‘Brown Sugar’ remains one of The Rolling Stones’ biggest songs. Reaching number one in America and number two in the UK, the track features all the classic elements of the Stones at their peak: Keith Richards’ Open-G guitar punching out the signature riffs, a rock-solid backbeat from Bill Wyman and Charlie Watts, some killer lead lines from Mick Taylor and Mick Jagger’s signature swagger. Sticky Fingers showed the band at their most potent, with ‘Brown Sugar’ being perhaps the clearest distillation of how they were all working at the height of their collective powers.
It’s also a terribly problematic song that finds Jagger making allusions to slavery in his conquest for sex. Whether you take these declarations at face value, find them to be strange metaphors, or even generously believe that the band are highlighting the horrors of the slave trade, it can’t be denied that ‘Brown Sugar’ has some troubling narratives floating around its slick and powerful earworm qualities.
‘Brown Sugar’ was always controversial, but that never stopped The Stones from playing it live. Debuted at the band’s infamous show at the Altamont Speedway in California during the end of their 1969 American tour, ‘Brown Sugar’ has been featured in every single one of the band’s concert tours for the following 50 years, with over a thousand performance in total. It was part of Charlie Watts’ final show with the band, with only encore performances of ‘Gimme Shelter’ and ‘Satisfaction’ keeping it from being his final song with the Stones.
In more recent years, Jagger has purposefully toned down the song by removing some of the more overt references to slavery, including the infamous “hear him whip the women just around midnight” line. There’s been a now-five decade long history of the band hiring black backing musicians, including legends like Billy Preston, Lisa Fisher, Darryl Jones, and Steve Jordan, to accompany them on the song in concert. It appears that we might have reached the end of the line with ‘Brown Sugar’, however, as the band have yet to play it at any of their recent concerts on the resumed ‘No Filter’ tour.
In a recent LA Times article focusing on The Stones, Keith Richards and Mick Jagger both commented on the conspicuous absence of ‘Brown Sugar’ from the setlists. “You picked up on that, huh?” Richards said. “I don’t know. I’m trying to figure out with the sisters quite where the beef is. Didn’t they understand this was a song about the horrors of slavery? But they’re trying to bury it. At the moment I don’t want to get into conflicts with all of this shit. [laughs] But I’m hoping that we’ll be able to resurrect the babe in her glory somewhere along the track.”
It appears as though Richards might be engaging in some revisionist history by painting ‘Brown Sugar’ as an anti-slavery song, but he helped write it, so we can’t say that it wasn’t always intended that way. Jagger was more succinct and diplomatic about the matter: “We’ve played ‘Brown Sugar’ every night since 1970, so sometimes you think, ‘We’ll take that one out for now and see how it goes.’ We might put it back in.”
As it stands, there doesn’t appear to be any plans to play ‘Brown Sugar’, but there also doesn’t appear to be any specific moratorium in place keeping the song out of the band’s set permanently. Are they just tired of the song? Acknowledging its dubious place in a more contemporary setting? Bowing to the pressures of a hyper-woke culture? The answer is unclear, but don’t expect to hear ‘Brown Sugar’ any time soon at the band’s live shows.