Rock ‘n’ roll, from its very origins, is inherently touched by darkness, but for ‘Brown Sugar’, The Rolling Stones seemed to be operating with the steadfast aim of mining the depths of rock’s densest dark matter and packaging it in a thrashing little ditty. It might not sound that way on the melodic surface, but few songs have a darker undercurrent than this troubled 1971 icon.
The subject matter is two-fold, and neither brings any light to the other. Ostensibly the song is about Africans who were sold to New Orleans plantations and raped by their white masters. The connotations of this horrific overture were then played upon to impart the metaphorical double meaning of being a slave to the narcotic demands of brown heroin.
In short, the song is about slavery, heroin, cunnilingus and rape, with jives at record producing junkies and some of the most stunningly crude and offensive lyrics that have ever been written. The song was even initially titled ‘Black Pussy’. If that is the untampered raucous artistry of rock ‘n’ roll, then I want out.
The defence of the track is that it is a glowing paradigm of music’s unfettered glory and an example of the necessary need for art to be able to offend, to plunge the depths and present the findings, and, in a sense, to mirror society at large. The Rolling Stones clearly do not support the notions that the song upholds, and thus it is a work of narrative in this regard, moreover, an account of undiluted history. Surely offence can be propagated in this narrative way without the protagonist sporting the unmistakable Lycra-clad façade of the unambiguous bad guy — surely Mick Jagger can sing the song without holding a picket that says, ‘these views are not my own’. So, what’s the problem?
It’s obvious what the problem is, the song is a disgraceful act of gratuitous juvenilia, relishing on the ability to offend rather than a considered analysis of the subject at hand. The issue is indicative of the defence that the band have chosen to use over the years: “I never would write that song now,” Jagger said in an interview with Rolling Stone in 1995. “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.’” In Keith Richards’ Life, Jim Dickerson says ‘Brown Sugar’ was written in forty-five minutes, “It was disgusting,” is the conclusion.
In that 1995 Rolling Stone interview Jagger goes on to say that he wrote the song in the middle of the Australian outback on a new-fangled guitar with plug-in headphones while he was filming Ned Kelly, “God knows what I’m on about in that song. It’s such a mishmash. All the nasty subjects in one go. [It was a] very instant thing,” he concludes.
It may have been written in only 45 minutes, but it was first recorded in 1969, two years before its eventual release. The band members, all in their late twenties by then, had all that time to consider whether it was right to use their titanic platform to promulgate lyrics like “Brown Sugar, how come you taste so good? / Ah, got me feelin’ now for brown sugar, just like a black girl should,” at the height of the civil rights movement.
Defendants of the song may well tout the Frank Zappa witticism that defaming offensive songs is like “treating dandruff by decapitation,” but surely that proposition is an unironic decapitation in of itself. Surely, each work of art must be individually assessed with a judicious approach, and no single blanket ruling that either permits or dismisses the abrasive potential of art should win out over the mercy and justice of individual merit.
To reassess ‘Brown Sugar’ fifty years on from its release is far from the merciless nature of condemnable ‘cancel culture’ (he who is innocent send the first Tweet), raking up old bones, or an attempt at dreaded wokeness. It is simply a chance to reassess whether the holocaust of 12.5million Africans should ever be met with lyrics like “Gold coast slave ship bound for cotton fields / Sold in the market down in New Orleans / Scarred old slaver knows he’s doing alright / Hear him whip the women just around midnight”, pronounced unironically with gyrating movements and fuzz-pedalled attitude.
The issue of art and offensiveness is as nebulous as they come and requires a tome of judiciously dissected prose that a single article can not provide. However, one of the key points within that tome would be that art must retain its potential to offend. And I must stress that I am not calling for ‘Brown Sugar’ to be blacklisted, banned or abolished from culture; you can continue to listen to it all you like. Furthermore, this is far from a jab aimed at The Rolling Stones themselves; I myself will continue to relish in the rich tapestry of their back catalogue and some of the amazing art that they have produced – they are and always have been a progressive band. They have championed Black artists more than most. In short, art must be separated from the artist and the rose plucked from the thorns. But none of this holistic analysis can abate the fact that ‘Brown Sugar’ is a heinous piece of lyricism.
Nick Cave has elucidated this subject far better than I ever could in his Red Hand Files Forum, and one entry especially springs to mind: while rightfully condemning the BBC’s decision to censor ‘Fairytale of New York’ he spoke of treating the song as an individual entity and separating the language from the meaning therein. One quote, in particular, lands most heavily, “One of the many reasons this song is so loved is that, beyond almost any other song I can think of, it speaks with such profound compassion to the marginalised and the dispossessed.”
‘Brown Sugar’ does not offer one considered thought to the subject matter that it sings of; it does not clutch any discernible transfiguration from the darkness that it explores; it simply glibly plays on the suffering under the guise of rock ‘n’ roll. I am not my clutching pearls over the innocuous here. I am simply saying the atrocity of the slave trade, rape and the unimaginable suffering therein should not be adorned with gyrating, glib lyrics, guitar solos and no redeeming features in the way of discerned appraisal. Art and offence is a nettlesome issue, but that much should be clear. While there is no call to cancel it for this offence, there is certainly no call to make excuses for its unadorned vacuous and jejune transgression either.