Just in case you missed it (and you very well may have since I initially posted when I was wet behind the ears and first learning how to work this newfangled blog), I wrote a lengthy feature on one of the Rolling Stones’ masterworks, “Exile On Main St.” And of course then posted a nearly-as-long-opening intro/preamble to my piece (hey, that’s how we roll in the endless, inkless realm of cyberspace!). Yeah, guess it was a way of getting my rocks off all over again (to paraphrase a little ditty from “Exile”). Well, it’s still kicking in its stall on the home page, and in honor of Sir Mick Jagger’s 70th birthday on July 26, I invite you to take a look if you haven’t yet seen it. Why, you might ask?
To mark birthday boy Mick’s 70th decade of shaking, shimmying, shouting, and sometimes even singing on stages on Planet Earth, we thought that since we already had “Exile” covered, why not take a look at the cream of the Stones’ other greatest albums from the 1960s, ’70s, ’80s and..well, that’s about it! To be fair, what the band accomplished between 1968 and 1972 alone is an achievement worthy of the band’s 50-year career, so we give ’em a pass there; besides, we’re not saying there hasn’t been any good music since. Just not, you know, “legendary.” When you’re called “The Greatest Rock & Roll Band In The World,” that’s a pretty big title to live up to. So without further ado, here are seven Stones classics, one to mark each decade Sir Mick’s been telling us he “just don’t have that much jam.” We beg to differ, and here’s the proof.
1. AFTERMATH (1966): Let’s get this out of the way: all of the Stones’ albums to this point — starting with their 1964 self-titled debut through ’66’s “December’s Children (and everybody else’s)” — are vital, strong slabs of British blues and hard R&B, if all fairly interchangeable variations on a similar idea. We love ’em all, but it’s impossible for us to single one album out as vastly superior to the others. Furthermore, even up through “Aftermath,” the U.K. and U.S. versions of Stones LPs — from the order, number, inclusion and omission of specific songs — differed dramatically between the continents. To confuse matters even further, even the titles don’t jibe. The British LP, “Out Of Our Heads,” had the cover shot from the U.S.’ “December’s Children” and a different track list than the U.S. version of “Out Of Our Heads.” You get the idea. So, in the interests of simplifying, establishing a baseline, and keeping faithful to what we actually heard and grew up with, as the Stones, we’re going with the U.S. version of “Aftermath” here.
This is the first album on which the fledgling songwriting partnership of Mick Jagger and Keith Richards truly blossomed and outgrew the blues and soul covers that had defined their early work. On “Aftermath,” they compose all of the songs, while Brian Jones also shines as a supremely versatile musical accompanist and voracious sound colorist and texturist: check out the sitar, marimbas, Appalachian dulcimer, and assorted percussion on “Paint It, Black,” “Lady Jane” and the African xylophone that gives “Under My Thumb” its jaded cool.
The Stones set the stance and sound that they would cultivate, expand upon, and embody from here on out: aloof, cynical, unsparingly unsentimental, rough-and-tumble musically, brilliant and belligerent, and yes, sexist-bordering-on misogynistic (hello “Under My Thumb,” “Doncha Bother Me,” “Lady Jane,” “Stupid Girl” etc.). Jagger would backpedal years later and claim these were songs about fictional characters/narrators/protagonists and “their” point of view. Mick also admitted he probably would never have written “Brown Sugar” in a more enlightened age, although it’s always been up for debate whether the song is about one of his flings with beautiful women of color (Marsha Hunt, Claudia Linnear, etc.), or slang for a kind of heroin. The Stones were no strangers to either.
Besides the songwriting, another first on “Aftermath” (as far as we can tell): On the epic, improvised workout, “Goin’ Home,” we hear Jagger’s first sustained use of his falsetto, foreshadowing a vocal style he would employ with some frequency in the ’70s. ” But “Aftermath” doesn’t merely hint at the greatness to come. It encapsulates that greatness, right then and there. One of the absolute essential records of the 1960s — or any time, for that matter.
WATCH The Stones perform “Under My Thumb” on the TV program “Ready Steady Go” in 1966:
2. BEGGARS BANQUET (1968): To me, this is the masterpiece among masterpieces. This is the Stones’ folk album. It is their country album. It is their blues album. It is their rock & roll album. It is all of those things and more; an elegant, moving, graceful yet powerful distillation of their musical loves, influences, and aspirations. It is, in contrast to “Exile,” a crystal clear-eyed representation of everything they were capable of (and it marks Brian Jones’s last significant work with the band; although reportedly largely absent from the recording sessions, Jones turns in a staggeringly sad, sublime slide guitar solo on “No Expectations”). After the critical and commercial misfire of 1967’s “Their Satanic Majesties Request,” “Beggars” is a fearsomely great return to form. And then some. The collection of songs here is as good as anything in rock, pop, folk or beyond. “Sympathy For The Devil” leads things off and the quality never lets up.
Let’s linger for one moment on “Sympathy,” shall we? We’ve all heard that song so often, maybe too many times even, that it tends to fade into the background. In short, we take “Sympathy” ‘s greatness for granted as one of rock’s all-time anthems, although its sharpness has been dulled by several million spins. But try to imagine what a bracing effect that track had when it first hit the airwaves, or when you heard it for the first time years later (like I did). Where the hell did the genius of that come from? Even Godard’s “One Plus One” mess of a film, which documents the systematic making and building of the track, fails to fully capture (or deflate) the magic spell it casts.
With the exception of “Wild Horses,” Jagger has never sounded as genuinely vulnerable or sincere (sincerity doesn’t suit him) as he does on the poignant “No Expectations” or the comrades-in-arms empathy of “Salt Of The Earth.” By contrast, rarely has Mick sounded as genuinely lip-smackingly leering as on the low-slung groupie anthem, “Stray Cat Blues.” Mick’s snorting come-ons cut too close to the bone for either song or performance to be self-parody (that would come later with the 1973 Chuck Berry knockoff, “Starfucker”). “Dear Doctor” and “Factory Girl” are amusing slices of life from poor sap/country bumpkin territory. “Jigsaw Puzzle” is simply the best song Dylan never wrote. Still need convincing? Oh yeah, almost forgot. “Street Fighting Man” is on here too.
LISTEN to the studio track, “No Expectations,” here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mehrjwB-hVE
3. LET IT BLEED (1969): How do you match an album that has “Sympathy For The Devil” as its opener? Simple. Make “Gimme Shelter” the opening salvo on your follow-up record. “Let It Bleed” is as dark, majestic, and foreboding as its opening track, if not quite as dark as the disastrous tour-ending free concert at Altamont Speedway the Stones gave in December of 1969. “Let It Bleed” was released just one month prior, and I’ve always thought the cover looked eerily prescient of the shambles of the show and the symbolic collapse of 1960s idealism. For starters, what’s with the bicycle wheel (or is that a tire from a Hell’s Angels’ motorcycle)? What’s with the five Stones sitting atop a colorful cake that — on the back cover — crumbles and topples, along with their likenesses? What’s up with the “bleed” in the title, whose sentiment seems to be “let the blood flow”?
Then there’s the music itself, starting with the impending doom of “Gimme Shelter” and talk of fire that burns like “a red coal carpet”? While not quite all of a unified piece as “Beggars,” “Let It Bleed” is every bit as wide-ranging and ambitious, from the fiddle-and-country-dosed “Country Honk” to the sleek bop and pop of “Live With Me” to the sinewy simian funk of “Monkey Man” to Keith’s wistful “You Got The Silver” (maybe his best song and vocal) to Robert Johnson’s blue-lighted, spectral “Love In Vain.” “Midnight Rambler” is one of the few songs whose live version is considered definitive (along with Cheap Trick’s “I Want You To Want Me” and “Surrender,” as well as pretty much everything from Peter Frampton’s “Frampton Comes Alive!”). Yet here, in its original studio-recorded form, “Rambler” provides a coolly creepy, claustrophobic glimpse inside the mind of one dangerously disturbed individual, indeed. The LP closes with an elegy for the ’60s, “You Can’t Always Get What You Want,” which isn’t entirely true. As long as we have this album to listen to, yes we can.
WATCH the Stones perform “Gimme Shelter” live on their 1972 U.S. tour here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HAQ7mIkZtxQ
4. STICKY FINGERS (1971): The Stones continue the killer opening single tradition with “Brown Sugar,” ushering in a new era, a new record label, and a new decade, with one of Keith’s indelible opening riffs. This is the band’s most toxic, overtly druggy and decadent album (the “head full of snow” on “Moonlight Mile”; the “needle and the spoon” in “Dead Flowers”; the “sweet cousin cocaine” on the self-explanatory “Sister Morphine”). And it showcases a bruised, though supremely confident, band reveling unapologetically in the raunch of its reputation and post-Altamont notoriety. For the first time, Mick gets the brass and horn section he’s always wanted. It’s also lead guitarist Mick Taylor’s first full album as a Stone and he makes a grand entrance on the Latin-flavored “Can’t You Hear Me Knocking”; Taylor takes a solo star turn worthy of Carlos Santana that instantly gives the band a different dimension and tone than it had ever had before. A stripped-down cover of “Mississippi” Fred McDowell’s spiritual blues “You Gotta Move” brings everything back to basics. Then it’s onto side two and the full-bore “Bitch,” which features a rhythm-driven lead guitar solo from Richards that seems to smile, gap-toothed, and cackle through the chug of its Chuck Berry chords, ‘Yeah the new kid’s fantastic. But what I do is who we are and don’t you forget it.’
WATCH the Stones perform “Bitch” live on their 1972 U.S. Tour here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3N0A2b7nbdM
5. GOAT’S HEAD SOUP (1973): The Stones were understandably exhausted after their 1972 U.S. tour, even as they prepared to tour Europe in 1973 and de-camped to Jamaica (so, they were probably stoned out of their minds too) in the winter of 1973 to make their follow-up to “Exile On Main St.” As a result, many critics complained that “Goat’s Head Soup” doesn’t come close to matching its immediate predecessors for quality of content, energy, focus, or musical and cultural relevance. That may all be true. But I’ll tell you what. With every passing year and every stiff new (and infrequent) Stones album, “GHS” sounds better and better, and reveals more depth and delectable treats than anybody gave it credit for, or even noticed in the first place. Yes, there’s an air of resignation, redundancy, and maybe a whiff of careerism and cartoonish self-parody (“Dancing With Mr. D”; “Starfucker”) to the proceedings. But there are also huge hits (“Angie”); bracing, comfort-zone pushing “political” tracks (“Doo Doo Doo Doo Doo [Heartbreaker]”; and a few dewy sleepers (“Winter”‘ “100 Years Ago”) traipsing about the grounds. There’s honesty too. Just listen to “Coming Down Again,” Keith’s rare confessional about infidelity, nodding out, seeking nourishment, and trying to salvage a wrecked relationship. Wonder what Anita Pallenberg thought of *that* one.
WATCH the official 1973 promotional video for “Angie” here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RcZn2-bGXqQ
6. SOME GIRLS (1978): The album the Stones had to make. With a new breed of rock & rollers called punks puncturing the ballooning, bloated excesses of the rock establishment (15-minute guitar solos? 20-minute drum solos? Dueling synthesizers?), the Stones were out to prove they were still spry, still dangerous, still hungry — OK, rich but hungry. So they stepped up the tempos, turned up the Telecaster guitars, and scaled back the light show. An argument could be made that they were the original punks, anyway — snotty, stripped down, primitive, insolent — so in a sense “Some Girls” reclaimed old territory (with a minimum of chords, naturally). Even the song titles sounded like graffiti slashed and scrawled across the punk-smeared wall of CBGB’s: “Lies”; Respectable”; “Shattered.” Jagger’s long love affair with New York City is mapped out on “Some Girls.” And just as that metropolis was a haven for the burgeoning punk scene, it was also ground zero to another, far more mainstream and massive musical movement: Disco. So Mick listened and did what any other poor rich boy who sang with a rock & roll band would do: he wrote “Miss You.”
WATCH the official promotional video for “Respectable” here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ptDz5BwAgXQ&feature=share&list=PL11CC59281C5FDFB3
7. TATTOO YOU (1981): Arguably the last great Stones album (most would probably peg that marker at “Some Girls,” but I’ll tell you why they’re wrong — ha!). The iconic lead-off single, “Start Me Up,” Keith’s shaggy “Little T&A,” and the tender “Waiting On A Friend” notwithstanding, “Tattoo You” frequently gets dismissed as a ringer. The knock is that it’s an album cobbled together from studio leftovers, half-baked ideas, and a rummage through the band’s closets, studios, vaults, and cutting-room floors. In fact, the Stones frequently worked this way — revisiting riffs and choruses and lyric fragments, adding or subtracting or turning a tune inside-out and upside down to see what worked, if the parts fit any better. The full-throated stadium sleaze of “Start Me Up” started out as an eminently forgettable reggae workout, for instance.
There are a few disposable throwaways, sure (the fun but phoned-in blues of “Black Limousine”; the grating domestic disturbance of “Neighbors”), but the keepers are priceless. The mostly instrumental “Slave” is six-plus minutes of delicious guitar-and-saxophone groove (yeah, I know that doesn’t sound so good from a 2013 vantage point, but trust me it works — especially when you’ve got jazz titan Sonny Rollins on the horn). But for me (and for a few like-minded folks who have listened long past the hits and stuck with the record over the decades), the best part of “Tattoo You” has nothing to do with the singles. It has to do with sides, and in this case, side two in particular. The run of five songs that begins with “Worried About You” is the closest the Rolling Stones ever got to Roxy Music. Side two, like Roxy’s baby-making “Avalon” album, sounds like sex (but not the band’s usual take on the subject): Sensual, gauzy, dreamlike, thrilling, euphoric. It’s the Stones as we’d never heard them before, and the Stones as we’ve never heard them again.
WATCH the official promotional video for “Waiting On A Friend” here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MKLVmBOOqVU