The Rolling Stones

Play with Fire

Composed by Brian Jones / Keith Richards / Mick Jagger

Song Review by

"Play With Fire," the B-side of the 1965 Rolling Stones single "The Last Time," was one of their most effective moody ballads. The word "sullen" is often used to describe 1960s Rolling Stones compositions, but it's hard to avoid when talking about "Play With Fire," perhaps most sullen Stones tune of all. For perhaps the first time, with "Play With Fire" the group was writing about their experience as young men in mid-'60s London rather than aping what they thought a blues song or pop hit was supposed to be. Certainly it is the best of the early Stones numbers credited to the group pseudonym of Nanker-Phelge, though one suspects that it is primarily the work of Mick Jagger and Keith Richards, so similar does it sound to songs in the same vein that the pair would write in 1965 and 1966. A bittersweet (leaning more toward the bitter) acoustic guitar riff sets the song's restrained mood, hitching a ride with Mick Jagger's nicely restrained, subdued vocals, which nonetheless contain a seed of submerged anger and resentment. The anger and resentment almost boil over on the chorus, with its seething title warning not to play with the narrator. There is a folk-rock feel to the track, with its acoustic guitars (one played by Phil Spector) and doleful tambourine bashes. There is also, for the first time on a Stones record, a distinctly British ambience, with the references to the London district of Knightsbridge and the addition of harpsichord. Lyrically the song is a diatribe -- and a pretty subtle and understated one, especially as Stones songs go -- against rich bitches, to be blunt, out to impose their neuroses on louts from lower classes, such as the Stones, one presumes. The resentment against people who strut their diamonds and chauffeur-driven cars is palpable, although in actual fact the Stones reached an income level in the mid-'60s which allowed them to flaunt such accoutrements themselves. The song ends with a brief but memorable percussive shake that sounds like a death rattle. "Play With Fire" has an under-produced, demo-ish feel that indicates that the group did not spend as much time on it as they could have or wanted to. Indeed, a friend of the Stones wrote in a book that it was actually an outtake from a session that had produced a fuller, more soul-oriented cut called "Mess With Fire," with a vengeful Brian Jones substituting the less polished "Play With Fire" version on the single to embarrass other members of the group. That story seems dubious; even given that quality control was less stringent in the mid-'60s than it became later among major labels, that seems like a pretty major trick to slip pass bandmembers, management, and record label executives. Anyway, "Play With Fire" if anything benefits from the under-production, as the spare arrangement and hushed atmosphere suit the tune very well. Although it was used as a B-side, "Play With Fire" became almost as popular as its A-side ("The Last Time"); the Stones, perhaps realizing that they had undervalued its commercial potential, made it a regular feature of their mid-'60s concerts.

Appears On

Year Artist/Album Label Time AllMusic Rating
Out of Our Heads 1965 ABKCO Records / Decca 2:15
Big Hits (High Tide and Green Grass) 1966 ABKCO Records / Universal Music 2:13
Hot Rocks: 1964-1971 1972 ABKCO Records / Universal Music 2:13
Rolled Gold: The Very Best of the Rolling Stones 1975 ABKCO Records 2:13
No Image 1977 Arcade Music
No Image 1981 Decca
The  Complete Singles Collection: The London Years 1989 ABKCO Records 2:14
Highwire 1991 Rolling Stones Records 3:40
Ruby Tuesday [Sony] 1991 Sony Music Distribution 3:46
No Image 2002 2:15
Remastered Series 2004 ABKCO Records 2:13
Singles 1963-1965 2004 ABKCO Records 2:13
The Darjeeling Limited [Original Motion Picture Soundtrack] 2007
Original Soundtrack
ABKCO Records
Charlie Is My Darling: Ireland 1965 2012 ABKCO Records 2:15
GRRR! 2012 Universal / Universal Music 2:16
The Rolling Stones in Mono 2016 Abko / Universal
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