Brown Sugar, How Come You Taste So Bad?

Assessing why the Stones cut their controversial 50-year-old hit single from the set list of the band’s current tour

The Rolling Stones “Brown Sugar,” Atlantic Records 1971

How did you hear “Brown Sugar” in 1971? How do you hear it today? Did you once dig it? Do you now cringe? Should you have ever dug it? Should you cringe now or can you still dig it? Can you cringe and dig it?

Did you rock out to it during the dozen or so times you’ve seen the Stones? (Well, that would be me. I know I did.) 

Fifty years ago, “Brown Sugar” was top 10 all over the world, No. 1 in the U.S. Radio play galore, spurring millions of sales of Sticky Fingers. Now, it’s the latest hot-button blast from the past that’s suddenly in your face again. 

News came last week that for the first time in forever, the Rolling Stones have cut it from their concert set list, with an admitted nod to changing times/perceptions and, yes, a woke world far different from the Rolling Stones world of the early ‘70s. See: Cocksucker Blues. Well, if you can.


VIDEO: The Rolling Stones’ Cocksucker Blues film

The song is about a character – a “scarred old slaver” – who does some unpleasant, unsavory, evil things to Black women. Keith Richards told the Los Angeles Times that he wondered how people could not “understand it was a song about the horrors of slavery.” And, yes, it is, sort of. 

But, of course, it’s got this killer, rousing guitar riff – one of the Stones best ever (when you read that line, I bet the riff popped into your brain) – and Mick Jagger switches the song from third person to first person for the final verse: “You should have heard me just around midnight.” Is he still the slaver? Is he himself? His wishful projected self? And as listeners, how do we identify with that character, be it the slaver or, well, Mick? As it gets near the end, it sure comes over as a celebration of sex with – or rape of – Black women.

Last week, I threw some of my thoughts and questions out on Facebook. We all know how that can devolve into snark and stupidity, but not this time. I got back a shit-ton of across-the-board responses, and some damn good ones from Stones fans, some long aware of the song’s controversy, some just recently. And with very diverse ideas about how to consider it now.

One of the main problems, said Bernie O’Donnell, managing editor at Macon, Georgia’s 13WMAZ, was that the song feels like a celebration: “There’s no distance from the character, no sense of irony, no hit of the ‘black girls’ perspective. Nobody can credibly argue that the song’s been misinterpreted or misconstrued. So, yeah, put this sucker to rest in the live shows. Which is a damned shame, because it’s probably my favorite Stones riff.”

The question: How are we to process songs about loathsome characters? We certainly take them to heart – in a way – in novels and films. But rock ‘n’ roll? Is there a difference in perception? Should there be? Do we dig it as we’re repulsed by it? 

I interviewed Lou Reed a fair amount over the years and he often talked about writing what he called “adult rock ‘n’ roll” – music that teenagers raised on rock might want to hear as they grew up.  Reed – the writer of the brilliant but oh-so-brutal Berlin album – fiercely claimed the same prerogative a novelist, playwright or scriptwriter would. 

“I’m saying you can have a real good time,” Reed told me in 1992. “Just on a different level. … You know, where is the rock equivalent of A Streetcar Named Desire? Is that such a far-fetched idea? Is that completely impossible? That’s like having your cake and eating it. As you get older, be able to have that level of writing plus the fun of rock.”

In 1980, I interviewed Peter Gabriel, who was beginning his post-Genesis solo career and was creating characters and scenarios, some rather creepy ones. “The Intruder,” the taut, slightly dissonant opening track on his second album, has Gabriel assuming the role of a burglar who stealthily creeps into a home, clips the telephone wires and leaves a “mark.” Maybe he’s more than a burglar.  “I do enjoy the menace,” Gabriel said, allowing there may a bit of himself in the song. But he backs up to say, “I think that’s a little bit theatrical.” It’s him he’s singing about.

In “Family Snapshot,” the inspiration came from Arthur Bremer’s “An Assassin’s Diary.” (Bremer shot and paralyzed George Wallace, the former governor of Alabama, while Wallace was campaigning for president in May 1972.) Gabriel inhabits the assassin’s mind, waiting along with the television camera crews, for the campaign motorcade to pass by. It is, strangely, an affecting song – both grimly horrifying and compassionate. The imminent terror lurks in the churning rhythm but, suddenly the juggernaut-like momentum comes to an unexpected halt and we’re let inside the gunman’s mind: “I don’t really hate you/I don’t care what you do/We were made for each other/Me and you/I want to be somebody/You were like that too/If you don’t get given you learn to take/And I will take you.”


AUDIO: Peter Gabriel “Family Snapshot”

“One of the interesting things in Bremer’s book,” Gabriel says, “was his obsession with fame. He was planning the assassination – and initially, I think, he was after Nixon – to coincide with world news broadcast times, late night in Europe and early evening news in America.”

Gabriel is intrigued by the relationship between a killer and his victim and by the fine line that divides the sane from the insane.

“In the media,” he says, “criminals are portrayed as subhuman monsters and we are allowed to carry on, in the safety of our own thinking, to believe we’re not like that. I think there are rapists and murderers in every psyche.” He pauses, adding with a chuckle, “It’s just not all are realized.”

Back to “Brown Sugar.” Jagger in a Rolling Stone interview from 1995 noted that the lyrical ambiguity was partially why the song was considered successful. He said, “That makes it… the whole mess thrown in. God knows what I’m on about on that song. It’s such a mishmash. All the nasty subjects in one go… I never would write that song now. … I would probably censor myself. I’d think, ‘Oh God, I can’t. I’ve got to stop. I can’t just write raw like that.’”

Dan Kennedy, a Northeastern University journalism professor and former Boston Phoenix media columnist, called the song “completely cringe-worthy. As racist a hit song as there ever has been. And yes, of course, my attitude about it has changed over the years.”

Adrian Walker, an African-American Boston Globe columnist, rock fan and real-life friend said, he supported the Stones’ decision to scrap the song. “Musically, I love it but the lyrics have always made me cringe. Over time – Ok, decades – it’s gotten harder and harder to separate the two. Time to toss it.”

45 art for the “Brown Sugar” single (Image: Discogs)

“I think of the Dead Kennedys here,” said Julia Figueras, a real-life friend, one time Boston punk rocker/radio gal and longtime music director at classical music station WXXI in Rochester, NY. “Jello Biafra wrote ‘Kill the Poor’ as irony. When he saw skinheads embracing the literal meaning, he dropped the song.”

Mark Hanser, a music writer and editor at Boston’s Arts Fuse website, saw “Brown Sugar” as a story-song with the lyrics about soul singer Claudia Lennear and, he added, “maybe heroin.” Lennear was an Ikette in Ike & Tina Turner’s Revue, which opened for the Stones and dated Jagger back in the day. “All very ‘70s. I never actually ‘read’ the lyrics until a few years ago. The music and That Riff are so damn seductive! But yes, very British colonial in toe, rape-y, and that IS problematic.”

Veteran rock critic J.D. Considine concurred. “So you’ve got lyrics that celebrate the sexual exploitation – which today would be described as rape – of slaves, set to music derived from the culture of slaves’ descendants. Not a lot of high ground there. But the most evil thing about ‘Brown Sugar’ is the fact that it’s so damned catchy it makes the listener complicit. Think about that for a while.”

Robin Young, donor relations manager at L.A. Planetary Society, called the song part of her “ongoing struggle with all things Stones. I cringe and dance all at once. Before lockdown I was at an event for Claudia Lennear and wish I could see inside her heart and head.” 

My old friend and one-time editor at Trouser Press, Ira Robbins, had a lot to say on the matter. “If you allow for the vile depictions of all sorts of bad behavior in horror movies and grindhouse fare, it’s hard to judge song lyrics as more offensive. There’s something about the personal element in rock songs that makes people consider lyrics more like opinion than fiction. Of course, many lyrics ARE opinion, or fact, rather than fiction, but the license afforded by creativity should exclude songs from being considered as indictable affronts to decency. Movies and television are full of reprehensible figures who we identify as bad people, but that’s not so easy for people considering rock singers. Did anyone think ‘Midnight Rambler’ was Mick’s id speaking? Did anyone think he was on the verge of taking to the streets for armed political violence in ‘Street Fighting Man?’ And was Ice-T really planning on being a cop killer? Yes, the Stones have offered some really ugly ideas in their music, but how is that different from hard-boiled detective fiction?”


AUDIO: Body Count “Cop Killer”

Karen Schlosberg, who once wrote for about music Trouser and the Boston Herald, said, “I think it’s because people interact with songs more than they do movies. They sing to them, they sing with them, they get up and dance. It feels more personal. Knowing how offensive the lyrics and subject matter of ‘Brown Sugar’ are it seems kind of obscene to enjoy it and dance to it and sing along with it. It’s been uncomfortable for me for a long time. I’m glad they’re shelving it.”

The band Cracker is led by singer-guitarist-songwriters David Lowery and Johnny Hickman. Hickman considered the broader issue: “We’ve (Cracker) had the good fortune to garner the love and respect of (and give it back to) some very successful and talented people so I won’t name drop. Suffice to say that upon meeting and partying with one such immensely popular and talented singer and songwriter we had this conversation. Me: ‘So why can’t we live in the skin of a very bad person when we write, man? 1st person misanthrope, you know?’ Massive star: ‘I know what you mean. Novelists can do it, screenwriters can do it, but if we do it people can rarely separate it from US, from the singer right?’ Me: ‘Right. There are exceptions though … It’s like do people really think that Johnny Cash shot a man in Reno just to watch him die?’ Massive star: ‘Or that Jim Morrison killed his father and fucked his mother?’ Both of us laughed and shook our heads.”

Marc Hirsh, a freelance rock critic for the Boston Globe countered, “I might argue that one major difference is that people don’t loudly/mindlessly sing along to movies and novels don’t blast out into the unsuspecting world through open car windows and portable stereos. And that you can build a lot more context and nuance into two hours or 300 pages than into three minutes.”

Hickman conceded the point: “An astute observation, sir. Therein lies the challenge. I humbly state that my songwriting partner Dr. Lowery and I meet that challenge.”

And the debate rages on. The “Brown Sugar” tussle will likely recede, as controversies do, but there’s always another classic from the past that’s about to poke its head up in the present and make that demand: Do ya like me? Still? Are you sure about that?


VIDEO: The Rolling Stones “Brown Sugar” live in Texas 1972

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Jim Sullivan

Jim Sullivan has written for The Boston Globe, Boston Phoenix, the Boston Herald, Boston Common, the Christian Science Monitor, and Creem. Follow him on Twitter @jimsullivanink.

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