They don’t all have to save the world, right? Well, they shouldn’t have to, but when you’re a band like The Rolling Stones, folks expect something substantial every time down the pike. 1980’s Emotional Rescue, by contrast, feels like an effort by the band to put out something with far more concern for grooves than thoughts. As such, it goes down smooth, but, with a few notable exceptions, doesn’t stick with you too long after it fades out. Here is a song-by-song review:
10. “Where The Boys Go”- Autopilot Stones guitar churn without a melody. Not much to hear here.
9. “Send It To Me”- It figures that the ever-anonymous Bill Wyman would get to come to the forefront on a disposable song from an album considered to be one of the band’s most disposable LP’s. Still his contributions here are the most notable thing on this endless quasi-reggae jam.
8. “Down In The Hole”- The sustained intensity of this blues jam is impressive. Sugar Blue gets in some impassioned harmonica while Keith Richards and Ronnie Wood do some hypnotic interweaving on guitar. The downbeat vibe is a little out of place with everything else here, but the song makes you stand up and take notice nonetheless.
7. “Dance (Part 1)”- Wood takes over on bass here and creates the first of many hooks the song has to offer, with others coming courtesy of the frisky horns and the vocal harmonies. Jagger’s patter is really inessential here, because the music is potent enough to carry the load.
6. “Summer Romance”- The idea of Jagger having a summer fling with a co-ed might strike some as icky, but a) it probably happened and b) if the Beach Boys can still sing about surfing and high school, who are we to begrudge the Stones this dip into academia? Like so much of the album, it’s a catchy number without much ambition that’s played with more gusto than it probably deserves.
5. “She’s So Cold”- You could pretty much ditto what I said about “Summer Romance,” only here the MVP is Jagger, who pretty much willed this one into being a hit with the loony charisma of his performance. Again Wood is on bass, playing melodic runs while Richards’ flickering lead adds even more rhythmic heft. Charlie Watts is the steady heartbeat. Still a lot of fun on your local classic rock station.
4. “Indian Girl”- Kind of an out-of-left field that succeeds in an offbeat way. The title character, a little girl orphaned in a Central American war, is not your typical Stones’ heroine, but Jagger lends her a great deal of dignity and respect with the straight-faced tenderness of his vocal. Meanwhile, the music, a lilting mariachi, shows that these guys still had versatility to spare, even if they displayed it less and less in those days.
3. “Let Me Go”- This underrated track sneaks into four-star territory just on solidity alone. Wyman and Watts are a propulsive engine while the electric guitars tick along, providing nice tension and release, and the solo is good as well. Jagger has more than fifty ways to leave his lover but she’s having none of it. Nothing groundbreaking, but done so effortlessly and expertly that it sneaks up on you.
2. “All About You”- The album starts with Jagger hailing Richards; it ends with Richards lambasting Jagger. Oh, you could kid yourself and pretend it’s about a girl, but, considering its placement on the record, it’s as if Keith has listened to Mick’s disco nonsense for as long as he can stand and has to get his two cents in. This is one of those tipsy Richards’ vocals that confound some people, but it’s genius, especially with how it plays off the smoothness of the harmonies. And it’s no surprise that Bobby Keys takes Keith’s side with his bluesy saxophone commentary. I think it says something about Jagger that he would allow this brazen pot shot on a record bearing his name; maybe he inherently knew that Glimmer Twins infighting and drama was as much of the brand as the lips.
1. “Emotional Rescue”- Rarely does the bass part in a rock song wake you up like Wood’s does here, although it’s a fair argument to say that this isn’t really rock. It’s pop, or disco, or maybe R&B, but whatever it is, it’s a recording that holds you in thrall for its entirety. Watts’ rat-a-tat snares are somehow the beat and the hook all at once, allowing Wood to just bounce around wherever he’s needed most. And Jagger strolls through this limber rhythmic bed with dramatically-intoned pronouncements and falsetto cries, an wild, improvisatory collection of words and sounds that’s sensual, silly, and, like he says, steadfast. Keys puts the whole thing to bed, bits of passion sneaking out from under the urbane facade. The perfect poster child for his off-kilter yet ingratiatingly lighthearted album.
(E-mail me at email@example.com or follow me on Twitter @JimBeviglia. For a more in-depth look at The Stones, check out my new book Counting Down The Rolling Stones: Their 100 Finest Songs, available now at the link below.)
I’m not sure if 1978’s Some Girls is significantly better than the three albums that preceded it in The Rolling Stones catalog, albums which don’t have as lofty a reputation. The difference is that Some Girls, the band’s first full album with Ron Wood as a member, demands your attention; even when it’s going off the rails a bit, you can’t ignore it, and when it’s on its game, it’s thrilling in a way Stones albums hadn’t been since the ’68-’72 apex. There’s a sense of purpose to it as opposed to just seeming like an album meant to fill out a contract. There’s even a rough theme surrounding the New York City nightlife at a time when the city was a seedier, scarier, more unpredictable, for good and bad, place than it is today. Here is a song-by-song review:
10. “Lies”- The problem with the full-throttle, trebly approach that The Glimmer Twins applied to many of their uptempo productions starting with this album is that it then causes Jagger to shout to be heard. When the song’s not much to write home about, as is the case here, the whole effect can be grating.
9. “Some Girls”- I have no problem with the boys being provocative, as long as they do it within the context of a crackling song. Yet I have the creeping suspicion that “Some Girls” existed for no other reason to garner newsprint. Mission accomplished, but it doesn’t mean that I want to hit the replay button on a pretty dull slog of a track.
8. “Far Away Eyes”- Jagger’s ill-advised impulse to drawl out the lyrics in the verses mars what could have been a decent country turn. I’m not really fond of those lyrics anyway, but their flaws would be less noticeable without the silliness. It’s too bad, because Wood’s steel guitar and the harmonies in the refrain belong to a much better song.
7. “Just My Imagination (Running Away With Me)”- Part of me wishes that they had dug a little deeper into the Motown catalog for their 70’s cover choices. That said, they do a little bit better with this one than they did with “Ain’t Too Proud To Beg.”
6. “When The Whip Comes Down”- There’s a certain toughness to the two-guitar attack of Richards and Wood that there was never was with Richards and Mick Taylor. Part of that is the production and part of that was a conscious change in the style of songs the band was writing. In any case, that attack, along with Watts lightning-flash drumming, lends serious heft to Jagger’s odd tale of a gay garbage collector.
5. “Respectable”- Mick pretty much abandons the verses early on, which is fine because this one is crisp and peppy enough to get by just on the music and the sneering choruses, which Jagger claimed weren’t a swipe at his wife, although the impending divorce claimed otherwise. In those scant two verses, however, he efficiently dismantles those who would feign airs when the reality of their situation is much baser. And the fact that he uses the first person voice in the first verse means that he could foresee a time when he would be, against all odds, Sir Mick.
4. “Before They Make Me Run”- Jagger probably helped out with some of the lyrics because sometimes it takes someone on the outside to tell you how bad things really are, almost like an intervention. But Richards wrests control of the song with his vocal, always careening in the opposite direction of where you think it should be, and his defiant cool. The interlocking phalanx of guitars is a dynamic bit of business as well. If you had to explain Keith Richards to an alien, play him this song.
3. “Beast Of Burden”- The closest thing to a ballad on the album (“Far Away Eyes” is more of a parody of a ballad to me), this is also the song with the best guitar work here. At the slower tempo, you can clearly hear the interplay between Richards and Wood, one going this way, the other that, briefly intermingling, and then separating again while always keeping the song’s content in mind. Wood also beefs up the harmonies of Jagger and Richards, giving them an endearingly ragged quality. Those harmonies form some solidarity behind Jagger’s put-upon narrator, who takes his stand in the dirt, willing to risk the girl’s leaving rather than doing any more gruntwork in the name of love. No wonder people thought it was about he and Keith.
2. “Shattered”- One of Jagger’s finest performances, as he half-raps, half-bellows, capturing the coolness and the frenzy of New York city in that manner. Richards’ belching guitar sounds like a subway tunneling through hell, while Wood’s solo sparkles like Times Square. The city is slowly eradicating the narrator’s nervous system; even the sex seems like too much for him. And if he crumbles, NYC isn’t going to stop and shed a tear from him. Instead it’s going to move on and pummel the next poor sap who crosses its path: (“I’m shattered/What does it matter?”) All you can do is keep your head down, mind the maggots, and utter “Shadoobie”, the mantra of the city, under your breath.
1.”Miss You”- Everybody just assumes that the disco move was a jump on the bandwagon. What they’re missing is that the music here is the best vehicle for conveying the message of the song. The suavity of the rhythm mirrors the narrator’s attempts at restraint, but the carnal undertow eventually sweeps him up into exclaiming his lust to the world in the anguished bridge and the falsetto refrain. Bill Wyman and Watts play the kind of disco beat you would expect them to, effortless and elegant. Richards gets his riffage in even in this setting, and Jagger modulates his performance flawlessly. Sugar Blue’s harp and Mel Collins’ sax split the tension of the night. A lot of rock bands face-planted in their attempts at disco; no sweat for the Stones.
(E-mail me at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow me on Twitter @JimBeviglia. My new book, Counting Down The Rolling Stones: Their 100 Finest Songs, is out now and available at the link below.)
It gets dismissed some because The Rolling Stones were in transition when they made it, from the old sound to the new, from one guitarist to the next. Yet 1976’s Black And Blue is an underrated, excellent listen. Guitarists Wayne Perkins and Harvey Mandel couldn’t quite muscle their way into the band, but they acquitted themselves well in their efforts here. The fact that the band kept things down to a lean, mean eight cuts kept the clunkers at bay. And, amid some interesting stabs at variety, Mick Jagger and Keith Richards devoted about half the album to doing what they do best: churning out relentlessly propulsive rockers and beautifully damaged ballads. Here is a song-by-song review:
8. “Remedy”- While it’s fun to hear Billy Preston trading lines with Jagger, this more of an excuse for that than a fully-realized song. A pleasant throwaway, if nothing else.
7. “Hey Negrita”- Mick pretty much seems to be making up the lyrics about a pauper trying to sway a South American prostitute as he goes, which is fine, because they’re an afterthought compared to the skittering groove conjured by Ronnie Wood, one of his first major contributions to the group.
6. “Cherry Oh Baby”- There’s a little bit more delicacy in the reggae grooves here than what the band managed on “Luxury” a few years previous. As such there’s more space for the best parts to shine, such as Nicky Hopkins playful organ and the drunken harmonies of Jagger and Richards.
5. “Hot Stuff”- “Fingerprint File” ended the Stones’ previous album with a dose of cold funk; this opening track is sweatier stuff. Richards handles the wocka-wocka guitar groove and lets Mandel takes what’s usually the glory role on the solos; canny move that, since the rhythm was always going to be the song’s standout item. Jagger has fun playing the World Ambassador of Dance Music role toward the end with a megaphone-like effect on his vocals. They were getting better and better and making dance music their own, but there was still a leap to make in that area that was coming on the next few albums.
4. “Hand Of Fate”- Jagger is on the run here following an ill-advised shootout with a rival. I like the way that he’s singing in the midst of the chase, making this one a pretty suspenseful track. The music, a more classically Stonesian affair than just about anywhere else on the album, feeds into that suspense without getting melodramatic. Charlie Watts and Bill Wyman are at their understated best here, moving the rhythm along without ever showboating. The 70’s were the high-water period for rockers singing about Western-style gunplay, and this song is a fine addition to that list.
3. “Crazy Mama”- Wood plays on this closing track, and you can hear why he was the choice to replace Taylor. Not that Mandel and Perkins did anything wrong; on the contrary, their playing was fine. But they always seemed apart from the rest of the band, Richards in particular, in their parts, whereas Woods locks in with him and the rest of the band here on this son-of-“Tumbling Dice” strut. Jagger meanwhile is threatening to shoot out the kneecaps of the title character; that kind of thing is part of the blues idiom, of course, but it’s funny nobody ever got their dander up for this the way they did for “Under My Thumb” or “Some Girls.” Anyway, he sings the stuffing out of it and gets some seriously high harmony help from Preston in the excellent refrains.
2. “Fool To Cry”- The Jagger falsetto would start to be an increasing part of his repertoire around this point, with this Top 10 ballad perhaps beginning the trend in earnest. Hearing him sing about his daughter is quite nice, not ever what you’d expect, but nice. What the song conveys is that the narrator may be told that crying if pointless, but you still get the feeling that the events of his life are making it more and more difficult for him to heed that advice. Hopkins lets Mick have the opening word on electric piano and then carries the load on piano and synth, and the soul is palpable as a result.
1.”Memory Motel”- It was probably too long to be a single, and an edit likely would have diluted its power. (I always hated the edited “Angie”, and they would have had to butcher this one even more to get it on with Casey Kasem.) But still I feel like the band missed out on a golden opportunity by not pushing this one to a wider audience. The music sprouts from the rudimentary plunking of Jagger and Richards on keyboards to include Mandel’s wistful lead and Preston’s tender synths. Keith’s middle section is the perfect compliment to Mick’s main verses, since it talks up the girl’s intangible qualities as opposed to her hair and teeth and songs. “Memory Motel” is not really about him missing the girl. It’s about him mourning the fact that he can longer miss the girl (“It used to mean so much to me”), which is somehow even more devastating. And those “Sha-la-la-la” backing vocals are the icing on the tear-stained cake.
(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 right now at the link below and all online book stores.)
It’s hard to whine about It’s Only Rock ‘n’ Roll, The Rolling Stones’ 1974 album, too much. It’s solid and maybe more consistent than Goats Head Soup, although perhaps lacking the higher points of that album. What it lacks is the feeling that there was anything going on behind its creation than the need to put out more product. With the exception of the title track and “Time Waits For No One”, it doesn’t feel like the band is saying anything particularly novel in the songs, and, with the exceptions of brief nods to funk and reggae, there’s not anything out of left field from a musical standpoint. What you end up with is an album that’s never less than engaging but also rarely approaches exceptional. Here is a song-by-song review:
10. “Short And Curlies”- The one joke wears itself out pretty thin after it’s been repeated about a dozen times. Ian Stewart’s piano makes it worth one listen or two, but repeated spins probably aren’t in the cards.
9. “Luxury”- The ironic thing about the title is that the hard-working narrator will probably get nowhere near any luxury in his life. Mick Jagger embodies him well enough with idiomatic syntax intact (“Make a million for the Texans/Twenty dollar me”.) The hiccup of the reggae beat gets stormed over by the guitars a bit though.
8. “Aint Too Proud To Beg”- I’m not sure if this song needed a rocking version; a lot of the smoothness of The Temptations take falls by the wayside here. But it’s a song that’s hard to mess up, so three stars is the floor here. Too bad the group didn’t reach for the ceiling.
7. “If You Really Want To Be My Friend”- Mick’s call-and-response vocals with Philly soul group Blue Magic are the highlight of this rambling ballad, even when the band is responding to lyrics like “cancer culture.” Honestly the relationship that Jagger is describing seems to be too toxic to be worth saving, which makes his entreaties here seemingly misguided.
6. “Dance Little Sister”- Why Mick uses a Trinidadian dialect on some of the lyrics is hard to figure. Besides that quirk, this is a pretty straightforward rocker with gurgling guitars and Jagger’s full-throttle attack. On a lot of these mid-70’s songs from the band, you have to resist the urge to say “it is what it is.” This is one of them. Competent but not exactly inspired.
5. “If You Can’t Rock Me”- Here’s one where the band steers into the stereotype of them as ogling, leering rockers. I think you can hear Jagger’s eyebrow raised a bit, which allows this one to veer closer to the fun category rather than the creepy pile. Plus it’s one of the more vibrant band performances on the album, with Keith Richards and Mick Taylor soloing to the cheap seats.
4. “Fingerprint File”- This one wins points for the band trying something a little different. I’m not sure it always works, as Jagger’s paranoid rapping settles at perhaps too comical of a tone for the brooding funk feel of the music. They would get better and better at urban sounds before perfecting them on Some Girls; this makes for an entertaining test run though.
3. “Till The Next Goodbye”- Lots of good stuff here, particularly the delicacy and lilt of the acoustic guitars and the walled backing vocals. Jagger has written this song many times before. In this one, the verses are OK, but they don’t hit home with quite the same force as when he confronts his lover in the bridge, “I can’t go on like this/Can you?” Again, nothing too revolutionary, but, in this case, performed with a lot of heart.
2. “Time Waits For No One”- This album was Mick Taylor’s swan song in the band, and this song was his last glory moment with them. I’m still not convinced that his extended solos, like the one he plays here, ever connected as much as, say, his precise picking on “Dead Flowers” or his brief, stinging turns on “Ventilator Blues”, but you can’t deny that the guy goes to town when he gets the opportunity. Considering that this was written forty years ago and Jagger hasn’t perceptibly slowed a bit, he’s kind of proven this song wrong. But for most of us mere mortals, they’re words to age by.
1. “It’s Only Rock ‘n’ Roll (But I Like It)”- How it came about sounds like a story being told by the grizzled roadie from Wanye’s World II: “Mick Jagger, David Bowie, and Ronnie Wood were working on a track, and who should show up but Kenny Jones. On a great, bloody Bengal tiger.” Seriously though, the track doesn’t really come alive without Keith Richards laying his electric guitar on top, providing the muscle that backs the titular assertion. There’s an affecting hitch in the rhythm as well that makes this seem like more than just your run-of-the-mill anthem. Jagger, who usually insists he’s no more than a dilettante in the music that made him famous, ends up defending it with more gusto than most.
(E-mail me at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow me on Twitter @JimBeviglia. For a more in-depth look at the music of the Stones, check out my new book, Counting Down The Rolling Stones: Their 100 Finest Songs, which arrives next week. Preorder it with the link below.)
The letdown was bound to happen. In retrospect, 1973’s Goats Head Soup is only a weak album compared to the four that preceded it in The Rolling Stones catalog. But it’s still jarring to hear the steady but sometimes bland professionalism that permeates this album compared to the unmistakable brilliance found on the previous four records. The contemplative mood of many of the songs isn’t the problem as much as the lack of focus in delivering those ideas. The album is rescued by some excellent ballads and nearly torpedoed by an unfortunate one. Here is a song-by-song review.
10. “Can You Hear The Music”- “Love is a mystery I can’t demsytify.” Do tell, Mick. Actually, please don’t. And leave the triangle for Ed Grimley.
9. “Hide Your Love”- Oddly enough, the album’s one attempt at Exile-style grit doesn’t make much of a mark outside of Mick Taylor’s guitar work.
8. “Silver Train”- It chugs along well enough because it’s the kind of groove that the band has concocted a million times. The chorus also has a little pep, but there’s nothing here that’s overly memorable.
7. “Coming Down Again”- An early blueprint for the bluesy balladic style that Keith Richards would later perfect as the years wore on. Some lovely piano work from Nicky Hopkins is a positive here (as it is throughout the album), and Richards’ wavering croon is always affecting. Not his most focused effort lyrically though.
6. “100 Years Ago”- There are some songs here that start off well enough but tend to lose their way. I like this one a lot in its early moments, with Mick Jagger musing about an idyllic past over Billy Preston’s rumbling clavinet. But it tries to do a bit too much perhaps, with an extended musical breakdown not really bringing much to the table (they hadn’t learned much from “Can’t You Hear Me Knocking” apparently.)
5. “Dancing With Mr. D”- I think they miscast it as the opening track because they thought Keith’s creeping riff was a good place to start. It really doesn’t have much to do with the rest of the album and it approaches novelty territory with the over-the-top lyrics, but it’s much catchier than most things here and gets a fully-engaged performance from the band.
4. “Doo Doo Doo Doo Doo (Heartbreaker)”- I’m not sure the cultural commentary goes too far because Mick bails out on it after a couple verses to concentrate on improvising over the music. But that music goes a long way, starting with Preston’s coughing open, progressing through Charlie Watts’ slick beat, encompassing Taylor’s evocative solo, and topped off with the thrilling horns. Here’s a case where you don’t mind a little excess in the running time because they’re so locked in.
3. “Star Star”- It’s somewhat worrisome, I suppose, that the liveliest moment on the album is this takedown of a particularly discriminating groupie. You might blanch at the content, but you can’t argue that Jagger states his case quite thoroughly and humorously. And you also can’t deny that Richards and Taylor winding their way around a Chuck Berry groove is never less than compelling. Good luck getting that chorus out of your head; just make sure you’ve got some space before you succumb to singing along.
2. “Winter”- One thing that was missing in the haphazard melange of Exile was an elegant ballad a la “Moonlight Mile”; Goats Head Soup doubles down on that element. “Winter” builds off Taylor’s soulful licks and Hopkins’ tender piano into a string-laden, snow-covered gem. Taylor later indulges in a powerful solo, while Jagger goes to town with some of his most emotive singing. Not well-known, but it should be.
1. “Angie”- It’s understandable that people would want the Stones would want to stay disheveled and raucous considering the mileage they got out of those traits, starting with “Jumpin’ Jack Flash” and heading all the way through Exile. But precision and songcraft can deliver the goods as well, and “Angie” proves that. Richards isn’t much of a factor on the rest of the album, but his acoustic work here, vulnerable and perfectly intertwined with Hopkins’ invaluable piano, is moving (and so is the music he composed.) Jagger sings compassionately and realistically to a flame that has just about flamed out, urging her to see that there is consolation, even honor, to be found in a relationship that sputters if every effort has been exhausted to sustain it.
(E-mail me at email@example.com or follow me on Twitter @JimBeviglia. For more on the Stones, my new book Counting Down The Rolling Stones: Their 100 Finest Songs comes out this month; preorder it with the link below.)
It was recorded in a dank basement in France and shiny studios in Los Angeles in sessions where the lineups never seemed to be the same from one day to the next. Even the singer of most of the songs on the album has been reluctant to crown it the classic everyone else says it is (Mick Jagger has always been a bit meh about it in interviews.) As disheveled as its predecessor Sticky Fingers was polished, 1972’s Exile On Main St is the illogical conclusion of The Rolling Stones back-to-roots foray following the psychedelia of the late 60’s. Murkily produced and often written and recorded on the fly, it’s held together with grit, spit, and various other unsavory substances. And once you put on the first song, you’re not gonna want to stop it until it concludes about an hour or so down the road and you’re soaked in its glorious muck. Here is a song-by-song review:
18. “Turd On The Run”- It’s raucous and lively, but it gets a bit lost compared to all the other blues-rockers on the album. Maybe if that title had actually appeared in the song, it might have been another story.
17. “Casino Boogie”- An attempt at William Burroughs literary cut-up style makes for some memorable, nonsensical lyrical juxtapositions. And Keith Richards, giving Bill Wyman one of his periodic breaks as bassist, provides a feisty bottom end.
16. “All Down The Line”- Some great slide work from Mick Taylor and punchy horns help distinguish what otherwise might have been a generic addition to a long line of rock train songs. It doesn’t quite have the lunatic gene contained within a lot of these songs, and I’m not sure that’s a good thing.
15. “Shake Your Hips”- It’s to the band’s credit that a song in which they sound like they’re just kind of warming up holds up so well. Slim Harpo’s original was an excellent starting point, and Jagger does innuendo-laced lyrics like few others.
14. “Sweet Black Angel”- Jagger’s ode to civil rights activist Angela Davis, who was facing murder charges when the song was released, leavens its politically-charged content with the breeziness of the arrangement. You don’t need to know what’s going on with the lyrics to groove to the rhythmic vibrancy.
13. “I Just Want To See His Face”- Nothing but a jam that takes Jimmy Miller’s muddy mixing techniques to the extreme, but it’s still fascinating. It’s reminiscent of the kind of weird interstitial that The Beatles were fond of sticking on their late-period albums, something mysterious that leaves fans wanting more.
12. “Soul Survivor”- Another one that’s hard to grasp but all the more intriguing for being so. The striated riffs play well off Jagger’s tale of being stuck to somebody who’s leading him to oblivion. Maybe he was referencing music, maybe a spiteful lover, maybe even Keith. In any case, it makes for an off-kilter closer, because what other kind of closer would this album have?
11. “Torn And Frayed”- One of several songs on the album that take in a whole bunch of genres. The pedal steel of Al Perkins keeps pulling it toward Nashville, but there’s a lot of R & B in the groove as well. The Stones might have come off as cooler-than-thou, but a quick parsing of Jagger’s lyrics here shows a rock-and-roller full of anguish and self-doubt. But he, like the song, manages to “steal your heart away” in the end.
10. “Stop Breaking Down”- It’s funny to think that Keith Richards is nowhere to be found on this Robert Johnson cover. The rest of the boys handle the job brilliantly though, let by Jagger’s wailing harmonica and Taylor’s fiery slide. Taking Johnson’s intense, stark original and maxing out on the electric potential, this indeed will bust your brain out, in the best possible way of course.
9. “Rip This Joint”- Maybe it’s for the best that Jagger was singing way too fast to understand here, otherwise the censors would have had a field day. The lyrics are not nearly as important as the way Mick delivers them, which is like Little Richard with a hotfoot. Stand-up bassist Bill Plummer and Charlie Watts keep the pedal down with precision, while the other players hustle to keep up. Bobby Keys adds the coup de grace with his sax solo. Take a deep breath and you’ll miss it.
8. “Let It Loose”- So many great things going on here. Starting with Richards’ wobbly arpeggio, we get Nicky Hopkins’ graceful piano work, a cast of thousands (including Dr. John) on backing vocals, majestic horns which elevate the soul, and Jagger giving a performance that leaves nothing in the tank. How about some love for Jimmy Miller for making it all come together?; the juggling act that he pulls off not just for this song but for the entire album, taking thechaos and steering into the curve to come away with idiosyncratic magic, is stellar.
7. “Loving Cup”- Again, you can’t pin this one down, so your best bet is to follow where it leads you. Jagger plays a convincing bumpkin, which makes you think this should be country. But the chorus hits gospel heights, and then there’s the horn outro which takes us down to New Orleans. Exile is a great example of what happens when musicians ask “Why not?” instead of “Why?” “Loving Cup” is the epitome of that phenomenon.
6. “Sweet Virginia”- It sounds like there’s about a dozen people out on a porch trying to make coherent music after drinking way too much. In actuality it’s just the five band members with Ian Stewart on piano and Keys with an incongruous yet winning sax solo. There are about 19 drug references in there but the whole thing comes off a lot more benign than that. And besides, everybody probably passed out right after the final notes, so there’s no harm done.
5. “Ventilator Blues”- The looseness of Exile is part of its charm, but this song, inspired in part by the congested conditions in which it was created, is all sharp edges. From that bizarre belching riff that starts the thing to Charlie Watts sawed-off shotgun snares, this blues is not for the timid. Jagger spits out the album’s toughest lyrics, full of fractured body parts and inclinations to murder. But the key element here is how the band steps up the musical intensity to meet the world’s assault; “Gonna fight it”, Jagger promises over and over again at song’s end. The depth of the menace and the defiance in the face of it is riveting.
4. “Happy”- The songs that Richards writes and sings lead with the Stones generally fall into two categories: the mischievous rockers and the wounded-heart ballads. This one is mostly the former, but there’s a bit of the latter in the narrator’s admission that his happiness is dependent on the strength of his romantic relationships. It’s got a standout riff to wake you up, and the horns keep you juiced. Jagger lends support at the end, but Richards is more believable as the hell-raiser with a heart of gold.
3. “Shine A Light”- The Stones could have gone on without addressing Brian Jones death, but it makes for a sweeter story that they finally did with this inspiring track. Billy Preston turned Jagger on to the gospel signifying that defines the song in its final form, and he adds integral work on keyboards. Mick Taylor also takes the song heavenward with a heartfelt guitar solo for the guy he replaced. Jagger grants Jones a wonderful afterlife, one in which he charms the angels and hears his favorite song on endless repeat. The fact that Mick doesn’t sugarcoat how hard Brian had fallen in life makes that imagined rebirth even more glorious.
2. “Tumbling Dice”- Well it has the most hooks, so right there you can understand why it’s the most popular track on the album. But it manages to be accessible without sacrificing the loose-limbed approach to the entire affair. The fact that this was the song on the album that took the band the longest to get right is never evident in the finished product; it sounds like they rolled out of bed, Keith hit that first riff, and they were off. It’s almost too good to be a hit, if that makes any sense.
1. “Rocks Off”- It starts off with a workmanlike riff, but Mick gives it his seal of approval with an “Oh yeah.” Watts kicks everything into gear and Wyman provides more melodic punch than usual in the trenches. With the low part in good hands, the horns can afford to get spicy, as in mariachi spicy. Meanwhile Hopkins provides the boogie with his piano sneaking around the mix. Jagger somehow sums up the whole album here; not even ballerina sex is doing much for him, but his dreams do the trick. It’s a sly commentary on the emptiness of rock star excess, another case of the Stones’ message contrasting their stereotype. The moment when the hazy bridge explodes into the screaming last verse is one of their finest. Shambolic perfection.
(E-mail me at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow me on Twitter @JimBeviglia. Counting Down The Rolling Stones: Their 100 Finest Songs arrives this month; preorder it with the link below.)
Their chief rivals might have imploded with the 60’s, but The Rolling Stones sailed into the 70’s at their absolute peak. Sticky Fingers, released in 1971, is a musical tour de force by the band, as they leave practically no genre of roots music untouched or unconquered. While the previous two albums seem to be concerned lyrically with the crazed world around them, these songs seem to look internally at the physical and emotional price one must pay for decadence and indulgence. If you’re judging Stones albums by the sum total of great music available, you probably go for Exile On Main St. If you’re looking for a flawless record, it’s hard to argue against Sticky Fingers.
10. “You Gotta Move”- Back when album-sequencing was an important deal, this brief cover of Mississippi Fred McDowell’s staggering blues was perfectly-placed after the extended jam that ends “Can’t You Hear Me Knocking.” It isn’t meant to be a knockout, so you can forgive it being the least thing on this incredible assemblage of great songs.
9. “Sway”- This is one of several songs on the album far more concerned with the hangover than the good time. Mick Jagger assesses the damage of the decade gone past, including “friends up on the burial ground”, and shrugs his shoulder: “It’s just that demon life has got me in its sway.” He then allows Mick Taylor to soar above it all with one his finest solos in the band, while some strings add a layer of ironic grandeur. It’s a bit of an odd duck of a song, but strangely affecting.
8. “Sister Morphine”- How much Marianne Faithfull wrote depends on whose book you read. What matters is how compellingly the drama builds here, making what could have been a depressing slog into an edge-of-your-seat thriller. Ry Cooder’s slide is the musical MVP, but the band as a whole deserves credit for leaving enough space for the song to breathe. Jagger’s acting skills come in handy here, as he captures both the allure of the drug and the terror of knowing that it’s killing him.
7. “Can’t You Hear Me Knocking”- The jam is what it is, accomplished but far from transcendent. It knocks this one down a star for me, because the song is a non-stop rip-snorter until that point. The air practically crackles with the kinetic energy created by the melding of Keith Richards bruising riff and Charlie Watts’ peppery beat. Anything after that is gravy, but the harmonies of Jagger and Richards, two miscreants right outside your house calling up to the window like Romeo’s dirtbag cousins, are worth the price of admission as well. They’re coming up, and if there wastrel charm doesn’t get you to open up, Keith’s battering ram of an electric guitar will bust that door down.
6. “Bitch”- No need for a fancy open here; the groove is so tasty the band just launches into it, inviting you to hop aboard if you can catch it. Then the horns jump on, and suddenly there’s soul to go with the grit. Speaking of soul, Jagger’s one-liners have Holland/Dozier/Holland’s cleverness and a junkie’s desperation. Richards allegedly provided the spark in the studio for this one, coming in late and immediately juicing up the tempo until the thing really hummed. Don’t expect to catch your breath, but expect to love every heart-racing moment of it.
5. “I Got The Blues”- Nobody’s going to be able to sing like Otis Redding, but you can capture the spirit of his performances if you’re inspired, and Jagger manages to get there on this one. There’s a weariness that he projects here that’s crucial to the interpretation; had he just come out and sung his lungs out it wouldn’t have fit the gutted emotional state of the narrator. Bill Wyman and Watts keep the thing moving in slow motion, which is no easy feat, while the horns glide along gracefully. And, since The Beatles had left the rooftop, Billy Preston was free to come aboard to lend the other leading lights of The British Invasion his talents, going to town on an organ solo. Hurts so good.
4. “Dead Flowers”- Jagger, that old cowpoke, strikes just the right balance here between good-natured hokum and genuine heartbreak. The structure may be country, but the details and lingo of the lyrics certainly sound like Mick’s. How good is Taylor on this song? All of 22 years old when the album came out, he sounds here like he’d been playing sessions in Nashville for at least that long. Richards nails the harmonies, Ian Stewart adds a little boogie to the groove on piano, and the refrain’s hook is potent. Jagger tends to gets country either spectacularly right or embarassingly wrong; we’re safely on the good side here.
3. “Wild Horses”- There’s no doubt that Gram Parsons had a huge influence on this one, but it’s far from a Parsons copy. Jagger, who wrote the lyrics, deserves the credit for the tender lyrical tone here, as he sticks by this girl even as she hurts him and prepares to leave. That benevolence is offset by the music’s despair, evident in the minor chords, the funereal pace, and Richards simple yet wrenching solo. Watts’ fills provide just enough forward momentum to get us to the end of the tale, where that final wish to ride the wild horses into the sunset lingers tantalizingly unfulfilled.
2. “Moonlight Mile”- The inner life of a Rolling Stone turned out to be a lot more profound than any of their detractors would have suspected when they began. Jagger created this one out of a mesmerizing, Oriental guitar riff, then figured out where Taylor could work his magic in the margins. There’s an absolutely thrilling musical section featuring Taylor’s yearning guitar, Watts thumping toms, and Paul Buckmaster’s surging strings that I’d take over the jam on “Can’t You Hear Me Knocking” without hesitation. It may be on the surface a rock-star-on-the-road lament, but it digs much deeper, reaching anyone who’s ever found themselves on an endless journey to return to someone who just keeps getting further away.
1. “Brown Sugar”- It figures that this was Mick’s riff, since it starts off the album, and this album kind of belongs to Mick a lot more than Keith. It also figures that we begin with a Chuck Berry homage, because they had done it so many times in the past. Only now they have complete possession of the sound, just nodding to Chuck as a way of thanking him while they hit their own unique heights. And you can read the whole story literally, and good luck following the narrative if you try, or you can also read it as the Stones showing gratitude, in their own mischievous, lascivious way, to all of the black artists who provided the foundation upon which they built. If they’d try to record it today, they’d probably be tarred and feathered, so score one for the pre-PC age. There are too many great elements to name them all, but let’s give a shout-out specifically to Bobby Keys scorching sax solo, one of the finest in rock history. It’s a song which fearlessly dives into some pretty complicated racial waters. You can dive in there with it, or you can just grab your castanets and maracas and shake along.
(E-mail me at email@example.com or follow me on Twitter @JimBeviglia. For much more on the Stones, check out my new book Counting Down The Rolling Stones: Their 100 Finest Songs, which comes out this month and can be pre-ordered at the link below.)