This interview was completed in June at the Rolling Stones' business offices in London. The interview was conducted by Jonathan Cott, assisted by Sue Cox. Although it is not the most thorough and complete set of questions and answers it is nonetheless the most extensive discussion yet available with Mick Jagger about the Rolling Stones. Someday the rest will be filled in but in the meantime, it's a pleasure to present this as a starter.
The first thing we would like to talk about are your old songs like "Poison Ivy," "Route 66" and...
"Poison Ivy," did we ever record that? Oh yeah. We did two versions of that. I don't know which one you have 'cause it was never released in this country [England]. Where was it released in America?
It wasn't released in America, it was put out in England. It was a very early recording with three other things, an EP.
Right. "Bye Bye Johnny" and "Better Move On." That was the second version.
Why did you choose that type of material in the beginning?
Well, I mean we were kids, you know, just kids. We did everything and that was a groove. You see "Poison Ivy" was unknow in this contry. It wasn't ahit here by the Coasters, and other songs like "Money" were totally unheard of.
Like "I'm a King Bee"?
Well, that was pretty unheard of in America. What I mean is, there were a lot of these hit records in the states that nobody knew about here, we did them and after we though they weren't good; but at the time it was right.
But the Stones made these songs popular.
No, not really. Everybody did those kind of songs: The Beatles, the Hollies, the Searchers, everyone. I can't explain why.
Isn't it true that with songs like "Come On" and "King Bee" you really rediscovered Slim Harpo and Chuck Berry for a lot of Americans who never listened to that kind of music before?
Yeah. They never know anything about it and that's why we stopped doing blues. We didn't want to do blues forever, we just wanted to turn people on to other people who were very good and not carry on doing it ourselves. So you could say that we did blues to turn people on, but why they should be turned on by us is unbelievably stupid. I mean what's the point in listening to us doing "I'm a King Bee" when you can listen to Slim Harpo doing it?
At what time did you think you were going to be a writer and get into all your own things as you have?
No, I really didn't think about it much.
Your change in style came about when you thought enough people had been turned on to blues?
I think our change came about the same time a lot of the beat groups started. When there were no hit groups and the Beatles were playing the Cavern. We were blues purists who liked ever so commercial things but never did them on stage because we were so horrible and so aware of being blues purists, you know what I mean? You see nobody knew each other in those days. We didn't know the Beatles and the Animals and the this and that and the other group yet we were all doing the same material. We used to be so surprised to hear other people do the same things we were doing. The thing is that the public didn't know about any of this music because the record companies were issuing hundreds of singles a week so naturally most people missed a huge lot of them.
What were the first things you wrote?
The first thing was "Tell Me." Well, that wasn't the first thing we wrote but it was one of the first things we recorded that we had written. Also, "As Tears Go By," "That Girl Belongs to Yesterday," which was a hit here by Gene Pitney. We were writing ballads, don't ask me why.
How did you come to record "I Wanna Be Your Man," the Beatles thing?
Well, we knew them by then and we were rehearsing and Andrew [Oldham] brought Paul and John down to the rehearsal. They said they had this tune, they were really hustlers then. I mean the way they used to hustle tunes was great: "Hey Mick, we've got this great song" [done with a John Lennon accent]. So they played it and we though it sounded pretty commercial, which is what we were looking for, so we did it like Elmore James or something. I haven't heard it for ages but it must be pretty freaky 'cause nobody really produced it. The guy who happened to be our manager at the time was a 50-year-old northern mill owner [Eric Easton]. It was completely crackers, but it was a hit and sounded great on stage.
What happened during the time between that and "Satisfaction"?
That's a lot of time. I don't know what happened. You say "I Wanna Be Your Man" and I'd forgotten about it. Next came "As Tears Go By." We never dreamed of doing that ourselves when we wrote it. We just gave it straight to Marianne [Faithfull]. We wrote a lot of songs for other people most of which were very unsuccessful.
Did you write "As Tears Go By" specifically for Marianne?
Yeah, but I could never do it again. I keep trying, night after night. Then we did "Not Fade Away" and went to America and that was really a change.
How did that affect you?
Well we started going back to blues a bit more. I remember we went to Chess Recording Studios and recorded all the old blues numbers we used to do, a lot of which have never been released.
Who was doing your production then, Andrew?
Yeah, but he didn't know anything about blues. The cat who really got it together was Ron Marlow, the engineer for Chess. He had been on all the original sessions. We did "Confessin' the Blues," "Down the Road a Piece," and "It's All Over Now." Murray the K gave us "It's All Over Now" which was great because we used to think he as a cunt but he turned us on to something good. It was a great record by the Valentinos but it wasn't a hit.
That was when you first ran into censorship problems with the words "half-assed games." Many of the disc jockeys in the states just cut that part out.
Did they really? I didn't know that. I really don't know what's considered rude in America cause it's all so different, isn't it! Here you can use Americanisms and people don't know what you're saying. Censorship is weird.
Even though you had several hits before, "Satisfaction" was really the turn on for a vast majority of people. Was there any specific incident that brought those lyrics to you?
It was Keith really. I mean it was his initial idea. It sounded like a folk song when we first started working on it and Keith didn't like it much, he didn't want it to be a single, he didn't think it would do very well. That's the only time we have had a disagreement.
Even when it was finished, he didn't like it?
I think Keith thought it was a bit basic. I don't think he really listened to it properly. He was too close to it and just felt it was a silly kind of riff.
Did you think "Satisfaction" would become the number one pop song of this era as it has?
No, not at all.
Did you think about the problem of writing a song to follow it?
No, I didn't give a fuck. We knew it wouldn't be as good but so what.
Where were you when you wrote it?
Tampa, Florida by a swimming pool.
Did you do a lot of your writing on tour?
Oh yeah, always. It's the best place to write because you're just totally into it. You get back from a show, have something to eat, a few beers and just go to your room and write. I used to write about twelve songs in two weeks on tour. It gives you lots of ideas. At home it's very difficult because you don't want to do anything really but read and things like that.
I'd like to ask you a personal question about "Play With Fire." There are lines about getting your kicks in Knightsbridge and Stepney, and a rich girl, and her father's away and there is a suggestion that the guy in the song is having an affair not only with the daughter but with the mother...
Ah, the imagination of teenagers! Well one always wants to have an affair with on'es mother. I mean it's a turn on.
Often times when you record, you mumble your lyrics. Is this done purposely as a style?
That's when the bad lines come up. I mean I don't think the lyrics are that important. I remember when I was very young, this is very serious, I read an article by Fats Domino which has really influenced me. He said, "you should never sing the lyrics out very clearly."
You can really hear "I got my thrill on Blueberry Hill."
Exactly, but that's the only thing you can hear just like you hear "I can't get no satisfaction." It's true what he said though. I used to have great fun deciphering lyrics. I don't try to make them so obscure that nobody can understand them but on the other hand I don't try not to. I just do it as it comes.
For some reason people don't think about the fact that you and Keith are great writers and your lyrics like "Get Off My Cloud," which are really good...
Oh, they're not. They're crap...
"Union Jacks and Windscreens"...it's a nice poem.
It's nothing. Thank you for the compliment but I don't think they are great at all. If a person is that hung up on lyrics he can go and buy the sheet music because it's all there, all wrong of course, but...You should see the one for "Dandelion," they made up another song!
How did you feel when you went on the Ed Sullivan show and had to change the lyrics from "Let's spend the night together" to "Let's spend some time together"?
I never said "time." I really didn't. I said mumble. "Let's spend some mmmm together, let's spend mmmm, together." They would have cut it off if I said "night."
When you first came to San Francisco in 1965, the Diggers put out a proclamation calling the Stones the embodiment of what they represented, the breaking up of old values. This came about after a series of songs like "19th Nervous Breakdown," "Mother's Little Helpers," "Have You Seen Your Mother"...
"Have You Seen Your Mother" was like the ultimate freakout. We came to a full stop after that. I just couldn't make it with that anymore, what more could we say.
But obviously these songs bothered people because for the first time rock songs were saying things that couldn't be said before, not just on a sex level like old blues tunes "I'll squeeze your lemon till the juice runs down your leg" you don't get close to things like that but what you said was strong.
I like that one very much, we used to do it. It's spending all the time in America. All these songs were written in America. It is a great place to write because all the time you are being bombarded with all of it and you can't help but try and put it in some kind of form. I think the Mothers of Invention do it so well. You could never be the Mothers if you lived here. I don't know why, you just couldn't. It's all here as well, but not so obvious. As far as I'm concerned those songs just reflect what's going on.