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 #31: Jumping’ Jack Flash by The Rolling Stones.
One of my favourite books ever is Keith Richard’s biography entitled, “Life”. The book chronicles every aspect of Richard’s life, right from his earliest days as a young boy, all the way through his initial friendship with Mick Jagger, all the way through almost every song of note that The Rolling Stones made and a thousand and one other events that happened along the way. Keith Richards writes in a voice that gives the reader an excellent sense of the excitement that comes with being a major Rock n’ Roll star. And while there are sections that delve into some of the more sordid affairs of his life, the ones that leapt off of the page and were my favourite parts of the book were when Richard pulled back the curtain and allowed us all to see how the magic worked. Easily the best and most memorable aspect of this book is the joy of creativity that fills this man. There are so many instances of where a song idea sprang from, how they arrived at a certain chord progression or lyric or else, how it felt to take their good work and play it live for an audience. Keith Richards absolutely delights in the process of creativity and no more so in how “Jumping’ Jack Flash” came to be. So, I thought I would share a bit of that glee with you, as we talk about one of the greatest rock songs of them all, “Jumping’ Jack Flash” by The Rolling Stones.
First things first, I usually spend my words telling you about the story behind the song of the day. But, in this case, the story behind the song isn’t really that important, as you will soon see. What is important is how the song was made. So, I am going to start by getting the song origin out of the way, if you will, and then, plunging into the good stuff about how “Jumping’ Jack Flash” was created.
“Jumping’ Jack Flash” was written after an early morning encounter with Keith Richards’ gardener. As was often the case, Richards and his bandmates usually worked all through the night when they were rehearsing and/or working on new songs. On one such occasion, Mick Jagger stayed over at Richards’ house. They went to sleep around five in the morning. A few short hours later, Jagger awoke in a start because of the clomping of footsteps out side of his window. When he shouted out in alarm that someone was nearby, Richards replied that it was only his gardener, “Jumping Jack”, as he called him. The boys both had a laugh about “Jumping Jack” and went back to sleep. Upon waking up for good, they returned to the topic of “Jumping Jack, the Gardener”. Jagger started playing with his name, as if in song and, shortly thereafter, added the word, “Flash” for fun and to help match the syllables of the name with the notes he was humming. Before you know it, the magic of The Glimmer Twins returned and they had the start of “Jumping’ Jack Flash”.
That is, more or less, the story of the origin of the song. At that time, the whole psychedelic influence of Brian Jones was ending. He was drug-addled and increasingly incoherent much of the time. While he had been one of the creative forces in the band during their early days, he was becoming less so, over time. Mick Jagger and Keith Richards were both ready to take The Rolling Stones into more, guitar-driven, Rock-oriented direction. “Jumping’ Jack Flash” signalled to the music industry and to their fans that this transition had been completed and the Brian Jones era was over. Shortly after the release of “Jumping’ Jack Flash”, Brian Jones was officially fired from the band. One month after that, he was found dead in his pool.
But, like I said off of the top, the real story of this song is the creative process, writ large, that was at play during this time in the Stones’ history and that allowed for such instant success with a new song like “Jumping’ Jack Flash. To understand this best, I am going to do something I don’t normally do and that is, I am going to let someone else do the talking……that someone being, Keith Richards. Here he is talking about being creative and about how he and his mates worked with sounds.
“Flash! What a record! All my stuff came together on a cassette player. With “Jumping’ Jack Flash” and “Street Fighting’ Man” I’d discovered a new sound I could get out of an acoustic guitar. That grinding, dirty sound came out of these crummy little motels where the only thing you had to record with was this new invention called a cassette recorder. And it didn’t disturb anybody. Suddenly, you had this mini studio. Playing an acoustic, you’d overload the cassette player to the point of distortion so that when it played back, in effect, you had an electric guitar. You were using a cassette player as a pickup and an amplifier at the same time. You were forcing acoustic guitars through the cassette player and what came out the other end was electric as Hell! An electric guitar will jump in your hands. It’s like holding an electric eel. An acoustic guitar is very dry and you have to play it a different way. But, if you can get that different sound electrified, you get this amazing tone and this amazing sound. I always loved the acoustic guitar…loved playing it and, I thought, if I can just power this up a bit without going electric then I’ll have a unique sound. It’s got a little tingle on top. It fascinated me at the time. In the studio, I plugged the cassette player into a little extension speaker and put a microphone in front so that it had a bit more breadth and depth and put that on tape. That was the basic track. There are no electric instruments on “Street Fighting’ Man” at all, apart from the bass. All acoustic guitars. “Jumping’ Jack Flash”, the same. I wish I could still do that but, they don’t build cassette machines like that anymore. The band thought I was mad but they sort of indulged me. But, I heard a sound that I knew I could get out that way. Producer Jimmy saw it, too and was right with me. “Street Fighting’ Man”, “Jumping’ Jack Flash” and “Gimme Shelter” were all made that way….on a cassette machine. And that’s how those songs were made……using rubbish, in hotel rooms, with our little toys.”
So, as you listen to “Jumping’ Jack Flash” in a few moments, imagine that you are hearing acoustic lead guitars! Amazing! They don’t sound like any acoustic guitars that I have ever heard before. I will close with one other quote from the book. It is all about where the “magic” of creativity comes from and how feels to unleash that power on stage, in front of a raucous crowd.
““Flash” is particularly interesting. “Flash” is basically, “Satisfaction” in reverse. Nearly all of the riffs are closely related. But, if someone said that I could only play one riff for the rest of my life, I’d play, “Flash”! It’s almost Arabic or very old, archaic, classical, the chord setups you could only hear in Gregorian chants or something like that. It’s a weird mixture of your actual rock and roll and, at the same time, this weird echo of very, very ancient music that you don’t even know. It’s all much older than I am and that’s unbelievable! It’s like a recall of something and I don’t know where that comes from…………And when we play it, I can hear the whole band take off behind me. There’s this extra sort of turbocharge! You jump on the riff and it plays you. We have ignition? OK, let’s go! One, two, three…..And then we don’t look at each other again because you know that you’re in for a ride. It’ll always make you feel different. Levitation is the closest analogy to what I feel….whether it is “Flash” or “Satisfaction”….when I feel I’ve hit the right tempo and the band’s behind me. It’s like taking off in a jet. I have no sense that my feet are touching the ground. People ask me, “When are you gong to give this all up?” I can’t retire until I croak. I don’t think they quite understand what I get out of this. I’m not doing this for the money or for you. I’m doing it for me. I have no choice.”
In a much earlier post, I stated that the celebrity I would most want to have dinner with would be Bjork. That much is still true. But, if she happened to be busy, having a pint or two with Keith Richards would be more than alright, too. With that having been said, here are the Rolling Stones with their hit song that was recorded on a cassette player in a hotel room, “Jumpin’ Jack Flash”. Enjoy.
The link to the video for the song, “Jumping’ Jack Flash” by The Rolling Stones, 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 Rolling Stone Magazine, can be found here.