A lot can happen in the space of a year. When, in 1967, the Summer of Love blossomed in vibrant hues, it was set to a similarly kaleidoscopic soundtrack, wherein intricately textured and surrealistic songs were designed to reflect the multi-sensory experience of hallucinogenic drugs. Jefferson Airplane, Pink Floyd, The Byrds, The Grateful Dead, and Jimi Hendrix all conjured fantastical sonic adventures that year, while The Beatles produced arguably the crowning achievement of psychedelia, Sgt. Peppers.
The Rolling Stones also took part. The gorgeous strains of their mid-’60s baroque pop had, by 1967, matured into a richer, more experimental palette, where songs like “Ruby Tuesday” benefitted from the eclectic instrumentation of Brian Jones. That progression led to the album Their Satanic Majesties Request in December, a headfirst dive into psychedelia that, despite its ornate orchestrations, seemed to forsake actual hits in favor of being seen to be keeping up with the times.
Then, as the unfettered optimism of the peace movement gave way to the darker political climate of 1968, so too did the music. Bob Dylan’s John Wesley Harding album, released five days before 1968 dawned, was, in its acoustic simplicity and rustic aesthetic, a sign of things to come.
A new direction
In those first months of 1968, the Stones would find themselves deliberating on their next steps. Their last Number One single had been “Paint It Black” back in May 1966. What’s more, the group had produced Satanic Majesties themselves after the departure of manager/producer Andrew Loog Oldham as recording commenced, and found the process a distraction.
As a result, they sought out Jimmy Miller, whose production work for The Spencer Davis Group and Traffic had impressed them. As discussions commenced, Miller made clear that he wanted to do away with the psychedelic posturing and instead harness what he saw as the essence of the group. “I don’t want to impress any of my musical ideas or attitudes upon the Stones,” Miller would say. “I just want to bring out all the natural talent they have. I want the Stones being the Stones.”
In deciding to simplify their sound, the Stones were effectively returning to their blues roots, rediscovering the music that first inspired them, and exploring the exciting new possibilities that the genre’s many threads could yield with Miller. “Suddenly, between us, this whole new idea started to blossom, this new second wind,” said Keith Richards. “And it just became more and more fun.”
The song’s beginnings
One night, with plans to rehearse at RG Jones Studio in Morden, Surrey, it was only three Rolling Stones who turned up at the agreed time. Brian Jones, Bill Wyman, and Charlie Watts decided to fill the time waiting for Keith and Mick Jagger by jamming. Charlie and Brian were following Bill, who started picking out a distinctive new riff on the piano. “It sounded really good and tough,” Wyman remembered. “When Mick and Keith walked in, they said, ‘Keep playing that, and don’t forget it. It sounds great.’”
Keith didn’t forget it, either, and it was on his mind one wet, auspicious day soon after. He and Jagger were lounging at Redlands, Keith’s West Sussex country cottage, when a dozing Mick was suddenly startled by a noise outside. “There was the sound of these heavy stomping rubber boots near the window, belonging to my gardener, Jack Dyer, a real country man from Sussex,” said Keith. “It woke Mick up. He said, ‘What’s that?’ I said, ‘Oh, that’s Jack. That’s jumping Jack.’ I started to work around the phrase on the guitar, which was in open tuning, singing the phrase ‘Jumping Jack.’ Mick said, ‘Flash,’ and suddenly, we had this phrase with a great rhythm and ring to it. So we got to work on it and wrote it.”
Recording the song
Sessions for “Jumpin’ Jack Flash” began in April with Miller at Olympic Sound Studios in Barnes. “It was recorded in the most peculiar way,” Jagger recalled. “We recorded Keith and Charlie Watts on a cassette, then put the cassette on a multi-track to get the distortion.”
“I’d discovered a new sound I could get out of an acoustic guitar,” Keith explained. “You’d overload the Philips cassette player to the point of distortion so that when it played back, it was effectively an electric guitar. You were using the cassette player as a pickup and an amplifier at the same time… In the studio, I plugged the cassette into a little extension speaker and put a microphone in front of the extension speaker, so it had a bit more breadth and depth, and put that on tape… The band all thought I was mad, and they sort of indulged me. But I heard a sound that I could get out of there. And Jimmy was onto it immediately.”
Keith layered up his guitars – the first was played in open E tuning with a capo, and the second in Nashville tuning – and helped to embellish Charlie’s drums. “Keith is playing my floor tom-tom on it to give the boom-da, boom-da sound,” Watts said. He would also later overdub the bass, while Bill sat in on the organ, and Brian added his guitar. “The sound on “Jumpin’ Jack Flash” is very close together,” continued Charlie, “because we do sit close to each other in the studio.”
Lyrics and meanings
The rawness of the music in “Jumpin’ Jack Flash” was matched bite-for-bite with the barbed intonations of Jagger’s demonic new persona. His looming embodiment of the titular character had withstood the parentage of a “toothless, bearded hag,” corporal punishment at school, and physical torture – literal or otherwise – of biblical proportions, only to emerge stronger, remorseless, and impervious. “But it’s alright now,” he asserts assuredly, “in fact, it’s a gas.”
In the same way the cultural explosions in the 1960s had presented the opportunity for a new generation to sever themselves from the post-war austerity, “Jumpin’ Jack Flash” liberated The Rolling Stones from their own recent past. “It’s about having a hard time and getting out,” Jagger said. “Just a metaphor for getting out of all the acid things.”
“Jumpin’ Jack Flash” was a song for its times, borne amid the unrest and uncertainty that engulfed not only the Stones, but the world around them. “There was nothing about love, peace, and flowers in ‘Jumpin’ Jack Flash,’” Jagger confirmed.
On May 12th, 1968, two weeks before “Jumpin’ Jack Flash” was released as a single, the Stones previewed the song at what would be Brian Jones’ last ever concert appearance: the NME Pollwinners’ concert at the Empire Pool in Wembley. A whole year after their last live show, the band played just two songs – this, and “Satisfaction” – and were both thrilled and relieved to see their revolutionary new song make the impact they had hoped. “You could feel the Empire Pool shaking to its foundations as the roar went up,” NME’s Nick Logan reported. “It was just like old times. In fact, it was better than old times.”
The single followed on the 24th, and was accompanied by two promotional videos. Both films, directed by Michael Lindsay-Hogg, were group live performances, though one, with the band in colorful face paint, glittering make-up, and hip accessories, was decidedly more dynamic. In each, Jagger stalked the camera and embodied his fiendish character perfectly.
The videos would have significant consequences; with their resources stretched to pay the director’s £2453 bill, the Stones appointed solicitors to investigate their finances under the management of Allen Klein. This would, in turn, unravel the dire truth of the group’s fiscal predicament, leading to them eventually leaving the UK as tax exiles in 1971.
“Jumpin’ Jack Flash” broke the Stones’ cursed run of singles, shooting to the top of the charts in the UK, US, Australia, Germany, and the Netherlands. As the militant action of a million students and workers brought the streets of Paris to a standstill in May and June, “Jumpin’ Jack Flash” could be heard from the open windows above.
For the Stones, “Jumpin’ Jack Flash” was the introduction to a new chapter in their career, one in which they would tap into the core of their primal power to forge a fierce signature sound that would, in time, define them as ‘The Greatest Rock & Roll Band In The World’.
Elsewhere, it was yet further evidence that the times were a-changin’, as more and more groups embraced the intuitive source of their character in a year that demanded realism. That July, the release of Music From Big Pink, the debut album by The Band, caused huge ripples due to its downhome, pastoral authenticity. Going back to basics became the order of the day. After the fragmented sessions for their self-titled double album that summer, even The Beatles reverted to their quintessence; playing and recording live for the Get Back sessions.
A song of towering stature, “Jumpin’ Jack Flash” has been covered by a vast range of artists, including Ananda Shankar, Thelma Houston, Peter Frampton, The Four Tops, Motörhead, and Aretha Franklin – the Queen of soul’s version (as used in the movie of that name starring Whoopi Goldberg) was even produced by Keith Richards. Yet none managed to embody or improve the domineering incandescence of the original, which stands today as one of the most thrilling, provocative, and influential singles of all time.
It’s little wonder, then, that “Jack” is the Stones’ most performed song, having been played live on stage more than any other of their hits. “As soon as I pick up the guitar and play that riff, something happens here, in your stomach,” says Keith. “It’s one of the better feelings in the world. You just jump on the riff, and it plays you. As a matter of fact, it takes you over. An explosion would be the best way to describe it. It’s the one that I would immediately go to, if I wanted to approach the state of nirvana.”