Let’s Spend The Night Together

June 28, 2010

Let’s Spend the Night Together.
Let’s Spend the Night Together (live, 1973).

The Rolling Stones’ “Let’s Spend the Night Together” is stranger and more complex than its reputation as one of the Stones’ most primal dance and sex songs. It’s a product of the Stones’ psychedelic era (the band was stuck in London, unable to perform live, and so spent their days throwing parties, taking drugs, getting busted and making Between the Buttons and Their Satanic Majesties Request); so while written to be a single, it’s a murky and even experimental record. Keith Richards wrote most of it on piano (considering it a remake of “Have You Seen Your Mother Baby”), and his repeated piano line and a droning organ dominate the track, nearly swallowing up the guitars. As Richards pointed out years later, the backing singers are basically vocalizing piano chords. Charlie Watts seems to be slipping behind the beat, while the monotony of the track only breaks with its odd middle section, when there’s a swirl of vocals and, underneath, clattering sticks (allegedly by bobbies visiting the studio for a drug raid).

And Mick Jagger’s vocal isn’t as much a lecherous come-on as it is a desperate teenage boy’s plea, someone whose ambition far outweighs his experience. Take the way Jagger hems and haws in the opening verses, filling in spaces with “my my my my”s and other nervous tics, getting caught up on vowel sounds (“fooling around, and ’round and ’round…”), even admitting “this doesn’t happen to me everyday!!” As the song builds, the kid tries to psych himself up to ask the question, and when Jagger finally hits his mark after the final moment of doubt (the ominous bridge), he sings his last lines with delight, the backing singers cheering for him.

All this nuance went out the window when Bowie covered “Let’s Spend the Night Together” six years later. Bowie unfurled it as a show-opener for his return to Britain in late December 1972, then quickly cut a version for the Aladdin Sane LP. There’s a sense that the band is just tarting the song up—it’s moved up in key (from the original G (I believe) to A), sped up in pace, and filled with Mick Ronson and Mike Garson at their most indulgent: guitar sneers, spiky piano, synthesizer washes.

And where Jagger’s vocal can be hesitant and wry, with Jagger singing the title phrase by emphasizing “night” then falling off, slightly, on “together,” Bowie is manic and confident, as though he’s so sure of this conquest he’s already got his eye on another one. He delivers the chorus like a royal edict, keeping on the same note for most of it, and sprints through the verses as if someone’s got a stopwatch in the vocal booth. His breathy, spoken “our love comes from above…let’s make….lurve” bit is just irritating. Some have interpreted Bowie’s version as a gay liberation of the Stones’ heterosexual original, but if so, it was done at the expense of the original’s humanity—a bit of a cruel bargain.

As a cover song in a Ziggy Stardust show, “Let’s Spend the Night Together” worked well enough; as a filler track on an LP that’s already a bit padded (the second side of Aladdin Sane also has a remake of “The Prettiest Star”), it’s loud, tacky and pointless. Still, Bowie won the game at the end, as subsequent Rolling Stones performances of the song (they didn’t play it live again until the late ’70s) seemed to take his version as inspiration, with Jagger becoming a parody of a glam spoof of himself.

First performed by Bowie on 23 December 1972, opening his grand return to the Rainbow Theatre, and recorded around the same time. Performed throughout the last Ziggy Stardust tour in 1973, and issued as a single in the US and Europe (RCA 41125 c/w “Lady Grinning Soul”).

Top: Bobby Douglass in the field, Chicago, 1972.