The Dirty Story Behind “Start Me Up” by The Rolling Stones

The attitude of “Start Me Up” jumps out of the groove from the first downstroke of the guitar as Keith Richards defiantly hits his Fender Telecaster. It’s one of those instantly recognizable songs. You know exactly what you are in for from the very first second. The band kicks in, and the vocals start. Mick Jagger brings his unique approach with sexual innuendo and bold bravado. The lyrics don’t all make sense, but we know what he is saying. Let’s take a look at the story behind “Start Me Up” by The Rolling Stones.

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The Original Was for Emotional Rescue

The band had an early stab at the recording in 1980. It started as a reggae jam and evolved over time. “Start Me Up” wouldn’t be released until 1981’s Tattoo You. “It was one of those things we cut a lot of times; one of those cuts that you can play forever and ever in the studio,” Richards said in a 1983 interview. “Twenty minutes go by, and you’re still locked into those two chords. … Sometimes you become conscious of the fact that ‘Oh, it’s “Brown Sugar” again,’ so you begin to explore other rhythmic possibilities. It’s basically trial and error. As I said, that one was pretty locked into a reggae rhythm for quite a few weeks. We were cutting it for Emotional Rescue, but it was nowhere near coming through, and we put it aside and almost forgot about it.”

I’ve been running hot
You got me ticking going to blow my top
If you start me up
If you start me up, I’ll never stop
Never stop, never stop, never stop
You make a grown man cry
You make a grown man cry
You make a grown man cry
Spread out the oil, the gasoline
I walk smooth, ride in a mean, mean machine
Start it up

The Magic of The Rolling Stones

In 2004, engineer Chris Kimsey recounted how the song evolved. “Including run-throughs, ‘Start Me Up’ took about six hours to record,” he said. “You see, if they all played the right chords in the right time, went to the chorus at the right time, and got to the middle eight together, that was a master. It was like, ‘Oh, wow!’ Don’t forget, they would never sit down and work out a song. They would jam it, and the song would evolve out of that. That’s their magic.”

If you start it up
Kick on the starter
Give it all you got, you got, you got
I can’t compete with the riders in the other heats
If you rough it up
If you like it, I can slide it up
Slide it up, slide it up, slide it up
Don’t make a grown man cry
Don’t make a grown man cry
Don’t make a grown man cry

You Have to Sift Through the Stuff

In 2003, Richards spoke further about the transformation. “The story here is the miracle that we ever found that track,” he remembered. “I was convinced—and I think Mick was—that it was definitely a reggae song. And we did it in 38 takes—’Start me up. Yeah, man, cool. You know, you know, Jah Rastafari.’ And it didn’t make it. And somewhere in the middle of a break, just to break the tension, [drummer] Charlie [Watts] and I hit the rock and roll version. And right after that, we went straight back to reggae. And we forgot totally about this one little burst in the middle until about five years later when somebody sifted all the way through these reggae takes. After doing about 70 takes of ‘Start Me Up,’ he found that one in the middle. It was just buried in there. Suddenly, I had it. Nobody remembered cutting it. But we leaped on it again. We did a few overdubs on it, and it was like a gift, you know? One of the great luxuries of the Stones is we have an enormous, great big can of stuff. I mean, what anybody hears is just the tip of an iceberg, you know. And down there is vaults of stuff. But you have to have the patience and the time to actually sift through it.”

My eyes dilate, my lips go green
My hands are greasy
She’s a mean, mean machine
Start it up
Start me up
Ah, give it all you got
You got to never, never, never stop
Slide it up, baby, just slide it up
Slide it up, slide it up, never, never, never
You make a grown man cry
You make a grown man cry
You make a grown man cry

Lucille Bogan

Memphis journalist Stanley Booth befriended and traveled with the band during their 1969 U.S. tour. As they listened to old blues recordings from the ’20s and ’30s, Booth recalled the scene. “I went into my much-rehearsed speech about how the old bluesmen had been ripped off,” he said. “… The bellman arrived with our food, and I was so relaxed and vaguely nauseated from the heroin that I took one bite of my hamburger and put it down. Keith didn’t eat either. Lucille Bogan sang ‘Shave ‘Em Dry,’ which begins, ‘I got nipples on my t–ties as big as the end of yo’ thumb, I got something ‘tween my legs can make a dead man come’—and goes on from there to get dirty.”

Ride like the wind at double speed
I’ll take you places that you’ve never, never seen
If you start it up
Love the day when we will never stop, never stop
Never, never, never stop
Tough me up
Never stop, never stop
You, you, you make a grown man cry
You, you made a dead man come
You, you made a dead man come

Michael Carabello plays cowbell, and Barry Sage joined Jagger and Kimsey on handclaps.

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Photo by Keystone/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

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