The Rolling Stones Explain Why They’ve Dropped “Brown Sugar” From Their Setlist (For Now)
“Brown Sugar,” the opening track from the Rolling Stones’ 1971 masterpiece Sticky Fingers, is one of the band’s biggest hits. It reached #1 on Billboard‘s Hot 100 and has been a mainstay of their setlists for more than 50 years, since even before the studio version was released. It is also a messy and problematic song in which white men fetishize sex with Black women using lots of allusions to slavery. In his column The Number Ones, my colleague Tom Breihan summed up the thorniness of “Brown Sugar” like so:
When [Mick Jagger] 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 Stones are currently touring North America, their first shows since the death of drummer Charlie Watts earlier this year. They haven’t been playing “Brown Sugar” on this tour, and Mikael Wood noticed. The LA Times journalist asked the Stones about the song’s omission in a new profile on the band. Here’s what Keith Richards had to say about it:
You picked up on that, huh? 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 shit. [laughs] But I’m hoping that we’ll be able to resurrect the babe in her glory somewhere along the track.
Jagger had a far vaguer take:
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.” We might put it back in.
It would have been nice to hear what Steve Jordan — Watts’ replacement on drums, who is Black — thinks of “Brown Sugar” and the decision to remove it from the setlist. As it stands, it sounds like Mick and Keef have no intentions of retiring the song for good.