A “beast of burden” is an animal, usually domesticated, that labors for the benefit of man, such as an ox or horse. The music and some lyrics were primarily written by Keith Richards. In the liner notes to the 1993 compilation disc Jump Back, Richards said Beast of Burden “was another one where Mick (Jagger) just filled in the verses. With the Stones, you take a long song, play it and see if there are any takers. Sometimes they ignore it, sometimes they grab it and record it. After all the faster numbers of Some Girls, everybody settled down and enjoyed the slow one.”
In those same notes, Jagger says, “Lyrically, this wasn’t particularly heartfelt in a personal way. It’s a soul begging song, an attitude song. It was one of those where you get one melodic lick, break it down and work it up; there are two parts here which are basically the same.” The song can be seen as allegorical, with Richards saying in 2003, “When I returned to the fold after closing down the laboratory [referring to his drug problems throughout the 1970s], I came back into the studio with Mick… to say, ‘Thanks, man, for shouldering the burden’ – that’s why I wrote “Beast of Burden” for him, I realise in retrospect.”
“Beast of Burden” was recorded from October–December 1977. Although basic lyrics were written before the Stones entered the studio, many of the lyrics on the recording were improvised by Jagger to fit with the smooth running guitars of Richards and Ronnie Wood. Characteristically, Richards and Wood trade off rolling, fluid licks. Neither is really playing lead or rhythm guitar, they both slip in and out, one playing high while the other is low. The song is another famed Some Girls song that features each band member playing his respective instrument without any outside performers; both Richards and Wood play acoustic and electric guitars, with Wood performing the solo.
The song was released as the second single off the album. It charted at #8 in the US. A live version was recorded during their 1981 American Tour and was released as a B-side to “Going to a Go-Go”, as well as being reissued on Rarities 1971-2003 in 2005. Another live version was recorded during their 2002-2003 Licks Tour which was released on Live Licks. The single edit of “Beast of Burden” was included on the compilation albums Sucking in the Seventies, Rewind (1971–1984), Jump Back, Forty Licks and GRRR!. A 5:20 version of the song with extra lyrics circulates among collectors. It was taken from the eight-track mix of Some Girls, which features significant differences from all other versions of the album.
In 1984, the song was covered by Bette Midler whose video for the song featured Jagger as the guest star. Midler’s version, which reached #71 on Billboard’s Hot 100, modified several lines of lyric (for example, changing “Pretty, pretty, girls” to “my little sister is a pretty, pretty girl”). The track appeared on Midler’s No Frills album.