Jagger and Richards had been childhood friends and reconnected a decade later over their shared love of artists like Little Richard and Muddy Waters. Jagger was in a garage band with Dick Taylor (who would go on to found the Pretty Things) which Richards soon became involved with.
Calling themselves the Blues Boys, in 1962 the band discovered the Ealing Jazz Club in a newspaper, and it was here that they met Jones, Watts and Ian Stewart (a co-founder of the Stones who was removed from the band by their manager but stayed on as a touring member). The two groups would eventually merge together and so, choosing their name from a Muddy Waters LP, the Rolling Stones were born.
Throughout the early sixties, the Rolling Stones built a steady following in the UK, with their manager Andrew Loog Oldham acting as a PR guru. Oldham did everything he could to market the band as a cooler and more dangerous alternative to the Beatles, attempting to court rebellious teenage fans. The band released their self-titled debut album in 1964 (subtitled England’s Newest Hit Makers for it’s US release) The mid-60s saw the band reach the height of their fame, with their singles and albums reaching the top ten, if not number one.
The start of 1967 saw the band embroiled in a number of drug scandals, eventually leading to Jagger and Richards spending a night in jail. It was also during this time that the band dropped Andrew Oldham and released their sixth album Their Satanic Majesties Request, which, at the time, was critically panned. Luckily, its follow-up, Beggars Banquet, was seen as a return to form, although Brian Jones only made small contributions to the album, due to his struggles with drug use and difficulty getting a US visa. He mysteriously drowned on July 1969, with Mick Taylor taking his place in the band.
Although the 1960s ended in controversy and tragedy for the group, the decade saw them reach the height of their success and deliver some of their very best content. This list of the best Rolling Stones songs from the 1960s will examine ten of the decade’s best tracks.
# 10 – Ruby Tuesday
Most people associate the Rolling Stones with wild guitars and out of control dancing. Whilst there can be no doubt that this is what the band are best at, their oeuvre also includes some far more low-key pieces, with 1967’s Ruby Tuesday, from Between the Buttons, being a perfect example of this.
The song was originally released alongside Let’s Spend the Night Together, but, because American radio stations were uncomfortable with that track’s frank discussion of sexuality, it was Ruby Tuesday which got most of the attention in the US. According to his autobiography, the track was written after Keith Richard’s girlfriend split up with him and then became involved with Jimi Hendrix. The lyrics discuss a mysterious and free-spirited woman, fond of changing her name. Whilst the song’s protagonists clearly have respect for the woman’s maverick lifestyle, they know they that will miss her presence in their lives.
Rather than Keith Richards guitar, it is Brian Jones’ melancholy recorder riffs which are the best thing about the track’s instrumental. As well as representing the song’s quiet sadness, the sound adds a kind of exoticness to the track, which fits in with the bohemian lifestyle of the title character.
Ruby Tuesday is a gorgeous and subdued baroque-pop track, highlighting an often undervalued side of the Stones.
# 9 – Under My Thumb
Interestingly, this 1966 track was never released as a single in any English speaking country, only getting a release in Japan. English speakers know it only as an album track from Aftermath, yet it has still managed to become a fan favorite track from this period.
Brian Jones’ sensational multi-instrumental skills come into play once again, providing pleasant marimba riffs which form the song’s primary musical hook. This is paired with some pop-y guitar strums and fuzzy bass lines, which blend together to create an interesting and upbeat instrumental.
The song’s lyrics discuss a sexual power struggle between a woman and the male protagonist. The song makes it clear that, in the past, the woman had dominance over the man, but he has since managed to switch things around and is now the one in control of the relationship. As you can imagine, these lyrics (understandably) did not go down well with feminist groups, not least because the lyrics refer to the girl as being the guy’s pet at one point. Jagger has always insisted that the song should not be taken seriously, though it still makes for uncomfortable listening. Famously, it was this track which was being performed during the 1969 Altamont Free Concert when Meredith Hunter was killed by one of the gig’s Hells Angels’ security guards.
Thankfully, the song’s unique instrumental and Jagger’s delivery (his breathy grunts are particularly brilliant) are much more palatable than some of the subject matter. It’s difficult to know what to make of the song’s “jokey” lyrics, but, thanks to that instrumental, Under the Thumb is nevertheless one of those essential Rolling Stones songs which cannot be ignored.
# 8 – It’s All Over Now
Originally recorded by The Valentinos (and written by Bobby and Shirley Womack) it is the Rolling Stones‘ 1964 cover which has become the most famous version of this song. The band first heard the track during their first North American tour and immediately decided to cover it, recording their version just over a week later. Legend has it that Bobby Womack was not happy with the band recording the song, but, upon receiving his royalty check a few months later, stated that the band could use any song they wanted.
The lyrics of the song are somewhat unremarkable, discussing a relationship which the protagonist previously found difficult but no longer cares about. It is the track’s instrumental where the song really shines, full of gorgeous blues rock inspirations. The song’s guitar bridge is particularly genius; it is a hectic and complicated piece which is almost impossible not to get swept up in. Keith Richards claims that John Lennon was not a fan of this guitar section, but others have labeled it as one of the greatest guitar breaks of all time. It’s certainly one which no one but Keith Richards could possibly do justice to.
Whilst the original version is far more upbeat and (slightly) better produced, the Rolling Stones version is – of course – infinitely cooler, brimming with that understated Rolling Stones magic. It’s All Over Now is one of many covers by the Rolling Stones which is infinitely superior to the original, it’s no surprise it becomes the band’s first UK number one single.
# 7 – Come On
This track is a cover of a Chuck Berry song, and, as well as being the Rolling Stones‘ first ever single, is notable for a number of other reasons. For a start, it acts like an interesting historical record, allowing listeners to see how the band’s sound has evolved over time. Come On, is very much at the lighter side of the rock and roll spectrum, bursting with high energy guitar and approachable, sweet lyrics – a far cry from the wild and darker themes which the band would explore later in their career.
Of course, as the band’s first single, released in 1963, its main job was to sell well and raise the band’s mainstream appeal, so it’s no surprise that the track is very affable and pleasant, even featuring a key change towards the end of the song. The track is also notable for featuring Brian Jones’ singing voice (although it is his pining harmonica which is his best contribution to the song).
Furthermore, despite its auspicious status as the group’s debut release, the track is notable because the band themselves are clearly not particularly keen on. The song is thought have only been performed nine times throughout the band’s decade-spanning career, although they did perform it in 2013, the first time in 48 years, to celebrate its fiftieth anniversary.
Perhaps the band aren’t fans of the song because it was clearly a necessary marketing release rather than an artistic expression, Still, Come On is a pleasant and catchy song which deserves its place on this list. There are many Rolling Stones songs which have gone down in history, but this is where it all began.
# 6 – Jumping Jack Flash
This riot of a track was released in 1968 and was a return to the band’s blues-rock roots, having explored psychedelia and baroque influences on the single’s preceding albums. Although it was recorded as part of Beggars Banquet, like many Rolling Stones singles, it was never included on an album.
The track begins with a jagged and distorted guitar intro, the fuzzy notes really setting the scene for the wild and crunchy track to come. It’s not long until Jagger’s vocals begin, which soon jump into the track’s infectious chorus hook. The lyrics of the song loosely relate to the band returning to their roots and abandoning the less successful sound they had been exploring, but – as ever – are rather oblique and difficult to properly make sense of.
Keith Richards has described Jumping Jack Flash as having a mysterious kind of magic, describing how empowered the song makes him feel and stating that he can hear the band’s enthusiasm increase during the track. It’s easy to understand what he means; even on first listen, Jumping Jack Flash does somehow seem to fill you with an indescribable joy and adrenaline, not unlike that of the title character, truly showing the power of rock music.
Given Richard’s enthusiasm for the song, it’s not surprising that, out of any of the Rolling Stones’ songs, this track has been played the most at their live shows. Liam Gallagher of Oasis recently named Jumping Jack Flash as his favorite British song ever, introducing the extraordinary track to a whole new generation of listeners.
# 5 – Honky Tonk Woman
Unlike a lot of Rolling Stones songs, Honky Tonk Woman begins not with a guitar, but with a cowbell and a drum beat – setting the scene for the song’s Southern atmosphere. It’s not long until some subtly throbbing guitars chords sound, and the track begins properly. As the cowbell and the track’s title suggest, the song concerns itself with the band’s personal experiences whilst touring the Deep South.
The song was originally intended to be a straight country track (a country version does, in fact, appear on Let It Bleed) but soon transformed into the hard rock and roll sound of the final piece. The layers of wild, slurring electric guitar and the incessant cowbell help to build an overwhelming atmosphere which recalls the type of wild and debauched bar of the song’s title. Keith Richards and (Brian Jones’ replacement) Mick Taylor make an extraordinary couple on this song, working together to create the track’s unique soundscape.
As with a lot of Rolling Stones songs, there is a lot of barely hidden innuendo in the track which is concealed just enough to appease censors. The honky-tonk bars in the song had a reputation for enabling prostitution, and you can be sure the band were well aware of this. The song topped charts across the world, and it’s easy to see why. Honky Tonk Woman is one of those tracks which never fails to fill a room, entrancing people with its magnificently seedy sound.
# 4 – Paint It Black
This single from 1966 was included on the American release of Aftermath and was a number one hit in the US and the UK. The track marks a significant time in the Stones’ canon, coming from the beginning of the era where Jagger and Richards’ became the driving force for the band’s songwriting. This saw Brian Jones take a back seat, leading to his exploration of eastern music, and resulted in the song’s stunning sitar sound. Interestingly, the original title of the song was Paint It, Black with the comma being removed at a later date. The circumstances surrounding this are still not known, and it may have simply been a typing error.
The lyrics of the song tell a story of a person who is depressed and in mourning. Rather than adopt a slow, balladic sound, the band chose to create a complicated and unusual instrumental. The blend of the sitar with vigorous drums and guitar might not immediately seem to suit the lyrical content, but it really manages to capture the intangible anger and frustration of the situation. By not taking the predictable route, the track is able to particularly stand out from other songs that cover similar topics.
Paint It Black became the first number one song to feature a sitar, and it is the Indian instrument which makes the track so distinct and memorable. The psychedelic blend of rock and eastern sounds make this one of the most brilliant Rolling Stones songs of their entire career.
# 3 – (I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction
First released in America in 1965, (I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction became the band’s first US number one single, eventually reaching the top of the charts in the UK a few months later. This is easily one of the most recognizable Rolling Stones songs ever produced and – arguably – features rock music’s most iconic guitar riff.
The rousing and churning riff which plays throughout the song is instantly memorable and will get under your skin without even trying. It is believed Keith Richards created the riff in a hotel room before bed, and can be heard falling asleep and snoring during his original recording. Debate still rages as to whether or not Satisfaction was the first rock song to use fuzz guitar, and, whilst most accept that it was not, it was certainly one of the first to popularize the sound.
The lyrics of the song proved particularly controversial at the time. They’re full of sexual innuendo, which meant the song was initially only played on pirate radio in the UK. In addition to this, the anti-consumerist lyrics were taken as a critique of American culture, further adding fuel to the fire of controversy. Over the years, the track has been covered by everyone from Britney Spears to Bjork, highlighting just how iconic and timeless this immense rock classic really is.
# 2 – Sympathy for the Devil
This magnificently dark opening track to Beggers Banquet (1968) is certainly one of the Rolling Stones’ finest creations, with its macabre lyrics contrasting the track’s upbeat instrumental. Sympathy for the Devil is a samba rock track, and, for the most part, is a lightly danceable drum and piano driven-number. This is rather humorous given the track’s narrative, which is told first hand from the devil’s point of view. Throughout the track, he takes credit for various atrocities from across human history, from the crucifixion of Christ to the Russian Revolution, World War II and the death of JFK. The band also manage to give the song a great twist by chillingly suggesting that it was humanity, acting in the devil’s interests, who have really been responsible.
The groovy instrumental is perhaps what makes the track so memorable, as it’s such an unlikely backdrop for the song’s grisly lyrics. Most of the track is made up of the aforementioned samba sound, but towards the track’s end, something brilliant happens. Keith Richard bursts in with an absolutely savage guitar solo, which is later joined by some high-pitched screeches from Jagger. It’s almost as if the band themselves are being possessed by the devil.
This track is as joyous and inspired as it is dark and creepy, sounding like something which only the Rolling Stones could ever produce. Guns N’ Roses covered the song in 1994, but there was no way their version was ever going to be able to compete with the Stones’ original.
# 1 – Gimme Shelter
The opening track from 1969’s Let It Bleed, Gimme Shelter is one of the band’s signature tracks. The song is a moody and atmospheric blues-rock piece, and one of the darkest Rolling Stones songs from this era. The song was written during the Vietnam War, and it’s claustrophobic vibe is a reflection of the growing public resentment towards this situation.
There’s something almost apocalyptic about the track, which begins with some subdued guitar riffs and soon builds to a manic and fevered climax. As well as the whining blues guitar and Jagger’s harmonica, the additional vocals of soul singer Merry Clayton are what most contribute to the track’s wild and uncomfortable atmosphere. Clayton melodically screams her parts on the song, adding a uniquely powerful feminine touch to the track. Her voice can be heard cracking at the three-minute mark, adding to the frenzied brilliance of her truly outstanding contribution to the song.
The track was never released as a single, meaning that it was not eligible to enter the charts. Still, this has not stopped the song from getting the attention it deserves, appearing on many different “greatest of all time” lists. Gimme Shelter is quite simply a stunning track; it manages to capture a chunk of the late 60s, allowing modern listeners to experience the volatile mood of the time. This is a powerful and important song, and undoubtedly the finest track the Stones ever produced.
There are no two ways about it; quite simply the Rolling Stones are one of the greatest and most iconic bands in human history. When we take a look back at the most important rock and roll bands of all time was can can essentially count them on one hand, The Beatles, Led Zeppelin, Nirvana, Pink Floyd, and The Rolling Stones. These are the bands that had the greatest impact in rock and roll history.
This look at Rolling Stones songs from the 1960’s has examined the records from the band’s rise to fame, the peak of their popularity, and beyond. The 1960’s were an extraordinary time for music, and anyone of any age can (re)immerse themselves into this period thanks to the timeless majesty of the Stones.
Updated Nov 8, 2020
Top 10 1960s Rolling Stones Songs article published on Classic RockHistory.com© 2021
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