Music | October 9, 2021 7:00 am

The Rolling Stones Explain Why They Stopped Playing “Brown Sugar” Live

And whether it might return to their live shows

Rolling Stones
Guitarist Ronnie Wood, singer Mick Jagger, drummer Steve Jordan and guitarist Keith Richards of The Rolling Stones perform at Bank of America Stadium on September 30, 2021.
Jeff Hahne/Getty Images

Over the years, the Rolling Stones have written a lot of songs that have caught the ears of generations of listeners. They’ve also written more than a few that have led to controversies small and large — “Under My Thumb” certainly comes to mind, as does the fact that they literally wrote a song called “Sympathy For the Devil.” But it’s “Brown Sugar” that’s sparked the most debate and outrage over the years.

In a 2019 article for the Chicago Tribune, Ian Brennan referred to it as “a tune glorifying slavery, rape, torture and pedophilia” and argued that “if the song’s same words were recited publicly, they would incite outrage.” Writing at Vulture in 2015, Lauretta Charlton explored her own complicated feelings about the song — and noting that Mick Jagger has been known to sing less offensive lyrics when the band has played it live. Even so, changing words here and there can only go so far.

“If the Rolling Stones released ‘Brown Sugar’ today, no matter how quickly they wrote the song, the backlash would be instant,” Charlton wrote.

Curiously, though, the Stones have not been playing “Brown Sugar” on their current tour. An article by Chris DeVille at Stereogum delves more deeply into the question of why — which both Mick Jagger and Keith Richards commented on in a Los Angeles Times profile.

Both gave somewhat roundabout answers when asked about the song’s absence from recent sets. “I’m trying to figure out with the sisters quite where the beef is,” Richards said. “Didn’t they understand this was a song about the horrors of slavery? But they’re trying to bury it.”

Jagger was a bit more elliptical. “We’ve played ‘Brown Sugar’ every night since 1970, so sometimes you think, We’ll take that one out for now and see how it goes,” he told the Times — and didn’t rule out the idea of it returning to their sets in the future. Only the Rolling Stones know for sure.