Pack your welly boots, your straw hat and some industrial strength bug spray – we’re off to the country. To a farm somewhere in the Miss’ippi Delta. With The Rolling Stones.
Little Red Rooster, by The Rolling Stones (their 2nd of eight #1s)
1 week, from 3rd – 10th December 1964
It feels like the Stones’ arrival, earlier this year, passed us by. ‘It’s All Over Now’ sneaked a week at the top in the summer, but surrounded as it was by some colossal pop tunes from some legendary acts I had basically forgotten about it. The first Stones #1 should have been a bigger thing, I feel. So, they’re back. And this time they’re making sure we notice them.
Their tactic? To return with a song so unlike any of the one hundred and eighty-one previous chart-toppers that you instantly sit up and start listening. A slow, woozy blues riff comes along, reeling you in, lulling you into a vision of sipping ice-tea on a farmhouse veranda, before Mick Jagger’s languorous vocals… I am the little red rooster, Too lazy to crow for days… I am the little red rooster, Too lazy to crow for days… It’s an atmospheric song – the dusty, heat-hazed farmyard unfolds before your very eyes. Dogs begin to bark, And hounds begin to howl… All the while the hypnotic, twelve-bar blues riff continues to drag you along. Watch out strange cat people, Little red rooster’s on the prowl…
1964 has been a year, by and large, of peerless pop. But this is no pop song, not by any stretch of the imagination. There are no verses, or chorus, or bubble-gum bridge here. This is low-down and dirty blues. It’s like the band pressed record on a jamming session, a warm-up before recording the actual single, and decided to release it instead. I’m listening to it on repeat as I write this, and it’s very easy to miss when the song starts over. It could be three minutes long; or thirty minutes.
While the lyrics might sound like the Mick Jagger manifesto – I am the little red rooster… Keep everything in the farmyard upset in every way… – one that he’s been following for the best part of sixty years, the real star here is Brain Jones and his slide guitar. The main rhythm is acoustic, but Jones’s electric guitar flirts, and slinks, and playfully cavorts around every line. One minute it’s making the sound of dogs barking, then horses rearing, then it’s the little red rooster itself. Jones was blues through and through, and felt some discomfort at the band ‘selling out’ and becoming a pop group. As the sixties progressed and the Stones moved further and further away from their bluesy roots, he became a marginalised figure on the edge of the band, until his tragic death. Looking back, it’s easy to forget that he was as much a part of the original Stones as Jagger and Richards. This record is perhaps his finest hour, and a kind of vindication. He had managed to get a full-on blues song to #1 in the British charts – the only time that has ever happened.
‘Little Red Rooster’ had originally been recorded by Howlin’ Wolf, one of the Stones’ biggest early influences, in 1961. But it’s a folk song at heart, handed down through the mists of time, probably from well back in the 1800s. His version is very raw, while another version by Sam Cooke is much more polished, with a snazzy organ doing the work of Brian Jones’s slide guitar. In those earlier versions the singer has a little red rooster, rather than being the little red rooster – which brings to mind some saucy connotations. I’m surprised Mick and the lads changed it…
Understandably, the band’s management was against releasing this as a single. It doesn’t exactly scream ‘#1 smash hit’. But it was. And I feel that this, along with all their earliest singles, have been somewhat erased from The Rolling Stones canon. For years I thought – according to the greatest hits CDs I had – that their career began with ‘Time Is On My Side’. But now I know. And while I would never name ‘Little Red Rooster’ as one of my favourite Stones songs, I am truly glad that they took this slice of Delta blues to the top of the charts for a cold and drizzly December’s week.