The Rolling Stones have finally gone sour on Brown Sugar. The 1971 single is considered one of their essential hits and, of course, provides the visceral opening salvo to the album Sticky Fingers. And yet it was conspicuously absent from the set-list as the band resumed touring in the US recently.
Keith Richards later confirmed to the LA Times that Brown Sugar has, for the time being at least, received the red card. It had apparently been pointed out to Richards that the track was “problematic”. Judging by his LA Times interview, however, he remains baffled as to the precise nature of the problem.
“I don’t know. I’m trying to figure out with the sisters quite where the beef is. Didn’t they understand this was a song about the horrors of slavery? But they’re trying to bury it. At the moment, I don’t want to get into conflicts with all of this s***.”
The Stones wouldn’t be the Stones without Richards and Mick Jagger having sharply diverging views, and so it was predictable Jagger would have a different perspective on Brown Sugar’s absence.
“We’ve played Brown Sugar every night since 1970, so sometimes you think, ‘We’ll take that one out for now and see how it goes’,” he said. “We might put it back in.”
These are strange times for rock ’n’ roll’s ultimate warhorses. They are still reeling from the death in August of drummer Charlie Watts. In a new interview with The New Yorker, Paul McCartney took a surprising pot-shot when labelling the Jagger-Richards juggernaut “a blues cover band”. Now they have dispensed with one of their seminal stonkers.
Of course, the real surprise may be that Brown Sugar lasted as long as it did. Even before the idea of “cultural appropriation” caught on, it was risky for the Stones to conjure with the demons of black slavery, as they do in the first verse.
“Gold coast slave ship bound for cotton fields/Sold in the market down in New Orleans,” sings Jagger. “Scarred old slaver knows he’s doing all right/Hear him whip the women just around midnight.”
Nobody blinked at those lyrics in the early 1970s. Over the decades, however, Jagger has discreetly censored himself. Performing Brown Sugar in recent years, he has, for instance, swapped out the “hear him whip the women” line with “you shoulda heard him”.
Brown Sugar pivots from the slave auction to the rock star boudoir. Having started with the tale of a woman forcibly transported from Africa’s Gold Coast to New Orleans, the second verse delves into Jagger’s fondness for black women.
“Drums beatin’ cold, English blood runs hot,” he sings. “Lady of the house wonderin’ when it’s gonna stop.” And then, the chorus. “Brown Sugar, how come you taste so good?”
There was obviously a double meaning – a sexual one and also an allusion to heroin. Jagger appeared to have chucked the second reference in just to be controversial.
“Drugs… That’s a double-entendre, just thrown in,” he told Rolling Stone. “Brown sugar being heroin and… the whole mess is thrown in. God knows what I’m on about on that song. It’s such a mishmash. All the nasty subjects in one go.”
Speculation swirled for years as to which of Jagger’s conquests inspired Brown Sugar. Marsha Hunt, Jagger’s lover and the mother of his eldest daughter, Karis, long claimed the track was informed by their nine-month affair.
In the meantime, another of Jagger’s paramours had come forward to claim they were the original Brown Sugar. Stones backing singer Claudia Lennear insisted she was the object of Jagger’s desires on the track.
“Around the time Brown Sugar became a hit for The Rolling Stones, Mick Jagger and I were always seen together in restaurants and nightclubs in Los Angeles,” she told the Express.
“That’s why people thought the song was about me, and Mick later confirmed that it was. The Stones had a bad-boy image but they were perfect gentlemen.”
And yet neither Hunt nor Lennear were especially prominent in Jagger’s thoughts when he composed Brown Sugar. He had put together its bare bones while filming the movie Ned Kelly with director Tony Richardson in New South Wales in 1969.
“I wrote that song in Australia in the middle of a field,” Jagger revealed to Rolling Stone in 1995. “They were really odd circumstances.
“I was doing this movie, Ned Kelly, and my hand had got really damaged in this action sequence. So stupid. I was trying to rehabilitate my hand and had this new kind of electric guitar, and I was playing in the middle of the outback and wrote this tune.”
The lyrics would come much later. Yet Jagger knew from the start that Brown Sugar was special.
“But why it works?” Jagger continued to Rolling Stone. “I mean, it’s a good groove and all that.”
Brown Sugar was completed in December 1969. As the years have gone by, so the criticisms have piled up. “Brown Sugar is gross, sexist and stunningly offensive toward black women,” said Vulture in 2015 (the same article stated the track was originally titled Black P***y).
Far Out magazine said this year: “The song is a disgraceful act of gratuitous juvenilia, relishing on the ability to offend rather than a considered analysis of the subject at hand.”
Jagger seemed to eventually realise that the lyrics would be weaponised against the Stones.
“I never would write that song now,” he told Rolling Stone – and this was 26 years ago, when he was a mere lad of 52.
“I would probably censor myself. I’d think, ‘Oh God, I can’t. I’ve got to stop’. I can’t just write raw like that.”