The 20 Best Rolling Stones Songs From The '60s And '70s
By Sarah Norman | October 3, 2023
The Stones In Their Glory Era
Picking the 20 best Rolling Stones songs from the '60s and '70s is like picking our 20 favorite gold bars at Fort Knox. Between 1962 and 1980 the Rolling Stones released a slew of apocalyptic, bluesy tunes tinged with sex and sadness that had that special thing that made them connect people across the world. This could very well be a list of 50 or 100 songs, but we wanted to distill the band down to their very essence of their greatest eras.
This isn't to say that the Stones stopped putting out good music when the clock struck midnight on January 1, 1980. Tracks like "Start Me Up" and "Thru and Thru" prove that the band still has the magic touch, but rather than get into the modern era let's focus on the band during some of the most tumultuous and musically prolific years of their career.
"Gimme Shelter" is more than just a song, it's the soundtrack to the end of the '60s. In 1995, Mick Jagger called every moment of this song the sound of apocalypse. No other song of the 1960s better encapsulates the feeling of living in a time full of chaos, when everyone on the planet saw flower power give way to the tumultuous rush of war, murder, and crime at the end of the decade. Written on a miserable, rainy day by Keith Richards while he was wiling away the hours waiting for his then girlfriend Anita Pallenberg to wrap on set of Performance, the guitar melody is the sound of pure dread.
Worked out over multiple sessions in London and Los Angeles in 1969, the final version of the song is something new for the Stones. It represents everything the band was and everything they were about to become in the following decade. Richards later said that his guitar fell apart while he was recording, “as if by design.”
Listen: Gimme Shelter
(I Can't Get No) Satisfaction
When the opening riff to this early single by the Rolling Stones kicks in everyone in the room knows that it's about to go down. A song about driving libido of a young man, it's the kind of song that can - and did - make a career.
Jagger later explained the reason behind the success of "(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction", saying:
It has a very catchy guitar riff. It has a great guitar sound, which was original at that time. And it captures a spirit of the times, which is very important in those kind of songs.
Listen: (I Can't Get No) Satisfaction
Can't You Hear Me Knocking
"Sticky Fingers" is the beginning the Rolling Stone's full on descent into blues soaked Americana that defined much of their work in the 1970s, and "Can't You Hear Me Knocking" sounds like a dive bar band hitting their stride right around midnight. The song showcases the way that the band could groove and swing at the drop of a hat, and its grimy saxophone finale is truly a musical moment for the ages.
In 1979 guitarist Mick Taylor recalled the thrill of recording this stand out bop from Sticky Fingers:
'Can't You Hear Me Knocking' is one of my favorites. [The jam at the end] just happened by accident; that was never planned. Towards the end of the song I just felt like carrying on playing. Everybody was putting their instruments down, but the tape was still rolling and it sounded good, so everybody quickly picked up their instruments again and carried on playing. It just happened, and it was a one-take thing. A lot of people seem to really like that part.
Listen: Can't You Hear Me Knocking
Released in 1972, "Tumbling Dice" got its start in 1969 as a jam called "Good Time Women" that, according to Mick Taylor, was something else completely before the sessions for "Exile on Main Street." Richards recalls:
I remember writing the riff upstairs in the very elegant front room, and we took it downstairs the same evening and cut it. A lot of times when ideas come that quick, we don’t put down lyrics — we do what we call ’vowel movement.’ You just bellow over the top of it to get the right sounds for the track.
With the song’s structure in place, it took a forever to get the song down to the soulful masterpiece that we know today. Engineer Andy Johns remembers:
We worked on that for a couple of weeks at least, just the basic track. I know we had a hundred reels of tape on the basic track. That was a good song, but it was really like pulling teeth. It just went on and on and on.
Listen: Tumbling Dice
Beast Of Burden
It's at this point in compiling this list that we realized just how many amazing songs the Rolling Stones have. The penultimate track on 1978's "Some Girls" is a soulful, groove filled anthem to surviving a toxic relationship, whether it's with a friend, a lover, or even a job. While speaking with Harper's Bazaar Richards explained that people who think they have this song figured out have no idea what they're talking about:
Those who say it’s about one woman in particular, they’ve got it all wrong. We were trying to write for a slightly broader audience than just Anita Pallenberg or Marianne Faithfull. Although that’s not to say they didn’t have some influence in there somewhere. I mean, what’s close by is close by! I’ve always felt it’s one of my best soul songs. It was another strict collaboration between Mick and me. I think I had the first verse—‘I’ll never be your beast of burden’—along with the hook, and we were still working very much in our traditional way: Here’s the idea, here’s the song, now run away and fill it in! Some of the theories surrounding it are very intriguing, but they’re about as divorced from reality as can be. I find it quite amusing that there are people in the world who spend a lot of their time trying to decode something that is, at the end of the day, completely undecodable. I mean, even I’ve forgotten the code!
Listen: Beast of Burden
Street Fighting Man
Was there something the water where all of the Stones were growing up (a little place called England) that made them such keen writers of guitar anthems that make you want to punch through a brick wall? This track sounds like it's just about some guy wanting to get into a fight, which is all well and good, but it's about more than simple violence. Jagger explained in a 1995 interview with Jann Wenner in Rolling Stone:
Yeah, it was a direct inspiration, because by contrast, London was very quiet ... It was a very strange time in France. But not only in France but also in America, because of the Vietnam War and these endless disruptions ... I thought it was a very good thing at the time. There was all this violence going on. I mean, they almost toppled the government in France; de Gaulle went into this complete funk, as he had in the past, and he went and sort of locked himself in his house in the country. And so the government was almost inactive. And the French riot police were amazing
Listen: Street Fighting Man
Under My Thumb
This may be one of the meanest songs about a person ever written. When Jagger describes the woman he's singing about in "Under My Thumb" he doesn't mince words. He makes sure the audience knows that whoever he's singing about is never going to be able to get back at him in any meaningful way simply by virtue of the fact that he's one of the biggest pop stars in the world. It's cruel, but it's also a fantasy of everyone in the audience.
Richards explained the lyrics to Terry Gross on Fresh Air. Well, sort of:
You can take it as, you know, male-female, like or it’s just people. I mean, it could be about a guy. It could’ve been, you know, this is just a guy singing, you know, that probably you’re actually under her thumb and you’re just trying to fight back. You know, and these are all sort of relationships and stuff. And I wouldn’t take it as any sexist, I can’t even go there, you know, cause I don’t think about it. I just think we know what some people are like and then those things happen. And anyway, I didn’t write the lyrics.
Listen: Under My Thumb
You Can't Always Get What You Want
As cheesy as it is when it shows up in a commercial or a movie or whatever, "You Can't Always Get What You Want" hits harder with every passing day. Sure, this may be one of the best songs that the Stones recorded, but it's also one of the most important songs of the '60s. Jagger is singing about the end of the decade and the failure of the peace and love movement. He's letting everyone know that even though we didn't raise the Pentagon with our minds or whatever we can still be good to each other on a person to person basis. The lyrics may be cliche, but it's a cliche that feels good.
Doo Doo Doo Doo Doo (Heartbreaker)
This track from "Goats Head Soup" is an absolute barn burner. It's the Stones looking at New York City as the haven for crime and revulsion (this was 1973) and it sounds as gritty as the picture that Jagger paint with his lyrics. Sadly, Jagger is singing about real life. One of the stories on display here is of ten-year-old Clifford Glover, who was gunned down by the NYPD when they suspected that he and his father were bank robbers.
"Heartbreaker" is one of the many Stones songs that takes contemporary life and distills it into a catchy rock song. It shows just how in touch the band was with the real world while many of their fellow artists had their heads in the clouds.
This ode to lost love and the daydreams that we have about what could have been was actually inspired by a real place. In 1975, the Stones paid a few visits to the Memory Motel on Long Island where they'd drink, play pool, and fool around on the piano until they were kicked out and had to go back to the estate that they rented a few miles down the road.
The sound of "Memory Motel" is that of a boozy lounge band working out their blues in the safety of a darkly lit dive bar, it's what the Stones were always meant to be.
Listen: Memory Motel
Paint It Black
There's an eerie chill that runs through "Paint It Black" that can't be found anywhere else in the pop and rock hits of the 1960s. The sitar melody that leads it all off feels like it's coming from anther dimension, and the dual drum and bass attack sounds like a machine gun firing off inside your head. It's the sound of the Vietnam War and thousands of young men being drafted to fight in the jungle. Keith Richards said of the song:
Cynical, nasty, skeptical, rude. We seemed to be ahead in this respect at the time. There was trouble in America; all these young American kids, they were being drafted to Vietnam.
Listen: Paint It Black
Play with Fire
For a song that was relegated to the B-side of "The Last Time," "Play With Fire" is an earth shattering masterpiece of heartbreak and bitterness. The early iteration of the Stones was at their best when their songs were either about the cold distance between them and an unnamed lover, or their frustrations in the bedroom. This is about both and we can't get enough of it.
While speaking with Rolling Stone Magazine in 1995, Jagger noted that the song still sounds "amazing." He continued:
I mean, it’s a very in-your-face kind of sound and very clearly done. You can hear all the vocal stuff on it. And I’m playing the tambourines, the vocal line. You know, it’s very pretty.
Listen: Play with Fire
Far Away Eyes
Of all of the Rolling Stones forays into country, "Far Away Eyes" is easily their most playful tune but it still manages to inspire the kind of longing that's only felt when speeding down the highway in the middle of nowhere.
While speaking with Rolling Stone magazine in 1978, Jagger said:
You know, when you drive through Bakersfield on a Sunday morning or Sunday evening—I did that about six months ago—all the country music radio stations start broadcasting black gospel services live from L.A. And that's what the song refers to. But the song's really about driving alone, listening to the radio... I wouldn't say this song was influenced specifically by Gram (Parsons). That idea of country music played slightly tongue-in-cheek—Gram had that in 'Drugstore Truck Drivin' Man', and we have that sardonic quality, too.
Listen: Far Away Eyes
What is there to say about "Wild Horses," the centerpiece of "Sticky Fingers" and one of the most sincere love ballads ever written? Unlike many of the country-tinged songs by the Stones there's no menace or sarcasm, there's nothing on this track but longing and love.
That's likely due to the influence of Gram Parsons, the country singer-songwriter who cut through the late '60s and early '70s like a lightning bolt before dying of an overdose in Joshua Tree in 1973. Parsons crashed with the Stones during some of their writing sessions for Sticky Fingers and his straight forward country style definitely rubbed off on Richards and the crew. In the liner notes for the 1993 Stones’ compilation album "Jump Back" Jagger remembers:
I remember we sat around originally doing this with Gram Parsons, and I think his version came out slightly before ours. Everyone always says this was written about Marianne but I don’t think it was; that was all well over by then. But I was definitely very inside this piece emotionally.
Listen: Wild Horses
Before They Make Me Run
He may be the most beloved side man in rock n roll, but Keith Richards doesn't get his due. The guitarist/songwriter/x-pensive wino doesn't get as many lead vocals on Stones albums but when he does he makes them count. "Before They Make Me Run" is a wiry, energetic admission of his hard living lifestyle full of "booze and pills and powders."
"Before The Make Me Run" is 100% a Stones song, but within its DNA you can hear the template for dancey punk influenced bands like Blondie, The Jam, Bloc Party, and Franz Ferdinand.
Richards said of this absolute rocker from 1976:
That song was a cry from the heart. I was in the studio, without leaving, for five days. We all had black eyes by the time it was finished.
Listen: Before They Make Me Run
"Moonlight Mile" is an interesting song for the Stones. Musically, it sits at a crossroads between their country-tinged songs like "Wild Horses" and "Far Away Eyes," but it shares DNA with torch songs like "You Can't Always Get What You Want" and "I Am Waiting." It's a mysterious, beatific song that slips away from any kind of real introspection.
Jagger has said that the song isn't really about a specific situation, but more about the feeling of being on tour and driving down American highways in the middle of the night. He said:
I wrote some of the early lyrics to 'Moonlight Mile' in a songbook I carried around when we were on tour in the summer of 1970. I was growing road-weary and homesick then. I’m sure the idea for the song first came to me one night while we were on a train and the moon was out.
He went on to explain the strange vibe of the song:
What makes 'Moonlight Mile' special is that it’s a song and a recording at once. All these things — the strange plinking piano, the tom-tommy mallets on the drums, the different guitars — they all came together to produce a feeling of vulnerability and loneliness, you know what I mean? I think the three of us finished recording the basic track around 6AM. The sun was coming up.
Listen: Moonlight Mile
Recorded in 1969, this seven minute blues epic was dreamt up by Jagger and Richards while on vacation in Italy. "Midnight Rambler" is the Stones at the top of their acerbic, nasty blues game. It moves around the Chicago blues with at a tempo shifting pace that never fully feels in control. Richards is said to have spent five nights overdubbing his slide guitar part to get it right. To make the song more chilling, this is one of the final Stones recordings with Brian Jones before his death.
Listen: Midnight Rambler
"Sway" is such a brutal, destructive song that it's hard to remember that it appears on "Sticky Fingers," one of the band's most fun albums. Lyrically, Jagger is dealing with his own chaotic personal life, a decision that fits perfectly with Watts' never ending drum fills and the absolutely searing guitar solo from Mick Taylor.
19th Nervous Breakdown
With lyrics about the tedium of modern life, therapy, and their drug intake, "19th Nervous Breakdown" shows the Stones coming into their own as more than a middling Beatles knock off. The Bo-Diddley shuffle of the guitar is Richards at his most pure, and the lyrics hit at the heart of the posh London scene with the sneer of an art school student who somehow worked his way into a party.
Listen: 19th Nervous Breakdown
From the opening notes of "Miss You" the listener should know that they're in for something different. This disco-tinged track is more than some kind of sell out single to capitalize on a hot new trend, it's the distillation of the world in which the band was living through their very specific lens. Charlie Watts and Bill Wyman are the secret heroes of this song, driving the track with slithering grooves that prove them to be the greatest rhythm section the ever lived.
In 2011, Ronnie Wood and Charlie Watts explained the impetus behind this dance floor ready hit:
A lot of those songs like ‘Miss You’ were heavily influenced by going to the discos. You can hear it in a lot of those four on the floor rhythms and the Philadelphia-style drumming. Mick and I used to go to discos a lot… It was a great period. I remember being in Munich and coming back from a club with Mick singing one of the Village People songs – ‘Y.M.C.A.’, I think it was – and Keith went mad, but it sounded great on the dance floor.
Listen: Miss You