On the occasion of the 50th anniversary of the release of the single, here is my entry on the song in my book, ROCKS OFF: 50 Tracks That Tell the Story of the Rolling Stones. This has been my ring tone for about 10 years. Never tire of it.
Jumpin’ Jack Flash
April 20, 1968 at Olympic Studios, London
Single May 1968, charting at number one in the UK and number three in the US
Stones Come Back Punching.
There was nothing about love, peace and flowers in Jumpin’ Jack Flash.
— Mick Jagger
I hated the punk rock look, but then I hated bloody flower power.
— Charlie Watts
If the Stones had gotten walloped by busts, trials, and drubbings from critics in 1967, they came back swinging in 1968 with their next single, one of their greatest songs, the commanding and ballsy “Jumpin’ Jack Flash.” This punchy masterstroke showed that these were not some spaced-out hippies about to lay down and get squashed by authority and dismissed by critics.
The stylistic leap from the previous record, Satanic Majesties, to this new single cannot be overstated. When “Jumpin’ Jack Flash” was finally released, the public reaction was overwhelmingly positive, which it needed to be if the band were to keep their upward trajectory as both a popular and artistically significant band. Though Satanic Majesties was a commercial success, it was due to do with the momentum the band had built up and the strength of its singles that preceded it. The album as a whole was almost universally panned by critics and fans who felt the band had lost its way. There was a new crop of artists with novel styles and sounds. And the Stones had already outlived the average shelf life for rock ‘n’ roll bands of the era. The Rolling Stones were in danger of becoming irrelevant.
To a casual observer, the rediscovery of their mojo heard on “Jumpin’ Jack Flash” might have seemed like the Stones had gone down to the crossroads and made a deal with the Devil. To be on the precipice of prison sentences, in danger of falling apart as a band, and to come back with this monster of a song that doubled down on their sound with a fresh stinging clarity, was a triumphant declaration from the band: What wasn’t gonna kill them was gonna make them stronger.
This muscular track, a single released to fill the gap before their next LP, Beggars Banquet, marks the beginning of the band’s working relationship with American producer Jimmy Miller, who was at the controls for each the band’s best albums and their indisputable golden period. It was now Stones Mach II. They were never as good on record before or after the Jimmy Miller era. With “Jumpin’ Jack Flash,” Miller at the helm, the band navigated away from the dead-end shoals of instantly dated psychedelia and fey hippy anthems, and restored their original bluesy swagger. Miller drew out the inherent strengths of the group and over the course of at least four albums, attained a near-perfect balance of the unique blend of sounds of the Stones.
The band successfully moved their Chuck Berry-and-Howlin’ Wolf-rooted raw essence a few notches into the future. It was no longer one way or the other — psychedelia/new rock versus old-time rock ‘n’ roll. Here was a true answer to the late 1960s burgeoning heavy rock. The Stones found a way to rock and roll, reinstating that the main ingredient that had gone missing from 1967 Stones: sex. On “Jumpin’ Jack Flash,” the band sounds primal, intuitive, and uninhibited. What the hell is a “jumpin’ jack flash,” or a “crossfire hurricane?” We don’t know for sure, but then, what precisely is “smokestack lighting,” a “mojo filter,” or “streetwalking cheetah with a full of napalm?” Who the hell cares?
We do know that Jumping Jack was a name Mick and Keith called the gardener at Keith’s Redlands estate. Jack Dyer was a real “yokel” in Keith’s words. Mick and Keith were laying about after an all-night writing session, in a half stupor at 6:30 in the morning when they were rudely awakened by the clomping boots of Dyer in the garden. Mick, startled, asked what the hell was going on. Keith answered, oh, that’s just Jack leaping around. Jumpin’ Jack. Mick, inspired by the alliteration, announced his epiphany, “Flash!” And that’s how the phrase came.
“Jumpin’ Jack Flash” has much of its stream-of-consciousness lyric informed by the language of war and weaponry. In fact, “the word’s forgotten boy” of Iggy’s 1973 song, ”Search and Destroy,” might as well have been another version of the same guy “born in a crossfire hurricane” and “raised by a toothless bearded hag.” The Stones, born during World War II and writing and recording during the height of the Vietnam War, were again reflecting their times, though this is no protest anthem or directly political song. This is not a leader of men trying to organize a peace march, nor a rabble-rouser calling, as with Jefferson Airplane, for a “counter-revolution.” Rather, the protagonist of “Jumpin’ Jack Flash” is highly individualistic, a lone wolf who seems to masochistically get off on the violence. It’s both a kiss-off to hippiedom and a right hook thrown back at an overreaching state who thought they had backed these cocky artists into a corner. The Stones were beholden to no constituency.
In his memoirs, Times editor, William Rees Mogg, reflected on the 1967 trials and the “Butterfly on a Wheel” piece, which turned out to be one of his most resonant essays:
Jagger’s views … were perhaps more important than he or we then realised; he took a libertarian view of ethical and social issues which turned out to be one of the constituents, though only one, of Thatcherism. It was not the soft-left Beatles but the libertarian Rolling Stones who best predicted the Anglo-American ideology of the 1980s.
Coming right off of his trial, Mick’s language in “Jumpin’ Jack Flash” is of persecution and rising above, a tough survivor for being “schooled with a strap right across [his] back … But it’s all right now, in fact it’s a gas,” he sneers somewhat malevolently. In a scant three oblique verses, Mick manages to capture the essence of both the external violence churning in the world at large, and a reflection of the personal mythology that the band was already cultivating with a post-trial attitude of defiance.
Or should we say, Keith’s defiance, for it was he who sneered on the stand at his trial that the band was not concerned with “petty morals,” while Mick cried when his initial sentence was handed down. Keith began to take control, and take what he wanted, as he did by taking Anita from Brian, who didn’t know how to handle his own good fortune. As could be seen later at Altamont in Gimme Shelter, it was Mick desperately, helplessly begging the crowd to “cool out.” It was Keith, though, pointing fingers and calling out the bad actors. Post-trial Keith was emerging as the band’s leader in image and attitude providing quiet fortitude, and it was Mick who gave voice to his mate’s mettle. Mick sang those Muddy Waters songs, but he was just playing a part. Keith standing behind him literally gave him the “I got your back” confidence to be out front.
“Mick came up against the brick wall of reality,” Keith says referring to the 1967 arrests.
“I hated the bust because it stopped the band and slowed it down,” recalled Mick in 1978. Sardonically referring to the 1977 arrest of Keith in Toronto, he added, “I think being busted still does slow the band down. And that’s why I’m trying to kick the habit. That’s why I turned bourgeois.” To which Keith retorted that Mick has always been bourgeois. “Mick might think there was something different about him before the bust, but in actual fact there’s no difference at all. He hates that part of himself.”
As seen in photos and film clips from this time, especially the Michael Lindsay-Hogg promo clip for “Jumpin’ Jack Flash,” the Stones adopted a tougher look, like lost boys back from some Lord of the Flies world. Mick had by now morphed into the bad-boy, mouthy, leering Mick that we all loved in the 1970s. He began changing personas like masks, which was a survival strategy of sorts, a defensive bulwark. “Anyone who has ever known him will tell you what an interesting bunch of guys Mick Jagger can be,” is how writer, Nick Kent, put it. In “Jumpin’ Jack Flash,” through Let It Bleed, we are to believe he is — variously or simultaneously — a loner tough-guy, a masochistic knave prone to violence, a rock star outlaw, a street fighting man, a prophet of gloom, and/or the Devil himself.
As for the recording itself, the first thing that strikes you is the sound and texture of “Jumpin’ Jack Flash.” “I remember the recording session for ‘Jumpin’ Jack Flash,’ and not liking the way it was done very much,” Mick said. “It was a bit haphazard — and although the end result was pretty good, it was not quite what I wanted. The fidelity wasn’t that great; it wasn’t quite as in your face as it could have been.”
It’s difficult to imagine it more in your face. The technology was changing. In the earlier days, when bands wanted to do more than a few tracks, it meant “ping-ponging” between tapes, losing a generation of fidelity along the way. But by the end of the 1960s, multi-track recorders had expanded to eight simultaneously available tracks, so the sound was cleaner. The perverse thing about this era of the Stones is, however, that as recording technology was improving exponentially, Keith was obsessed with the sounds produced by his guitars running through a low-tech portable tape recorder. Along with “Street Fighting Man,” he had recorded his acoustic guitar into a Philips cassette recorder — a relatively new invention — and was inspired by the overdriven sound produced when the analog tape levels were pushed to their max, a sound unlike an acoustic guitar and not quite the same as an electric. It is that brittle, hairy, full mid-range sound that is heard on “Have You Seen Your Mother…” and “Street Fighting Man” as well. “Just jam the mike right in the guitar and play it back through an extension speaker,” is how Keith explained his process. He recorded two acoustics amplified via the same method — one, open-tuned and with a capo, and another with “Nashville” tuning, which is essentially a six-sting guitar strung with only the high strings of a 12-string guitar..Unlike an electric, you have to strum the hell out of an acoustic guitar to make it rock this heavy (just watch Pete Townshend). “We recorded the band in a circle on the floor using Jimmy’s cassette machine,” said Eddie Kramer. “Then, after the track was recorded, we played it back through a little Philips speaker, and I put a mike in front of that and recorded it onto one track of the four-rack. That was very revolutionary. It gave the song a raw sound, and if you listen to the intro you can hear the wow of that guitar. That machine was bloody horrible.” The result is a rhythmic maelstrom and on “Jumpin’ Jack Flash,” Brian is shaking maracas like a Bo Diddley death rattle, all dry, strumming and sixteenth-note shaking.
The track revs up like the high-torque engine on a race car at the starting line, with an electric guitar overdub on the other side of the stereo, peeling out with Charlie’s crunchy drum sound and Keith’s down-and-dirty bass playing. Then the gates open and out comes that monstrous riff. Bill claims that the lick was something he came up with while fooling around on keyboards as the rest of the band waited for Mick and Keith to arrive to the studio one day. Mick and Keith latched on to it and came back the next day with the song written completely. While it is Keith handling the bass guitar, Bill shines on the organ here. Keith also added pounding tom toms for the recording’s second half. A big shaker comes up to the forefront of the mix at about 1:34, at the middle-eight, remaining in as the track goes into turbo.
It is the rhythm that grabs a hold of you. There is little melody to speak of, as the verse melody is essentially an uptempo blues drone and Mick’s vocal is buried as low in the mix as any track before or since. On the choruses there’s a nasally melody, a higher harmony, and a frog-voiced low harmony that adds to the vaguely Arabic/Georgian-chant feel of the recording. The organ rises up, with an extremely fuzzy distorted sound at the end of the recording. It sounds like bagpipes or some other reedy, droning instrument. Chuck Leavell believes the organ at the end (at least) is played by Nicky. “I guess it could be Wyman on organ, but it sure sounds like Nicky’s work to me,” said Leavell when I questioned him.In trying to figure this out, I discussed it with Julian Dawson, Hopkins’ biographer, who said that Hopkins told him directly that Hopkins would “love to play with the faders” on “Jumpin’ Jack Flash” in order to raise that part specifically.
The groove is insistent on the track, with percussion elements helping the big bad rock riff swing sexily. Jimmy Miller brought out the percussive elements of the Stones more than any previous producer or engineer. If the Stones “didn’t need a George Martin,” in the words of Ian Stewart, by this point they were adrift and needed something before meeting Miller. Though nowhere near as involved as Martin was with the Beatles, Miller became the Stones’ version of Sir George. In the process of his work with the Stones and others, Miller helped usher rock ‘n’ roll as a genre, into a new stage of production, one that embraced authentic African-American traditions and Latin/African percussion. The result is essentially the very sound of late 1960s/early-’70s rock, a combination of new-style funk with with an overall return to rock ‘n’ roll roots and, importantly, incorporating much more of the Southern soul.
“It’s funny,” Miller, who died in 1994, told an interviewer. “Through the years so many people have told me I put the Stones back where they belonged. But I had nothing to do with the fact – they’d already written ‘Jumpin’ Jack Flash.’ They were already quite willing to go back there. I’m sure the chemistry worked. Being a drummer, I was very rhythm-minded.” It is the records made with Miller, though, that people — including Mick Taylor, Bill Wyman, and Bobby Keys — regard as the “golden period” of the band, with an alchemy and blend of elements that formed and the essence of the Stonesy sound, captured on the records made from 1968-72.
Chris Blackwell, who heard a record that Miller had written and produced, had brought Miller to the UK to produce the Spencer Davis Group. Miller’s hallmarks were immediately evident on Spencer Davis Group classics, “I’m A Man” (co-written by Steve Winwood and Miller) and “Gimme Some Lovin,” which he remixed and recorded some overdubs. It had been a complaint of many English bands that the British rhythm sections were not recorded and/or mixed with the same oomph and hefty presence of the American counterparts. All of a sudden, booty came to England. Percussion and bottom end are the driving forces on Jimmy Miller tracks, energizing the mixes. It’s exactly what the Stones needed and got.
“He didn’t do anything with [technically engineering] sound,” Chris Kimsey, who worked with Miller on Sticky Fingers, explained to me. “That was all Glynn [Johns]. But definitely getting the rhythm section, and percussion together and just pushing the session along in a good way. And also very good at — if he saw a problem going or an indecision outside, he would go out and sort it out, that sort of thing. Jimmy created such a great atmosphere. And he was such a good drummer himself and he really knew, if they were struggling to find a beat or a feel, Jimmy knew what to do.”
Glynn Johns suggested that Mick come down and observe Miller working with Traffic, the band which Winwood had formed with some of the musicians who had been brought in to beef up those Spencer Davis Group tracks. Winwood and the Spencer Davis Group had arguably out-grooved, out-souled the Stones, particularly while they had been off in “Another Land” on Satanic Majesties. And there was a buzz about the dry, bass-and-percussive-heavy recordings and in-your-face mixes that Miller had been achieving at Olympic Studios. Mick was impressed. “He came by our session at a beautiful moment when we had just cut a basic track which we were all excited about,” said Miller. “We were giving it a loud playback and the vibes were wonderful.”
Up until this point, Johns claims the Stones had not recognized him as a producer, only an engineer. “They never really understood what a producer did, and I don’t think they really know now. I don’t think they’ve got a fucking clue,” is how Johns describes the situation to an interviewer. “Jagger came to me after Satanic Majesties and said, ‘We’re gonna get a producer.’ I said, ‘Okay, fine.’ He says, ‘We’re going to get an American.” I said, ‘Oh my God, that’s all I need. I don’t think my ego could stand having some bloody Yank in here telling me what sort of sound to get for the Rolling Stones.” Johns, though immediately thought of Miller, who he greatly respected, having observed him at Olympic. “Anything but some strange, lunatic, drug addict from Los Angeles! … And the first thing Jimmy Miller did was fire me because he’d been using Eddie Kramer as an engineer….”
“I benefited a lot from being in the right place at the right time,” said Miller. “There again, I think it’s fair to say that being an American also helped, because … they had been raised on American records…. I was a big fan of theirs since I’d heard ‘Satisfaction,’ so initially I was in awe of the band and could hardly believe that I was going to be in a position to work with them.”
The trajectory from 1964-1968 marks the sharpest growth spurt in rock ‘n’ roll, and the Stones, midwifed by Miller, are the second most-important contributor to the genre after the Beatles. At this point in their respective careers, one could even say it was as close as 1(a) and 1(b), as the Stones left the pop-masterpiece stuff to the Beatles, and chose to maximize kick-ass rock ‘n’ roll and R&B. Miller could bring the best out of the band and helped them rediscover the elemental gutsiness at their core. While “Jumpin’ Jack Flash” retains a distinct psychedelic tinge, this edgy single points the way for the Stone’s unique musical path The Greatest Rock ‘n’ Roll Band in the World.