This is the final album from what I will call the “early years” of the Stones. Released late in 1965, December’s Children isn’t really an album. Much like a few of Capitol Records’ Beatles “albums,” Children is a patchwork quilt of singles, live tracks, and songs from English EPs. It contains only one bona fide classic, and six of the twelve songs are cover songs.
Strangely, the first side of the record (I’m clearly kickin’ it old school here) contains five of the six covers, leaving side two as the real harbinger of what the Stones were really working on at the time.
As usual, the covers are excellent. “She Said Yeah” is played with a ferocity and aggression that would not be commonplace until the English punk movement arrived more than a decade later. The obligatory Chuck Berry cover, “Talkin’ About You” similarly has more grit than the original. The Stones always brought an innate aggression to their cover songs that frequently elevated their versions to levels above the originals. In comparison, the covers done by the Beatles were, with some exceptions ( e.g., “Money,” “Boys,” “Twist And Shout,” “You Really Got A Hold On Me”), usually close approximations of the original tunes, and paled in comparison to the brilliance of Lennon and McCartney’s originals. For the Stones, the covers frequently saved their early albums from being somewhat lightweight. (What the 1963 Stones did to Lennon and McCartney’s “I Wanna Be Your Man” is downright frightening, turning a fairly soppy song given to Ringo as a throwaway into a song of nakedly sexual urgency. It is akin to what Jimi Hendrix did to the utterly banal “Wild Thing” a few years later.)
Covers of Arthur Alexander’s “You Better Move On” and Muddy Waters’s “Look What You’ve Done” are a step down. “You Better Move On” is a very good soul song, but “Look What You’ve Done” sounds like an English band doing blues (and even though that’s exactly what they were, the Stones were always better than that). The vocal on “Look What You’ve Done” is excellent, and Jagger deserves much more credit than he is ever given as a blues singer. The harmonica, likely played by Brian Jones, is on overdrive. It drowns out all the other instruments and does little more than detract from Jagger’s compelling performance.
The sole original on side one, “The Singer Not The Song,” is a throwback to the earlier days of the Jagger/Richards songwriting combination. It’s a good song, but can’t be viewed as anything less than a letdown after “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction.” And the high note squealed in the fadeout is just brutal. The Stones had mastered blues and rock singing, but were light years behind the Beatles, Beach Boys, and Byrds when it came to singing high harmonies.
Side one ends with a live recording of “Route 66.” At least I think it’s live. It’s got that “studio recording with overdubbed screams” sound to it. Either way, it’s not much to write home about. Without the shrill screams, it’s not a bad performance. But it sounds muddy.
While side one may end with a whimper, side two kicks off with one of the greatest drums licks in rock history, followed by Keith’s unstoppable rhythm guitar and Bill Wyman’s McCartney-esque bass as Jagger sings one of rock’s greatest anthems, “Get Off Of My Cloud.” A hymn to the desire to be left alone, the lyric actually has some nice imagery (“I sit at home/Lookin’ out the window/Imagining the world outside” “The parking tickets/Were like a flag/Stuck on my windscreen”). “Cloud” is really nothing less than a continuation of the saga in “Satisfaction.” Jagger takes a shot at the world of television advertising (“In flies a guy all dressed up like a Union Jack/Says I’ll have five pounds/If I have his kind of detergent pack”), and seems to have decided that his best chance for satisfaction is in being left alone. It’s a thrilling song, even now after all these years and all these listens. Perhaps because it was not as famous as “Satisfaction,” “Get Off My Cloud” can still be heard with fresh ears.
“I’m Free” follows and this also seems to run with the theme. In pursuit of satisfaction, Jagger has chased all hangers-on from his cloud. The result is that he is now free to sing his song, any old time. Earlier he had complained “I can’t get no satisfaction;” now he “can get what I want.” Frankly, the song is a little repetitive, but the vocal is convincing and the music is great. The early song, “As Tears Go By” follows. They’d written this old geezer anthem and given it to the ingenue Marianne Faithfull to sing. From her teenage lips, or from the lips of the young Stones, the lyrics seem a bit precious, as if they were consciously trying to write a song that was “mature.” The string arrangement, undoubtedly done with one eye clearly looking…um, yesterday…is quite nice, and Jagger’s delivery is as good as usual, but the song overall is way too old for the young Stones. In fact, it’s old for the current Stones.
The remaining original songs, “Gotta Get Away” and “Blue Turns to Grey” are both good performances. “Gotta Get Away” is not a particularly compelling song. It feels rushed and underwritten, but the Stones carry it with the strength of their convictions. “Blue Turns To Grey” is the better song, but carries some of the same criticisms that can be applied to “As Tears Go By.” It seems self-consciously “mature” and one can’t help but wonder whether they were trying to catch up to the ever-escalating songwriting prowess of Lennon and McCartney by writing more “adult” songs.
Unfortunately, side two ends with yet another live, or perhaps “faux live” track, “I’m Moving On.” With this song, the album ends as it beganwith a full blast of punk rock fury. The performance once again is just plain mean. The ever-present screams of thousands of young girls itching to satisfy Mick make it hard to listen to, though.
The next Stones single, released two months after December’s Children was the epochal “19th Nervous Breakdown.” The song would both cap the Unholy Trinity of Stones classics that began with “Satisfaction” and continued with “Get Off My Cloud” and set the stage for the middle period of the Stones, where the cover songs would all but disappear and Jagger and Richards would refine their songwriting until it began turning out one classic after another.