1967 was set to be the greatest cultural transition of the 1960s. Although it was more than halfway done, the ’60s, as we remember them today, didn’t really start until psychedelia became the pre-eminent fashion of the time. 1966 saw advancements, specifically with the proliferation of LSD, the widespread adoption of colour TVs, and the release of The Beatles’ Revolver, but 1967 would be their point of no return. Traditional social barriers would be broken, and once-taboo subjects would now be brought to the forefront as the counter-culture sought to claim dominant influence over a new generation.
The Rolling Stones were perhaps the one band that weren’t afraid to bring the salacious and pearl-clutching realities of carnal knowledge into the homes of young and impressionable rock fans around the world. Even before they were boundary-pushing anti-authoritarians, the band were covering old school blues tunes like Muddy Waters’ ‘I Just Want to Make Love to You’ while weathering calls of obscenity and perversion that was warping the minds of their predominantly teenage fanbase. As the Stones began switching out the covers for originals, they retained their focus on bringing even the most intimate of romantic circumstances to the fore.
Romance wasn’t necessarily the core of ‘Let’s Spend the Night Together’, released on January 13, 1967. There are certainly romantic notions in the lyrics, like “Now I need you more than ever” and “This doesn’t happen to me every day”, but make no mistake: this song doesn’t come with a marriage proposal or a promise of monogamy. There’s no consummation of love here — instead, Mick Jagger insists that “we could have fun just fooling around.” If ‘Stupid Girl’ and ‘Under My Thumb’ raised the notion of a less traditional and explicitly non-love-based assessment of the opposite sex, ‘Let’s Spend the Night Together’ was a more gentle, if equally noncommittal, way of saying that the Stones weren’t going to be singing sappy love songs.
Still, Jagger was quick to point out that the song doesn’t make any specific mention of sex or perversion. “I always say ‘let’s spend the night together’ to any young lade I’m taking out,” Jagger told Melody Maker in 1967. “What it means is: shall we spend the evening together? If people have warped, twisted, dirty minds, I supposed it could have sexual overtones. The song isn’t really very rude. When you hear it, you’ll realise this.”
With respect to Jagger, that quote was taken from a contemporary interview, at a time when Melody Maker was still servicing a teenybopper audience. This was long before The Stones would be comfortable writing songs directly about sex, The Devil, and heroin, while feeling free to say so to anyone that cared. There remained a little bit of plausible deniability in ‘Let’s Spend the Night Together’, even if the implications were about as obvious as any lyrics could be. The Stones were transitioning from being a direct counterpoint to The Beatles into The Worlds Most Dangerous Band, and this would be among the last instances of the band having to protest their innocence.
Even as they hit back at their supposed “bad influence”, The Stones were in fact engaging in illicit activities, specifically with regards to their drug intake. “We all smoked dope, well except for Bill [Wyman],” Jagger remembers in the documentary Crossfire Hurricane. While recording the lead vocal take for ‘Let’s Spend the Night Together’, Jagger lit a joint just as a pair of police officers entered the studio, ostensibly looking for burglars. Andrew Loog Oldham’s chauffeur quickly left with the weed, but Jagger managed to charm the policemen, even asking to borrow their truncheons to add percussion to the backing track of the song. The Stones’ chummy relationship with police wouldn’t last — only a month after the release of ‘Let’s Spend the Night Together’, Keith Richards’ Redlands home would be raided by police, leading to the arrest of Jagger and Richards on drug charges.
Richards played a major role in the song’s composition, having arranged the melody and chord changes on piano. When it came time to record, the famously wayward Stones recorded the song in bits and pieces at their new studio of choice, Olympic Sound Studios. As a result of his primary arrangement and direction of the song, Richards wound up playing guitar, bass, and piano on the final track, along with adding backup vocals. Wyman was absent from the final take, with Brian Jones playing a Hammond organ that is only audible in the song’s second half. Session player Jack Nitzsche refined Richards’ piano lines, while Charlie Watts dutifully held down the backbeat.
The Stones were booked to make a few promotional appearances to promote the new single, but controversy immediately surrounded its release. With occasional radio bans and debate about the level of lasciviousness the song exuded, the band were told that they were not permitted to perform the song for their appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show. The band were indignant, but a compromise was eventually reached. Jagger wound up changing the song’s lyrics to ‘Let’s Spend Some Time Together’, but not without hammily rolling his eyes at the censored lyric during the performance.
None of the censorship wound up mattering, as the Stones scores another hit in the UK with the song, eventually peaking at number three. Controversy about the song was more palpable in the US, with most radio stations opting to play the single’s B-side, ‘Ruby Tuesday’, instead. That song became a hit in its own right, topping the Billboard Hot 100 and earning the band their fourth number one hit Stateside after ‘Satisfaction’, ‘Get Off of My Cloud’, and ‘Paint It Black’.
The song was so popular that even the band’s original mentor for licentious lyric writing, Muddy Waters, wound up covering ‘Let’s Spend the Night Together’ on his Electric Mud LP. The world was changing in 1967, and The Stones were at the forefront of a brand new openness with regards to sexuality and promiscuousness in pop culture.