Under My Thumb: The Rolling Stones, Blind Faith, and The Who

Hello there! In this week’s blog we consider the 60s rock song Under My Thumb. We will review the original by rock ‘n rollers The Rolling Stones, and covers of that song by Blind Faith and the Who.

The Rolling Stones and Under My Thumb:

The song Under My Thumb is by the ‘original’ lineup of the Rolling Stones. Mick Jagger and Keith Richards had been primary school classmates and friends until their parents moved apart. Meeting up again when they were both in college, they realized that they shared an interest in blues and rock music. After a few early personnel changes, the group settled on a quintet with Jagger on lead vocals, Richards and Brian Jones on guitar, Bill Wyman on bass and Charlie Watts on drums.  We previously wrote about the Stones in our post about the song It’s All Over Now.

The photo below shows the cover of the Rolling Stones 1965 single Satisfaction. Back row, L to R: Mick Jagger, Charlie Watts, Brian Jones; front row Bill Wyman, Keith Richards.

In this past I want to focus on the life and career of Brian Jones.  He was the original bandleader and founder of the Rolling Stones, as he was at first the most accomplished musician, having previously played guitar in Alexis Korner’s influential band Blues Incorporated. Initially the Stones played almost exclusively covers, as leaders in an American blues revival movement in London.

Jones was an exceptionally versatile musician, being able to play nearly any instrument. In addition to his guitar work, on Rolling Stones recordings Jones played recorder, harmonica, mellotron, autoharp, saxophone, marimba and dulcimer! However, for a number of reasons, Brian Jones’ influence in the Stones progressively decreased, which sent him into a tragic spiral of alienation and depression.

The first issue of contention was the group’s increasing focus on pop songs, while Jones pushed for the group to maintain their early focus on traditional blues covers. However, Jones found himself out-voted by Jagger and Richards, who had begun song-writing on their own after their friends John Lennon and Paul McCartney wrote a pop song for the Stones. Keith and Mick were impressed that Lennon and McCartney could toss off a rock song in roughly half an hour, so they decided to try their luck writing original material for the Stones.

Jones’ alienation from the band only deepened when Andrew Loog Oldham became the Stones’ manager. Oldham realized that song-writing could be extremely lucrative – when a song is played on the radio, royalties are paid to the songwriter, but not the performers. So Oldham pushed hard to steer the band in the direction of original songs.

Although Brian Jones possessed exceptional abilities as a musician, song-writing was not one of his talents. His response to the group’s new direction was to become depressed and withdrawn, and this was exacerbated by his increasingly serious addiction issues. While nearly all of the Stones’ members were on drugs at this time, his drug and alcohol dependency seriously affected Jones’ performance. During recording sessions, he would sometimes either not show up, or be unable to play.

In 1969 Jones’ drug use became an issue, because his 1968 conviction for cannabis possession made it unlikely that he could obtain a visa for an upcoming US tour. The Stones decided to sack Jones, and in early June informed him that he was being replaced by Mick Taylor, who had been the lead guitarist for John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers. However, the group gave Jones the option of announcing that it was his own decision to leave the band.

The Stones then scheduled a free concert on July 5 in London’s Hyde Park, as a means of introducing Taylor and kicking off their US tour. Tragically, just three days before this concert Brian Jones was found dead at the bottom of the swimming pool at his home. Although only two of the Stones turned up at Jones’ funeral (with Mick and Keith being prominent no-shows), the group dedicated their Hyde Park concert to Brian’s memory. Hundreds of butterflies were released in the park, and Mick Jagger read a poem that had been composed by Shelley upon the death of his friend Keats.

Brian Jones was just 27 when he died. This was the beginning of a ghastly series of deaths of rock musicians at just this age. Within a few years Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Jim Morrison, lead singer Alan Wilson of Canned Heat and keyboardist Pigpen McKernan of the Grateful Dead had all died at age 27. Morrison’s death occurred two years to the day after Jones’. In recent years artists like Kurt Cobain and Amy Winehouse have also died at age 27, leading some to compile macabre lists of rock musicians who have “joined the 27 Club.”

The song Under My Thumb describes a relationship where the woman once had the upper hand, but the situation has completely reversed so that the woman is now submissive and docile. Some of the lyrics are:

Under my thumb
The girl who once had me down
Under my thumb
The girl who once pushed me around
It’s down to me
The difference in the clothes she wears
Down to me, the change has come,
She’s under my thumb

The song goes on to describe the woman as a “Siamese cat of a girl .. she’s the sweetest pet in the world.” And although“her eyes are just kept to herself,” in their current relationship “I can still look at someone else.”

Under My Thumb is a good example of what I would call the Stones’ “misogynist songs,” tunes whose lyrics appear to deliberately demean or objectify women. In this category I would include songs like Stupid Girl, which describes a woman in these terms:
“She’s the sickest thing in this world
Well, look at that stupid girl.”
Another example is Brown Sugar, which starts off
“Gold coast slave ship bound for cotton fields
Sold in a market down in New Orleans
Scarred old slaver knows he’s doing alright
Hear him whip the women just around midnight”

Yes, I know what Mick and Keith would say – “It’s just a rock and roll song; the lyrics mean nothing. Get over it!” Fair enough, but these songs are quite deliberately provocative, and the portrayal of women is crass and unfeeling. Let’s face it, regardless of how pushy a woman was, it’s difficult to justify referring to her as a “squirming dog who’s just had her day.” And the subject matter plays up the Stones’ “bad boy” image, especially when contrasted with, say, Paul McCartney’s much more saccharine and romanticized lyrics.

In any case, Under My Thumb appeared on the Stones’ 1966 album Aftermath. Although the song was never issued as a single in either the UK or US, it became a staple at Stones concerts, frequently appearing as the opening number at shows in the early 80s, and it has sometimes been reprised on later tours. So it is one of the favorite tunes amongst these bad boys.

Subject matter aside, here is a great performance of Under My Thumb by the Rolling Stones, performing on the British TV rock program, Ready Steady Go in 1966, the year the song was released.  I think it’s a live performance, although it’s sometimes difficult to tell. This song features several creative musical touches. Brian Jones plays the marimba while Bill Wyman performs on fuzz bass, which gives the song quite a jazzy feel.

As usual, Mick Jagger’s rock vocals are spectacular, lending the song a hint of menace (not that the song needs it, with those lyrics). During the performance, we occasionally glimpse a line of men keeping the girls from storming the stage during the performance.  Presumably the young women are hoping that if they get lucky, they too might be treated like a squirming dog?

Blind Faith and Under My Thumb:

In 1969, various British rock groups were in the process of disintegrating. Eric Clapton was disappointed with his supergroup trio Cream for several reasons. For one thing, drummer Ginger Baker and bassist Jack Bruce loathed each other, and Clapton felt caught in the middle of their feuds. Secondly, the perfectionist Clapton believed that the group was “coasting,” often producing third-rate performances. And finally, Clapton felt overwhelmed by the adulation that the group in general and he in particular were receiving from rabid fans. We reviewed the history of Cream in our post on the song Crossroads.

Slightly earlier, Steve Winwood had also left the Spencer Davis Group over creative differences – Winwood was interested in jazz-influenced progressive rock, while other members of the band favored heavy-metal blues-infused music. Winwood then formed the band Traffic in order to pursue these new directions. However, Traffic temporarily split up in 1969, and as a result
Winwood started to jam with his good friend Clapton in Clapton’s basement in Surrey, England. Winwood and Clapton had previously collaborated on the “Powerhouse” project.

Clapton was excited about the possibility of collaborating with Winwood, but nervous about starting up another potential ‘super-group.’ It was particularly difficult when Ginger Baker was suggested as the group’s drummer, since such a group would naturally be interpreted as “Cream minus Jack Bruce.” However, eventually they settled on Baker as the drummer and Ric Grech as the bassist, and “Blind Faith” as the group’s name.

The photo below shows Blind Faith in the photo shoot that produced the cover photo for their first album. From L to R: Steve Winwood, Ric Grech, Ginger Baker and Eric Clapton.

The group’s first gig was a free concert in Hyde Park in London in June 1969. We will soon see the video for Blind Faith’s cover of Under My Thumb performed at that concert. Wouldn’t it be nice if your band held its first gig and 300,000 people turned up? You certainly wouldn’t have to go around taping up posters advertising the concert on lamp-posts. The Hyde Park concert was followed a month later by the release of the band’s first (and only) album Blind Faith, on the Atco label. The album immediately rocketed to #1 on the Billboard album charts in both the US and UK. The band subsequently set out on a U.S. tour that filled up large arenas.

Most people would have been ecstatic to experience the tremendous demand for their music, and the public acclaim for their band; however, for Eric Clapton this was mostly bad news. Several people had started to refer to Blind Faith as “Super-Cream.” Even worse, the band had not yet assembled enough original material for a concert, so they included Cream and Traffic songs to fill in the gaps. Clapton also felt that the band had rushed to go on tour before they were fully rehearsed. All in all, Clapton developed a serious case of déjà vu, and felt that Blind Faith was repeating precisely the situation he had been trying to avoid.

While Clapton was unhappy with this situation, the sense of disenchantment was reciprocal.  Clapton’s bandmates were familiar with his searing guitar solos, and were disappointed that the great blues licks he produced in rehearsals never materialized at their concerts.  They did not understand that Clapton’s goal was to become a member of a creative combo with no super-stars; Clapton was enamored with albums by The Band, whose tight ensemble work he considered a model for a great rock group.

L: controversial Blind Faith album cover; R: photo of the band offered as a substitute cover.

L: controversial Blind Faith album cover; R: photo of the band offered as a substitute cover.

To make matters worse, their album became extremely controversial. The album cover, shown at left, featured a picture of the upper torso of a naked teenage girl holding a gleaming silver spaceship.

The album photo invited controversy. The spaceship appeared to be an obvious phallic symbol. Who was the young girl? What was her age, and what was her relation to the band?  As it turned out, she was a professional model who had a signed release from her parents, but that didn’t quell the controversy.

To make matters worse, the original album cover did not contain the name of the band. In both the US and the UK, alternative copies of the cover were issued; the US alternate cover (shown at right above) was simply a photo of the band members. Not surprisingly, the original album cover was banned in several countries.

The combination of Clapton’s concerns, the album controversy, and the group’s meager playlist led to the band breaking up after their initial tour. A few songs that the band had recorded for an intended second album have found their way into various Clapton and Winwood collections. Clapton and Winwood remained good friends, and in the past decade have begun to appear together again. Their initial appearance was in 2007 at Clapton’s second Crossroads Guitar Festival held outside of Chicago, where their set included a few Blind Faith numbers.

Clapton and Winwood then reunited for a limited series of appearances in the US, Europe and Japan between 2008 and 2011. I am frustrated that I never caught one of their concerts. I have been a fan of Steve Winwood ever since I saw him with the Spencer Davis Group in 1966; I have since seen him with Traffic and as a solo act.

And I have attended a few Clapton solo concerts in recent years, although as a grad student in England I spent a fair amount of time missing Eric Clapton, having seen the Yardbirds and John Mayall after Clapton left those groups. I also saw the final performance of the Graham Bond Organisation (that initially featured both Ginger Baker and Jack Bruce) just two weeks before Baker and Bruce joined with Clapton to form Cream.

Anyway, here is Blind Faith performing Under My Thumb in Hyde Park in June, 1969. They give the song a very different take from the Stones’ original energetic rock tune. The Blind Faith version is much more laid back and played at a much slower, perhaps even languid, pace. Clapton’s guitar solo is interesting but (probably deliberately) contains none of the flashy pyrotechnics that were his trademark with Cream. One bonus is that in this combo you can readily catch Ginger Baker’s drum licks, something that was nearly impossible given the noise level of Cream.

I am a great fan of Winwood’s vocals; I consider him a consummate bluesman with great versatility. I also think he is an under-appreciated instrumentalist, being really adept on both keyboards and guitar. Here Winwood produces some fine work on the Hammond organ.

By the way, Blind Faith fanatics can find video of the entire Hyde Park concert here:

In the history of rock music, Blind Faith turns out to be a brief interlude in the careers of Eric Clapton, Steve Winwood and Ginger Baker. Journalist Johnny Black sums up the Blind Faith saga rather succinctly:
Blind Faith was cursed almost from the outset. This was a band whose members rarely seemed to tell each other anything. A band at loggerheads with its management. A management at loggerheads with itself. A heroin addicted drummer. A guitarist who wanted out almost from the word go. A stadium tour that the keyboard player didn’t want to be on. A record cover scandal. Worst of all, though, they were mind-numbingly successful when they didn’t want to be.

I greatly enjoyed Blind Faith’s original songs Presence of the Lord and Can’t Find My Way Home, and can’t help but wish that they might have remained together for a longer time.  After the group dissolved, Baker continued on with Ginger Baker’s Air Force, Winwood soon re-united with Traffic, and Clapton meandered around, sitting in for a while with Delaney and Bonnie and Friends, then forming the super-group Derek and the Dominos, before finally settling on a long and distinguished solo career.

The Who and Under My Thumb:

We previously encountered The Who in our blog post on Summertime Blues. The group has been one of the most productive and longest-lasting of the British Invasion bands. To my utter amazement, rather than flaming out at an early age and fulfilling their famous line from My Generation “Hope I die before I get old,” Pete Townshend and Roger Daltrey are still rocking away, producing records and touring some 50 years after forming their band.

True, Keith Moon did pass away in September 1978. A doctor had prescribed clomethiazole, a sedative, to help Moon cope with alcohol withdrawal symptoms. It is not clear whether the doctor had grasped the full extent of Moon’s prodigious drinking habits, or whether Moon understood the serious potential dangers in taking this drug. In any case, under no circumstances should Moon have taken more than three tablets of clomethiazole at one time; however, his autopsy revealed that he had ingested an entire bottle of 32 pills.

What a shame, as although Moon was frequently out of control and had a reputation as a wild man, he was also a brilliant and creative musician, a person who is regularly listed among the top rock drummers of all time.

The photo below shows The Who in February 1969, about to go onstage at the London Coliseum. From L: Pete Townshend, John Entwistle, Keith Moon and Roger Daltrey.

The impetus for The Who’s cover of the Rolling Stones’ Under My Thumb came from an incident in February, 1967, when a squadron of police descended on Keith Richards’ home, “Redlands,” in Sussex. Both Richards and Mick Jagger, who was also present in the house at the time of the raid, were charged with violations of the Dangerous Drugs Act after drugs were found in the house during the raid.

One suspicious aspect of the drug bust was that the incident was reported by the British tabloid News of the World even before the police issued a public statement about the raid. Just a week earlier, Mick Jagger’s lawyers had served the News of the World with a writ for libel, based on the paper’s story that accused Jagger and other colleagues of taking LSD. So both the timing of the raid, and the fact that the News of The World had inside information regarding the incident, seemed more than a bit fishy.

In any case, Richards and Jagger were tried in June 1967, and both were convicted.
Mick Jagger was sentenced to three months’ imprisonment for possession of four amphetamine tablets and Keith Richards was given a year’s sentence for allowing cannabis to be smoked on his property. Both were immediately imprisoned, but released on bail the next day pending appeal.

There was widespread agreement in Britain that the sentences were unduly harsh, particularly given the “offenses” (possession of four amphetamine tablets and “allowing the smoking of cannabis?”).  The punishments meted out seemed to be influenced by the fact that the defendants were celebrity rock musicians. Fans of the group held a candle-light vigil in downtown London, while in New York City Stones fans picketed the British consulate.

To show their support for Jagger and Richards, The Who quickly issued a single record covering two of the Stones’ songs, The Last Time and Under My Thumb. Those songs were later included in the Who album Odds and Sods. So here are The Who covering Under My Thumb.

This is a pretty straight cover of the Stones’ song. Probably because it was recorded quickly, this song does not include many of the Who trademark hard-rock features such as Pete Townshend’s power chords or guitar feedback, pyrotechnics on the bass from John Entwistle, or Keith Moon’s patented out-of-control drum licks. The song does feature impressive vocals from Roger Daltrey with backup vocals from the other band members. Nevertheless, their cover of Under My Thumb is a generous gesture of solidarity to Jagger and Richards from their colleagues in The Who.

Source Material:
Wikipedia, Under My Thumb
Wikipedia, The Rolling Stones
Wikipedia, Brian Jones
Wikipedia, Blind Faith
Wikipedia, The Who
Johnny Black, Born Under a Bad Sign: Blind Faith

About Tim Londergan

Tim Londergan is professor emeritus of theoretical physics at Indiana University-Bloomington. He studies the properties of the quarks and gluons that form the internal structure of protons and neutrons. He also writes a blog "Tim's Cover Story" that compares covers of important songs in rock music history. He and his wife share their college-town life with two delightful cats. He is also interested in tennis and ornithology.
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