The Rolling Stones

Brown Sugar

Song Review by

"Brown Sugar" starts off with one of the most compelling guitar riffs ever laid down on a rock & roll record: a choppy, bluesy sequence that manages to sound halfway between full chords and single notes, with a prickly, wobbly note inserted between repetitions of the principal lick. Those riffs are what, more than anything else, made it a resounding number one hit in 1971 (although it had actually been recorded back in 1969). There was plenty else on the record that made one dance, sing along, and, probably last, start to wonder exactly what the Rolling Stones were singing about in its typically lust-laden, controversial lyric. There are more amazing riffs dotting the record, particularly when the guitars go to a lower register to play a more ominous lick. The group sings the lyric with all the enthusiasm of tongue-wagging dogs swooping onto a prime rib, leading up to one of the band's strongest shout-along choruses. As on other Stones classics of the period like "Honky Tonk Women" and "Bitch," beefy horns start to duel with the buzzing electric guitars in the instrumental break; few if any other groups have used guitars and horns as deftly in unison. The crowning embellishment is the final choruses, which vary the melody and tempo so that the group sings and make a high-pitched exclamation in a rhythm that very much resembles that of a sexual climax. As Robert Christgau wrote in The Rolling Stone Illustrated History of Rock'n'Roll, "Brown Sugar" is "a rocker so compelling that it discourages exegesis." Once that exegesis had been performed, many listeners were disturbed to find a lyric describing, to most appearances, a Colonial slave owner having sex with a black slave girl, in terms strongly suggestive of oral sex no less. One could take the position that the Stones were being ironic, but the giddy enthusiasm with which they whoop it up seems to belie that interpretation. Muddying the waters even more, Keith Richards told NME, "Brown sugar was in fact a term for Mexican smack. Mick [Jagger] just wrote it for a chick." The brilliance of the track is that it is so musically powerful and irresistible that the most PC-conscious listener will find it hard not to dance to it before getting around to pondering the lyrics. But it can't be denied that the words are among the most troubling evocations of evil and sexploitation that Jagger and Richards devised, whether that was a conscious or subconscious effect.

Appears On

Year Artist/Album Label Time AllMusic Rating
No Image 1971 Rolling Stones Records 3:49
Sticky Fingers 1971 Virgin 3:49
Hot Rocks: 1964-1971 1972 ABKCO Records / Universal Music 3:49
Made in the Shade 1975 Capitol / Hip-O 3:50
Rolled Gold: The Very Best of the Rolling Stones 1975 Universal Distribution
No Image 1977 Arcade Music
No Image 1977 Blank Records
No Image 1984 EMI Music Distribution
Rewind (1971-1984) 1984 Columbia / Rolling Stones Records 3:51
Hot Rocks 2 [Disc 2] 1985 Decca / london 3:51
The Complete Singles Collection: The London Years 1989 ABKCO Records 3:50
Classic Rock: 1966-1988 1991
Various Artists
Atlantic 3:50
Jump Back: The Best of the Rolling Stones (1971-1993) 1993 Virgin 3:49
No Image 1995 Totonka
No Image 1997 Midnight Beat 3:13
Atlantic Records 50 Years: The Gold Anniversary 1998
Various Artists
Atlantic 3:49
No Image 1999 Cool Daddy 3:30
Forty Licks 2002 ABKCO Records 3:49
No Image 2002 3:53
Singles 1968-1971 2005 ABKCO Records 3:49
LP Sleeve Box Set 2005 Toshiba EMI
The Rolling Stones Box Set 2009 Promotone 3:49
Atlantic Records: The Time Capsule 2009
Various Artists
Atlantic 3:51
The Singles: 1971-2006 2011 Polydor 3:50
GRRR! 2012 ABKCO Records 3:49
The Very Best of the Rolling Stones 1964-1971 2013 ABKCO Records 3:51
No Image 2015 ABKCO Records 1:33
Honk 2019 Interscope 3:49
Best of British [Universal]
Various Artists
EMI / Universal Distribution / Universal Music TV 3:48
December's Children (And Everybody's)/Sticky Fingers CD Maximum
Party Tyme Karaoke: Classic Rock, Vol. 1
Sybersound Records 3:49
No Image