A band as sarcastic, blues-obsessed and apparently unsentimental as The Rolling Stones seems unlikely to have produced some of the prettiest records of the British Invasion. Yet this dissonance between the Stones’ vulgar image and their occasional delicately-wrought single is precisely what makes the latter so effective. Gentle ballads may come easy to a Paul McCartney or a Donovan, but the boys behind “Satisfaction” and “Get Off of My Cloud” have to make an effort to rein in their baser impulses and break their perpetual stance of aloof cool. The result is more moving for its rarity and the exertion required (though, like problem schoolboys making an effusive show of behaving properly, their politeness sometimes seems suspiciously close to mockery). At the same time, the Stones’ inherent edge keeps folky ballads like “As Tears Go By” from skewing too precious, and anchors the decidedly un-rock-and-roll “Lady Jane” in the modern era.
The most successful of all these balancing acts is “Ruby Tuesday,” which delves deeper into the tension between beauty and rock by making it the subject of the song itself. The verses work from a limited palette of classical instruments (piano, recorder, double bass) to craft the audio equivalent of a sepia flashback, staging an idyllic tableau of the narrator’s time with the title character. Beneath its surface loveliness, however, creeps in evidence of the effort required to maintain this setting. Mick Jagger strains below his natural vocal range, flubbing a note in the opening line. The leaden bassline tramples muddy footprints on the delicate arrangement. This beauty requires unnatural restraint, and is therefore unsustainable. Only the recorder feels free, fluttering about with little concern as to what’s going on in the song below it.
When Ruby leaves, however, the band can loosen up and settle back into its familiar, comfortable self. The drums kick in; the bass, now electric, bounces around freely; Jagger’s back in his usual voice. The recorder fades away into a faint, far-away pulse – a modern, raga-esque drone, rather than the verses’ baroque frills. The Stones treat Ruby’s departure with a mixture of sorrow and empathy; they understand why she’s leaving because it’s what they’d do, too. There’s always some ironic distance in Jagger’s vocals, but this chorus is about as sincere as he gets. Likewise, the Stones sometimes catch flak for misogynous lyrics, but “Ruby Tuesday” is fairly equitable, accepting the title character’s decision to leave without any bitterness or cruelty. Ruby may be less a person than a symbol of freedom, but it’s because she herself chooses to be mysterious, rather than because the band has reduced her to such.
For all its depth and ambition, “Ruby Tuesday” was an accidental milestone for The Rolling Stones. It was originally released as the flip side of “Let’s Spend the Night Together,” but the latter’s racy title kept American radio programmers from playing it – never mind that was actually the Stones’ most endearing single to date, filled with nervous stammering and promises to “satisfy your every need.” When “Let’s Spend the Night Together” became the Stones’ first-ever US single to miss the Top 40 (eventually peaking at #55), “Ruby Tuesday” got upgraded to double A-side status. History repeated on the follow-up single, with the pretty, ornate B-side “Dandelion” (#14) besting the outré rocker “We Love You” (#50) as the de facto A-side in America. Their third US single of 1967 finally reversed the formula: “She’s a Rainbow” as the A-side, “2000 Light Years from Home” on the flip. For a year or so, America seemed to prefer the softer side of the nastiest band of the British Invasion. Not by much, though – “Ruby Tuesday” may have been a number-one single, but it would take almost a year and a half before the group would return to the Top 10 (with the defiantly undelicate “Jumpin’ Jack Flash”), and the Stones would seldom ever repeat their late 1964-early 1967 levels of consistent chart success. But if a song as good as “Ruby Tuesday” could be stuck on a B-side, and would-be hits of the era like “Under My Thumb,” “Sympathy for the Devil” and “Gimme Shelter” could be slotted as mere album tracks, it was because a singles-based mindset was becoming increasingly irrelevant – for both The Rolling Stones as a band, and for rock as a genre. 8
Hit #1 on March 4, 1967; total of 1 week at #1
179 of 1032 #1’s reviewed; 17.34% through the Hot 100