Friday, December 5, 2008

Beast Of Burden by the Rolling Stones

The Rolling Stones’ understanding of human relationships puts Dr. Phil to shame.

Throughout their career, they have expressed the meaning of conflicts, feelings and insecurities in relationships. Often, these songs have seemingly simple subjects, but many speak on a much deeper levels.

The Rolling Stones, in their most famous song “Satisfaction,” describes not a chauvinistic character that is bragging about his conquests but rather describes the feelings of regret in unsatisfying meaningless sex acts. “Under My Thumb,” another famous Rolling Stones song is not about man putting down a woman he has complete control over but is about man who has been put down himself, overcompensating to his listener in an effort to regain lost masculinity. And “Beast Of Burden,” one of the Rolling Stones most interesting songs is abotu much more then a guy trying to convince a girl to make love to him.

The Rolling Stones featured “Beast Of Burden” on their fourteenth album, Some Girls, which they released in 1978. They bounced back from inner turmoil to create one of their best albums critics called a classic return to rock form. “Beast of Burden” the second to last song on Some Girls in some ways a typical rock song. The song has the traditional rock instrumentation of two guitars, bass and drums set. Also like many other rock songs, the form of this song is built on a repeated four-chord guitar riff. What is unique in the song is how these instruments work together within the traditional rock set-up.

Charlie Watts plays the drums like a driver holding back a team of horses. He keeps a strong a solid tempo as the other instruments push ahead and pull back. Watts is an understated player who does not bring attention to his playing. His fills are simple like in the end of the first guitar riff after he enters. All he does for this fill is play two snare drum hits on off beats providing the perfect amount of momentum. Along with Bill Wyman on bass, Watts creates a solid foundation as the guitar and vocals create tension and release within the beat.

Thirteen years earlier, in the song “Satisfaction” Keith Richards helped define the guitar riff driven song by maintaining the same guitar riff throughout most of the song. However, in “Beast Of Burden” he breaks away from the riff but as soon as the vocals enter. He duets with Ron Wood, the other guitarist, like two people dancing. They provide colors and motion while outlining just enough of the guitar riff to maintain the harmonic structure and keep the shape of the riff in our ears.

Then there’s Mick Jagger. Though he does not have a pretty voice or a wide range, he deliberately works every single note to bring expression and meaning to the text. Listening to the first line of the song “I’ll never be your beast of burden,” Mick turns the notes and words into a desperate and yearning statement. He starts softly with “I’ll never” and then digs in to “be” with a quick fall off in the pitch expressing his exacerbation as he desperately tries to explain himself. Then he rises up to “beast,” and slightly lingers on the final consonants rising up at the end of the note, which Mick mirrors on the word “burden” in which he emphasizes “bur-“ and pulls back on “-den.”
All of these stylistic touches bring the notes and lyrics alive. Mick Jagger methodically exploits ever aspect of his voice to color the meaning of the songs that he sings.

The instrumentals and vocals elevate the sound of the music beyond the rock form and the meaning of the lyrics transform the song into a beautifully honest piece of art. A “beast of burden” is an animal like a donkey or an ox that people use to transport loads or do other heavy work. Throughout this song, Mick states he will not be a beast of burden in the relationship. He will not do all the work, he will not be subservient to his partner and he refuses to do anything for this person. At the same time, Mick reflects that he has been doing beast-like work to get his partner to make love to him, “my back is broad, and it’s a hurting . . . I’ve walked for miles, my feet are hurting.”

He asks if he is hard, rough, tough and later rich enough, but he knows the answer as he immediately follows his questions with “I’m not too blind to see.” He is fully aware that she will not change her mind but he asks anyways, pointing out all that she is rejecting.

Later in the song he states his case (about 1 minute and 55 seconds in).

You can put me out on the street
Put me out with no shoes on my feet
But, put me out of misery

Yeah, all your sickness, I can suck it up
Throw it all at me, I can shrug it off
There’s one thing baby that I don’t understand
You keep on telling me, I ain’t your kind of man

He will do anything for her and he doesn’t understand why she will not accept him. He knows what he wants from her, he knows he will do anything for her and he also knows that it will never be enough. With this understanding, he states that he will not be her “beast of burden” because it will not change her mind. It is more important for him to have his dignity without her then be half a man with her.

In relationships, you don’t want to be with someone who will do anything and everything to make you happy. First off, other people can’t control your happiness and second, a person who acts subservient to your needs is not acknowledging his or her own feelings which contributes to a foundation of emotionally equality in the relationship.

The Rolling Stones began making music in a time when men were firmly in power in male-female relationships. Through the sexual revolution in the 1960s and 1970s, things changed and society questioned the roles of men and woman in relationships. What is important to remember in examining relationships is that as independent as women need to feel, men need that same assurance. Yes, men are still in power in our society but society often portrays men as needing woman to save them from their irresponsible sexual behavior and their inability to be emotionally mature (i.e the current Trojan condoms “Evolve” campaign”).

As “I Will Survive” by Gloria Gaynor is an anthem for woman to feel strong and free after being dumped, “Beast Of Burden” is an anthem not only for men but also for anyone who have realized their own self-worth.

Some songs I love because of the feelings they bring up, or the memories that they remind me of, but what I truly love about “Beast Of Burden” is how good it feels. As much as I’ve explained this song, you have to experience it to truly understand what its about. You can tell a friend about skiing but unless the feel that wind in their hair and the cool mist of snow in their face they have no idea what they experience means.

So please, if you got a guitar play this song, it’s easy to learn, see how it feel under your fingers. If you don’t, stand up, dance with the music and sing with Mick. Only when you’ve felt that groove in your body, and the yearning in your own voice will you understand the greatness of this song and maybe why I love this song.


  1. You know, I don't quite understand why you like this song. All I can quite see is that it's a man who doesn't want to be controlled by women--which I know is something you feel. I agree that it's an interesting sentiment and one you don't always hear. I just don't especially love the tune and "feel" of this song.

    You know, it could be interesting to explore the difference between a female independence song like "I Will Survive" and a male one like this. Is there even a female equivalent to this kind of thing? Men are always fearing being controlled, and I don't think you see women fearing it in the same way. I think it's a different kind of assertion of independence.

  2. I love this song and could not put it into words but Kingley's words really touched on it. I think that you either love it or hate it, in that, if you don't ABSOLUTELY LOVE IT as I do and Kingley appears to, then you don't get it, or really feel it in your soul.
    A 'beautifully honest piece of art'... I love that art has some many forms, music, paintings, sculpture, poetry, film.

  3. Thanks for the comment Sammi. It's magical how some pieces of art connect with our souls for no apparent reason and along with that comes music that we don't like for reason that we explain. I really love this song.

  4. It's corny, but you know how people say that certain songs make them in the mood to f*ck? Well, this one does it for me.