The Rolling Stones released five albums in their original guise as a tough British blues/R&B/soul band (I’m going by the American releases which were slightly different than their British counterparts). Of the five, The Rolling Stones, Now! is their best.
The formula hasn’t changed very much. The album is still a collection of cover songs with a smattering of less-than-spectacular original songs. That said, the cover songs are among the best they’ve ever done, and the originals contain the first genuine Jagger/Richards classic, “Heart Of Stone,” and another near-classic with “Off The Hook.”
The album also continues to mine the band’s increasing interest in soul music. From the opening salvo of Solomon Burke’s classic “Everybody Needs Somebody To Love” to “Pain In My Heart” the Stones were fast proving themselves just as adept at soul music as they were at blues and R&B. The major difference between their R&B-oriented first album and their more soul-infused second album is that the two roots are beginning to fuse together in the hands of the band. The soul is being played by bluesmen, the blues being played by a soul band.
There are two Chuck Berry numbers on Now! which suggests that the Stones may have been running low on material that they were adept at covering. But the Berry covers are their best yet: “You Can’t Catch Me,” and “Down The Road Apiece,” which Berry didn’t write but which he had covered. “Down The Road” especially is a prime example of early Stones. “You Can’t Catch Me” features a great guitar solo layered over a propulsive rhythm that shows clearly the one thing the Stones were always masters of: the art of performing with two guitars. Rhythm was crucial to the music of the Stones and Keith’s rhythm guitar (and occasional leads) were every bit as important to the sound of the song as Brian Jones’s lead guitar (and occasional rhythm). So many bands relegate the rhythm guitar to a subsonic point in the mix, letting the lead guitar take over so much that it becomes the only guitar you can hear. But the interplay between Richards and Jones is dazzling (listen to the dueling between Richards’s picked guitar lead and Jones’s short, sharp slide in “What A Shame”).
Of the other covers, “Mona” may be somewhat pale in comparison to Bo Diddley’s fierce original, but the cover of “Little Red Rooster” is sharp enough to slice through tin cans and tomatoes, and would make The Wolf proud. “Down Home Girl” is a solid blues while “Oh Baby (We Got A Good Thing Going)” is probably the weakest cut. Not bad, but nothing to write home about.
Of the originals, “Heart Of Stone” is a great soul ballad and the first “great” Jagger/Richards original. “Off The Hook” is a terrific rock and roll number. Those two songs are clearly head and shoulders above any other originals the Stones had recorded to this point. “What A Shame” and “Surprise, Surprise” are lesser songs, but at least equal to, if not better than, the best Stones originals on 12 X 5. While the originals may prove that Jagger and Richards were not writing on the same level as Bo Diddley or Chuck Berry at this point, they were at least not embarrassing themselves by putting the songs on the same album.
The full flowering of the Jagger/Richards songwriting partnership would begin on their next album, and the covers would start to seem less vital than the originals. At this point in time, covers and originals stood side by side. Soon the covers would become much less important.