The notion that Paul McCartney needs a strong, bold-faced collaborator to do his best work doesn’t hold water; see Ram, Band On The Run, even Memory Almost Full for examples that refute it. But there is no doubt that pairing up with Elvis Costello was a good match, for both men. A third of the songs on 1989’s Flowers In The Dirt were co-written by the duo, and a couple of those songs stand out as the best stuff that Paul had managed since Tug Of War. Some production fussiness still interrupts the uniformly sharp songwriting at times, but this was a great album at a time when McCartney needed one. Here is a song-by-song review.
12. “Rough Ride”- The mix of synths and horns dates this one pretty severely. Fussy and not as danceable as it thinks it is.
11. “Don’t Be Careless Love”- A weird one co-written with Costello, it takes some nasty turns, including a moment when the person the narrator is addressing gets chopped into little pieces. The doo-wop verses, complete with finger snaps, are the best parts.
10. “Distractions”- Sweet and soft as a lullaby with a hint of a Latin lilt, this one boasts a lovely, winding melody and some off-kilter orchestration. Probably a bit too sleepy to be a true standout, but it’s nice nonetheless.
9. “How Many People?”- It treads the same ground as “Ebony And Ivory,” simplifying issues that are endlessly complicated. But the reggae puts enough of a playful twist on it to keep any kind of heavyhandedness from entering the sonic picture.
8. “We Got Married”- This has more promise than what it actually delivered. The lyrics certainly boast some strong lines and a clear-eyed view of matrimony. It gets bogged down on a sludgy side road after the light-footed opening, David Gilmour’s estimable presence on lead guitar notwithstanding. By the end of it, it’s almost a different song than the one that began, and not a better one, but the strong opening weighs heavily enough for a positive grade overall.
7. “Motor Of Love”- Yes, it’s overproduced as well. But the chorus pulls things together in such stirring fashion that all is forgiven. And McCartney’s heartfelt effort on vocals keeps all of the saccharine elements from invading on the song’s better nature
6. “This One”- Bright and friendly if a bit too polite, this paean to taking action now instead of later when it comes to expressing your love glides by on its goodwill. Nothing too fancy, but displaying pop chops to spare.
5. “Figure Of Eight”- Paul’s energy level never falters on this one, and the song follows suit. He sings everything but the bridge in a high-pitched yelp, the desperation in his hapless narrator palpable as he tries to escape the soul-deadening rut which his relationship has carved. A rock-solid way to start Side Two, back when such things started to dwindle in importance with the advent of the CD.
4. “Put It There”- Here Paul is in foot-tapping, acoustic mode, a pose that suits him very well. When he keeps it light like this, the melodies that seem to ooze out of him are given full room to blossom. How sweet the sentiment also, a sepia-toned father-son story in song with no rancor or recrimination. A little ditty that lingers in the best possible way.
3. “You Want Her Too”- McCartney mildly complained after the fact that Costello playing the Lennon role meant that Elvis got all the best lines. He was probably referring to this quirkily effective duet. The production here very much sounds like Spike-era Costello, with a flying trapeze-like instrumental hook and a searing refrain. And Paul is right; playing the straight man tends to throw the spotlight on the wiseass, who, if you had to put money on it, would probably be the one to get the girl in this love triangle. But the two voices in potent harmony in the chorus is what you remember most.
2. “My Brave Face”- It should have been a bigger hit, but 1989 was already the beginning of the era where great songs were no longer hits, so that explains it. Costello seemed to give McCartney the permission to get as Beatle-y as he’d been in years (and to use far more syllables per line.) The chorus comes first, the acoustic guitar lick sounds like “And I Love Her,” Paul’s bass is forefronted, and there’s even an psychedelic little quaver on the electric guitar: all Fab 4 signposts. Throw in a just right lyric about the perils of bachelorhood and you have pop perfection.
1. “That Day Is Done”- Might just be the best of the Costello/McCartney collabs, and that includes “Veronica,” which is a brilliant song. And I’m not even sure this is the best version of it; check out Elvis’ take with the vocal group The Fairfield Four, which brings down the house. Nonetheless it’s a song that’s somehow beautiful and chilling at once, no matter who performs it. The production here leans heavily to The Band, what with the drowsy horns and all, and the gloomy lyrics owe a nod to “Long Black Veil” for sure. It’s a credit to the potency of McCartney’s personality on the microphone that he sounds completely at home with a song that you wouldn’t think was in his wheelhouse at all. And Nicky Hopkins is on piano, so there’s that too, if you weren’t yet convinced.
(E-mail me at email@example.com or follow me on Twitter @JimBeviglia. For more on Paul McCartney and The Beatles, check out my new book arriving in March, Counting Down The Beatles: Their 100 Finest Songs. You can preorder it at the link below.)
Leftovers can often be moldy and unappealing, but every once in a while, the juices sink in just so and they taste even sweeter than the freshest main course. Case in point: Tattoo You, the 1981 release from The Rolling Stones whereby they raided their estimable vaults for material because they couldn’t be bothered to come up with new stuff. With one side of brash rockers and one of soulful ballads, this album, which wasn’t really an album proper after all, is now held up by many as the standard for the post-Exile era Stones. And it’s hard to blame the folks who feel that way, so satisfying are the results of the band’s archaeological dig. Here is a song-by-song review:
11. “Slave”- The longest track on the album is probably the most disposable, but, as instrumental jams go, this one has some bite. There is a long list of guest stars participating here including Pete Townsend on backing vocals, but the star is Charlie Watts and his beat that’s potent and in the pocket all at once.
10. “No Use In Crying”- There’s seemingly not much to this slow roller, a kind of rewrite of “Time Is On Your Side,” but Mick Jagger, via both some existentially sorrowful lyrics and his impassioned delivery of them, pushes it further than it has any right to go.
9. “Heaven”- A hypnotic little mood piece, with Jagger’s vocals altered to add to the hazy vibe. You can understand why it wouldn’t have made the cut for other albums, as it’s sort of an unfinished idea. And yet it works in its fragmentary way, with Watts again playing a big part in that with his nimble patter.
8. “Little T&A”- “Nice and dumb” is how Keith Richards once described this track, and that seems as solid an observation as any. Back in the day classic rock radio played it so much that I was surprised upon my research to find it wasn’t a single. It’s Keith in mischievous mode, and while I actually prefer him when he’s going for the more soulful stuff on lead vocal, you can’t deny the guitar attack is quite catchy.
7. “Neighbours”- A fine rip-snorter this one, it was apparently inspired by Richards’ tendency to get booted from his place of residence. Jagger decides to play the oppressed neighbour in the son and he has a ball with it, braying his frustrations with hilarious brio. Same goes for Sonny Rollins, who sprints through his saxophone parts as if he’s being chased out of the building.
6. “Tops”- We’re going way back with this one into the Goats Head Soup era, which is made clear by Mick Taylor’s lyrical solo. Nicky Hopkins is also in typically fine form on piano. Jagger is once again in character mode, this time playing the Hollywood producer who can’t help but seduce a young innocent. So smarmy and obvious are his come-ons that the song ends up acting as a cautionary tale.
5. “Hang Fire”- You can get into the sarcastic social commentary here, with Jagger portraying a jobless, prospectless bloke too lazy to game the system to get by. At the time England’s jobless rate was high and the safety nets were fast disappearing, so the context is key here. Yet you don’t need to know any of that to enjoy the brazen, unkempt nature of the music, especially Richards’ snotty solo and the wordless “doo-doo-doo” refrains.
4. “Black Limousine”- These gents used to play the blues a little, right? They sink right back into it effortlessly here, the groove a thing of lubricated beauty while Wood’s solos and Jagger’s harp take the lead roles. The titular vehicle is an indication of the high life that the protagonist and the girl he’s addressing used to live. Alas, the unspoken message is that, considering the hard times which have befallen them, a far more somber black limousine might just be waiting on the next block.
3. “Worried About You”- Such is the goofy nature of Tattoo You that this track features Wayne Perkins, the long-forgotten by that time guitarist from Black And Blue. He knocks it out of the part on this wonderful ballad, while the rhythm section of Bill Wyman and Watts are minimalists here, nimbly nudging the song from the stark verses to the filled-out choruses. Jagger wields the falsetto in the early sections but gives full-throated evidence of his anguish in the refrains, Richards joining along for the high lonesome harmonies. It probably escaped Black And Blue due to its similarity in temperament and style to “Memory Motel,” but it makes a soft, soulful landing here.
2. “Start Me Up”- They tried to make it into a reggae song when it was originally essayed for Some Girls; some evidence of that can be found in Wyman’s skittering lines and the hitch in Watts’ giddyup. Once those guitars kick in, their full-throttle blast plays off that off-kilter bottom end in wondrous ways. Jagger takes every critical snipe about the band’s boorishness or sophomoric behavior and doubles down on them in the lyrics, until the line about making a dead man come seems almost tame compared to the innuendo that preceded it. Thank goodness for producer Chris Kimsey, who unearthed this song and convinced the band that an album of outtakes was just crazy enough to work.
1. “Waiting On A Friend”- They had no lyrics for it originally, which is how this intoxicating warm breeze of a track slipped out of the Goats Head Soup sessions. Richards proves that not all great riffs need to be attached to fast tempos, while Hopkins goes off on dreamy runs on the outskirts. Once Jagger figured out what the song would be about, he came up with one of the all-time great songs about friendship, one that lets all Stones fans indulge in the notion that he and Keith are indeed as thick as thieves, magazine articles and autobiographies be damned. Rollins takes the song and the album home with jazzy improvisations on saxophone that classed Top 40 radio up something fierce. What a beauty.
(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 at the link below and all major online booksellers.)
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.)
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.)
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 email@example.com or follow me on Twitter @JimBeviglia. Counting Down The Rolling Stones: Their 100 Finest Songs arrives this month; preorder it with 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 firstname.lastname@example.org 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 email@example.com 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.)