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The Story Behind The Song: The Rolling Stones failed reggae hit ‘Start Me Up’

When it comes to reggae and roots music The Rolling Stones always pilfered like high seas pirates with benevolent intent. They had their finger to the pulse and back in 1973, they decided a sunshine excursion was necessary to cut Goats Head Soup in Jamaica. This was a time Keith Richards remembered fondly in an interview with Rolling Stone magazine, “[It was] very memorable, especially in that year. Because that was ’73. That was the year that [Bob] Marley and the Wailers put out Catch A Fire.”

“I remember being in Jamaica. There was this feeling in the air, actually, that Jamaica was starting to make a mark on the map. It was a great feeling.” After the record was cut, Richards was so enamoured with the place that he decided to stay in the Caribbean for a while. He immersed himself in the vivified culture and basked in the sun-soaked glory of Reggae and good times on tap as the cultural revolution finally stepped out from the stifling impact of colonialism and its exuberance joyfully infected the world.

Naturally, the music of the great island stayed with Richards even after he left, and he was frequently playing around with reggae riffs. However, they didn’t always immediately work alongside his natural blues bent. This was certainly the case with ‘Start Me Up’ which was originally worked on during the Some Girls sessions back in 1977. It took four years to whip into shape for Tattoo You.

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“The story here is the miracle that we ever found that track,” Richards explained. “I was convinced – and I think Mick was – that it was definitely a reggae song. And we did it in 38 takes – ‘Start me up. Yeah, man, cool. You know, you know, Jah Rastafari.’ And it didn’t make it. And somewhere in the middle of a break, just to break the tension, Charlie and I hit the rock and roll version. And right after that we went straight back to reggae. And we forgot totally about this one little burst in the middle, until about five years later when somebody sifted all the way through these reggae takes.”

After this gestation period, the party feel for the song became clear. “After doing about 70 takes of ‘Start Me Up’ he found that one in the middle,” Richards continues. “It was just buried in there. Suddenly I had it. Nobody remembered cutting it. But we leapt on it again. We did a few overdubs on it, and it was like a gift, you know? One of the great luxuries of The Stones is we have an enormous, great big can of stuff. I mean what anybody hears is just the tip of an iceberg, you know. And down there is vaults of stuff. But you have to have the patience and the time to actually sift through it.”

Thereafter, Jagger decided to keep things simple and filled the song with typical tropes from his songwriting style. Thus, sexy lyrics and gyrating were layered on top, and the song was finished. However, as producer Richard Buskin recalls, it still wasn’t to Richards’ liking: “After they cut it, I said, ‘That’s bloody great! Come and listen.’ However, when I played it back Keith said, ‘Nah, it sounds like something I’ve heard on the radio. Wipe it’.” 

Adding: “Of course, I didn’t, but he really did not like it and I’m not sure whether he likes it to this day. I don’t think it’s one of his favorite songs, although it’s obviously everyone’s favourite guitar riff; his guitar riff. Maybe because Keith loves reggae so much, he wanted it to be a reggae song, but that wasn’t to be.”

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