These days, the role of the rock frontman is well established. Many musicians have approached this role differently over the years, of course. But, the role itself was not one that was defined in quite the way we know it today, before Michael Phillip “Mick” Jagger (born this very day in 1943) came along and helped to lend a certain vocabulary to the guy upfront who sings, fronting one of the defining acts of the 1960s – The Rolling Stones.
Jagger took notes from the greats early on on how to present rock music in terms of pure spectacle. James Brown, TIna Turner, and Jackie Wilson all provided the raw materials to Jagger’s approach. The results were revolutionary.
In addition to providing a template for rock frontman presentation, Jagger was a singular figure who provided an avenue for British musicians hearing and loving American R&B, to reinterpret it using their own voices. He did so by providing his own take on it without reservation and beyond the reverent imitation of blues and soul styles undertaken by other bands, and other singers, on the early London R&B scenes. He was one of the finest examples to band who would follow – Them, The Pretty Things, The Yardbirds, and beyond.
Here are 10 musical moments of my favourite Jagger-as-vocalist songs that helped to get the Stones, and to get us all, into the evolution of rock ‘n’ roll music in the latter half of the 20th Century.
The acquisition of blues records in Britain by the early ’60s was a tricky business for aspiring musicians looking to start R&B bands. You couldn’t just go out to the local record store and buy them. They were treasures to be sought out. Mick Jagger took a very practical approach to the problem, being something of an enterprising young man even then. He ordered them by mail directly from the source – Chess Records in Chicago. This was one of them, ”I Can’t Be Satisfied”, originally recorded by Muddy Waters, with this version to be featured on 1964′s The Rolling Stones No. 2.
Instead of Muddy’s low-rumble of a voice, Jagger imprinted his own take on it, a sort of resigned young man’s voice, helped along by bandmate Brian Jones’ slide guitar. Jagger proved that when it came to the blues, you didn’t have to be middle-aged, experienced, or be American to put it across. This was a vital step in the development of British rock music for every band into that decade, and beyond. And the sentiment to be found here may or may not be the seeds of another song about not being satisfied, when Jagger began to blossom as a songwriter.
Even after Jagger & Richards became a songwriting team, they were still interested in covering the work of American songwriters. This one was written by Bobby Womack and Shirley Womack, and recorded by Bobby Womack’s group the Valentinos in 1964. That same year The Stones recorded it, and it was a prime cut for their US/Canada-released 12×5 album. Here, Jagger took his technically imperfect instrument, and counterbalanced it with his talent for inhabiting the song in the same way an actor might with a character in a script. This is an indispensable talent for the modern frontman today.
Whatever you think of his idiosyncratic voice, here it’s his distinctive talent for giving us the impression that he’d come up with the tales found in the songs all on his own. This is not to mention how well his voice locks into backing vocals provided by his writing partner Keith Richard(s), with this song being among one of the best examples of their vocal compatibility.
The Stones had been a straight-ahead R&B band when they first started out. But, Jagger had a capacity for tonal variation in his vocal style that hadn’t been realized quite so strikingly as it is displayed on this song. It’s taken from their Aftermath album which expanded upon the band’s sound as a whole and established their skill at being able to put together cohesive albums as well as being a knock-out singles band. On it, Jagger brings up his game and that of his band.
His voice on this one is less the swaggering lothario, and more the isolated, haunted non-entity. Where songs like “Little By Little”, “Play With Fire”, “Stupid Girl”, and even “Satisfaction” made Jagger sound jaded and nasty in the past, this one made him sound downright menacing. His ability to switch between an almost-spoken style and a growling R&B wail and back again against a dark raga-rock background is a true standout during an era when rock music was beginning to explore new stylistic territory.
In 1967, The Stones went through all kinds of upheavals. They were being dogged by the cops in a vendetta against pop stars by the drug squad for one thing, which landed Jagger in a Brixton jail for a day before his sentence was overturned. In the meantime, musical trends had shifted away from three-minute R&B tunes to full-length albums that explored a more expansive, psychedelic pallette outside the immediate comfort zone of the Stones by that time. Yet here on this song, Jagger gets into the slot, with a joyous and effervescent vocal performance that goes in the opposite direction of his womanizing, R&B persona as established on the band’s early material.
Here, he stands in awe of an idealized feminine figure, just as if the Stones’ early material never existed, and adjusts his delivery appropriately. He proved that the frontman could play a role in making a stylistic shift acceptable and believable for the band he (or she) is fronting. It would be an important role for the Stones, and for Jagger who would be something of an agent for change when it came to weathering and adapting to stylistic shifts in the years that followed for the group.
After their foray into psychedelia, The Stones brought it back home to where they started, with American roots music. Their 1968 LP Beggar’s Banquet would start a new era for the band, commonly thought to be their high artistic watermark. On this one, Jagger becomes something of a crooner, delivering a nuanced performance that straddles country music with rural blues.
Once again, he’s joined here by Brian Jones’ slide guitar, one of the last significant textures that Jones would add to a Stones track. Jagger’s voice provides a counterpoint to the mournful second voice of Jones’s guitar. This is a song of departing. Perhaps it’s appropriate that this song is held together by Jagger and Jones working together toward the end of the latter’s tenure in the band he helped to found.
The Stones had seen out the 1960s as a transformed band, evolving from a chart-driven singles band, to an epic-scale arena filling album band. They’d done it at least partially on the strength of Jagger as a frontman who blurred the lines between the genders, anticipating the androgyny of the decade to follow in rock music.
With this song, you can hear that androgyny coming through. “Monkey Man” is like a duet that Jagger is having with himself. In many ways, this dynamic would always be there with Jagger’s vocals and performance; a dance between the masculine and feminine, with this being among the best examples. This would open up the range on all Stones material, and allow a way in for female vocals ranging from Merry Clayton, to Tina Turner, to Christina Aguilera, all of whom would perform with Jagger on Stones songs over the years. Jagger’s androgynous approach would also empower women performers with a visual and vocal vocabulary to front a rock band themselves.
By the early ’70s, The Stones were still at the top of their game, putting out some of their finest work by drawing directly from their core influences, an approach they’d taken since the aforementioned Beggar’s Banquet. Gospel music by way of soul music and the blues is certainly one of those, and perfectly typified on this tune, which appears as the penultimate track on 1972′s Exile On Main Street. Here, Jagger pulls on his understanding of the kind of ecstatic delivery to be found in soul and gospel music, once again filtering it through his own unique instrument to be applied to a rock ‘n’ roll band.
This tune is one of the greatest examples of the Stones taking a form that is well established, and putting their own imprint upon it. This is largely accomplished by Jagger’s approach to the vocals, hitting the right tone to place the song into a certain tradition, but still making it sound like the Stones.
The 1970s was a time when rock music began to branch off into various strains, splitting the loyalties of fans and critics. Suddenly, the Stones and Jagger were among the old guard, and the fickle nature of rock music making began to become something of a thorny path. To exacerbate this situation, Keith Richards was becoming increasingly unreliable due to his continual indulgence in heavy drugs. All of these tensions went into the writing, recording, and singing of this tune, the titular track of the Stones’ 1974 It’s Only Rock ‘n’ Roll album.
This song initially did not involve the other Stones at all, but rather future Rolling Stone member Ronnie Wood, then of the Faces, who co-wrote this tune with Jagger, and later to be demoted to “inspiration” status (see also “Hey Negrita”). But, Jagger broils on this song, hitting the emotional notes of bitterness, playfulness, and swagger in equal measure. Despite Richards’ limited involvement in its creation, he’d get the standard co-write on it. But, this is Jagger’s tune all the way (with respect to Ronnie, who would join the Stones full-time in 1976), a song about what an audience demands of a frontman, and what in turn causes the frontman to keep on fronting.
By the late ’70s, it could be argued that the Stones were in something of a defensive position, stylistically and commercially speaking. Punk, new wave, and disco would dominate the charts by then, and that ‘old guard’ status that began to creep in a few years previously would crystalize fully by 1978 when they brought out their newest record, Some Girls. That record was the result of the band rolling with the punches, largely under Jagger’s guidance. But, instead of a an act of desparation that plays to the trends, he’s still putting his talents to immense use on this one as he’d always done; taking a style, making it sound like the Stones, and inhabiting a role as an actor would to put across the material effectively.
As a result, “Miss You” is one of their most interesting singles, and among the last to gain a #1chart showing, even during a time when they were thought to be past it as a cutting edge band. Instead of ersatz funk rock that they’d perhaps been guilty of in the past (*cough*HotStuff*cough*), The Stones created a dance-rock tune that managed to refer to their blues band past at the same time as hooking into a modern musical trend. And Jagger is in full vocal strut mode. Whatsamaddawit’chu, boy? Pure camp, pure fun; perfect for the time, and for pretty much any time. This song was made for a frontman, as can be seen from this recent performance of “Miss You” by Mick Jagger backed by the Foo Fighters at a SNL after party in 2012 .
Despite great successes as a touring entity, with Jagger galvanizing his role as a iconic rock frontman, The Stones’ were not a happy camp to be in by the early to mid-1980s. Drugs and alcohol problems of multiple members (Keith Richards, Ronnie Wood, and Charlie Watts all fought against sobriety in the ’80s), group schisms, and divided artistic loyalties plagued the band, and almost proved to be their undoing. But, the chemistry between Jagger and Richards endured, despite the tensions between them.
By 1989, solo albums had been made, lives had been cleaned up, and the band was ready to go into their latter-day incarnation as a mammoth-scale, multiple-screen, fully-branded touring juggernaut. Luckily, they’d not forgotten how to write a punchy single. Jagger hadn’t forgotten how to make it sound like the Stones in a modern context as he’d always been able to do, as well as create a performance in this song most easily translated to a new live multimedia context, which would be the future of the band as it played out on successive tours up until the present day.
Mick Jagger is a unique singer; never technically great, yet distinctive, full of character, and indispensable to the sound of one of the greatest rock ‘n’ roll bands of the 20th century. In addition, Jagger’s work as a frontman has been a defining reference to anyone, male or female, who held or holds that position in a rock group. This is true whether they’re using Jagger’s approach as a model, or reacting against it. It’s become the standard, whether we’re talking about Iggy Pop, David Lee Roth, or PJ Harvey..
This was kind of a tough list to work up, since there are so many runners-up to great musical moments in a fifty-year career. There are a number of Stones classics that I love because of Jagger’s vocals not included here, like: “Not Fade Away”,”Little By Little”,”Under Assistant West Coast Promotion Man”, “Spider and the Fly”, “I’m Free”, “Lady Jane”, ”Let’s Spend The Night Together”, “2000 Light Years From Home”, “Child of the Moon“, “Sympathy For the Devil”, “You Can’t Always Get What You Want”, “Live With Me”, “Dead Flowers”, “Moonlight Mile”, “Can’t You Hear Me Knockin’”, ”Rocks Off”, “Star Star”, “Memory Motel”, “Faraway Eyes”, “She So Cold”, “Emotional Rescue” (I will be your knight in shining AH-MAH …) – all of these could have made it, and more besides.
I also didn’t include Jagger’s solo work, which is notoriously patchy of course. Yet 1993′s ”Don’t Tear Me Up” for me is a stand-out vocal performance comparable to his latter-day Stones material.
I know I’ve missed out on some of your favourites. So, which ones would you have put on your list? Tell me in the comments section!
And happy birthday, Mick!