The Rolling Stones single heavily inspired by William S. Burroughs

The light-fingered tendencies of The Rolling Stones is certainly no secret. After all, Mick Jagger pilfered his entire act from the Black blues musicians that had come before him. Over the years, the band has pinched everything from the gospel stylings of ‘The Last Time’ to The Verve’s ‘Bittersweet Symphony’ royalty cheques. Therefore, it should come as no real shock that the rockers lifted a hit single from the revolutionary writing of William S. Burroughs.

Admittedly, The Stones are far from being the only rock act to find inspiration in the musings of Burroughs. An icon of the Beat Generation, the writer and artist had a huge effect on the countercultural revolution of 1960s America. His impact can be heard within the sounds of acts ranging from the no wave noise of Sonic Youth to the glam rock of David Bowie. For Stones frontman Mick Jagger, Burroughs offered the inspiration for an often-forgotten hit single.

Seeing the band adopt a sound akin to new wave or dance-rock, to the excitement of absolutely nobody, The Stones’ 1983 album Undercover told the story of a band struggling to adapt to the changing tides of music. Nevertheless, the record did provide the Rolling Stones with some hit singles, including ‘Undercover of the Night’, their biggest chart hit since 1981’s ‘Start Me Up’.

As Jagger readily admits, the track drew heavy inspiration from the work of William S. Burroughs. Of the track, the singer revealed, “I’m not saying I nicked it, but this song was heavily influenced by William Burroughs’ Cities Of The Red Night, a free-wheeling novel about political and sexual repression.” The resulting song is a rare political effort from the Stones – who were, by 1983, global superstars worth millions – discussing political corruption in the USA.

Continuing in his description of the track, Jagger shared, “It combines a number of different references to what was going down in Argentina and Chile. I think it’s really good but it wasn’t particularly successful at the time because songs that deal overtly with politics never are that successful, for some reason.”

While “not particularly successful” is a strange way to describe a single which reached number 11 in the singles charts and number nine in the US, the song is admittedly overlooked within the Stones’ discography.

Cities of the Red Night was first published in 1981, Burroughs’ first full-length novel for a decade. The novel follows two parallel stories: one of pirates seeking to live freely and one of a detective searching for a missing child. As is to be expected of Burroughs, the novel is awash with allegory and comparisons to present-day political struggles.

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