‘Beast Of Burden’: The Story Behind The Rolling Stones Song

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When The Rolling Stones checked in to EMI’s Pathé Marconi Studios in Paris in the closing months of 1977, there were serious concerns that the album they intended to leave with might be their last.

That February, guitarist Keith Richards and his partner Anita Pallenberg had been arrested for heroin and cocaine possession in Toronto, an offense that carried a minimum seven-year sentence in prison. The charge hung over Keith all throughout that turbulent year, in which punk rock fully breached the mainstream. Facing an uncertain fate in this testing climate, it was a decidedly nervous yet tenacious Stones who arrived in France that winter.

“It was quite electrifying,” remembered engineer Chris Kimsey. “No one was quite sure what was going to happen to Keith… So it was a very anxious time.”

Listen to The Rolling Stones’ “Beast of Burden” now.

The recording

With a firm intent to “out-punk the punks,” as Keith would note, the band settled into the studio’s basic rehearsal space. The plan was to rehearse there before moving into the larger, more advanced room next door to record. But as they began to work, the group realized that the raw, intimate sound the space produced seemed to fit what they were playing – much to singer Mick Jagger’s chagrin. “It was a great room to play in,” said Keith. “So, despite Mick doing his usual ‘Let’s move to a proper studio,’ that’s where we stayed, because in a recording session, especially with this kind of music, everything has to feel good.”

Reflecting the back-to-basics style of the times, the Stones chose to refrain from using any outside musicians on these sessions, opting instead to capture the live sound of the five core members. (New guitarist Ronnie Wood was ready for his first full album recording session with the band.)

With most of the music and lyrics written during the sessions themselves, the overall sound of Some Girls is tough and insistent, the songs brimming with aggression and a fighting spirit. The penultimate track, “Beast Of Burden,” is a brief moment of respite, in which we find an imploring Jagger at his most vulnerable.

The song’s development

The groundwork for “Beast Of Burden” began when Keith came up with the title after composing its soulful chord structure. “All I did was throw out the phrase ‘beast of burden’ to Mick,” he said, “and I played him the music, and then he took it off by himself and did a beautiful job on it.”

Through hours of run throughs, the Stones toyed with the song’s backing while Jagger improvised his lyrics, piecing together lines and melodies along the way. When the group decided to reduce the song’s pace, forsaking its hard rock edge in favor of a slinky, funk groove helmed by Charlie Watts and Bill Wyman, they unlocked the song. The smooth guitar interplay of Keith and Ronnie was essential, too. “We cross over very naturally,” Ronnie said of their technique. “We call it an ancient form of weaving, which we still are impressed by it to this day. Unexplainable, wonderful things happen with the guitar weaving. There’s no plan.”

“‘Beast Of Burden’ is a good example of the two of us twinkling felicitously together,” Keith concurred.

By the time the song had reached this stage, Mick had all the words together, and it was time for a final take. “Lyrically,” Jagger later said of “Beast Of Burden,” “this wasn’t particularly heartfelt in a personal way. It’s a soul begging song, an attitude song.” Indeed, the loose longings he imparts (“Let’s go home and draw the curtains”) sound spontaneous and natural, while his self-doubting (“Am I hard enough? / Am I rough enough?”) exposes a rarely seen insecure side to the notoriously sassy singer.

On “Beast Of Burden,” Jagger resolutely makes an appeal for a strong, independent woman while promising his own discretion. “Any woman can see that that’s like my saying that I don’t want a woman to be on her knees for me,” he attested. “But people really don’t listen, they get it all wrong.”

Keith, meanwhile, interpreted his gifted title as a subconscious reference to his recent dereliction of duties, as his heroin habit compromised his role in The Rolling Stones, and Mick assumed more control of the group. “I was trying to say sorry to Mick for passing on the weight of running this band,” he explained. “I was trying to say, ‘OK, I’m back, so let’s share a bit more of this power, share the weight, brother.’”

It’s a theory that is played out in lyrics such as, “All your sickness, I can suck it up/Throw it all at me/I can shrug it off,” but one Jagger has firmly refuted. “No,” he said, laughing off the suggestion. “I think that’s just made up. I think that’s rubbish.”

The release

Some Girls was released in June 1978 and was immediately considered a return to form by critics, who praised it as the band’s best work since 1972’s Exile On Main Street. Despite their circumstances, the Stones had managed to mine pure gold. “It was a rejuvenation,” Keith confirmed, “surprisingly for such a dark moment, when it was possible that 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.”

The record had been preceded the previous month by its lead single, “Miss You,” which – like the rest of the album – was steeped in the rich influence of the New York scene that Jagger was so immersed in.

“Beast Of Burden” followed as a US single on August 28th, reaching Number 8 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart. Though it has been performed on almost every tour the Stones have embarked upon since its release, the song tends to appear infrequently. “I wish we did it more,” Keith said. “I always feel like I’m exploring it, finding a little bit more to it every time. But it’s up to Mick. He doesn’t feel like it.”

The reasons for Jagger’s apparent objections are unclear, but “Beast Of Burden” was clearly admired enough for him to perform it as a duet with some illustrious names – Katy Perry, Ed Sheeran, and James Bay have all shared the stage for the song.

Two months after “Beast Of Burden” was released, Keith’s legal battle reached its conclusion as he attended a Toronto court to hear the judge’s ruling. Though he was found guilty, Keith’s charges were reduced and he was spared jail. “No incarceration or fine would be appropriate,” Judge Lloyd Graburn decreed, “because of Mr. Richards’ continuing treatment for drug addiction and his long-term benefit to the community.” Keith was given a one-year suspended sentence and probation, and was ordered to conduct community service in the form of a special concert for the Canadian National Institute for the Blind, which the Stones duly fulfilled in April 1979.

Listen to The Rolling Stones’ “Beast of Burden” now.

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