In terms of their personnel, the Rolling Stones were in a bit of turmoil in 1969, with Brian Jones on his way out and Mick Taylor on his way in. You’d never know it musically though, as the album they released at the end of that year, entitled Let It Bleed, found them building upon the stunning highs they reached on Beggars Banquet. Keith Richards thrived in his role as unquestioned musical leader, putting his own gritty spin on folk, blues, gospel, and country. Mick Jagger rose to that standard with tough, clear-eyed lyrics attuned to the tumult of the times. There’s not a clunker to be found, plus you’d be hard-pressed to find another rock album with bookends as good as this one. (Unless you consider the Stones own catalog, where you can makes a case for two or other three albums.) Here is a song-by-song review:
9. “Country Honk”- This is the way it was intended to sound, as a kind of rambling, rocking-chair country folk number. As such, it’s sweet and pleasant, with Byron Berline’s fiddle the perfect finishing touch. This take hides some of the more lascivious elements of the lyrics, but, then again, those are a lot of fun.
8. “Midnight Rambler”- I’ve always been more intrigued by the music than the lyrics, which have their cinematic moments but don’t add up to much more than a bogeyman story. The Stones had clearly learned a lot about how to extend a jam since they had tried it a few years earlier with the interminable “I’m Goin’ Home.” Jagger’s contribution here is more of a musical one, his voice making more impact as another instrument in the mix than with anything he’s trying to communicate. Richards is a force of nature on this song, intermingling electric and slide parts and mimicking the slow creep and terrifying pounce of a murderer.
7. “Let It Bleed”- Ian Stewart’s pogoing piano really steps to the fore, embodying the welcoming, warm nature of this song. Those are virtues Jagger sometimes has trouble pulling off, and the cocky accent he lays on the chorus doesn’t help. Luckily Richards comes in with harmonies to up the camaraderie factor. The lyrics seem to be saying that suffering is inevitable, which makes them consistent with the album’s message. The difference here is succor is offered in the guise of, to borrow a term from a recent song by Willie and Merle, an unfair weather friend. “Get it on, rider”: Pretty good advice.
6. “You Got The Silver”- Richards finally gets his vocal solo for an entire song; there’s a version out there with Mick taking the lead and you can tell they made the right choice when you compare the two. The vulnerability and tenderness seeping out from the bravado is the stance Keith would use on ballads for years to come, and it works nine times out ten. The girl gets all the precious metal and the unbroken heart, but Richards gets the song, so he wins in my book.
5. “Love In Vain”- The Stones do proper honor to the guy who in a lot of ways started it all by refusing to simply copy him. Instead they slow down Robert Johnson’s tale of lost love and leaving trains to wring out every last piece of bottomless sorrow, while prettying it up a bit as well courtesy of Ry Cooder’s mandolin. Jagger plays it straight and delivers an outstanding performance; good thing or Keith might have popped him one.
4. “Live With Me”- This is Mick Taylor’s first appearance on record with the band, although he takes a back seat to other elements, notably Richards’ insinuatingly melodic bass line and Bobby Keys, also making his Stones’ debut, wailing through the cacophony on sax. The thrust here is unstoppable, a locomotive that’s likely only going to throw you off the second you manage to leap on. Jagger paints an often hilarious portrait of a household not exactly fit for Norman Rockwell, and it ends up sounding like the Stones’ rock and roll circus if it ever settled down for a spell instead of traveling the world. In other words, the aural equivalent of Nellcote.
3. “Monkey Man”- Around this time in their career, it seems like just about every Stones song had an iconic opening. Here it’s the icy vibraphone played by Bill Wyman setting the tone for the main groove to come in and clear the air in unforgettable fashion. From there chunky guitars and Charlie Watts’ funky beat set the tone for Jagger to get all self-referential on us. He stretches the trials and tribulations of “Jumpin’ Jack Flash” to comical proportions, but his narrator sounds OK with it all as long as he has his monkey woman by his side. Funny words set to music that’s deadly serious, and every second of it thrills.
2. “Gimme Shelter”- Mostly Richards’ baby, inspired by a literal storm he that he sat watching that somehow evoked in him the figurative storm enveloping the world. Jimmy Miller’s production leaves ample space for everything to hit home, from Richard’s spooky, dawn-in-the-jungle open to Jagger’s strangled harmonica bleats to his own use of the scraper to conjure the exotic. Watts keeps everything hurtling straight unto the breach, while Jagger and Merry Clayton make the transitions from war to rape and murder to love and kisses seem as natural as day turning to night. And at its heart, amidst all other trappings, it’s a blues, as elemental and indomitable as any of their idols ever could have produced.
1.”You Can’t Always Get What You Want”- All the ideas worked for them around this time, even the silly-on-paper ones. A kids choir singing about a drug-addled socialite? Hire ’em. Al Kooper playing the French Horn? Get him in here. Some congas and maracas leading up to gospel exultation? Sounds great. The end of the decade brought out the contemplative side of Jagger, which he expressed in typically streetwise fashion. Everybody in the verses seems doomed, but the refrain, cosmically wise in its simplicity, addresses his audience, pleading with them to realize that the consolation prize is a kind of grace we should all be so lucky to accept.
(Email me at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow me on Twitter @JimBeviglia. For more on the Stones, check out my new book Counting Down The Rolling Stones: Their 100 Finest Songs, coming out in November and available for preorder today via the link below.)
The “Jumpin’ Jack Flash” single was the first indication that The Rolling Stones had quickly shaken the hangover from Their Satanic Majesties Request. Beggars Banquet, released at the end of 1968, doubled down on that song’s purpose and fire for the band’s finest full-length to that point, and, perhaps, from that point on as well. Not that they were done experimenting; Keith Richards was still up to his musical tricks and Mick Jagger was still in a provocative, questing lyrical mode. The difference was that it was all much more tangible, gritty, and real, and it was focused, with a big assist from new producer Jimmy Miller, into an overpowering attack. Here is a song-by-song review:
10. “Factory Girl”- Being the weakest song on Beggars Banquet carries not an ounce of shame. This one is just a tad less ambitious than the rest, but the combination of down-home (fiddle and mandolin) and exotic (congas and tablas) makes for a charming curve ball.
9. “Parachute Woman”- If at times the album sounds like it was recorded in the commode featured on the cover (which is apropos considering the nature of the songs), that’s a byproduct of Richards’ use of a cassette recorder to lay down several of the tracks. It makes his guitar here sound like it’s resiliently sounding off despite being partially choked off, turning what could have been just another innuendo-laced blues into a sonic thriller.
8. “Prodigal Son”- It’s almost shocking how antiquated they sound on this blues, making you believe that the recording was made in the 30’s when the song was written. There’s a maturity to the performance that separates this from even the blues songs they had attempted just a few years previous. Which figures; considering the wild times the band was experiencing during that period, the hard-earned experience that breeds the authenticity necessary to put across material like this was flying at them.
7. “Dear Doctor”- The Stones had a complicated relationship with country music, sometimes overdoing it to the point of insulting caricature. They don’t exactly play it straight here, but you don’t sense any contempt for the music or the people who generally make it either. After all, some country songs are meant to be funny too, and this one can certainly make you chuckle. Jagger’s falsetto is part of that, and so is the relief shown by the narrator once he’s inadvertently rescued from his scheduled wedding to a “bow-legged sow.” By contrast, the music is played lovingly, with assists for the band from Dave Mason, who joins Richards on acoustic guitar, and Nicky Hopkins, who plays tack piano. It all adds up to tongue-in-cheek back-porch melodrama played with a mischievous wink and a loving nod.
6. “No Expectations”- One last time, Brian Jones adds a sensitive side to a Rolling Stones recording, only this time he’s not working against the grain. The slide part he plays here piles on the tender sorrow already found in Jagger’s tale, one that’s summed by the title’s utter capitulation to a bad end. A wise arena band once said that lovin’ a music man ain’t always what it’s supposed to be, but this song contemplates what happens when the music man gets the short end of the bargain. No train or plain is ever going to get him far enough way to avoid the pain.
5. “Stray Cat Blues”- Jagger once claimed that The Velvet Underground influenced this brooder laced with bad intenitions. Maybe so, but The Stones’ bottom end quickly transcends that comparison, swaggering nearly out of control each bar before Charlie Watts pulls it back into place like he’s manually return a typewriter to the left margin. Richards gets his shots in during the colorfully chaotic outro. The whole thing is nasty, yet irresistibly so, providing a blueprint for all future Stones songs that you can’t help but love despite your better self’s objections.
4. “Jigsaw Puzzle”- This one flies in the face of the whole “Stones-return-to-roots” storyline, unless their roots include rambling, quasi-jazzy, Dylanesque epics. Bill Wyman’s hepcat bass line is contrasted by Richards’ askew slide interjections, and then the whole thing gets washed away in Jones’ mellotron haze. But not before Jagger paints random character sketches brought together in “Desolation Row”-style fashion by the bemused narrator. He wins points for including his band members in his wild tapestry, something the ever-hiding Dylan would never dare to do. One of the band’s most experimental tracks in a lot of ways and it holds together, maybe most thrillingly when it barely does.
3. “Salt Of The Earth”- Jagger has actually claimed that this song is cynical, that the people he’s addressing in the song will never actually have any power, so at least they deserve a toast. The way that message is delivered changes its meaning though; there is undeniable uplift in the chorus, in Richards’ yearning vocal (his first lead on a non-novelty song), in the acoustic simplicity of the musical approach, the the gospel fade-out. And in the bridge, Jagger admits his strangeness to these “wavering millions,” and, if you twist a head a certain way to the stereo, you might swear his voice contains some envy toward their unsung lot in life as well.
2. “Sympathy For The Devil”- Again, the narrative doesn’t fit here. Never before had the Stones taken on anything so ambitious; there’s no getting back to basics in this at all. In spite of that, it came to define the band, inaccurately in terms of the Satan stuff, but accurately in terms of their willingness to get inside the darkness so that they could best enlighten their audience about it. The band’s ability to coax this song out of its folk song shell into something so vibrant and inventive should not be overlooked, nor should Jimmy Miller’s ability to keep it going off the rails. And speaking of rails, that “whoo-whoo” refrain suggests a train, one conducted by Jagger’s mysterious narrator right into the black heart of what was supposed to be a loving decade.
1. “Street Fighting Man”- Man, have acoustic guitars ever sounded this intense anywhere else? The song indirectly becomes a commentary on the band’s dynamics; every time Jones enters the picture at the end of the refrain with the exotic instrument of the month, Richards acoustic armada sweeps it all away like so much debris. Jagger meanwhile manages to sound forceful while equivocating. He essentially says that he’s as powerless to affect change as any of the “Salt Of The Earth” folks, no matter how much of a ruckus he raises. The force of the music is such that the intelligence of his words almost get lost in the shuffle. The Beatles couldn’t decide whether “Revolution,” a product of the same year, should be sung like a lullaby or screamed like a call to arms. The Stones’ surer hold of the era’s tumult is one point in their favor in the debate for the ages.
(E-mail me at email@example.com or follow me on Twitter @JimBeviglia. For a much more in-depth look at the Stones, my new book Counting Down The Rolling Stones: Their 100 Finest Songs, arrives in a few weeks. Preorder it at the link below.)
Blame it on the lack of a George Martin type to bang wild musical ideas into coherent shape. Blame it on the drug arrests and court dates that diverted focus from the record. Or just blame it on the fact that The Rolling Stones were well out of their wheelhouse in the wilds of psychedelia. For whatever reason, 1967’s Their Satanic Majesties Request, its devoted group of contrarian supporters notwithstanding, was a bit of a mess then and still a bit of a mess now. Yet it did have a pair of crackling tracks to buoy the second side and would have been a great deal better had like-minded songs from the era “We Love You” and “Dandelion” but included. And, if nothing else, it served its purpose of refocusing the band on the earthy path it was always meant to tread, leading to the greatest period of music in their career. Here is a song-by-song review:
10. “Sing This All Together (See What Happens)”- What happens generally is we move on to the next track and make a mental note not to cue up this endless instrumental the next time around. It’s less pretentious than “Revolution 9” though, so that’s something.
9. “Gomper”- If they were indeed aping Sgt Pepper’s, I guess this was their “Within You, Without You.” The Quiet Beatle need not have felt threatened.
8. “In Another Land”- Bill Wyman finally gets his showcase. Alas, the harpsichord-laden verses are the kind of trippy pondering typical of that era that hasn’t aged that well. It’s too bad because the chorus ain’t half bad.
7. “On With The Show”- Although it feels tacked-on to sort of force a concept-album feel, the song surprisingly proves that Mick Jagger could do McCartneyesque whimsy with convincing flair.
6. “2000 Man”- Had this song stuck with the folksy acoustic segment all the way through, you might just have ended up with a four-star number. Jagger actually was building a nice melody there with some interesting lyrics about a family man’s inner malaise, which, details aside, sound striking similar to the existential concerns of family men through the ages. Instead it segues into a somewhat forgettable up-tempo theatrics that dull the impact somewhat.
5. “The Lantern”- Again, you’ve got a song that’s too fussy by half and Jagger’s lyrics refuse to let you grasp on and hold, which admittedly isn’t a dealbreaker. Still, there are musical moments on this song as pretty as anything else on the record, so it doesn’t wear out its welcome like some of the other stuff. They’d get a lot better at these dreamy songs that suggest a lot more than they say; see “Moonlight Mile” a few years down the road for a good example.
4. “Citadel”- There’s a pretty good rocker that’s desperate to escape the haze of the production; you can hear it whenever Keith Richards’ ominous riff comes to the fore. Same with Jagger’s lyrics, which get a bit lost in the clamor. Still, a little more of this darker approach would have gone a long way.
3. “Sing This All Together”- The start was promising enough, a percussive, genial sing-along featuring Beatle buddies John Lennon and Paul McCartney on backing vocals. The lyrics in the refrain capture the questing nature of the time pretty well.
2. “2000 Light Years From Home”- Well before Major Tom got lost in space, The Stones were already musing on the eerier aspects of exploring the outer reaches of the galaxy. Jagger allegedly wrote it during his one-night prison stay, and his hollowed-out vocal of his icy poetics still haunts. Richards makes his presence felt here more than anywhere else on the album, both with his slightly sinister opening notes and his bludgeoning riffs late in the song. This is Brian Jones’ time to shine, making that Mellotron sound wondrous and terrifying all at once. Stanley Kubrick was already well into making 2001 at the time this song was released; otherwise you would swear he took some inspiration from it.
1.”She’s A Rainbow”- Nicky Hopkins brilliant piano work alone is enough to carry this one a long way. Add in John Paul Jones’ tender string arrangements and Brian Jones bringing the brass on the Mellotron and you have lusciousness galore. These elements are melded together in ingenious ways around Jagger’s tale of a girl who’s literally colorful. Sometimes they’re all in there together being prodded forth by Charlie Watts pummeling drums, and sometimes they step out on their own for charming interludes. The end result is a song packed with dynamic surprises.
(E-mail me at firstname.lastname@example.org of follow me on Twitter @JimBeviglia. For more on the Stones, check out my new book, Counting Down The Rolling Stones: Their 100 Finest Songs, which you can preorder via the link below.)
Based on their sporadic yet impressive early efforts, you just knew that would be a matter of time before Mick Jagger and Keith Richards dispensed with the cover songs and stepped up their songwriting to challenge the giants of the genre. Yet it was still impossible to predict the huge leap they made with 1966’s Aftermath, entirely self-penned and stunningly self-assured. It didn’t hurt that they unleashed their secret weapon Brian Jones, who stepped forth with instruments exotic and arcane that shaded the words in unexpected ways. The end result is endlessly compelling and stands as one of the band’s finest albums, even if they were still splitting up songs for British and American releases. Here is a song-by-song review. (Since there were some major songs on the UK version of the album that didn’t make the American version, I’ve included my thoughts on them for completeness’ sake.)
15. “Going Home”- Me personally, I’ve never too much liked the jammy Stones (with the partial exception of “Midnight Rambler”). The main crux of the song doesn’t do it for me, so why would the endless improvisation help any?
14. “Stupid Girl”- I’ve never had a problem with the nastier sentiments in some Stones songs; the pop songbook would be a dull thing if everyone was cordial all the time. I judge it based on how it works as a song, and this one is just pedestrian. Aside from some chirpy keyboards from Ian Stewart and Jack Nitzsche and Jagger’s venom, there’s not much to it.
13. “It’s Not Easy”- Jagger puts his all into this pedestrian Chuck Berry rip and makes it listenable if not too memorable.
12. “Flight 505”- Kind of a bizarre song about identity issues and plain crashes. The existential slant to the lyrics doesn’t quite match the straight-ahead push of the music, but it’s an interesting oddity and Ian Stewart gets a nice showcase on the intro.
11. “Doncha Bother Me”- With Jones’ slide dominating the musical proceedings with an assist from Stewart’s saloon-y piano and Jagger’s harp solo, this is both a throwback to blues tradition and a look ahead to the traditionalist bent the band would themselves take a few years up the road.
10. “Think”- Richards’ guitar is altered to almost sound like a horn section, giving this one a soulful edge that distinguishes it. Pretty good propulsion from the rhythm section as well, and Jagger does a pretty good job dressing down a girl with selective memory.
9. “What To Do” (UK Album)- It has the smooth swagger of a Sam Cooke track. Never have complaints about boredom ever sounded so non-boring.
8. “High And Dry”- Again, Jagger’s story is kind of goofy, as he tries to scam a rich girl and then decides to go for a poor one next time around. But the back porch blues music is completely convincing, with Richards providing a slick acoustic rhythm and Jones blasting away on harmonica with undeniable feeling.
7. “Take It Or Leave It” (UK Album)- For a guy who was supposed to be the ultimate player, Jagger could sure be convincing in song about the troubles foisted upon him by women; goodness knows, those troubles dominate the subject matter of this album. It’s a shame Jones’ koto isn’t further up in the mix, but otherwise this song is a delicate bit of business tenderly executed.
6. “Out Of Time” (UK Album)- They had learned their lessons well from the masters of Motown. And on this underrated track, the interplay between Jones’ marimbas and Richards’ acoustic gives this another dimension that might just have impressed Berry Gordy himself. Meanwhile Jagger’s “You’re obsolete, my baby” is as cutting as anything Dylan might have conjured in one of his epic putdowns.
5. “Lady Jane”- Here’s an example of how Jones’ playing could alter the meaning of a song. His tender work on the Appalachian dulcimer softens the narrator, makes you overlook how he’s hopping from bed to bed in search of the best situation. Jack Nitzsche’s harpsichord puts us in a Victorian court but Jagger is a modern gigolo, inherently sad despite all of his conquests. Unsettingly pretty and unique.
4. “I Am Waiting”- The fact that they had reached the point where a knockout like this one was just another album track shows how far the band had come. In this case, the indefinable malaise of which Jagger warns is perfectly suited to the subtly inventive music. Jones is on dulcimer again, plucking with absolute sensitivity, and Richards, a softie in disguise, is right with him on acoustic guitar. The surge into the chorus is a real beauty. It’s one of those evocative, elusive songs that intrigues no matter how many times you hear it. Max Fischer-approved.
3. “Mother’s Little Helper” (UK Album)- It’s hard to imagine them writing a song like this during their late 60’s and early 70’s apex; the empathy of it would have shattered their hardened image somehow. The rhythmic gallop and melodic niftiness keeps it from being public-service announcement dry. And that guitar riff almost seems taunting, as if Richards was getting in his commentary, implying that the supposedly upright housewives of the world were every bit as debauched as he was supposed to be. In any case, this is an extremely intelligent song, and that’s a characteristic for which the band doesn’t get enough credit even though they have it in spades.
2. “Under My Thumb”- Here’s what I mean about a song being able to overcome nasty sentiments. You can tolerate the narrator’s basking in his dehumanizing triumph over a female because the music keeps distracting you from it. Anyway when you look at the lyrics, it’s more a comeuppance thing than the guy just doing it for meanness sake. Jones’ chirping marimba carries with it both mystery and mirth, while Richards’ dirties it up with some fuzzy guitar. That groove is pure silk (kudos to Bill Wyman’s bass work for that), and Jagger’s panting at the end is improvisational magic.
1. “Paint It Black” (US Album)- Somewhere in a Turkish hovel sits Jagger asking for complete darkness while Jones and Richards flicker away stone-faced behind him. Wyman fattened up the bottom end by pounding on the organ pedals and Watts plays as if somebody’s chasing him. This is the band at their high-drama best, expounding upon and embracing the world’s general crappiness instead of running scared from it. In the midst of the technicolor 60’s, the sentiment was about as far from norm as you could get. But they were right, you know. All that day-glo stuff can sound dated but this downer anthem still singes the eardrums. Comma or no comma.
(E-mail me at email@example.com or follow me on Twitter @JimBeviglia. For more on the Stones, check out my new book Counting Down The Rolling Stones: Their 100 Finest Songs, available in November. You can preorder it at the link below.)
Rushed into the stores in November 1965 by London Records to take advantage of the holiday season, December’s Children (And Everybody’s) wasn’t really an album proper by The Rolling Stones. A batch of songs were taken from the UK Version of Out Of Our Heads, mixed with some singles and leftovers, and a goofy Andrew Loog Oldham title was slapped on it. Voila! New product. Nonetheless, it’s a collection that hold up quite well, with a few choice covers and some excellent originals, a few of which show that the Jagger/Richards songwriting partnership had ambitions to challenge Lennon/McCartney on the contemplative side of rock. Here is a song-by-song review.
12. “Look What You’ve Done”- Not even Brian Jones’ best efforts on harmonica can do much with this blues. Yes, they do it well, but there’s a hint of going through the motions.
11. “Talkin’ ‘Bout You”- At this point, the Chuck Berry covers were a bit routine, but Bill Wyman’s Peter Gunn bassline gives this one a bit of novelty. And the source material is quite strong.
10. “Gotta Get Away”- My favorite part of this song is right before the final chorus when Mick Jagger spews out some completely unintelligible lyrics and then sings, “You understand me now.” Sure we do, Mick. Aside from that, it’s a just-OK mid-tempo rambler with a Motown-style chorus.
9. “Route 66”- Pretty good live recreation of their studio take that holds together even with the ruckus of the screaming.
8. “I’m Movin’ On”- Yeah, the two live cuts were an effort to fill out the album, but they’re both rock solid. This rocked-up country song features an extended outro and some wild harmonica from Jones. And, needless to say, a lot more screaming.
7. “The Singer Not The Song”- The lyrics are a bit rote, but the melody is quite fetching. The chord changes hit you in the heart bone, and Keith Richards is the hero here with both his harmonies (even a little falsetto at the end) and his delicate acoustic work in the break. Great chorus too.
6. “Blue Turns To Grey”- Jagger as a romantic advisor hands out some bad news to a guy who’s just been dumped: It’s only gonna get worse, pal. Like “The Singer Not The Song”, the melodic twists are really an indication that the band had more in its arsenal than bluesy power and defiant attitude.
5. “I’m Free”- You can dock it a couple points if you want for borrowing a bit off The Beatles’ “Eight Days A Week.” But there’s something sedate and peaceful about this simple declaration of liberty that’s a bit out of character for the band and yet refreshing. Almost mantra-like before that became the thing.
4. “She Said Yeah”- Look out below. In about a minute-and-a-half, the band manages three verses, an instrumental break and ample repetitions of the chorus. In that way, it gives “Rip This Joint” a run for its money in the tempo department. Somewhere in there Mick is singing about diamond rings, but you’ll be too lost in the adrenaline rush to notice it.
3. “You Better Move On”- It was a few years old by this time, but it’s still a lovely effort. Songwriter Arthur Alexander also provided the source material for a great Beatles cover ballad (“Anna”.) The elegance of the melody is brought forth by the restraint of the playing, and Jagger elocutes with precise diction so every word makes its mark. A great heartbreaker.
2. “As Tears Go By”- They gave it the “Yesterday” treatment after the fact, but they had written the song more than a year earlier (for Marianne Faithful) than that Beatles classic, so we’ll give them a pass. In any case, it’s done beautifully, yet another song that showed that pop and classical weren’t at cross purposes. That it was Jagger and Richards proving that point bucked the perception of the group, but the music always outweighed the caricature, even back then.
1. “Get Off Of My Cloud”- Jagger and Richards have always been hard on this song because it’s not as fine as “Satisfaction”, but, come on, guys, how many songs in the world are? Charlie Watts rat-a-tat is like a second hook next to the doubled riff with Jones on guitar and Ian Stewart on piano. Richards tears away with fuzzed-out rhythm playing and the chorus climbs to majesty. Doesn’t really matter too much what Jagger is singing in the verses because his in-your-face refrain says all that you need to say about the wish for isolation when everybody around is a bore or a hassle.
(E-mail me at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow me on Twitter @JimBeviglia. For more on the subject, check out my new book, Counting Down The Rolling Stones: Their 100 Finest Songs, coming out in November and available for preorder at the link below.)
On the surface, 1965’s Out Of Our Heads looked just like its three predecessors in the Rolling Stones catalog in that it was comprised of a bunch of R&B and soul covers with a few originals sprinkled in for good measure. The difference was the quality of those originals, as the Jagger/Richards songwriting team seemed to flourish all at once and find their uncompromising, invigorating voice. And there was great variety there as well, as the standout originals on the album included a lusty blues, a defiant rocker, an icy ballad, and, of course, the song that remains their signature a half-century after its release. Here is a song-by-song review:
12. “One More Try”- While not an embarrassment, this fleet-footed original suffers a bit in comparison to the Jagger/Richards classics that surround it and makes a bit of an odd choice for a closing track. (Although this was still a time when bands didn’t really consider albums as anything more than a collection of tracks, so it’s somewhat understandable this one was tacked on the end.)
11. “Hitch Hike”- Sequencing this so close to “Mercy Mercy” makes it seem like one long R&B workout to start the album, which is fine, although it doesn’t really distinguish this Marvin Gaye cover too much.
10. “I’m All Right”- If nothing else, this live cut displays the frenzy of their early concerts. It never quite devolves into complete chaos, thanks to Charlie Watts steady backbeat, allowing Jagger and the guitarists to flip out.
9. “Good Times”- When you’re up against the standard of Sam Cooke, it’s wise to underplay, which is what the band does here. They cop an easy-going vibe that makes this one a quick, pleasant diversion.
8. “Mercy Mercy”- It’s interesting to hear how the Stones rhythm section nails that strutting groove while the electric guitars fuzz things out. The result is just another example of the group putting enough of their own identity into a cover song to make it more than just an album-filling exercise.
7. “The Under-Assistant West Coast Promotion Man”- The boys have some fun at the expense of a nameless record company promoter (later identified by Bill Wyman in his book.) While the music is a relatively straightforward blues stomp, there’s some sneaky insight in the lyrics about the cultural disconnect between the youth who played and listened to rock and the older generation clinging to their record company jobs trying to peddle the music.
6. “Cry To Me”- Man, were they great at these sauntering ballads. Keith Richards’ guitar punctuations at the end of Jagger’s wailing pleas are always perfectly-pitched. So what if Jagger’s screams weren’t as pleasing to the ear as Solomon Burke’s? He nails the emotion behind them, and that’s the important part.
5. “The Spider And The Fly”- The sleepy blues accompaniment is just right for Jagger’s weary tale of a rock star on the make. There’s no joy in his conquest (although there’s not really any guilt either.) Like the spider entices the weaker insects into a trap just because it’s what he does, so too does the singer ensnare unsuspecting women, like his girl at home and the barfly he encounters, as part of his routine existence. The sly humor and telling details provide further evidence of the rising songwriting tide.
4. “The Last Time”- Richards has spoken about how it was hard for he and Jagger to write a single for the group in the beginning, simply because the boys in the band were far tougher critics that any outside artist interested in songs from the duo. Maybe that’s why they piggybacked on a Staples Singers song (the chorus is nearly identical) to get it done. Aside from that though, the song is set apart by the loping rhythm, that quizzical riff (played by Brian Jones), and the striking cohesion between the musical attitude set forth by the instrumentalists and Jagger’s half-heartbroken, half-taunting bark.
3. “That’s How Strong My Love Is”- The album’s standout cover is Jagger’s showcase. Who knew he could get all heartfelt and earnest, setting aside his raised eyebrows to deliver from the heart and soul? The band supports him ably but basically stands back and lets him do the heavy emoting, and he really reaches you.
2. “Play With Fire”- For just a heartbeat, the acoustic guitar intro sounds like it’s going to be open-hearted and sentimental. It quickly takes a dark turn, and that’s the tone maintained throughout to chilling effect. Jack Nitzsche’s harpsichord is a left-field contribution that contributes to the song’s austere beauty. Then there’s Jagger’s vocal, which goes from emotionless in the verses as he tears holes in the facade of a society girl and then downright threatening in the refrain as he warns her away. Ruthlessly unforgiving and absolutely compelling.
1. “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction”- Well, there’s the riff, obviously, but it’s more than that, right? We start on the chorus like The Beatles, but the similarity really ends there. The better comparison, from the same year, is “Like A Rolling Stone”, in that both songs find a kind of freedom in alienation; you have to identify the issue before you can cathartically attack it. That’s where Jagger’s lyrics, practically stream-of-consciousness in the way they flow from one aggravation to the next, really carry the load. We all generally come up short in life, which is why this anthem has ridiculous staying power.
(E-mail me at email@example.com or follow me on Twitter @JimBeviglia. For more on the Rolling Stones, you can pre-order by upcoming book about their 100 finest songs by using the link below.)
Well, the exclamation point might have been overselling it a bit; one needed only to have listened to 1965’s The Rolling Stones, Now! to have realized that these guys were only getting better. They were sanding off the rougher edges on their rock and R&B covers without losing their raucous energy and confrontational attitude. And their songwriting, what little there admittedly was of it, was improving as well. There wasn’t yet a true killer track to which a consensus of fans would gravitate (that was coming), but this is still a Ginsu-sharp collection without a real weak point. Here is a song-by-song review:
12. “Pain In My Heart”- Well, they had good taste, covering an Otis Redding song written by Allen Toussaint. But while they don’t embarrass themselves, they also don’t convince that this cover was necessary either.
11. “Oh Baby (We Got A Good Thing Goin’)- The Stones add a little rhythmic locomotion to this single by soul singer Barbara Lynn. It’s probably a push between the two versions.
10. “Everybody Needs Some To Love”-When Mick Jagger sang this at the Grammy’s a few years ago, he did so with his energy seemingly undiminished from the original track, despite the nearly half-century passed in the interim. As for the original take, it gets cut short on this release (it’s longer on the American counterpart album The Rolling Stones No. 2), which robs it of some of its power. But it’s still a fun soul workout with a positive message, which was an out-of-character way for the band to start the album.
9. “What A Shame”- The energy the band invests into this track allows it to rise above the bluesy throwaway it could have been. Keith Richards and Brian Jones find open spaces for their guitars to fill while Jagger sings and plays harmonica as if he’s truly aggrieved by the antagonism he describes in the lyrics.
8. “Off The Hook”- OK, kids, this is before “Off The Hook” was a slang term meaning awesome, so don’t misinterpret here. This is literally about the malaise the narrator acquires due to his inability to telephonically connect with his girl. What we have here is a Jagger/Richards attempt to write a Leiber/Stoller-type song, and not a bad one at that.
7. “Down The Road Apiece”- Adding a bit of frenzy to Chuck Berry’s version of this song first performed in 1946, the band once again prove up to handling the work of this rock icon who meant so much to them. Keith Richards is on fire throughout, especially in the instrumental breaks when he and Ian Stewart, channeling Jerry Lee Lewis on piano, really go to town.
6. “Little Red Rooster”- It’s interesting that this song reached #1 on the British charts, and not because it’s a blues. It’s because the band plays it so deadpan, especially Jagger. The restraint is actually refreshing, and Brian Jones’ slide is up to the task of matching Howling Wolf’s anguished original though.
5. “Surprise Surprise”- This pretty solid original closes out the album. It has the whooshing pace of some of the Beatles hits from around that time, albeit with the Stones’ typically sour outlook as a contrast to the Fab 4. It atones for its lack of melody in the verses with the nifty little minor-key downshift into the refrain.
4. “You Can’t Catch Me”- Bruce Springsteen and The Beatles each borrowed bits and pieces from this one, but The Stones somehow make it their own even without really touching Chuck Berry’s original arrangement. There’s something lurking in their version, something indefinable in the rhythmic shake or Jagger’s vowels that revels in the potential danger in this road/air trip. I doubt if it was even anything conscious they were doing, but it’s there and lends this one an edge that Berry’s amiable predecessor didn’t (and probably didn’t aim to) have.
3. “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.
2. “Down Home Girl”- The band really sinks their teeth into one of Leiber/Stoller’s quirkier numbers. Bill Wyman’s six-string bass grounds the thing, while Jagger gets in a fevered harmonica workout in between his savoring of the lyrics, which fall in the nether region between nasty and appreciative toward the titular girl. The racial overtones within the song are hard to miss, but the band, and it’s to their ultimate credit, always favored musical exploration over the worry that someone might take offense.
1. “Heart Of Stone”- For whatever reason, the Jagger/Richards songwriting duo was on much firmer footing in their earliest days on the slow ones rather than when they revved up the tempo. They give this one a slow-dance swagger, but Jagger subverts any expectations of sentiment by warning off any would-be girlfriends. The way the chorus segues from the harmonies on “You’ll never break” to Jagger, isolated and intimidating, singing “this heart of stone” is a chill-inducer. Musically soulful and yet carrying a soulless message: Who knew that could be such a captivating combo before the Stones tried it out?
(E-mail me at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow me on Twitter @JimBeviglia. To pre-order my new book on the Stones, check out the link below.)
Incremental improvements were to be expected considering the cramped schedule between albums for the Rolling Stones at the start of their career. 1964’s 12 X 5 makes somewhat of a sideways move as the brash exuberance of the opening album morphs into a steadier, more self-assured tone on the follow-up. Wider variety, better use of vocal harmonies, and marginally improved songwriting efforts from Mick Jagger and Keith Richards combine to make 12 X 5 a success if not quite a revelation. Here is a song-by-song review:
12. “Empty Heart”- Since this is a Nanker Phelge composition, it’s a good guess that this was a jam loosely masquerading as a song. Overly busy instrumentally and half-baked lyrically, it’s a time-waster.
11. “2120 Michigan Avenue”- Other than the fact that it gives Bill Wyman a rare chance to shine, there’s not much to say about this ambling instrumental.
10. “Under The Boardwalk”- This one is not in the group’s wheelhouse. The rhythm clunks where it should slink, and Jagger seems at a loss with what to do with the lines about hot dogs and fries. And the less said about his awkward falsetto, the better. Stick with the original.
9. “Susie Q”- A bit too manic and sporting a weird kind of go-go beat, here is another cover of an iconic tune that gets away from them a bit.
8. “Grown Up All Wrong”- The boys kind of forgot about writing a melody here, but there’s enough attitude in the vocals and playing to barely put this one across.
7. “Around And Around”- Jagger doesn’t sound as enthused here as he would once the band started writing their own Chuck Berry homages rather than just covering him. (The ill-fitting reverb in which he’s drenched doesn’t help.) All quibbles are wiped away, however, in the instrumental break once Ian Stewart starts boogeying and Richards takes off on his solo while the rhythm section locks in.
6. “Confessin’ The Blues”- A good chunk of the album was recorded at Chess Studios in Chicago, so it was only natural that the band should take on a slow, Second City-style blues. The reverb on the vocals is again a bit distracting, but the groove, deliberate and potent, more than compensates.
5. “Congratulations”- Listen to how Richards acoustic and Brian Jones’ electric find space without seeming to muscle each other out. It’s that guitar-weaving Keith always mentions and it, along with Watts’ timpani, lifts this relatively pedestrian lament higher than it has a right to be.
4. “Good Times, Bad Times”- Jagger and Richards were quickly learning the less-is-more approach to songwriting, as evidenced by this Robert Johnson nod which suggests a lot more than it comes right out and says. Why would it need to articulate, when the interplay between Richards’ acoustic, Charlie Watts bass pedal, Jones’ harmonica, and Jagger’s laid-back yet wounded vocal says it all?
3. “If You Need Me”- Messing with a Wilson Pickett tune could have been a disaster, but the band’s genuine affinity for the music shines through on this cover. Plus, knowing what a monumental voice they were taking on here, Jagger and Richards team up to get the job done, providing heartfelt harmonies.
2. “Time Is On My Side”- If the Stones could be accused early on of too closely aping the original versions of blues and R&B songs, they got around it here by taking a song associated with a woman (Irma Thomas) and giving it their own stamp. Little things stand out here, like Watts inventiveness drumming on a slow number and the early vocal chemistry between Jagger and Richards as they form a harmony more profound than the sum of its parts. Jagger lets loose his outsized personality on this song for one of the first times on record, which might be a reason why it connected with audiences like it did.
1.”It’s All Over Now”- Taking a herky-jerky R&B number and giving it a chunky, Carl Perkins-style guitar groove, the Stones practically re-write this song by The Valentinos from the same year without changing a chord or a word. The attitude espoused by the song, that of the narrator turning the tables on the wayward woman rather than sulking about it, would eventually be winningly be copped by the band on their originals. It also features one of Richards’ best ever solos and a chorus brutally simple and unforgettable. Probably the high-water mark of their first year or recording.
(E-mail me at email@example.com or follow me on Twitter @JimBeviglia. My book on the Stones’ 100 finest songs arrives in November’ pre-order it with the link below.)