In light of the Stones’ nefarious image, it’s ironic that their first quasi-self-penned U.K. No. 1 was derived from a gospel song. During one of the band’s U.S. tours, Keith Richards had picked up a Staple Singers album, and when he was home in the United Kingdom, he played along with the record to learn the chords. One of the tracks was the traditional spiritual “This May Be the Last Time,” recorded in 1955 and distinguished by the spectral blues guitar of Pops Staples. (Though they performed under the name the Staple Singers, their surname was Staples.)
James Brown had adapted the song for his B side to “Out of Sight” the previous July. Though bloggers have grumbled that Jagger/Richards should have credited Pops Staples for their version, Brown did not credit him, either. With traditional (that is, pre-copyright) songs, you didn’t need to share the cash as you did with covers.
Jagger/Richards sped up the song and changed the lyrics to make it a love song—or, rather, a “threat song”: if his woman didn’t shape up and try to please him, he was going to take off.
Their earlier A side “It’s All Over Now” has a massive, echoing intro thanks to Chess Studio’s engineer Ron Malo, but after nine seconds the lead guitar recedes to let Jagger sing. In “The Last Time,” however, guitarist Brian Jones’s riff keeps droning throughout the entire tune, a move unusual in pop at the time. Soon after the song’s release on February 26, hypnotic riff-based hooks came to predominate in British rock, from the Beatles’ “Ticket to Ride” to the Yardbirds’ “Heart Full of Soul.”
Richards played acoustic and then performed the solo. On many tunes, he’d play rhythm and sing harmony until the instrumental, at which point he would switch to the lead.
Perhaps the highlight of the song is the climax in which Jagger screams into the sonic vortex like a wild primate while the backing vocals and beat endlessly repeat—the epitome of Oldham’s “wall of noise,” his attempt to emulate his hero Phil Spector’s Wall of Sound production technique. Spector himself was on hand to give the song a listen, and predicted it would reach No. 10. It went to No. 9 in the United States.
Jagger later commented, “I suppose we’d been writing for almost nine months to a year by then, just learning how to put songs together. And with ‘The Last Time,’ it became fun. After that, we were confident that we were on our way, that we’d just got started.”
For the B side, “Play with Fire,” Jagger returned to the “Heart of Stone” theme, warning a girl not to get involved with him. But he fleshed in her character by making her a socialite with diamonds and a chauffeur, and added a decadent storyline.
Like the Beatles, the Stones had become sought-after party guests of the aristocracy. At a dance hosted by the British ambassador to the United States, Sir David Ormsby-Gore, Jagger even befriended Princess Margaret. (It was said Queen Elizabeth disapproved of their decades-long friendship, which is why she avoided the 2003 ceremony in which Jagger was knighted wearing Adidas sneakers.)
Naturally there was some ambivalence toward social climbing in a group formed to emulate working-class black bluesmen. Jagger has it both ways. In “Play with Fire,” the contempt in his voice says he doesn’t need the socialite, but he’s also bragging to us about the rarified circles that want him.
Jagger’s warning to the young lady becomes gradually more unsettling because of the amount of personal information he knows about her mother, an heiress who owns a block in one of London’s richest neighborhoods. Jagger knows that the father was never home so the mother went out for “kicks” in the exclusive London district of Knightsbridge—presumably with Jagger. In retaliation, the father took the mother’s jewelry away and gave it to the daughter, and now the mother has to party on the poorer side of town, Stepney. Jagger warns the daughter that she had better not fool around with him if she wants to keep her jewelry, or the father will cut her off, too, and she’ll have to go live with her mother.
It’s a (more cynical) precursor to the mother-daughter rivalry in the Mike Nichols film The Graduate. In an interview decades later, Rolling Stone’s editor Jann Wenner said, “At the time to write about stuff like that must have been somewhat daring.”
Jagger replied, “I don’t know if it was daring. It just hadn’t been done. Obviously there had been lyric writers that had written stuff much more interesting and sophisticated—say, Noel Coward, who I didn’t really know about. He was someone that your parents knew.”
Even if it wasn’t daring, it was innovative considering that while the Stones were recording the song, the Beatles’ lyrically basic “I Feel Fine” was on top of the charts. A few months after “Play with Fire” was released, in February 1965, Dylan would write his own epic about a rich girl’s descent to the streets, “Like a Rolling Stone.”
In painting a detailed story and naming specific parts of town, Jagger/Richards brought a lyrical specificity to rock that, to date, only Chuck Berry and his disciples the Beach Boys had explored, with the latter band’s milieu confined to the innocent world of drive-ins and malt shops.
Initially the Stones attempted an up-tempo version called “Mess with Fire,” which fizzled.5 But, as Nitzsche recalled, the band was flexible; when something didn’t work, they didn’t hesitate to try it in a different style. Still, by 7:00 a.m., drummer Charlie Watts, bassist Bill Wyman, and Brian Jones had fallen asleep on the studio couches while a janitor swept up. Jagger and Richards left them there as they went into the echo chamber. Phil Spector took over bass on a tuned-down electric guitar while Richards played what he called “Elizabethan blues” on his acoustic. In his playing, Richards had been influenced by Big Bill Broonzy, a guitarist who toured the college circuit in the 1950s, playing music from the era of Queen Elizabeth I (1558–1603) alongside folk and blues songs.6 Nitzsche played harpsichord, creating an atmosphere almost akin to that of a horror film. Jagger’s muted performance increased the menace by underselling it. His tambourine and Nitzsche’s tam-tams rounded out the sound.