The Rolling Stones’ 40 best songs

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

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Single, 1966

BUTCH VIG: There’s a lot of classic Stones songs, but this sounds just as contemporary now as it did then. It also pinpoints how a lot of people can’t get by without hiding from reality. For my money, half of the Western world are probably popping pills right now to try and escape their lives . . . The song also has a great hook.
ANDY ROURKE: When we were younger, where me and Johnny [Marr] used to rehearse was like an old school hall. They used to stock records there of what they were going to use in the next week’s jumble sale. Me and Johnny used to rummage through them all and nick the good ones. I remember finding “19th Nervous Breakdown” there and really getting into the Stones from that.
DAF: The Stones did lots of really fast songs, but I love the way this sounded so frantic and manic, like it could fall apart any second. I’ve also spent a lot of time wondering why 19 and not another number.
HOWIE BECK: “19th Nervous Breakdown” was my introduction to rock as it was one
of the few singles my mom had on vinyl when I was a kid. The scratches were louder than the music, but I still loved hearing it. The vocals are tremendous too.
CHRIS HILLMAN: Their raw energy always grabbed me. When I was in The Byrds, [drummer] Michael Clarke and I always wished we could be in The Rolling Stones. We just loved that rawness. “Breakdown” has that riff, a wonderful guitar riff, one of many to come from Keith Richards. That hammer-on he does is really something else. And the lyrics are great too – that rawness pounding into you.
CHARLIE GILLETT: “19th Nervous Breakdown” had an amazing arrangement – did Jack Nitzsche have something to do with it? “Here it comes, here it comes . . .” Pop music was never better than this, and for the past 20 years has not come close.  These days, people with anything worth saying  seem to be afraid of tying their words to melodies;  they leave it to the pop craftsmen to please the general public, and radio sounds unadventurous as a result.
MICHAEL GIRA: I don’t know how much we 12-year-olds knew about such matters, but it made me want to go there. Again, the sound of the recording is in itself a narcotic inducement.
IRA KAPLAN: I remember hearing the title before I ever heard the song and thinking what a great title that was and being really young and not really knowing what it meant but still just really wanting to hear a song with that name. And when I did, I mean, I love that song. The guitar line, the lyrics and of course the bass thing at the end when it comes down is really something magical. All the sounds on that record are amazing. It’s miraculous to me. It’s not as immediate as “Satisfaction” or “Get Off Of My Cloud”, but it seems to grab at a different place.
JOHNNY MARR: That whole run of singles from ’65 to ’67 was a big influence on The Smiths from the second album onwards, from the perspective of energy and arrangement. British rock’n’roll in three-and-a-half minutes. I took a picture of that period as being a subversion of the record charts. Because I was so obsessed with looking at videos and pictures and listening to the records, I was seeing at that point in time a band who were starting to understand their power. They were on a roll, completely fearless, and in a business that was even more conservative than today. The fact they were so dandified and audacious, not just in music but in the lifestyle. It was something I found very attractive and aspired to. A friend of mine has a theory about all great bands entering a period he calls ‘going imperial’. And that great run of Stones chart singles is them going imperial. It’s when that initial blueprint gets built on, and the style and music becomes more flamboyant and daring. It’s them really hitting cruise control.


Single from Aftermath album, 1966

MARC ALMOND: Kind of an obvious one for me. I was always much more of a Stones person than a Beatles person. And I’m a massive fan of Mick Jagger – he’s one of the nicest people in the world. Recently I was on my way to New York with a friend of mine, and Mick Jagger was in the airport lounge. I was starstruck and awestruck, but Mick went over to the person in charge and said, “Please make sure these people get through customs and immigration . . .” And when we got on the plane there was champagne, fantastic seats, they upgraded us and everything – with a limousine waiting at the other end. So Mick Jagger can’t do a thing wrong in my book.
BUTCH VIG: This song never fails to put a smile on my face. I love the Middle Eastern motif, which I reckon Keith Richards played while Brian Jones got drug-riddled. The tempo is fantastic, the drums are pounding and the lyrics are so dark and scary you wonder what was going on in Jagger’s head.
IAN ASTBURY: What an incredible comment on the late 20th century. They were smart enough to realise that all the institutions you were supposed to look up to had begun to crumble. I’m always more interested in the darker aspects of the Sixties, and for me the Stones captured that better than anyone else, especially that lascivious sexual power. The Stones really tapped into the blackness, the carcass of late Sixties society that was dying. On this track they had that urban voodoo sound down brilliantly.
RICHARD HAWLEY: Again, even though Brian Jones has the sitar, and it could all
go hippy dippy, it doesn’t. It’s all about depression and dark urges – it’s always what distances them from all the rest: the dark urges.
CHARLIE GILLETT: “Paint It Black” had a strange Indian sound, and those desperate words. Mick and Keith were brilliant songwriters who were also great front men, and Charlie Watts on drums had a sense of timing that other British drummers never achieved, coming just a little late on the beat, giving a sense of effortlessness to offset Jagger’s edgy urgency.  I never thought it mattered who the second guitarist was, but it probably did, and most of the Stones records I like are from the Brian Jones era.
JIM SCLAVUNOS: It both illuminates and exaggerates the kind of romanticised decadence they loved to flirt with.
ED HARCOURT: I was watching Full Metal Jacket the other day and this came on and it sounded fantastic. I think there was always a nasty streak about the Stones. It’s a track that every time I hear it, I get blown away.
CHRIS HILLMAN: I like this because it shows Brian Jones’ influence. We all write him off, but he really was an integral part of the band. He had this whole R&B thing goin’ and did things that people never gave him credit for. I always consider myself a footnote and I think Brian was like that, too. He was the guy who didn’t get as much recognition down the road. And though, sometimes, death brings on iconic status – you look at Gram Parsons and Jim Morrison – in his case, he was forgotten . . .
MICHAEL GIRA: Growing up in sunny suburban California, this was about as opposite to my surroundings as it was possible to be. It was definitely a healthy psychological/sonic balm. Probably used to sell cars by now, but it doesn’t matter. If this song were a world, I would want to live in it.
LYNDON MORGANS: “Paint It Black” is like sauntering down the Kings Road one fine summer’s day in 1966. I love everything about the record: the slow intro (the Stones were always sublime at intros – even if there wasn’t always a decent song attached), Charlie’s toms and the sitar glissandos, the surly vocal and only half-audible lyrics, the sheer propulsion of the thing. As original and exciting as “Strawberry Fields Forever”, “Good Vibrations” or “Like A Rolling Stone”.


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