The Rolling Stones: Sticky Fingers

Sticky Fingers

With Let It Bleed, the Rolling Stones carved the epitaph on the tombstone of the 1960s. The decade that began with the hopes and dreams ushered in by the Kennedy Administration ended in a tangle of riots, assassinations, war, drugs, and murder. The decade had started with John F. Kennedy’s election and stirring inauguration where he stated, “Let the word go forth from this time and place, to friend and foe alike, that the torch has been passed to a new generation of Americans—born in this century, tempered by war, disciplined by a hard and bitter peace, proud of our ancient heritage—and unwilling to witness or permit the slow undoing of those human rights to which this Nation has always been committed, and to which we are committed today at home and around the world.”

Oh well, you can’t always get what you want.

In 1971 the Stones released their first studio album of the new decade and, just as Let It Bleed had provided the epitaph of the prior decade, Sticky Fingers was the signpost for the new decade. The peace, love, and flowers ethos of popular music in the 1960s turned into the murky, drug addicted sounds of the new rock. It’s fair to say that the celebration of drugs and decadence in popular music started in the 1960s, but it became a much darker tale in the 1970s, and Sticky Fingers points the way.

Keith Richards has claimed that it’s not a particularly heavy drug album and that many of the songs had been written over the three previous years, but all of that is beside the point. Sticky Fingers is replete with drug references from the coy double entendre of the opening track’s title (“Brown Sugar” is both a sexual reference and the name of a type of heroin) to the “head full of snow” (i.e., cocaine) in the closing “Moonlight Mile.”

Pigeonholing the album as merely a drug- and sex-fueled collection of songs fails to do it justice. Sticky Fingers also happens to be one of the greatest albums in the history of rock music. The band may have been deep into their addictions at this time, but they were still at the peak of their creative abilities.

The two chords that open “Brown Sugar” are as easily identifiable for rock fans as the entire riff of “Satisfaction,” and the main riff of the song is one of the best the Stones ever did. “Brown Sugar” provides a perfect synthesis of everything that makes the Rolling Stones a great band. The main guitar riff from Keith Richards is one of the best in the history of rock music, and the lyric is one of Mick Jagger’s greatest creations, a heady stew of drugs, sex, and decadence unparalleled in popular music. On paper, the idea that “Brown Sugar” would be a hit single (and it was a number one single) is ludicrous. With lyrics referring to slavery, sadomasochism, interracial oral sex, it would seem unlikely that the song would ever be acceptable to radio. The fact that most of the lyrics are largely indecipherable certainly helped. The only clearly recognizable lyric is the chorus line of “Brown Sugar, how come you taste so good?” with that insistently catchy “Yeah! Yeah! Yeah! Whooo!” sealing the deal and making the song a perfect fit for arena shows. The Stones pulled off a really neat trick with this song, taking a subject that was completely unfit for radio and marrying it to music that simply screamed, “hit single.” With that riff, overlayed by Mick Taylor’s great lead and the incredible Bobby Keys sax solo, it was a song radio simply could not ignore. I suppose it was a good thing that the Stones didn’t include a lyric sheet with the album.

"Sway" follows the pattern of opening Stones albums with a 1-2 punch that leaves the listener knocked sideways. Unlike "No Expectations" from Beggars Banquet and "Love In Vain" from Let It Bleed, “Sway” leaves the acoustic guitar in the closet and pummels the listener with a tortured heavy ballad. Once again the Stones are reinventing the blues. “Sway” is slow, but everything about the song indicates that it started life as a ballad before it received an injection of steroids. Jagger slurs the words, making the song even more indecipherable than “Brown Sugar,” but the mood is dark. I don’t know whether the song was written about, or for, Brian Jones, but the lyrics can fit. As a troubled soul, that “demon life” certainly had Jones “in its sway,” and there is a verse that clearly indicates the passing of a friend: “Ain’t flinging tears out on the dusty ground/For my friends out on the burial ground/Can’t stand the feeling getting so brought down.”

Through the bad, Jagger is optimistic that love will find a way. “There must be ways to find out/Love is the way they say is really strutting out” he sings before wailing a nearly incoherent scream on the words "Hey, hey, hey, now!" Love seems to triumph in the end, as Jagger sings of waking up next to “someone that broke me up with a corner of her smile” but the demon life in the chorus returns as Nicky Hopkins on angelic piano and Mick Taylor on devilish guitar duel to the death. Indeed, “Sway” is one of Mick Taylor’s finest recorded moments. The solo he plays beginning at about 1:35 into the song is a textbook example of brilliant slide playing, as tasteful and economical as the best of Duane Allman, while the closing solo he plays over the last minute of the song is nothing short of staggering, the first real instance of virtuosity appearing on a Stones studio recording. Taylor rarely gets enough credit for his work with the Stones, being the middleman between the legendary Brian Jones and Ron Wood. On “Sway,” a track on which Keith Richards provides only backing vocals and the rhythm guitar is ably but unspectacularly played by Mick Jagger, Taylor shows just what he was capable of doing, and he elevates the entire song. It is mostly the hard-core devotees who are familiar with “Sway,” but it is one of the greatest of all Stones songs and the reason for that is Mick Taylor.

In 1970, the Flying Burrito Brothers released a song called “Wild Horses” that carried the songwriting credit of Jagger/Richards. The song had been “loaned” to Gram Parsons as a thank you from Keith Richards. Parsons had shown Richards how to use alternate guitar tunings for greater effect. The Burritos never had a hit with “Wild Horses”, but it’s a piece of rock and roll trivia that their version was the first recorded and released version of what, in 1971, would instantly become a Stones classic. I actually prefer the Burritos version of the song, but that doesn’t mean that the Stones version isn’t solid gold. Here the acoustic guitar returns, and it’s some of the finest acoustic playing on any Stones song. Taylor and Richards weave together, with Richards playing the main riff and Taylor interjecting brief finger picking licks, and Jim Dickinson providing tinkling piano notes under the most plaintive, emotional vocal Jagger had ever recorded. Charlie Watts kicks in and while he doesn’t have much to do on the song, what he does is simply perfect. Bill Wyman provides a very elementary bass line, mainly individual notes hit for accent. The lyrics tell a heartbreaking tale of separation and loss: “I know I dreamed you/A sin and a lie/I have my freedom, but I don’t have much time/Faith has been broken/Tears must be cried/Let’s do some living/After we die.” But in the end the song is about reconciliation and redemption. The separation is over, and Jagger reassures his love that “Wild horses couldn’t drag me away.” Musically, the secret weapon of the song is the harmony vocal on the chorus. The horrendous attempts at harmony that gave a cheeky charm to Between The Buttons is now a magnificent blending of Jagger’s voice with Keith Richards’ raspier harmony. These harmonies imbue the chorus with an incredible depth of emotion.

Sticky Fingers is not a perfect album, although it’s really close. The reason the album falls short of perfection is the maddening “Can’t You Hear Me Knocking.” Propelled by a classic riff, a snapping drum line from Charlie Watts, a great vocal from Jagger, and a note-perfect (if lyrically repetitive) bridge, the song is 2:41 of the best material on the album. Unfortunately, the song is 7:15 long. Immediately following this incredible performance is four and a half minutes of noodling jamming. Rocky Dijon on congas, Jimmy Miller on percussion, and Bobby Keys on sax start the jam convincingly, but just as “Sway” showed the best of Mick Taylor, “Can’t You Hear Me Knocking” shows him at his worst, playing a Santana-lite Latin groove that wouldn’t be out-of-place in your local Mexican restaurant. It’s not that’s his playing is bad, it’s just that it’s not interesting. It’s a truly disappointing coda to an otherwise excellent song. I should mention that the jam has its advocates who love it and frankly, I wish I were one of them. To me, the jam takes up the full length of a song, and adds nothing to the album.

There are also those who would disavow the reading of Mississippi Fred McDowell’s "You Gotta Move," but I am not one of them. It’s a blast of primal delta blues, with a blending of slide guitar and vocal melody over a simple blues lyric. The effect of the song, with its rudimentary drumbeat and field holler vocals, is a chant. It is easy to imagine this being sung in the cotton fields. Coming after the cluttered ending of "Can’t You Hear Me Knocking," "You Gotta Move" clears the air with its simplicity and manages to say more in 2:34 than "Knocking" does in its extended running time.

Now that the air has been cleared by a Delta blues blast, side two of the record immediately raises the stakes. The real triumph on “Bitch” belongs to Bobby Keys and Jim Price on sax and trumpet, respectively. Sure the guitar riff from Keith and Taylor is wild, but it’s the horn riff that mirrors the guitar riff that provides the real hook in the song. Jagger’s salacious lyric is excellent, swinging between the boastful and the beaten. “Sometimes I’m sexy, move like a stud/Kicking the stall all night/Sometimes I’m so shy, got to be worked on/Don’t have no bark or bite,” he sings. But as tired and beaten down as he is, he can’t help but respond to the loving call of a woman who knows how to get his blood flowing and his heart “bumpin’ louder than a big bass drum.” But even here, in an ode to sex, the lifestyle choices of the Stones raise a brief appearance. “I’m feeling drunk, juiced up and sloppy/Ain’t touched a drink all night.” It’s one of the many references to intoxicating substances that pepper the album.

On "I Got The Blues" the Stones crafted what is one of their best original blues songs, nearly the equal of the brilliant "No Expectations." It’s a perfect combination of lyric and music. Jagger’s lyrics is touching and heartfelt, and you can hear the resignation in his voice as he acknowledges that the affair is over, but he still wants what’s best for her. "Every night you’ve been away/I’ve sat down and I have prayed/That you’re safe in the arms of a guy/Who will bring you alive/Won’t drag you down with abuse." And just as the vocals give way to the solo, it is not the guitar that takes the lead but rather Billy Preston’s beautiful organ solo.

“Sister Morphine” was co-written with Jagger’s ex-girlfriend Marianne Faithfull (some claim she’s really the sole writer) and it’s one of the most harrowing songs ever written or recorded. Jagger’s half-whispered lyrics, backed by a sparse acoustic guitar, paint a bleak picture of despair. With the second verse, Ry Cooder plays a needle-sharp slide and Bill Wyman has his shining moment on the album with his bass line. A simple drumbeat and a heavily distorted piano herald the third verse, when Jagger’s voice turns pleading. “Please, Sister Morphine, turn my nightmares into dreams/Can’t you see I’m fading fast/And that this shot will be my last.” Listen closely as Jagger sings that last word. He stretches out the vowel sound and mutates the soft “a” sound into a long “i” sound before concluding with a barely audible “f.” The effect, if you listen closely is to blur the line between the published lyric of “This shot will be my last” and the more frightening line “This shot will be my life.” As a portrayal of drug addiction, songs don’t really get scarier than “Sister Morphine.”

It wouldn’t be a Stones album from this era without the obligatory country pastiche, but Jagger and Richards came up with their best such song with “Dead Flowers.” It’s a smart-ass kiss off to a former love, driven by the honky-tonk piano of Ian Stewart, the acoustic rhythm guitar from Jagger, and the great solo from Taylor. Charlie Watts rides the hi-hat like his life depends on it, and Jagger sings in his best phony Southern drawl. The drugs are there, of course. “I’ll be in my basement room/With a needle and a spoon,” sings Jagger, but the lyrical hook of the song is the wickedly funny line, “You can send me dead flowers every morning…/And I won’t forget to put roses on your grave.”

After the Stones ended the 1969 tour, they began working on the songs that would make up Sticky Fingers. “Moonlight Mile” was recorded in May of 1970, nearly a year before Fingers was released, and appears to have been heavily inspired by or influenced by the 1969 tour. Rock music is full of songs about life on the road from the sublime (Jackson Browne’s “Running On Empty”) to the ridiculous (Bon Jovi’s “Wanted Dead Or Alive”). I can think of no song that better captures the isolation and loneliness of a life on the road better than “Moonlight Mile.” Is there a better image of the after-party bus ride to the next gig, staring at your own reflection in a nighttime window, than the opening verse?

When the wind blows and the rain feels cold
With a head full of snow
With a head full of snow
In the window there’s a face you know
Don’t the night pass slow?
Don’t the nights pass slow?

The road is a grueling place in the Stones. Fifteen or so years later Jon Bon Jovi would be bragging about seeing a million faces and rocking them all, but for Jagger the adoring crowd is “the sound of strangers” while the band is “sleeping under strange, strange skies” after another “mad mad day on the road.” Underscored by Paul Buckmaster’s beautiful string arrangement and Charlie’s thick drumming, the pace of the song is stately and powerful, punctuated by Jagger’s one howl, “Yeah, I’m comin’ home!” near the end. Mick Taylor also deserves an enormous amount of credit on this song. His beautiful electric and slide playing more than compensate for his sins on “Can’t You Hear Me Knocking.” Amazingly, Keith Richards does not appear on the song. This is the Jagger/Taylor show, and it provides both a beautiful coda for the album and one of the true highlights of the Taylor era. “Moonlight Mile” may actually be the best pure song the Stones recorded during Taylor’s tenure with the band.

Sticky Fingers is yet another high water mark for the Stones, and also a clear break in both sound and content from what the band had been the previous decade. The pop songs and occasionally obvious attempts to follow the Beatles were gone. The Beatles no longer existed and the Stones were free to do whatever they wanted. Sticky Fingers, with its accent on sex, drugs, and rock and roll was the template the band would follow, with some minor deviations, for the rest of their career.

Grade: A+

The Rolling Stones: Get Yer Ya-Ya’s Out!

Get Yer Ya-Ya's Out

In 1969, the Rolling Stones went where the Beatles feared to tred: back to the concert stage. The Stones hadn’t toured in three years (a lifetime back then), so the shows were greeted as the return of conquering heroes. The fact that the Stones were also riding on the enormous wave of both Beggars Banquet and Let It Bleed helped considerably. They had just released their two best albums to that point, and the technology and their audience had matured to the point where they could actually be heard in the concert halls.

The 1969 tour is considered by many Stones fans to be one of the best they ever did (the 1972 tour usually gets the #1 ranking), but the entire tour was completely overshadowed by the final show, at a little place we like to call Altamont, where a fan named Meredith Hunter pulled a gun in front of the stage and was subsequently knifed and beaten to death by the Hell’s Angels as the Stones looked on. The murder at Altamont, enshrined forever in the magnificent movie Gimme Shelter, cast a pall over the Stones that lasted for years.

What gets lost in the tale is just how good the rest of the tour was. This era was the peak for the band both as a recording unit and a live band. The extra musicians, blow-up phalluses, giant inflatable women, football jerseys, etc. were still years away and on the stage was a young band with a lot to prove.

The Stones had released an earlier live album called Got Live If You Want It, but that was a poorly recorded travesty where the band was largely drowned out by the screaming of teenyboppers. The album for the 1969 tour, Get Yer Ya-Ya’s Out! The Rolling Stones In Concert was an entirely different beast.

It is on the very first track where the Stones used a delay effect of over-lapping introductions to announce themselves by the title that would stick: The Greatest Rock and Roll Band In The World. From there the band launches into an incendiary take on “Jumping Jack Flash” that hits all the right notes for a live rock album: it’s looser than the studio version and the guitars especially have even more muscle.

“Carol,” one of two Chuck Berry covers, is a nice reminder that the Stones of 1969 were not that far removed from the Stones of 1965. That loose vibe, pressing up against but never crossing the border of sloppy, is fully evident as Keith rips into a great solo that would make Berry proud. “Little Queenie,” the second Berry cover unearths a little-known gem and provides perhaps the definitive take on the song. Both of the Berry songs are helped enormously by the boogie-woogie piano of the “sixth Stone,” Ian Stewart. His piano runs on both songs rival those of Berry’s great sideman, Johnny Johnson and give Keith a solid foundation for his guitar solos to achieve orbit.

From Banquet comes the salacious “Stray Cat Blues,” slowed down and raunched up even more than the malevolent studio version. The 15-year-old jailbait of the studio version is now a downright twisted 13-year-old. One of the things that sets this version apart from the studio version is Mick Taylor, who steps up throughout the album as the only true virtuoso to ever play in the band. Taylor’s genius is a magnificent counterpoint to the rawness and earthiness of the rest of the band. In many ways such a combination of prodigy and guttersnipes shouldn’t work, but it does. This is the first Stones album on which Taylor plays on every song, and he is the unsung hero throughout, along with the indispensable Charlie Watts.

The slide guitar Taylor plays on “Love In Vain” counters Keith’s delicate picking and lifts the songs above the more gentle version on Let It Bleed. Where Robert Johnson’s blues get a fantastic, acoustic reading on the studio album, it is this live, electric version that reaches deep into the heart of the Delta.

“Sympathy For The Devil” gets a radical overhaul, from the slow samba that graced Beggars Banquet to a sped up, raw blues with a dueling Richards/Taylor solo that nearly blinds the listener with brilliance. Bill Wyman also nearly steals the show here with his busy, sinister bass rumbling throughout the song. While it lacks the classic status of the studio version, this live version is hotter than a flamethrower. And it wouldn’t be complete without the plaintive cry from a girl in the audience requesting “‘Paint It Black’…’Paint It Black’…’Paint It Black’, you devils!” just before the chugging guitar introduces “Sympathy”…a live album moment so iconic that the Stones sampled it on their 1990 live disc Flashpoint as a joke.

Also sped up and raunched up is the already over-the-top “Live With Me.” One of the highlights of Let It Bleed, the live version is one of the highlights here. Mick Taylor simply owns the song, and Watts shines brilliantly throughout. It’s ramshackle and rough, but that’s what makes the song so compelling.

In contrast to most of the songs, “Honky Tonk Women” gets slowed down and put in touch with its blues roots. This is the version that really sounds like it belongs in a small, Southern honky-tonk, played on a stage hidden behind chicken wire. The studio version of the song is classic Stones, but this version sounds like it’s straight from the swamp.

The album closes with an extended, fully electric version of “Street Fighting Man” that Taylor dominates. It’s downright filthy compared to the studio version, and once again the Stones slow the song down a notch in order to increase the power behind the music. Where the studio version was all treble, with the acoustic guitars pushed into the red and flourishes of sitar providing an odd touch, this version is just plain mean…bottom-heavy, with Taylor’s lightning bomber runs soaring over Keith’s scorched earth rhythm.

Of all the songs on the album, it is the final track of side one that provides the centerpiece of the album, as well as creating a character for Jagger to inhabit with the same intensity that his London rival Roger Daltrey was inhabiting Tommy on stages at the same time. “Midnight Rambler” was a good, but anemic, track on Let It Bleed. On Ya-Ya’s it is all blood and blues, a truly harrowing performance that lets Jagger play the part of a sociopathic murderer with great conviction. Live, the song becomes so much more than it was on Let It Bleed that it became the standard version of the song for Stones fans. Forever after, when the Stones played “Rambler” it was the Ya-Ya’s version they trotted out. From the extended harmonica solos to the wicked guitar bump-and-grind of the slowed, thunderous middle section, this version helped solidify the aura of “evil” that had surrounded the Stones since the baleful video they made to promote the “Jumping Jack Flash” single.

The dirty little secret of live albums is that most of them aren’t very good. Most of them are just live versions of the band’s greatest hits, played with a great deal of professionalism and not a whole lot of passion. It is passion that makes a live album worth hearing, and there is plenty of it on Get Yer Ya-Ya’s Out! As live albums go, it is much more than a souvenir from the 1969 tour, it is an essential part of the Stones discography and one of the greatest live albums ever released, opening the door between the Stones of the 1960s and the band they would become in the 1970s.

Grade: A+

The Rolling Stones: Let It Bleed

Let It BleedThe magnificent triumph that was Beggars Banquet had redefined the Stones as a serious rock band, as distinguished from their earlier incarnations when they were unsure whether they were rock, blues, soul, or psychedelic. The followup album, 1969’s Let It Bleed, extrapolated the themes from “Sympathy For The Devil,” “Street Fighting Man” and “Stray Cat Blues” and further clarified the band’s identity. Sinister, druggy, decadent, licentious…these are now well-established views of the Stones, but at that time it was a revelation.

At a time when the Beatles were exhorting everyone to come together, and the Youngbloods were advising us all to smile on our brother, the Stones emerged with a more realistic and darkly visionary look at the Sixties. The Stones had briefly bought into the psychedelic movement with all of its silly hippie nostrums, but it never suited them. Let It Bleed was the antithesis of the hippie movement. “Everybody get together/Try to love one another/Right now,” sang Jesse Colin Young in one of 1969’s biggest hits. The Stones countered with “Rape and murder/It’s just a shot away.”

If music can truly be described as sinister, it is the music that opens the leadoff track, “Gimme Shelter”: the lightly picked guitar, the scratched percussion, and those oh-so-haunting “ooohs” that sound like beautiful demons enticing you into their lair. “A storm is threatening,” sings Jagger in one of the best vocals of his career. “War is just a shot away,” and over the course of four and a half minutes the listener experiences nothing less than the soundtrack to the apocalypse. From the fire sweeping down the streets like a red coal carpet, to the image of a mad bull that has lost its way, to the life-threatening floods, “Gimme Shelter” paints a picture that is downright terrifying. Add in the chorus and Merry Clayton’s brilliant vocal about rape and murder, and the effect is both beautiful and brutal. All is not lost, though, as Jagger reminds us that “love is just a kiss away.” The music matches the lyrics, grinding and vicious. Other leadoff tracks on other albums may be as good, but the opening salvo on Let It Bleed has never been surpassed.

Perhaps trying to mimic the pace of Beggars Banquet, “Gimme Shelter” is followed by the acoustic/slide blues of Robert Johnson’s “Love In Vain.” With fantastic mandolin from Ry Cooder, the song is one of the best Stones blues covers, with Charlie Watts laying down a solid slow shuffle beat.

“Country Honk” follows and it’s a misstep. The third song is a country pastiche, again following the pace of Beggars Banquet. Where “Dear Doctor” worked on every level, the countrified version of the earlier single “Honky Tonk Women” doesn’t quite succeed. It’s not a total failure, and it’s certainly listenable, but it’s an embarrassment compared to the magnificent single which was inexplicably left off the album. Supposedly influenced by Gram Parsons, who had befriended Keith Richards, “Country Honk” lies lazily on the turntable. The lyrics were tweaked slightly, and the music is entirely different from the single: a light acoustic strumming and a down home country fiddle from Byron Berline give the main punch of the song, which is otherwise notable for one reason only: it is the first appearance of Mick Taylor on record with the Stones. Brian Jones, by this time, was dead though he turns up (barely) on two songs from Let It Bleed, and his replacement had not yet been fully cast when the album was recorded.

Side one continues with a fierce bass line played by Keith Richards. “Live With Me” is the “Stray Cat Blues” of Let It Bleed. Blessed with riches and success beyond their wildest dreams, Jagger proves that he’s still the decadent guttersnipe he always claimed to be. The song is an invitation to a woman who Jagger seems both to want to employ as a nanny for a “score of harebrained children” and also take to his bed. “You’d look good pram pushing/Down the high street,” Jagger sings. “Don’t you wanna live with me?” Jagger’s home needs “a woman’s touch” and comes across as an X-rated version of Upstairs, Downstairs. The cook is “a whore” who is apparently making it with the butler in the pantry and stripping to the delight of the footman. The Lord of the Manor, meanwhile, has “filthy habits” and a friend who shoots rats and feeds the carcasses to the geese on his property. It’s quite an invitation. In many ways, this is part two of “Sympathy For The Devil.” It’s the same character, different scenario.

Musically, “Live With Me” is a tough rocker, with Keith’s bass leading the way through the verses with stabs of guitar from Keith and Taylor and piano from Nicky Hopkins and a rock steady beat from Charlie who rarely deviates except to punctuate with brief fills in the chorus. This song is also notable for being the first time the Stones recorded with Bobby Keys, who plays the great saxophone solo.

The title track, “Let It Bleed” closes out the first side. It’s considered a classic Stones song, and rightly so. The lyrical themes of drugs and decadence are solidly in place, with Jagger slurring his tale of junkie friendship. Or perhaps it’s more subtle than that: Jagger is not singing to or about another person, he is singing about drugs, and how they begin as a friendship, and end badly. The drug dealer says “You can lean on me” and appears in the form of a beautiful woman. “My breasts will always be open/Baby, you can rest your weary head right on me/And there will always be a space in my parking lot/When you need a little coke and sympathy.” But the drugs have a dark side: “You knifed me in that dirty filthy basement/With that jaded, faded, junkie nurse/Oh, what pleasant company!” The lyric changes from the friendly “we all need someone we can lean on” to the considerably darker “we all need someone we can feed on.”

Keith plays a tasteful slide guitar throughout, and Ian Stewart plays great boogie-woogie piano while once again it is the acoustic guitar that provides the steady rhythm. “Let It Bleed” may go on a little long, and it lacks the visceral punch the lyrics deserve, but it’s still an extraordinary song of drugs and dissolution.

From drugs to murder, side two opens with “Midnight Rambler,” inspired by the tale of the alleged serial killer Albert DeSalvo, aka The Boston Strangler. In the song, the killer is nearly a supernatural presence, more akin to Candyman than the Boston Strangler. Jagger’s harmonica provides the musical hook, and while Keith’s main guitar riff and slide guitar are top flight, the song doesn’t really work in this setting. “Midnight Rambler” is considered one of the great Stones songs, a true classic, but for most listeners the definitive take is the live version from Get Yer Ya-Ya’s Out! The studio version is too long and not particularly interesting. Charlie rides his usual steady beat, but the song never really achieves liftoff, unlike the transcendent live version that was released the following year.

What follows is one of the best Keith Richards performances on record. “You Got The Silver” is one of the three best Keith vocals ever recorded (for what it’s worth, the others are “Happy” and “Before They Make Me Run”). It is the first time he sings lead on an entire track, and his vocal simply shreds Jagger’s heavily bootlegged version. “You Got The Silver” is a modern country blues, the likes of which the Stones started crafting on Beggars Banquet. The great slide and country-fueled rhythm acoustic meet with Nicky Hopkins’ stately piano and Charlie’s simple, sparse, and elegant drums to make one of the Stones’ finest ballads, with Keith’s weathered vocals providing the icing on the cake.

Bill Wyman leads off “Monkey Man” on the vibes, before the rest of the band comes crashing in, with Keith’s raunchy guitar taking the pole position and using the same sinister tone he used on “Gimme Shelter.” The lyric is a bit of nonsense, more druggy decadent myth-making from Jagger, but the music is astonishing. Charlie rolls around the drums, and Nicky Hopkins once again proves himself the best session keyboardist of his time, his duet with Wyman’s vibes underpinning a Keith slide riff that starts tentatively and then suddenly shoots into orbit.

The album concludes as it began, with a seminal statement on the times. Released very late in 1969, “You Can’t Always Get What You Want” should be written on the tombstone of the Sixties. Opening with the London Bach Choir singing the first verse a capella before giving way to Keith’s strummed acoustic guitar and a lyrical French horn solo from rock’s own Forrest Gump, Al Kooper. When Jagger enters, backed only by the acoustic guitar, he seems to be standing before the crowd unclothed until he is lightly joined by Rocky Dijon’s percussion. Al Kooper’s descending piano runs herald the entrance of the band when, like a kick to the solar plexus, producer Jimmy Miller comes roaring in on the drums (Watts couldn’t get the piece, so Miller jumped in the drummer’s chair). Suddenly it’s all there: Keith’s stinging lead guitar lines sliding in and around the other musicians, with Kooper doubling on piano and organ, and Bill Wyman providing a rollicking bass line. Jagger surveys the Sixties and finds them wanting. In turn he looks at love, politics, and drugs and reaches the same conclusion about all of them: the Sixties dream was just a dream. Much more realistic than many of his musical peers, Jagger and Richards reach the conclusion that it’s not necessarily a bad thing not to get what you want, because you’ll get what you need.

Of the five album run that started with Beggars Banquet (four studio, one live), Let It Bleed is the weakest link. That says much more about the merits of the albums that surround it, however, and very little about any discernible lack of quality here. Let It Bleed is a flawed masterpiece, providing the jaded riposte to the way the Beatles ended the decade with “The love you take/Is equal to the love you make.” Flaws and all, it is essential listening.

Grade: A

The Rolling Stones: Beggars Banquet

Beggars Banquet

After the confusion and grappling for identity shown by Their Satanic Majesties Request, it was crucial for the Rolling Stones to find themselves. They had gone through being a blues band, an R&B band, a soul band, a pop band, and a psychedelic band, all with varying degrees of success. But with Beggars Banquet, the Stones found their real identity: they would take all the blues and country elements that they loved and synthesize them into a brand of bluesy rock and roll the likes of which hadn’t really been heard before.

The transformation started with a single, but what a single it was. “Jumping Jack Flash” tweaked the riff of “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction” and added a myth-making blues rock lyric (“I was born in a crossfire hurricane/And I howled at my ma in the driving rain” is easily as good as anything Muddy Waters came up with) to define the sound of the Rolling Stones once and for all. Now, over 40 years later, it remains the definitive Stones song, if not the best.

The B-side was a holdover from the Majesties sessions, but far superior to almost everything on that album. “Child Of The Moon” was tinged with holdover psychedelia, but played tougher than anything except “2000 Light Years From Home.”

As good as the single was, it was just a foretaste of the album that followed. Beggars Banquet is an anomaly among Stones albums. It is a mostly acoustic album, with only snatches of snarling electric guitar. Brian Jones, who played so well on the previous albums, was a drug casualty at this point. He managed to rouse himself enough to contribute the masterful slide guitar on “No Expectations,” but is largely absent from the rest of the album. In practical terms, this meant that the experimentation Jones loved and the diverse instrumentation he had brought to the albums starting with Aftermath, was gone. The new sound was stripped down, lean, and ferocious.

Before its release, the album was already marked with controversy. The cover desired by the Stones featured a graffiti-covered toilet stall. The record company refused to release this cover, substituting a simple white cover with an elegant script, as if it was an invitation. Normally, I tend to side with the artist, but the record company-approved cover is beautiful and proper, while the Stones’ choice for the cover was simply tacky. Unfortunately, with the release of CDs, the Stones’ original cover replaced the “invitation” cover. Too bad.

If “Jumping Jack Flash” was myth-making from Mick Jagger, the myth became set in stone with the opening track, “Sympathy For The Devil.” Played as a samba, with heavy use of light percussion (congas, tablas, maracas), Jagger assumes the persona of Satan himself, casting himself as a major player in the long parade of history, from the Russian Revolution through the World Wars and up to the assassination of John and Robert Kennedy, all while the demonic chorus chants “woo hoo” behind him as if part of an invocation. Keith throws in a harsh, discordant guitar solo that seems pasted together from disjointed licks while Jagger scats and screams like a tribal shaman. Forty years has blunted the impact of the song, but I can still remember where I was when I first heard it and the mind-blowing impact it had on me.

And yet, “Sympathy For The Devil” is completely atypical of the songs on Beggars. The stunningly gorgeous “No Expectations” follows the voodoo ritual of "Devil." The slide guitar is one of the only things added to the album by Brian Jones, but it is among the finest examples of slide guitar in the long history of rock music. Over a soft acoustic backing, Jones’s slide cries real tears and adds a depth of feeling to Jagger’s brilliant lyrics of a love gone wrong. Bill Wyman comes close to stealing the show with his understated bass, on prominent display in the perfect mix, and session man extraordinaire Nicky Hopkins contributes a stately piano solo. “No Expectations” is possibly the finest ballad in the Stones discography, and one of the finest ballads in rock’s history. It is a new kind of acoustic blues, rooted in the past but sounding completely contemporary.

From the new blues to the new country, “Dear Doctor” provides some much-needed laughs after the sinister “Sympathy” and the heartbreaking “Expectations.” Over a surprisingly good, pure country and western backing track, Jagger camps up the story of a young man being forced into a wedding with a “bow-legged sow.” It’s nearly an irresistable sing along, as Keith proves by chiming in on prominent backing vocals at seemingly random intervals. The music is excellent, but the song itself is still somewhat of a parody of country music, as if the Stones were uncomfortable expressing their love for such an “unhip” style of music (in British rock circles, at least), so they compensated by performing the song in a jokey fashion. Whatever the level of seriousness, the song works perfectly as both parody and country song, and the lyrics are clever and funny without ever turning into the punch line of a joke.

The Stones returned again to the acoustic blues with “Parachute Woman,” a more straightforward 12-bar blues than “No Expectations.” Jagger plays a haunting harmonica at the fade out. The song is, if anything, the “weak spot” on Beggars, if one exists. As weak spots go it’s terrific, a loping acoustic blues with unusual, sexually charged lyrics (“Parachute woman/Land on me tonight”).

Side one concludes with “Jigsaw Puzzle,” which is nearly as long as the epic “Sympathy For The Devil.” Once again acoustic guitars provide the main riff, with overdubbed slide (this time by Keith). The blues here is once again the “new” blues the Stones were crafting. The song avoids becoming a standard blues song on the strength of the lyric, a lengthy dissertation in the style of Bob Dylan’s character studies. Over Bill Wyman’s prominent bass, Charlie’s rock steady backbeat, Nicky Hopkins’ piano chords, and Keith’s acoustic riffing and stinging slide runs, Jagger sings about the outcasts of the world, from the tramp on the doorstep to the bishop’s daughter to the “family man” who is also a ruthless gangster. Jagger observes these characters from a disinterested, jaded perspective, waiting patiently for some revelation that will help it all make sense. The persona of the Stones is set in this song, as Jagger turns his lyrical attention to the band itself, defining them just as much as the film A Hard Day’s Night defined the Beatles for their fans. “Oh the singer he looks angry/At being thrown to the lions,” sings Jagger, likely remembering his recent drug bust and subsequent prosecution. “And the bass player he looks nervous/About the girls outside/And the drummer he’s so shattered/ Trying to keep on time/And the guitar players look damaged/They been outcasts all their lives.” The Stones encapsulated in a single verse: notorious ladies’ man Wyman, solid backbeat machine Watts, and wasted guitarists. It is the lyrics and Jagger’s performance of them that makes this song so extraordinary, with much credit going to Wyman’s rumbling bass and Richards’s stinging leads.

Side two begins with the furious acoustic strumming of “Street Fighting Man,” inspired by a peace march in London that turned violent. The song is so loud and propulsive it’s difficult to believe that it’s not a full-on electric guitar assault, but the primary riff is played by acoustic guitars that are pushed way into the red. With Watts playing an elemental drum pattern, really little more than just holding the beat steady, and Wyman once again stepping up and playing extraordinary bass guitar, Jagger sings one of the defining rock lyrics of 1968. In a dreadful year of war, violence, riots, assassinations, Jagger’s “Summer’s here and the time is right/For fighting in the street, boys” was a call to arms while the following lyric was a more jaded “What can a poor boy do/But sing in a rock and roll band?” Jones even contributes a few odd sitar drones, but they’re largely buried under that rocket-fuelled rhythm.

For the first time since December’s Children, the Stones included a cover song as the followup to “Street Fighting Man.” Unlike their earlier cover choices of Chuck Berry, fifties rock and roll and blues, and contemporary soul, the Stones dug back to the 1920s country blues for the Reverend Robert Wilkins’s musical retelling of the Bible story, “Prodigal Son.” The Stones play it straight, with Keith playing beautiful acoustic guitar and Jagger singing in a slurred voice that suits the music perfectly. It’s among the best Stones cover songs ever, sounding like a loose jam in the basement.

Considering that one of the obsessions of the Rolling Stones from even their earliest days was sex, Beggars Banquet is largely a sex-free zone. There’s the fun wordplay of “Parachute Woman,” and then the absolutely salacious raunch of “Stray Cat Blues.” Jagger sounds more sinister on this song, being himself, than he does playing the Devil on “Sympathy.” “I can see that you’re just 15 years old/But I don’t want your I.D.” sings Jagger, promising his nubile young friend that there will be “a feast upstairs.” Even as the girl promises to be a wild cat, right down to scratching and biting, Jagger one-ups the ante: “You say you got a friend/That she’s wilder than you/Why don’t you bring her upstairs?/If she’s so wild, she can join in, too.” Keith plays wild electric guitar leads over Watts’s rolling drums before the song ends with an extended jam.

After the sexual fury of “Stray Cat Blues,” the acoustic blues of “Factory Girl,” with its Dave Mason-played Mellotron simulating a wildly strummed mandolin, and fiddle played by Family and future Blind Faith bassist Ric Grech, comes almost as a relief. The sister song of “Parachute Woman,” there is a down-home country feel to the song, but an almost Celtic underpinning. The congas (played by Rocky Dijon) and tabla (played by Charlie Watts) add a distinctly un-country sound to the background, but it all works beautifully. Jagger’s lyric of waiting for his blue-collar lover to get home is the icing on the cake.

Which brings the listener to the conclusion. A soft acoustic guitar introduces Keith Richards on lead vocal for the first verse before Jagger takes over. “Salt Of The Earth” is a classic workingman’s drinking song on first listen, but really is about how powerless the “common people” really are. Jagger’s refrain “When I search a faceless crowd/A swirling mass of grey and black and white/They don’t look real to me/In fact, they look so strange” seems to dilute the rousing verses until you listen more closely. While the verses seem to salute the “salt of the earth” with a series of toasts, prayers, and thoughts, the reality is quite different.

The answer lies in the verse “Spare a thought for the stay-at-home voter/His empty eyes gaze at strange beauty shows/And a parade of the gray-suited grafters/A choice of cancer or polio.” Jagger will raise a glass to the hard-working people and drink a toast to the uncounted heads, but his real statement here is that the people no longer have power over their own lives, and that politics has failed (“they need leaders but get gamblers instead”). As the album closer, “Salt of the Earth” is breathtaking in its construction. The acoustic blues are there, but so is a gospel chorus, and a rave up finale that suggests that maybe there’s life in the people yet.

Beggars Banquet, released the same day at the Beatles’ White Album, was the peak of 1960s Rolling Stones. It marked the beginning of a five-year stretch where the Stones could seemingly do no wrong in the recording studio. It remains one of the best Stones albums ever, if not the best. It remains one of the greatest albums in the history of rock music.

Grade: A+

The Rolling Stones: Their Satanic Majesties Request

Their Satanic Majesties RequestFresh from the back-to-back triumphs of Aftermath and Between The Buttons, the Rolling Stones returned to the studio in tumultuous times. Brian Jones was clearly on the path to self-destruction due to his enormous intake of drugs, Mick Jagger and Keith Richards had been busted for drugs and were facing serious prison time, and the music scene was changing rapidly.

In June of 1967 the Beatles rewrote the musical rules with the era-changing and era-defining Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. It wasn’t the first psychedelic album, and in many ways it was only minimally psychedelic, but Pepper was the first pop music album to be treated as “art.” The rest of the music world, convinced they all had a “Sgt. Pepper” in them, broke out the horn and string sections, tracked down Mellotrons, and gave it their best shot.

The Stones, too, got caught up in the psychedelic craze and, in November of 1967, released what many fans had been anxiously awaiting: the Stones’s response to the Beatles. Portrayed in the press as the “anti-Beatles,” the Stones delivered an album that was the flip side of Pepper. Where Pepper was majestic and sunny, informed by English music hall, Indian ragas, and LSD, the Stones’s Their Satanic Majesties Request was dark, drug-fuelled, and sinister even as it attempted to co-opt the language of the flower children.

The album begins with discordant piano chords, horn blasts, and what sound like a drunken choir singing about the glories of tripping on LSD. “Open our heads/Let the pictures come,” they sing on “Sing This All Together.” It’s an insanely catchy chorus but the music is out of this world: African percussion, squawking guitars, bleating horns, harmonies that fade in and out seemingly randomly. There’s a short musical interlude in the middle that sounds like wasted musicians playing instruments they’ve never played before. It’s all very strange, and all oddly compelling. At a little less than four minutes, it’s a bizarre introduction to the album, far from the punchy tunefulness that is the title track to Pepper. Still, so far, so weird. We’re not off to a great start, but at least it’s interesting.

The album continues with “Citadel” which sounds like an evil outtake from Between The Buttons. Keith’s guitar raunch starts the song, and Charlie Watts has a grand time slamming out the beat, but Jagger intones vaguely psychedelic lyrics over a musical background that once again consists of everything, including the kitchen sink. As with “Sing This All Together,” much of the music pops up at random: a blast of guitar, a horn, Mellotron. It’s a tough little rocker underneath all that, an indicator that maybe the Stones hadn’t completely forgotten where they came from.

At least until “In Another Land.”

Bill Wyman’s début songwriting and lead vocal performance with the Stones isn’t a bad song at all, but the vocals on the verses are phased almost beyond recognition. When the chorus comes along, driven by a propulsive Charlie Watts, and Wyman’s vocal is saved by Jagger, the song becomes instantly better than 95% of what was then current psychedelic music, but during Wyman’s effects-laden verses, the song borders on little more than being a time piece. And did I mention that it ends with about twenty seconds of snoring?

Fortunately for the listener, “2000 Man” brings the Stones back to being the Stones. It’s still far more processed than anything on Between The Buttons, but the song itself could have fit on that album. Guitars, bass, drums, and Jagger are once again the order of the day. There are psychedelic elements to the song, but they are not nearly as obtrusive as they are on the songs leading up to it. If anything, there’s a country-ish lilt to the music, enough so to think that if it had been slimmed down even more it might have fit on 1968’s Beggar’s Banquet. “2000 Man” isn’t a landmark in the canon of Stones songs, but it ranks evenly with “Citadel” as the best song on side one of this album.

That’s mainly because side one ends with a reprise of “Sing This All Together” called, cleverly, “Sing This All Together (See What Happens).” It’s nearly nine minutes of the most godawful aimless noodling ever committed to record. Odd spoken bits (“Where’s that joint?”), tuneless instrumentation, a tweeting flute that sounds borrowed from a Traffic record, chimes…you name it, it’s on here in one discordant mess of a recording (it can’t really be classified as a song at all). It sounds like (and may be) an incredibly loose jam by a bunch of stoned musicians, and it is the first truly awful thing the Stones had released on record.

Why anyone would even want to flip the record to side two is a mystery, but if they got that far they were rewarded. The second side of the record begins with the transcendent “She’s A Rainbow,” one of the very best Stones songs from their brief psychedelic period. Watts once again steals the show while Jagger sings a beautiful lyric over a background of piano, strings, acoustic guitar, drums, bass, and Mellotron. “The Lantern” follows and it seems like the Stones may be able to salvage something out of this mess. Once again, the psychedelic elements are pushed to the back and Jagger sings over a backdrop of acoustic and electric guitar. Like “2000 Man,” “The Lantern” is not one of the best Stones songs, but it’s one of the best on this album.

“Gomper” follows, and with a title like that you know it has to be good, right? Well, it’s as good as its title. Tabla players (Jones, maybe?) make this a companion piece to George Harrison’s “Within You Without You,” but “Gomper” actually manages to pull off the neat trick of taking itself more seriously than the Harrison tune. At least George had the good sense to end his philosophical ramblings with a burst of laughter. “Gomper” also reflects Brian Jones’s infatuation with the Master Musicians of Joujouka, a group of Moroccan musicians. “Gomper” is a little too self-serious, but by combining African and Indian music, it’s also a prime example of world music (you see? Peter Gabriel didn’t invent world music…not even close). Of course, “Gomper” (I just like writing that word) also suffers from being about two minutes too long.

Majesties is nearly saved by the masterful, dark science fiction of “2000 Light Years From Home.” Brian Jones excels on the Mellotron on this song, creating one of the finest uses of that instrument in all of rock and roll, while Watts lays down a reliably steady beat. Synthesizers and distorted guitars provide coloring while Jagger sings about the loneliness of space…or perhaps the loneliness of being out on a bad trip. It all works beautifully on this song, from the snaky bass line to the swirling keyboards to Jagger’s distant vocal. Yes, it’s psychedelic but it’s great psychedelic. While most of this album has aged very poorly, this song has not. It still sounds as fresh and disconcerting as it ever did.

Much as he did on Between the Buttons’ closer “Something Happened To Me Yesterday,” Jagger assumes the role of the MC on the last track, “On With The Show.” Unlike “Something Happened,” there’s no real song with “On With The Show.” It comes off like a shameless ripoff of the concept of Sgt. Pepper, but poorly executed. Party sounds, Jagger’s carnival barker vocals drenched with effects as he tells those assembled that “we’ve got all the answers/and we’ve got lovely dancers, too/There’s nothing else you have to do/On with the show/Good health to you.” Not as stunningly bad as the side one closer, but this is no way to end an album.

Written and recorded during a dark period in Stones history, Their Satanic Majesties Request finds the Stones grasping for an identity, following
some sort of alternative path of the Beatles. Listened to today, it’s an interesting curio and there are a few keepers on the album. In fact, if you got rid of “Sing This All Together (See What Happens)” and replaced it with the contemporaneous, extraordinary single “We Love You/Dandelion” the album would be improved enormously. Clip “On With The Show” and insert “Child Of The Moon” (the psychedelic-tinged B-side of their next single), and suddenly the album’s pretty good.

As it stands, Majesties is a failed experiment.

Grade: C+ (only because I can’t give a “C” or below to any album with “She’s A Rainbow” and “2000 Light Years From Home” on it).

The Rolling Stones: Between The Buttons

buttons

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.

Grade: A-

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.

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.

The Rolling Stones: December’s Children (And Everybody’s)

decembersThis is the final album from what I will call the “early years” of the Stones. Released late in 1965, December’s Children isn’t really an album. Much like a few of Capitol Records’ Beatles “albums,” Children is a patchwork quilt of singles, live tracks, and songs from English EPs. It contains only one bona fide classic, and six of the twelve songs are cover songs.

Strangely, the first side of the record (I’m clearly kickin’ it old school here) contains five of the six covers, leaving side two as the real harbinger of what the Stones were really working on at the time.

As usual, the covers are excellent. “She Said Yeah” is played with a ferocity and aggression that would not be commonplace until the English punk movement arrived more than a decade later. The obligatory Chuck Berry cover, “Talkin’ About You” similarly has more grit than the original. The Stones always brought an innate aggression to their cover songs that frequently elevated their versions to levels above the originals. In comparison, the covers done by the Beatles were, with some exceptions ( e.g., “Money,” “Boys,” “Twist And Shout,” “You Really Got A Hold On Me”), usually close approximations of the original tunes, and paled in comparison to the brilliance of Lennon and McCartney’s originals. For the Stones, the covers frequently saved their early albums from being somewhat lightweight. (What the 1963 Stones did to Lennon and McCartney’s “I Wanna Be Your Man” is downright frightening, turning a fairly soppy song given to Ringo as a throwaway into a song of nakedly sexual urgency. It is akin to what Jimi Hendrix did to the utterly banal “Wild Thing” a few years later.)

Covers of Arthur Alexander’s “You Better Move On” and Muddy Waters’s “Look What You’ve Done” are a step down. “You Better Move On” is a very good soul song, but “Look What You’ve Done” sounds like an English band doing blues (and even though that’s exactly what they were, the Stones were always better than that). The vocal on “Look What You’ve Done” is excellent, and Jagger deserves much more credit than he is ever given as a blues singer. The harmonica, likely played by Brian Jones, is on overdrive. It drowns out all the other instruments and does little more than detract from Jagger’s compelling performance.

The sole original on side one, “The Singer Not The Song,” is a throwback to the earlier days of the Jagger/Richards songwriting combination. It’s a good song, but can’t be viewed as anything less than a letdown after “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction.” And the high note squealed in the fadeout is just brutal. The Stones had mastered blues and rock singing, but were light years behind the Beatles, Beach Boys, and Byrds when it came to singing high harmonies.

Side one ends with a live recording of “Route 66.” At least I think it’s live. It’s got that “studio recording with overdubbed screams” sound to it. Either way, it’s not much to write home about. Without the shrill screams, it’s not a bad performance. But it sounds muddy.

While side one may end with a whimper, side two kicks off with one of the greatest drums licks in rock history, followed by Keith’s unstoppable rhythm guitar and Bill Wyman’s McCartney-esque bass as Jagger sings one of rock’s greatest anthems, “Get Off Of My Cloud.” A hymn to the desire to be left alone, the lyric actually has some nice imagery (“I sit at home/Lookin’ out the window/Imagining the world outside” “The parking tickets/Were like a flag/Stuck on my windscreen”). “Cloud” is really nothing less than a continuation of the saga in “Satisfaction.” Jagger takes a shot at the world of television advertising (“In flies a guy all dressed up like a Union Jack/Says I’ll have five pounds/If I have his kind of detergent pack”), and seems to have decided that his best chance for satisfaction is in being left alone. It’s a thrilling song, even now after all these years and all these listens. Perhaps because it was not as famous as “Satisfaction,” “Get Off My Cloud” can still be heard with fresh ears.

“I’m Free” follows and this also seems to run with the theme. In pursuit of satisfaction, Jagger has chased all hangers-on from his cloud. The result is that he is now free to sing his song, any old time. Earlier he had complained “I can’t get no satisfaction;” now he “can get what I want.” Frankly, the song is a little repetitive, but the vocal is convincing and the music is great. The early song, “As Tears Go By” follows. They’d written this old geezer anthem and given it to the ingenue Marianne Faithfull to sing. From her teenage lips, or from the lips of the young Stones, the lyrics seem a bit precious, as if they were consciously trying to write a song that was “mature.” The string arrangement, undoubtedly done with one eye clearly looking…um, yesterday…is quite nice, and Jagger’s delivery is as good as usual, but the song overall is way too old for the young Stones. In fact, it’s old for the current Stones.

The remaining original songs, “Gotta Get Away” and “Blue Turns to Grey” are both good performances. “Gotta Get Away” is not a particularly compelling song. It feels rushed and underwritten, but the Stones carry it with the strength of their convictions. “Blue Turns To Grey” is the better song, but carries some of the same criticisms that can be applied to “As Tears Go By.” It seems self-consciously “mature” and one can’t help but wonder whether they were trying to catch up to the ever-escalating songwriting prowess of Lennon and McCartney by writing more “adult” songs.

Unfortunately, side two ends with yet another live, or perhaps “faux live” track, “I’m Moving On.” With this song, the album ends as it began—with a full blast of punk rock fury. The performance once again is just plain mean. The ever-present screams of thousands of young girls itching to satisfy Mick make it hard to listen to, though.

The next Stones single, released two months after December’s Children was the epochal “19th Nervous Breakdown.” The song would both cap the Unholy Trinity of Stones classics that began with “Satisfaction” and continued with “Get Off My Cloud” and set the stage for the middle period of the Stones, where the cover songs would all but disappear and Jagger and Richards would refine their songwriting until it began turning out one classic after another.

Grade: B

The Rolling Stones: Out Of Our Heads

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Not to be confused with Ron Nasty’s first book, Out Of Me Head, the fourth Rolling Stones album finds them mining the same fertile grounds they had on the previous records, with a few exceptions that are nothing short of magnificent.

Once again, as on 12 X 5, the accent here is less on pure blues and more on soul music. Don Covay’s “Mercy Mercy” and Marvin Gaye’s classic Motown hit “Hitch Hike” start off the album in a familiar style. As usual, the Stones are still one of the very best cover bands that ever played. Jagger may not be a particularly great soul singer in comparison to the originators, but he still manages to be pretty convincing, especially on “That’s How Strong My Love Is.” You won’t forget Otis Redding’s version after hearing Jagger’s, but for a pasty white English boy, Jagger more than delivers.

The other covers are consistently excellent, including an outstanding version of Sam Cooke’s “Good To Me.” The Stones bring their blues roots to the soul mix with the Solomon Burke hit “Cry To Me.”

The covers are not as smartly chosen as the ones on The Rolling Stones, Now! but they are played with the same raw style. Brian Jones and Keith Richards continue to be the best two-guitar attack in rock music.

The thing that separates Out Of Our Heads from the earlier albums are the original songs. On prior albums, the Stones were clearly finding their way as songwriters. Even as recently as Now! there were only four original songs. At some point the Jagger/Richards combo started clicking. There are seven original songs on Out Of Our Heads, including a raw, funny blues dedicated to the unsung heroes of the music business, “The Under Assistant West Coast Promotions Man.” Of the remaining originals, “One More Try” is a quick shuffle and not all that indistinguishable from a mediocre Yardbirds track, minus the searing Clapton leads, and “I’m All Right” is really nothing more than a groove, and not a terribly interesting groove at that.

Where Jagger and Richards really start to get close to the target is with the two near classics: “The Spider and The Fly” is an original song that sounds as if it is a cover of a blues standard. Finally the Stones have come genuinely close to the heart of blues music in an original song. The lyric is both funny and clever and is one of the earliest examples of Jagger’s notorious satyriasis. Poor Mick, lured to the bed of an older woman (almost 30!).

“Play With Fire” is even closer to the mark. Not really a blues, it is more of an attempt at an original, slow-burning soul song. The excellent lyric serves as a warning to a rich, spoiled, high-society woman who is used to getting whatever (and whoever) she wants. Most unusual is the quiet harpsichord throughout the song, an early example of the kind of instrumental stretching that Brian Jones was starting to explore. The choice of harpsichord is perfect, adding a stately, almost Victorian, air to a song directed at a member of the British upper crust.

With “The Last Time” and “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction” the Stones not only hit the target, they obliterated it. These two songs are so much higher in their quality than the surrounding songs that they stand out as sore thumbs. The only parallel I can think of is the inclusion of the devastating “You Really Got Me” on the first Kinks album (a completely unremarkable collection of mediocre Merseybeat songs).

“The Last Time” begins with one of the most recognizable Stones guitar licks of all time. Then the band comes in firing on all cylinders. The Jones/Richards guitar interplay in the solo is breathtaking, as are the backing vocals that chime in at the end as Jagger starts shouting and scatting in a style that he would later perfect in “Sympathy For The Devil.” Probably most unusual is the fact that the chorus on “The Last Time” veers strongly towards country music. There’s nearly a twang to Jagger’s delivery, and shows that even at this early stage exposure to American radio was shaping the music of the Stones as they assimilated the many sounds around them.

“Satisfaction” needs no introduction really. It may be one of the most overheard songs of the last 44 years. It’s been played at every Stones concert and is one of the pillars of classic rock radio. The fuzz guitar riff that starts the song like a rocket engine is probably the single most easily-identified riff in the history of popular music. There’s probably nobody over the age of 14 who can’t name that tune in five notes, and nobody over the age of 30 who can’t name it in two. Richards wrote probably the single greatest riff in rock and roll history, with all due respect to “Smoke On The Water,” “Sunshine Of Your Love” and a couple of dozen Led Zeppelin songs.

Most importantly, the music connects perfectly to the lyrics. The chorus of the song reflects Satyr Mick’s longing for satisfaction, but the verses imply that the satisfaction being sought is more than purely sexual (though that plays a big part). The whole of the lyric implies a search for meaning in everything that was going on around the Stones. Radio DJs with their mindless blather leave Mick longing for something deeper (probably wishing Murray the K would shut up and play some music), television advertisements similarly leave him confused and wanting more (with the brilliant lyrical swipe at advertising “Some man comes on to tell me/How white my shirts can be/But he can’t be a man/’Cause he doesn’t smoke/The same cigarettes as me”). The whirlwind of touring in both England and the States is leaving our singer disoriented and clamoring for something more. Even in the final verse, when the Stones are touring and appearing on promotional jaunts (“doing this and signing that”), the solace of a woman is out of reach. Rumors of the day implied that the woman in the song rejected our young Lothario because it was that time of the month for her (“Better come back/Maybe next week/’Cause you see I’m on a losing streak”). If I ever get the chance to ask Mick I will, because that reading of the lyric makes perfect sense.

Far from being the easily caricatured song of sexual frustration that many people assume, “Satisfaction” is actually a brilliant lyric set to an apocalyptic riff. It is hard to imagine that Jagger and Richards would write better songs, and it is only overexposure that knocks “Satisfaction” down a few pegs from where it rightly belongs, near the pinnacle of rock songwriting craft and, importantly, rock recording. The world of rock music is filled with one-hit wonders, but any band capable of writing “Satisfaction” was clearly going to be around for the long haul. It’s too bad the rest of the album falls short of “Satisfaction” and “The Last Time,” but it’s also understandable.

Grade: B+

The Rolling Stones: The Rolling Stones, Now!

nowThe Rolling Stones released five albums in their original guise as a tough British blues/R&B/soul band (I’m going by the American releases which were slightly different than their British counterparts). Of the five, The Rolling Stones, Now! is their best.

The formula hasn’t changed very much. The album is still a collection of cover songs with a smattering of less-than-spectacular original songs. That said, the cover songs are among the best they’ve ever done, and the originals contain the first genuine Jagger/Richards classic, “Heart Of Stone,” and another near-classic with “Off The Hook.”

The album also continues to mine the band’s increasing interest in soul music. From the opening salvo of Solomon Burke’s classic “Everybody Needs Somebody To Love” to “Pain In My Heart” the Stones were fast proving themselves just as adept at soul music as they were at blues and R&B. The major difference between their R&B-oriented first album and their more soul-infused second album is that the two roots are beginning to fuse together in the hands of the band. The soul is being played by bluesmen, the blues being played by a soul band.

There are two Chuck Berry numbers on Now! which suggests that the Stones may have been running low on material that they were adept at covering. But the Berry covers are their best yet: “You Can’t Catch Me,” and “Down The Road Apiece,” which Berry didn’t write but which he had covered. “Down The Road” especially is a prime example of early Stones. “You Can’t Catch Me” features a great guitar solo layered over a propulsive rhythm that shows clearly the one thing the Stones were always masters of: the art of performing with two guitars. Rhythm was crucial to the music of the Stones and Keith’s rhythm guitar (and occasional leads) were every bit as important to the sound of the song as Brian Jones’s lead guitar (and occasional rhythm). So many bands relegate the rhythm guitar to a subsonic point in the mix, letting the lead guitar take over so much that it becomes the only guitar you can hear. But the interplay between Richards and Jones is dazzling (listen to the dueling between Richards’s picked guitar lead and Jones’s short, sharp slide in “What A Shame”).

Of the other covers, “Mona” may be somewhat pale in comparison to Bo Diddley’s fierce original, but the cover of “Little Red Rooster” is sharp enough to slice through tin cans and tomatoes, and would make The Wolf proud. “Down Home Girl” is a solid blues while “Oh Baby (We Got A Good Thing Going)” is probably the weakest cut. Not bad, but nothing to write home about.

Of the originals, “Heart Of Stone” is a great soul ballad and the first “great” Jagger/Richards original. “Off The Hook” is a terrific rock and roll number. Those two songs are clearly head and shoulders above any other originals the Stones had recorded to this point. “What A Shame” and “Surprise, Surprise” are lesser songs, but at least equal to, if not better than, the best Stones originals on 12 X 5. While the originals may prove that Jagger and Richards were not writing on the same level as Bo Diddley or Chuck Berry at this point, they were at least not embarrassing themselves by putting the songs on the same album.

The full flowering of the Jagger/Richards songwriting partnership would begin on their next album, and the covers would start to seem less vital than the originals. At this point in time, covers and originals stood side by side. Soon the covers would become much less important.

Grade: A

The Rolling Stones: 12 X 5

12 X 5The second album from The Rolling Stones is sonically a continuation of England’s Newest Hitmakers. The huge difference here is the inclusion of four songs by the Jagger/Richards team (and one, the disposable instrumental ode to Chess Records, “2120 South Michigan Avenue,” credited to the group pseudonym, Nanker Phelge).

Chuck Berry gets another shout out with the leadoff position on the album. The Stones version of “Around And Around” matches their earlier version of Berry’s “Carol” in terms of intensity. It’s further proof that nobody did Chuck Berry as well as the Stones. The rest of the album is a combination of blues, early rock ‘n’ roll and, strangely, a vocal group song (“Under The Boardwalk,” the classic song by The Drifters).

What’s of most interest on this album are not the originals. The four songs written by Jagger and Richards (“Empty Heart,” “Good Times Bad Times,” “Congratulations,” and “Grown Up Wrong”) indicate nothing more than that as songwriters they were still finding their voice by imitating their idols. All four of the songs are okay (“Empty Heart” is the best of the lot), but none are really all that remarkable.

What is of interest is the two cover songs that can rightfully be considered the first Rolling Stones classics. Bobby Womack’s “It’s All Over Now” was a good soul song that the Stones turned into a magnificent rock song. It was a clear case of a band finding a “sound” of their own, despite it being a cover song. When one thinks of the early Stones classic songs like “Satisfaction” or “Get Off Of My Cloud,” the sonic template is found first on “It’s All Over Now.” Much like Jimi Hendrix’s version of “All Along The Watchtower” forever banished Bob Dylan’s original song to the record collections of hardcore Dylan fans, the Stones’s version of “It’s All Over Now” became the standard that the original only hinted at.

The second Stones classic is more problematic. “Time Is On My Side” is one of the most famous songs in Rolling Stones history…but not the version that’s on 12 X 5. The famous, classic version of the song was released as a single. The version on the 12 X 5 album sounds like a pale, lifeless imitation. I mention it here because the single appeared nowhere else at the time, and it was the hit and far superior even to “It’s All Over Now.” But you’d never know that if the album version was all you had ever heard.

For the rest of the album, it was more of the same from the first album. A version of “Suzie Q” is good, “Under The Boardwalk” isn’t. What is stressed by “Under The Boardwalk,” “It’s All Over Now” and a cover of Wilson Pickett’s “If You Need Me” is just how strongly the Stones were starting the move away from pure blues. In contrast to the first album, only a couple of songs on 12 X 5 could really be considered blues (“Around and Around” which was considered rock by most people, and “Confessin’ The Blues”). The rest show an increasing fascination with rock and soul music. As such, this is the beginning of the transition from blues/R&B to rock. It was a move that would speed up as Jagger and Richards got more comfortable as writers.

Grade: B

The Rolling Stones: England’s Newest Hitmakers

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In the era of mega-concerts, massive stages, backup singers, extra musicians, clockwork efficiency, Pirates Of The Caribbean cameos, and knighthoods, it’s very easy to forget where and how the Rolling Stones started.

England’s Newest Hitmakers is the first Rolling Stones album and is typical of the time it was released (1964). The Jagger/Richards songwriting combination was still in utero at this point, so the album is a collection of cover songs, with one Jagger/Richards original (“Tell Me”) thrown in. (Two other songs, “Now I’ve Got A Witness” and “Little By Little” were credited to “Nanker Phelge” and Phil Spector—Phelge was a pseudonym for a song written by the entire group.)

What distinguishes this album from similar debut albums by bands like The Kinks is the utter conviction with which the Stones ply their trade. The Beatles may have been the best, most original band in England at the time, but the Stones were the most savage, honest practitioners of authentic American blues and R&B. There’s no confusing this album with Howlin’ Wolf or Muddy Waters, but it’s clear from the opening notes of “Not Fade Away” that the Stones were a band who understood the idiom in which they practiced. Mick Jagger never plowed a field or picked cotton, but he clearly had an empathy for the blues that was lacking in bands like The Yardbirds, who were copying their heroes without ever truly getting to the heart of the matter. As a result, the early Yardbirds (before Jeff Beck showed up and turned them into a great rock band) sound like young, white, English boys trying desperately to sound like old, American, black men, while the early Stones sound like…well, maybe not like authentic bluesmen but at least like guys who hung around with authentic bluesmen.

The blues authenticity comes from Brian Jones. At the time Jones was a polymathic musician, steeped in Elmore James and Muddy Waters and in these early days it was clearly Jones’s band. Jagger may have been the voice, but Jones was the heart and soul.

Nearly as important was Keith Richards who loved blues, but who was just as partial to the Chuck Berry school of blues as he was to the Muddy Waters school. The love of early rock ‘n’ roll shared by Richards and Jagger ensured that the Stones would be more than just a blues cover band. Indeed, their brilliant take on Buddy Holly’s “Not Fade Away” opens the album. By toughening up the Bo Diddley beat that Buddy Holly was nearly parodying, and by replacing Holly’s anemic picked guitar with percussive acoustic rhythms, the Stones took the rock song and turned it into a blues. Their version of Chuck Berry’s “Carol” is nearly the equal of the original and served notice that nobody would ever do Chuck Berry songs as well as the Stones would (indeed, one of my favorite moments from the Berry movie Hail! Hail! Rock ‘N’ Roll is when Keith Richards shows Chuck the correct way to play one of Berry’s own songs).

Early rock and roll was clearly blues-based, but the magic of the early Stones was that the rock tunes sat alongside the pure blues and emerged as a cohesive whole. Even the Motown song “Can I Get A Witness,” a pure pop song, emerges as a mutant Muddy Waters tune right down to the Otis Spann-ish piano that starts off the track. Willie Dixon or Bobby Troup, Chuck Berry or Holland/Dozier/Holland…all the songs ended up sounding distinctly like the Stones. Some of the covers (e.g., “Not Fade Away” and Rufus Thomas’s “Walking The Dog”) surpass the original versions. Whether they were a blues band playing rock songs or a rock band playing blues song, the result was seamless. Surprisingly, the most “pop” moment on the album is the sole original song, but even “Tell Me” sounds like some sort of country blues song.

The album’s empathy for the blues is what allows it to hold up forty-five years (!) later when so many similar albums have been forgotten. The only criticisms of this album are the useless filler instrumental “Now I’ve Got A Witness” and the one handicap that the Stones would soon rectify: a dearth of original material. Had they continued covering blues and R&B songs, the Stones today would be a forgotten band, albeit a good one. That this fact was recognized by their manager, Andrew Loog Oldham, and they were pressured into writing original compositions is what saved the Stones. For this brief moment the Rolling Stones were the finest practitioners of genuine blues in England, even if they weren’t the most original.

Grade: A

Under Their Thumb: How A Nice Boy From Brooklyn Got Mixed Up With The Rolling Stones (And Lived To Tell About It), by Bill German

This is certainly the most unusual book yet written about The Rolling Stones. Prior books had either been written by insiders (Up And Down With The Rolling Stones by Keith Richards’ drug supplier and aide-de-camp “Spanish” Tony Sanchez) or by professional writers/biographers (Old Gods Almost Dead by the ever-present Stephen Davis). What we have here in Under Their Thumb is a book written by a fan.

Bill German is not just any fan, though. As a teenager he started to self-publish the Rolling Stones fanzine Beggar’s Banquet. He toiled in obscurity for several years, building a network of fans and bootleggers who gave him tips about what (and who) the Stones were doing.

As fate would have it, German met the Rolling Stones and pressed a copy of his fanzine into the hands of Ron Wood, who looked it over and handed it to Keith Richards.

From this inauspicious beginning, Bill German somehow became a friend to the Rolling Stones. Not quite an insider, but far from being a mere fan, he managed to strike up friendships with both Ron Wood and Keith Richards. He went to their apartments, was invited to their parties, drank with them (but stayed away from drugs). He interviewed them, got insider information which was then published in Beggar’s Banquet with the approval of the Stones. Throughout he seems to have remained aware that he was possibly the luckiest Rolling Stones fan ever. Woody and Keith seemed to genuinely like the guy. Ron Wood asked him to help write his book of artwork, The Works. He got into press conferences, and backstage. Bill German was the proverbial fly on the wall.

His presence was disconcerting, if not downright alarming, to many of the business people that were tasked with taking care of the Stones. German would publish insider information straight from Ron Wood’s mouth, but then would get lectured by the managers and handlers who wanted all the information about the band to funnel from them. It seems apparent that, as the Stones went from their relatively care-free rock band days to becoming a business and marketing juggernaut, Mick Jagger began to become as much businessman as rocker, and as time went on he began to distance himself from German.

After first embracing German (Beggar’s Banquet became the official Stones newsletter around the time of the Undercover album), the suits behind the scenes began to fear him. Even though German usually sought approval before publishing anything, he still insisted that he was a “journalist.” Having a journalist deep in the heart of the Stones camp where outrageous drug use and serial infidelity were the norm was a worrisome prospect for those tasked with making sure the Stones got through customs at the airport and maintained good relationships with their wives.

The inevitable ending should surprise nobody except, apparently, the author. Bill German became frustrated and angry that the access he once enjoyed was now being denied. Once the Stones became the Machine starting with the 1989 Steel Wheels tour, even his friendship with Keith and Woody was not enough to get him where he felt he needed to be to continue putting out the fanzine.

He managed to hang in there until after the Voodoo Lounge tour but then closed the fanzine down and fell largely out of touch with his friends in the Stones camp.

German has a nice style, conversational, easy-to-read. He comes across as a likable and pretty level-headed guy and takes great pains to portray Ron Wood and Keith Richards as being wonderful human beings. Mick Jagger is, in Keith’s words, “a great bunch of guys.” Jagger is shown as coldly calculating, warm to those he likes and trusts, but he doesn’t like or trust too many people, including the author.

For me, the selling point of the book was that it was about the Rolling Stones well past their prime. Most Stones books concentrate on the Sixties and early Seventies, when they were challenging The Beatles for supremacy of the music world and The Who for the title of “Greatest Rock and Roll Band in The World.” Under Their Thumb is about the period of time that these earlier Stones biographies gloss over: the dreaded 80s and 90s when the Stones were releasing mediocre albums and tearing at each other’s throats. It’s a period that has an interesting story behind it. Here is where you’ll find the near break up of the band, Mick’s awful solo albums, Keith’s excellent solo albums, the Hail! Hail! Rock ‘N’ Roll Chuck Berry film that Keith organized, and the massive tours that brought the Stones back from the brink of death, but brought them back in a way that was largely unrecognizable from what they had been before. It is, somewhat surprisingly, a fascinating period in the history of the band, and Bill German was there for almost all of it.