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100 Greatest Rolling Stones Songs

From “Paint It Black” to “Shine a Light” – the hottest rocks from the Stones’ 50-year career, chosen by our expert panel of writers, critics and artists

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To make the list, we asked each of these Stones experts to rank their 50 favorite songs, then tabulated the results.

The Panel: Patrick Carney (the Black Keys), Jonathan Cott (contributing editor, Rolling Stone), Cameron Crowe (director), Anthony DeCurtis (contributing editor, Rolling Stone), Jon Dolan (contributing editor, Rolling Stone), David Fricke (Senior Writer, Rolling Stone), Robert Greenfield (journalist and author), Will Hermes (contributing editor, Rolling Stone), Robert Hilburn (journalist and author), Howard Kramer (Director of Curatorial Affairs, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame), Chuck Leavell (musician), Jonathan Lethem (novelist), Martin Scorsese (director), Rob Sheffield (contributing editor, Rolling Stone), Lucinda Williams (singer-songwriter), Warren Zanes (the Del Fuegos)

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“Lady Jane” (1966)

“Lady Jane” is a flower-bearing foray into Elizabethan balladry that exerted a huge influence on the refined, genteel side of British psychedelic pop. “There are a few places in England where people still speak that way, Chaucer English,” Richards said, referring to Jagger’s slightly comic vocal delivery. Augmented by Jones’ innovative use of dulcimer and Jack Nitzsche’s harpsichord, the decorously pretty song showed that rock could look to England’s cultural heritage for influence, in the same way the sitar on “Paint It, Black” alluded to its colonial past.

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“Salt of the Earth” (1968)

In 1968, Jagger was reportedly inspired by John Lennon to write a working-class anthem. Featuring a cracked, soulful vocal from Richards during the intro, “Salt of the Earth” ascends to gospel reverie. Jagger’s tributes to the common foot soldier and lowly of birth are tinged with harsh irony (“They don’t look real to me”). But he was passionately sincere when the Stones played a transcendent version of the song (with tweaked lyrics) at the Concert for New York City a month after 9/11. “I’ve got a feeling this town’s gonna make it,” Richards said with a massive grin.

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“Torn and Frayed” (1972)

In the summer of 1968, Richards started hanging out with the Byrds’ Gram Parsons. “He taught me all the Everly Brothers stuff and the cross harmonies and shit like that,” Richards said. Those Southern harmonies come to life on “Torn and Frayed,” an endearingly sloppy juke-joint singalong about a ragged, well-meaning rambler touring ballrooms and smelly bordellos. The debauched character sounds a lot like Richards, who reportedly was in detox and couldn’t complete the guitar overdub on the song – Parsons’ friend Al Perkins was called in to handle the job.

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“Stray Cat Blues” (1968)

For fans threatened by the Stones’ anti-Beatles image, Jagger doubled down on this sleazy rocker, scowling, “I can see that you’re just 15 years old/No, I don’t want your ID.” (In concert, he even lowered the age to 13.) Richards stabbed his Telecaster in newly discovered open-G tuning he learned from Ry Cooder. “You get a drone going all the time,” Richards wrote. The music’s dark vibe has an appropriately droogy influence. “We pinched from the very first Velvet Underground album,” Jagger said in 1977. “You know, the sound on ‘Heroin.’ Honest to God, we did!”

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“She’s a Rainbow” (1967)

Arguably the prettiest track ever by a crew not known for “pretty” – a pastoral piano melody wrapped in chamber-music strings arranged by a pre-Led Zeppelin John Paul Jones, with child-like la-la-la‘s swooping through like gnomes in a playground. It’s the one essential track on Satanic Majesties, a beautifully constructed piece of psychedelic pop. But the dissonant breakdown and the faintly lewd vision of a girl who “comes in colors everywhere” (a line possibly bitten off Love’s “She Comes in Colors”) reminds you who is behind it.

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“Shine a Light” (1972)

Fans speculated Exile on Main Street‘s gospel masterpiece – a heartbreaking portrait of a wasted loved one in twilight – was about Jones. But Jagger had completed a version as early as 1968, a year before Jones’ death. The band resurrected the song in July 1970 during the Sticky Fingers sessions. It’s basically a Jagger solo track, with Taylor on guitar and bass, Jimmy Miller on drums and Billy Preston on haunting organ and keyboard – Jagger added the elegiac gospel choir after Preston took him to hear music at the Los Angeles church of the Rev. James Cleveland.

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“It’s Only Rock n Roll ‘(But I Like It)” (1974)

After the decadence of Exile and the burnout of Goats Head Soup, It’s Only Rock ‘n Roll was an attempt to put things in perspective. The title track was written by Jagger, who cut a demo with David Bowie. When Richards heard it, he demanded they “steal that motherfucker back.” A celebration of their music with a dig at rubbernecking fans and journalists – “If I could stick a knife in my heart/Suicide right on stage/Would it be enough for your teenage lust?” – it created a classic catchphrase.

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“No Expectations” (1968)

Jones’ mournful slide guitar on this quiet masterpiece would be one of his final major contributions. “We were sitting around in a circle on the floor . . . recording with open mics,” Jagger said in 1995. “That was the last time I remember Brian really being totally involved.” “No Expectations” was also an early, vital result of the Stones turning to rock’s deeper roots – pre-war blues and country music – a hallmark of classic albums like Beggars Banquet and Exile on Main Street. “The mixture of black and white American music,” Richards later wrote, “had plenty of space to be explored.”

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“Memory Motel” (1976)

When the Stones decided to have a bash at mega-sincerity, they really went all the way – like in this extravagantly sentimental road ballad, which they stretch out to seven minutes. “Memory Motel” is unique both in its heart-on-sleeve tenderness and its Seventies yacht-soul keyboard sound. Jagger and Richards trade off lead vocals in the tale of a guitar-toting hippie girl named Hannah with hazel eyes, curved teeth and a pickup truck who meets Jagger at a cheap motel on Long Island and leaves him drunk and crying – “a real, independent American girl,” Jagger said in 1978.

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“Before They Make Me Run” (1978)

“That song . . . was a cry from the heart,” Richards said of this taut rocker from Some Girls. “I was in the studio, without leaving, for five days.” The tempo on “Before They Make Me Run” has a wired energy, the hammer-on open-G riff is a Richards staple, and the lyrics are a strikingly open plea to the Canadian authorities to go easy in his drug-possession case. “Booze and pills and powders . . . done my time in hell,” he sings, giving one of his heroically raw vocal performances a sense of unguarded personal urgency.

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“Play With Fire” (1965)

Cut on a late January night as a janitor swept up at L.A.’s RCA Studios, “Play With Fire” wasn’t really a Rolling Stones record: While Jagger sang and added echo-chamber tambourine and Richards played a haunting minor-key progression, Phil Spector played bass and Jack Nitzsche played the ballad’s signature harpsichord. Released as the B side of “The Last Time,” the song is a takedown of a spoiled aristocratic woman, which fit the band’s anti-establishment image. “The music was fueled by my emotions,” Jones said. “The lyrics were done by Mick for me.”

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“Sweet Virginia” (1972)

This beautifully shambling acoustic jam from Exile on Main Street is another song reflecting the country influence of Gram Parsons, along with the druggy atmosphere at Nellcôte, where it was recorded. It name-checks California wine, alludes to pills (“Drop your reds, drop your greens and blues”), and in what might be the album’s most memorable line – “Got to scrape that shit right off your shoes!” – riffs off Richards’ slang term for low-grade heroin (“Mexican shoe scrapings”). Taylor’s liquid guitar runs make it a candidate for the greatest acoustic song in the Stones catalog.

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“Waiting On a Friend” (1981)

Speaking of waiting, the Stones kept this song in the vaults for almost a decade before releasing it as the grand finale on Tattoo You. They originally cut it in Kingston, Jamaica, during the 1972 sessions for Goats Head Soup, with Nicky Hopkins playing graceful piano runs against Richards’ fragile strumming. Jagger went back years later, finished up the lyrics and delivered one of his masterfully soulful vocal performances, ruminating over a case of grown-up loneliness. “The lyric I added was very gentle and loving,” Jagger said years later. “About friendships in the band.” The Stones invited one of their all-time heroes to do the sax solo, jazz legend Sonny Rollins. As Jagger recalled, “I said, ‘Would you like me to stay out there in the studio?’ He said, ‘Yeah, you tell me where you want me to play and dance the part out.'” So Jagger danced, Rollins translated the moves into sax glory and “Waiting On a Friend” closes out Tattoo You in style. The famous video features Jagger and Richards hanging out with some buddies (including reggae great Peter Tosh) on a stoop on New York’s St. Mark’s Place – in front of the same building Led Zeppelin put on the cover of Physical Graffiti.

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“Have You Seen Your Mother, Baby, Standing in the Shadow?” (1966)

“The ultimate freakout,” Jagger said of this single. It still sounds impressively nuts – from its long, vaguely scandalous title to its five-alarm horn blasts to its early use of guitar feedback to its haywire tempo to its decadent noir-psych lyrics. It was especially controversial for its cover, an image of the bandmates dressed in drag. After they shot it, they went to a bar, still dolled up in dresses and wigs. “No one said anything,” Richards recalled.

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“Let It Bleed” (1969)

The Stones worked on the title track to Let It Bleed for so long that Richards’ fingers literally started bleeding from playing its acoustic-guitar riff over and over. Yet the finished product has an intimate raggedness, with Ian Stewart’s roadhouse piano and Taylor’s country-tinged leads perfectly complementing Jagger’s evocations of degradation and salvation, “coke and sympathy.” And what about that titular similarity to the Beatles’ “Let It Be”? “Not a thing,” Richards told Rolling Stone in 1971. “‘Let it bleed’ was just one line in that song Mick wrote.”

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“Dead Flowers” (1971)

This campy honky-tonk jam is part sendup – “[I] think a lot of country music is sung with the tongue in cheek, so I do it tongue-in-cheek,” Jagger said. Yet it’s utterly convincing: a boozy dressing-down of a former girlfriend that doubles as a kiss-off to the flower-power Sixties, recorded under the clear influence of Richards’ drug buddy Gram Parsons. That balance of revelry and mourning, in fact, is what makes it a great country tune, and why Townes Van Zandt and Steve Earle, among the many who have covered it, helped to make it a genre classic.

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“Happy” (1972)

Richards’ exuberantly sung anthem happened “in one grand bash,” according to the guitarist. “I had the riff” – that jolting introduction – but no other Stones. “Everybody was late for one reason or another. It was only [saxophonist] Bobby Keys and Jimmy Miller, who was producing. I was like, ‘I got this idea, let’s just put it down for when the guys arrive.'” Four hours later, “We’d cut it” – with Miller on drums and Richards on bass and slide guitar. Jagger added harmonies later. “I was pretty happy about it,” Richards crowed, “which is why it ended up being called ‘Happy.'”

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“Start Me Up” (1981)

“Start Me Up” sat in the can for half a decade before the band got a version it liked. The song was originally a reggae tune recorded during the sessions for 1976’s Black and Blue. It was reworked into a rocker at the Some Girls sessions, before finally landing on Tattoo You in 1981. “When they started playing it this time, it wasn’t a reggae song, it was what we know today as the great ‘Start Me Up,'” said engineer Chris Kimsey. “It was Keith’s song; he just changed it.” Richards’ dirty riff and Jagger’s smutty strut made it their biggest hit of the Eighties.

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“As Tears Go By” (1965)

When Stones manager Andrew Loog Oldham practically locked Jagger and Richards in a kitchen and ordered them to start writing original material, Richards began picking guitar chords, and this melancholy ballad magically appeared. Richards says he and Jagger weren’t initially knocked out by it – “We thought, ‘What a terrible piece of tripe'” – but Oldham knew a hit when he heard it and cut a version with Jagger’s girlfriend, Marianne Faithfull, which hit Number 22 on the U.S. charts in 1964. The Stones cut their own strings-drenched rendition the following year.

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“It’s All Over Now” (1964)

The Stones were still mainly an R&B cover band when they took on this 1964 chart flop by the Valentinos, co-written by the young Bobby Womack. But “It’s All Over Now” was one of the moments where they found their voice as a band, especially in the final minute, with its apocalyptic rhythm-guitar duel between Richards and Jones. The original is laid-back and funky, but the Stones crank up the aggression, with Jagger slurring the line about “high-class game” so it sounds like “half-assed game.” DJs must not have noticed (or cared): It became a hit anyway.

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“Shattered” (1978)

Welcome to New York, from your tour guide, Mick Jagger: “Laughter, joy and loneliness/And sex and sex and sex and sex.” It’s one of the all-time great songs about the city, from the pimps on Seventh Avenue to the bedbugs uptown. It’s also one of the Stones’ most uproarious rockers, with a sludge-guitar riff and a flurry of “sha-doobie” grunts that steal some thunder back from punk rock. As Jagger said, “How I remember it is Keith had this riff and this line, ‘sha-doobie,’ and I came up with the melody and the lyrics, all that stuff about New York, after the track was cut.”

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“Time Is on My Side” (1964)

The Stones performed “Time Is on My Side” before a hysterical studio audience during their first appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show in October 1964, lighting up the CBS complaint line. “My brain froze,” Patti Smith wrote of the appearance. “I was doing all my thinking between my legs.” Originally a 1964 B side by New Orleans singer Irma Thomas, it was recorded by the Stones during a two-day stay at Chess Records to showcase their soulful side, and became their highest-charting U.S. single yet. “Mick really did shine here,” said Jones. “Let’s give the devil his due.”

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“Tumbling Dice” (1972)

The most irresistible song on Exile has a deceptively chill midtempo groove, in Richards’ open-chord signature, that shuffles and weaves with a stoned, balletic grace. It began as a sketch titled “Good Time Women” that knocked around for years until the band settled in at the Nellcôte mansion in the South of France between 1971 and 1972. Jagger may have been riffing on the region’s casino culture, together with the song’s slurred rambling-man persona, when he sang, “Keep on rolling.” He wound up with a durable metaphor for the band and a generation of Sixties survivors.

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“The Last Time” (1965)

The Stones’ second American Top 10 single was also the first great JaggerRichards song – a crystallization of their confrontational magnetism. And it had the first classic-Stones riff, a steely, gliding lick, played by Jones. Richards admitted the chorus lyric came from “This May Be the Last Time,” a 1955 single by the Staple Singers. Everything else is the Stones: the taunting locomotion, Richards’ slicing high-treble guitar break, Jagger’s dismissive electricity. Andrew Loog Oldham also credited the stormy live sound of L.A.’s RCA Studios: “It’s the voodoo of space and tone.”

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“Moonlight Mile” (1971)

The six-minute epic that closes Sticky Fingers sounds like nothing else in the Stones’ songbook. Jagger sings about being lost “under strange skies” on the long road home to his lover, playing a melody influenced by Japanese music yet still straight from the blues, as he doubles his vocals on acoustic guitar. The song builds with the strings-and-horns orchestrations of Paul Buckmaster adding to the dramatic tension of Watts’ cymbals, then Taylor takes over for the instrumental finale. Richards isn’t on the track – although he and the Stones must’ve spent years living it out.

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“Rocks Off” (1972)

“Winging it. Staying up all night . . . stoned on something,” Jagger said, describing the chaotic working environment of the Exile sessions in France. “Rocks Off,” the album’s first track, throws you into that tumult without warning: a dense tangle of barking guitars; horns blaring like rush-hour traffic, with Jagger’s nocturnal irritation (“The sunshine bores the daylight out of me”) fighting through the din. The guitar sound marks a turn for Richards. “That’s five-string open tuning to the max,” he said of Exile and “Rocks Off” in particular. “I was starting to really fix my trademark.”

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“Sway” (1971)

One of the Stones’ heaviest, most devastating songs, “Sway” looks down the barrel of personal apocalypse with grim abandon. Watts’ tumbling drum fills mirror Jagger’s lyrics about a day that “broke up your mind/Destroyed your notion of circular time,” and Taylor (who co-wrote it) tops the song off with a searing, soaring solo. Despite having a deeply Keith-like vibe of lordly wastedness, Richards doesn’t play on it – though he did punch in some backing vocals later on, as part of a chorus that included Pete Townshend and the Faces’ Ronnie Lane.

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“Ruby Tuesday” (1967)

“Ruby Tuesday” came to Richards after he was painfully jilted by girlfriend Linda Keith, who soon took up with Jimi Hendrix. Yet the song is more of a nod to the hippie-era female free spirit than an angry blues rant or tortured kiss-off. Just as surprisingly, the ballad is not defined by Richards’ guitar but by Jones’ plaintive recorder, along with the piano of Jack Nitzsche and an upright bass fingered by Wyman, bowed by Richards. “It’s just a really nice melody, and a really nice lyric,” Jagger said years later. “Neither of which I wrote. But I always enjoy singing it.”

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“19th Nervous Breakdown” (1966)

A lyrical breakthrough, with references to drugs and therapy, “19th Nervous Breakdown” showed the Stones could pack sharp social criticism into headlong rock & roll. Jagger came up with the title phrase after five weeks of an exhausting U.S. tour. He spun it into lyrics about the trendy neurosis of posh London girls, sung over jagged Bo Diddley-style riffing. As the song fades out, Wyman uncorks a wild dive-bombing bass sound that ups the sense of harried intensity.

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“Can’t You Hear Me Knocking” (1971)

“Mick [Taylor] was lyrical,” Watts said. “He had such a good ear.” Taylor’s elegance and power are on full display in “Can’t You Hear Me Knocking.” It’s the Stones’ greatest guitar extravaganza – brutal but wide-open and a rare moment of on-the-rec­ord, long-form jamming from a band that rarely indulged in sprawling musical explorations popular during the early Seventies. Maybe it isn’t surprising, then, that the recording came about almost entirely by chance. The first third of the song is an elemental blues rocker rooted in a vintage fist-in-your-chops Richards riff and a funky, tight-coiled groove from Watts and Wyman. The extended instrumental section that comes in at the 2:40 mark happened because the band thought the song was over: “Toward the end of the song, I just felt like carrying on playing,” Taylor recalled later. “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.” The results feature Taylor at his most fluid, playing Latin-tinged lines that wrap around Richards’ bracing staccato shots. Saxophonist Bobby Keys adds a blues-wailing solo. “He was a very fluent, melodic player . . . and it gave me something to follow, to bang off,” Jagger said of Taylor.

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“Beast of Burden” (1978)

“Beast of Burden” is the outlaw ballad that caught the mood of the Stones at the end of the Seventies: embattled and staring down an uncertain future – but still totally open to getting laid. In 1978, the band’s existence was threatened by Richards’ drug problems. As Richards put it, “It was a rejuvenation, surprisingly for such a dark moment, when it was possible I would go to jail and the Stones would dissolve. But maybe that was part of it. Let’s get something down before it happens.” “Beast of Burden” is a prime example of Richards’ meshing with his songwriting partner – and his new guitar foil, Ron Wood. It is the song that told the world that Wood was in the band, just as “Honky Tonk Women” had for Taylor. “You have to be intuitively locked to do that, and Ronnie and I are like that,” Richards said. “‘Beast of Burden’ is a good example of the two of us twinkling felicitously together. So we said, ‘Let’s get it on.’ ”

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“Miss You” (1978)

In 1977, the Stones camped out in Toronto to play a rare club show and wait for the verdict in Richards’ drug-bust trial. During the downtime, Jagger, with an assist from keyboardist Billy Preston, who toured with the band at the time, began working up a new song. “Billy had shown me the four-on-the-floor bass-drum part, and I would just play the guitar,” Jagger says. Preston also wrote the song’s slick bass line, which Wyman repurposed with “some changing and polishing,” in his words. Richards sensed the origins of the song: “It was, ‘Aah, Mick’s been to the disco and has come out humming some other song.’ It’s a result of all the nights Mick spent at Studio 54.” But thanks to the way the Stones attacked the groove (embellished by New York blues musician Sugar Blues’ honking harmonica), this was disco as only they could do it. The ubiquitous single was the eighth and – at least for now – last Number One of the band’s career. As Richards admitted, “As we got into it, it became quite an interesting beat.”

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“Let’s Spend The Night Together” (1967)

The Stones had sung about sex a time or two before. But even by their standards, this was one blunt invitation. “Let’s Spend the Night Together” opens with some piano from the great sideman Jack Nitzsche, with Richards playing bass. Jagger slurs his salacious my-my-my and cha-cha-cha murmurs, and the cheery group chants somehow make it all sound even more obscene – like a girl group in bluesman drag. It’s one of the band’s most popular hits, even though its brazen sexuality made it too hot for the Top 40 radio of 1967 (it got to Number 55). And those clicking sticks you hear in the middle? According to Andrew Loog Oldham, that’s the London police officers who barged into the studio during the session. While the Stones hastily hid their goodies, he distracted the cops by asking them to perform on the track – by clicking their billy clubs.

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“Midnight Rambler” (1969)

“Nobody went in there with the idea of doing a blues opera,” Richards said in 2002. “That’s just the way it turned out.” Written by Jagger and Richards on an Italian vacation with the idea of tempo-changing Chicago blues, the seven-minute epic is a live highlight to this day. It was recorded in March 1969, with Richards spending five nights overdubbing his menacing slide-guitar part and Jones on percussion, one of his last recordings with the band. (“A last flare from the shipwreck,” Richards later wrote.) Though it was written with “Boston Strangler” Albert DeSalvo in mind, it took on new resonance after the Manson Family murders that year. But it truly came alive in concert, as heard on the 1970 live album Get Yer Ya-Ya’s Out, with Jagger conjuring a crazed killer, using his belt as a whip on the stage. Said Jagger, “Why we should write such a dark song in this beautiful, sunny place, I really don’t know.”

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“Get Off of My Cloud” (1965)

“‘Satisfaction’ was a great record. ‘Get off of My Cloud,’ even better record,” Neil Young enthused in the biography Shakey. “Looser, less of a hit. More of a reckless abandon.” The Stones followed up “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction” with a rebel yell against America, fame, phone calls, apartment buildings, other people and all manner of cloud-hogging modern hassles. Of course, it went straight to Number One in America, just like its predecessor. Watts’ stomping drum intro leads into Richards and Jones’ vicious twin-guitar attack. The band was actually gunning for a slower song, à la funky New Orleans soul man Lee Dorsey. Instead, it ended up with a version that “rocked it up,” in the words of Richards. Jagger’s lyrics – which allude to leaving his car unattended only to find parking tickets “like a flag stuck on my window screen” – were some of the most evocative he’d written at that time. True to form, when complimented on them a few years later, he tersely said, “Oh, no, they’re not – they’re crap.”

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“Honky Tonk Woman” (1969)

Richards once described the sacred place that “Honky Tonk Women” had in the Rolling Stones’ live set: “If they weren’t dancing by then, you’d know you weren’t getting it on.” It gave the world a first taste of that Richards-Taylor twin-guitar raunch. For Taylor, the session “Honky Tonk Women” came out of was basically his audition to join the band. For Jones, the man Taylor replaced, it was the song that was released days after his death. Immediately after mixing it, Jagger, Richards and Watts drove directly from the studio to Jones’ home and gave him his official walking papers. The Stones opted not to put “Honky Tonk Women” on 1969’s Let It Bleed; instead, they included an acoustic-hoedown version retitled “Country Honk.” But in any version, Jagger’s nose and mind both get duly blown. As Richards later said, “It was a groove, no doubt about it, and it’s one of those tracks that you knew was a Number One before you’d finished the motherfucker.”

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“Under My Thumb” (1966)

Recorded in March 1966, “Under My Thumb” is best known for its lyrics, which came off like a misogynist screed, describing an aggressive woman subordinated into one who “talks when she’s spoken to,” and is alternately described as a “squirmin’ dog,” a “Siamese cat” and “the sweetest pet.” Yet the music itself is supremely cool and seductive, defined by Jones’ beguiling marimba and Richards’ understated guitar, which add a vaguely swishy softness that undercuts Jagger’s bravado. Jagger later said his lyrics were an honest reflection of “too many bad relationships” he was going through at the time. The song is like a Motown number that wound up at the dark end of the street, and indeed, a cloud seemed to follow it throughout the Sixties. Covered by the Who in solidarity when the Stones stood trial on drug charges in 1967, it was the soundtrack to the death of Meredith Hunter at Altamont two years later. Yet in terms of songcraft, it remains among their most undeniable moments.

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“Wild Horses” (1971)

“Songs written by two people are better than those written by one,” Richards said in 2002. This is a perfect, heartbreaking example of that sentiment. The chorus was Richards’, written to his infant son, Marlon, as the Stones set off for their 1969 U.S. tour. “The interesting thing,” Richards noted, “is what you say to someone else, even to Mick, who knows me real well: ‘See what you make out of that.’ ” Jagger turned to the complicated emotions in his relationship with Marianne Faithfull. The song’s pining country grace reflected Richards’ new friendship with Georgia native Gram Parsons, who cut “Wild Horses” with the Flying Burrito Brothers and issued it first, with the Stones’ blessing. But the Stones’ recording, at Muscle Shoals in Alabama, near the end of the ’69 tour, reflected Jagger and Richards’ deeper empathy – “together with the fifth of bourbon, passing it back and forth, and [singing] the lead and the harmony into one microphone,” Jim Dickinson, the pianist on the session, recalled. In short, two as one.

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“Brown Sugar” (1971)

It takes a unique kind of confidence for a bunch of Englishmen to walk into Muscle Shoals Sound Studios in Sheffield, Alabama, in the winter of 1969 and record a song about slavery, interracial sex and cunnilingus, with a title known as slang for a type of heroin. Originally called “Black Pussy” until Jagger thought better of it, the song was pulled together in just a couple of takes – “It should sound fucking dirty,” the singer famously instructed the rest of the band. And dirty it was, thanks to Jagger’s juicy lyrics, Richards’ signature open-chord attack (cooked up with help from blues prodigy Ry Cooder) and – in the longtime sideman’s defining moment – the raunchy sax of Bobby Keys. The band debuted it live at Altamont just a few days after it was recorded, and it went on to become the nastiest hit in the classic-rock canon. Around the same time, Jagger became the proud father of a daughter with African-American singer-actress Marsha Hunt.

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“Jumpin’ Jack Flash” (1968)

“It’s about having a hard time and getting out. Just a metaphor for getting out of all the acid things,” Jagger told Rolling Stone‘s Jann S. Wenner in 1995. After the psychedelic experimentation of Their Satanic Majesties Request, “Jumpin’ Jack Flash,” released in May 1968, was a primal system shock that kick-started the greatest period in the band’s career. Richards was on a historic run at the time, exploring the open-D blues-guitar tuning for the first time and coming up with some of his most dynamic riffs. He overheard an organ lick that bassist Wyman was fooling around with in a London studio and turned it into the song’s unstoppable, churning pulse. The lyric was inspired by Richards’ gardener, Jack Dyer, who slogged past as the guitarist and Jagger were coming to the end of an all-night session. “Who’s that?” Jagger asked. “Jumpin’ Jack,” Richards answered. The song evolved into supernatural Delta blues by way of Swinging London.

The Rolling Stones

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“Paint It, Black” (1966)

“We cut it as a comedy track,” Richards confessed. Some comedy. “Paint It, Black” became one of the most flat-out frightening singles to ever hit Number One, driven by a droning sitar riff from Jones. Jagger sings about death, grief and sex (“I see the girls walk by dressed in their summer clothes/I have to turn my head until my darkness goes”) over the band’s repetitive stomp. The song was originally a conventional pop tune and, according to producer Andrew Loog Oldham, not a very promising one. Wyman’s roiling bass line, written on a Hammond organ, pushed the Stones in a new direction. The sound was psychedelic yet disturbing. “It was a different style to everything I’d done before,” Richards said. “Maybe it was the Jew in me. It’s more to me like ‘Hava Nagila’ or some Gypsy lick. Maybe I picked it up from my granddad.” The record company added a stray comma to the title, yet somehow the punctuation glitch made the song seem even more mysterious: “Paint It, Black.”

The Rolling Stones

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“You Can’t Always Get What You Want” (1969)

On the final track of their last album of the Sixties, the Stones delivered the shotgun lesson of that decade with bittersweet flair: Everything was possible, and it all came at a price. They were at a new creative peak and preparing to return to the road. But Richards was using heroin; Jagger’s girlfriend, Marianne Faithfull, had suffered a miscarriage; and Jones was all but gone. “You Can’t Always Get What You Want” was “basically all Mick,” Richards admitted. The singer turned that turmoil into a witty evocation of universal disillusionment countered by the practical hope in the chorus and a sumptuous R&B arrangement: the entrance of the London Bach Choir, arranged by Jack Nitzsche; guest pianist Al Kooper’s regal contribution on French horn; and the pushing shuffle in the drums, played by producer Jimmy Miller. “It was,” Richards crowed, “a beautiful juxtaposition” – just like the Sixties.

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“Street Fighting Man” (1968)

“Street Fighting Man” was recorded in the spring of 1968, after Jagger witnessed a massive anti-war protest in Grosvenor Square. The song’s literal meaning was ambivalent. But its energy wasn’t, and it felt like a call for radicals to up their game. Inspired by Martha and the Vandellas’ “Dancing in the Streets,” the song emerged from the band’s first sessions with Jimmy Miller, who produced all of its albums from Beggars Banquet to Goats Head Soup, in 1973. Remarkably, bass aside, it has no electric instrumentation. Richards created the layered guitar parts by distorting his acoustic through a cassette recorder. Jones played sitar and tamboura; Dave Mason, of Traffic, played a droning double-reed shehnai; Nicky Hopkins tinkled some ascending notes on piano, and Watts played a small practice drum kit miked to sound gargantuan. What emerged was the Stones’ most explicitly political moment. As Richards later wrote, “You wouldn’t have had ‘Street Fighting Man’ without the Vietnam War.”

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“Sympathy for the Devil” (1968)

No band ever summed up its mission on Earth as perfectly as the Stones did here. “Sympathy for the Devil” was a shot at their critics that also mirrored real-world evil. (Jagger had to change the lyric “who killed Kennedy” to “who killed the Kennedys” when news of Robert F. Kennedy’s assassination reached the Beggars Banquet sessions in June 1968.) Originally written as a Dylan-esque folk song, it rolls forward like a storm front, driven by a menacing samba-funk groove from Watts and African percussionist Rocky Dijon and piano and bass (played by Richards), with a wicked guitar solo midway through. The unrepentant whoo-whoo backing vocals were sung by a crowd that included Watts, Jones (who would be dead in a year) and his ex-girlfriend Anita Pallenberg, who was keeping company with Richards. Jagger based his portrait of Satan as “a may-yun of way-elth and tay-ste” in part on Mikhail Bulgakov’s satirical novel The Master and Margarita. But he made the role his own.

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“(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction” (1965)

Built on the Stones‘ greatest riff, “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction” near-singlehandedly turned “rock & roll” from a teenage fad into something far heavier and more dangerous. The guitar line was conjured by Richards while he was asleep. “I had no idea I’d written it,” he recalled in his memoir, Life, explaining how he awoke to discover the bones of the song – evidently recorded the previous night with his acoustic guitar – on a bedside cassette machine. Jagger thinks his partner got the title from a line in Chuck Berry‘s 1955 single “30 Days” (“I don’t get no satisfaction from the judge”); the singer wrote the remaining lyrics sitting next to a hotel pool in Clearwater, Florida, in early 1965, during the band’s third U.S. tour, distilling his “frustration with everything,” especially with “America, its advertising syndrome, the constant barrage.” The verses took him all of 10 minutes. It ended up being the band’s first Number One in America.



“Gimme Shelter” (1969)

“That’s a kind of end-of-the-world song, really. It’s apocalypse; the whole record’s like that,” Jagger told Rolling Stone in 1995, describing “Gimme Shelter.” Like nothing else in rock & roll, the song embodies the physical experience of living through a tumultuous historical moment. It’s the Stones‘ perfect storm: the ultimate Sixties eulogy and rock’s greatest bad-trip anthem, with the gathering power of soul music and a chaotic drive to beat any punk rock. The song was born during a pounding English rainstorm. “It was just a terrible fucking day,” Richards recalled. He was killing time in the apartment of English art-scene guru Robert Fraser while girlfriend Anita Pallenberg was on set making Performance, a film in which she beds down with Jagger. With chords ghosted by a droning E-note, the music radiated dread – clearly inspired by a mix of Jimmy Reed’s trance-inducing blues, Richards‘ own romantic anxiety, and ­heroin, which he’d just begun using. It took him about 20 minutes or so to get down the basics, which were fleshed out over several sessions in London and Los Angeles during 1969. The finished version is something entirely new for the Stones, with a slithering Watts-Wyman groove and full gospel-style backing vocals; New Orleans-born Merry Clayton was asked to sing on the track because the band’s first choice, Bonnie Bramlett, was unavailable, and she seized the opportunity, wailing, “Rape, murder! It’s just a shot away!” like the end times were nigh. When the band played the song at Altamont, minutes before concertgoer Meredith Hunter was stabbed, the lines seemed like grim prophecy. Richards later said that his guitar fell apart during the recording, “as if by design.”

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