#1107: Under My Thumb by The Rolling Stones

Peak Month: September 1966
6 weeks on Vancouver’s CFUN chart
Peak Position #8
Peak Position on Billboard Hot 100 ~ did not chart

In 1966 the Rolling Stones released their sixth studio album, Aftermath. The album had a number of tracks on it whose subject concerned females. On the British release, side one began with “Mother’s Little Helper”, “Stupid Girl”, “Lady Jane”, and followed by “Under My Thumb”. “Mother’s Little Helper” is a song that dealt with the sudden popularity of prescribed calming drugs at the time, like valium, among housewives. The lyrics warned about the potential hazards of overdose and addiction. The lyric in “Lady Jane” depicted the humble, reverent, devoted and monogamous fiancé of Lady Jane. The North American release of Aftermath replaced “Mother’s Little Helper” with “Paint It Black”.

“Paint It Black” was the first single from the album and peaked at #1 in June 1966. “Mother’s Little Helper” followed with a peak at #8 on the Billboard Hot 100 and #5 in Vancouver. “Lady Jane” climbed to #24 on the Billboard Hot 100 and #5 in Vancouver. In 1966 the Rolling Stones continued to be a dominant recording act on the airwaves in Vancouver and elsewhere.

“Under My Thumb” was not released as a single in English speaking countries. But in 1968 it was released as a single in Japan, The Philippines and elsewhere in Asia.

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Nonetheless, in Vancouver, based on listener requests in the summer of 1966, the hand-clapping, marimba infused “Under My Thumb” began to chart as the fourth track on side one of Aftermath on CFUN’s FUNTASTIC FIFTY. This made it the fourth charted song for the Rolling Stones to debut on the CFUN charts between the May 7th debut of “Paint It Black” and the August 20 debut of “Under My Thumb”. The track from Aftermath peaked at #8 in Vancouver on September 10th. CFUN was one of only a few radio stations to chart “Under My Thumb” in North America. Coincidentally, KJR in Seattle, charted “Under My Thumb” where it peaked at #3 on August 12, the week before CFUN began to chart the song.

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“Under My Thumb” features Mick Jagger who sings about a relationship where the tables have turned concerning the power dynamics. Previously the female was in charge: The girl who once had me down. And the man was being bossed around: The girl who once pushed me around. Jagger may have been familiar with William Shakespeare’s play, The Taming of the Shrew, concerning an unyielding, unbending, headstrong and contrary minded woman. The archetype was certainly seen in pop culture at the time as Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton were cast in roles for the 1967 movie, and Cole Porter’s long running 1948 Broadway play, Kiss Me Kate.

“Under My Thumb” expresses the view that the singer has achieved dominance in his relationship with his girlfriend. The term “under someone’s thumb” means to be submissive to someone. It was coined by English politician Arthur Maynwaring in his 1715 book, The Life and Posthumous Works of Arthur Maynwaring, which was printed (as the book title suggests) after his death: “The French King having them under his Thumb, compell’d them to go at his Pace.” The phrase was well enough established by the 19th century for it to spawn the verb form ‘thumbing’. This was defined in James Halliwell’s Dictionary Of Archaic And Provincial Words, 1847, as: “Thumbing: A Nottingham phrase, used to describe that species of intimidation practiced by masters on their servants when the latter are compelled to vote as their employers please.”

The lyrics in “Under My Thumb” describe a number of ways the singer is now able to control his girlfriend. He states that she talks when she is spoken to suggesting that she is polite and compliant in response to whatever he says. We learn that she has changed her ways, and now does just what she’s told. In the song the phrase down to me suggests that whatever is down to him is left for him to decide. This includes the difference in the clothes she wears, indicating that the girlfriend now seeks approval from her boyfriend regarding how to dress in public.

Another aspect of the relationship is that now her eyes are just kept to herself while, simultaneously, the singer boasts that he can still look at someone else.
This is an interesting agreement to reach, or be coerced into accepting, in a relationship. Here the boyfriend can check out and glance at other women while the girlfriend passively accepts his ogling while refraining from any flirtations herself. The singer also has a range of descriptions for his girlfriend: Siamese cat could be a flattering compliment. Siamese cats are understood in the cat world as having a number of traits including being slender, muscular, social, intelligent, playful and having attractive, fine features.

However, the singer also refers to his girlfriend as the squirmin’ dog who’s just had her day. Perhaps he experienced his girlfriend previously like untamed an untamed dog that squirms in the sense of being easily agitated and impatient. He also refers to her as “the sweetest pet in the world.” Depending on how the tone of voice accompanied the phrase in the relationship this could be understood as a term of endearment or a reminder of who wore the pants in the relationship.

Some feminists took issue with the song, though Camile Paglia defended the song.

Under my thumb
The girl who once had me down
Under my thumb
The girl who once pushed me around

It’s down to me
The difference in the clothes she wears
Down to me, the change has come
She’s under my thumb

Under my thumb
The squirmin’ dog who’s just had her day
Under my thumb
A girl who has just changed her ways
It’s down to me, yes it is
The way she does just what she’s told
Down to me, the change has come
She’s under my thumb

Under my thumb
A Siamese cat of a girl
Under my thumb
She’s the sweetest, hmm, pet in the world
It’s down to me
The way she talks when she’s spoken to
Down to me, the change has come
She’s under my thumb

It’s down to me, oh, yeah
The way she talks when she’s spoken to
Down to me, the change has come
She’s under my thumb

Under my thumb
Her eyes are just kept to herself
Under my thumb, well I
I can still look at someone else
It’s down to me, oh that’s what I said
The way she talks when she’s spoken to
Down to me, the change has come
She’s under my thumb

Jagger later reflected on the track in a 1995 interview: “It’s a bit of a jokey number, really. It’s not really an anti-feminist song any more than any of the others… Yes, it’s a caricature, and it’s in reply to a girl who was a very pushy woman.”

Two tracks earlier on Side One of Aftermath, “Stupid Girl” amplifies a teenage boys complaint about his female peers:

I’m not talking about the kind of clothes she wears
Look at that stupid girl
I’m not talking about the way she combs her hair
Look at that stupid girl

The way she powders her nose
Her vanity shows and it shows
She’s the worst thing in this world
Well, look at that stupid girl

I’m not talking about the way she digs for gold
Look at that stupid girl
Well, I’m talking about the way she grabs and holds
Look at that stupid girl

The way she talks about someone else
That she don’t even know herself
She’s the sickest thing in this world
Well, look at that stupid girl…. 

Here are The Rolling Stones appearing in 1966 on the UK show Ready Steady Go:

 

Jagger, who co-wrote the song with Keith Richards, commented about “Stupid Girl” in a December 14,1995, interview with Rolling Stone, “Yeah, it’s much nastier than ‘Under My Thumb’… Obviously, I was having a bit of trouble. I wasn’t in a good relationship. Or I was in too many bad relationships. I had so many girlfriends at that point. None of them seemed to care they weren’t pleasing me very much. I was obviously in with the wrong group.”

By the following summer “Under My Thumb” was still extremely popular in Vancouver. So popular it was enough in July 1967 to be ranked at #15 for the CFUN JULY 1967 Soundathon. Soundathon was C-FUN’s semi-annual extravaganza of hits from the past. Listeners voted for their favorite “flashbacks” and these were tallied and played in countdown order near the year’s end or in mid-summer. The July 1967 Soundathon of CFUN listener voted favorite “flashbacks” was a list of 300 songs. In addition to “Under My Thumb” being ranked at #15,  The Rolling Stones were featured on the Soundathon countdown at #240 “Have You Seen Your Mother Baby Standing In the Shadows”, #200 “Paint It Black”, #74 “It’s All Over Now”, #58 “19th Nervous Breakdown”, “28 “Lady Jane/Mother’s Little Helper” and #5 “Satisfaction”.

The Rolling Stones appeared as the final act at the Altamont Speedway Free Festival Concert on December 6, 1969, near Livermore, California. The concert headliners who performed on stage that night were Santana, Jefferson Airplane, The Flying Burrito Brothers, Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young and The Rolling Stones.

During the performance by The Rolling Stones, an 18-year old African-American youth, Meredith Curly Hunter Jr. approached the stage. He was violently driven off by members of the Hells Angels motorcycle club who had been contracted to serve as security guards. An eyewitness reported that Hunter was stabbed by one of the Angels at this point. Hunter later returned to the stage area, drew a revolver. He was then stabbed and beaten to death by Hells Angel Alan Passaro.

The Hells Angels stood directly in front of the bands performing on stage in an effort to keep people off the unusually low stage set up at the bottom of a low slope. During their security detail the Hells Angels became very intoxicated as they performed security. The crowd became restless and unpredictable. The drunken Hells Angels began hurling full cans of beer from their stockpile and striking concert-goers with sawed-off, weighted pool cues and motorcycle chains to drive the crowd back from the stage. By the time the Rolling Stones took the stage in the early evening, the mood had taken a decidedly ugly turn, as numerous fights began to erupt between Angels and crowd members.

Earlier Mick Jagger had been punched by a concertgoer prior to the Rolling Stones set on stage. Jagger urged the audience to “Just be cool down in the front there, don’t push around.” Within a minute of starting their third song, “Sympathy for the Devil,” a fight erupted in the front of the crowd, at the foot of the stage. After another appeal for calm, the band restarted their song. Their set continued their with little incident until they began to play “Under My Thumb”. It was then two of the Hells Angels began to brawl with Hunter when he tried to get onstage with other fans. One of the Hells Angels grabbed Hunter’s head, punched him, and chased him back into the crowd, where four Angels descended upon him. The stabbing that was later caught on the film Gimmie Shelter.

“Under My Thumb” has been recorded by numerous recording artists.

Del Shannon, of “Runaway” fame, did a cover version of the song in 1966

The Kingsmen, who had a hit with “Louie Louie” in 1963-64, also made a recording of in 1966:

Tina Turner did a cover version of the song on her 1975 album Acid Queen.

The Who, Streetheart and others have also covered the song.

For more song reviews visit the Countdown.

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