The Rolling Stones sure knew how to write great songs — and most great works of art have to go through multiple drafts. One of the Rolling Stones’ biggest hits was almost a reggae song. In addition, it remained unreleased until five years after it was written — despite having one of Keith Richard’s favorite Rolling Stones guitar riffs.
Why the Rolling Stones changed a reggae song into a rock song
Like many great bands of the Baby Boomer generation, the Rolling Stones experimented in multiple genres. They made rock, disco, psychedelic music, baroque pop, and country music, in addition to other genres. Richards told Guitar World how the band once wrote a reggae song that became something completely different.
Richards revealed “Start Me Up” has one of his favorite riffs in the Rolling Stones’ discography even though it almost was not a rock song. “I was convinced that was a reggae song…. We did 45 takes like that. But then on a break I just played that guitar riff, not even really thinking much about it; we did a take rocking away and then went back to work and did another 15 reggae takes.”
Mick Jagger told Rolling Stone everyone in the band felt the reggae version of “Start Me Up” was “crap.” Fittingly, that was not the version of the song which became a hit. According to Guitar World, Jagger rediscovered the rock version of the song five years after it was recorded and thought it was great. Richards wished it didn’t take so long for that version of “Start Me Up” to reemerge.
How the public responded to ‘Start Me Up’
The Rolling Stones released the rock version of “Start Me Up” as a single from their album. Billboard reports it reached No. 2 on the Billboard Hot 100. By incorporating elements of 1980s hard rock while keeping the Rolling Stones’ signature sound intact, “Start Me Up” proved the band could stay relevant into the 1980s. In fact, the Rolling Stones had several hits over the curse of that decade, making them one of very few acts that stayed commercially relevant for that long.
Why Mick Jagger doesn’t like opening concerts with ‘Start Me Up’
Jagger praised Richards’ riff on “Start Me Up.” However, he has some compunctions with performing it at the start of a concert. “[I]f you start off with a number like, say, ‘Start Me Up,’ which we did on the last tour,” he told Rolling Stone, “your body starts to do all kinds of things on this adrenaline thing. You’ve got to watch out. You can really hurt yourself – or just tire yourself out too quickly in the first five minutes, and you’re just wiped out.”
“Start Me Up” is certainly a powerful song if it can make Jagger move that way. It might not have had quite the same impact on the public — or on Jagger — if it was a reggae track.