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.
Mick Jagger wanted to call it “Black Pussy.” When Jagger wrote “Brown Sugar,” in 1969, that’s the title he had in mind. Jagger later said that he changed it when he decided that his original title was “too direct.” (That’s one way to say it.) But “Brown Sugar” still means what it means.
In a lot of ways, the Rolling Stones are a best-case scenario for the whole cultural appropriation question. They were loutish British college kids who were utterly devoted to American blues, to the point where they didn’t really like being called a rock ‘n’ roll band for a long time. On their way up, they ripped a few people off during the era when everyone was expected to rip a few people off. But they also found ways to build on the music that they loved, to add to it. They found their own charmingly depraved snake-slither sound, adding an almost foppish libertine sheen to the raw, sexed-up music that had influenced them, and they also brought that sound to white audiences who might’ve never heard it otherwise. The whole time, they paid tribute to their idols, covering their songs and taking them out on tour. They were fully conscious of their role as a white band playing black-influenced music, and they handled themselves with more integrity than they had to.
“Brown Sugar” complicates all that. “Brown Sugar” is a song about white men having sex with black women, and it’s a song where Jagger ties his own impulses to those of the white slavers who were raping black women hundreds of years earlier. The song’s whole first verse is explicitly about rape and torture: “Gold coast slave ship bound for cotton fields / Sold in the market down in New Orleans / Scarred-up slaver knowns he’s doing all right / Hear him whip the women just around midnight.” (Keith Richards has insisted that “scarred-up slaver” is actually “skydog slaver,” a reference to Duane Allman, but “Brown Sugar” doesn’t seem like the sort of song where you’re randomly throwing in inside jokes for your buddies.)
Later on, Jagger sings about a slaveowner’s wife taking that same advantage of the boys she owns: “House boy knows that he’s doing all right / You should’ve heard ’em just around midnight.” And then Jagger sings about himself, in those same terms: “I’m no schoolboy, but I know what I like / You should’ve heard me just around midnight.”
So what’s Jagger doing here? Here’s a song that’s all about fetishization and about power dynamics, though Jagger probably wouldn’t use those terms. There are stories that the song is about a specific black girl. (There’s some conjecture that it’s about Marsha Hunt, part of the London Hair! cast and the mother of Jagger’s first kid, or about Claudia Linnear, one of Ike Turner’s Ikettes. There’s also a theory that the song is really about heroin, which really only makes it more complicated, not less.) And even if it’s not someone specific, Jagger is very much singing about being a white man who loves having sex with black women, seeing his “cold English blood turn hot.” But when he sings about himself in relation with slavery, is he interrogating his own feelings, about the ways that his own desires are all bound up in power and exploitation? Is he confessing to being part of a fucked-up lineage? Is he celebrating being part of a fucked-up lineage?
The song definitely sounds celebratory. There are songs — I’m thinking especially of “Sympathy For The Devil” here — where Jagger flaunts his own literary, historical playfulness, where he foregrounds the words. He doesn’t really do that on “Brown Sugar.” Instead, he stretches and swallows his syllables, making them hard to make out unless you know what you’re listening for. And the song really is a nasty groove, a growling and twanging boogie from a great band operating at its peak. Maybe that groove, with its sax-screams and its maracas, is part of the commentary. Or maybe it’s just the Rolling Stones having fun. The one part of the song everyone remembers — “Yeah! Yeah! Yeah! Whoo!” — is definitely them having fun. But should they be having fun with this? Do they even know what they’re doing?
Jagger wrote the “Brown Sugar” riff while he was filming his part in the 1969 movie Ned Kelly, and he scrawled the lyrics on sheets of notebook paper while Keith Richards watched. “Brown Sugar” hit #1 shortly after it came out in 1971, but the song had sat in the vault for a couple of years, a casualty of the Stones’ battles with record labels and management. They’d recorded it at Alabama’s Muscle Shoals Sound Studio, part of the same insanely productive three-day session that also produced “Wild Horses” and “You Gotta Move.” And two days after they got done with that session, they debuted “Brown Sugar” onstage — at Altamont, the same show where their Hells Angels security stabbed a black fan to death. Everything about “Brown Sugar” is messy.
A couple of years ago, my friend Jack Hamilton published a book about race and ’60s rock ‘n’ roll — about how a music that started the ’60s as a fascinating combination of black and white influences ended the decade as pretty much straight-up white music. Jack named the book Just Around Midnight, after that line from “Brown Sugar.” On “Brown Sugar,” Jack writes, “The song traffics in repugnant stereotypes of black female sexuality, and it mines the historical atrocity of slavery for white male fantasy, while its rollicking and ebullient backing track implies a galling flippancy toward its own subject matter.” But Jack also writes that the song might also be “the most unflinching exploration of racial and musical imagination ever put on record by a white rock and roll band.”
So “Brown Sugar” is a nasty, anthemic rock song from one of the greatest bands in the genre’s history. If you don’t know what Jagger is singing about on the song, or if you choose to ignore it, it works just great as a car-radio singalong. If you start to dig into it, the song becomes a loaded fucking weapon. It gleefully backstrokes through toxic waters. Maybe we should praise it for having the decency to acknowledge that toxicity, to make it explicit. Or maybe we should think hard about the levels of privilege you’d have to enjoy to even think about writing a song like this. And maybe we should also think about how enough people thought that this shit was totally OK that “Brown Sugar” topped the charts for two weeks, how enough people still think it’s totally OK that “Brown Sugar” remains in rotation on classic-rock radio.
Plenty of people who loved “Brown Sugar” at the time probably never even thought about any of this stuff. Maybe some of those people will read this piece and get annoyed at someone applying 2019 ethical standards to a decades-old song. But that’s what we’re doing here. When we look back on the history of the biggest pop songs in America, we’re also looking at the societal forces that led to the embrace of those songs. Songs have values and political implications that they may not have intended. It’s just part of the fucking deal. (I’ll have to deal with my own version of this when the column gets into #1 songs from 50 Cent or Terror Squad, songs I really liked, that casually throw around a certain homophobic epithet.)
In 1995, Jagger talked to Rolling Stone about writing “Brown Sugar,” and he said that he “would never write that song now.” As for what the song means, what its intent was, Jagger said, “God knows what I’m on about on that song. It’s such a mishmash. All the nasty subjects in one go.” And when Jagger sings the song now — something that he’s continued to do at Stones shows ever since — he gives the impression that he hasn’t really thought about that at all in the decades since. Must be nice.
BONUS BEATS: Here’s Biz Markie’s “Snow Flake,” a race-flipped version of “Brown Sugar,” recorded for Chris Rock’s 1998 album Bigger & Blacker:
(Biz Markie’s highest-charting song is 1989’s “Just A Friend,” which peaked at #9. It’s a 10.)