The Rolling Stones were notorious for their ability to push the envelope back in the 1960s and 1970s. Initially, the band bent rules that seem ludicrous today: having shaggy long hair, not wearing ties in hotels, singing about spending the night together. But as the ‘60s came to a close, the Stones were starting to go beyond the realm of good taste and into genuinely off-putting territory.
That included numerous drug references on songs like ‘Sister Morphine’, ‘Dead Flowers’, ‘Let It Bleed’, and ‘Rocks Off’. Although the moral panic around glorifying drug use, especially from a band with a prior history like the Stones, was palpable back in the contemporary culture, the group also included subject matter that hasn’t mellowed or gotten any less controversial in the 50 years since the Stones’ legendary run.
One of them is the age of consent, which is lecherously covered in the track ‘Stray Cat Blues’ from Beggar’s Banquet. Another sticky subject that the Stones found themselves crossing the line on was race, most infamously with their slavery-centric hit single ‘Brown Sugar’. The band have since retired the song from their setlists, aware of how unfortunately the song has aged in the modern-day.
But even when the Stones were well-meaning in their take on race, it still came out in controversial ways. Take ‘Sweet Black Angel’, the folky acoustic track from Exile on Main St. Meant as a song in support of civil rights activist Angela Davis, who was facing murder charges at the time of the song’s recording, the Stones were still prone to putting their collective feet in their mouths thanks to the choice of words they put into the lyrics.
The offending line in question comes in the song’s second verse, where Mick Jagger sings the lines “Ten little n*****s / Sittin’ on de wall / Her brothers been a fallin’ / Fallin’ one by one.” Even though the song advocates for the freeing of Davis, the use of the n-word in the song’s lyrics is a difficult decision to stomach five decades later.
Listen to ‘Sweet Black Angel’ down below and decide for yourself whether the band were justified in their use of the term.