The Rolling Stones: Emotional Rescue

The Rolling Stones Emotional Rescue

In 1978, Some Girls proved that the Rolling Stones were still a major creative force and a rock and roll band to be reckoned with. In the age of punk, the Stones had proven themselves as fierce as any of the young upstarts who were dismissing them as dinosaurs. By ramping up the guitars, speeding up the tempos, and still being open to the current music scene, the Stones had planted a flag for all the remaining bands of the 1960s.

In 1980, they dug up the flag and buried it under a landfill.

Emotional Rescue is not the worst officially released Rolling Stones album, but it’s certainly near the bottom of the barrel. At least Their Satanic Majesties’ Request was an interesting failure and contained two classic Stones songs. By comparison, Emotional Rescue is a tired slog through the music scene of the day, populated by songs that were recorded but deemed not good enough for the previous album and a handful of new tracks. But even in 1980, the songs here sounded out of date. Disco was still king in 1980, but it was being absorbed by New Wave and post-punk and starting to manifest itself in some interesting ways. Some Girls showed that the Stones were paying close attention to disco and punk; Emotional Rescue indicates that they’d stopped listening to anything new in 1978. It is not the sound of a vital band; it is the sound of old war horses trying to emulate the sounds that the kids are listening to these days.

The opening track, “Dance, Pt. 1”, is as imaginative as its title. It’s a disco/funk track that is better than “Hot Stuff” but nowhere near as good as “Miss You”. It’s actually a pretty good groove, and Mick Jagger is convincing even as the rest of the band is coasting. “Get up/get out/Into something new” Jagger snarls. The nights he was spending at Studio 54 are clearly his muse here, but the lyrics are mostly nonsensical; he seems to have put almost no effort into writing them.

The Stones follow this with a rocker, opening the album with a disco/rock salvo that mirrors Some Girls. But “Summer Romance” is no “When The Whip Comes Down”. While “Romance” is one of the few genuine winners on the album, it’s also an archetypal post-Exile on Main Street rock track. It pales in comparison to the vastly superior rockers on Some Girls, but it’s a good album track here, and probably would have fit on Goats Head Soup or It’s Only Rock ‘n’ Roll. “Summer Romance” does, at least, have an excellent guitar solo, and Charlie Watts swings like a demon. There’s also an excellent bass line from Bill Wyman. In fact, Wyman is the unsung star of the album. For years his bass had been largely buried in the mix, but as the Stones paid homage to dance music, the rhythm section rose in importance and Wyman’s bass once again came forward. This album is actually a potent reminder of what a great bass player Bill Wyman was, and a sad reminder that the bass that was so prominent in the 1960s had become muted in the 1970s.

“Send It To Me” served notice that the Stones were checking off boxes on this album. “Dance” was the disco track, “Romance” the rocker, and “Send It To Me” is the obligatory reggae filler. It’s a lazy shuffle that Charlie Watts sounds half asleep on. The entire band plays it as if they simply don’t care. Jagger tries to put some life into it, but his delivery is once again undercut by half-baked lyrics about a mail-order bride. The Stones were never particularly convincing when it came to reggae, and this is readily apparent here. There’s no inspiration at all, just lazy playing.

The band returns to rock with “Let Me Go”, but the song simply sits there. Keith Richards and Ron Wood chug along nicely on guitar, but the song sounds like it’s going somewhere only when Jagger and Richards start harmonizing on the bridge. That moment passes in the blink of an eye and it’s back to the chug. There’s a decent guitar solo and once again Wyman plays like an old pro, but Watts now sounds like he’s completely asleep. The drums aren’t bad, especially in the breakdown about two and half minutes into the song, when Watts wakes up and reminds the world that he’s Charlie Watts and he doesn’t play bad drum parts, but nothing could save the song from its mediocrity. In the context of the album, “Let Me Go” sounds better than it actually is because it’s at the very least a rock number, and it’s the Stones playing the music they were born to play. It’s all the more disappointing because the song segues into “Indian Girl”, a too-long acoustic ballad that features some nice, tinkling piano parts and some genuinely lovely pedal steel from Ron Wood. But despite some interesting Mexican mariachi-style horns that add a nice touch “Indian Girl” is boring. The acoustic guitar is so laid back it might as well not even be there. Jagger talk-sings over the fade as the song disappears into nothingness. It’s too bad because on an album where the lyrics can best be described as weak, “Indian Girl” is a political rumination about the indigenous population of Central American countries at a time when that section of the world was being torn apart by conflict. It’s a serious subject and a heartfelt lyric, married to a tune that never happens.

The second side of the album kicks off with another rocker. “Where The Boys Go” was picked up by rock radio at the time because it was one of the few songs on the album where the Stones rocked unapologetically. But that doesn’t mean it’s a good song. There’s a fine guitar solo, but Jagger sings much of the song in a faux-Cockney accent that is, at best, distracting and, at worst, silly. There are also prominent female backing singers that add nothing but stridency to an already half-assed vocal. Yes, it rocks. Yes, Charlie Watts is now fully awake and pounding. But “Where The Boys Go” is tuneless and pointless. Like “Let Me Go” it sounds better in context but this is the weaker song.

The Stones had cut their teeth on blues music. Jagger famously said, in his first newspaper quote, “I hope they don’t think we’re a rock and roll outfit”. But while the blues always underpinned the Stones, the traditional form had largely been eschewed by the band. “Down In The Hole” was the first traditional 12-bar blues the Stones had done in many years. There’s a great harmonica and for the first time on this album the band sounds like they’re fully invested in the music. It’s not a great blues song by any stretch, but it was good enough that the Stones should have taken a cue from it and started doing more straight blues numbers. It’s a style the Stones always excelled at, and “Down In The Hole” provides a highlight on an album drowning in indifferent writing and playing.

The Stones were smart enough to put only one real disco song on Some Girls, and “Miss You” had a bridge that came out of the rock world. While you could dance to “Beast Of Burden” it was disguised enough to pass for a rock ballad on first listen. But the title track for this album is the single purest expression of Jagger’s love of disco that the Stones ever did. It bears almost no trace of rock. There are good things here: as required by the Gods of Disco, the rhythm section is spot-on (Wyman’s bass is outstanding) and the song is an earworm, making it somewhat listenable even when you’re not on the dance floor. There’s also a great saxophone in the fadeout. But there’s plenty of bad here, too. Jagger sings the entire song in a tortured falsetto, and does a proto-rap that is nothing short of excruciating; Richards and Wood are almost invisible; there’s no warmth at all and nary a trace of emotion in the performance. “Emotional Rescue” is a time piece. It’s forever locked into 1980 and it must be admitted that it evokes a time and a place for those of us who were around at that time. As was true of most disco, however, the songs that worked when you were dancing do nothing when you’re sitting at home or driving in your car. That goes double for this song because its style was based on heavily electronic Euro-disco, and not the more organic American dance music. “Emotional Rescue” was shocking enough as a Stones song that many fans started reaching for the torches and pitchforks, but it’s not as terrible as it seemed when it first was released. It’s also not good.

As if sensing that “Emotional Rescue” was a bridge too far, the Stones followed it with the one legit Stones classic on the album. “She’s So Cold” is the only track on this album that could have fit on Some Girls…probably because it was written and first recorded for that earlier album. Wyman again provides the support; his is the car the band rides in. Jagger’s vocal delivery is excellent and the lyrics contain the trademark misogyny and humor that marked so many of the band’s best songs. As they are throughout the album, the guitars are fairly muted but they are at least solid and Richards and Wood blend seamlessly.

Unfortunately, the Stones couldn’t sustain this level even for one more song. “All About You” has some wonderful harmonies on the chorus, but this is the first of many of Keith’s sleepy, album-closing ballads. Keith hasn’t written and sung a great ballad with the Stones since “You Got The Silver” on Let It Bleed, and “All About You” is never more than pleasant and boring.

Taken as a whole, Emotional Rescue is saved from being the Stones worst album by the fact that it sounds like the Stones at least had songs that they were performing (as opposed to the riff-based jams of Black And Blue). But there’s no question that the album is occasionally painful to listen to, and only once truly engages the listener. Satanic Majesties was a druggy experiment that went awry; Black and Blue was an audition turned into a contractual obligation album. Emotional Rescue was a different animal completely. Emotional Rescue was the Stones doing what the Stones are supposed to do…and failing.

Grade: D+

The Rolling Stones: Some Girls

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The Rolling Stones achieved levels of fame and musical quality that most bands could only dream about in the early 1970s. The middle of the decade was less kind. Drugged, tired, and uninspired were the hallmarks of those middle years. Goats Head Soup, It’s Only Rock ‘n’ Roll, and Black And Blue all had their moments of greatness, but those moments were dwindling and increasingly outnumbered by mediocre efforts.

The same can be said for rock and roll in general in the mid-1970s, at least as far as the radio was concerned. Singer-songwriters filled the airwaves with sensitive, plaintive ballads. Progressive rock was also big, but it was bloated. How bloated? In 1975, Yes keyboardist Rick Wakeman staged a performance of his solo album The Myths and Legends of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table. On ice. By the mid-70s mainstream rock had very little to say to the kids in the street. It’s hard to connect with your fans when you’re flying around in a private jumbo jet with the name of your band emblazoned on the side.

By the time the Stones brought in ex-Face Ron Wood to replace Mick Taylor, the reigning style of music was disco, its pulsating rhythms and repetitive beat blaring in the trendiest night spots in New York and Paris, where jet-setting Mick Jagger was spending a lot of time.

But there was another style of music that was also rising in prominence, especially in England. Punk rock was still relegated to some of the smaller and seedier establishments in New York but over in Blighty the Sex Pistols were being excoriated in Parliament and punk rock was as hated and feared as any music since 1956, when Elvis Presley gave older America a serious case of the vapors. Jagger, always looking to stay current, was paying attention. So was Keith Richards who didn’t like disco but did like the energy and enthusiasm of punk, even while he labored under the mistaken belief that punk rock musicians couldn’t play their instruments. (This was a common belief. After all, the punk rock poster boy was Sid Vicious, who really couldn’t play his instrument.) Punk rock and disco were the ingredients that fueled Some Girls.

People didn’t know what to make of “Miss You”, the leadoff single and opening track on the album. To this day the song divides Stones fans; some think it’s a betrayal of everything the Stones built their career on; some, while acknowledging that it is at base a disco song, recognize all the elements that make the Stones the legends they are today.

What makes “Miss You” a disco song is the beat, which Charlie Watts could play in his sleep. The “four-to-the-floor” beat was the hallmark of disco because it made the music so danceable. The lyrics, steeped in the hustle and bustle of New York City (as were many of the songs on the album), placed the song at the epicenter of the disco explosion. The combination of the beat, the words, and the wordless “ah hah” hook firmly locks the song into the disco era. The Stones were the first of the big-name rock bands to tip their hat to dance music. Virtually every other legendary rock performer would also record a dance song over the next couple of years: Paul McCartney, Elton John, the Kinks, even Kiss.

What the detractors miss is that this is a Stones song, recorded at a time when they were still legitimately bad boys. “Miss You” may be disco, but it’s disco played with far more aggression, passion, and intensity than any other disco song before or since. The justifiably famous harmonica hook, played by bluesman Sugar Blue, ties the song into the roots of the band, and the soaring bridge brings the song back into rock. The saxophone solo, played by Mel Collins, even ropes in Progressive Rock; Collins was a Prog Rock stalwart after playing in bands like King Crimson and Caravan. Jagger’s partially spoken, falsetto-ridden, proto-rap performance is over-the-top but Jagger knows it, which adds to the basic good humor of the song; Bill Wyman’s slinky bass is prominent for one of the last times on a Stones song. From a style of music not noted for songwriting, “Miss You” remains one of the pinnacles of the disco movement. The lyrics both reflect and satirize disco-era Manhattan.

Despite the fact that it became a hit single and a staple of Stones concerts, the reaction to “Miss You” among rock fans was so polarizing that, to this day, there are people who think of Some Girls as the “disco album”. Those people couldn’t be more wrong. Disco shows up on the album in the lyrics but, with the exception of a few tracks, Some Girls is the closest the Stones ever got to punk rock. Lyrically, “When the Whip Comes Down” holds up a mirror to the overwhelmingly gay habitu√©s that Jagger was encountering at Studio 54, the infamous New York disco. The line about “going down fifty-third street and they’re spitting in my face” refers to a spot that was notorious for gay prostitution. It also nods in the direction of the Ramones, who sang about turning tricks for heroin in the song “53rd and Third”. The lyrics are really an update of the notorious unreleased Stones song “Cocksucker Blues”. The lonesome schoolboy has left his position in Trafalgar Square and made it to New York.

Musically, this was the Stones rocking again, harder than they had at any time since Exile On Main Street. The jump in inspiration over the previous three albums is so startlingly obvious that it highlights just how uninspired much of those earlier albums were. The addition of Ron Wood on guitar was a perfect choice: his style meshes perfectly with Keith’s and the two became a pile-driving powerhouse. And let’s all pause for a moment to reflect on the great Charlie Watts…his drumming on this album is some of the best he’s ever done and the breaks at the end of “When The Whip Comes Down” are particularly fearsome.

As they did on It’s Only Rock ‘N’ Roll, the Stones went back to the Temptations for a cover song. The Stones bring out the bluesier side of “Just My Imagination”, turning a Motown ballad into a gritty rocker. As it does throughout the album, the Big Apple gets a shoutout as Jagger changes the lyrics from “in the world” to “in New York”. It’s odd, but true, that a band from England made one of the quintessential New York City albums; the city lives and breathes throughout the album, and many of the songs capture with near-photographic quality what the city was like in 1977 and 1978.

The title track is one of the most controversial songs in the Rolling Stones canon. The band achieved a number one hit with “Brown Sugar” in 1971, a song about sadism, masochism, slavery, and interracial oral sex, but it was “Some Girls” that got them in trouble despite the fact that the lyrics are clearly meant to be funny. Jagger sings about the many women he’s known, contrasting the good (who give him money, jewelry, diamonds, etc) and the bad (those who take “all my bread”, give him children he “never asked them for”, and those who leave him with “a lethal dose”), but it’s the litany of ethnic stereotypes that got the band in trouble with feminists and civil rights groups. The song is a blues-based mid-tempo rocker with a great harmonica from Sugar Blue prominent throughout. Taken as a serious meditation on the qualities of women across the world, it’s offensive. But it’s not that. It’s a joke, and a pretty funny one that happens to be married to a great tune.

“Lies” is the fastest rocker the Stones had recorded since “Rip This Joint”, which makes it one of the fastest songs the band ever recorded. It’s a bit slight, and the lyrics are a trifle, but the song is performed with such drive and energy that it’s impossible not to like it.

Side two of the LP begins with another one of those divisive Stones songs. Jagger’s Southern drawl-infused vocal is so exaggerated in its cornpone hillbilly elocution that it’s easy to miss that “Far Away Eyes” has a wonderful chorus and is one of the funniest songs in the Stones repertoire. It’s both a loving tribute to Bakersfield-style country music and a parody of the same. Backed by a shimmering pedal steel played by Ron Wood, Jagger speak/sings a hilarious tale of being on the road, down on your luck, running red lights in the name of Jesus, and meeting the title girl who makes it all right. The backing of a simple guitar, bass, and drums is understated in the finest tradition of Bakersfield, and lets the pedal steel shine gloriously.

“Respectable” is another punk-fueled raveup, marveling at how the bad boys of rock and roll are now hobnobbing with Presidents and other foreign dignitaries, while also putting down a respectable woman who’s really nothing of the sort. Like “Lies” the beauty is in the performance, since the lyrics are mainly two verses and an endlessly repeated chorus. The lyrics here act as a bridge between the ferocious guitar breaks provided by Richards and Wood.

Keith Richards shines on “Before They Make Me Run”, his ravaged vocals highlighting one of the last truly great Richards showcases on a Rolling Stones album. It’s his last genuine outlaw anthem, a chugging riff rocker about his then-recent heroin bust in Toronto. There’s a wonderfully understated pedal steel guitar played by Ron Wood, locking in and weaving with Keith’s guitar solo. The country element in an otherwise straight rocker is perhaps a tip of the cap to Richards’s late friend Gram Parsons, to whom the lyric “another goodbye to another good friend” refers.

The influences that inspired Some Girls are in clear evidence on the final tracks. “Beast Of Burden” is another disco-influenced track, custom-made for a slower spin on the dance floor. As a ballad, it is less recognizably a disco song, but that beat was definitely made for a slow dance. The album closer, though, is another trip to downtown New York. “Shattered” wears its punk influence clearly, a hard-charging riff underpinning the “New York City in 1978” lyrics. The Big Apple was rotting in the late 1970s, and “Shattered” captures the essence of the city almost perfectly. “What a mess/This town’s in tatters” sings Jagger. “Go ahead, bite the Big Apple/Don’t mind the maggots.” “Shattered” is a perfect Rolling Stones song, a concise mix of humor, pathos, decadence, and rip-roaring rock and roll. It’s the only way Some Girls could have ended. This album, and the tour that followed, were the last vestiges of the band that burst out of London in 1964. The Stones would become something else after Some Girls, and this was the last salvo fired by the band that made Exile on Main Street and Sticky Fingers. They had finally made an album that was a worthy successor to those masterpieces.

Grade: A+

The Rolling Stones: Black And Blue

blackandblue

True story: I was eleven years old when Black and Blue was released. At the time, I had recently discovered my brother’s worn, scratchy copy of Hot Rocks, the gateway drug to the Rolling Stones for almost everybody of my generation. I was also very familiar with Aftermath, from my sister’s record collection. I was a budding Stones fanatic. I listened to side two of Hot Rocks obsessively, losing myself in “Mother’s Little Helper”, “Paint It Black”, “19th Nervous Breakdown”, and “Under My Thumb”. When I found out that the Stones were about to release a new album, I was practically giddy with anticipation. I begged my mother to take me out to buy it as soon as it came out, which she did. I may have used my mother’s money, but Black and Blue holds the place of honor as the first record I ever bought.

When I got home, my sister and her infant daughter dropped by, forcing me to sit and be with our guests while all the time that slab of vinyl was burning a hole in my brain, teasing me. Finally my sister left and I raced to my room to put the album on. Visions of Aftermath, “Let’s Spend The Night Together”, “Ruby Tuesday”, and “Satisfaction” swirled in my head. I put the record on, put on my headphones, and lowered the needle on to the first groove.

“What the hell is this mess? This is the worst music I’ve ever heard!”

Time has been a little kinder to Black and Blue than my original reaction, but there is no question that this is one of the oddest of all Stones albums. Even after all these years, the album opener “Hot Stuff” is five and a half minutes of suck. The song sounds like a meandering jam over a slinky funk/disco groove that repeats itself endlessly. Of course, that’s what most of this album is.

Black and Blue is the most groove-oriented album in the Stones collection precisely because the Stones were using the recording sessions to audition guitar players to replace Mick Taylor. There’s a very loose, jammy feel to much of the album. With a few exceptions, the songs are little more than ideas that are taking a rough shape.

At the time of recording, the Stones were actively auditioning numerous guitarists. Everyone from Jeff Beck to Rory Gallagher to Steve Marriott passed through the doors. In addition to Keith Richards, there are three guitar players on Black and Blue. Taylor’s eventual replacement, Ron Wood, plays on half the album and is credited as “inspiring” the song “Hey Negrita.” For “Hot Stuff” and “Memory Motel” the lead guitar duties are handled by Harvey Mandel, while Wayne Perkins plays lead on “Hand of Fate” and “Fool To Cry” and acoustic rhythm on “Memory Motel”.

From the repetitive funk/disco of “Hot Stuff” the album segues into the best track, “Hand of Fate.” This is the tightest, most fully realized song on the album, featuring Wayne Perkins’s extraordinary imitation of Mick Taylor. “Hand of Fate” is a lost gem in the Stones catalog: a tough, hard-hitting riff rocker with a great lyric. Lyrically it takes a cue from the outlaw anthems of reggae, telling the tale of a man on the run from the law. The song carries a reggae groove to it, but remains indisputably rock. The Stones would have done well to break this song out of the closet for some of their recent tours, but Black and Blue as a whole has largely gone down the memory hole and this unheralded Stones classic is collateral damage.

It’s not surprising. “Hand of Fate” is sandwiched between “Hot Stuff” and the reggae cover “Cherry Oh Baby”. About the best thing that can be said of the latter song is that it’s the shortest on the album, falling just short of four minutes. Again, this sounds like the Stones sitting in the studio and doing a loose jam on a song they all liked. It’s not a great song, but it’s a decent jam. At four minutes it’s at least a minute too long, maybe two. Coming after “Hand of Fate” it’s an incredible let down.

“Memory Motel” continues the schizophrenic tone of the album. The closing song of the old side one, the sound of “Memory Motel” is a distilled essence of 1976 radio. As such, the song suffers from sounding like it was entombed in a tar pit during that Bicentennial year. However, it’s a lovely song featuring a great vocal from Mick on the verses, while Keith chimes in as the lead voice on the “she got a mind of her own” hook. At a certain point in the song, the listener can be excused for thinking, “Is this song still playing?” At over seven minutes, it’s one of the longest studio songs the Stones ever released. Pretty melody or not, “Memory Motel” falls victim to the jamminess of the album. The Stones had a good song here but didn’t know when to stop, and the song overstays its welcome. Still, at the right time and in the right mood, “Memory Motel” is one of the highlights of the album.

Side two opens with “Hey Negrita” and it’s difficult to see this as much of an improvement over the side one opener, “Hot Stuff.” Like the earlier song, “Hey Negrita” is little more than a riff with a shouted, mostly nonsensical lyric grafted on top. It’s almost impossible to imagine that this song would have been seen as more than it is: a Ron Wood riff that led to an impromptu jam with probably extemporaneous lyrics.

Even worse is “Melody,” a loose, piano-led lounge song that sounds like it was recorded after a night spent at the studio bar. Even a nice horn arrangement that comes late to the party can’t save the song precisely because there is no real song to save. The fact that this trifle is nearly as long as “Memory Motel” but lacks the sweet instrumentation and solid vocal performance of the earlier track makes the situation even worse.

“Fool To Cry” was the hit single from the album, reaching the Top 10 in America and England. Musically, it’s a continuation of “Memory Motel”, bearing an almost identical keyboard sound. At the very least, it is one of the only fully realized songs on the album. Sure, it drags on too long, and Jagger’s falsetto vocal can be a bit tiring, but at least “Fool To Cry” sounds like somebody came to the studio with an actual song, rather than a bag of riffs. That said, despite the ear-worm chorus, “Fool” is one of the lightest and most forgettable singles the Stones have ever released. It’s not the worst they would ever release, but it was the worst to this point. One can only imagine why “Hand of Fate” was skipped in favor of “Fool To Cry” and “Hot Stuff” as single material. My hunch is that as funk and disco were starting to become more mainstream and more popular, Jagger wanted the band to sound apace with their contemporaries. “Hand of Fate” was a prime slice of vintage Stones. “Fool To Cry” was the Stones in 1976.

Black and Blue does end well. “Crazy Mama” is another tough rocker, concise at four and a half minutes, with an impassioned vocal from Jagger and nice guitar work from Richards and Wood. It’s easy to see with “Crazy Mama” why Wood made the cut as Taylor’s replacement. It’s the earliest example of Wood and Richards practicing what Richards calls “the ancient art of weaving.” It’s also a foreshadowing of where the Stones would go next. Now that the auditions and jams were over it was time to hone everything to a razor sharp edge and use the twin rhythm/lead guitar attack in a way they’d never done before. Black and Blue isn’t a very good album for repeated listens. There are too many formless songs, loose jams, and lengthy tracks. Throwing it on at a party every once in a blue moon would probably make it sound better than it actually is, but the sad fact is that this is near the bottom of the barrel for Rolling Stones albums.

Grade: C-

The Rolling Stones: It’s Only Rock ‘N’ Roll

With Goats Head Soup, the Rolling Stones showed some indications that the fuel that had burned in them since 1968 was starting to run out. With 1974’s It’s Only Rock ‘N’ Roll, the band was clearly in a holding pattern. As with Soup there are several real gems on this album. The highlights of the album are at least the equal of its predecessor and might even be slightly better. The lowlights were lower, though, and there’s simply no denying that an audience expecting a new Sticky Fingers or Exile On Main Street was going to be extremely disappointed.

Like some of Bob Dylan’s early 70s albums (e.g., New Morning, Planet Waves), both Goats Head Soup and It’s Only Rock ‘N’ Roll sound better in retrospect. Time has distanced them from the ragged genius that cemented the Stones legend, and this allows the albums to be taken on their own merits, as well as judged by their own flaws.

It’s Only Rock ‘N’ Roll is the work of a highly accomplished band. By this point the Stones knew exactly how to craft down and dirty rock and roll in their sleep. That’s actually something of a drawback in rock music. When a band reaches this level the temptation is there to coast, and that’s just what the Stones are doing throughout this period. The mid 70s were a fallow time for rock music. The wave of Sixties titans was largely over: the Beatles were no more and the solo Beatles, with the exception of McCartney who was still riding high, had drifted off. The Who were still releasing great albums but the tour following Quadrophenia was a disaster. The Kinks were releasing convoluted concept albums that made no sense to anyone. By 1974 Glam Rock was nearing its expiration date, with David Bowie, Elton John, and T. Rex peaking a year earlier. Punk rock was emitting its first cries, but was unknown outside of small venues in New York. Disco was arriving, but not quite there. The so-called Progressive rock of Yes, Pink Floyd, and Emerson, Lake and Palmer, was big in the world of FM radio, but the mid 70s were still very much an AM radio era.

Where there was inspiration was in black music. Funk, reggae, and soul were big. The radio grooved to such soul classics as Dobie Gray’s “Drift Away” (which was recorded, but not released, by the Stones for this album). And as they had done in the mid 60s, the Stones turned to this music for inspiration for two of Rock ‘N’ Roll‘s best tracks.

“Ain’t Too Proud to Beg” is a fierce, rocked up version of the classic Temptations song. Kicked off by Charlie Watts, a man who never played a bad drum part, and featuring both a funky clavinet and barrelhouse piano from guest Billy Preston, this is one of the most convincing non-blues Stones covers. Jagger never tries to emulate the soulful vocals of the original, opting instead simply to be himself. The soul is stripped from the song, turning it into a visceral, drunken howl. “Luxury” is the first attempt by the Stones to do pure reggae. The Stones make their mark in the guitars, which are more distorted and raw than you find in reggae, but there’s no mistaking this song as anything other than proof that the Stones were listening to a lot of Bob Marley. Reggae was a well from which the Stones would draw a lot of inspiration over the next ten years or so, but to these ears their first attempt was also their best. “Luxury” has a melody that would have made Marley proud, and the toughness of sound at which Peter Tosh excelled.

It’s a shame in some ways that the Stones fell back into by-the-numbers rockers and extended ballads. With the exception of the title track, which is still about two minutes too long, there’s nothing else on the album that you haven’t heard before. “If You Can’t Rock Me” is a fine, hard-charging album opener, now rendered redundant by the fact that the Stones seem incapable of putting out an album that doesn’t have at least one song extolling the virtues of “rocking”. But as good as “You Can’t Rock Me” is, it also never rises above the level of professional, competent rock music. It’s enjoyable, and not particularly memorable.

The same criticism can be leveled at the rest of the rockers on the album, but those tracks are usually not even as memorable as “You Can’t Rock Me”, which at least benefits from being the first thing you hear. “Dance Little Sister” is okay, the kind of song that sounds better live. It, too, is helped by Charlie’s unerring sense of swing. His rapid fire fills and the sterling guitar work from Keith Richards and Mick Taylor, and Jagger’s excitable vocal all combine to make something this is…meh. Once again, it’s a matter of coasting over inspiration. Yes, this is good. Coming from another band, it would probably be a career highlight. Coming from the Stones, it’s just an album track that is enjoyed, and forgotten. Far worse is “Short and Curlies,” a throwaway track that is about exactly what the title implies. It’s a dumb attempt to write another raunchy, not-fit-for-radio song in the mold of “Star Star”, and best forgotten.

The Stones draw more inspiration from black music with “Fingerprint File”, this time tapping funk music. At six and a half minutes, it’s far too long and far too repetitive. The basic groove of the song is good, but there is a lengthy jam in the middle that goes nowhere. Cut down to three minutes, “Fingerprint File” might have been one of their better funk moments, but at this length it merely sounds like self-indulgent album filler.

With “Angie” from Goats Head Soup, the Stones hit chart gold and discovered singer/songwriter-ish balladry. “Till The Next Goodbye” is It’s Only Rock ‘N’ Roll‘s “Angie.” A spare, acoustic number with lilting piano from Nicky Hopkins and a lovelorn lyric and vocal from Jagger, it’s actually a better song than “Angie.” But once again, it suffered. Because “Angie” came first, and the Stones were likely wary of putting out a too similar ballad as a single, this lovely song is almost unknown. “Time Waits For No One”, which immediately follows “Till the Next Goodbye”, is both a genuinely great Stones track and a prime slab of Radio Friendly 1974. Although it was not released as a single (it creeps toward the seven minute mark), the sound of the song almost defines the era. “Time” is the ballad version of Sticky Fingers‘s”Can’t You Hear Me Knocking.” It’s a lengthy song that is end-loaded with an extensive guitar solo from Mick Taylor (his last brilliant moment with the Stones). Taylor wisely avoids the “Santana lite” jazz he played on “Can’t You Hear Me Knocking” in favor of a fluid, lyrical solo. It was not only Taylor’s last truly great moment with the Stones, it was the last time such a solo would ever be played on a Rolling Stones song. It’s a sad reminder of what the Stones miss with Taylor’s absence: a genuine virtuoso who for several years managed to keep his ego in check and lend a dimension of musicality the Stones never had before and haven’t had since.

As good as “Time Waits For No One” is, there’s also “If You Really Want To Be My Friend.” One of the problems with It’s Only Rock ‘N’ Roll is that there are three songs that crack the six-minute mark. The Stones have always been at their best when they were more concise. Sure, there are exceptions like “You Can’t Always Get What You Want” and the live “Midnight Rambler” but as a general rule, the more songs that hit that five and six-minute length, the more you know the Stones are running low on ideas. “Friend” is one of the low points of the album, with an overwrought vocal from Jagger and a backing vocal section from the soul group Blue Magic that is completely unnecessary. The extended, jammy fade seems designed to add gravitas to the song, but it falls flat.

The Stones had been brilliant in their career, and had failed gloriously with the experimental Satanic Majesties. What they had never been up to this point was boring. The album is redeemed by the classic title song, co-written with Face, friend, and future Stone Ronnie Wood, and a handful of great album tracks, but is ultimately undone by the undeniable mediocrity of the rest. Shortly afterwards, Mick Taylor left the band to pursue stardom with the mercurial Jack Bruce in what remains the stupidest career decision in rock history. The Stones were about to change again, becoming yet another type of band. But first they needed to make a transition.

Grade: C+

Life, by Keith Richards

Who would have bet, thirty years ago, that Keith Richards would be around long enough to write his autobiography? This is the man who, for several years running, was consistently voted “Most Likely To Die” by culture mavens everywhere. At this point, he’s being voted “Most Likely To Outlive Cockroaches And Bacteria” by those same people. Say this for the man: he seems to be damn near indestructible.

Life is the story of the man, told from his point of view. From his youth scraping by in post-war England, when food was rationed and bombed out craters were playgrounds, straight up until his noggin-cracking fall against an unyielding palm tree that sent him for brain surgery, Keith Richards lived a wild life.

Whether the reader finds it refreshing or, frankly, sociopathic, Richards tells his tale with no sense of shame or regret. His life was decadent, immersed in rock and roll, drugs, and sex (in that order). But rather than wearing a politically correct hair shirt and throwing himself on the mercy of a public that wants their musical heroes fresh out of rehab, Richards shrugs. It’s his life, and he had a great time living it.

The book concentrates its energies on the 1960s and 1970s where the reader is introduced to the two great loves of Keith’s life. In the 1960s, that love is music; in the 1970s it becomes drugs. Life isn’t that neatly divided, though, and there’s considerable overlap. The best music of Keith’s life was written and recorded when he was a regular heroin user. But not long after 1972’s Exile On Main Street, the drugs began to take center stage. Keith was no longer a user. He was a junkie.

Richards does acknowledge that his true junkie years were when he lost the path, and that his life became about getting the next hit. Where the early Stones tours were marked with concerns about getting to the gig on time and what to play, the Stones tours in the 1970s were all about where to score heroin in each new city. Knowing that the police had their eye on him didn’t slow him down. Even when he was unable to get good drugs and had to resort to what he calls “MSS” (Mexican Shoe Scrapings), he steadfastly refused to believe that there was a problem.

But there was a problem and it’s clear to the reader, even if it’s not so clear to the writer. The early part of the book is filled with the stories of the early Stones, and Keith’s love of music is pressed on to every page. This is the first rock musician autobiography I’ve read where the author uses barrels of ink to talk about the musicians who influenced him, the thrill of creating music, the love of listening to music and sharing your thoughts with like-minded friends. Living together in a small flat, Richards, Mick Jagger, and Brian Jones sat around listening to and dissecting Chicago blues, talking about it constantly. Even leaving the apartment to be with a woman was considered a betrayal to the first mistress: music.

Drugs were present early, but mainly confined to marijuana and pills. LSD reared its misshapen head in the mid-60s but despite dabbling Keith claims never to have been that much of an acidhead. Still, the hallucinogen played havoc with the band inspiring the worst album they did in the 1960s (Their Satanic Majesties Request) and driving self-appointed band leader Brian Jones over the edge.

Despite Keith’s blood brother allegiance to Ron Wood, the other Stones who get the most press in the book are Mick Jagger (of course), and Brian Jones. In interviews Keith has usually skirted around Jones, painting a picture of a man who was a screwup and who let the team down by putting drugs before the Stones. In Life, that portrait is fleshed out and it’s not a pretty picture. Jones is portrayed as a horror, a petty, vindictive, mean, girlfriend-beating narcissist who, despite loads of talent, was an albatross around the band’s neck as early as 1965. Keith describes his stealing of Jones’s girlfriend Anita Pallenberg not as a betrayal of his friend Brian, but as a rescue of a monster’s girlfriend. If the portrayal of Jones here is accurate (and I’m inclined to think it is), then Keith actually stands on pretty solid ground here.

Mick Jagger is the other main character in Keith’s life, and is the relationship that receives the most attention from the author. Keith and Mick were best friends for decades, sharing a bond that survived even their brief affairs with each other’s girlfriends (Mick had an affair with Anita Pallenberg while filming the movie Performance; Keith didn’t mind so much because he was having an affair with Marianne Faithfull at the same time). What eventually drove them apart were the drugs and what Keith’s addiction meant to the Stones.

Shortly after Exile, Keith’s addiction led to a more carefree attitude about the band. Decisions that had always been made together were now being left to Jagger alone, and Mick discovered that he liked the power. By the time Keith got off the smack, not too long after being arrested in Toronto, Jagger’s grip on the business side of the band was absolute. When Keith wanted back in to the decision making process, he was told that his services in that regard were no longer needed. It was now Jagger’s band. (Keith maintains that during the 1981 tour one of the large video screens introduced the band as “Mick Jagger and The Rolling Stones” until Keith screamed bloody murder about it and Jagger backed down.) Jagger’s using the Stones contract negotiations to secure himself a solo contract was a mortal blow to their friendship and, to Keith, a far worse betrayal than merely bedding down Anita Pallenberg. Jagger was now cheating on the Stones, and that was an unforgivable sin to Keith.

While they managed to hold it together for a few more albums (Undercover and Dirty Work), Richards became even angrier when Jagger refused to tour with the Stones, opting instead to tour as a solo artist. It clearly still stings Richards to this day (he dismisses Jagger’s first album with the withering line “I’ve never listened to it all the way through. Who has?” Ouch. True, but ouch.) The relationship now is best described as love/hate. Keith still refers to Mick as “Brenda” or “Her Majesty” but makes it clear that nobody else better insult Mick or they’ll pay the consequences. They are distant brothers who get along fine when they are alone together, talking or writing music. But when business intervenes, Jagger is still the King and Keith still resents it.

The other Stones are peripheral players. Charlie Watts receives nothing but praise, Bill Wyman barely gets mentioned, Mick Taylor’s skill as a guitarist is highly praised but his abilities to blend in with the Stones are dismissed, and Ron Wood is seen as Ron Wood: likable, happy-go-lucky, usually drunk and/or high, although Richards does confirm the rumors that Wood was close to being fired during the 1981 tour because he was so wasted he could barely play.

It’s all here in Life. As the drugs take center stage the music gets pushed aside, and some albums (Between the Buttons, It’s Only Rock ‘N’ Roll, Tattoo You) don’t even rate a mention, but that’s the life of a drug addict: everything else that you love takes a back seat and becomes subordinate to the next high.

At over 500 pages, this is a lot of Keith to digest. Mixed in with the rock and roll and drugs are celebrity cameos (John Lennon makes a brief, but hilarious appearance hugging the bathroom floor at Keith’s house after a night of partying, Gram Parsons, Paul McCartney, John Phillips), groupies, marriage, children, grandchildren…there’s even Keith’s recipe for bangers ‘n’ mash which is the funniest recipe ever written.

I’m not sure how much of the book was actually written by Keith and how much by his co-writer James Fox, but it’s irrelevant. The voice is entirely Keith’s. I’ve seen and read enough interviews with the man to know that whatever Fox did he did using Keith’s style. And Keith is a great storyteller, which makes Life a quick, satisfying read and an in-depth look at the Rolling Stones from someone who was there at the beginning.

The Rolling Stones: Goats Head Soup

There really was simply no way for The Rolling Stones to surpass the triumph of their previous album, one of the greatest in rock’s history. The fact that between 1968 and 1972 the Stones were about as flawless as any band has ever been made the job of an Exile On Main St. followup even more difficult. It is the lofty expectations placed on the band that have made the critical reviews of 1973’s Goats Head Soup so untrustworthy. I’ve been guilty of this myself, at one time in my life dismissing Goats Head Soup as a largely terrible album. It is not a terrible album. Nor is it a great album.

Soup marks the point where, as Keith Richards once said, “I picked up the smack and Mick picked up the slack.” It is very much Mick Jagger’s album, evidenced by the atrocious front cover (the back cover is an equally atrocious Keith picture). For this reason, the album sounds much less unified than their previous efforts. For me, Goats Head Soup is a precursor to what the band has turned into over the past 30 years: a professional touring and recording act making solid, workman-like albums that run high on sound and low on inspiration.

Unlike their albums from Beggars Banquet to Exile, Goats Head Soup today sounds very much of its time. It should have “1973” stamped on every groove. That’s not to say that there isn’t an awful lot of good, and even great, stuff on the album. There are two Stones classics on the album, the ballad “Angie” and the rocker “Doo Doo Doo Doo Doo (Heartbreaker)” and two songs that should have been Stones classics, “Silver Train” and “Star Star.”

The album kicks off with “Dancing With Mr. D,” yet another song wherein Jagger sings about a malevolent identity, in this case the personification of Death. Coming after “Sympathy For The Devil” and “Midnight Rambler,” not to mention other songs wherein Jagger trips the dark fantastic (“Let It Bleed,” “Monkey Man,” “Brown Sugar”), “Dancing” sounds like a cartoon version of the theme. The music, led by Mick Taylor’s great slide guitar, Nicky Hopkins’s piano, and a snaky bass line (also played by Taylor) is great. It’s cleaner than the murky Exile, but it’s still raw enough to have real bite. The lyrics are Jagger on autopilot. Sex? Check! Death? Right here! Intoxication? Got it! It’s not a bad way to start an album, but after album openers like “Sympathy For The Devil,” “Gimme Shelter,” “Brown Sugar” and Rocks Off,” it is perhaps inevitable that “Dancing With Mr. D” should sound downright anemic. The music tries but the lyrics don’t, which makes the song both enjoyable and forgettable at the same time.

One of the undeniable highlights of the album follows. The funky clavinet (played by Billy Preston) and a liquid guitar solo from Taylor give “100 Years Ago” a fantastic vibe. Jagger’s vocal is one of his best, and the lyrics are a great ode to nostalgia and fond memories of days gone by. There’s a brief interlude where Jagger camps it up by singing about how he’s a “lazy bones/ain’t got no time to waste away” but that’s soon overpowered by a return to the solid melody and a fine, raving end.

“Coming Down Again” is Keith’s showcase, a piano ballad that he’s been rewriting ever since. Again, a triumph of sound and feel and not songwriting. Like its later rewrites (Dirty Work‘s “Sleep Tonight,” especially), “Coming Down Again” takes an interminable length of time to say nothing. Other than a wicked line about slipping “my tongue in someone else’s pie,” most of the lyrics are just an endless repetition of the title. The piano is quite nice, and Keith’s vocal is excellent, but “Coming Down Again” is at least three minutes too long.

Goats Head Soup picks up dramatically from here with a run of great songs. “Heartbreaker” wears it’s Stevie Wonder influence on its sleeve but, run through the Stones more rock-oriented prism, emerges as a singularly funky tale of sadness and murder, and features a solid beat and great fills from Charlie Watts. “Angie” is solidly in line with some of the great Stones ballads, with its delicate acoustic guitars and Jagger’s plaintive vocals.

“Silver Train” is catchy, countrified blues with a great bass line from Keith Richards and a magnificently slurred vocal from Jagger and one of the few songs that might have fit on Exile On Main Street. It’s a souped-up “Sweet Virginia,” and a great showcase for Taylor whose blazing slide is everywhere.

The only thing that mars “Hide Your Love” is a vocal that is so blurry and indistinct it becomes little more than background noise. This, too, could have fit on Exile, but what is a standout on Soup would have sounded like a cross between “Ventilator Blues” and “Just Wanna See His Face” on the earlier album. It’s a great lost Stones track, with fine piano played by Jagger and Ian Stewart, and again Taylor struts his stuff.

The lovely ballad “Winter” presents something of a problem. It’s one of the best Stones ballads, with excellent lyrics and vocal from Mick Jagger. There is a lush string section underpinning the song, and some searing lead guitar from Mick Taylor. It’s a wonderful song. Unfortunately, it was a wonderful song two years earlier when it was called “Moonlight Mile” and was the closing track on Sticky Fingers. As good as “Winter” is, it’s still really a copy of a superior song. It’s still far better than “Can You Hear The Music,” which doesn’t know whether it wants to be rock or reggae, and fails at both.

The Stones turned up the salacious aspects of their career for the album closer, “Star Star,” an X-rated look at groupies set to a Chuck Berry riff. The lyric is funny, and Jagger’s delivery is spot-on. It’s not fit for the kids, and definitely not safe for playing at work, but it showcases the band’s sense of humor which has always been their secret weapon. The lyrics prevent “Star Star” from ever being played on the radio, so it’s not one of the band’s most well-known songs, but it’s a good way to end an album.

Goats Head Soup has its problems. There are some uninspired songs and performances, several of the songs linger past their stay fresh date, and the energy level of the band has clearly dropped a notch from the previous albums. Still, there is a bit of greatness and enough good material to praise. The Stones had done far better, but they will also do much, much worse.

Grade: B

The Rolling Stones: Exile On Main St. (Deluxe Edition)

When news broke in late 2009 that Exile On Main St. would be rereleased in a deluxe package as a 2-CD set with ten previously unreleased bonus tracks, there was a great deal of anticipation among hardcore Stones fans. Possibly the best album of their career would now have ten additional songs that had been left on the cutting room floor. Then the news came out that many of the tracks were left unfinished. Some had no lyrics, some were missing crucial elements (like lead guitar). The decision the Stones made to go in and write new lyrics, add new vocals, and new overdubs was greeted with a great deal of skepticism.

Turns out, there was no need for skepticism.

I’m not going to parse what’s “authentic” and what’s not on the bonus tracks. As a whole, they’re excellent whether the vocal was done in 1972 or 2009. To my ears, they all sound like they’ve been mastered using modern technology, and Jagger’s vocals on the unheard material sounds suspiciously like it’s a more recent vintage…but they’re still the best vocals he’s laid down in ages. From a sonic perspective, the unreleased songs sound brighter and cleaner than Exile‘s famous murkiness, but that’s not really a drawback.

“Pass The Wine (Sophia Loren)” has a killer harmonica solo and the soul sister backing vocals that highlighted many of the Exile tracks, but in some ways it sounds to me more like a Goat’s Head Soup outtake overdubbed to sound like Exile. All the same, while it’s not of the same quality as songs like “Tumbling Dice” or “Loving Cup,” it blends in nicely with those songs, carrying a similar groove and vibe.

The second track, and single release, is “Plundered My Soul,” which features newly overdubbed guitar from Mick Taylor, who was invited back to put his special touch on the song. It was a wise choice. Taylor was the best guitarist the Stones ever had, and his distinctive blues picking is a pleasure to hear after so many years of the Keith Richards/Ronnie Wood rhythmic “art of weaving.” The vocal sounds suspiciously recent, but it’s excellent. It’s a fantastic track that gets better with each listen and the best single the Stones have released since God knows when. Maybe since “Tumbling Dice.” It’s the kind of song that’s easy to imagine blasting out of a portable transistor radio in a 1970s summer and if there were any justice in the world it would be a lot more successful than the latest single by the chart toppers of 2010.

“I’m Not Signifying” slows it down with a great boogie piano worthy of Johnnie Johnson. Jagger’s vocal is slurred and thick, and Charlie Watts rides the beat like a demon. The drums on these tracks are apparently the only instrument that didn’t need any touch up…they were perfect as is. Just more proof that Charlie Watts is a human drum machine. This track is the one that sounds most like a finished song from 1972, and it’s easy to picture it on the album in place of a similar song like “Hip Shake” or “Casino Boogie.” It’s probably why the song was left off the album, because there were other, better, songs of the same style.

Jagger did record brand new vocals and lyrics for “Following The River,” a gospel-infused piano ballad in the style of “Shine A Light.” Recent vocal or not, this is a gem with a sweet and simple backing vocal that sounds like a church choir, and a rousing chorus. If it’s not Nicky Hopkins on the piano it should be. If it is, isn’t it about time someone inducted him into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame as a sideman? The guy was brilliant.

“Dancing In The Light” is another diamond in this rough patch. The elegant country-style guitar picking suggests Mick Taylor and Jagger’s vocal sounds young and strong. Once again, there’s great piano (truly the underrated star of Exile) and the vibe of the song is that of a band that is loose-limbed and having the time of their lives.

A lightly picked guitar that sounds like it’s trying to play the sitar part of “Paint It Black” kicks off “So Divine (Aladdin Story).” It’s another song that sounds like it was mostly figured out in 1972, and features one of the catchiest choruses the Stones have ever done. The ghostly vibes that underpin the melody add a depth to the sound and elevate the song into the realm of the other great tracks from the album.

The next three tracks are alternate versions of Exile tracks. “Loving Cup” is a very different version, slowed down to a crawl. It’s a great curiosity, but inferior to the version used on the album. In his Rolling Stone review of the album, the normally pretty sensible David Fricke wrote:

The highlight of the bonuses is a striking variation on the closer, “Soul Survivor,” sung by Richards instead of Jagger in an enraged bray, as if the guitarist just got up from a vicious beating. I would gladly pay extra to hear a tape of the two debating which version to use.

Frankly this just proves that Fricke was either wasted when he wrote the review or he’s listening to something that I’m not. The Keith Richards vocal on “Soul Survivor” is simply an extemporaneous guide vocal with made up lyrics that are slurred or mumbled deep in the mix. This is not the highlight, David. This is just a rough run through of the song with junk words that were made up on the spot (“I may be a fool/You have my tool…My big blind eye/My swollen nose/Every time she walks by”). Absolutely nothing special here, and I’m sure the “debate over which version to use” lasted approximately one second.

“Good Time Women” dates back to 1969 but is included here because it’s an early version of “Tumbling Dice.” The song’s not there yet, so there’s no surprise it wasn’t used on either Let It Bleed or Sticky Fingers. Most of the lyrics are entirely different and the song sounds like a rehearsal and not a finished track (probably for a pretty good reason). There’s a similarity in the melody to the Exile track, but the track necessarily suffers in comparison to the classic Stones song. It’s very good, and probably better if you’ve never heard “Tumbling Dice,” but it also comes under that heading of “interesting curiosity.”

The last track is a throwaway, a brief instrumental that sounds like nothing more than a loose jam. The song is so unfinished it doesn’t have a real title other than “Title 5.” Still, it’s a good little jam and not a bad way to end the disc of bonus tracks.

As ten songs left over from Exile, the second disc is an excellent addition. As ten Stones songs you’re probably not familiar with, it’s the best album they’ve released in years.

Grade: A

The review of the album Exile On Main St. is here.