The Rolling Stones’ ‘Beast of Burden’ is a track for the ages, one which has caused a host of different presumptions about the story behind its inception which has been left open to interpretation.
The track was taken as a single from the iconic band’s 1978 album Some Girls and became a hit in the States, reaching number eight in the Billboard Chart. However, some 42 years on from its release, Stones fans all over the world are still taking wild guesses about what the ‘Beast of Burden’ is truly about.
The most common presumption is that the song is linked to Richards’ heavy heroin use throughout the 1970s and the burden this carried on the other half of The Glimmer Twins, Mick Jagger. He had to be the driving force behind the band during this period with some speculating that this song is Keith’s way of appreciating Mick for keeping everything ticking over while Richards’ addiction got him caught in a chokehold.
This was somewhat inadvertently confirmed by Richards in an interview with Mojo in 2012 despite him not saying it explicitly: “Mick wrote a lot of it but I laid the general idea on him. At the time Mick was getting used to running the band. Charlie was just the drummer, I was just the other guitar player. I was trying to say, ‘OK I’m back, so let’s share a bit more of the power, share the weight, brother.”
However, Richards has also said on record that he no longer recalls what the song is even about and debunked some of the rumours surrounding the song. however yet again he doesn’t downright rule out the song being an apology for his addiction issues. The guitarist said: “Those who say it’s about one woman, in particular, they’ve got it all wrong. We were trying to write for a slightly broader audience than just Anita Pallenberg or Marianne Faithfull. Although that’s not to say they didn’t have some influence in there somewhere. I mean, what’s close by is close by! I’ve always felt it’s one of my best soul songs. It was another strict collaboration between Mick and me.”
He then added: “I think I had the first verse—‘I’ll never be your beast of burden’—along with the hook, and we were still working very much in our traditional way: Here’s the idea, here’s the song, now run away and fill it in! Some of the theories surrounding it are very intriguing, but they’re about as divorced from reality as can be. I find it quite amusing that there are people in the world who spend a lot of their time trying to decode something that is, at the end of the day, completely undecodable. I mean, even I’ve forgotten the code!”
In the liner notes to the 1993 compilation disc Jump Back, Richards said this of the track: “‘Beast Of Burden’ was another one where Mick (Jagger) just filled in the verses. With the Stones, you take a long song, play it and see if there are any takers. Sometimes they ignore it, sometimes they grab it and record it. After all the faster numbers of Some Girls, everybody settled down and enjoyed the slow one.”
In those same notes, Jagger says: “Lyrically, this wasn’t particularly heartfelt in a personal way. It’s a soul begging song, an attitude song. It was one of those where you get one melodic lick, break it down and work it up; there are two parts here which are basically the same.”
Whether the song was about Richards’ return to the fold or just his literal return to The Rolling Stones, the ‘Beast of Burden’ is emphatic either way and is the perfect way to announce his comeback. Watch iconic footage of The Stones performing the track in Texas from 1978, below.