Mick Jagger Essay - Critical Essays

Jagger, Mick


Mick Jagger 1944– Keith Richard 1943–

Jagger—British songwriter, singer, musician, and actor.

Richard—(Also Keith Richards) British songwriter, singer, and musician.

Jagger and Richard are the longest-running songwriting team currently active in rock, as well as one of the most successful. Their biting, sexually provocative lyrics combine with stinging rock 'n' roll to earn the Rolling Stones the title of "The Greatest Rock 'n' Roll Band in the World," in the opinion of many critics and fans.

Jagger and Richard were childhood friends, and decided to form a musical group while both were at art school. The original band also included Brian Jones on guitar, Bill Wyman on bass, and Charlie Watts on drums, and they took their name from a classic Muddy Waters's blues song. The Rolling Stones were originally a blues-based band, borrowing heavily from Howlin' Wolf, Waters, and Chuck Berry. Jagger and Richard's first songwriting efforts were unexceptional, and most of their first albums were filled with covers of blues standards. Suddenly, they began writing some of the most vital rock songs of the mid-sixties. "Get Off of My Cloud," "Under My Thumb," "19th Nervous Breakdown," and especially "(I Can't Get No) Satisfaction" demonstrate their contempt for traditional values, highlighted by Jagger's snarling vocals and the band's hard-driving rhythms. The inevitable and endless comparisons to John Lennon and Paul McCartney eventually proved pointless, for each team created a different style of rock music, with the Stones's nose-thumbing at society and preoccupations with sex gaining a surprising amount of popularity.

Beggar's Banquet marked the height of social consciousness in Jagger's and Richard's writing. "Sympathy for the Devil," "Street Fighting Man," and "Salt of the Earth" all discuss the theme of man's inhumanity to man. This was to be one of the Stones's last major social commentaries, perhaps because of their reaction to the 1969 Altamont Speedway tragedy, where a black man was beaten and stabbed to death by a group of Hell's Angels at a Stones concert. This incident is documented in the film Gimme Shelter. For this or other reasons, Jagger and Richard varied their songwriting output in the seventies. Songs like "Brown Sugar" and "Star Star" are throwbacks to their mid-sixties songs about women, but their decadence was much more overt in the new songs. This decadence also carries over into lyrics about drugs, such as "Sister Morphine" and "Dead Flowers." However, Jagger and Richard established themselves as fine balladeers with "Moonlight Mile," "Angie," and "Till the Next Goodbye," all slower, more introspective songs. They even dabbled with disco in "Hot Stuff" and "Miss You." Whatever the musical content, the lyrics still seem to dwell on their usual themes: sex, women, love, and drugs.

Despite numerous drug busts, Jagger's leaves of absence to make movies, and rumored breakups, Jagger and Richard always seem to return with a series of strong songs. In fact, they seem to thrive on adversity, creating their best work at the worst of times.

Frank Kofsky

I call [Their Satanic Majesties Request] "interesting." I could just have appropriately said "intriguing," "provocative," "esoteric," even "obscure"; not to mention "fascinating," "delightful," and "ominous." (p. 12)

[Traces] of Beatlery on the album itself are few in number and for the most part superficial; other influences—those of Frank Zappa and, conceivably, Bob Dylan—strike me as being of considerably greater significance….

[Though] their musical means may be different, the Stones are evidently concerned to make a statement indicating their solidarity with the Beatles, as indeed they had already begun to do with We Love You. More than that, the Stones attach enough importance to the idea of the unity of mankind that they make it the subject of both the opening and the finale of the album's frontside.

But while the Stones share a common ideology with the Beatles, the musical expression of that ideology … is handled in a radically different fashion. (p. 13)

[Earlier] in this essay I mentioned that one could detect the influences of Frank Zappa and Bob Dylan on Their Majesties: it is time now to make good that claim.

Zappa first, then, since his influence is the more obvious. To anyone who has heard the Mothers of Invention parody the debauchery of Saturday night in any good, clean, heterosexual, middleclass bar, in America Drinks and Goes Home (Absolutely Free), it will immediately be clear from whence has come the inspiration for the Stones' On With the Show—even right down to the fact that each track occupies the closing position on its respective album. Naturally, not having access to the Stones' mental processes, I can't prove that this is so; but the parallels are certainly suggestive: the M.C. (in the case of the Mothers, an M.C.-singer—rather, "crooner") who exhorts the audience to drink, while promising to have their favorite songs played (Mothers: Bill Bailey; Stones: Ol' Man River, Stormy Weather); the drunken babbling of the crowd (done somewhat more clearly by the Stones), in which you can hear fights starting, girls fending off lecherous advances, calls for more drinks ("Bourbon and soda!"), etc.; the rinky-tink, pseudo-barrelhouse piano. Despite mountains of publicity given to their prospective joint ventures (so to speak) with the Beatles, it would appear that the Stones have been equally taken with the Mothers.

The case for Bob Dylan is not so clear-cut. In all probability, it would never even have occurred to me to think of him in this connection, had not the Stones previously given the game away with their Dylanesque Who's Been Sleeping Here? (Between the Buttons). The Dylan esprit is less blatant and more diffuse on Their Majesties, but a plausible argument for its presence can nonetheless be constructed. For example, the lyric to Citadel. From the first verse and the chorus, one would tend to conclude that the...

(The entire section is 1246 words.)

Jon Landau

The Rolling Stones are constantly changing but beneath the changes they remain the most formal of rock bands. Their successive releases have been continuous extensions of their approach, not radical redefinitions, as has so often been the case with the Beatles. The Stones are constantly being reborn, but somehow the baby always looks like its parents….

Since [the] beginning the Stones have tried their hands at a lot of things: arrogance, satire, social commentary, "psychedelia," lewdness, love songs, you name it. Each phase seemed to flow naturally from the one that preceded it and none of their phases ever really changed their identity as a band. In every album but one it seemed to me that they managed to feel the pulse of what was happening now and what was about to happen. For example, "Satisfaction," that classic of the rock and roll age, both expressed the feelings of a moment and foreshadowed what was about to unfold: the elevation of rock and roll to the primary cultural means of communication among the young. There we were in the early summer of 1965 with folk music dead and nothing really exciting going on. And then there were the Stones sneering at the emptiness of what so many people saw all around them, not telling you to do anything about it, but letting you know that they feel it too. The music, with its incessant, repetitious, pounding guitar and drums, and that tension filled voice, was so permeated with violence that just listening to it was cathartic. (p. 11)

The Rolling Stones are violence. Their music penetrates the raw nerve endings of their listeners and finds its way into the groove marked "release of frustration." Their violence has always been a surrogate for the larger violence their audience is so obviously capable of.

On Beggar's Banquet the Stones try to come to terms with violence more explicitly than before and in so doing are forced to take up the subject of politics. The result is the most sophisticated and meaningful statement we can expect to hear concerning the two themes—violence and politics—that will probably dominate the rock of 1969….

Beggar's Banquet is not a polemic or manifesto. It doesn't advocate anything. It is a reflection of what goes on at the Stones house, with a few pictures of the house itself thrown in for good measure. Part of what that house looks like has to do with what it's surrounded by and the most startling songs on the album are the ones that deal with the Stones environment: "Salt of the Earth," "Street Fighting Man," and "Sympathy for the Devil." Each is characterized lyrically by a schizoid ambiguity. The Stones are cognizant of the explosions of youthful energy that are going on all around them. They recognize the violence inherent in these struggles. They see them as movements for fundamental change and are deeply sympathetic. Yet they are too cynical to really go along themselves. After all, they are rock and roll musicians, not politicians, and London is such a "sleepy town."


(The entire section is 1255 words.)

Ellen Sander

It begins with a crazed wildcat yelp and the primordial rhythms of hand drums on a rampage. It builds maniacally in intensity and complexity, the vocal brawling, the drums double gunning, the bass pumping, and the piano twisting the melody and rhythms together like so much heavy two-ply twine. The guitar whines, the voices hoot, and the lyrics blast the consciousness with a pageant of chaos. It's a bit pretentious in spots, has a couplet or two of unadorned truth and some specious nose-thumbing at history, but it gets you moving, jiving, and throttles you with its raunchy nastiness, the furious ranting that ranges far beyond the lyrics. "Sympathy for the Devil," the opening cut from Beggars Banquet …, is a...

(The entire section is 465 words.)

John Gabree

I have always been partial to the Stones. They have a much surer and, it seems to me, more realistic vision than the Beatles and they have been much more willing to explore the possibilities of rock rather than lean on other musical styles when they get in a bind. I have felt for a long time and feel even more strongly now that the Rolling Stones are the best group in rock-and-roll.

Banquet is by no means a perfect album. At one point Mick Jagger leans too heavily on rural blues. The lyrics of Sympathy for the Devil, which the group seems to think is the best cut, are pretentious and confused and the point of view is muddled. But this is carping…. I really don't think it would be too...

(The entire section is 562 words.)

Jon Landau

[The major conflict of Sticky Fingers is between] driving, intense, wide-open rock versus a controlled and manipulative musical conception determined to fill every whole and touch every base….

On "Brown Sugar" wide open rock wins by a hair, but it is a hollow victory. Opening cuts on Stones albums have always been special….

At their best [the] opening cuts were statements of themes that transcended both the theme itself and the music that was to follow. As I listened to Sticky Fingers for the first time I thought "Brown Sugar" was good, but not that good. I certainly hoped it wasn't the best thing on the album. As it turns out, there are a few moments that surpass...

(The entire section is 544 words.)

Lenny Kaye

There are songs that are better, there are songs that are worse, there are songs that'll become your favorites and others you'll probably lift the needle for when their time is due. But in the end, Exile On Main Street … spends its four sides shading the same song in as many variations as there are Rolling Stone readymades to fill them, and if on the one hand they prove the group's eternal constancy and appeal, it's on the other that you can leave the album and still feel vaguely unsatisfied, not quite brought to the peaks that this band of bands has always held out as a special prize in the past….

The Stones have prospered by making the classic assertion whenever it was demanded of them....

(The entire section is 658 words.)

Robert Christgau

For the first year and a half of Beatlemania, the Stones were No. 2 only in publicity—their sales lagged beyond the Dave Clark Five's and barely stayed ahead of the Kinks' and the Animals'. Then came "Satisfaction." It was the perfect Stones paradox—the lyrics denied what the music delivered—and it dominated the summer of 1965. Driving home from rainy retreats, vacationing parents and their children shouted out "I can't get no" in unison, while older brothers and sisters decided that the middle verse was about a girl who won't put out because it's her period. A whole country was brought together, sort of, by Mick and Keith's anthem of frustration.

Suddenly, the Stones' project of radical...

(The entire section is 464 words.)

Lester Bangs

The Stones still have the strength to make you feel that both we and they are hemmed in and torn by similar walls, frustrations and tragedies. That's the breakthrough of Exile On Main Street.

Exile is dense enough to be compulsive: hard to hear, at first, the precision and fury behind the murk ensure that you'll come back, hearing more with each playing. What you hear sooner or later is two things: an intuition for nonstop getdown perhaps unmatched since Rolling Stones Now, and a strange kind of humility and love emerging from dazed frenzy. (pp. 44-5)

Exile is about casualties, and partying in the face of them. The party is obvious. The casualties are...

(The entire section is 505 words.)

Lester Bangs

[Hot Rocks portrays the] evolution of a rock & roll band from superlative interpreters of mostly borrowed R&B in a style that was never far from pop, to being pop artists, philosophers and social commentators couching their vision and fantasies in a style that seldom gets all that far away from R&B….

The crucial thread running through almost all of the Stones' early work, and much of what has followed, is the tension in the alternation of themes of utter arrogance and disdain, and of the sense of ennui and frustration deriving from living, however highly, in these desperate times. "Get Off Of My Cloud" brought the former razzberry to a pinnacle of derisive noise that many,...

(The entire section is 872 words.)

John Hellmann

Rejecting the banalities of their own culture and adopting instead the more realistic, if less "noble" and comfortable, attitudes of the black American ghetto resident, the Stones laid the foundation for the counter-culture by translating these black attitudes into an attractive image for alienated white youth. The importance of this black "blues" influence is nowhere more apparent than in the argot of the Stones' lyrics, and an examination of the existence of a black blues lexicon in the Stones' lyrics provides a unique method of studying the Stones' acceptance and extension of black urban cultural attitudes. (p. 367)

Jagger's fascination with what his father … called "jungle music" extended to a...

(The entire section is 1927 words.)

Bud Scoppa

History has proven it unwise to jump to conclusions about Rolling Stones albums. At first Sticky Fingers seemed merely a statement of doper hipness on which the Stones (in Greil Marcus' elegant phrase) "rattled drugs as if they were maracas." But drugs wound up serving a figurative as well as a literal purpose and the album became broader and more ambiguous with each repeated listening.

At first, Exile on Main Street seemed a terrible disappointment, with its murky, mindless mixes and concentration on the trivial. Over time, it emerged as a masterful study in poetic vulgarity. And if neither of the albums had eventually grown on me thematically, the music would have finally won me over...

(The entire section is 730 words.)

Mike Jahn

A good Stones song does two things at once: it moves the listener through the sheer power of the music, and at the same time intrigues him in the words (what are they saying?). It's impossible to figure out, at times only select phrases become translatable. In each case, Jagger has selected them well.

"Jumping Jack Flash," the Stones' first hit single of 1968, is probably their all-time power song. Embodying a roaring, repetitive guitar riff, the song is the joyful cry of an unashamed rabble rouser, one who has outgrown an unpleasant childhood and all difficulties to come to the point where he rather enjoys himself…. "Street Fighting Man" is a most curious record, another good example of the...

(The entire section is 640 words.)

Bob Sarlin

If you couldn't be quite sure what the Beatles were after, it was clear that the Rolling Stones were after your sister, or, as some said, your ass…. What the Stones helped achieve was the acceptance of rock as a form of anti-Establishment protest. The Beatles, with their mod suits and smiling faces, could not have done this, but the Stones, so obviously at odds with the sedate society that fostered them, did.

Yet neither band was making any real statements with its lyrics at the same time; both chose instead to follow precedent and keep their lyrics banal and secondary.

With the arrival of the Stones, rock-and-roll was established as the most vital medium available to young...

(The entire section is 258 words.)

Michael Watts

[In] their early recorded period between 1963 and '66 [the Stones] looked to Chuck Berry, Muddy Waters and Bo Diddley, who had fierce, raucous styles, and then increasingly to the more polished, urban soul sounds of Tamla Motown (Marvin Gaye) and Stax (Wilson Pickett, Otis Redding)….

The basis of their music, therefore, was strongly blues and black rock and roll, with Jagger and Keith Richard originally inclining towards Diddley and Berry….

The blues, which heavily relied on implicit sexual themes, was well-suited to the Stones … because they were able to emphasise sex as a weapon in a deliberate stance of anti-authoritarianism….

The fortunes of the Stones...

(The entire section is 884 words.)

Paul Williams

The purpose of this article is to put the Stones in their place: arm in arm with the Beach Boys and Dylan as creators of some of the greatest music produced in the West in this century.

"Something Happened to Me Yesterday" is still capable of dragging the most ambiguous and profound emotions out of me. I don't know what it means, but I know enough things that it means to know that few songs have ever been written to equal it. You don't need to have done acid to know that the simplest and most important experiences can never be spoken of. "Something" expresses that unspeakableness with perfect humor, implies it, hints at it, trombones and choruses it. It is musical genius.

It is also...

(The entire section is 2343 words.)

Jon Landau

It's Only Rock 'n Roll is a decadent album because it invites us to dance in the face of its own despair. It's a desperate album that warns at the end of one side that "… dreams of the nighttime will vanish by dawn," and on the other that a Kafkaesque "someone is listening, good night, sleep tight." It's a rock 'n' roll album because it's so goddamn violent.

At its simplest level the album deals with the psychosis of being in a rock 'n' roll band and having made it as a star—and it does that better than the Who's opus devoted exclusively to that subject, Quadrophenia. At another level it uses the relationship between a band and its audience as a metaphor for the parasitic relations...

(The entire section is 815 words.)

Noel Coppage

Stones albums … have been not simply happenings in their time; they've also been peculiarly responsive to their time. There is no way one could adjust his mind to make "Sticky Fingers"—a much better album, in purely aesthetic terms—as apt just now as ["It's Only Rock 'n Roll"] is. "Beggar's Banquet" was recorded when it was widely believed that rock was art and art was life. Accordingly, it was vibrant with crusading fervor…. "Exile on Main Street" and "Goat's Head Soup" caught us—thanks to Bowie, Alice Cooper, Nixon, and countless others—cynical and woozy, and they sound cynical and woozy. "It's Only Rock 'n Roll" seems to be reading the latest phase as an effort to learn how to shrug again,...

(The entire section is 352 words.)

Nik Cohn

I had once written that the Stones were a wonderful rock & roll band, the very best in creation. But I also wrote that aging did not suit them. Their greatest gift had always been for outrage, and outrage needs youth. Therefore, I suggested that if they had any sense of completeness they should blow themselves sky-high three days before their thirtieth birthdays.

In its context, it was meant as friendly advice, a gift from an admirer, but clearly it misfired. Thirty has come and gone—Bill Wyman must be close to 40—and still they persist….

Once, the Stones were a genuine explosion. They had urgency and rage, real passion, and though they always loved to play games, there...

(The entire section is 593 words.)

Jonathan Cott

Exalted indifference. Innocent malice. Careless cruelty. It is these ambiguous mixtures of emotion which we find in songs like "Play with Fire," "Back Street Girl" and "Star Star"—a mixture revealing the disturbing yet fascinating quality of a child grown up too soon, like a six-year-old dragging on a cigarette. And it was this "child" who dangerously explored the ever-lurking but disapproved world of sex and drugs in songs like "Under My Thumb," "Sister Morphine" and "Monkey Man."

Yet when the Stones were at their most exploitative, they seemed their most liberating, because we became aware of the reversal of that social and psychological pathology by which the oppressed identify with their...

(The entire section is 376 words.)

Bruce Pollock

If the Beatles brought rock 'n' roll to new creative heights with their lively literary interest in love, the Stones succeeded in the other direction, offering the generation new lows in calculated vile and degenerate sexuality.

Mick Jagger was aware of the pent-up frustration and lust inside the average kid. He wrote of hours on the prowl for "Satisfaction," got put off by ritzy suburban girls like "Lady Jane," and dumb ones from the neighborhood like "Stupid Girls."… After the childlike handholding ways of the Beatles, Jagger's approach certainly made a more viable fantasy, to say the least.

And so, just when parents were on the brink of accepting the Beatles as cute and...

(The entire section is 216 words.)

Allan Jones

Outrage. The very word. From their very first incarnation as a primitive, gloriously wild R&B group in the suburbs of London (such a delightful irony), the Stones have walked hand in hand with outrage; to the extent, some have claimed, with no little justification, that their contribution to the development of rock has had less to do with their musical achievements than the dizzy splendour of their defiance.

To be sure, the Stones' influence in shaping the course of popular music since their emergence in the early Sixties has not been as considerable as that of their contemporaries (and, as Michael Watts once suggested, alter ego), the Beatles. By nature, the Beatles were eclectic, and, with...

(The entire section is 1327 words.)

Lester Bangs

There are two things to be said about this new Stones album [Black & Blue] before closing time: one is that they are still perfectly in tune with the times (a.k.a., sometimes, trendies) and the other is that the heat's off, because it's all over, they really don't matter anymore or stand for anything, which is certainly lucky for both them and us. I mean, it was a heavy weight to carry for all concerned. This is the first meaningless Rolling Stones album, and thank god. No rationalizations—they can now go out there and compete with Aerosmith, or more precisely, since just like the last two before it this album's strongest moments are Jagger singing ballads, the "adult pop" market. Barry Manilow,...

(The entire section is 243 words.)

Robert Christgau

Mick Jagger was never a rocker. He wasn't a mod, either. He was a bohemian, an antiutopian version of what Americans called a folkie. That is, he was attracted to music of a certain innocence as only a fairly classy—and sophisticated—person can be. Unlike John Lennon and Paul McCartney (and Bob Dylan), his ambitions weren't kindled by Elvis Presley; his angry, low-rent mien was no more a reflection of his economic fate than his stardom was a means for him to escape it.

Something similar went for all the Rolling Stones. "What can a poor boy do / Except sing for a rock and roll band?" was the way they opted out of the political involvement that most young rebels found unavoidable in the late...

(The entire section is 2325 words.)


They have participated in and provoked the transformation of the morals and manners of their generation so effectively that to future social historians the Rolling Stones might actually seem to bear out reactionary ravings that they are the ringleaders of an international conspiracy of rock & roll punks to undermine Western civilization with drugs, music, polymorphous sexuality and violence….

The Stones have been the primary catalysts in creating an adolescent lifestyle without precedence by grasping the repressed elements of society and expressing its confusions and frustrations with outlandish exhibition…. If the Beatles initiated it, it was the Stones who amplified it and stretched it to...

(The entire section is 472 words.)

Chris Brazier

["Some Girls" is an album in] which the Stones attempt to stop what is a rot (to most observers) by heaving more beef into the arena than of late.

It's an obvious enough step, I guess, meeting the now-conventional charges of geriatric redundancy by harking back to the style of "Exile On Main Street."…

"Beast Of Burden" is more obviously late period Stones, mediocre and still melodyless in its midtempo….

The only track which brings Jagger and his lyrics upfront is the title-track, which is of musical interest only for the spit 'n' spite of the first guitar solo and for the hint of blossom in the chorus.

It starts with a promising inversion of...

(The entire section is 488 words.)

Jon Pareles

Kicks just keep getting harder to find…. Not that the Rolling Stones care. Long ago, they realized that the pursuit of excess alone would be thankless. Younger, dumber bands—bands with no sense of style or sense of humor—would keep trying to raise the ante, resulting in pointless raunch playoffs. The Stones' purchase on high society, however, has given them the key: Attitude is everything. Keep that sneer on your lips, be a lowlife looking down from the heights of irony, and even sincerity can turn into a decadent thrill. Sleaze is the Stones' birthright, and on Some Girls they've set out to reclaim it….

There's just no warning that Some Girls rocks and rolls with the low-minded...

(The entire section is 270 words.)

Nick Tosches

The Rolling Stones supplied the soundtrack for much of my grown-up life. When I first heard "(I Can't Get No) Satisfaction," I was fifteen years old, and had never gotten laid…. It was unlike anything else to be heard that summer of 1965. Lurid, loud, and concupiscent, it was at once a yell of impotence and of indomitability. Its conspiratorial complaints sanctified our frustrations, and its vicious force promised deliverance. It gave us power over girl-creatures, and made of our insignificant, wastrel cock spigots of wordless insolence—which, of course, we had always wanted them to be. (pp. 5-6)

Nick Tosches, "The Sea's Endless, Awful Rhythm & Me without Even a Dirty...

(The entire section is 142 words.)

Simon Frith

My Stones pose was weariness, a pose I've feigned pretty well ever since. But it's a pose that's taken effort to maintain and reflects a furtive obsession. Making sense of rock has meant making sense of the Stones and when Beggars Banquet came out in 1968 I changed my usual habits—bought this white album, left the Beatles' white album on its parallel shop floor pile. The Beatles still made more comfortable music but Beggars Banquet was the most interesting record I'd ever heard.

Most rock records aren't difficult to understand. They draw on commonplaces of community and adolescence: easy listening, good dancing, simple emotions, and sharp images. From this point of view Beggars...

(The entire section is 1684 words.)

Michael Watts

The public's idée fixe of the Stones as ageing enfants terribles is a problem Jagger seems slyly to acknowledge on "Dance", the first track of "Emotional Rescue", when he sings "I think the time's come to get up, get out—out into something new". The joke, of course—which is implicit in the sheer bounce of the music—is that the Stones patently have no intention of doing any such thing.

"Emotional Rescue" is largely a familiar mixture of affectionate disrespect—for the musics of country, blues, reggae and other rock ingredients—and the personal affectations of Jagger, who at one moment is assuming a cod Spanish accent ("Indian Girl") and at another a Barry Gibbs falsetto (the title...

(The entire section is 252 words.)

David Fricke

What could have been the anticlimax of the year is instead one of the few true triumphs of the still young decade. Two years in the making with a few bonus months to allow for last-minute fretting over mixes, artwork, and the odd potential lawsuit (the controversial and excised "Claudine"), Emotional Rescue has been worth every minute's wait…. [The] group once introduced on Get Your Ya-Ya's Out as "the greatest rock & roll band in the world" has not been reduced to five tired old sods by the passage of time or fashion. In 1980, in the face of serious competition for the title by the Clash, the Stones stay in there, throwing some of their best punches since Exile on Main Street.


(The entire section is 397 words.)