10 Essential Rolling Stones Blues Songs

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The Rolling Stones pose for a group portait in Teddington, London in 1964. (Photo © Terry O’Neill/Iconic Images 2016)

The Rolling Stones pose for a group portait in Teddington, London in 1964. (Photo © Terry O’Neill/Iconic Images 2016)

With the release of the Rolling StonesBlue & Lonesome serving as a notice—and a reminder—that London’s finest were ace purveyors of the blues from the very start of their career, it’s worth taking a look back at highlights of their blues-drenched catalog. Just as Charlie Parker built up so many of his bebop excursions from the medium, so too did the Stones fashion some of their biggest riffs and most enduring songs from the blues. But for pure Stones blue manna, you can’t go wrong with dipping your head in these pools of classic hoodoo. Consider these 10 tunes the backstory for the Stones’ latest.

10. “Talkin’ About You” (1965)
Unlike the Beatles’ motormouthed versions of the song, the Stones slowed things down on this Chuck Berry cover, with Mick Jagger going into Jimmy Reed mode on the vocals. Charlie Watts’ backbeat pops from the speakers as though he were a Chess house drummer. You can hear how gassed they are—pleased with themselves, really—to be taking this one on and holding their own. Blues is seasoned by experience, but sometimes youth has the bigger balls that serves the blues so well.

9. “Mona (I Need You Baby)” (1964)
The tempo trends toward the phlegmatic, but this Bo Diddley cover works in large part because of that giant coil of a groove at its center. This is blues rubato, so much feel, and so much control. The lead guitar has a shimmery, oozing quality to it, like fried grease. Bill Wyman takes off for a few scalar runs on his bass as though no one here could avoid cutting loose for a time or two.

Related: Bill Wyman talks about the birth of the Stones

8. “Around and Around” (1964)
Another Chuck Berry cover, with the blues going uptempo. Call it Chuck Berry via T-Bone Walker, with the Stones honing a London version of jump blues. The Animals cut a bluesier version, but the decision to rock it up serves the Stones well. The guitar break has a Buddy Holly aspect, which is fitting, as the good Mr. Holly loved himself some blues, too. And as for not stopping rocking until the moon went down—you rather get the sense they went on longer than that.

Related: 17 classic Chuck Berry covers

7. “Money (That’s What I Want”) (1964)
Many a Stones buff doesn’t know that their band also tackled this Barrett Strong composition that the Beatles made much better known. The Stones pull everything back—the tempo, the freneticism—and up the stomp quotient. This is garage scuzz/fuzz rock three years before bands like the Seeds and Shadows of Knight were doing their thing. Cut in late 1963, released in early 1964, this almost feels too feral for the Merseybeat age, which is maybe why they tucked it away on an EP.

6. “Stray Cat Blues” (1968)
So naughty, this one. Goodness, there is some stuff going on with a couple of sisters and allegations/boasts about, let us just say, the capaciousness of an orifice. The Stones never sounded more sinister—not even on “Sympathy for the Devil”—and yet managed to be strangely ingratiating at the same time. Note the sting of the guitar and how it plays off the sting of Jagger’s voice.

Related: Stones announce 2017 European tour

5. “Confessin’ the Blues” (1964)
A borderline talking blues that smokes—there’s a hybrid you don’t get every day. This is a recording you’d associate with a band warming up or shutting down for the night in the rehearsal room, finding themselves hooked into a number that was supposed to just be an exercise. Consider it the pull of the blues, Stones-style. Jagger steps back from the mic at times to lay into his vocals with an added-on echo effect, a shout down a Delta byway.

Related: Watch the video for “Hate to See You Go” From the Stones’ Blue & Lonesome album

4. “Little Red Rooster” (1964)
Don’t you just like a world better in which this could be a number one hit, as it was in the U.K.? Brian Jones makes one of his best contributions to the band’s output with his slide guitar attack, which is the best of the British Invasion era. It’s not even close, really. Metaphor buffs won’t have to puzzle too long over what this song is about, but it’s also the Stones driving home the reality that they could do the blues as well as anyone and they were barely into their twenties. Charlie Watts’ shuffle beat—which has a hint of Calypso—isn’t bad either.

3. “Cocksucker Blues” (1970)
Sometimes you just go for it. This notorious song, written as contractual filler, is ostensibly some big Gogol-esque joke, but it numbers among the most terrifying cuts of the last century: the very sound of desolation, of being broken, of concern that one might never be whole again. It’s also as well as Jagger ever sang. See you around Nelson’s Column, then.

2. “Love in Vain” (1970)

We are deep in that Delta loam now. A Robert Johnson composition, “Love in Vain” became something entirely Stonesian live, like on this Get Yer Ya-Ya’s Out! Version (recorded in November 1969, released the following year). The transformation from a howl into the Mississippi night to a howl into the abyss is realized courtesy of Mick Taylor’s lead guitar, which feels both interplanetary and as granitic as the ground underfoot. This is both walking, and soaring, blues.

1. “No Expectations” (1968)
It’s one thing to play it, another to write it, and this Beggars Banquet track represents the Stones’ apex as composers of the blues. It’s as elegant as the blues can get, and it will also slice out your heart, being a song about wishing to go back somewhere—to a state of emotion as much as a point of place—and knowing that can never happen again. It’s the sonic equivalent, really, of being in between selves, and that is one hell of a place to be, to say nothing of a sound to make.

Bonus Video: An unreleased, somewhat ribald track from 1964, “Andrew’s Blues” (Andrew being their manager, Andrew Loog Oldham)…

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Colin Fleming

Colin Fleming

Colin Fleming's work appears in The Atlantic, Rolling Stone and Vanity Fair. He is completing a book called Same Band You've Never Known: An Alternative Musical History of the Beatles.
Colin Fleming
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