The Rolling Stones’ 40 best songs

An all-star cast pick the greatest cuts from Jagger, Richards and co

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Single from Sticky Fingers album, 1971

JOHNNY MARR: As is often the case with classic Stones songs, pretty much anyone in the Western world can recognise it within the first two seconds. And that’s to do with Keith Richards inventing a complete guitar style and genre all of his own, which is no mean feat. He didn’t just invent a sound but a whole new guitar style, possibly the coolest style since Robert Johnson or Hubert Sumlin, Howlin’ Wolf’s guitar player. It strips out any unnecessary intellectualising, prettiness or technical nonsense and just gets to the heart of it. This has got such a vicious groove. It’s primal and sexy. Evocative of the heart, body and spirit rather than the mind.
ADAM SWEETING: It can be a bit of a bore to keep droning on about the magnificence of Keith Richards, but did anybody else ever play electric guitar like this? He got help, of course, with Jagger salivating over his horny saga of slavery and miscegenation, Charlie and Bill clocking into rhythm section heaven and Bobby Keyes blasting down the studio walls on saxophone, but Richards had the ball and nobody was going to take it off him. His thunderclap opening lick announces a performance of Herculean proportions, in which Sir Keith strides through the verses like Zeus with his index finger wedged into the mains.
PHIL MANZANERA: As a guitarist, that riff is just the most fantastic thing to listen to and to aspire to play. It took me years to work out the tuning as it’s not standard guitar tuning and it’s played on five strings. There’s pages and pages of stuff about it on the Internet – it’s wonderful. When you realise how Keith did it, it seems simple but he was the first to do it. I’ve studied it in great depth. It’s just so raw, so simple, so perfect.
DAVE BALL: It was the first time I realised what brown sugar meant, the obvious drug connotations. It’s about heroin. What? He wrote it about Marsha Hunt? Maybe he did, that’s probably just me seeing drug references in everything. Bob The Builder? That’s about crack, isn’t it?


Single, 1966

JOE STRUMMER: I just have great memories of this coming out. I was at school, and the times were really defined by the Stones and all those great Sixties bands. There certainly was no time to do any school work. This is just thrilling – it swoops,
falls, picks itself up and comes at you full face on, ruthless descending guitar, brilliant harmonies. And the “baby” in the lyric – very important that “baby”. It came in the middle of a frantic run of Stones singles. It was such a feeling to know that next week something like this would be out among us. And the picture sleeve was breathtaking – Charlie Watts in a satin hat!!
IAN McCULLOCH: First heard it as a kid, and always loved the Stones more than
The Beatles. This is just full on and I always think, “How did they make that bloody record?” This was in the old days before snazzy production. I remember hearing it in a pub in Henley when we were recording an album, and this just blew my head off. It also seemed darker and druggier and dangerous. It’s more punk I suppose. More of a link between them and the Velvets.
IRA KAPLAN: This is the most mysterious one of all. I’m sure I have friends who are more astute about listening to records and knowing how they’re made, but to me it’s completely impossible to play that song and put it on tape. I can’t even imagine how it was written. The whole thing, I mean, is amazing. It’s a great song.
SIMON GODDARD: Compared to The Beatles, the Stones are rarely credited as being studio innovators yet this perfectly illustrates the contrary. Conceptually, it’s one of the most fascinating 45s in pop history, what with the triple audacity of the title, its brevity and the notorious drag queen promo that accompanied it, plus the structure, which rewrites the very conventions of pop itself; no verses, just a series of repeated choruses driven almost entirely by bass and piano alone – a radical gesture from the quintessential Sixties guitar band. The handclaps and clicks you hear in the breakdown seem a totally genuine rhythmic impulse, as if Jagger can’t wait for the beat to kick back in while Keith, suspiciously quiet after that initial blinding wah-wah prelude, returns at the finishing post with a hard, deliberate and all-conquering strumming fuzz guitar coda with just a trace of feedback humming through the mix; the perfect pay-off. Its scant lyrics and knowingly exuberant title are open to all manner of ambiguous sexual interpretations. Few bands since, apart from maybe The Smiths, have used the 45rpm pop format to such dramatic effect as this does.
IAN MacDONALD: The Stones were the first pop/rock act to make relentless transgression their main pitch. They just trod on corns in every direction, doing songs about psychotically wanting to paint everything black on a sunny day, women having nervous breakdowns, mothers addicted to tranquillisers. “Have You Seen Your Mother . . .” is the climax of this assault on good taste and was too far out to get to No 1, despite the group dressing up as their mothers to promote it. The production of the record is mind-blowing – this great, dark, echo-drenched wall of sound, raging away on the edge of total incoherence. Amazing.
NICK HASTED: The squads of girls jumping on the disoriented, bruised, laughing band at the Albert Hall in the accompanying promo, and the screaming, shared sexual release on all sides show what the song and the Stones were about in ’66. A snatch of Hollywood horns whips up the frenzy of slippery, perverse lyrics and fast, hard guitars some more. “The ultimate freak-out,” said Jagger.


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