"Play With Fire" / The Rolling Stones
MAY IS BRITISH INVASION MONTH!
It’s always been a love-hate thing with me and the Rolling Stones.
Like the loyal Beatlemaniac I was in 1964, I took sides: Beatles good, Rolling Stones bad. After all, they’d been presented to us as the Anti-Beatles, thanks to their canny manager Andrew Loog Oldham. When they finally appeared on the Ed Sullivan Show in October 1964, singing “Time Is On My Side”, I sat anxiously on my family room floor in front of the set, not knowing what to think. They didn’t wear matching suits, their long hair was ragged, and they were…well, UGLY. I was a ten-year-old clutching a fistful of Beatle cards -- cute was what mattered. And it didn’t help that there was an undertone of aggressive sexuality there that I was way too young to feel comfortable with. (Same thing that happened with House of the Rising Sun, minus that mesmerizing organ solo.)
It didn’t matter that the Stones weren’t actually the Beatles’ enemies – that they’d even recorded a Beatles song, “I Wanna Be Your Man,” as their second single (a track that still makes me wince). I simply refused to admit them into My British Invasion. In those days I was known to scoff that “Time Is On My Side” and “Heart of Stone” were the exact same song; “Satisfaction” and “Get Off My Cloud” had unforgettable hooks, I couldn’t deny that, but otherwise they seemed like the same song too. (Ten years old, and already a critic.) In secret, I liked their Mod-flavored ballads “As Tears Go By,” “Lady Jane,” and “Ruby Tuesday,” but I figured those didn’t count as Stones songs, following some obscure logic I cannot recall.
Now, years later, I can let go of that Beatlemania prejudice and admit how good these guys were. It took a couple of years, but once Jagger and Richards found their songwriting groove, they laid down some of the most memorable tracks of the decade. This one in particular haunts me. Set in a minor key, with just an acoustic guitar, a faint whisper of bass, tambourine, and harpsichord (played by Jack Nietzsche, of all people), its brooding delicacy is perfectly suited to the dark insinuations of Jagger’s voice.
And the lyrics – Jagger and Richards, a.k.a. Nanker Phelge, had made a quantum leap forward. Specific details – places, social customs – skewer the subject with pinpoint accuracy. Bring on the class warfare (so important to the British audience; I pretended I got it too), portraying the girl’s world of chauffeurs and couture and heiresses and diamond tiaras, which would all go up in smoke if she messes around with the singer. “So don’t play with me / ‘Cause you’re playing with fire,” Mick warns her in the chorus, his voice rising from the wary hush of the verses, like a coiled serpent striking. It didn’t matter that I'd never been to St. John’s Wood, Stepney, or Knightsbridge; I could tell what they stood for in this harsh little morality tale. And of course the local references made it ten times more evocative for me, besotted with Swinging London as I was.
The Stones – well, Jagger and Richards – recorded this in January 1965, riding the crest of British rock’s rapid evolution. Suddenly it was cool to be arty, to use different instruments, to strive for poetry and social comment in the lyrics. Ten months later, the Beatles would trump this with “Norwegian Wood,” an even more disturbing little story with more surreal lyrics and a sitar. But for its time, “Play With Fire” was a gem; that whole album, Out of Our Heads, was wonderful stuff. I should have given it its due back in 1965. Instead, I had to wait until 1976 to “discover” the Rolling Stones. That’s when the love part of the love-hate thing finally kicked into gear. Well, better late than never.
Play With Fire sample