According To The Rolling Stones, by The Rolling Stones

Once again the Rolling Stones follow the Beatles. Several years after the Beatles released the documentary and coffee table oral history of the band, Anthology, the Rolling Stones released According To The Rolling Stones.

It’s about as imaginative as the title suggests, but the title is really inaccurate.

With Anthology, the Beatles set out to tell their side of the story, and they did it in exhaustive detail. While I might have preferred more information from the Fabs on their fascinating recording sessions, both the documentary and book were a treasure trove of stories. Every vacation, tour, and album were discussed in some length (more in the book than the film). But Paul McCartney has always been very conscious of, and protective of, the Beatles.

The Rolling Stones, on the other hand, don’t really seem to care all that much about their history. Mick Jagger especially is much more comfortable talking about their latest album/tour than he is talking about Exile On Main Street and the 1972 tour. Keith Richards tells the stories you want to hear, but the self-mythologizing can be excruciating. Charlie Watts is reticent to discuss much of anything. That leaves Ron Wood who is, at best, an unreliable narrator (as his own autobiography proves).

According to The Rolling Stones is excellent for what it is: a book that was used to cross-promote the Forty Licks tour and CD. It’s not dissimilar to 25 X 5, which was a mediocre documentary that was great if you recognized it for what it was: a promotional piece for the Steel Wheels tour. As a far-reaching, well-thought history of the band, 25 X 5 fell short. So does According to The Rolling Stones.

The Beatles Anthology was done while George Harrison was still alive, so it featured both old and new interviews with the three surviving Fabs, and pertinent pieces of old interviews brought Lennon into the mix. But where are old interviews with Brian Jones? Or new interviews with Mick Taylor or Bill Wyman? These three played essential roles in the Rolling Stones, but they are no longer in the band and have thus been whitewashed out of existence for the creators of this book. Wyman especially could have been a goldmine of information since he kept extensive diaries and notes about every note the band ever played.

But that’s the dirty secret here: this is not a history of The Rolling Stones in their own words. This is a promo piece for a CD and tour. You want proof? The Sticky Fingers album barely gets mentioned. The Forty Licks tour gets the last two chapters.

If you take the book for what it is, it’s very good. If you really want the complete history of the Stones from the band members themselves…well, have fun waiting. I just don’t see it coming.

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The Rolling Stones: Aftermath

aftermath

Following closely on the heels of their breathtaking single, “19th Nervous Breakdown,” the Rolling Stones released their first album of all original songs. Gone were the soul and blues covers played so lovingly and faithfully by the band. In their place were a series of pop and rock gems, beautifully colored by a rich palette of instrumentation, courtesy of Brian Jones.

This was also the album that had the most differences between the English and American versions. The English version has three additional songs (“Out Of Time,” “Take It Or Leave It” and “What To Do”), substitutes “Mother’s Little Helper” for “Paint It Black,” and changes the order of the songs. I grew up listening to the American version and, despite the shorter length, still prefer it. While “Out Of Time” is an absolute gem, both “Take It Or Leave It” and “What To Do” are simply good songs that would have fit comfortably on any of the earlier Stones albums. “Mother’s Little Helper” is a great song and one of the quintessential Stones singles, but it’s dwarfed by the brilliance of “Paint It Black.”

It’s the American version I’ll stick with here.

A lightly plucked sitar announces with little fanfare that the Stones were no longer going to be merely blues and soul fanboys. Brian Jones is all over the track while Keith Richards plays some electrifying guitar fills, but to me this track belongs to Charlie Watts. The drumming on this song is simply incredible. Watts never gets his proper due as a great drummer, but the fills, rolls, and cymbal crashes that fill this song provide a bedrock you could build a city on. It’s a textbook example of great drumming in a rock and roll song. With Bill Wyman’s pounding bass, Richards rooting the song in gutsy rock and roll, and Jones reaching for Eastern skies, the coup de grace of Mick Jagger’s brilliant lyric (a meditation on the death of a loved one) and his ferocious performance (he practically spits out the lyrics), “Paint It Black” will forever be one of the greatest songs the Rolling Stones have ever done. What a way to start an album. Yes, “Mother’s Little Helper” is a great song, but this is the way to start an album.

The Stones have taken a lot of heat in their career for being misogynists. It’s not an entirely unfounded accusation. Evidence for the prosecution includes two of the next three songs, “Stupid Girl” and “Under My Thumb.” Sexist lyrics aside, “Stupid Girl” gets by on the organ (played by producer Jack Nitzsche or Ian Stewart) underpinning. Richards plays choppy rhythm guitar throughout, slashing at chords and lightly picking brief leads, while Jagger once again swaggers menacingly. The lyrics of “Under My Thumb” can also be considered sexist, as Jagger sings convincingly about turning the tables on a dominating woman. The guitar playing is understated and brilliant, but the song achieves classic Stones status on the backs of Brian Jones’s marimba…an instrument not often heard in rock and roll. The exotic instrumentation adds so much flavor and depth to the song that it is entirely understandable if you want to ignore the sexual politics of the lyrics and just sing along. The fuzz bass provided by Wyman and the solid drumming of Watts keep the song rooted in rock and roll.

Sandwiched between these two songs is the Elizabethan ballad “Lady Jane.” Over a background of Keith’s plucked guitar, harpsichord, and Wyman’s simple, but resounding, bass, Jagger sings an ode to a woman that would not have seemed out of place if Henry VIII were singing it to Lady Jane Seymour. It seems a little stilted, especially with the old fashioned lyrics (“I pledge my troth to Lady Jane”), but it’s a beautiful and elegant piece.

Side one is rounded out by two mid-tempo rockers “Doncha Bother Me” and “Think.” The former is marked by a slide guitar refrain that punctuates the singing of the title. Harmonica and keyboards add the flavor, and there is a nice amount of raunch in the guitar playing. For “Think” the guitars mimic horns over Charlie’s shuffle beats while Jagger once again sings a lyrics that probably wouldn’t go over too well at a N.O.W. convention. There’s also a tasty guitar solo from Richards. “Doncha Bother Me” is not exactly an earth-shaking Stones song, but “Think” is criminally undervalued. It may not be the best song on “Aftermath” but it stands as an excellent piece of early Stones songwriting.

Side Two opens with the tale of a man who boards “Flight 505” with no clear destination, only to go down in a crash into the sea. Once again the song is raunched up by Bill Wyman’s fuzz bass, and Richards plays great lead guitar. The vocal is slurred and kind of buried in the mix, and it’s not really a great lyric anyway. But what’s most interesting in the song is the piano intro that starts the piece. After some basic boogie woogie piano (probably Ian Stewart), the opening chords of “Satisfaction” are played before the rest of the instrumentation crashes in.

Aftermath came out in 1966, when the 45 RPM single was still King, and albums were purchased only by rabid fans. The Stones legend is based on their singles from this time, and many great album tracks are lost to all but the most ardent fans. Such is the case with “High And Dry,” “It’s Not Easy,” and “I Am Waiting.” The first of these songs is an early, and successful, attempt at a straight country song. The lyrics are a little jokey (Jagger admits to not taking country music all that seriously until later on), but Wyman’s walking bass line and Jones’s harmonica hooting make the song an enjoyable listen. It may have been meant as something of a parody of country music, but it works as a straight song.

“It’s Not Easy” is a guitar driven mid-tempo rocker with great backing vocals and fuzzed up rhythm guitar. To add even more punch, Bill Wyman once again trots out the fuzz bass and Watts provides more textbook fills. “I Am Waiting” is a beautifully simple song. Jagger’s voice is noticeably double-tracked on the verses and the music follows the melody of the vocals. When the chorus comes in, the elegant song becomes pop music heaven. Wyman shines throughout, his bass mirroring Jagger’s vocal on the verses and leading the music in the choruses. The guitar is lightly plucked during the verses and in the chorus becomes a beautifully rhythmic strummed engine that propels the song.

The album ends with “Going Home.” This is not the eleven-minute long Ten Years After jam. No, this is the eleven-minute long Stones jam. It starts promisingly enough as a basic blues with Jagger enjoying the prospect of getting back to his girl after all this time on the road. Somewhere around the three and a half minute mark, the song ends and the endless jam begins. What’s most noticeable is that Jagger here is refining the sort of scat singing he started in the fadeout of “The Last Time” and would perfect on both “Sympathy For The Devil” and “Midnight Rambler.” In many ways, “Going Home” is the musical precursor to “Rambler.” The problem is that it’s just not very good, and while it’s bad enough that it ends the album, it could have been worse. It could have been in the middle of the album (where it is in the UK version of the album). It’s a way to end an otherwise brilliant album (the first truly great album of the Stones career) on a real bum note.

Grade: A.

Les Paul, RIP

Les Paul wasn’t a rock and roll musician, but without him there might not be any rock and roll as we know it. The single most defining image of rock music is the guitar: loud, powerful, and electric. The electric guitar gave rock a distinct sound. Overdubbing, effects, and multitracking were all studio tricks that rock and roll music exploited to great effect. They were also all innovations by Les Paul, the inventor of the solid-body electric guitar. Gibson Les Paul guitars are the favored axe of so many famous guitar players from Pete Townshend to Angus Young. Paul’s own music was a light jazz, and he was a nimble guitarist, but the youngsters who picked up the instrument in his wake far surpassed him in technical skill. There are no electric guitar players anywhere in the world today who don’t owe him a great debt. By his innovations, he became the father of rock and roll. RIP.

Horehound, by The Dead Weather

m61363pa3g8Move over, James Brown. The hardest working man in show biz is Jack White. Since the White Stripes first burst into public consciousness with their third album, the brilliant White Blood Cells, guitarist and singer Jack White has been omnipresent. He has released three albums with the White Stripes, two albums with The Raconteurs, produced an album for Loretta Lynn, toured extensively, released a live Stripes DVD, jammed with the Stones, Pete Townshend, and Bob Dylan, finished working on the forthcoming guitar geek documentary It Might Get Loud, prepped a new White Stripes documentary due out this fall, opened a record store/record label/rehearsal space/recording studio in Nashville, got married and had a child, and has formed his third band, The Dead Weather. I get tired just thinking about it. The kicker is this: he’s been great at everything he’s done. Jack White is having a stretch of several years that most musicians only dream about: whatever he touches turns to gold. He simply can’t do anything wrong at this point. I’m sure that he will stumble at some point; everybody does. But right now, he’s got a really hot hand and he’s smart enough to take advantage of it.

Horehound is the first album by The Dead Weather, and White takes a back seat (literally) on this project. Unlike his other bands, White is not the focus of attention here. He’s not even the guitarist: for this project he returns to his first instrument, the drums. Surprise, surprise: yes, he’s even a very good drummer. He’s also not the lead singer. While White sings lead on one cut, the vocals are handled by the smoldering Alison Mosshart of The Kills, who sings in a voice amazingly similar to…Jack White’s. The bass duties are picked up by Jack Lawrence of The Greenhornes and The Raconteurs, and the guitar and keyboards are Dean Fertita of Queens Of The Stone Age.

Jack White has always come across as the decent, respectable boy of rock and roll. He’s finding it harder to be a gentleman, but he’s trying. He wants to be the boy to warm your mother’s heart. He wants to settle down and get married by a priest. He thinks that we are gonna be friends. He doesn’t drink or do drugs, apparently. He does have a dark side, of course. Jack’s greatest sin is his power of manipulation, evidenced on Stripes songs like “You’ve Got Her In Your Pocket.”

On Horehound, Jack White loses his innocence to a maneater named Mossheart. The sonic difference between The Dead Weather and his other bands is immediately apparent. The White Stripes sound like blues lovers on a Zeppelin binge. The Raconteurs are a country-inflected classic rock band. The Dead Weather? A cross between Nine Inch Nails, the Cure, and Lucifer.

The star of The Dead Weather is Alison Mossheart. She is the strutting, ravenous alpha-female. One can almost see the discarded bones of her previous lovers as she struts past. If you look in her eyes you’re turned to stone, as if she were a beautiful Gorgon. Rolling drums, plucked guitar strings, synthesized sounds start “60 Feet Tall,” as Mossheart croons “You’re so cruel and shameless/But I can’t leave you be…You’ve got the kind of loving/I need constantly.” She-Devil Mossheart has her eyes set on someone who isn’t good for her. It’s okay, though, because she can take the trouble. Mossheart is the flip of Jack White. If White is the nice guy with a naughty, manipulative streak, Mossheart is the girl who is attracted to the bad, but is herself bad enough to leave nothing but scorched earth in her wake. She feeds on the bad…and she’s got the manipulator Jack in her sights. Ferocious guitars and the raunchiest, filthiest bass I’ve ever heard slam in and out of the song while White plays Mitch Mitchell-style rolls.

Mossheart lets White know early that his manipulation won’t work on her. “You say that I love you/But it ain’t true…I’d like to grab you by the hair/And drag you to the Devil,” Mossheart spits on the brilliant “Hang You From The Heavens” as the thick, intense music swirls up and down around her. On his sole lead vocal, White protests that he may look like he can be easily defeated, but he’s really made of much tougher stuff. “I may look like a woman/But I cut like a buffalo,” he sings on “I Cut Like A Buffalo” as the instruments create a wall of frequently discordant noise behind him.

Jack’s claim of toughness isn’t having any sway on Mossheart. She counters Jack’s claim by informing him that he’s unable of manipulating her and helpless before her. She’s got him pinned, and he just wants to get up. “I said no,” Mossheart sings in a tired voice on “So Far From Your Weapon,” as if she’s already tiring of the game.

The peak of this extraordinary album is “Treat Me Like Your Mother,” which could act as a soundtrack for the Götterdämmerung. White’s manipulative ways are crushed by Mossheart. White and Mossheart trade vocals, but it’s Mossheart’s show. “Stand up like a man!/You better learn to shake hands/And treat me like your mother,” Mossheart scolds. White responds, as if it’s his brain trying to convince him what to do: “Play dumb/Play dead/Try to manipulate…” But he’s never met anyone quite like Mossheart, who spits his own words back at him, going so far as to spell out for him “M-A-N-I-P-You late!” It’s all too late, for Jack. He’s crossed over.

By the next song, “Rocking Horse” the nice boy is writing letters to God:

I drank some dirty water
Shook evil hands
I’ve done some bad things
And they get easier to do

Then I wrote a nasty letter
And I sent it to the Lord
I said don’t you dare come
And bother me no more

Mossheart joins him on the vocals, strengthening the theme, joining him at his evil hip.

A cover of Bob Dylan’s “New Pony” serves to reinforce the basic theme. While the lead vocals are all Mossheart, the lyrics reflect the same back and forth between the two principles. Over a brutal heavy metal industrial backing that wouldn’t sound out of place on a Ministry song, Mossheart first sings about owning a lame pony named Lucifer who needs shooting. In the second verse, she takes on White’s role, wondering what’s going on in the mind of Miss X. In the third verse she again is scolding White. His “nasty letter to the Lord” from “Rocking Horse” is going to be turned against him: “That god you been praying to/Is gonna give ya back what you’re wishin’ on someone else.” She ends the song with the blatantly sexual imagery of climbing up on the pony, who is bad and nasty, but she loves him anyway.

On “Bone House,” Mossheart lets Jack know that she’s the one who is in the position of power for now, for ever. An industrial blues song, with judicious synthesized guitar licks and clanging cymbals, “Bone House” finds Mossheart breaking the news to Jack that she always gets what she wants, and she does it by putting his heart in a vault. “I’ll build a house for your bones,” she informs him.

The instrumental “3 Birds” follows, and sounds like a soundtrack from some lost movie. Lawrence’s bass drives the song with keyboards, drums, and guitar noises providing color. It took me a while to like it, but I do. At around the 1:40 mark, when the synthesizer and the psychedelic Sergio Leone acoustic guitar come in and take over the song, I was sold.

On the penultimate track, “No Hassle Night” Mossheart once again provides the voice for both herself and Jack. The relationship, one of anger, manipulation, and, presumably, unbelievably great sex, is all but over. Both Mossheart and White are wasted, done. “I’m looking for a place to go/Where I can lay low/Die slow,” Mossheart sings. Her voice is tired, the musical accompaniment thick and slow. “I’ve become her and it hurts my mind.” At this point, the lovers are exhausted and all they want is a night without any problems.

“Will There Be Enough Water?” ends the album. The thick, industrial sound of the album is gone, with just a lightly strummed acoustic guitar, delicate piano, and light drums providing a bluesy backdrop as Mossheart and, predominantly, White meet their reckoning. “Will there be enough water/When my ship comes in?” they wonder. “When I set sail/Will there be enough wind?” One can’t help but think the answer is no. These lovers are doomed.

This final track is, unfortunately, the sole bum song on the disc. It’s not a bad three minute song. The problem is that it’s over six minutes long, and never really goes anywhere. But as for the rest of the album…simply brilliant. Grade: A

The Listening Post: July 2009

Quickie reviews of what’s been rockin’ the Odd Pod this month…

  • The Pipe Dreams Of Instant Prince WhippetGuided By Voices. Robert Pollard’s Guided By Voices was one of the more frustrating acts in popular music. At their best, they did hard-edged power pop that was absolutely sublime. At their worst, they did half-written songs lacking tune or melody. Like Ryan Adams on speed, Pollard was ridiculously prolific. Because Pollard lacked an editor to weed out some of the lesser songs, GBV albums tend to be hit or miss. Some, like Isolation Drills, are start-to-finish great. Composed of outtakes from Isolation Drills and Universal Truths and Cycles, the 23-minute, 10-song Pipe Dreams falls on the underwhelming side. Most of the songs are half-baked and feel decidedly incomplete. “Visit This Place,” “Dig Through My Window” and the title track are superior songs, and “For Liberty” is a a good piece of filler, but much of the rest just drags. There’s nothing really awful on this disc, but there’s nothing within a mile of Isolation‘s or Cycles‘s best moments, either. Grade: C+
  • 21st Century BreakdownGreen Day. Never before has a band gotten so much mileage out of the word “Hey!” There are currently two bands aiming to pick up The Who’s crown, now that The Who is The Two. The first of these is Pearl Jam, who carry the mantle of The Who’s stadium ready anthemic rock songs. The second, surprisingly, is Green Day, the punk rock trio from Berkeley, California. Green Day’s come a long way from the days of three minute pop punk songs about marijuana and masturbation. Now they’re writing honest-to-God rock operas like Tommy and Quadrophenia. The first of these, American Idiot, was a powerhouse collection of songs and performances. The latest, and what could be termed a sequel, or perhaps the flip side, of American Idiot, is 21st Century Breakdown. I’ve been listening, and I’ve read the lyrics. There’s a theme of alienation and disenchantment with the state of America today, and characters with actual names (Christian and Gloria), but I’m damned if I can figure out what the actual plot is (but then, I still don’t know the plot of American Idiot, either). As songs, most of them are really solid. The title track is a heavily charged anthem fueled with punk rage, while “Christian’s Inferno” crackles with demonic laughter and a ferocious performance. Perhaps strangest of all is “Peacemaker” which sounds like a Jewish folk song fueled by amphetamines, like an outtake from Fiddler On The Roof played by The Clash. There are some complaints: at over an hour, it’s a whole lot of Green Day; there’s a certain sameness to a lot of the songs; the first single “Know Your Enemy” goes nowhere, and the ballads “Last Night On Earth” and “Restless Heart Syndrome” only prove that Green Day’s strength is in short, sharp, and aggressive songs. Fortunately, there’s no shortage of that type of song on this album. Grade: B+
  • Flop & The Fall Of The MopsqueezerFlop. An unknown gem, the 1992 debut album from the Seattle band Flop is a strong collection of catchy power pop tunes played with a relentlessly hard guitar edge. From the opening guitar crunch of “I Told A Lie” to the joke album ender “B” (a simple count off followed by one crashing chord), the energy of the album remains high. There are punk rock ravers like “Zeus My Master,” hard-edged pop songs (the irresistible “Tomato Paste”) and one perfectly chosen cover song, the Kinks obscurity “Big Sky,” that is played in a heavy, amped-up style far removed from the Kinks’s far gentler version. The album lacks the brilliant vision of their Seattle peers Nirvana, Pearl Jam, Soundgarden, and Alice In Chains, but compares favorably to better-known Seattle bands like The Posies or The Young Fresh Fellows. Grade: B+
  • One MisssissippiBrendan Benson. Another debut album, this one from the power pop songwriter currently adding light to Jack White’s shade in The Raconteurs. Benson’s solo albums are all pretty similar. That said they’re also all really good and One Mississippi is no exception. There’s a delightfully surreal aspect to much of Benson’s songwriting. The guy’s got a warped sense of humor. A title like “Sittin’ Pretty” evokes all sorts of images. The catch line of the chorus (“My baby’s tied to a chair/Don’t she look pretty/Just sittin’ there”) is not one of them. But when the lyric is matched to a great, catchy pop tune it’s almost impossible not to sing along. Similarly, who would believe that there would ever be a really great song written about insects taking over the world (“Insects Rule”)? There’s also “Got No Secrets,” a great parody of the “too much information” types who remain an annoying presence in the media (“When I was a young boy/I was beat up by my dad/I grew up fast/I took drugs/And now I’m in rehab”). From start to finish, the album contains one pop gem after another, despite a couple of songs that aren’t quite top quality (like the album opener “Tea” and closer “Cherries”). Like a combination of Paul McCartney, the Raspberries, and early Who, Benson writes smart, catchy songs that rock. Grade: B+