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.