When one thinks of the titans that comprise rock ‘n’ roll history, before too long, your mind’s eye should have conjured up images of The Rolling Stones and David Bowie. Over the past six decades, both acts did their bit to cement alternative culture as a conduit for expression, experimentation and rebellion. It can come as no surprise then that two of rock’s most iconic heavyweights would at some point fly into each other’s orbit and cross-pollinate.
David Bowie made a habit of utilising a colourful and vast array of influences and collaborators. This effective and career-defining modus operandi started with his third studio album, 1970’s The Man Who Sold the World. The inclusion of bassist/producer Tony Visconti and iconic sidekicks guitarist Mick Ronson and drummer Mick ‘Woody’ Woodmansey marked the start of the period where Bowie’s career really started to take off into the stratosphere – long before the likes of Bezos and Musk had even dreamt of privatising such a feat, in fact, the latter was born two months after Bowie’s third LP hit record stores.
In addition to The Man Who Sold the World, Bowie’s follow up LP’s, 1971’s Hunky Dory and 1972’s iconic The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars, would be marked out from his first two records. Although veering into the experimental, these three albums would still contain sprinklings of blues and hard rock, with many musical nods to the likes of Iggy and the Stooges, The Velvet Underground and, more importantly, The Rolling Stones.
The Stones’ unmistakable influence on Bowie would continue to be heard amongst the dark, twisted futurism of 1973’s Aladdin Sane. Track eight on Bowie’s apocalyptic sixth album is a lopsided cover of The Stones’ 1967 hit ‘Let’s Spend the Night Together’. Bowie suggestively changed Jagger’s original lyric of “my tongue’s getting tied” to “my tongue’s getting tired.”
If the influence of Jagger and Co. was not already as clear as day, ‘Drive-In Saturday’ explicitly namechecks the Stones frontman “when people stared in Jagger’s eyes and scored” and the guitar tone on ‘Watch That Man’ clearly takes cues from the Stones’ 1972 classic Exile on Main Street.
Moreover, denoting the merry-go-round of the golden age of rock, there are rumours that ‘Lady Grinning Soul’ from Aladdin Sane was about soul singer Claudia Lennear, with whom Bowie had a dalliance during the period. Even more curiously, Lennear was supposedly the subject of The Stones’ troubling classic, 1971’s ‘Brown Sugar’. However, the scales of influence were not all one-sided. Bowie would also do his bit to help The Stones out. After all, we did mention cross-pollination.
Our actual focus, however, is the story behind The Stones’ 1974 hit ‘It’s Only Rock ‘n’ Roll (But I Like It)’, as today marks its 47th birthday. The introductory passages of this piece were constructed to delineate the evident influence the Rolling Stones had on Bowie at the onset of the ’70s and to reflect that at the time, music was a perpetually revolving door of shared musical influences, guitar tones and allegedly, lovers.
Bowie would do his bit to repay the ounces of inspiration the Stones had bestowed upon his work — but we will come back to this point.
The rocking 1974 classic is an exemplary piece of rock ‘n’ roll. A swaggering and bluesy homage to the progenitors of rock such as Chuck Berry et al. The song is an unapologetic celebration of all things rocking and rolling – note the song’s title and chorus.
The story goes that ‘It’s Only Rock ‘n’ Roll (But I Like It)’ was written by then Faces guitarist and future Stones member Ronnie Wood in late ’73, again demonstrating the deeply entwined web of connections that music had at the time. It is worth noting, though, that Wood would not become a member of the iconic quintet until 1975. However, this was the first time Wood contributed to the writing of a Stones track, although the credits were officially given to Jagger and Richards. In this way, Woods acted as something of a ghostwriter.
The original version of the song was written and recorded in the basement of Wood’s London house ‘The Wick’, which was formerly owned by lauded actor Sir John Mills who sold it to the Faces man in 1971. Since 1996, the Grade I listed Georgian house has been owned by Pete Townshend of The Who.
With Wood on 12-string guitar, the lineup that recorded the song’s original session comprised of Mick Jagger on vocals, legendary session bassist Willie Weeks, Faces drummer Kenney Jones and yes, David Bowie on backing vocals. The Stones’ axeman extraordinaire and very own Sisyphus, Keith Richards, would before too long add his own parts to the recording and would be gracious enough to leave parts of Wood’s guitar on it. Furthermore, Jones, Weeks and Bowie’s portions would remain intact on the final product. This would become the lead single from the band’s 1974 album It’s Only Rock ‘n’ Roll.
In many ways, the track is not akin to a Stones song and owes a lot to its contributors. However, it shows that, like with Bowie’s career, a bit of collaboration can go a long way. This is evident in how Jagger has recalled that as soon as the song was written, he knew it had to be the next single, regardless of the initial opposition from other Stones. In Mark Paytress’s 2005 book, The Rolling Stones – Off The Record, Jagger is quoted as saying to Richards: “That song is a classic. The title alone is a classic, and that’s the whole thing about it.”
Jagger was right. According to him, the song title has since been “used a lot by journalists, the phrase has become a big thing.”
As well as being a celebration of rock ‘n’ roll, Jagger expanded on the meaning of the lyrics in the liner notes of the 1993 compilation album Jump Back, “The idea of the song has to do with our public persona at the time. I was getting a bit tired of people having a go, all that, ‘oh, it’s not as good as their last one’ business. The single sleeve had a picture of me with a pen digging into me as if it were a sword. It was a lighthearted, anti-journalistic sort of thing.”
“If I could stick my pen in my heart/ And spill it all over the stage.”
“Would it satisfy ya, would it slide on by ya, Would you think the boy is strange? Ain’t he strange?”
“If I could win ya, if I could sing ya, a love song so divine/ Would it be enough for your cheatin’ heart, If I broke down and cried? If I cried?”
“I said I know it’s only rock ‘n roll but I like it/ I know it’s only rock ‘n’ roll but I like it, like it, yes, I do.”
There also exists the argument that the inspiration for the lyrics also drew from Bowie’s ‘Rock ‘n’ Roll Suicide’, the closing track from Ziggy Stardust. It has been argued that Jagger’s lyric: “If I could stick a knife in my heart, suicide right on stage” is a direct, literal reference to the titular act of Bowie’s song. After all, contemporary glam stars Marc Bolan and Alice Cooper regularly performed an act of suicide as part of their onstage theatrics. This school of thought is supported by Bowie’s character of Ziggy Stardust and the supporting album being a pastiche of everything glam rock. This, in conjunction with The Stones song’s single artwork, is certainly palpable, if not a tad academic.
Suppose we were to draw a Venn diagram. In that case, it would seem more likely that Jagger’s lyrical inspiration lay somewhere in-between the literal meaning of Bowie’s song and the anti-journalistic sentiment that Jagger explained in ’93. Either way, ‘It’s Only Rock ‘n’ Roll (But I Like It)’ is an unapologetic rock classic that resulted from the tight-knit, collaborative nature of the music scene of the day, showing that a little bit of teamwork and outside influence can go a long way.
This mentality served the late Bowie consistently until his passing in 2016 and made the song one of The Stones’ biggest hits, so maybe there’s a lesson or two in there for aspiring musicians. So on its 47th birthday, sit back and enjoy the classic homage to all things rock ‘n’ roll.
Watch The Rolling Stones play a dazzling version of ‘It’s Only Rock ‘n’ Roll (But I Like It)’ live from the LA Forum in 1975, below.