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Who did Keith Richards write The Rolling Stones song 'Beast of Burden' for?

The Rolling Stones’ 1978 song ‘Beast of Burden‘ has proven to have an extensive shelf life. While many songs from the Stones’ musical ventures in the late ’70s failed to win the hearts of the punk-drunk public, the biggest single from their album Some Girls has all the mellow brilliance of ‘Wild Horses’, ‘No Expectations’ and other classic tracks from their heyday. It is proof that the calibre of Richards’ songwriting still packs a hell of a punch. 

Much of the song’s enduring appeal is connected to the mystery surrounding its lyrics. For years, fans have attempted to decode the cryptic and equivocal meaning of the track. But for whom Jagger is refusing to be a “beast of burden” has remained unclear. As a result, countless fan theories have taken the place of truth, and now nobody seems to remember the song’s original meaning – least of all Richards. So below, we’re going to attempt to clear the knotweed and provide an answer to the unanswerable: Who did Kieth Richards write ‘Beast of Burden’ for?

‘Beast Of Burden’ began life in 1977 when Richards wrote a demo track that contained all of the music but only some of the lyrics. ‘Beast of Burden’ became another example of a Stones classic in which Mick Jagger was required to fill in the verses for himself. It’s important to acknowledge that the collaborative nature of the song’s lyrics makes establishing a clear meaning or subject pretty damn difficult. It’s improbable that Richards and Jagger were thinking precisely the same thing at exactly the same time, after all. So, the track must be seen for what it is: an amalgamation of different influences.

Even when the Stones brought the song into the studio, the lyrical content was constantly changing, with Jagger improvising a large portion of his vocal takes. Jagger’s ad-libbing came as a result of the song’s natural transformation into a more R&B leaning number, as Ronnie Wood once recalled: “That’s another one that just came very naturally in the studio. And I slipped into my part and Keith had his going. It may have appeared as though it was planned. We can pick it up today and it will just naturally slip into the groove again with the guitars weaving in a special way.” Richards and Wood’s slick, soulful guitar lines required an equally rhythmic vocal performance from Mick Jagger. So, during his takes in the vocal booth, he opted for a far more fluid and expressive approach than he was used to, heightening the intense sensuality that seems to ooze from every pore of ‘Beast of Burden’.

The song’s transformation in the studio is likely part of the reason that Richards and Jagger would later concede that they couldn’t even remember its original meaning. However, they have unknowingly left a breadcrumb trail of subtle hints that lead us towards an answer if followed. In an interview in 2017, Richards described the origins of ‘Beast of Burden’, explaining” “We were trying to write for a slightly broader audience than just Anita Pallenberg or Marianne Faithfull,” he said. “Although that’s not to say they didn’t have some influence in there somewhere. I mean, what’s close by is close by!”

Pallenberg and Faithful were both romantic partners of members of The Rolling Stones. Marianne Faithful was a notable singer-songwriter in her own right and, when she began a relationship with Mick Jagger in 1970, she became the poster girl of swinging London. Pallenberg, meanwhile, was romantically involved with Brian Jones before going on to have three children with Kieth Richards. As Richards points out, she too could have been the subject of ‘Beast of Burden’. The lyrics would certainly indicate that there’s some truth to these claims. In the first verse, Jagger sings: “I’ll never be your beast of burden/ My back is broad but it’s a-hurting/ All I want for you to make love to me/ I’ll never be your beast of burden,” implying a refusal to accept the full weight of a romantic relationship. It almost seems as though Richards is attempting to prove to Pallenberg that he isn’t quite ready to commit to the responsibility their relationship would put on his shoulders. Instead, he wants to keep things simple, casual, and purely sexual. Therefore, it is possible that ‘Beast of Burden’ wasn’t written about one woman in particular, but about Jagger and Richards’ complex relationship with women in general. “Am I hard enough? Am I rough enough? Am I rich enough? I’m not too blind to see,” Jagger sings, indicating the bitter realisation that perhaps his relationships are founded on a desire, not for his love, but for his success.

Richards’ comments about the influence of Pallenberg and Faithfull have incited a wealth of fan theories, but, as he has previously noted, this influence forms just part of the picture. Although it has been dismissed as a theory, it’s possible the song is also written about Richards himself, or rather, the relationship between Richards and Jagger. In the ’70s, Richards was in the midst of a crippling heroin addiction that forced Jagger to effectively run the band while Richards took the back seat. When he sings: “All your sickness I can suck it up, throw it all at me, I can shrug it off,” the song takes on the atmosphere of a declaration, an acceptance that, for the love of his friend, he will do anything he can to keep the band on its feet. In this way, ‘Beast Of Burden’ can be seen to be something of a homage to Mick, a thank you for all that he did during that difficult period in Richards’ life.

For me, it seems that ‘Beast Of Burden’ was never written for one person. Instead, it is a song written for a period of time. A period of time in which Jagger and Richards were struggling with an array of personal issues that made it feel as though the weight of the world was on their shoulders. Although the influence of Faithfull and Pallenberg is self-evident, Richards’ addiction likely plays an important part as well. In this way, the track has the same duality of meaning as can be found in The Stranglers’ ‘Golden Brown’ because, like that track, it is a song that speaks of both romantic dependence and drug dependence in the same tired breath.

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