This list of songs is inspired by a list published by radio station, KEXP, from Seattle in 2010, as well as, the latest poll taken in 2021 by Rolling Stone Magazine. For the most part, I will faithfully countdown from their lists, from Song #500 to Song #1. So, when you see the song title listed as something like: “KEXP: Song #XXX”….it means that I am working off of the official KEXP list. “RS: Song XXX” means the song is coming from the Rolling Stone list. If I post the song title as being: “KTOM: Song #xxx”….it means I have gone rogue and am inserting a song choice from my own personal list of tunes I really like. In either case, you are going to get to hear a great song and learn the story behind it. Finally, I am not a music critic nor a musician. I am a music fan and an armchair storyteller. Enough said! Let’s get on to today’s song.
RS: The Top 500 Songs in Modern Music History.
Song #89: Start Me Up by The Rolling Stones.
Awhile back, I watched The Beatles documentary on TV. For those who haven’t seen it, the documentary was shown in three parts; each part documenting a week or more of a month in the life of The Beatles as they recorded the album, “Let It Be”. The three episodes were shown in chronological order, wth Episode #1 focussing on the first 8 or 9 days that The Beatles were rehearsing. In that episode, not much of substance actually happens. What does happen is a lot of footage of the four lads playing bits and pieces of new songs, while using old songs to help them re-discover their musical chemistry. There is more frustration evident than there is progress. By the end of Episode #1, the viewer can see the cracks beginning to form in their relationships as the strain of being a band like The Beatles begins to take hold.
What I remember most from this episode was the reaction to it when it was released (because the episodes were released one per day over the course of three days so, after Day #1, only episode #1 had aired). Many of the people who offered comments were disappointed. “When are they going to sing on the rooftop?”, “When are they going to play songs I know?” and “When are they going to stop sitting around and wasting time?” That the public reaction to this highly-anticipated documentary was negative caused some musicians to rally in its defence. One of the ones who was most upset at the criticisms was Steven Van Zandt or Little Steven from The E Street Band (with Bruce Springsteen). Van Zandt issued a series of tweets on Twitter that basically made the point that what was being shown in Episode #1 was how all albums begin the process of being made. He stated that it is very rare that a band walks into the studio fully ready to record. He said that, quite often, Bruce Springsteen will have song lyrics or concepts and some idea of how wants the instruments to go but, that the real process of fleshing their songs comes from sitting around and playing and talking and helping each other to slow down or speed up or change a chord or whatever. Van Zandt ended his Twitter thread by saying that the process of creating a new song from nothing is like a dance, with plenty of stops and starts and trust and teamwork. As The Beatles documentary progressed, Van Zandt was vindicated because The Beatles did get tighter and better and more focussed as the month went along. This went a long way toward proving the point that much of the magic we attribute to these singers and bands is, in reality, the residue of having put in a lot of time and hard work.
Bruce Springsteen and The Beatles were not the only bands to rehearse in that manner. The Rolling Stones worked out their kinks together, too. The song, “Start Me Up” is proof of what comes from putting in the work, Originally, the first attempts at recording “Start Me Up” happened in the late 1970s when the band was recording the album, “Some Girls”. At the time, “Start Me Up” struck Mick Jagger and Keith Richards as being Reggae based and, as such, they recorded numerous copies of the song with a Reggae vibe as its underpinning. However, they were never satisfied with the final result and, as such, the song was tossed into the waste bin. But, as you know, with technology nothing is ever truly lost. The sound engineer actually kept many of the discarded tracks. Hidden in the middle of fifty or so Reggae-flavoured versions, there were two straight-ahead rock takes. Those two tracks were saved, as well.
Flash forward to 1981 and the production of the first Stones album of the 80s, “Tattoo You”. While filling out the album track list, it was felt that, perhaps, a song from the archives might fit. So, the sound engineer suggested the band revisit “Start Me Up”. The reggae versions continued to face rejection by the band but, when they heard the rock versions again, their eyes lit up and they immediately went to work recording a cleaner version for the album. “Start Me Up” went on to be the first single from “Tattoo You” and became as huge a hit as any of their other most recognizable songs like “Satisfaction”, “Sympathy for the Devil”, “Jumping’ Jack Flash”, “Gimme Shelter” or “Street Fighting’ Man”. And to think, that “Start Me Up” only became the song that it did because of the extraordinary amount of work the band put into trying to find the right sound for this song. Fifty plus tracks rejected! That’s a lot of failure before finding success. That’s also what having faith looks like, too.
“Start Me Up” became the band’s biggest hit in the 1980s but, more importantly, it was the song that helped the band break into the MTV age of music videos. For decades, The Rolling Stones had been making videos of themselves playing. But, with the advent of MTV, Mick Jagger thought he saw a way to help promote the band to an entirely new audience. So, the band recorded themselves standing on a small stage, against a black backdrop and sang the song into the cameras around them. Nothing fancy. No special effects. The presentation was all very sparse. But, from MTV’s perspective, the video for “Start Me Up” by one of the world’s biggest bands was exactly the sort of content they were looking for in their early days. So, “Start Me Up” became one of MTV’s first big hits and helped launch The Rolling Stones as a force still to be reckoned with throughout the 1980s.
Because of the “Start Me Up”/MTV video, two additional things happened later on that were directly connected to this song. First of all, Bill Gates and Microsoft licensed the song as soundtrack music for the advertising campaign that accompanied the launch of the Windows 95 operating system. The whole campaign focussed on the single smiley-face “start” button which, when depressed, would start the chorus of “Start Me Up” by The Rolling Stones. For the band, this was the first song of their they willingly licensed for commercial use.
The other thing that happened did so almost thirty years later when a band called, “Maroon 5” released a song called, “Moves Like Jagger”. Lead singer and reality show judge, Adam Levine wanted to write a song about a guy who could use his dance moves to attract a female. Levine stated that he picked Jagger because, unlike Michael Jackson or James Brown or Prince, MIck Jagger had moves that seemed like something the average guy could manage. Levine said that Jagger has a swagger and a style but that it is also apparent he didn’t take his dancing too seriously. Jagger, for his part, has stated that the considers the song to be flattering. So, as you watch the video that helped launch MTV, keep in mind that this same video helped to inspire the hit song, “Moves LIke Jagger” by Maroon 5.
I have always felt like “Start Me Up” was one of the best songs that The Rolling Stones have ever released; and that includes the rest of their many, many hits. Until I did the research for this post, I had no idea how close the Stones came to passing on this song completely, simply because they had been playing it in the wrong style. I am very thankful that they gave themselves the time necessary to improvise and practise and bounce ideas off of each other and that, in the end, they created enough versions of this song to, eventually, find the treasure they were searching for. The magic may be real but, sometimes, it takes a bit of luck and lot of hard work to bring a song to life. That is certainly the case with the hit song, “Start Me Up” by The Rolling Stones.
The link to the video for the song, “Start Me Up” by The Rolling Stones, can be found here.
The link to the video for the song, “Moves Like Jagger” by Maroon 5, can be found here.
The link to the official website for The Rolling Stones, can be found here.
The link to the official website for Maroon 5, can be found here.
The link to the official website for Rolling Stone Magazine, can be found here. Thanks, folks, for helping to inspire the writing of this post.