The Rolling Stones are now four shows into their 2021 No Filter Tour, and they have yet to play “Brown Sugar” a single time. The tune has been a staple of their live show since it came out 50 years ago, and it’s the second most played song in their catalog with 1,136 known performances. (“Jumpin’ Jack Flash” is #1.)
“You picked up on that, huh?” Keith Richards told the L.A. Times earlier this week when asked about the absence of the song. “I don’t know. I’m trying to figure out with the sisters quite where the beef is. Didn’t they understand this was a song about the horrors of slavery? But they’re trying to bury it.” The band’s possibly final “Brown Sugar” performance took place August 30th, 2019 at Hard Rock Stadium in Miami, Florida.
It’s not hard to understand why some people want to bury the song. Let’s just look at the first verse: “Gold coast slave ship bound for cotton fields/Sold in the market down in New Orleans /Scarred old slaver knows he’s doing alright/Hear him whip the women just around midnight.”
This is indeed an historically accurate description of the horrors of the slave trade. And while nobody is seriously suggesting the Stones released a pro-slavery song, it continues on with lines about the unimaginable sexual abuse many slaves faced once they reached southern plantations.
“Drums beating, cold English blood runs hot,” Jagger sings. “Lady of the house wonderin’ when it’s gonna stop/House boy knows that he’s doing alright/You shoulda heard ’em just around midnight.”
This is not a typical subject for a pop song, and it culminates with the chorus, “Brown sugar, how come you taste so good?” Regardless of intent, it’s not surprising that Mick Jagger no longer felt comfortable leading 50,000 people a night in a singalong rendition of the song. It just doesn’t taste so good in 2021.
“We’ve played ‘Brown Sugar’ every night since 1970,” he told the L.A. Times, “So sometimes you think, ‘We’ll take that one out for now and see how it goes.’ We might put it back in.”
Richards hopes that happens. “At the moment I don’t want to get into conflicts with all of this shit,” he said. “But I’m hoping that we’ll be able to resurrect the babe in her glory somewhere along the track.”