The Listening Post: November 2011–January 2012

Life interferes with blogging sometimes. Hence the lateness. But music still provides the soundtrack.

  • Feeling You UpTruly. Where on Earth did this album come from? Oh, Seattle. Truly was a very late-entry into the Seattle sweepstakes. While they formed in 1990 and released a couple of singles on Sub-Pop, their first album didn’t see light until 1995 after Cobain had killed himself and the pop-punk of Green Day was ruling the alternative airwaves. But Truly had a pedigree: the bass player was Hiro Yamamoto who was part of the original Soundgarden, and the drummer was Mark Pickerel, who played with Screaming Trees. And yet, the album sounds nothing like what you would expect. Far from the crushing weight of Soundgarden or the molten psychedelia of Screaming Trees, Feeling You Up is a densely textured dreamscape of an album. The songs slide and glide, swirling like a thick fog. There’s an almost Stone Roses-ish quality to some of this, minus the annoying pretensions to dance music. There’s no shortage of rock on the album, but the heavier moments are heavy in a 1960s way, not in a grunge/punk way. The production throughout is stellar, with every instrument and sound effect clearly jumping out of the speaker. Songs like “(Intro)/Public Access Girls”, “Wait ‘Til The Night”, “EM7”, “Come Hither”, and “Leatherette Tears” feature strong melodies backed by music that is both heavy and trippy. Only the title song, a boring instrumental, falls flat. Feeling You Up sounds like nothing else from 1997, and holds up beautifully all these years later.
    Grade: A
  • Up On The SunMeat Puppets. The third album from Arizona’s Meat Puppets is where they found the sound that would carry them through the rest of the decade. Meat Puppets was all LSD-addled hardcore dirge, and Meat Puppets II had great songs but paper-thin production. But Up On The Sun carries both tunes and excellent production. The elegantly wasted country-rock the band called its own is in full flower here. There are no songs on this album that are less than good, solid listens, and much of it either approaches or achieves greatness. Even the tossed-off songs, like “Maiden’s Milk” with its insane whistling melody, “Hot Pink”, and “Seal Whales”, are a reminder that bands simply can’t get away with stuff like this anymore. The indie labels of the 1980s, like SST for whom the Meat Puppets recorded, allowed bands much more leeway, and on albums like Up On The Sun it allowed those bands to create works that hung together as a cohesive whole. While “Maiden’s Milk” might draw confused reactions if it were to pop up on an iPod playlist, it fits perfectly after the opening track and before the excellent “Away.” There was a sound to these records, with even the weak parts providing texture. The strongest tracks (“Animal Kingdom”, “Swimming Ground”, “Buckethead”, “Too Real”, “Enchanted Forest”, and “Creator”) are among the finest tracks the Puppets ever recorded, equaling or surpassing the classic triptych of “Lake Of Fire”, “Plateau”, and “Oh Me” (not coincidentally the three songs Nirvana covered on Unplugged) from Meat Puppets II. Meat Puppets recorded better albums later. With a couple of exceptions this band got better as time went on, but this is the album where they first successfully blended country with punk and psychedelia. It’s the cornerstone that later albums like Mirage and Huevos built upon.
    Grade: B+
  • Safe As MilkCaptain Beefheart & His Magic Band. An early exposure to Beefheart’s notoriously difficult Trout Mask Replica put me off the Captain for a long time. I’m still not sure I’m ready to swim with the Trout again, but Safe As Milk, the début album from the Magic Band, has gone a long way to convincing me to give Trout another chance. Safe As Milk is generally considered Beefheart’s most immediately accessible album but it’s still bizarre enough to draw puzzled glances from most listeners. Beefheart is a blues aficionado, and he mixes Howlin’ Wolf with early Frank Zappa and the avant-garde to craft a mutant strain of blues that is unlike anything else. Beefheart’s vocal range is simply astounding, and confounding. He sings like a real soul man on tracks like the fantastic “Yellow Brick Road” then growls like a feral beast on others like “Electricity” and “Plastic Factory”, his vocals sounding like Howlin’ Wolf with a sore throat. It’s difficult to believe both voices come from the same man. The surrealism of the lyrics (song titles give a clue: “Zig Zag Wanderer”, “Abba Zaba”, “Sure Nuff ‘N Yes I Do”) and the off-kilter, Zappa-inspired arrangements (the opening of “Autumn’s Child” could have been lifted directly from Freak Out) make this a challenging listen, but it is more than worth the effort. This is blues and pop music, dressed in psychedelic and avant-garde finery. On repeated listens, great melodies start to emerge and the band, led by a young guitar virtuoso named Ry Cooder, is more muscular and musical than Zappa’s Mothers. A classic.
    Grade: A+
  • NumbHammerbox. Released in the same year as Nirvana’s In Utero, Pearl Jam’s Vs., and Smashing Pumpkins’s Siamese Dream, Seattle rockers Hammerbox simply didn’t stand a chance. Which is too bad, because Numb is a good, rocking album with two tracks that belong on any anthology of the Northwest rock scene: the ferocious “Hole” and the grunge ballad “When 3 Is 2”. The rest of the album falls short of the standard set by those two songs, but none of it is bad and songs like “Hed”, “No”, “Outside”, “Trip”, and “Simple Passing” are very good. The musicianship is excellent throughout, and Carrie Akre’s a vocal powerhouse. The album’s a bit uneven, with several tracks mired in a sort of generic “grunge” sound, but when it’s good it’s very good.
    Grade: B
  • Dry As A BoneGreen River. Before Pearl Jam, there was Mother Love Bone. Before Mother Love Bone, and before Mudhoney, there was Green River, named after the notorious serial killer that haunted Washington and the Northwest. Green River was the boot camp for Mudhoney’s Mark Arm and Steve Turner and Mother Love Bone’s/Pearl Jam’s Jeff Ament and Stone Gossard. Formed today, this would constitute a grunge rock supergroup, but back in the mid-1980s it was just the first outlet for musicians who would later become famous. The fact is, the desire for Green River’s work to be a lost, neglected gem—like a rudimentary Temple Of The Dog—meets reality. There are some good moments on Dry As A Bone—”Searchin'” and a scorching version of Bowie’s “Queen Bitch”—but the album itself is flat. Green River lacks all the elements that make Mudhoney and Pearl Jam superior outfits: melody, lyrics, tunes. This is flailing sub-Sabbath riffing. As a historical document, it’s interesting in the same way that hearing a young Jack Bruce and Ginger Baker playing in The Graham Bond Organization is interesting. But these players would get a little older, refine their talents, and produce better work than this. Dry As A Bone does not sound like the work of a band. It sounds like musicians trying to find their way.
    Grade: C-
  • Some Girls (Deluxe Edition)The Rolling Stones. Please, oh please, let the next deluxe re-release be Beggars’ Banquet… Following last year’s deluxe reissue of Exile On Main Street, the Stones have now put out a 2-disc version of Some Girls. This is actually a better example of a deluxe edition than Exile. The second disc has no songs that otherwise appear on the album. This has the effect of making it a new, lost album from a period when the Stones were doing truly great work. While the bonus disc is not as strong as the original album, it is still an excellent batch of songs, ranging from the hilarious skewering of Claudine Longet, the French singer and wife of Andy Williams who beat the rap for murdering her boyfriend, Spider Sabich (“Claudine”), to the simple piano/vocal of “Petrol Blues”. Along the way there are country influences (“Do You Really Think I Care” and a cover of the Hank Williams song “You Win Again”), traditional blues (“Keep Up Blues”) and the reggae lilt of “Don’t Be A Stranger,” and even a raunchy, comic, update of “Stray Cat Blues” (“So Young”). The New York influence that permeated the original 1978 album is also there, with references to the city, the subways, and even the specificity of “the D train.” What is not here is the disco influence that gave the world “Miss You” but, considering the near-travesty of 1980’s Emotional Rescue album, perhaps that’s for the better. Keith sings the ballad “We Had It All” with great tenderness, and they romp through a cover of “Tallahassee Lassie.” The twelve extra tracks constitute a strong album that would have been a worthy successor to Some Girls and, while it’s easy to see why a track like “Claudine” was shelved (the subject was already dated by 1978, and the lyrics may well have touched off a libel lawsuit), it’s difficult to understand why these gems were left on the cutting room floor.
    Grade: A+ (original album)
    Grade: A- (bonus tracks)
  • Clear SpotCaptain Beefheart & His Magic Band. “Mr. Zoot Horn Rollo, hit that long lunar note and let it floooooooooooooat,” says Captain Beefheart as guitarist Rollo does just that, using a slide to ride a single note for all it’s worth in “Big-Eyed Beans From Venus”. It’s a pretty good summation of what you get with Beefheart: a bit of surrealism (what is a “lunar” note?), great musicianship, avant-garde lyrics. 1972’s Clear Spot is more mutant blues, and as accessible as 1967’s Safe As Milk. The arrangements are more straightforward, even as some of the lyrics become a little more outre (what is one to make of “Big-Eyed Beans From Venus”?). Clear Spot seems to me to be the best entry point for anyone interested in Beefheart’s career. The music blends blues with soul and rock, while Beefheart’s vocals once again range from the sublime (“Too Much Time”) to the ridiculous (the aforementioned “Big-Eyed Beans”). Along the way, there are a few missteps like “Circumstances” and the spoken word piece “Golden Birdies”. But those missteps are offset by tough blues rock tunes (“Crazy Little Thing”, “Long Necked Bottles”, “Nowadays A Woman’s Just Got To Hit A Man”) and songs that are just flat-out beautiful (“My Head Is My Only House Unless It Rains”, “Her Eyes Are A Blue Million Miles”). Beefheart’s voice is an acquired taste, like Howlin’ Wolf’s, but at the end of the day it is a simply extraordinary instrument. Clear Spot is not quite as good as Safe As Milk, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t a great album.
    Grade: A
  • Parallel LinesBlondie. Thanks to the disco crossover “Heart Of Glass” and the tough rockers “One Way Or Another” and “Hanging On The Telephone” there was no escaping Blondie’s Parallel Lines in 1978. The edited version of “Glass” (it cut the words “pain in the ass”) was all over AM radio, and “Another” and “Telephone” were all over FM. Blondie was so ubiquitous at this time that I never bothered to investigate the album, even though I liked the singles. In fact, those singles were so prevalent that even now, 34 years later, I can only hear them so many times before I reach for the “skip” button. Fortunately, there is much else to like about Parallel Lines. Blondie shared a love of early 60s pop music with some of the other NYC punk bands, but while the New York Dolls camped up their “girl group” tributes (“When I say I’m in love you best believe I’m in love L-U-V”) and the Ramones absorbed the hooks and melodies of bubblegum music and regurgitated them at 100 MPH, Blondie pays tribute to that era with unabashed sincerity (listen to their version of “Denise” from the Plastic Letters album). Which means that for all the hype of Blondie being a “punk” band from the hallowed halls of CBGB’s, Parallel Lines is a pretty straightforward pop album. Drummer Clem Burke adds power to the pop, and a song like “Fade Away And Radiate” is both musically challenging and lyrically interesting. But Debbie Harry’s sultry delivery ties almost every track back to groups like the Ronettes of the Shangri-Las. The singles from the album are the best songs here, matched by a few tracks but never surpassed, but overall this is a very good album.
    Grade: B+
  • More Songs About Buildings And FoodTalking Heads. The first album from Talking Heads, ’77, was brilliant. This album, their second, is as consistent as its predecessor, but only hits the same heights three times: the last two songs, a hit version of Al Green’s “Take Me To The River” and “The Big Country”, stand taller than the nine songs that lead up to them and “I’m Not In Love” features a herky-jerky rhythm and stop/start chorus that makes the song endlessly listenable. That doesn’t mean the rest is bad, only that those three songs are amazing. The other eight tracks are uniformly excellent, making this an album with no truly weak spots. If the album suffers at all it’s only because it sounds very similar to ’77, and the first album will always get the nod over the second when both albums are cut from the same cloth. Where the album succeeds in besting their début is in the musicianship and production. ’77 was largely David Byrne’s show, but here the Heads sound more like a band of equals.
    Grade: A
  • Black SessionGrant Lee Buffalo. One of my Top Concerts of All Time was the alternative rock also-rans Grant Lee Buffalo at Irving Plaza, in 1998 when they were touring behind their final album, Jubilee. Black Session is a bootleg recording from what appears to be French radio. The sound quality is excellent, despite the occasional between-song intrusion from a French DJ, whose only recognizable words (to me) are Grant-Lee Phillips, Paul Kimble, Joey Peters, and, strangely, Kurt Cobain. The show dates from the Fuzzy era, circa 1993, and goes through that album’s highlights: “The Shining Hour,” “Jupiter and Teardrop,” “Fuzzy,” “America Snoring,” “The Hook,” and “Soft Wolf Tread.” There’s also a solid run-through of the as-yet-unreleased “Demon Called Deception,” a quick take on the theme to the movie Deliverance, and an unreleased track called “Stockton”. With the exception of “Stockton,” a song that is wrapped in its own pretensions and has understandably never been officially released, the live recordings here breathe fire into the studio versions and, in most cases, surpass them. The drums snap harder, the bass throbs with more intensity, the guitar wildly swings between intricate 12-string picking and harsh distortion. Grant-Lee Phillips, one of the best singers of the day, howls throughout as if his life depended on it. It’s a stark reminder of what live rock music is supposed to sound like, and casts a large shadow over Phillips’s post-band career as a balladeering acoustic troubadour. “Stockton” is a bummer of a closing song, but the ferocious version of “Fuzzy” that precedes it is more than enough to forgive all sins.
    Grade: A

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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+

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.

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.