hydrofracking. Jagger’s mood is dark and pessimistic; the only light he sees amid all the “doom and gloom” is his lover’s face as they cling to each other in the night. What to do in the face of the apocalypse?
“Baby take a chance/Baby won’t you dance with me!”