How Keith Richards Used ‘Beast of Burden’ to Apologize
Released Aug. 28, 1978, “Beast of Burden” confirmed the Rolling Stones’ return to form while also serving as an apology between bandmates.
Included in 1978's Some Girls, the song found the band at a crossroads, both in terms of current trends - which had boxed their brand of rock 'n' roll in between disco and punk on the charts - and in terms of lineup upheaval; the sessions for the record saw guitarist Ron Wood performing as a full member for the first time, while co-founder Keith Richards' long-term fate hung in the balance during a widely publicized trial for heroin possession. All that turmoil might have sunk a lesser band, but with his back to the wall, singer Mick Jagger doubled down to drive a vibrant, eclectic creative outburst at a time when the Stones needed it.
Drawing from the dominant sounds of the day without yielding too much of the band's signature style, Some Girls became a worldwide smash that climbed to the upper reaches of the charts and was certified six times platinum in the United States.
The album spawned a series of hit singles that included disco-derived leadoff cut "Miss You" and its follow-up, "Beast of Burden."
Listen to the Rolling Stones' 'Beast of Burden'
According to the Stones fan site Time Is on Our Side, while "Burden" was mostly written by Jagger, the song started with Richards, who was quoted as saying, "All I did was throw out the phrase 'beast of burden' to Mick, and I played him the music, and then he took it off by himself and did a beautiful job on it."
And what's the significance of the title? According to Richards, it was a sweet (albeit sly) acknowledgment that his partner Jagger had been carrying the band while Richards was tied up with drug and legal problems. "I was trying to say sorry to Mick for passing on the weight of running this band," he explained in 2011. "We were at the stage where we were getting bigger. The whole music business was getting bigger, and I was basically trying to say to Mick: You don't have to do it on your own. ... At the time Mick was getting used to running the band. Charlie was just the drummer. I was just the other guitar player. I was trying to say, 'OK, I'm back, so let's share a bit more of this power, share the weight, brother.'"
The song works as an anthem of honest regret and brotherly love, but "Beast of Burden" is also a pretty terrific admission of intrinsic need - and a defiant expression of strength - which, along with its gently strutting beat and fluidly intertwining lead guitars, helped make the song a Top 10 U.S. hit in late 1978.
Watch the Rolling Stones Perform 'Beast of Burden' in 1978