Hear the First Live Performance of the Rolling Stones’ “Brown Sugar:” Recorded at the Fateful Altamont Free Concert in 1969

In Jan­u­ary, 1970—with a line that might have come right out of any num­ber of cur­rent opin­ion pieces tak­ing the media to task—Rolling Stone ripped into Time, Life, Newsweek, the New York Times for their cov­er­age of the 1969 Alta­mont Free Con­cert: “When the news media know what the pub­lic wants to hear and what they want to believe, they give it to them.”

What did the pub­lic want to hear? Appar­ent­ly that Alta­mont was “Wood­stock West,” full of “peace and love” and “good vibes.” Since, how­ev­er, it was “unde­ni­able that one man was actu­al­ly mur­dered at the con­cert, a cer­tain min­i­mal adjust­ment was made, as if that event had been the result of some sort of unpre­dictable act of God, like a stray bolt of light­ning.” The mur­dered fan, 18-year-old Mered­ith Hunter, was not, of course, killed by light­ning, but stabbed to death by one of the Hell’s Angels who were hired as infor­mal secu­ri­ty guards.

Hunter was killed “just 20 feet in front of the stage where Mick Jag­ger was per­form­ing ‘Under My Thumb,’” writes the His­to­ry Chan­nel: “Unaware of what had just occurred, the Rolling Stones com­plet­ed their set with­out fur­ther inci­dent, bring­ing an end to a tumul­tuous day that also saw three acci­den­tal deaths and four live births.”

We know the moment best from the Maysles broth­ers con­cert film Gimme Shel­ter, which opens with a scene of Jag­ger view­ing footage of the vio­lence. See the unrest dur­ing “Sym­pa­thy for the Dev­il,” above, and the con­fused scene of the killing dur­ing “Under My Thumb,” fur­ther down.

In an inter­view about that grim day, Joel Selvin, music crit­ic and author of a book on Alta­mont, sums up the judg­ment of forty years of his­to­ry:

It’s one of the few dark days in the his­to­ry of rock. This was the anti-Wood­stock. It also took place in Decem­ber of 1969, so it book­marked the end of the ‘60s in a chrono­log­i­cal way. The loss of inno­cence that day real­ly is why this has last­ed and why it endures as a cul­tur­al touch­stone.

The loss of Amer­i­can inno­cence is an old trope that assumes the coun­try, at some myth­i­cal time in the past, was a blame­less par­adise. But who was to blame for Alta­mont? The Stones were not held legal­ly account­able, nor was the bik­er who stabbed Hunter. In anoth­er echo from the past into the present, he was acquit­ted on self-defense grounds. “What hap­pened at Alta­mont,” was also “not the music’s fault,” writes The New York­er’s Richard Brody, who blames “Celebri­ty” and a loss of “benev­o­lent spir­its… the idea of the unpro­duced.”

To ascribe such incred­i­ble weight to this incident—to mark it as the end of peace and love and the birth of “infra­struc­ture” and “author­i­ty,” as Brody does—seems his­tor­i­cal­ly tone deaf. Strict­ly from the point of view of the Stones’ musi­cal devel­op­ment, we might say that the close of the six­ties and the year of Alta­mont marked a tran­si­tion to a dark­er, grit­ti­er peri­od, the end of the band’s for­ays into psy­che­delia and folk music. That sum­mer, Bri­an Jones drowned in his swim­ming pool. And the band fol­lowed the sneer­ing “Under My Thumb” at Alta­mont with a brand new tune, “Brown Sug­ar,” a song about slav­ery and rape.

You can hear the first live per­for­mance of the song at the top of the post, cap­tured in an audi­ence record­ing, two years before its offi­cial record­ing and release on 1971’s Sticky Fin­gers. “It was a song of sadism,” writes Stan­ley Booth, “sav­agery, race hate/love, a song of redemp­tion, a song that accept­ed the fear of night, black­ness, chaos, the unknown.” It’s a song that would face instant back­lash were it released today. “Twit­ter would lam­poon [the band] with care­ful­ly thought out hash­tags,” writes Lau­ret­ta Charl­ton, “Mul­ti­ple Change.org peti­tions would be signed. The band would be forced to issue an apol­o­gy.”

Jag­ger him­self said in 1995, “I would nev­er write that song now. I would prob­a­bly cen­sor myself.” And he has, in many sub­se­quent per­for­mances, changed some of the most out­ra­geous lyrics. Charl­ton con­fess­es to lov­ing and hat­ing the song, call­ing it “gross, sex­ist, and stun­ning­ly offen­sive toward black women.” And yet, she says, “When I hear ‘Brown Sug­ar,’ the out­rage hits me like a post­script, and by that point I’m too busy clap­ping and singing along to be indig­nant.” Sur­round­ed by the vio­lence at Alta­mont, Jag­ger chan­neled the vio­lence of his­to­ry in a raunchy blues that—like “Under My Thumb” and “Sym­pa­thy for the Devil”—captures the seduc­tive nature of pow­er and sex­u­al­ized aggres­sion, and gives the lie to facile ideas of inno­cence, whether of the past or of the con­tem­po­rary social and polit­i­cal late-six­ties scene.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Hear the Nev­er Released Ver­sion of The Stones’ “Brown Sug­ar,” With Eric Clap­ton on Slide Gui­tar

The Rolling Stones Intro­duce Blues­man Howl­in’ Wolf on US TV, One of the “Great­est Cul­tur­al Moments of the 20th Cen­tu­ry” (1965)

The Haunt­ing Back­ground Vocals on The Rolling Stones’ “Gimme Shel­ter:” Mer­ry Clay­ton Recalls How They Came to Be

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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