A Dance to the Music of Time — “Jumpin’ Jack Flash”

A Dance to the Music of Time is my attempt to pinpoint exactly why I like pop music (and also try my hand at music criticism). It’s entirely subjective, but if you’re interested in starting a conversation I’ll be down in the comments. It’s gonna be published whenever I feel like it and I’ve no intention to target specific songs — when a song gives me joy or makes me think hard enough, I’ll do it on the spot.


The Song: Jumpin’ Jack Flash
a 1968 single by the Rolling Stones
reached #1 on the UK Singles Chart

When Lady Gaga and the WHO held the online coronavirus concert “One World: Together at Home” two months ago, there were contributions from all over the globe. This included songs from two of the greatest bands in the world: Paul McCartney doing his Beatles hit “Lady Madonna”, and the Rolling Stones doing their 1969 single “You Can’t Always Get What You Want”. Both classics, and yet bizarrely, a lot of the coverage I read online seemed very interested in comparing their two performances and dissecting what it meant for popular music.

Now fan of McCartney as I am, I’m not going to say that his “Lady Madonna” was better — not only is it lyrically plain, but Paul also drastically changed the arrangement to make it rather jazzy and ponderous, which is not why anyone listens to “Lady Madonna”. He also made the mistake of not drawing in Ringo to help, and the importance of accompaniment is illustrated when you look at the Stones’ latest rendition of “You Can’t Always Get What You Want”. It’s uplifting, it has a driving rhythm behind it, and — I can’t believe I’m saying this — Mick Jagger’s voice is actually better in this case. Paul sounds like my grandpa after a chain-smoking session; Mick still sounds like he did back in the sixties.

So another victory for the Stones — the latest in a rivalry that’s close to spanning six decades now, one’s that started ever since John and Paul wrote the Stones “I Wanna Be Your Man” (and, Paul likes to say, launched their career). It’s a rivalry that has produced a lot of brilliant witty quotes, loads of quasi-friendly vitriol, and of course, hundreds of brilliant songs as they tried to one-up each other. Yet the temptation is always there, to settle the eternal question once and for all: which is the best band of all time? The Beatles… or the Rolling Stones?

Now, I’ve already written 15 gushing pieces for the Beatles on this website, so I’m not going to bore you all with another long, 2500-word diatribe on why the evidence seems to point towards the Beatles. Any fan of theirs will immediately list out their achievements — they launched the British Invasion, they reinvented themselves every couple of albums, they were versatile and funny and exciting and mesmerising, and so on. Yet a closer look at the Stones will show that a lot of the qualities apply to them too. And I could pick any of their songs to illustrate this point, but like me, you haven’t got all day, so let’s concentrate on one song that does it best: “Jumpin’ Jack Flash”, the three-and-a-half minute explosion that heralded a new era for the Stones, a change that defined them for the rest of their career.

A bit of context on “Jumpin’ Jack Flash”: by the time it came out in May 1968, the Stones had gone through a confusing couple of years. They’d abandoned the blues rock they’d use to start their career with “Paint It Black” and gone into full psychedelia afterwards. Songs like “Ruby Tuesday” were softer and prettier. Rob Sheffield writes in Dreaming the Beatles that this was mostly because they were trying to compete with the Beatles — so when the Beatles came out in May 1967 with a little-known album called Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, the Stones responded that December with the similarly psychedelic Their Satanic Majesties Request, with tracks that you could not possibly write unless you had had your head blown apart with drugs — which is of course what was happening to all of them at the time. It’s a very weird album, though I will go to my grave defending “2000 Light Years From Home” and especially “She’s A Rainbow”, which was my entry point to the Stones.

Throughout all this though, you can hear one thing that doesn’t fit in: Mick Jagger himself. If you listen to the beautiful “Ruby Tuesday”, you can hear him trying to be romantic. Try picturing a reserved, humble Mick Jagger, trying to play nice, trying to appeal to you with his gentleness. It doesn’t work, does it? Every single picture of Mick you can see is him being the most flamboyant guy in the world, sticking it in your face every time. He sounds bitchy, absolutely bitchy. (To quote Rob Sheffield’s wife in Dreaming the Beatles: “he sounds like the most pussy-whipped boy in the universe.”) And that’s how you know this phase couldn’t last: the Stones just aren’t about peace and harmony and flowers everywhere. They’re about rock and sex and provocation and drugs and holy mother of God, so much more sex. And all that withheld energy came bursting forward in one great package when “Jumpin’ Jack Flash” came out.

The moment it begins, you know it’s different. It’s a confident, loud, strum of the guitar as played by Keith (or is it Brian Jones?), so markedly contrasting with the quietly tinkling intros of the songs from the past couple of years. It’s the kind that not only announces itself, but also tells you in one stroke just how wicked it intends to be — and then it only gets harder, building up to the kind of energy that allows Mick Jagger to spit out the words “watch it!” as the central riff — so addictive, so amazing — begins its onslaught on the mind. And oh my sweet Lord, I simply cannot describe the relish with which you can savour that disdain. You just know you’re in for a treat when Mick gets filthy.

That defiance hurls itself at you every time Mick opens his mouth in “Jumpin’ Jack Flash”, every syllable daring you to challenge his superiority. He moans as the first line “I was b-o-o-o-o-rn in a crossfire hurrica-a-a-a-a-ane”, and yes of course he absolutely was. He drawls those lines, and yet you’re under no illusion that it’s because of some sort of fragility — quite the opposite. He simply is too confident to even care to pronounce the words right, because he’s been through it all.

And when you listen to the words themselves, they are just SO in your face that Mick might as well be standing two inches away. “And I howled at my ma in the driving rain/ But it’s alright now, in fact it’s a gas”. He’s not only telling us a story about how much he’s gone through, he’s openly flaunting his bad-assery: not only has he got some utterly amazing imagery behind him, he even feels that it’s nothing, that he can laugh about it being nothing but “a gas” to him. It sounds like he’s proud of it, revelling in the identity of being Jumpin’ Jack Flash, the guy who goes through all this awesome stuff. You can feel just how much Mick Jagger was liberated in May 1968: now free from having to pretend to be the nice one like Paul McCartney was, he now had ample room to show just how far in the other direction he could go: unruly and androgynous in appearance, smug to the point of being almost irritating.

But then provocation sort of IS the point of the song, not to mention the Rolling Stones themselves. If I’m not wrong, this is the first UK chart-topper to have profanity in the lyrics: it happens towards the end of the extended third verse, when Mick is just letting it rip and he shouts “I was born with a spike right through my head — fuck my head!” You can just hear the extra emphasis he puts into that word — it’s buried in the instruments, which are roaring like he is, but it’s there, and right after he’s employed some suspiciously Christ-like imagery, too. You can imagine him saying “oh yeah, I’m shouting it extra loud, and what you gonna do about it?”. I’m not entirely sure how permissive Britain and the USA were in the summer of 1968, but I’m sure that most of society would have had a coronary if they’d heard someone shout the f-word on the radio. But the Stones did it anyway, and did it again and again in their repertoire from here on — they’d abandoned all pretence, subtext had become the only text. And they did it to establish their new identity, to tell everyone, “hey there, we’re the bad boys now, and this time we’re going all out on this”, and were absolutely true to their word. A rebellious streak was of course in almost all of the artists around that time — a kickback from the Summer of Love, a call to arms after peace had failed — but none took it so far as the Stones, who did it only because they could, because they knew how to have class when they did it.

Of course it’s not just the lyrics that rock here: you have the guitar riff and the drums that just keep on going, relentlessly. It’s a gloriously simple riff, brash and unforgettable, and both Keith Richards and Bill Wyman (the bassist for the Stones) has gone on record to claim it as their creation. To be honest, whoever thought of it did a pretty good job balancing the guitar and the bass: the riff just pulsates, while the bass continues to punch out a steady beat along with the drums. But even if you give Wyman the riff, it still doesn’t erase what Keith’s doing with the guitar: it scintillates during the chorus, as Mick tells us “it’s alright now”, you hear Keith descending on the guitar, so that it feels amazingly like he’s crowning his fellow Glimmer Twin with the falling stars. It just makes Mick all the more brazen, all the more qualified to be bitchy.

And it’s that combination of the riff and that nastiess throughout the whole thing that provides the best raison d’etre for this song: it’s just infectious. It makes you want to dance along. Great as the Beatles are, I have never ever danced to any one of their songs. Their songs just don’t lend themselves to movement: try coming up with a dance for “Strawberry Fields Forever” or “Yesterday”. You can’t, simply because Lennon and McCartney are just too wise and perceptive: you simply don’t twitch around while Paul lectures you on how you can make it better.

With “Jumpin’ Jack Flash”, you seriously want to shuffle — no, scratch that, you want to squirm. Anybody familiar with Mick Jagger when he was young (or the Maroon 5 song “Moves Like Jagger”) might be aware of how he conducts his body when he dances: it’s like he’s just can’t keep still, he has to do something with his hands — and so, in a song where he’s talking about himself, he does exactly that and flails about, pointing to himself, showing just how much of a bad boy he is. And here’s the funny thing: you join in the dancing. You can’t help but squirm like Mick does. It’s weird, isn’t it? This is an awesomely tough character, and yet the man makes being badass look amazing, makes squirming, something that you can’t possibly do without looking like you’re having weird spasms, both effortless and cool. Simply put, he makes you want to be him. “Jumpin’ Jack Flash” makes you want to be bad, want to flip the bird at everybody and show-off just how naughty you can be, because the singer’s shown you just how glamorous it can be.

And ultimately that’s the best and weirdest thing about the Stones. They might not have deep, philosophical points to make, and they might not be the hardest rockers or the loveliest people in town, but they’ve got some damn wonderful tunes working for them, and they know how to awaken the naughty side, the primal urges in everybody. Although the Stones are pretty adamant that they don’t actively try to coax out the evil in everybody (which to be fair is true — “Sympathy for the Devil” practically settles it), there’s a certain fascination you have in listening to them. Just as the Beatles show you how loving and how wonderful you can be, the Stones tell you that you can also be cheeky and defiant, sexy and glamorous, deliciously salacious — and yet still be proud of it.

You know, of course, that you’re never gonna be rebellious like Mick Jagger, just as you know you’ll never be as nice as Paul McCartney — we’re all too reserved to be let ourselves go like they have. But there’s something about the Stones that infect you, lets you have that fantasy in 218 seconds where you can be that person in your own small little bubble, be that flamboyant and be that disdainful. To be fair, “Jumpin’ Jack Flash” isn’t the only Stones song that does this: “Get Off of My Cloud”, for example, or their late disco hit “Miss You”. But “Jumpin’ Jack Flash” amps it all up to 11, and never stops being that level. Small wonder that it’s the most-played song at Stones concerts — it’s gone through 1100 runs just from Mick, Keith, Bill and Ronnie Wood alone — all of those people, just being their good old bitchy selves.

Ultimately, I remain unconvinced that the Beatles can fully replace the Stones. Pretty is good when you mean it, and I’ll always take profundity — no matter how faked — in the place of raw naughtiness. But dear Lord, let me tell you: how tempting it is, whenever I hear “Jumpin’ Jack Flash”, to let myself go, and just dance.

(Cover copyrighted to ABKCO/Decca, and dear God that is a horrifying vision of… Mick? On the right, whoever he is.)

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