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.)
With a couple days to kill in the studio and some ace session men on hand, Paul McCartney ripped off a bushelful of songs consisting mostly of classics from the first wave of American rock and roll. The resulting album (CHOBA B CCCP or Back In The U.S.S.R.) was released only in the Soviet Union in 1988 before finally getting a worldwide release three years later. Although the arrangements sometimes betrayed the tossed-off, hurried nature of the sessions, McCartney’s affinity for and ease with this material makes it an invigorating listen, reminding anyone who might have forgotten how great a rock and roller this guy is.
14. “Don’t Get Around Much Anymore”- A rock arrangement of this standard might have worked with just a tad more lightness to highlight the deft nature of Duke Ellington’s melody. But the band sort of bludgeons it, even if the instrumental break is well-done.
13. “Ain’t That A Shame”- Cheap Trick had a pretty good go at this song by not playing it too close to the vest. The respect that McCartney shows to the original smothers it a bit and makes it come off as more imitation than inspiration.
12. “Midnight Special”- Maybe too light a touch is employed here by McCartney and the band, with the arrangement by Paul not quite capturing the darkness in the song that makes that ever-loving light so important in the first place. Nice guitar work on this one by Mick Green though to recommend it.
11. “Lucille”- The groove is a touch mathematical here, especially when you compare it to Little Richard’s raucous original. McCartney has fun with the vocal though, inspired by one of his true idols, and there’s no denying that this is a bona fide classic that’s hard to botch as long as you bring the energy.
10. “That’s All Right, Mama”- You have to hand it to McCartney on one account: He certainly didn’t back away from the behemoth songs of the genre. His take on this track that Elvis immortalized hews a bit more country and western, with the exception of the robust guitar break. Doesn’t threaten the original by any stretch, but a fine turn nonetheless.
9. “Kansas City”- McCartney knows his way around this song, as it was included way back in the day on Beatles For Sale. His voice sounds remarkably spry considering the quarter-century between recordings, doesn’t it? But, then again, it sounds pretty spry today even further down the road. Pretty good heft delivered by the band on this one.
8. “I’m Gonna Be A Wheel Someday”- McCartney is, for sure, a “real gone cat” throughout this collection. On this, one of three Fats Domino-penned songs on the album, he and his buddies bust it up pretty good and vigorously sink their teeth into a tale of romantic revenge.
7. “Twenty Flight Rock”- This one holds a special place in Macca’s heart, as it was his knowledge of the song’s lyrics and changes that allegedly impressed John Lennon back in the day when the pair first met. Mick Gallagher gets a nice showcase on piano, as the band, taking the Eddy Cochran classic at a lope instead of a sprint, keeps their footing very well.
6. “I’m In Love Again”- Anybody’s who’s ever heard “Lady Madonna” should know that McCartney can do Fats Domino better than anyone save Fats himself. He slips into this rambler with no sweat at all, as Gallagher nails the piano triplets to anchor the music.
5. “Lawdy, Miss Clawdy- Man, does Paul sing this one wonderfully, touching every bit of the playfulness and bluesiness in the lyrics with ease. The fuzz of the guitar doesn’t quite square with the swing of the arrangement, in my humble view, but that’s nitpicking. The positives far outweigh that little nick.
4. “Crackin’ Up”- This is the most obscure song on the album, and it benefits from that, sounding alive and fresh rather than encased in glass. McCartney gets a lead guitar showcase and makes the most of it, while seeming to enjoy the quirkiness of the lyrics.
3. “Just Because”- The quartet nails the rockabilly vibe of this one, an antiquated song that Elvis also made famous. Great interplay among the musicians, while Paul’s bass and vocals bring a lot of charm to the proceedings. Certainly one of the most fun recordings on an album where “fun” was the operative word.
2. “Bring It On Home To Me”- Taking on a Sam Cooke song isn’t for the faint of heart if you’re a vocalist. McCartney tears into it fearlessly, adding a bit of a grittier edge in the higher notes compared to Cooke’s break-no-sweat smoothness. The call and response at the end leaves everything on the floor. A great showcase for his vocals, which retain their youthfulness and yet still reference the heartbreaks only life experience can engender.
1. “Summertime”- Taking this George Gershwin song and giving it an arrangement that hits the ominous notes of “House Of The Rising Sun” proves to be a stroke of genius. It really transforms it into something that Gershwin himself might not have realized possible. And it’s the one place where the heavier tones of the electric guitar don’t sound like they’re overwhelming the content of the song. Paul puts everything he has into the vocal; Ella would have been proud.
(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, arrives in March. You can preorder it at the link below.)
Paul McCartney largely took the middle part of the 1980’s off, with the exception of 1986’s Press To Play. Some might snicker that he might as well have sat that one out too, and there is some merit to that argument. As brilliant a producer as Hugh Padgham and as adventurous a songwriter as Eric Stewart might have been, their styles seemed to clash with McCartney’s instead of complimenting it. He deserves credit for trying something out of his comfort zone, but, for the most part, McCartney seems at sea here, which, combined with a dearth of memorable songs, hamstrings this album. Here is a song-by-song-review:
10. “Pretty Little Head”- Sounds like it was crafted for a Miami Vice scene where Crockett and Tubbs have to find the drug dealers in a dense jungle. As much as I love Miami Vice, this is not a compliment, especially since the style didn’t suit McCartney whatsoever.
9. “Talk More Talk”- While the experimentation and wacky wordplay is admirable, the sterile production keeps this from being more than an oddity that won’t interest you more than once or twice.
8. “Angry”- If there was a target to this diatribe in song, it’s now lost to the mists of time, as McCartney himself might put it. What’s certain is that the participation of Pete Townsend and Phil Collins is largely wasted on this feisty but underwritten and overdone track.
7. “Press”- Imagine a television with a brightness knob. In the 1980’s, pop music production brightened from the sleepy twilight of the late 70’s until it hit just the right level and the day-glo colors popped perfectly around 1984. Only they kept turning the knob up until we could no longer distinguish the substance behind the blinding light. That’s the best way to describe this, one of McCartney’s least effective singles ever.
6. “Good Times Coming/Feel The Sun”- A nice little reggaefied workout, that, despite the title, contains some creeping melancholy. McCartney’s bass work is as nimble as could be expected. The second half of the song is a bit more musically mundane, but not an embarrassment by any means.
5. “Stranglehold”- The opener mixes some rockabilly acoustic guitar, soulful horns, and a stop-and-start rhythm into something promising. The lyrics nicely conjure the sweet agony of anticipated passion quite well. Here the production doesn’t get too busy and the song is better for it.
4. “Move Over Busker”- Paul is on much firmer footing with this funny rocker. The lyrics seem to suggest that the musician doesn’t hold as much weight in the world as the bigger stars he encounters; the title alone implies a kind of disrespect for what McCartney does. He has the last laugh, however, since the song swaggers with more raucous confidence than most movies can ever hope to achieve.
3. “However Absurd”- The title is apropos here. The music suggests something of great circumstance, as it seems to be intentionally overbaked what with the stomping drums and the stressed-out strings and all. Meanwhile the lyrics contain some striking individual lines, even if they don’t add up to much in the grand scheme of things. At times it almost seems like a Rutles track parodying an earnest Beatles ballad. Not sure what Paul was after, but it’s fascinating anyway.
2. “Footprints”- McCartney has always had a soft spot in his songwriting for the outsider who many of us might not even consider, the still-waters-run-deep kind of fellow with a whole world going on behind his staid expression, a world about which we can only guess. “Footprints” is played with great touch and sensitivity by the instrumentalists and features a melody that takes you to places you never expect when the ride begins. An understated but affecting character sketch.
1. “Only Love Remains”- I know you’re not supposed to make a ballad the lead single, but I wonder if Press To Play might be regarded a bit differently if Paul had led with this atmospheric, romantic, grand slam of a ballad. Tony Visconti’s orchestration is subtle until it needs to be sweeping, and Paul’s melody soars when it’s not allowing a little bit of doubt to creep in to keep things honest. There’s not a false moment, and the message may be time-worn, but it’s still crucial. We all can get caught up with things that ultimately don’t matter too much, but songs like this, especially when rendered by a master like Macca, set us straight on what’s truly important and resonant.
(E-mail me at email@example.com or follow me on Twitter @JimBeviglia. And preorder my new book Counting Down The Beatles: Their 100 Finest Songs, in the link below. It’s available in March.)
The show must go on, as they say, and Paul McCartney rose to the occasion on his first album following the death of John Lennon with one of his finest efforts in years. 1982’s Tug Of War reunites him with George Martin, who brings his gilded touch to the album, especially the ballads, which are uniformly fine and occasionally brilliant. The mid-tempo numbers glide about elegantly, while the harder stuff is feisty and fun. The first side outdoes the second side by a pretty good margin, but overall Paul was back on firm, crowd-pleasing footing with this one.
12. “Dress Me As A Robber”- Way too busy, this Latin/disco number doesn’t ever settle on an identity.
11. “Be What You See (Link)”- Dreamy interstitial that’s gone almost as soon as it arrives.
10. “Get It”- McCartney’s chance to work with idol with Carl Perkins is far from objectionable. But there’s not much to it that will make it stick in your memory banks, other than Carl’s laughter at the end of the track.
9. “The Pound Is Sinking”- It gets a little more twee than some of Macca’s biggest critics would like, but the bounciness of this rundown on the world’s currency keeps it in the black. Good enough to be somebody’s favorite on the album, for sure.
8. “Ebony And Ivory”- Hey, we’re not arguing that the views on race relations are anything too profound. But the melody is as comfy as old slippers, and the funky coda where McCartney and Stevie Wonder go to town with some vocal improvisations is worth the price of admission.
7. “Somebody Who Cares”- The way the bluesy, minor-key verses open up into the surging chorus is the evidence of an old pro at work. This one doesn’t do too much but what it does it does well. Pleasant on the ears, for sure, if not particularly challenging.
6. “Ballroom Dancing”- It’s kind of out of place on the album, but I guess it would be out of place on any rock album (except maybe the White Album, where stuff like this was all part of the crazy tapestry.) McCartney’s ability to pull off this antiquated material always amazes me; even when you don’t think it’s what you want to hear, he convinces you otherwise.
5. “What’s That You’re Doing”- Wonder revives some of his mid-70’s magic with this relentless funk workout, letting Paul tag along for the ride. It doesn’t go very far from its initial groove, which carries it a long way, although maybe not quite six-plus minutes down the road. Still, the two superstars fit together seamlessly on a song that easily could have been a hit had they edited it down and released it as a single. But “Ebony And Ivory” sold about a quadrillion copies, so who am I to quibble?
4. “Take It Away”- If there’s a fault to be found with this song, it’s that it very much sounds like it could have been on a late-70’s Wings album, not quite in synch the early 80’s times. Still, McCartney is relaxed and smooth throughout, with the lyrics tripping off his tongue effortlessly and the charging chorus, with “Savoy Truffle” horns and Ringo Starr and Steve Gadd pushing the beat recklessly onward, is grabby. Paul’s bass work counters the light-footed melody nicely. Everything in its right place.
3. “Tug Of War”- McCartney keeps the lyrics vague enough that they might refer to his relationship with Lennon or to actual armed combat. Or maybe both. It nicely captures the senselessness of combat, much like Floyd’s “Us And Them” in that regard. The inherent sadness in the song comes from the unspoken fear that the “time to come” and “another world” promised might not actually arrive. In addition, it smoothly modulates between the acoustic, dreamy opening section and the urgent, electric second half. An excellent starter, for sure.
2. “Wanderlust”- I know that Paul has certain crowd-pleasers that have to go into every concert, but I couldn’t believe when I read that he has never played this live. Ringo adds his inimitable sense of touch on the ballads here, the horns are suitably buoyant, and McCartney sings the stuffing out it. When all of those countermelodies start to crash into one another in the final moments, prepare for the chills you’re bound to receive. As moving a defense of restlessness as you’re ever going to hear; the Captain, representing the staid world that refuses to take chances, gets his head handed to him in this musical argument.
1. “Here Today”- Imagine the pressure McCartney must have felt to make some sort of epic statement on his relationship with Lennon. That he had the foresight to pull back and simplify things down to their essence is beyond admirable; it was a stroke of genius. The song sidesteps the sappiness that easily could have enveloped it while still delivering raw emotion, and Martin does one of his stirring without being showy arrangements in the fashion of “Yesterday.” Isn’t that what friendship is, the idea that someone gets inside the song that we sing in a way that mere acquaintances can’t possibly achieve? Hurting as we all were, McCartney’s song was as much what we needed to hear as it was what he needed to say.
(E-mail me at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow me on Twitter @JimBeviglia. For more on Paul’s “other” band, check out my new book, Counting Down The Beatles: Their 100 Finest Songs, in the link below. It’s due out in March.)
Never has such a humble album caused so much stir as 1970’s McCartney, the first solo album by Paul McCartney. The reason, of course, wasn’t the album itself, but rather Macca’s disastrous strategy for publicizing it, during which he announced its release in concord with the breakup of the greatest musical group the world will ever know. But if you can set aside McCartney‘s place in history as the final straw that broke The Beatles’ back, you’ll find a sweet, tuneful, unassuming collection of tossed-off ditties with one or two excellent ones in there just to remind us what he could do when he was motivated. It’s an album that’s not trying to beat the world so much as get away from it. Here is a track-by-track review:
13. “Valentine Day”- Paul has admitted that the instrumentals here were used more to test out his recording machine than anything else. Alas, that motivation comes through all too clearly here.
12. “Lovely Linda”- It’s just a fragment, albeit a pleasant one. Important as a statement though because he brings Linda into the songwriting picture just like John brought in Yoko.
11. “Kreen-Akrore”- McCartney’s tribute to a Brazilian Indian tribe is ambitious if a bit overdone. Fancy him taking all those drum solos when they only ever let Ringo have one.
10. “Hot As Sun/Glasses”- Too bad this instrumental didn’t last a little longer, because it seems to be just getting warmed up (no pun intended) when it trails off.
9. “Oo You”- If nothing else, McCartney seems to anticipate the way outtakes and cutting-room floor material would soon be fetishized by rock aficionados. Hence Paul has no problem leaving a song with nothing much to recommend it besides a gritty groove in the running order.
8. “Teddy Boy”- A poster-child for the kind of thing that drove critics mad about Paul’s solo career. The music is effortlessly catchy and ingratiating, while the melody latches on to the listener immediately. The lyrics are simplistic to the point of childish. The tune wins the tug of war, but still.
7. “That Would Be Something”- It has the focused vibe of “Why Don’t We Do It In The Road?”, that one idea pounded in over and over again. As usual with Macca, the bass ups the melodic quotient considerably, and the scatting vocals in the connecting sections are fun.
6. “Momma Miss America”- McCartney would marry similar minor-key intrigue to nonsensically brilliant lyrics on “Monkberry Moon Delight,” from Ram, not too far down the road. This is like a test-run. The first part of the song is much more engaging than the second, however.
5. “Singalong Junk”- Oh so pretty.
4. “Man We Was Lonely”- The jaunty refrains play well off the meditative verses, with McCartney seeming to reference his life story at the time. The chorus wants you to believe in a happy ending, but the tug of the other sections causes us to think that it’s not going to be quite so easy. Some nice steel guitar in there as well by the ever-resourceful Paul, and the intro and outro are moodily pretty as well.
3. “Maybe I’m Amazed”- I think people grab on to it because it’s the most finished thing on that album (and certainly the most Beatles-y), but it’s by no means the best. The performance is better than the song by a good margin, with McCartney’s leave-nothing-in-the-tank vocal putting across the message, about needing someone so desperately that it doesn’t even make sense anymore, better than the words or even the music, which gets the benefit of a stirring arrangement and excellent guitar and piano work from Paul.
2. “Junk”- Call me a sentimentalist (you’d be accurate), but the idea of discarded household trinkets representing a kind of loss of innocence gets me every time. It helps that McCartney hangs it on one of his most wistful melodies. And, again, his wordless vocals say a lot.
1. “Every Night”- It comes on like a lovely love song, but there are darker themes playing about. The bit about not wanting to get out of bed hints at the depression through which McCartney was working as his group shattered around him. “Resting my mind” likely seemed like an unattainable goal but for the love there to pull him back to warmth and humanity each evening. The falsetto “ooo-ooo” vocals are triumphant release in this context. The first one of his where you could say, “Hey, this is as good if not better than some of the best stuff he did with The Beatles,” and you can’t hold a song to a higher standard than that.
(E-mail me at email@example.com or follow me on Twitter @JimBeviglia. Check out the link below to pre-order my new book Counting Down The Beatles: Their 100 Finest Songs, due in March.)
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.)