Like most of their counterparts, The Rolling Stones released their first album in a blur, taking whatever was in their live act and throwing it together in hustled recording sessions to get the thing out as quickly as possible. Although the album, released in 1964, relied heavily on covers and didn’t therefore show much in the way of songwriting from the group, it displayed that they could hone the raucous energy of their live shows, focus it, and create intense studio performances. More than anything though, England’s Newest Hit Makers showed that these five Brits could play music generally associated with black American artists with gusto, and even though they hadn’t yet learned to transcend the originals, they were immediately able to instill this borrowed material with their own distinctly dark charisma. Here is a song-by-song review. (Songs included are from the American version of the album, along with “Mona”, which was included on the UK version of the disc.)
13. “Now I’ve Got A Witness”- The cleverest thing about this instrumental is the title, which seems to answer a question asked by a song on the second half of the album. Otherwise, it’s the epitome of filler.
12. “Can I Get A Witness”- They didn’t seem as comfortable as Motown at this point as they would be later in their career. This one feels hemmed in by the studio setting.
11. “You Can Make It If You Try”- With a sauntering rhythm in place, this one still finds a way to build momentum. The falsetto backing vocals are a bit of a surprise that livens this one up a bit.
10. “Carol”- Charlie Watts tears into the rapid tempo of this Chuck Berry cover. It’s pretty much note for note with the original, and the ham-handed fade-out doesn’t win it any points. Still, the source material is pretty unassailable, so a reasonable facsimile of that will get you by every time.
9. “Little By Little”- An early credit for Nanker Phelge (the pseudonym used by the band when the whole group was considered to have contributed to the song,) this one also got an assist from Phil Spector. And, speaking of hit makers, Gene Pitney joins Ian Stewart on piano. It’s a bizarre offering, with lyrics veering from romantic paranoia to the narrator’s dead mother, but it shows the band’s idiosyncrasy well enough.
8. “Route 66”- The band’s choice to give this classic road anthem the rhythmic feel of a Berry number creates something weirdly akin to “I Saw Her Standing There.” Again, it’s a classic to begin with, which cuts both ways, because just as it would be hard to screw it up, it would be equally hard to put a definitive stamp on it.
7. “Honest I Do”-Showing they can slow down their blues to evocative effect, the Stones do a really nice job on this Jimmy Reed number. The slower tempo allows for us to more easily hear the interplay between Keith Richards and Brian Jones as well as the steady-as-it-goes bass work of Bill Wyman.
6. “Not Fade Away”- The same caveat about covering a classic exists, but the Stones deserve points for amping up the Bo Diddley beat and creating something slightly different. Good call by Mick Jagger as well to play it straight instead of hiccuping his way through a Buddy Holly impersonation.
5. “Mona (I Need You Baby)”- An early example of Richards’ using effects to create atmosphere that elevates a song into another realm. The shimmering reverb takes the pot holes out of the slowed-down Bo Diddley beat and turns the ride into a float downstream. Jagger responds with a lovely, lonely vocal that demonstrates the versatility he could always summon when needed.
4. “Tell Me”- Proof that they could not only write songs, but also adhere to a radio-friendly formula and not lose their identity. Jagger slips into pop-soul mode effortlessly and Richards not only contributes the lovely acoustic guitar intro but also some tender backing vocals. As tough as the image might have been (check out the unsmiling album cover), they always understood that the ballads would have to be a big part of the equation.
3. “I Just Want To Make Love To You”- Richards and Jones’ guitars are as much of the rhythm section as Wyman’s bass and Watts’ drums. It’s why the song seems to shake the air. It’s also interesting to listen to the album in sequence and hear how, after the poppier songs that start the album (“Not Fade Away” and “Route 66”), Jagger seems to truly come alive belting out this blues. Incendiary stuff.
2. “I’m A King Bee”- They walk a fine line here between winking innuendo and sinister intent, and it’s a line that they always straddled far better than anyone else. Jones’ slide part is the first time we hear one of his integral contributions on something other than a core rock instrument. The band would always “aw-shucks” their blues covers and point people to the originals, but there is no doubt that they could super-charge them without much strain, and this is a prime example.
1. “Walking The Dog”- You can look high and low through the 50-year catalog of the Stones and you’d be hard-pressed to find a song that’s so much fun. Jones acquits himself quite well on harmony vocals, Jagger sings with confidence way beyond his years, and the swagger that the rhythm section emanates is irresistible. The song is kind of an outlier, just shy of a novelty, but every moment of it is fantastic.
(E-mail me at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow me on Twitter @JimBeviglia. Preorder my new book, due in November, by using the link below.)
The sentimental among us likely couldn’t find it in ourselves to give The Wind a bad review even if it consisted of ear-damaging shrieks committed to tape for an hour, such were the circumstances surrounding its release. But I’m here to say that, even separated from the context of its creation, this album stands tall among Warren Zevon’s imposing back catalog, and it’s a fair argument to say that it might have been his best after the one-two punch of Warren Zevon and Excitable Boy a quarter-century earlier. The guest stars all give their all, but, regardless of the shadow hanging over them cast by his illness and subsequent death, Zevon’s songs, and his searingly honest performances of those songs, carry the day, just as it had always been with this artist. (And, since we’re at the end of this series, I want to take the opportunity to wonder why Warren isn’t in the Rock Hall of Fame, for sanity’s sake?) Here is a song-by-song review.
11. “The Rest Of The Night”- The one B-sideish throwaway here, it wastes some stinging guitar from Mike Campbell. (Campbell’s bandleader Tom Petty pitches in harmony vocals, which are not his strong suit.)
10. “Rub Me Raw”- Some of the lyrics seem to reference the reaction to his illness and Zevon’s distaste for some of it, but it’s a bit too vague where a direct broadside might have worked better. Plus his raised-eyebrow approach to the blues undercuts the song’s potential power.
9. “Numb As A Statue”- Anyone with a rudimentary knowledge of the Jackson Browne catalog should be able to recognize David Lindley’s distinctive slide guitar here. It gives this otherwise routine mid-tempo workout some pepper. The chorus is solid even though the verses meander.
8. “Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door”- First of all, it might be the most overrated song in the Dylan catalog. Plus, it’s almost too on-point considering Zevon’s situation at the time. Still, when Warren beckons the doors to “Open up, open up” in the fadeout, damn if it doesn’t overcome all that.
7. “Prison Grove”- Backed by an all-star cast of vocalists playing the chain gang, including Browne, Bruce Springsteen, and Billy Bob Thornton (naturally), Zevon depicts in poetic terms a frightful,\ figurative prison. He asks for deliverance not just for himself but for his fellow inmates: “Shine on all these broken lives.”
6. “El Amor De Mi Vida”- The Latin lilt and Spanish lyrics differentiate what otherwise is a pretty straightforward piano lament. More than anything though, Zevon’s wrecked vocal makes the most impact here.
5. “Disorder The House”- Bruce donated a good one to Warren in the early days with “Jeannie Needs A Shooter.” Here Zevon returns the favor by having The Boss essentially duet on this rollicking, unkempt, hilarious commentary on the state of the depressing world, written with Jorge Calderon. Springsteen wails on guitar, can barely keep a straight face when the Lhasa Apso makes an appearance, and joins Warren in stomping all over the “davenport of despair.” Anyone thinking that The Wind is a downbeat affair should know better after hearing this one.
4. “Dirty Life And Times”- Ry Cooder’s guitar provides the essential spark while Dwight Yoakam joins Thornton for some high lonesome on backing vocals. But this is Zevon’s show, starting the song (and album) off with the unforgettable line: “Sometimes I feel like my shadow’s casting me.” He intimates that maybe his lowly state is some cosmic comeuppance for his wanton ways in the past, and yet he still shrugs off a reticent paramour by going after her sister. Unapologetic and candid, it’s the perfect tone-setter for the deep emotional stuff to come.
3. “She’s Too Good For Me”- Here Zevon enlists Don Henley and Timothy Schmitt to add bittersweet, beautiful backing to prop up his wounded lead. It’s an irresistible combination, perfect gilding for the loveliest melody on the album. When he told that girl to hasten down the wind way back when, you got the feeling it was because he knew he couldn’t hold on to her anyway. But here it appears that his own folly drives her away, which somehow makes it even more forlorn.
2. “Please Stay”- This is the one that really gets me. The vulnerability is almost overwhelming, as is the beauty, upped by Warren’s perfect choice to have Emmylou Harris contribute the harmony vocals. What must it be like to stare down death, not knowing if “the other side of goodbye” even exists? Hearing his guy who’d never capitulated to anything in his songwriting subtly admitting to his fear is staggering. And then Gil Bernal’s sad, out-of-left-field saxophone part cinches the deal. The fact that so many colleagues and friends rallied to help him out on this album leads me to believe that Zevon was far from alone at the end, unless we all are, in which case this song hurts even more.
1.”Keep Me In Your Heart”- All the guest stars back off for the closer, leaving drummer Jim Keltner, Jorge Calderon, Zevon’s longest-running, most consistent collaborator who co-wrote and played all other instruments on the track, and Warren himself for his farewell. This is the optimistic flip side to “Please Stay,” Zevon assuring us that he’ll always be around even as he’s headed to Pleasant Stream. And this dude of so many witty, wise, wicked, wonderful words leaves us with a simple “Sha-la-la” refrain, sounding absolutely at peace. And we said, “So long, Warren.”
(E-mail me at email@example.com or follow me on Twitter @JimBeviglia. My new book, Counting Down The Rolling Stones: Their 100 Finest Songs, arrives in November. Pre-order with the link below.)