Lyrics Uncovered: The Rolling Stones’ ‘Some Girls’ Album
The Rolling Stones had one heck of a decade in the '70s. They started with one of their all-time greats -- 1971's 'Sticky Fingers' -- and then ended it with another classic, 1978's 'Some Girls.' The latter record helped save the band after a few years of rock-star excess nearly sank them. It's one of the group's very best records, a renewed blast of classic rock 'n' roll infused with country swagger and soulful sway. We break it all down, song by song, with Lyrics Uncovered: The Rolling Stones' 'Some Girls' Album.
When the Stones released 'Some Girls' in 1978, it was a pretty contentious time in rock history. Disco was storming the charts, and punk (and, slowly but surely, hip-hop) was spilling over from the big cities. Rock fans were so riled by this point that they began staging anti-disco crusades around the country. So imagine their surprise when the world's greatest rock 'n' roll band opened their new album with 'Miss You,' a disco-blues hybrid conceived during a jam session between Mick Jagger and keyboardist Billy Preston. They were rehearsing for a gig when they came up with the song's skeleton. Lyrically, 'Miss You' is a pretty simple lament of lost love from the perspective of a playboy. Jagger said the song's memorable middle section -- about "Puerto Rican girls just dying to meet you" -- was made up to reflect the character's steady parade of women coming in and out of his life. After the album's release, Jagger said that the band didn't set out to make a disco record. But it's hard to overlook the influence of late-'70s N.Y.C. club music. 'Miss You' turned out to be a huge hit in those clubs, as well as on the pop chart, where it reached No. 1.
For a band known for its extracurricular activities, it's little surprise that 'Some Girls' features some pretty provocative material. 'When the Whip Comes Down' is the album's boldest cut, "a straight gay song," according to Mick Jagger in a 1978 interview with Rolling Stone. "But I have no idea why I wrote it. Maybe I came out of the closet." The song is about a gay man who moves from Los Angeles to New York to become a garbage collector. But the implication here is that his real job is as a prostitute: "I'm learning the ropes, yeah, I'm learning a trade / I got so much money, but I spend it so fast." The song's thick guitar comes from a triple attack: Jagger played along with Keith Richards and Ron Wood. It all gives 'Whip' plenty of downtown attitude, most likely inspired by Jagger's experiences living in the Big Apple at the time.
The Stones have never been shy about their influences, filling many of their early albums with faithful covers of old blues and R&B songs. By 1978, the band still touched on the past, but with a modern-day spin. Their version of the Temptations' 'Just My Imagination (Running Away With Me)' bristles with the same gritty energy found on the rest of the album, with a particularly feisty power play between guitarists Keith Richards and Ron Wood. Jagger told Rolling Stone in 1978 that the song was a continuation of their 1974 cover of the Temptations' 'Ain't Too Proud to Beg.' "I've always wanted to do that song, originally as a duet with Linda Ronstadt, believe it or not," he said. "But instead, we just did our version of it, like an English rock 'n' roll band tuning up."
By the time the Stones went into the studio in 1977 to record 'Some Girls,' the band's two major creative forces were dealing separately with legal issues outside of the band. Keith Richards was arrested in Toronto for heroin possession, while Mick Jagger was on his way to divorce court with first wife Bianca. That tension surged throughout the album, especially in the sloppy blues of the title track, in which Jagger rolls off a list of the evils women do. And it's not a very flattering portrait. In his 1978 interview with Rolling Stone, Jagger said there was even more: "I had another version of the song, but when it came to the take, I sang a completely different version -- it was 11 minutes long -- and then edited it down."
The punchy, three-chord blast of 'Lies' complements 'Some Girls'' title track. After slamming pretty much every race of women in the world, Jagger gets somewhat specific here, sending a pointed message to a "dirty Jezebel" who had fire on her "wicked tongue." In Cyrus R.K. Patell's book about 'Some Girls' for the 33 1/3 series, Ron Wood says, "Those punk songs were our message to those boys"; likewise, Keith Richards states in his autobiography that the band was attempting to "out-punk the punks." Jagger, Wood and Richards cut through the song with slashing, dive-bombing guitar lines that buzz through the three-minute song without pause.
Side two of 'Some Girls' starts in a strange place with the woozy, country-fried 'Far Away Eyes,' which features Mick Jagger imitating a Southern drawl. It's all played as a 3/4 waltz with Ron Wood on pedal-steel guitar. In the end, it comes off a bit comical and a throwaway. (No surprise that Jagger admitted in a 1995 interview, "I love country music, but I find it hard to take seriously.") Not everyone in the band was on board with Jagger's performance. A year after the album was released, Keith Richards said that "Mick feels the need to get into these caricatures. He's slightly vaudeville in his approach. You expect Mick to walk out in his cowboy duds on an 18-wheeler set."
According to the liner notes Mick Jagger wrote for the Stones' 1993 best-of compilation 'Jump Back,' 'Respectable' started life as a slower song. But then it just got louder and faster. "I was banging out three chords incredibly loud on the electric guitar," he recalled. "This is a punk-meets-Chuck-Berry number." The song's lyrics are some of the most playful on the whole album, taking aim at the punks who were brushing away bands like the Stones -- as well as at Jagger's ex, Bianca. "You're a rag-trade girl, you're the queen of porn," he sings. "You're the easiest lay on the White House lawn." (That last line was an apparent reference to Bianca's encounter with President Gerald Ford's son.) Plus, there was also a nod to Keith Richards' drug-related arrest in Toronto, which could have led to some lengthy jail time for the guitarist: "We're talking heroin with the president / Well, it's a problem, sir, but it can't be bent."
Like Mick Jagger, who spent a great deal of time on 'Some Girls' discussing his marital troubles, Keith Richards got personal in the one song on which he took lead vocals. Before they entered the studio to record the album, the band was in Toronto, where Richards was arrested for heroin possession. To help stave off the possibility of imprisonment, the guitarist entered a voluntary treatment program. 'Before They Make Me Run' is his reaction. Richards looks back on the highs ("I wasn't looking too good, but I was feeling real well") and lows (the title refers to his attempt to find a place to call home after he had burned so many legal bridges in so many different countries). Looking back on the song in his autobiography 'Life,' Richards calls the song "a cry from the heart."
On 'Beast of Burden,' one of the album's most popular cuts and a hit single, Keith Richards and Ron Wood trade a slinky mix of lead and rhythm parts that never seems to resolve, leaving drummer Charlie Watts and bassist Bill Wyman to hold things steady. Richards wrote most of the music and lyrics, thinking of the weight he was putting on his bandmates, especially Mick Jagger, with his ongoing drug and legal struggles. As he put it in his autobiography, 'Life': "I came back to the studio with Mick ... to say, 'Thanks, man, for shouldering the burden.' That's why I wrote 'Beast of Burden' for him."
If the rest of 'Some Girls' was the Stones trying to make sense of the punk movement blowing up around them, 'Shattered,' the album's closing track, was the band embracing it. It doubles as Mick Jagger's blast at his adopted home of New York City: "You got rats on the West Side, bed bugs uptown / What a mess, this town's in tatters," he sings. "Go ahead, bite the Big Apple / Don't mind the maggots." And apparently he wrote the lyrics in the back of a cab. How's that for inspiration?