I’ve never been able to figure out why, but Between The Buttons is one of my favorite Stones albums. It really shouldn’t be because it’s very much the work of a band that was standing on the edge of a music scene that was exploding in a million directions with no clear idea where to go. They were no longer the scruffy blues/soul band. They were a flat out rock band at this point, but rock was splintering. Dylan had brought folk consciousness to rock, there was a burgeoning scene that was aided by the use of hallucinogenic drugs, garage rock was inflitrating the airwaves, and while the Beatles lorded over all of it with their ageless classic melodies, the Who were coming up fast with a blistering sound that made the ferocious old Stones sound quaint in comparison.
In the original, UK edition of the album there are no classic Stones singles present. The US edition improves on the English version by taking out the beautiful acoustic ballad “Back Street Girl” and the quasi-psychedelic Bo Diddley-style “Please Go Home” and replaces them with two bona fide Stones classics: “Let’s Spend the Night Together” and “Ruby Tuesday.”
In it’s position as album opener, “Night” provides one of the only real blasts of rock music on the album. The filthy bass and matching piano that start the song give way to the most salacious lyric Mick Jagger had yet written. In comparison to “Night,” “Satisfaction” is subtle. Mostly wordless background vocals provide the amazing hook as Jagger sings about his desire to spend the night with a woman in question. There’s a double entendre about being frustrated (“My tongue’s gettin’ tied” sounds very much like “My tongue’s gettin’ tired“) and a drug reference that’s tossed off as if it was an aside (“I’m off my head and my mouth’s gettin’ dry/And I’m high”), yet the song became a number one hit, unquestionably helped by the innocent-sounding B-side “Ruby Tuesday.”
“Ruby Tuesday,” at track 3 on the album, is another example of a good song made great by the experimental side of Brian Jones, who plays the recorder on the song. Not as innocent as it seems, “Ruby Tuesday” is about one of the groupies on the rock scene. The lyrics are good, the chorus extremely catchy. It is Jones’s recorder that provides the real ear hook to the song; it’s an instrument that’s rarely used in rock music and I can think of no other example where it’s used so prominently. Keith Richards plays great rhythm guitar and once again the rhythm section of Bill Wyman and Charlie Watts add fire and a raunchy undercurrent.
Sandwiched between these songs is Jagger’s ode to loving ’em and leaving ’em, “Yesterday’s Paper.” The misogyny charge that was dogging the Stones gets more punch here: “Who wants yesterday’s papers?/Who wants yesterday’s girl?” Brian Jones adds both harpsichord and marimba to give the song an exotic and unusual sound, while Wyman plays frenetic bass throughout. Watts plays subtly rolling drums throughout and Keith is barely heard from, except on some fuzzy, echoed guitar and backing vocals. It’s a great song despite the lyrics. At this point the Stones were branching out musically but writing solid tunes to provide a framework.
Following “Ruby Tuesday” is a song that may be the best on the album. “Connection” was largely consigned to the history bin, forgotten by all but Stones fans rabid enough to get past Hot Rocks and delve into the more obscure album tracks. It was resurrected by Keith Richards when he performed it with the X-Pensive Winos in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Since then it’s made appearances on the Stones stage, as well it should. “Connection” is a blast of great guitar work from Keith while Brian plonks a simple piano figure and Watts and Wyman sound like they’re having the time of their lives. The entire song gives off that vibe. It doesn’t even sound produced, just recorded live by a band having fun. Backing vocals are prominent, and the harmony vocals are load and brash.
It is one of the unusual things about this album: never before or since have the Stones used so many backing vocals and harmony vocals. They were clearly being influenced by the Beatles, Beach Boys, and Byrds at this point. The charm of it is that they’re really not very good at it. Those three bands featured harmonies that were absolutely breathtaking. The Stones were not as accomplished vocally as Lennon, McCartney, McGuinn, Clark, Crosby, or Wilson. Jagger was a great front man, but Keith’s harmony vocals and backing vocals are tortured. Yet despite the shortcomings, there is an undeniably ragged charm and insouciance to the performances. They may not be letter perfect, but the Stones sure do sound like they’re having fun on this album.
“She Smiled Sweetly” follows “Connection” with a lovely organ underpinning that gradually swells and ebbs as the vocal goes. Wyman’s bass is the most prominent instrument here, playing the lead for about half the song before it is joined by Jones’s piano. It’s an emotional performance from Jagger and a beautiful song. On this crazy-quilt album it’s followed by a ragtime-y piano intro to the wacky (and even zany) “Cool, Calm & Collected,” one of the few rock songs to feature a kazoo solo. Wyman and Watts again play it straight, while Jones and Richards have a blast playing out of tune instruments behind Jagger’s over-the-top lyrics and campy vocal before the tune speeds up as if your turntable had been injected with rocket fuel. Laughter is heard at the very end, which lets you know that the Stones were in on the joke (hey, a lot of bands weren’t).
“All Sold Out” and “My Obsession” follow. The former is an old-style Stones rocker with great guitar from Keith and potent rhythm playing from Jones. This is the only time on the record where Richards and Jones lock horns and weave magic on guitar. “My Obsession” has a growling bass and bluesy piano, and Jagger’s lyrics about owning a woman whether she wants it or not. It also has some of the most godawful backing and harmony vocals ever heard. There’s a quasi-psychedelic feel to the vocals and the music starts and stops throughout the piece. Always the piano grounds the song in blues and Wyman’s bass adds a heavy bottom while Watts rides his hi-hat like a man possessed. It’s not really that good a song and strangely, it’s those awful backing and harmony vocals that give the song enough charm to get by. Yes, they’re awful, but that’s okay. The song’s a lot more fun with them than it would be without them.
“Who’s Been Sleeping Here?” is almost a parody of a Dylan lyric, with references to “the butler, the baker, the laughing cavalier,” and “the noseless old newsboy, the old British brigadier.” Very Highway 61, Mick. But the tune is great, starting with a gentle acoustic guitar interrupted by waves of distorted guitar before Watts rides in and Jones comes in on piano.
“Complicated” and “Miss Amanda Jones” round out the rockier side of the album. There’s a great fuzz-tone guitar on “Complicated” and an organ that adds flavor to the verses. Watts rides a simple beat in the verses before laying down a more complex drum pattern on the chorus. “Miss Amanda Jones” could be the flip side of Dylan’s “Like A Rolling Stone.” The lyric, about a woman of the upper class who is losing her way on the party circuit, is married to a frenetic backing track with great guitar from Jones and Richards. It’s the most high energy track on the album, sounding not a little bit like the Yardbirds, and it succeeds on all levels.
The closer for such a strange album would have to be equally strange, and it is. Jagger’s tale of an LSD trip, “Something Happened To Me Yesterday,” which features Keith on lead vocals for the chorus, is a jaunty, jazz-like song complete with tuba, whistling, spoken asides (“What kind of joint is this?”), strummed acoustic guitars, and Mick thanking the audience for coming, tha
nking their “producer Reg Thorpe,” and reminding the audience that if they’re going out tonight, on their bike, to wear white. It’s a bizarre song, a bizarre performance, and it works perfectly as the album closer. Having heard the album, it is impossible to imagine it ending any other way.
Between The Buttons is a lost gem from the Rolling Stones.