In this song, Mick Jagger takes on the persona of killer who is stalking his victim. This character calls himself the "midnight rambler" and he seems to relish his notoriety - much like many real-life serial killers.
A likely inspiration for the lyric is the case of the Boston Strangler. Thirteen women were found dead (many had been sexually assaulted) in and around Boston from 1962-1964. Most of the victims had been strangled and were found with their nylon stockings tied in a bow around their necks.
In 1965, Albert DeSalvo, who was serving time in a mental institution on rape charges, confessed to the murders and was later sentenced to life in prison. There was no clear physical evidence that DeSalvo committed the crimes, however, and his confession has been questioned, with some forensic experts stating that there may have been multiple killers. DeSalvo died in prison in 1973; new evidence has come up in the case from time to time.
As for the song, while the lyrics do not directly relate to the case, Jagger implies it when he sings, "Well you heard about the Boston..." before an instrumental stab cuts him off.
The Stones played this in 1969 and throughout the '70s at their concerts, and when they did, it was a showstopper. Mick Jagger created a morbid atmosphere as he took the role of the killer, spastically whipping the floor toward the end of the song as the audience would scream along.
These performances were enhanced by a custom light rig that their lighting director, Chip Monck, created for the band's 1969 US tour. This was the first lighting system to travel with a rock band, and The Stones used it to great effect on this song. At the climax, the lights would shine red on Jagger in a very theatrical moment.
Mick Jagger: "That's a song Keith and I really wrote together. We were on a holiday in Italy. In this very beautiful hill town, Positano, for a few nights. Why we should write such a dark song in this beautiful, sunny place, I really don't know. We wrote everything there - the tempo changes, everything. And I'm playing the harmonica in these little cafés, and there's Keith with the guitar."
Bertrand - Paris, France
Brian Jones is credited on percussion. Even though he died before this album was released, a few of the songs were recorded during the Beggar's Banquet
sessions in 1968. "Midnight Rambler" was one of them.
Joel - Chicago, IL
Mick Taylor added an extra guitar to the live performances of this. The live version can be heard on Get Yer Ya-Yas Out.
When Mick Jagger performed this in character on stage, it was good preparation for his acting career. In 1970, he appeared in two films: Ned Kelly and Performance. He would later appear in Freejack (1992) and The Man from Elysian Fields (2001).
Keith Richards: "When we did Midnight Rambler, nobody went in there with the idea of doing a blues opera, basically. Or a blues in four parts. That's just the way it turned out. I think that's the strength of the Stones or any good band. You can give them a song half raw and they'll cook it."
This was used in The Office episode "Pam's Replacement" from season 8. Robert California and his friends play it when they take over Andy, Kevin, and Darryl's band.