iconic songs

Breaking down two iconic songs from the Rolling Stones

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In part two of our series, we break down two more iconic songs from the Rolling Stones: 1966’s “Under My Thumb” and “Ruby Tuesday.”

As noted in the first part of this series, “Guitar riffs, sonic hooks, and the Rolling Stones’ iconic sound,” the Rolling Stones have been responsible for writing and recording dozens (and dozens) of iconic songs that stand as models for rock music to this day. Injecting memorable (and repeating) guitar riffs and sonic hooks into a song is a practice the Rolling Stones mastered early in their career.

In this post, we pick up where we left off, studying two songs from the Stones’ early recording days in the mid-’60s to dissect and explain how they created memorable tracks that have withstood the test of time.

Under My Thumb

This track once again highlights the creativity of Brian Jones, but instead of the electric guitar he played on “The Last Time,” it features Jones on a very different instrument.

The Stones’ 1966 album, Aftermath, marked another turning point in the band’s career for a number of reasons. Their fourth UK studio album, it was the first to exclusively feature their own compositions — they were no longer trying to mimic their Chess Records’ idols when penning new songs. Instead, they had found their own musical voices, especially Mick Jagger and Keith Richards. The group was spreading its wings to create music that would draw on rock, pop, blues, country, and even Baroque styles while evolving into their own unique signature sound.

To hear this expansive range, simply cue up the album’s opening track, “Mother’s Little Helper,” a rocking psychedelic-inspired song that shines a light on housewives relying on pills to avoid depression, then cut to “Lady Jane” which could have been a courtly song from the late 1500s. It’s a gentle love ballad sung with conviction by Jagger, featuring delicate period-sounding acoustic instruments, such as a quill-plucked dulcimer and harpsichord. More than anything, Aftermath presents the band as fully formed creatives, exploring the breadth of ideas they were developing at that time.

While considered an album cut by the band, “Under My Thumb” generated frequent spins when the album was released on April 15, 1966 in the UK, in large part due to its hip arrangement and sonic hooks. The recording shows a great deal of Motown influence, most clearly by the addition of a signature marimba part played by Brian Jones, which was likely an homage to Motown session musician and Funk Brother Jack Ashford’s artful use of vibes and marimba on so many Motown classics. Jones’ repetitive marimba playing is one key sonic hook that makes the backing track so memorable.

The addition of finger snaps and loose-sounding group handclaps, the offbeat clipped-sounding rhythm guitar played by Richards (which only appears during the song’s first eight bars), and Bill Wyman’s James Jamerson-influenced syncopated bass pattern all add to the Motown-effect the track exudes. The Stones were listening to what was going on across pop music and picking and choosing licks, grooves, and themes to incorporate into their own sound. Drummer Charlie Watts lays down a silky groove reminiscent of the Funk Brothers legendary drummer, Benny Benjamin.

Looking back from the perspective of today’s album recording schedules, it stands out that the entire 14-song album was recorded in only seven days at the Stones’ favorite studio of that era, RCA Hollywood, with staff engineer Dave Hassinger at the board. Hassinger recalled that the band had been playing some of these songs during their nearly non-stop touring so they knew what they wanted to do when they arrived at the studio. In an interview with Steve Hoffman, Hassinger commented, “They really knew what they were after and they knew when they had it. They never went for perfection. They went for total feel. You could have a little mistake, as long as it didn’t disturb the feel or if it wasn’t distracting.”

“Under My Thumb” is comprised of four A-B verses, the A section being the first four lines of each verse (“under my thumb”) and the B section made up of the next four lines (“it’s down to me”) and Jagger’s varying ad libs at the end of each B section. The song’s Motown-influenced intro and nearly minute-long vamp where Jagger channels the panting of a soul crooner make up the remainder of the recording.

Lyrically, whereas “The Last Time” talked about leaving a girl who was too difficult to be with, “Under My Thumb” imagines a 180-degree flip, with the male narrator totally controlling a now subservient girlfriend who “once had me down.” Lyrically, the song’s title appears no less than 12 times throughout, demonstrating that Jagger and Richards had learned the value of repetition when it comes to creating catchy pop songs that stick in the listener’s mind.

If you recall Richards’ tasty guitar solo featured in “The Last Time,” you’ll hear echoes of that approach in the B section of each verse, as Richards plays syncopated solo lines and chordal fills between Jagger’s vocal lines. Also reminiscent of his approach on “The Last Time,” Richards’ rock solid acoustic guitar anchors “Under My Thumb” and is especially out front in the mix during the A section of each verse. And yes, that is a piano in the mix, basically doubling Richards’ acoustic, played by Ian Stewart. Although Ian Stewart was no longer publicly a member of the group, he would perform on nearly every album the group made from 1964 until his passing in 1985. The rest of the band considered him a “sixth” member of the group even though their manager had kicked him out, and they relied on his boogie-woogie inspired keyboard parts on many sessions. He also managed their gear on their non-stop, globe-trotting tours. “Very few people realized how important he was to the Stones,” recalled Richards. “He was the glue that held the thing together.”

The most prominent sonic hook on this track as mentioned earlier is the marimba, which Dave Hassinger presciently brought in as a rental for the band to experiment with that day. In his memoir, Life, Richards recalls that Brian Jones was something of a music savant when it came to playing new instruments. However, with Jagger and Richards now leading the band, Jones became increasingly distant and actually rarely picked up his guitar, often being absent during recording for days at a time. In his memoir, Richards says, “When [Brian] was there [in the studio] and came to life, he was incredibly nimble. He could pick up any instruments that were lying around and come up with something. The sitar on ‘Paint It Black.’ The marimba on ‘Under My Thumb.’”

For a novice, the marimba part, which uses an arpeggiated pattern of the song’s simple F#m – E – D chord progression, is inventive and fresh compared to the guitar-driven sound the band normally had employed on its records. A close listen in headphones reveals a gaffe played by Brian as the song heads into its outro around 3:09, but it’s very subtle and fell well within the Stones’ rule of allowing subtle mistakes that didn’t affect the song’s feel.

Another sonic hook is the brilliant fuzz bass part Richards added over Bill Wyman’s bass line. Coming in to provide low end “buzz” during each verse’s B section, the fuzz bass adds variety and keeps the listener wondering how the song will continue to evolve. Richards only played the fuzz bass during the chorus, which, when it disappeared, had the effect of adding an emphasis to the title line of the succeeding verses. As he sings “Under my thumb” on verses two, three, and four, Jagger’s voice now sounds way more exposed as the mix is sparser without the fuzz bass filling the low register. The final production touch was the RCA reverb and echo effects which wrap Jagger’s mocking lead vocal and the backing instruments in a lovely 1960s-signature shimmer reminiscent of the Motown sound.

Ruby Tuesday

Recorded on November 16, 1966 at London’s Olympic Studios with Glyn Johns at the board, “Ruby Tuesday” was the band’s first double A-side release (the record’s flip side was the controversial, “Let’s Spend the Night Together”). Upon its release on January 13, 1967, many radio programmers decided to only play “Ruby Tuesday” as they feared the backlash as Jagger’s provocative offer to “spend the night together” sunk in to parents’ and censors’ consciousness. No matter, as “Ruby Tuesday” stands on its own as a beautiful composition that captured the inventiveness of the Stones in this period and became another million-seller for the group.

Although it is mutually credited to Jagger/Richards, “Ruby Tuesday” was primarily written by Keith Richards as a response to the end of an intense relationship with his girlfriend, Linda Keith. In his autobiography, Richards flatly states, “Linda Keith was the one who first broke my heart.”

For both, it was their first serious relationship and lasted for some time. As much as anything, the relationship unraveled due to the band’s schedule, which Richards claims only allowed the band members 10 days off over a nearly three-year-period from 1965-1968. Returning after a four-month absence on the road, Richards got the news Linda had moved out of his flat and was living with someone else. He was angry, hurt, and devastated. He asked his friends where to find her new boyfriend and went to the apartment, stood outside, and upon seeing Linda with the other man through the window, knew their relationship was really over. Looking back on the end of the relationship, Richards wrote, “That’s the first time I felt the deep cut. The thing about being a songwriter is, even if you’ve been fucked over, you can find consolation in writing about it, pour it out. Basically, Linda is ‘Ruby Tuesday.’”

The 3:19-long tune starts with a new sound for a Stones’ record, bowed upright bass under piano and vocal. The moody lyrics reflect both Richards’ sense of loss blended with a nod to the new-found freedoms young adults were beginning to experiment with at that time in London and elsewhere. Check out the opening verse and chorus.

She would never say where she came from
Yesterday don’t matter if it’s gone
While the sun is bright
Or in the darkest night
No one knows
She comes and goes

Goodbye Ruby Tuesday
Who could hang a name on you
When you change with every new day
Still I’m gonna miss you

At the third line, a recorder enters, played by Brian Jones with plenty of reverb and echo, giving it an ethereal, cathedral-like ambience. The recorder’s fresh sound instantly resets the emotional frame of reference for the listener. This contrasts perfectly with Jagger’s up-front vocal, and the recorder becomes the second sonic hook on this track. Like Jagger’s vocal, the bowed bass and piano are very dry in comparison to the recorder parts.

Each 16-measure verse builds nicely leading up to the song’s eight-measure chorus, where the arrangement changes dramatically, adding an electric bass, steady drumbeat, Richard’s 12-string acoustic guitar, and a tambourine that is hot in the mix, driving the song’s forward motion. The dramatic shift in instrumentation for the chorus has the effect of taking what starts as a thoughtful ballad and ups the energy dramatically for the song’s signature sing-along chorus.

Jack Nitzsche is playing the piano part on the track, as he had on its flip side, “Let’s Spend the Night Together,” and Brian Jones added a barely audible harpsichord in the choruses to further the Baroque impression.

One humorous production note comes from Glyn Johns, who recalled that Bill Wyman was having difficulty holding down the heavier strings on the upright bass and playing with a bow, so Richards jumped in and played the bow while Bill fingered the notes! Listen carefully to the bowed bass on measures 9-16 in the verses and you can hear that while the duo doesn’t have the polish that a session musician might have added, they bring a raw urgency to the part that adds to the emotion of the recording.

Jagger’s vocal performance channels the sense of loss while exploring his entire vocal range, stretching to hit the high notes in the chorus and bottoming out on the song’s first line to hit a low G on the word “from.” The song also features Richard’s intertwining backing vocals, which jump back and forth throughout the song between singing unison lines with Jagger to harmony vocals. The first and last line of all three verses, however, feature Jagger’s voice alone, which adds weight and reinforces his role as the narrator of this tale of lost love.

Sticking to their tenet of not demanding perfection, during the song’s double chorus near the end, the tom fills are heavily distorted, but don’t cause enough distraction to merit another take. To emphasize the sense of finality and end of the relationship, rather than a fade out, the song instead ends with a short reprise of the song’s opening measures played by just the bowed bass, 12-string guitar, and solo recorder, reinforcing the romantic, almost Elizabethan sound.

Four takeaways

1. Sonic hooks are ear candy for pop music listeners. From Brian Jones’ memorable four-note riff on “The Last Time” to the bowed bass on “Ruby Tuesday,” the Stones always look for off-the-beaten-track sounds and instruments to help make their records unique. Who would have expected a group that established itself covering Chuck Berry and Bo Diddley songs to jump back nearly four hundred years to prominently feature historic instruments such as the recorder, dulcimer, and harpsichord?

2. Repetition is an essential element of popular music. Whether it’s an incessant riff or using a song title a dozen times during a 3:42 song, repetition reinforces the most important parts of pop songs and helps the listener latch onto those elements and recall them after the song is over.

3. Vocal exposure adds emphasis. The Stones’ use of backing vocals at first sounds a bit unstructured when compared to other groups of this time period, but their vocal arrangements were never random. They added emphasis to key lines by dropping out the background vocals or adding a piece of ear candy, such as the fuzz bass on “Under My Thumb.”

4. Don’t chase perfection. One of the biggest things the Stones learned from their study of the Chess masters was that a few missed notes or some distortion are not a reason to scrap a recording with the right feel. The Rolling Stones are one of the most talented recording acts in history because they could create a mood and then sustain it over the course of an entire song. They are an embodiment of the saying that “perfection is the enemy of the very good.”

As you work in what can be the clinical environment of a digital audio workstation, with pitch and time correction software and hundreds of plug-ins, don’t forget that great records can be made in just a few takes with all the musicians playing together. Listening to classic Rolling Stones reminds us that sometimes a great vibe beats out the quest for perfection.

Story Links

The Rolling Stones All the Songs: The Story Behind Every Track by Philippe Margotin and Jean Michel Guesdon
I relied extensively on this book in researching these songs and the band’s early history. It’s a fun and informative 703-page tome loaded with inside information on the making of every Rolling Stone’s album.

Life by Keith Richards
Keith Richards’ fascinating 2010 memoir is an essential read for any devoted Rolling Stones fan. Richards holds a mirror up to his fantastical life and gives a pretty honest recounting of the pathway to stardom and sustained success with plenty of war stories along the way. He discusses songwriting and guitar playing in some detail throughout.

HatschekHeadshotKeith Hatschek is a regular contributor to the Disc Makers Blog and directs the Music Management Program at University of the Pacific. He has also written two music industry books, How to Get a Job in the Music Industry, which just came out in its third edition, and The Golden Moment: Recording Secrets from the Pros His latest book, The Historical Dictionary of the American Music Industry, has just been published in fall 2018. Keith was recently featured offering a range of music industry career advice in Episode #33 of the Scharff Brothers’ Mentoring for the Modern Musician Podcast.

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2 thoughts on “Breaking down two iconic songs from the Rolling Stones

  1. You missed the fact that it’s an ALTO recorder: a bit more tricky to play than the common soprano. Also, the Alto recorder is in F, requiring transposition. It’s unclear if Brian Jones was transposing or earballing it.

    Woodwinds in general-especially the less obvious species- are frequently misunderstood by most producers. And so, are quite sadly considered replaceable by samples due to budgets. Brian is held in some respect for trying to incorporate authentic world sounds into a mainstream palette of drums-bass-guitar-keys-vocal. My two cents: Go the extra mile and find that woodwind player with the weird flute, hire them & put them onto your track. You wont be disappointed; and your creation will have something no one else’s does- a living, unrepeatable breath, captured forever in your music. 🙂

    1. Nice – I agree with you completely, as some of my favorite bands used woodwinds in interesting ways. King Crimson, of course, and Traffic come to mind. I also wasn’t aware that it was an alto Brian was playing, but now that you’ve mentioned it, it’s obviously too rich and deep to be a C soprano. Many thanks!

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