The most striking thing about "Beast of Burden," and indeed most of the magnificent Some Girls (1978) album, is the interplay of the two guitars of Keith Richards and Ron Wood -- sometimes with a third played by Mick Jagger. The two practice what they have referred to in interviews as "weaving" the dual-guitar attack. The result is a break from the traditional formula of a rhythm player and a lead player, a configuration that had dominated rock & roll for over ten years at that point and was also the protocol for the Rolling Stones from 1969 (when Mick Taylor took over the second guitar player slot left open by the departure and subsequent death of Brian Jones) to 1976 (when Wood stepped in to what seemed to be a role of destiny for him). The kind of twin-guitar interchange that one hears on "Beast of Burden" is not miles away from what bands like no wavers Television practiced right around the same time as Some Girls: a mostly clean strumming and picking mix. Wood's style was so similar to that of Richards that the band was worried that the lack of distinction would make Wood redundant. The results, however, as demonstrated on "Beast of Burden," ushered in a new era for the Stones; the two guitarists steered the band away from gratuitous soloing, instead accenting the groove and the songwriting. Their shared influences of Chuck Berry, the Everly Brothers, and the masterfully understated and tasteful session players of the Stax and Motown labels led the band back toward the country, soul, and R&B philosophy of feel and groove over accomplished soloing. In a way, it was a return to the band's roots, when Jones was still in the band -- although, with the widespread use of stereo mixing, the utilization of two guitars doing rhythm became more distinct in the final mix.
"Beast of Burden" is a raw torch-soul ballad that sounds like nothing else but the Stones. If anything, it bears some of the traits of a slow-burning Al Green soul-torch ballad, without aping the trademark production elements of Green's records. The Stones sound like a good bar band here. The record's engineer, Chris Kimsey, once remarked that they had set up in a room just for the purposes of rehearsing, with a PA, and thought the sound and vibe were fantastic, so they recorded Some Girls with the same configuration, a relatively raw scenario for late-'70s recording. Richards begins the song with yet another of rock & roll's most memorable riffs, played through a slow phase shifter. Wood soon locks in on the other side of the stereo spread and the guitars interlock, playing off each other and the groove, a groove the band rarely abandons, only for the odd chorus here and there. If this song were recorded in the late '90s or beyond, the band would have likely employed a drum machine or sampled loop, aiming for the type of contemporary soul record that Macy Gray and Jill Scott were making. But Charlie Watts is a steady, soulful, and human player and -- along with bassist Bill Wyman -- sets a sturdy foundation for the two guitarists' bobbing-and-weaving rhythms. A mere flick of the wrist on the hi-hat is a simple enough variation to add giddyup to the song's rhythm. Jagger has rarely sounded more committed to a lyric than he does on "Beast of Burden," a promise to devotion, albeit with limits: "I'll never be your beast of burden/My back is broad, but it's a-hurting/All I want is you to make love to me." Like a great mid-'60s Solomon Burke number, Jagger testifies in the middle section of the song: "I'll tell you, you can out me out on the street/Put me out with no shoes on my feet/You can out me out, put me out, put me out of misery." The song's arrangement builds through effective use of varying vocal harmonies, added as the arrangement progresses. Bette Midler gave "Beast of Burden" a tough-girl approach on No Frills (1983), sounding like the missing link between Etta James and Maria McKee. On Where There's Smoke There's Fire (1990), Buckwheat Zydeco gave the song a soulful look, with the added bonus of an accordion coloring the arrangement.