"Play with Fire" is credited to Nanker Phelge, a pseudonym giving credit to each member of the band, even though it was the result of a session between lead singer Mick Jagger and guitarist Keith Richards. The song was written late one night in January 1965 while the Stones were in Los Angeles recording with Phil Spector at the RCA Studios. The only Stones to appear on the track are Jagger and Richards. The rest, including Brian Jones, Bill Wyman and Charlie Watts, had already left the studio for the night. Richards performed the song's acoustic guitar opening while Jagger handled vocals and tambourine (enhanced using echo chamber). Spector provided the song's bass as well as a tuned-down electric guitar. Jack Nitzsche provided the song's distinctive harpsichord arrangement and tamtams. The Stones left for a tour of Australia the following day.
The song's lyrics talk of the singer's relationship with a high society girl, disparaging the lifestyle much in the same way that "19th Nervous Breakdown" would in a more up-tempo feel.
In a 1995 interview with Jann Wenner for Rolling Stone entitled "Jagger Remembers", Jagger said, ""Play with Fire" sounds amazing -- when I heard it last. I mean, it's a very in-your-face kind of sound and very clearly done. You can hear all the vocal stuff on it. And I'm playing the tambourines, the vocal line. You know, it's very pretty." An unreleased version of the song, entitled "Mess with Fire", was also recorded. It featured a much more upbeat, soul-oriented feel.
"Play with Fire" acted as the b-side to album mate "The Last Time" and went to #96 on the U.S chart. It was also featured prominently on the 1971 collection Hot Rocks, as well as Singles Collection: The London Years and closing the U.S. version of the 1966 collection Big Hits (High Tide and Green Grass).
The song was performed in concert during the Rolling Stones' tours of 1965 and 1966, and has been regularly featured on their tours since the 1989-1990 Steel Wheels/Urban Jungle Tour.
In the second season of The Wire, in an attempt to sound like he is not from Baltimore when infiltrating an illegal brothel, Detective Jimmy McNulty affects an English accent and plans to claim to be from Stepney and Knightsbridge (as well as Mersey), London suburbs metonymic of squalor and chic respectively in "Play with Fire".
In July 2008 "Play With Fire" became the subject of a lawsuit when ABKCO Music Inc., which owns the rights to the Rolling Stones' early catalogue, filed a suit against Lil Wayne, asserting that the rapper's song "Playing With Fire" is based on the Rolling Stones' song.