Yesterday, the rock world was crushed to learn that Charlie Watts, drummer for The Rolling Stones and one of the most influential drummers in music history, had died at the age of 80. This hit the metal community especially hard, as the Stones have always been one of the ’60s bands with whom angry, loud musicians have felt kinship. While the Beatles told the world that all you need is love, the Stones were ready to sneer at the crowd while blasting out biker blues in a cloud of liquor and sweat.
After learning of Watts’ passing, we, like most people, began streaming all of our favorite Rolling Stones tracks. What we learned was that for a band who are to many listeners the epitome of classic rock, the Stones also had a real metallic edge. So for those of you headbangers looking to celebrate this legendary act, here’s a ranking of the Stones’ most metal tracks.
Here are 10 songs that will allow even hardened metal fans to embrace the tongue…
10. “If You Can’t Rock Me” (1974)
By the mid-’70s, the Stones were going all in on their aggression, and this opening track to It’s Only Rock ‘n’ Roll illustrates that perfectly. The song isn’t one of the band’s shadowy hippie numbers, but a full-on biker rock track with endless momentum. Even the chorus’ main line, “If you can’t rock me, somebody will,” feels more mercenary than the Stones’ other lyrics. A reminder that when the going got tough, these dudes got gnarly.
9. “Stray Cat Blues” (1968)
Though not one of the most well-known tracks from 1968’s Beggar’s Banquet, “Stray Cat Blues” will immediately put a twitch in most metalheads’ whiskers. The song has that heavy swaying power which acts like Sabbath and Zeppelin later perfected, especially in Keith Richards’ guitar playing. On top of that, there’s a back-alley humidity to the whole thing that’s reminiscent of the more delicious nights at some of your seedier bars. A B-side that never gets old, and never loses its oomph.
8. “It’s Only Rock ‘n’ Roll (But I Like It)” (1974)
At the end of the day, the beauty of “It’s Only Rock ‘n’ Roll” is its message. The song is a fun, sexy blues-rock track about the best song topic of all time — the act of rockin’ — and proclaiming that it might not be art, but it makes everything better. This is an attitude that rock and metal fans have understood since they first realized most of the world sucks, that the lowbrow was the only brow that’d do. Like it or leave it.
7. “Flip the Switch” (1997)
“Three black eyes and a busted nose — I said oh, yeah…” It’s easy to think that the Stones chilled out in their old age, but “Flip the Switch” proves otherwise. Everything about this cut from 1997’s Bridges to Babylon is ugly and straightforward. Mick’s vocals are muggy and snarled, Keith’s guitar is unstoppable, and Charlie carries the whole thing with a headbanging rhythm. The result is as close to a Motörhead song as these dudes would ever write. Old dogs may not be able to learn new tricks, but they sure as hell get meaner.
6. “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction” (1965)
More than anything, what makes “Satisfaction” a ‘metal’ Stones song is that opening guitar line. Sure, Jagger’s barked lyrics about how he’s sick of a life where people try to tell him who to be is something that metalheads can understand. But that opening lick is the perfect buzzsaw guitar line, an instantly-recognizable piece of music that feels like it could cut you. An upbeat number with a nasty edge — in other words, the Stones to a T.
5. “Street Fighting Man” (1968)
So much of what makes “Street Fighting Man” a metal-as-hell song is Jagger’s vocals. While the rest of the song has the Stones’ trademark jangle to it, Mick sounds believably pissed off and driven to violence. That tangible heat is what makes this a hard track to cover; Rage Against The Machine barely got it right, and they were made for a song like this. An anthem for scraping knuckles and laughing about it.
4. “Bitch” (1971)
More than anything, “Bitch” has a brilliant momentum. The track’s main riff and melody are made for punching air and popping hips, and the later inclusion of horns only gives it a twisted Broadway vibe similar to early Alice Cooper. That the track was titled “Bitch” during the breaking of the Love Generation’s wave only makes it that much more sinfully delicious. This one’ll burn your house down.
3. “Gimme Shelter” (1969)
When his band Pain covered the track, metal legend Peter Tagtgren told us, “‘Gimme Shelter’ was the same thing fifty-two years ago, when Mick Jagger wrote it. About the Cold War, about Vietnam. He thought he was going to die in World War III in 1969.” That’s what makes this track so terrifying and metal, despite being a fun-as-fuck party song. That desperation still lives on in its lyrics and rattles. The violent, ragged, cruel death of all things: it’s just a shout away.
2. “Sympathy for the Devil” (1968)
Second to Black Sabbath’s self-titled track, “Sympathy for the Devil” is rock’s most beautifully satanic song. While bands and bluesmen had made mention of Old Scratch for a while as a metaphor for whiskey and women, the Stones wrote the definitive track from Satan’s point of view. Not only does the Devil put himself at Christ’s death and in the Third Reich, he literally outs himself as Lucifer, the Man of Wealth and Taste. The rest, as they say, is the downfall of civilization.
1. “Paint It, Black” (1966)
While “Gimme Shelter” fears the end of the world and “Sympathy…” revels in satanic sin, it’s “Paint It, Black” that most perfectly sums up how the Rolling Stones changed rock and roll and inspired heavy metal music. The song’s running theme of seeing the daylit world and wanting only to black it out is something that every misanthrope, outcast, and dark-minded rock fan can understand. Meanwhile, the track’s chugging, stomping rhythms and eerie melodies add a street-level nihilism that provided a new generation of pissed-off misfits a plot on which to build their lives. This is the anthem of the outsider, the ultimate dismissal of a colorful world being shoved down your throat.
Words by Chris Krovatin