It’s funny how much better this album is than I initially remember. When Paul McCartney released Off The Ground in 1993, I was underwhelmed. I think that’s because the songs that Paul chose as singles and the ones he put forth to promote the album in various TV spots were some of the poorer ones on the record. And there’s no killer, must-have track on here. But this is a very consistent collection of songs and performances, with McCartney ruminating on topics that were important to him with the able support of his tried-and-true touring band. If you’ve slept on this one, you should give it another try; take it from one who knows. Here is a song-by-song review:
13. “Looking For Changes”- What happens sometimes when people write songs about issues is that they get so concerned with getting their lyrical point across that they forget to worry about the melodic aspects. I feel like that happens here. Paul’s lyrics are pointed enough about mistreatment of animals, but they don’t hit home as they might have had their been more hooks involved. And the generic title phrase kind of cops out. Which is too bad because, whether you agree or not with McCartney here (and I do), you have to admire his taking on the topic.
12. “Biker Like An Icon”- The music works for me, nicely downbeat and highlighted by an urgent chorus. And the story itself of the runaway girl compelled by a charismatic is interesting. I just could never get past the wordplay of the refrain to rate it much higher; that phrase is just too clumsy and somehow unintentionally funny, undercutting the serious intent.
11. “Golden Earth Girl”- “Julia”-like lyrics more comic than cosmic to these ears. Maybe they’d sound better recited at a poetry slam (and then again, maybe not.) And yet the music bails them out to an extent, as one of those McCartney tunes of simple yet boundless beauty gets the job done.
10. “C’mon People”- There’s a kind of arms-waving, all-inclusive, well-meaning McCartney song that can be grating when executed poorly. This one just sneaks by; it’s no classic, but the sentiment is expressed all right and the arrangement is off-kilter enough to keep it from getting too familiar, Beatlesque horns and all.
9. “Cosmically Conscious”- McCartney’s love of non-sequitur album endings is indulged here with this “hidden” psychedelic fragment that was apparently written way back in the White Album days.
8. “Winedark Open Sea”- Subtly rendered and all the better for it, McCartney keeps this love song simple save for the striking title. Nothing here that we haven’t heard before, but still quietly effective.
7. “Off The Ground”- The title track delivers some bluesy rock and solid lyrics. I would have gone up to four stars, but the “la-la-la” refrain in the chorus always struck me for a bit too cutesy for a song that’s tougher than all that.
6. “Mistress And Maid”- The arrangement Paul uses here does this song, one of the finest of the McCartney/MacManus compositions, no favors. It turns the story into a farce, when it’s better rendered as a tragedy. There’s a live version of Paul and Elvis duetting on this that’s a stunner; would that the album version had taken its cues from that. Nonetheless, the song itself, with that mumbling to garment-rending melody and the lyrical details of harrowing relationship neglect, still reaches you, even in the wrong setting.
5. “Peace In The Neighbourhood”- The looseness of the groove is quite inviting, keeping this from getting preachy, which could have happened easily. And I love those opening lines: “Best thing I ever saw/Was a man who loved his wife.” It suggests that love and peace begins at home, which is quite a profound notion when you think about it.
4. “I Owe It All To You”- There’s a certain desperation in the chorus, even as it expresses such warm sentiments, that makes the devotion and gratitude of the narrator all that more touching. This is also one of the more musically affecting songs on the album, with an arrangement that doesn’t overdo it and adds just the right touches to the acoustic foundation. Very well done in every respect.
3. “Hope Of Deliverance”- There’s nice interplay here between the light-footed acoustic guitars and the sudden melancholy shift of the music when the chorus approaches. And that refrain is pretty apt, because we are always in the terrible position of not knowing what comes next, and thus are forced to cling to hopes that might never be satisfied. That entire chorus sequence is so good that you can forgive McCartney for going to it so often in this relatively short song.
2. “Get Out Of My Way”- McCartney sinks his teeth into this Chuck Berry-esque ripper with relish. The live-band approach used on this album is well-suited to a track like this, and the horns are a surprise and well-utilized. Crash bang wallop, indeed.
1. “The Lovers That Never Were”- Not quite as good a song as “Mistress And Maid” just in terms of lyrics and music (though close), and yet the fact that the band pulls this tricky number off delicately in conjunction with McCartney’s forceful performance pushes it a notch above everything else on record. The melody keeps surprising you, phrases like “a parade of unpainted dreams” really stick with you, and the narrator’s helpless pleas to engage his reticent paramour make a strong impact. Another example of the McCartney/Costello partnership proving simpatico.
(E-mail me at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow me on Twitter @JimBeviglia. My new book, Counting Down The Beatles: Their 100 Finest Songs, will be released in a few weeks, but you can preorder it at the link below.)
Because Tattoo You, which came out in ’81 but consisted of material of much older vintage, interrupted the narrative somewhat, 1983’s Undercover seems a bit out of left field in the Rolling Stones throughline, when in actuality it’s a natural progression to the modern, dancey sounds of the era that began with Some Girls and continued with Emotional Rescue. The effort is always there (although you can hear it a bit too often,) but, save for an excellent one-two punch at the beginning and a decent closing duo, the focus wavers. In the middle portion, we’re left adrift somewhere between Mick Jagger’s sound-of-the-moment pretensions and Keith Richards’ inclination toward traditionalism, and it’s a bumpy ride. Here is a song-by-song review:
10. “Too Tough”- Jagger’s heart doesn’t seem to be into this throwback to the riff-rocking of the 70’s. Extremely forgettable, except perhaps for the rampant nastiness of the lyrics.
9. “Feel On Baby”- If they could have gotten out of the way of the basic riddim, things would have been a lot better. But the production eccentricities that help out “Undercover Of The Night” are cumbersome here, and the five minutes running time drags.
8. “Tie You Up (The Pain Of Love)”- The sadomasochistic overtones are a bit heavy-handed, which would have been OK if the music had been a bit more playful instead of so unsmiling. Not a bad middle eight, but apart from that, it’s a bit much and not enough all at once.
7. “Too Much Blood”- Jagger’s cockney rapping is a kick, even if the subject matter skews toward the gory. Still, the music hasn’t aged well, with horns that sound like they were on loan from Phil Collins and synthetic drums that kind of take Charlie Watts out of the equation, which is never a good thing.
6. “Wanna Hold You”- It might be Keith on autopilot, with a flickering guitar groove that he’s done often before and since and lyrics that sound as if they were scrawled down in the last minute at the session. But it’s comfortable in its skin, which makes it stand out from a lot of the fussier stuff around it on the album.
5. “Pretty Beat Up”- Ronnie Wood gets a co-writer credit for coming up with the music on this quasi-instrumental. The horns are employed a lot more effectively here and there’s bite to the groove. David Sanborn adds some intense saxophone to top it all off.
4. “All The Way Down”- The double entendres fly fast and furious on this rocker that Watts provides with an energetic pulse. The somewhat nostalgic, somewhat caustic look back at a torrid affair with a more experienced woman sure seems autobiographical; Jagger certainly plays it to the hilt. Bonus points for this verse: “How the years rush on by: birthdays, kids and suicides/But still I play the fool and strut, still you’re a slut.” Manages to be self-aware, nasty, and pretty damn funny all at once.
3. “It Must Be Hell”- I’d be more praiseworthy of Keith’s great riff if it weren’t so similar to the one adorning Elton John’s “The Bitch Is Back.” And I’m still not sure if Jagger is sympathizing with or sneering at those bemoaning the world’s problems at the time. But the music is tough and focused and the chorus is rock solid. Pretty good send-off track.
2. “Undercover Of The Night”- It manages to sound very much of the times and very much a Rolling Stones track, which, in the early 80’s, was often a case of never the twain shall meet. Watts bomping beat keeps pushing you headlong into Jagger’s tale of repression and violence in South America, which builds to a frenzied peak with the lines “The smell of sex, the smell of suicide/All these dreams, things I can’t keep inside “. Here the production effects, like the echoing guitar and sledgehammer drums, are right on point with the tenor of the song. Every moment is charged with wiry energy. You can dance to it or despair to it, whatever your bag might be.
1.”She Was Hot”- The verses are the Stones doing yet another take on a Chuck Berry potboiler, as Jagger moans from his collection of cold, lonely hotel rooms. The refrains pull back to let the atmosphere sink in as the narrator luxuriates in the memory of a particularly steamy tryst. Richards separates the two parts with a stomping solo. Jagger’s descriptions don’t skimp on vivid imagery, with phrases like “molten glow,” “the lost bayou” and “the human zoo” showing Duran Duran, at the time the bell cows of sultry wordplay, a thing or two. Dare I say that the “hot, hot, hot” refrain at the end of the song, or climax might be the better word, sounds like lovers thrusting? Write what you know, they say, and Jagger seems to know this scenario right down the last bead of sweat.
(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, now available at the link below and all major online booksellers.)
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 firstname.lastname@example.org 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.)
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.)
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 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, 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 email@example.com 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.)
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.)
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.)