This is the Rolling Stones at their coolest; so cool, in fact, that "Under My Thumb" was the song that the band pulled out, slowed down, and vamped on to try and "cool out" the Hell's Angels-baited and bashed crowd at the Altamont Festival in 1969. It was not cool enough, apparently. "Everyone sit down, I mean keep cool, let's just relax, let's get into a groove. Come on we can get it together," beseeches a flower-power-era Mick Jagger. "Sit down!" And with that, the Stones begin one of their many attempts at the song, after numerous false starts, interrupted one time by a stabbing murder of a fan by the hands of an Angel. (The stabbing did not occur, as is often reported, during "Sympathy for the Devil.") "You know that it's all right," Jagger sings in the vamp. "I pray that it's all right," he ad-libs tellingly, his voice -- usually full of commanding bravado -- shaking, trembling as he transforms a lyric about the turning tides of a relationship between lovers into a doubtful self-affirmation, as if Jagger is trying to convince himself that he is indeed in control.
But four years prior to the ill-fated event, "Under My Thumb" was a simple vindictive tale about a dysfunctional relationship between lovers -- at best. At worst, the lyric has been viewed as a misogynous rant from a sexist Neanderthal with control issues. Most views, it seems, have concurred with the former. After all, the once-lapdog narrator freely admits that he is finally turning the tables on a lover who "once had (him) down...who once pushed (him) around." As with many Jagger/Richards songs over the years, many critics and listeners have a hard time distancing the singer from the song with Jagger -- who continually poked fun at the whole concept, at times pushing the envelope on songs ranging from "Sympathy for the Devil" to "Some Girls."
This original Aftermath (1966) version of "Under My Thumb," recorded at RCA Studios in Los Angeles in 1966, begins with the crisp R&B beat from Charlie Watts and the jazzy marimba lick from Brian Jones. Jones was already growing restless at this point, losing interest in guitar, and the energy was channeled into such new colors and textures for the band. "That riff played on marimbas really makes it," noted Jagger in a 1995 interview. "Plus, the groove it gets in the end of the tune. It speeds up, actually. And it becomes this kind of groove tune at the end." Sure enough, the like-clockwork Watts lets the excitement of the track betray the laid-back introduction. Along the way, we have Bill Wyman playing a bass line that harmonizes with the marimba riff and adding a Beach Boys-like distorted bass during the chorus. Jack Nietzsche lays down some solid piano chords and Richards layers acoustic and electric guitar rhythms, mapping out one of the earliest templates for the hallmark Stones sound of weaving twin guitars.
A cocky-sounding Jagger plays the part of the triumphant narrator well, singing in a sexy, slurring R&B coo, punctuating lines like "under my thumb's a squirming dog who's just had her day," and "under my thumb, she's the sweetest pet in the world/It's down to me (oh yeah) the way she talks when she's spoken to" with breathy ad-libs like "oh that's what I said," and "said it's all right/Feels all right." He uses his breath as a form of percussion years before T. Rex's Marc Bolan employed a similar technique.
The slower Altamont version of "Under My Thumb" is all guitars, with Richards and then-rookie Mick Taylor strumming away and riffing off of each other on electrics, with Taylor playing a lick he lifted out of Major Lance's version of Curtis Mayfield's "Monkey Time." Nothing but Wyman's bass approximates that singular marimba riff. This reading is a great soul/folk-rock amalgam that only the Stones could concoct, a fresh revision of the song. The live version from 1982's Tattoo You tour -- as heard on the live Still Life (1982) -- restores both the tempo and the riff, actually played by an off-stage (wireless) guitar as the band dramatically stages their entrance.
Notable among its covers is the Who's B-side (from the 1967 single version of another Stones song, "Let's Spend the Night Together"), which sounds like the band trying but ultimately falling short of making something of their own from the song.