The Ultimate Listener’s Guide to the Rolling Stones

by Rich Cohen

Rich Cohen is the author of Tough Jews, The Avengers, Monsters, and most recently The Sun & The Moon & The Rolling Stones. He is a co-creator of the HBO series “Vinyl” and a contributing editor at Vanity Fair and Rolling Stone. In an article originally published on Signature, Cohen assembles a step-by-step listener’s guide to arguably the greatest rock band of all time, The Rolling Stones, for beginners and superfans alike.

"What is your favorite Stones song?"

It’s a question people ask with some frequency, and, with the exact same amount of frequency, I lie, naming some particular song that pops in my head.

In truth, picking a favorite Stones song would be like naming a favorite child—that is, if you are a parent with more than one child. I suppose parents with one child—I apologize if I give offense, but the metaphor is in control—is like a one-hit wonder of a band. A fan of the Knack, if asked to name a favorite Knack song, can easily say, “My Sharona.” But, when it came to song writing, Jagger and Richards were as prolific as that biblical couple that gave birth to a nation as populated as the heavens with stars.

There are dozens of great Stones songs, and your list of favorites will have as much to do with what was happening in your life when it first came on the radio as melody or lyric. If “Wild Horses” was playing when your first girlfriend or boyfriend broke your heart, you will always have a beautiful way to be sad. I have instead compiled lists of songs—battalions, ranks. There are the (current) favorites—this list is in perpetual flux. There are the basics. There are the more than basics. People will argue with my choices. Some of these people will denounce me; others will pity me. But all will agree that these songs rock.

My Top Ten

As I said, it’s a list in flux. You have to be careful. If you listen to a song too many times in too short a period, you will play it out, bleed it of flavor as you chew the flavor out of gum. Then it drops off the list to be replaced by another song called up from the high minor leagues. Below are my current favorites arranged chronologically. By listening, you also get a history of the band and its sound, and how that sound evolved over the decades of drug busts, infighting, triumph, and tragedy. You will also hear how, though always changing, the sound remains essentially the same.

1. “Tell Me,” Single (1964)
The first Jagger/Richards composition Mick and Keith thought fit to bring into the studio for the band. It has a chaotic blues bar energy that characterizes the best of the Stones. The background vocals are so great.

2. “Congratulations,” 12X5 (1964)
An early B-side composition which was attributed to the entire band under the name “Nanker Phelge.” It reeks of Eddie Cochrane and 1950s dance band, echo filled as a record from Chess. Especially fine is the deceptively simple Brian Jones guitar solo.

3. “Honky Tonk Women,” Single (1969)
The Stones had laid off for several months, then returned with a new producer and a new sound captured on perhaps the greatest rock tune ever. It echoes a million earlier tunes about honky tonks but is the best of them. Keith’s guitar is drunken, tinny, and fine. The cowbell that opens the tune is played by Jimmy Miller, the American producer who hip checked the wandering Stones back on the bluesy rail.

4. “You’ve Got The Silver,” Let It Bleed (1969)
Keith’s heartbreaking lament to Anita Pallenberg, written around the time Jagger and Pallenberg were co-starring in the rock ‘n’ roll cult movie classic “Performance.” Pallenberg had left Brian Jones for Richards, and, for a moment, Richards must have feared she would leave him for Jagger. All that love and longing is captured in a few phrases, a few chords. Keith on vocals shows how much can be done with a very blunt instrument.

5. “Wild Horses,” Sticky Fingers (1971)
Pure collaboration. Keith started writing it soon after the birth of his first child, Marlon. It was the lament of a man who had to hit the road but did not want to leave home. He handed it over to Mick, who turned the song into a love ballad aimed at winning back Marianne Faithfull. As Keith later said, and this is a paraphrase, he changed it all around, but it’s still beautiful.

6. “Dead Flowers,” Sticky Fingers (1971)
Keith once made a distinction between drug songs—songs written by people on drugs, inside the high—and songs about drugs, and that life. The Stones wrote the latter, which is why these songs did not wither with age like so many other late ’60s hits. Here is a primo example, perfect in every particular, from Keith’s simple three chord rhythm to Mick drawling, “I’ll be in my basement room with a needle and a spoon/ and another girl to take my pain away.”

7. “Sweet Virginia,” Exile (1972)
Cooked up in the cellar of Nellcote, Keith’s Fortress of Solitude in the South of France, in the summer of 1971, the song picks up the country groove Jagger had been toying with and was partly schooled in by Gram Parsons. Listen for the sax solo by Bobby Keys, who’d begun his life playing with Buddy Holly.

8. “All Down The Line,” Exile On Main Street (1972)
Just a kick-ass song, the greatest band on one of its greatest days, as the ’60s bled into the ’70s.

9. “Some Girls,” Some Girls (1978)
One of the many songs the Stones could not get away with today. It’s basically a list of every sort of girl, stereotyped by ethnicity, and how that might play out at night, in bed but not sleeping. It’s a great tune, funny as hell, actually a kind of joke, filled with sly inside jokes, as in, “Let’s go back to Zuma beach, I’ll give you half of everything I own.”

10. “Waiting on a Friend,” Tattoo You (1981)
This song stands as a musical expression of the brothers-in-arms mood that makes the Stones so attractive. They’re a gang that you can blood into as you blood into the Warriors or Wanderers. It was the last tune of Tattoo You, released when I was in junior high. It was heartbreaking to later learn that, by the time the song hit the radios and its video hit MTV, a video that encouraged me to wear a Panama hat, Mick and Keith were hardly talking. The song had in fact been cut years earlier, an outtake from Goat’s Head Soup, cut in an earlier moment in rock ‘n’ roll time. The sax solo in back is the great Sonny Rollins.

Rolling Stones 101

Herein lie the basics, a handful of songs for which the Stones are most known. As this list is not exhaustive—there are too many iconic tunes for that—I have chosen those that still get me going. I start with “The Last Time,” the first true Jagger/Richards tune— here, in 1965, you already have the gestures that will define a Rolling Stones tune: the lick, the cast-off phrase. Then I continue to “Satisfaction,” which made the Stones the Stones. “Jumpin’ Jack Flash” marked a comeback from the wayward LSD days. “Angie” was Keith writing in a hospital bed in Switzerland, where he was kicking heroin. You can hear the 1970s in it, the end of the Dream. In fact, each of these songs has a telling backstory, but you don’t need to know any of that to enjoy the music. Like Jagger, all this music lives in the present tense.

1. “The Last Time,” Single (1965)
2. “Satisfaction,” Out of Our Heads (1965)
3. “Jumpin’ Jack Flash,” Single (1968)
4. “Sympathy for the Devil,” Beggars Banquet (1968)
5. “Street Fighting Man,” Beggars Banquet (1968)
6. “Gimme Shelter,” Let It Bleed (1969)
7. “You Can’t Always Get What You Want,” Let It Bleed (1969)
8. “Brown Sugar,” Sticky Fingers (1971)
9. “Angie,” Goats Head Soup (1973)
10. “Beast of Burden,” Some Girls (1978)
11. “Start Me Up,” Tattoo You (1981)

For the Regular Listener

The fact is that the Stones have been so good for so long that, no matter when you were in high school, there was a new Stones record coming out and on that record was a song that would change your life. I’ve listed chronologically—because, like a great artist, like Picasso, say, the Stones have passed through phases. The abstract phase of Satanic Majesties. The blues phase of Goats Head Soup. Disco and Punk. New Wave. This band contains multitudes. What starts as “It’s All Over Now” becomes “Loving Cup.”

1. “It’s All Over Now,” 12X5 (1964)
2. “Time is On My Side,” 12X5 (1964)
3. “You Better Move On,” December’s Children (1965)
4. “Heart of Stone,” Single, Out of Our Heads (1965)
5. “Out of Time,” Aftermath (UK) (1966)
6. “Ruby Tuesday,” Single (1967)
7. “Let It Bleed,” Let It Bleed (1969)
8. “Tumbling Dice,” Exile On Main Street (1972)
9. “Stop Breaking Down,” Exile On Main Street (1972)
10. “Loving Cup,” Exile On Main Street (1972)

Masters Class

I like to use the term “Masters Class,” as I never did go to graduate school, so this is my way of at once sounding smarter and more educated than I am, and sticking it to the man. The list consists of great Stones songs you don’t hear so much anymore. It’s filled with covers. “Route 66.” “Little Red Rooster.” In these tunes, you hear how the Stones worked with African-American music in the early years, fashioning copies that in their inexactness became something new. I love “Silver Train” as, to me, that is the Stones, a train blazing through the countryside, and you’re either on it or off. It’s also the story of the Blues, which is the font of all this music. In rock ‘n’ roll, the train, no matter how disguised, remains the Illinois Central, carrying the share-cropper from the Mississippi Delta to the promised freedom of electric Chicago.

1. “Route 66,” England’s Newest Hit Makers (1964)
2. “Little Red Rooster,” Single (1964)
3. “No Expectations,” Beggars Banquet (1968)
4. “All About You,” Emotional Rescue (1980)
5. “Memory Motel,” Black and Blue (1976)
6. “Undercover of the Night,” Undercover (1983)
7. “Country Honk,” Let It Bleed (1969)
8. “Bitch,” Sticky Fingers (1971)
9. “Silver Train,” Goats Head Soup (1973)
10. “Happy,” Exile On Main Street (1972)

Best Covers by the Rolling Stones

The Stones started as a blues cover band playing in the London dives in that part of the ’60s that was really still the ’50s. Over the years, as they have struggled to find their voice in each new era, as they have searched for the groove, they have gone back to those early covers, finding inspiration and jolt in someone else’s song. Here are a handful of my favorite, the Stones inhabiting every kind of influence from Chuck Berry (“Around and Around”) to Bob Dylan (“Like A Rolling Stone”) to Bo Diddley (“Crackin’ Up”) to the Temptations (“Just My Imagination.”).

1. “Everybody Needs Somebody to Love,” The Rolling Stones Now (1964)
2. “Around and Around,” 12X5 (1964)
3. “Like a Rolling Stone,” Stripped (1995)
4. “Crackin’ Up,” Love You Live (1977)
5. “Just My Imagination/Beast of Burden,” Some Girls (1978)

Best Covers of the Rolling Stones

Life is a great big wheel. The Stones started out by making copies, then ended up by being copied, sometimes by the people they had copied. Here are a few favorites. All are good—or I wouldn’t list ’em—but my favorite of favorites is “Dead Flowers” sung by Jerry Lee Lewis and Mick Jagger on Jerry Lee’s great late in the day album, Mean Old Man. On it, you hear just the distinction of Jagger’s vocals. You know that voice in an instant.

1. “Dead Flowers. Townes Van Zandt,” Rain on a Conga Drum: Live in Berlin (1991)
2. “Wild Horses,” Alicia Keys, Unplugged (2005)
3. “Sympathy for the Devil,” Guns n Roses, Greatest Hits (2004)
4. Dead Flowers,” Jerry Lee Lewis (w Mick Jagger), Mean Old Man (2010)
5. “Paint It Black,” U2, Achtung Baby (1991)

Bonus Song

For the Jagger vocals: “Watching the River Flow,” Ben Waters, Boogie 4 Stu: A Tribute to Ian Stewart.

Learn more in The Sun & The Moon & The Rolling Stones, available now wherever books are sold.

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