• Singled Out

Flash! Shit, What A Record

written by: on July 5, 2011

Peace, love and understanding were never the strong suit of the Rolling Stones. By 1968, the band had wallowed for two years in imitation and psychedelic mediocrity. By the time they realized it, under the guidance of American producer Jimmy Miller, they made a marked shift back to their dirty, sleazy, blues roots—not forgetting their mystical influence, but diverting—and unleashed a series of albums that may never be equaled. The first sign came just before Beggars Banquet, it was a single entitled “Jumpin’ Jack Flash.”

Imagine yourself then—a disillusioned Stones fan, wondering if the London quintet would ever return to form—to be listening to BBC Radio 1 or Casey Kasem and hear that riff, that immortal, pounding resonation of open-tuning. Like nothing you’ve heard before, it grinds through a narrow channel. As you begin to wonder if Keith is beating the living hell out of a detuned guitar, another emerges right behind it filling out the sound and announcing its intent. The bassline too, elastic and insistent, adds the hidden element that might otherwise go unheralded.

It’s a song that moves from a single element to a textured, otherworldly plane before you notice the difference. The guitar sound itself is inimitable, perhaps forever. Richards at the time was using an acoustic to record ideas on his Phillips audio cassette player. When the sound became too loud, rather than gate it (as modern recording devices do) a distorted, almost electric, piano-like sound resulted. He loved it so much that shortly before recording Beggars Banquet he brought the cheaply made gizmo with him, amid millions of dollars worth in recording equipment, insisting it was the sound he wanted. Later “Street Fighting Man” and “Gimme Shelter” would get the treatment. There’s not a single electric guitar on “Jumpin’ Jack Flash,” and it has at least three of them, including multiple overdubs. The tune never becomes too fast, content to lie down on the bed of distorted drum work, waiting to strike at any moment.

For a long time, popular interpretations of the song put it at as an ode to heroin, even, bizarrely, a method of heroin injected in eye sockets, when actually Richards (who isn’t exactly tight-lipped about his drug habits) insists it was not.

The tune was written by the Glimmer Twins at Keith’s English country estate, Redlands, as a ballad to the eccentric groundskeeper, Jack Dyer, who was known to show up in all weather, at all times of the night. When a streak of lightning illuminated his face outside their window one evening, Mick jumped in shock, demanding to know who would be out there. Without missing a beat Keef replied, “That’s Jumpin’ Jack,” and shortly thereafter rock history was made.

Richards himself professed that if he was forced to play one riff the rest of his life, “Flash” would be it. This from the writer of “Satisfaction,” “It’s All Over Now” and later “Honky Tonk Women” and “Brown Sugar.” If the production wasn’t so methodical—albeit raw—it might seem like garage rock. “In ‘Flash’ you get a great feeling of elation, a wicked glee,” Richards said in his autobiography, Life. There is an ecstatic burning to the track that threatens to sweep you right up in its joyous ploy. There’s something spiritual, extracorporeal to the ditty, lent credence when Jagger sings “I was crowned with a spike right through my head.” There’s something about the song that transcends death itself, one feels an invincibility listening to the record, even now. The chorus with its “A-a-a-a-a-l-l-l-l r-i-i-i-i-i-g-h-ht,” has a Gregorian, ancient feel to it—still never losing the gritty rock.

The EP’s cover featured the Stones in mystical garb, in gestures that by today’s standards would probably seem racial stereotypes: a dastardly mustache on Wyman, Brian Jones maliciously holding a pitchfork, Charlie Watts in a bandit’s mask with Jagger biting a dagger in Shangri-La pose. Seemingly every element—song, performance and artwork add to this mystique and who knows where it came from, “I’m blessed with (riffs),” Keef said, also in Life “And I can never get to the bottom of them.” “Jumpin’ Jack Flash” is a jewel in a crown of them, one that prompted David Wild to hail Richards, “Riffmaster General,” of music, and who can dispute it?