In The Number Ones, I’m reviewing every single #1 single in the history of the Billboard Hot 100, starting with the chart’s beginning, in 1958, and working my way up into the present.
Imagine Keith Richards being concerned about your health and wellbeing. That’s apparently what happened with Linda Keith, one of Richards’ exes. She’d broken up with him, moved on to Jimi Hendrix, and gotten into drugs. Eventually, Richards went to see Keith’s parents to warn them that she was going down a bad path, and they forced her to move back in with them, under court order.
Again, this was Keith Richards. But Keith Richards was and is an actual human being, and so the events of his life will not always conform with our cartoon-libertine image of the man. Richards’ intervention did not manage to win Linda Keith’s heart back. (In his book Life, Richards says that Keith did just fine without him, that she went on to raise a family and to move to New Orleans.) But Richards did write “Ruby Tuesday” about the whole saga, so that’s something.
“Ruby Tuesday” is the most humane kind of breakup song. It’s a fond reminisce, a lament for a thing that just wasn’t meant to be. It also puts Mick Jagger in a strange place. He’s pining for a girl wilder than him. Jagger spent so much of his career singing about being a rambling man, someone who couldn’t be pinned down by just one woman. But on “Ruby Tuesday,” he’s the one being rambled past — the lady in town watching the cowboy ride off into the sunset. And in letting a sense of warm melancholy creep into his voice, Jagger nails the feeling: “Don’t question why she needs to be so free / She’ll tell you it’s the only way to be / She just can’t be chained / To a life where nothing’s gained.”
Jagger didn’t write “Ruby Tuesday,” even though the song is credited to Jagger/Richards. The song belongs almost entirely to Richards. (Brian Jones apparently helped him out a bit.) In the music, as well as the lyrics, it’s the Rolling Stones playing against type. Pop was moving in a new direction, toward ornate filigrees and lush orchestrations. The Stones had built their name as scowling blues-rock riff-monsters, so all of this should’ve worked against their strengths. But with “Ruby Tuesday,” they made the transition.
There’s no riff to “Ruby Tuesday.” Other than Jagger’s voice, the most prominent element in the mix is Brian Jones’ madly tootling recorder. Jack Nitzsche played piano on the song, and Bill Wyman plucked the strings of a double-bass while Richards sawed at them with a bow. Working in that whole baroque and flowery psych-pop style, the Stones sound a bit awkward and out of step. But they’ve got a big, warm melody working for them, and Charlie Watts’ seismic snare-fills helping anchor them. It all works so much better than it probably should.
“Ruby Tuesday” was always supposed to be the B-side, never the single. But “Let’s Spend The Night Together,” the catchier and more immediate A-side, turned out to be too explicitly horny for many radio stations. So that song ended up peaking at #55, while “Ruby Tuesday” went all the way and had a chain of family restaurants named after it. Decades later, radio’s acceptance of the two songs did a dramatic flip. “Ruby Tuesday” ended up on the list of 158 songs banned from Clear Channel after 9/11 — the idea being, I suppose, that these radio execs thought people, in the wake of that catastrophe, would get too sad hearing the word “Tuesday” on the radio.
BONUS BEATS: Here’s the Italian singer Franco Battiato’s lovely 1999 cover of “Ruby Tuesday:
And here’s the scene from Alfonso Cuarón’s 2006 masterpiece Children Of Men where Michael Caine’s lovable-old-hippie character prepares for death by putting on Battiato’s version of the song: