There are plenty of moments within The Rolling Stones discography when one might feel the incurable desire to wince. The group are such a massive presence on pop music, so vast is their scope and long their time in the sun that there are bound to be moments on their records when even fans would recoil in horror. However, sometimes they deliver a superb and frankly stupefyingly good song. ‘Beast of Burden’ is one such song.
Undoubtedly considered one of The Rolling Stones’ best, the track is a powerhouse. Filled delicately with the nuance of the glimmer twins Keith Richards and Mick Jagger, the song is more keenly defined by Richards’ unique riff. However, below, we’re picking out the isolated vocals of Mick Jagger as another reason it is so beloved.
Sometimes The Rolling Stones can surprise you. Often when we’re expecting a chunky riff of hard rock proportions and ludicrous weight, Richards and the band change things up. Much like on ‘Beast of Burden’, which not only acts as one of the band’s best songs but one of Richards’ most personal too — it’s a rare sight for Stones fans.
“Those who say it’s about one woman, in particular, they’ve got it all wrong,” claimed Richards. “We were trying to write for a slightly broader audience than just Anita Pallenberg or Marianne Faithfull. Although that’s not to say they didn’t have some influence in there somewhere. I mean, what’s close by is close by! I’ve always felt it’s one of my best soul songs. It was another strict collaboration between Mick and me.”
He then added: “I think I had the first verse—‘I’ll never be your beast of burden’—along with the hook, and we were still working very much in our traditional way: Here’s the idea, here’s the song, now run away and fill it in! Some of the theories surrounding it are very intriguing, but they’re about as divorced from reality as can be. I find it quite amusing that there are people in the world who spend a lot of their time trying to decode something that is, at the end of the day, completely undecodable. I mean, even I’ve forgotten the code!” Hazy and halcyon in equal measure, the track goes a long way to cover the sincere emotion at the heart of the song’s creator.
However, as with everything the Richards and his partner-in-crime, Jagger wrote, it needed to be transferred from one brain to another. In the liner notes to the 1993 compilation disc Jump Back, Richards said this of the track: “‘Beast Of Burden’ was another one where Mick (Jagger) just filled in the verses. With the Stones, you take a long song, play it and see if there are any takers. Sometimes they ignore it. Sometimes they grab it and record it. After all the faster numbers of Some Girls, everybody settled down and enjoyed the slow one.”
In those same notes, Jagger says: “Lyrically, this wasn’t particularly heartfelt in a personal way. It’s a soul begging song, an attitude song. It was one of those where you get one melodic lick, break it down and work it up; there are two parts here which are basically the same.”
Though he may seem blase about the song’s inception, he delivers one of his finest performances on ‘Beast of Burden’. Not only are all the classic Jagger inflexions there, but there appears to be a stringent purpose to his delivery. An acknowledgement that, for Keith, this song meant a lot. Below, you can hear that delivery. Firstly, as a standalone isolated track and then accompanied by the guitar as ‘Beast of Burden’ is deconstructed.