Long before they were the self-proclaimed "world's greatest rock 'n' roll band," The Rolling Stones, then led by handsome blonde blues enthusiast Brian Jones, were mere popularizers of blues-based material originally recorded or written by American musicians such as Chuck Berry, Jimmy Reed, Willie Dixon, Muddy Waters, and Slim Harpo. That's not to say that this debut album isn't worth hearing all these year later, it certainly is because the band already had impressive skills built up from live performances, and these raw, aggressive, energetic renditions are fun to listen to even if the material is a bit generic at times. Unlike their rivals in The Beatles, whose debut album was peppered with several of their own self-written classics, the Stones had yet to find their songwriting niche; the lone band compositions here, all credited to the made up pseudonym Nanker Pheldge, were comprised of an enjoyable yet throwaway instrumental ("Now I've Got A Witness") originally based on a Marvin Gaye song, an enjoyably performed but unremarkable rewrite of Jimmy Reed's "Shame, Shame, Shame" called "Little By Little," and a not half bad pop ballad ("Tell Me (You're Coming Back)") that at least saw the band trying to branch out a bit. Elsewhere, highlights include their jumpy, energetic, supremely Bo Diddley-sized take on Buddy Holly's "Not Fade Away," a lewd, lascivious romp through Willie Dixon's (via Muddy Waters) "I Just Want To Make Love To You," and "I am A King Bee," formerly owned by Slim Harpo but notable here as well due to Jones' slide guitar. On the slower front were "Honest I Do" and "You Can Make It If You Try," while a pair of frenetic Chuck Berry covers ("Route 66," "Carol") at least paid tribute to a primary influence even if they don't do a whole lot for me. Then again, they're better than truly pointless covers such as Marvin Gaye's "Can I Get A Witness" and Rufus Thomas' "Walking The Dog," and really there's little here to justify manager Andrew Loog Oldham's claim at the time that The Rolling Stones were more than just a band, they were "a way of life." Really, Oldham's savvy marketing of the Stones as the grimy anti-Beatles had as much to do with the band's success at this point as their music, which, while enjoyable, was no better than other similarly styled bands of that era such as The Animals and Them. Certainly Eric Burdon and Van Morrison were vastly superior blues belters at this point than was singer Mick Jagger, whose thin, at times tentative vocals had some growing up to do. Still, the band's loose, dirty sound was appealing right from the start, but it wasn't until Jagger and guitarist Keith Richards started writing their own songs that they really started to become a great band. Had that not happened, The Rolling Stones would be a mere footnote today, and rather than playing sold out stadiums they likely would've been playing your local corner pub along with Alexis Korner and John Mayall. Note: Let's not sugar coat this: The Rolling Stones' early discography, due to the detestable Allen Klein and Abko Records, is an utter mess, with different versions for U.S. and U.K. releases. Basically, the U.S. versions included previously released hit singles, the U.K. albums didn't, the thinking being that it was a ripoff to give fans the same songs that they presumably already owned; remember this was a different era when the single was king. For this release, the U.S. version of the album, which removed their version of Bo Diddley's "I Need You Baby (Mona)" for "Not Fade Away," bears the dated title of England's Newest Hitmakers, while the U.K. version of the album is simply and more properly titled The Rolling Stones.
12 X 5 (Abko ‘64) Rating: B+
I actually slightly prefer this "bastardized" U.S. release to their more lauded debut, which stands to reason given that I'm not exactly a blues purist and the band delivers a bit more variety this time out. Basically, 12 X 5 is comprised of singles, b-sides, and EP-only tracks, a few of which appeared on The Rolling Stones No. 2, a U.K. release that was never released in the U.S., though the subsequent The Rolling Stones, Now! repeats much of its contents. The U.S. hits here are a reading of Irma Thomas' "Time Is On My Side," on which the band exhibit an ever-growing finesse, particularly Jagger who is slowly but surely growing into the lead vocalist role, and Bobby Womack's "It's All Over Now," which features several soon to be Stones trademarks, namely raunchy dual guitars, a countryish delivery, and Keith's ragged voice perfectly chiming in on a catchy chorus. True, these are still cover songs, but at least the band could subsequently claim ownership of these songs, and I also enjoy slow, harp-led blues entries such as "Confessin' The Blues" and "Good Times, Bad Times." Sure, there are some more generic, filler-ish entries such as "Empty Heart" and "2120 South Michigan Avenue" (an instrumental), as well as another solid but hardly inspiring Chuck Berry cover ("Around and Around"). Also, covers such as "Under The Boardwalk" and "Suzie Q" pale by comparison to the better-known versions by The Drifters and CCR, respectively. But "Congratulations" is a simple but effectively atmospheric pop ballad, "Grown Up Wrong" a straightforward but catchy sing along, and "If You Need Me" a ballad with pianist Ian Stewart (a longtime member of the Stones' inner circle who was originally in the band but got booted by Oldham for not looking the rock star part) that best exemplifies the increased influence of soul music on this album. It's still pretty hit-and-miss, and the band had yet to find their songwriting groove (only five original band compositions appear here), but 12 X 5 is an enjoyable early Stones album that saw them further embracing pop and moving away from overly imitative rehashes of American bluesmen and Chuck Berry. In short, they were slowly but surely starting to find an identity of their own.
The Rolling Stones, Now! (Abko ‘65) Rating: B+
Disappointingly, this album saw the Stones breaking little new ground. Again we get treated to some fairly straightforward blues such as "What A Shame" and "Everybody Needs Somebody To Love," which at least contain some cutting guitar and more authoritative vocals from Mick, who still shows he has some growing up to do when attempting to cover masters such as Otis Redding ("Pain In My Heart") or Muddy Waters ("I Can't Be Satisfied"). The latter song is still a solid effort that's carried by Bill Wyman's creeping bass lines and Jones' stinging slide guitar, and the band also puts in an impressive performance on Chuck Berry's "Down The Road Apiece," with the highlights being provided by Jones and Richards' traded off guitar licks and Stewart again on boogie piano. The band's take on Berry's "You Can't Catch Me" also features some good guitar parts but is less impressive on the whole, and the album is dragged down somewhat by pedestrian tracks like "Down Home Girl" and "Oh Baby." On the plus side, the album's standout tracks are Jagger/Richards originals, so the band were about to step up in class: "Off The Hook" is a strong, hook-filled pop song that makes me think that the boys were taking notes from those lads from Liverpool, "Surprise Surprise" is a fast paced, acidic "love" song of the type that would soon become a band specialty, and "Heart Of Stone" can arguably lay claim to being the duo's first truly great composition together. Also, Jagger puts in a terrific vocal; I love the way his sensitive delivery on the verses is so at odds with the cold hearted lyrics, and the economical guitar solo along with the song's undeniable overall atmosphere stamps it as a classic early single. True, much of the blues and soul-based material on this album is rather unremarkable, but their cover of Bo Diddley's "I Need You Baby (Mona)," which was recorded earlier (remember it had originally appeared on The Rolling Stones), was an impressive precursor to "Not Fade Away," and their sparse, purist blues reading of Willie Dixon's "Little Red Rooster" was good enough to hit #1 on the U.K. charts. Still, anyone who considers any of the band's first three albums to be essential is pretty much kidding themselves, though all have at least brief moments of greatness. As for the whole U.S. versus U.K. album releases, The Rolling Stones, Now! contains seven songs also on The Rolling Stones No. 2.
Out Of Our Heads (Abko ‘65) Rating: A-
This is the first album on which significant progress is exhibited, in large part because they started moving away from serviceable blues and r&b makeovers by embracing a more rock and pop oriented direction. Not that they've totally ditched their obvious love of Motown and Stax (among others), far from it, but they're doing it better and there's much more besides. The album begins with Don Covay's "Mercy Mercy," and I must say that I really like the lashing guitars. Also, the backing vocals are kinda cute both here and on "Hitch Hike," an enjoyable Marvin Gaye cover that's a significant improvement over previous such attempts. Similarly, "That's How Strong My Love Is," featuring a strong lead vocal from Mick, is a much better installment than was "Pain In My Heart" in The Rolling Stones do Otis Redding sweepstakes. Their cover of Sam Cooke's "Good Times" is enjoyably smooth and shockingly understated, as the band delivered a bit more variety this time out, while their take on Solomon Burke's "Cry To Me" is also pretty good, with another passionate performance from Mick who was continuing to improve his vocal technique. True, "I'm All Right (Live)" is overly imitative of The Isley Brothers' "Shout" and is the type of simple high energy sing along that the band could've composed in their sleep, and "One More Try" disappointingly ends the album with an extremely short, filler-ish finale, but elsewhere Jagger and Richards provided plenty of evidence that they were developing into first class songwriters. It helped that they were working in better American studios with experienced engineer Dave Hassinger (though of course Oldham was always the official producer, at least until 1967), but beyond that the band were simply growing beyond being mere imitators, as they were getting better at their own craft and finding their own sound. Among the rest of the originals, the Nanker Phelge credited "The Under Assistant West Coast Promotion Man" is the least impressive but is still an amusing little ditty, though George Sherlock, the laughable promo man of the song's title, likely didn't think so. A better effort is "The Spider and the Fly," which has an eminently listenable, easily loping melody led by Wyman, memorably predatory lyrics, and some choice harmonica as well. Still, as per usual with the Stones it's the hits that are the highlights, which is why in general I prefer the U.S. versions of the early albums, particularly in this case as the U.S. version of Out Of Our Heads is significantly better due to the inclusion of "The Last Time," "(I Can't Get No) Satisfaction," and "Play With Fire." "The Last Time" has similar strengths as "It's All Over Now," namely good riffs, a catchy chorus, and a somewhat countrified delivery. It also features more cold hearted relationship lyrics, with Mick firmly in control, and of course it has the added bonus of being self-composed. "Play With Fire," a slow, ominous ballad that features Jack Nietzsche on harpsichord and contains a simmering intensity, is another classic early single, but it is "Satisfaction" that is THE classic early Stones single, hell maybe THE Stones single, period. It's certainly their most famous song, their signature moment, so to speak, in the way that it established these mangy Londoners as legitimate contenders to the throne currently held by the Fab Four from Liverpool. But more than that, it's simply one of the best rock songs ever, led of course by its legendary fuzztone riffs that famously came to Keith Richards in his sleep. The song also features disenchanted lyrics that everybody could relate to, delivered with venom to spare by an inspired Mick Jagger, and it's really driven along by drummer Charlie Watts, one of the best in the business. So, when one considers this album's terrific singles, comparative lack of filler compared to previous efforts, and an improved overall diversity and performance, it's not hard to pinpoint Out Of Our Heads as the album on which The Rolling Stones really started to come of age.
December's Children (And Everybody's) (Abko ‘65) Rating: B
Wow, this U.S. only release is really a mess, being comprised of four repeats from the U.K. version of Out Of Our Heads, several EP tracks and singles, and a pair of totally forgettable tracks that are exclusive to this album: a pedestrian take on Muddy Waters' "Look What You've Done" and their own lackluster ballad "Blue Turns To Grey." Still, though it was obviously patched together and released strictly to make a buck, this album has its uses. For example, though the two live songs sound totally out of place here, that doesn't mean that they aren't worth hearing; the crazed crowd really adds excitement to this version of "Route 66," especially at the guitar solo, and the band's take on Hank Snow's "I'm Moving On" provides a wild, grungy finale to the album. The album's first song, "She Said Yeah," written by Beatles favorite Larry Williams, also seriously rocks, with a tremendous overall energy, and on the flip side of that coin, their excellent version of Arthur Alexander's "You Better Move On" showed the Stones' increasing mastery at handling slower, softer material. As for the less of the rest, a too slow version of Chuck Berry's "Talkin' About You" is rendered lifeless, "Gotta Get Away" is an average pop attempt mostly notable for its spiteful lyrics, and "The Singer Not The Song," another sub par Jagger/Richards original, is a simplistic pop piffle (Roger Daltrey would later sound far more convincing on "Join Together," that's for sure). Fortunately, the remaining three tracks not yet mentioned are excellent. "I'm Free," a well-known album track that even recently was featured in a commercial, may be a little worn due to it's '60s-derived naivety, but this singable pop song still sounds mighty fine. Even better is "Get Off My Cloud," a fast-paced rocker that for my money stands as one of the Stones' best singles due to its hooky riffs, a charismatic vocal from Jagger, and particularly those propulsive drum punctuations from an on-his-game Watts. Finally, "As Tears Go By," another original written years earlier but given to Mick's girlfriend Marianne Faithfull since it didn't fit with the band's thuggish reputation at the time (she had a top 10 U.K. hit with it), is another classic track, one that was completely atypical and likely downright shocking at the time of its release. A delicate, Elizabethan flavored folk pop ballad that's uncommonly pretty and which sees Mick singing with a gentle restraint, the song is enhanced by Mike Leander's baroque string arrangements, and though the guys likely got some ribbing about this song at the time, it showed that they were continuing to branch out well beyond anything that their initial albums offered. On the whole, December's Children is very hit-and-miss, which isn't surprising given the various sources from which it was compiled, but I really enjoy listening to about half the album, even though I generally skip over the rest of it.
Big Hits (High Tide and Green Grass) (Abko ‘66) Rating: A
For those of you who aren’t willing to shell out the big bucks for their much later 3-cd compilation The Singles Collection (a mistake, in my opinion), this concise 12-track compendium collects the biggest, and in most cases best, songs from the band's first five albums, also throwing in the great "19th Nervous Breakdown" single for good measure. Basically, this album contains most of the singles that I called out as highlights in the previous reviews: "Not Fade Away," "Time Is On My Side," "It's All Over Now," "Heart Of Stone," "Satisfaction," "The Last Time," "Play With Fire," "Get Off My Cloud," and "As Tears Go By." I could complain about the non-chronological sequencing or that "Tell Me (You're Coming Back)" and "Good Times, Bad Times" aren't quite top-shelf songs, but for the most part this compilation makes the band's early albums aside from Out Of Our Heads superfluous for all but the biggest Stones fans. At this stage of their career the Stones had compiled some great songs but they had yet to become a consistently great band, and this is a no risk disc containing the best of their formative years.
Aftermath (Abko ‘66) Rating: A-
The first Stones album to contain all Jagger/Richards originals, Aftermath is somewhat overrated as a result, though it has its fair share of outstanding high points and it's definitely a major step forward in the band's evolution. For one thing, by now Jagger and Richards had clearly usurped Jones' position as the band's leaders, but Jones himself emerges as the band's secret weapon. Basically, Jones had grown bored with the guitar, but by most accounts he was a musical genius who could almost instantly master any instrument, and as such his playing on sitar, marimba, dulcimer, and harpsichord added exotic embellishments to Jagger/Richards' songs, thereby expanding the band's sonic palette considerably. On the downside, the bands over use of fuzztone at times makes the album sound dated, and their straightforwardly cynical, lustful lyrics are at times downright sexist and mean-spirited. Still, like I said, there are some really impressive songs here, none more so than album opener "Paint It Black," which delivers brilliantly dark raga rock, pushed along by Jones' propulsive plucking on sitar, and with Mick at his most mesmerizingly menacing. "Stupid Girl" is one of those misogynist songs I alluded to, but musically it delivers simple but enjoyable pop, as the band continued to move away from their blues-based roots. That said, several of these songs are deeply rooted in the blues, in particular "Don'tcha Bother Me," a solid effort that's primarily notable for Jones' fine work on bottleneck guitar, and "Goin' Home," the album's 11-minute finale that stretches out a basic 12-bar blues beyond reason. OK, I'll grant that the largely improvised, jam-based song, the band's longest on record, was groundbreaking and influential (it was one of the first such extended songs on a rock record), but I'm not sure that its influence was positive, and when judged purely on its own merits it still stands as a noble but failed experiment. The album's other highlights include "Lady Jane," another gentle, romantic Elizabethan ballad in the "As Tears Go By" vein, and "Under My Thumb," whose nasty lyrics are more than made up for by it being simply a great tune, with Jagger in prime vocal form and Jones unforgettable on marimba. Unfortunately, aside from "I am Waiting," which has a folksy charm and is another minor highlight, the rest of these songs rarely rise above being merely good, though I certainly wouldn't call the simple pop rockers ("Think," "It's Not Easy"), Berry-based rock 'n' roller ("Flight 505"), or catchy country rocker ("High And Dry") any less than that, even if it took a few listens for them to grow on me. So, this is a very good album, it's just a bit spotty and not quite worthy of being considered an all-time classic. As for the U.S. vs. U.K. releases, this one's tough, 'cause I can definitely understand those who prefer the U.K. release. For one thing, it contains three additional tunes, two of which are forgettable ("Take It Or Leave It," "What To Do") but one of which is an utter classic ("Out Of Time"). The album also begins with the great "Mother's Little Helper," but it's hard to miss that one too much given that "Paint It Black" is even better (there's classic and then there's all-time classic), and "Going Home" is better sequenced on the U.S. release, where it is smartly placed as the last track whereas in the U.K. edition it foolishly appears smack in the middle of the album.
Between The Buttons (Abko ‘67) Rating: B+
Few people saw this decidedly unrocking and unbluesy collection coming, as Between The Buttons was by far the band's poppiest and most "English" album to date. Recorded in L.A. and then back in London, this eccentric album has its charms - and "charming" is not an adjective one would've previously associated with the Stones! - but though by and large it is consistently enjoyable, there are few standout tracks aside from the two hit singles, "Let's Spend The Night Together" and "Ruby Tuesday," both of which were replaced on the U.K. version of the album with "Backstreet Girl" and "Please Go Home" (both available in the U.S. on the Flowers compilation). Thankfully, this is the last Stones album to have different U.S. and U.K. track listings, but back to Between The Buttons; my main problem with this album is that its dearth of guitars and lack of overall grit takes the band away from their thuggish strengths. Also, the album is often hindered by a muddied sound caused by too many overdubs, the overuse of fuzz guitar again specifically dates the album to its mid-'60s time period, and several of these songs simply aren't that memorable. On the plus side, Jones again is an amazing jack-of-all-trades who plays a multitude of instruments, and piano playing session ace Nicky Hopkins first appears on a Stones album here. Fresh from The Kinks' Face To Face, I wonder how much Hopkins influenced the decidedly Kinksy music hall whimsy of the fast-paced "Cool, Calm, and Collected" and the brassy album finale "Something Happened To Me Yesterday," whose overt drug references would soon prove prophetic. Elsewhere, the mysterious, mellow piano pop of "She Smiled Sweetly," with Richards surprisingly on organ (which is the song's dominant instrument), is one of two tracks here that are decidedly Dylanesque, the other one, "Who's Been Sleeping Here," being an even more obvious homage. There are a few actual (sloppy) rockers on the album, most of which appear on the album's second side, like "All Sold Out," "My Obsession," "Complicated" (the hookiest entry among this bunch), and "Miss Amanda Jones," but these are all minor efforts, albeit fun ones at that. The best songs on the album appear at the beginning, including "Connection" (another drug song), a short, catchy, fast-paced pop rocker on which Keith has a major vocal presence, and "Yesterday's Papers," whose dainty psychedelic melody (much of the music here strikes me as feminine, actually) is at odds with Mick's cruel lyrics assumed to be addressed to ex-girlfriend Chrissie Simpson, who Mick had left for Miss Faithful. Anyway, regardless of the song's less than chivalrous lyrics, it's something of an overlooked gem, what with its enticing harmonies and Jones' stellar accompaniment on marimba and harpsichord. Small wonder that the song was overlooked, though, given that it's sandwiched between two all-time Stones classics. It may seem rather tame today, but the sexually frank lyrics of "Let's Spend The Night Together" were shockingly direct for the day (Ed Sullivan famously took offense to them), but there's a certain innocence to the song that makes its lustful declarations seem more charming than threatening. Maybe it's those disarming "bop bop bop" backing vocals or the memorable piano, but this is simply a classic pop song, pushed along by a propulsive rhythm but really put over the top by one of Mick's best vocals, particularly towards the end. Even better is "Ruby Tuesday," another groupie song a la "Miss Amanda Jones" but this time a sweet one, supposedly written by Richards with help from Jones, though Jagger not Jones got the co-credit, as usual (might as well mention now that a sore point within the band was always the lack of deserving co-credits to other band members). With Jones playing piano and recorder (which sounds like a lovely flute), this song performance-wise is still mostly Mick's triumph, as his tender singing on the verses is truly affecting, and the band chimes in on a great sing along chorus that moves me every time. "Ruby Tuesday" is simply a terrific song, again with an Elizabethan flavor as per previous successes, but Between The Buttons is too often merely good, only occasionally rising to great, which for a band of the Stones' stature isn't quite up to par. Still, I have no idea why Mick hates this album so much, for it is a very good effort, one that's all the more rewarding given that there's not another Stones album even remotely like it.
Flowers (Abko ‘67) Rating: A-
The most "bastardized" of all Stones releases, I was tempted to not even review this U.S.-only released album as a result, but I ultimately capitulated because the album's contents are so damn good, and because despite being illogically patched together Flowers somehow works wonderfully well as an actual album. Basically, this album gathers together five leftover tracks from the British releases of Aftermath and Between The Buttons, adds three songs from the American versions of those albums, and adds a stray single and three non-album rarities, two of which are terrific. It's a pity about the repeated tracks, but it's not like I'd ever get tired of "Ruby Tuesday" or "Let's Spend The Night Together," and I like "Lady Jane" a lot as well, though I'm less pleased by its presence. As for the stray single, "Have You Seen Your Mother, Baby, Standing in the Shadow?" not only is the longest title in the Stones repertoire, but it's an energetic psychedelic pop number with a catchy chorus, though its muddled everything-but-the-kitchen-sink production, including wild brass sections, prevented it from having chart success. As for those U.K. leftovers us Americans were deprived of previously, I already mentioned them in the previous reviews, but let me speak about them in a bit more detail. "Out Of Time," with Jones again on marimbas, is simply a peerless pop song, with an easily singable and affecting chorus and more cute "bop bop" backing vocals. Simply put, this is a smash single that wasn't actually a hit, though it later became a popular "classic rock" radio track and was a #1 U.K. hit for Chris Farlowe in the summer of 1966. The other well-known leftover is "Mother's Little Helper," which contains one of my all-time favorite opening lines (Mick complaining "what a drag it is getting old"), hooky yet haunting sitar riffs from Jones, interesting lyrics about a pill popping housewife, and a catchy harmonized chorus. As for the other leftovers, "Backstreet Girl" is an overlooked gem for sure, being a great, utterly gorgeous acoustic-based ballad, and on second thought it was a bit harsh of me to call "Take It Or Leave It" forgettable, as it's pretty good, actually, and unsurprisingly this acoustic pop song works better surrounded by similar such efforts here than it does on Aftermath. On the contrary, "Please Go Home" is a rowdy psychedelicized update of the famous Bo Diddley beat that doesn't really fit in with the rest of the album aside from "...Shadows," which also seems a bit out of place, come to think of it. As for the rarities, the Stones' version of "My Girl" isn't terrible but it is a pretty pointless string-heavy rendition that can't touch Otis Redding let alone The Temptations. Fortunately, the two songs that close out this rather haphazard semi-compilation are other "lost gems" candidates, as I simply love "Ride On, Baby," yet another catchy pop tune, and "Sittin' On A Fence" boasts a pretty guitar melody, pleasantly harmonized vocals, and fittingly laid-back lyrics, resulting in another low-key winner. All in all, Flowers is a consistently entertaining document of The Rolling Stones' "pop period" (late '65 through early '67), but it's hard to judge the album strictly on its own merits. Fact is, excellent though they are, the reappearance of three songs that had just appeared on their last two albums hinders rather than helps my overall appreciation of this album, and the eight other songs should've been added as bonus tracks to the reissues of Aftermath and Between The Buttons rather than leaving Flowers as a stand-alone album. So, although I greatly enjoy listening to it, I can't totally endorse this album, even if it is one of the most flat-out listenable Stones albums around.
Their Satanic Majesties Request (Abko ‘67) Rating: B
I said previously that there was no other Stones album like Between The Buttons, but there's really no other Stones album like Their Satanic Majesties Request, by far the most un-Stones like album in the Stones catalogue. Part of this was due to circumstance, as Jagger, Richards, and Jones were all busted for drugs and were threatened with significant jail time. With that stress hanging over their heads, with Oldham departing as the band's manager (replaced by Allen Klein) and producer (the band self-produced, with Glyn Johns and Eddie Kramer engineering), and with the band themselves indulging in more than a few drugs too many, they were probably too preoccupied to chart their own course, and as a result they simply followed The Beatles, whose admittedly far superior Sgt. Pepper's album represented the pinnacle of flower power. Long term, the damage from the drug busts was minimal for Richards and Jagger, but the thinner skinned Jones, who was growing increasingly isolated from the rest of the band, was shattered by the experience, and it sure didn't help band inter-relations when Richards stole girlfriend Anita Pallenberg from him. As such, I tend to think of Satanic Majesties as Jones' last hurrah with the band, and as per usual he's responsible for most of the most exotic sounds on the band's most exotic album by far. For the first and perhaps last time, the Stones made an album that was more about sounds than songs, and as a result several of these songs, some unusually long by their standards, don't really work, and even the ones that do sometimes seem successful almost by accident. Among the songs that don't work, the most egregious misfire is "Sing This All Together (See What Happens)," a crap 8-minute experiment that you really only need to listen to once before moving on, much like "Revolution 9." Without getting into details, I'll simply note that I could easily live without "Gomper" and "On With The Show" as well, but at least they hold some moments of interest, despite being badly dated back to 1967. Fortunately, I quite like the rest of the album. "Sing All This Together" starts the album and is a silly yet entertaining mess of a sing along song whose doe-eyed innocence sounds more like the Polyphonic Spree than the Stones! "Citadel" is closer to the band's usual riff-based style, but with a giant Watts beat and plenty of bells and whistles, while Wyman's first credited recorded song with the band, "In A Land," is a neat little Syd Barrett-like number, even if parts of it sound like it was recorded underwater. "2000 Man" is a terrific, trippy pop number with a marvelous melody, even if the less impressive chorus doesn't really fit in with the rest of the song. "The Lantern" is a grower track with good guitar and piano that's almost "normal" compared to the rest of the album, meaning that it's only really weird rather than off-the-wall weird. Which brings us to the two tracks that I'd argue are inarguable classics: "Like A Rainbow" and "2000 Light Years From Home." OK, I wish I could skip the space wasting 1-minute intro to the former song, but once this kaleidoscopic masterpiece starts in earnest it's tough to top. This song features pianist Nicky Hopkins' prime performance with the band, and when you throw in the endearingly child-like vocals and future Led Zeppelin bassist John Paul Jones' imaginative string arrangements, the end result is a classic pop song, albeit an extremely strange one. As for the mellotron-heavy, difficult to describe "2000 Light Years From Home," I'll just say that this sci-fi epic is still quite a trip and leave it at that. It's too bad that the band lost their way on some of the other tracks, which at times come across like a bad trip, but at worst this album is an interesting curiosity, and the majority of it provides a fascinating and quite enjoyable peek at a specific period in time. Certainly no Stones album divides opinion quite like this album, which was panned at the time of its release (even by the band themselves) but which has steadily gained a following over the years, though even its staunchest admirers will admit that the album is seriously flawed. Anyway, perhaps the final word comes from engineer George Chkiantz, who offered the following assessment: "It was a very self-indulgent mess in many ways...I quite like it, but that doesn't mean it's good."
Beggars Banquet (Abkco ‘68) Rating: A
The scathing reviews for Satanic Majesties woke the band up. With the able assistance of new American producer Jimmy Miller, who would stay with the band in that capacity until ’73, Jagger/Richards stopped trying to be The Beatles or Pink Floyd, went in and recorded arguably their greatest non-LP single, "Jumping Jack Flash," and the back-to-basics Beggars Banquet soon followed. The album was recorded primarily as a four-piece, as Jones continued his downward spiral (you can blame an overabundance of drugs, the drug busts, his own paranoid personality, Richards/Pallenberg, “creative differences” – whatever), though he does contribute several notable flourishes, most notably the stellar slide guitar on the excellent “No Expectations,” a laid-back folk blues number. Anyway, he would be asked to leave the band soon after Beggars Banquet, which contains two all-time Stones classics, the magnificent and controversial “Sympathy For The Devil” and the rowdy and controversial “Street Fighting Man.” These songs alone are worth the price of admission here, but be advised that most of the rest of the album is a total departure from those two songs and everything else the band had done to date. Still, despite the fact that they’re generally unknown by the public at large, "No Expectations," "Jigsaw Puzzle," "Stray Cat Blues," and "Salt Of The Earth" are among the best songs the band has ever done, and even slighter efforts like "Dear Doctor," "Parachute Woman," and "Factory Girl" are enjoyable. Obviously influenced by albums like Dylan’s John Wesley Harding and The Byrds’ Sweetheart Of The Rodeo, Beggars Banquet consists primarily of acoustic-based tunes that reflect the longtime influences of Delta blues, country, and folk music, all played effortlessly by Keith Richards and company and sung convincingly by Mick Jagger. Although not a “rocking” album aside from exceptions like the two famous tracks and The Velvet Underground inspired “Stray Cat Blues" (love the lashing guitars on that one), Beggars Banquet is one of the Stones’ most straightforward, spiritual, and heartfelt albums, though Mick’s lyrics as per usual are still highly sexual and at times sleazy. Still, much of Beggars Banquet is quite beautiful, as the band went back to their roots and in doing so delivered music with a richness and an overall depth previously only hinted at. Rather than continue the flighty psychedelic excesses of Satanic Majesties, the band did a complete about face and released their earthiest album. By unearthing fiddles, harmonicas, and acoustic/slide guitars at a time when heavy-handed psychedelia and stretching out was all the rage, Beggars Banquet became one of the band’s fiercest statements of independence and vision. Also, whereas previously the band had delivered great singles and mostly good to very good albums, after Beggars Banquet the Stones' could be considered first-rate album artists as well, and it ushered in what many consider to be the band’s peak period. As for its songs, the epic 6 1/2 minute "Sympathy For The Devil" is simply one of the most iconic and important songs ever - there's little, if any, precedent for the song's hybrid style and it defined the band's image for the rest of their career. It was also one of the first "non-singles" to become a standard on FM radio, and it's easy to see why, with its unstoppable samba beat, famous background "who hoos," a rare Richards guitar solo, and ballsy, controversial lyrics sung confidently by Lucifer himself! Time has somewhat dulled its edge, but think of the shock factor at the time of a song saying "killed the Kennedys" only several months after RFK was killed! "Sympathy" was just a totally daring, completely original composition, even if it's essentially a musical version of Mikhail Bulgakov's novel "The Master and the Margarita." "Street Fighting Man," another rebellious anthem, was actually banned in some states, and it's another stone-cold classic that's mostly acoustic but seriously rocks nevertheless. Among the other notable tracks not previously described in detail are "Jigsaw Puzzle," a wordy, Dylanesque 6-minute epic with an excellent melody and memorably breathy vocals from Mick, and "Prodigal Son," the album's lone cover (written by Reverend Robert Wilkins) and an effectively sparse Robert Johnson-styled blues. There's nothing fancy about it beyond Keith's vigorous acoustic strumming and Mick's believably authentic vocal, but it works, and so does the album's strong finale, "Salt Of The Earth." This song is notable because Keith sings lead on the first verse, the first time he'd ever done so, and because, though it's a great song in its own right, its use of a gospel choir on the chorus also marks it as something of a trial run for next album's even better "You Can't Always Get What You Want." In any event, despite being a bit boring occasionally, on the whole there's no denying that the incredibly mature, richly layered music on Beggars Banquet represented a significant step up in class for all involved, and in many ways it's the album on which the Stones truly found their niche.
Let It Bleed (Abkco ‘69) Rating: A
They found their niche and then some, despite the official departure of Jones, who would tragically die under mysterious circumstances soon afterwards. 'Till this day it's unknown whether Jones died from suicide, a drug-related accident, or was murdered by builder Frank Thorogood (who supposedly confessed on his deathbed), but regardless the Stones had to move on, and they made a wise choice in hiring 20 year old virtuoso Mick Taylor, a veteran of John Mayall's Bluesbreakers who was simply the best lead guitarist the band ever had. He only plays on two songs here, as he'd yet to be fully integrated within the band, but by now the Stones' were really more than just a four-piece, anyway, as they could afford the best session players around, including Stewart, Hopkins (who dazzles throughout), Al Kooper, Leon Russell, Ry Cooder, and saxophonist Bobby Keyes, who like Hopkins would become a longtime band collaborator. Anyway, with lyrics like "rape, murder, it's just a shot away," "all my friends are junkies," "I got nasty habits," and "I'll stick my knife right down your throat," and songs about meeting the devil and The Boston Strangler, the gloriously decadent Let It Bleed saw this band of swaggering rogues reveling in their outlaw status. In many ways the album took stock of the dashed dreams of the hippy era, and the band's disastrous Altamont concert later in the year (captured on the brilliant documentary Gimme Shelter) officially closed the era of peace and love. Fittingly, this album begins with the chillingly apocalyptic "Gimme Shelter," for my money the Stones' greatest song, with only "Sympathy" and this album's parting shot (only Who's Next rivals this album for greatest opening and closing songs) being serious rivals. Starting ominously and building from there, the song is notable for its distorted guitars, muscular rhythms, and Mick's huge harp interjections and compelling vocals. However, the icing on the cake is provided by the otherworldly, freakishly powerful vocals of Merry Clayton, who provides the greatest guest vocal in rock history. After such a haunting, explosive start it makes perfect sense return to the earthier terrain of Beggars Banquet, and that's just what the band does on a superb cover version of Robert Johnson's recently unearthed "Love In Vain." I just love songs that sound like they could've been recorded 100 years ago, and this is one such song, with Mick in fine form, Keith on slide guitar, and the great Ry Cooder helping out on mandolin. Famously, Cooder soon had a falling out with the band, who he called "reptilian people" while also accusing them, and Richards in particular, of stealing his riffs and ideas. Anyway, next comes the albums lone major misfire, “Country Honk,” which suffers considerably by the inevitable comparison to "Honky Tonk Woman," one of the band's best stand alone singles that I wish had been held back for this album rather than released beforehand. Fact is, though this hick country version (the band were hanging out with Gram Parsons during this period and he influenced them) is how the song was originally intended to sound before Mick Taylor totally transformed it into a classic barroom rocker, this version falls far short of its counterpart. Similarly, though the epic (6:57) "Midnight Rambler" is undeniably a classic song, there's also no denying that the live version on Get Yer Ya-Ya's Out! is far superior. Still, at least it's darn good here, too, and elsewhere “Live With Me” and “Monkey Man” are excellent, highly energized riff rockers, with the latter featuring a wonderfully atmospheric intro along with prime Jagger histrionics. Again returning to Beggars Banquet territory, the classic title track contains a catchy, singable melody along with an easily loping country rock groove and plenty of tasty guitars. Also rootsy is “You Got The Silver,” which features an effective vocal performance from Richards, his first complete lead vocal on record. This song, seen by many as an ode of forgiveness to Anita for sleeping with Jagger (thereby completing her Stones hat trick), obviously hit closer to home for Keith than most, and he sings it for all he's worth (and in a delicious bit of irony, Jones actually showed up to play autoharp on it). Last but certainly not least is the epic (7:23) gospel rock of “You Can’t Always Get What You Want,” a brilliantly original sing along anthem of disillusionment that's propelled in large part by the unforgettable backing vocals of The London Bach Choir. Man, I could just go on and on about this one, but instead I'll simply mention my favorite part, namely when Keith's soulful guitar solo leads into Mick's scream and then the choir takes over around the 4:30 mark. Gives me chills every time, and the whole song is a rousing success that's damn near exalted in its execution (p.s. that's Jimmy Miller, not Watts, on drums). Speaking about Let It Bleed in general terms again, I'll defer to Sean Egan, who in the book The 100 Albums That Changed Music writes: "Let It Bleed was really the first Stones album to feature what we now consider the archetypal Stones sound, one that not only they but whole generations of musicians have stuck to ever since." I'd never thought about that before and I suppose it's true, but what's undeniable is that Let It Bleed was another vintage Stones album.
Get Yer Ya-Ya's Out! (Abko ‘70) Rating: A
By far the band's best officially released "live" album (it's heavily overdubbed vocally), there's a tendency to slightly overrate Ya-Ya's because of how weak the band's other live records are. Which isn't to say that this album, released solely to fulfill the band's contractual obligation to Decca Records, isn't great, it just isn't quite "the best live album ever" as some consider it. For one thing, Ya-Ya's is short for a live album (10 songs clocking in at 47:36), and as per usual the two Chuck Berry covers ("Carol," "Little Queenie") do nothing for me. The other eight songs are taken from Beggars Banquet and Let It Bleed except for "Honky Tonk Woman," which wasn't recorded very well. Neither was "Street Fighting Man" (I have a bootleg from Oakland in '69 where it sounds much better), but at least this is a rare song here that differs significantly from its studio counterpart, being an electrified version that's quite exciting despite the less than stellar sound quality, in large part due to new recruit Mick Taylor's sizzling leads. Taylor's soulful leads and solos also significantly enhance a fabulous version of "Love In Vain," and though "Sympathy For The Devil" was nearly impossible to totally nail live, Taylor's solo on the back end was one of his best ever. I still prefer the studio version, as I miss those memorable conga beats and "who hoo" backing vocals, plus Mick's vocal histrionics are reigned in here, but the more straightforward, almost VU-like groove of this version is also fantastic in its own far different way. Elsewhere, "Jumping Jack Flash," "Stray Cat Blues," and "Live With Me" are appealingly raw and rocking, which isn't surprising as Ya-Ya's can legitimately claim to be the band's hardest rocking album. As alluded to in the previous review, the album's centerpiece song, indeed the definitive version of this song, is "Midnight Rambler," here stretched out past 9 revelatory minutes and including some mean harp playing from Jagger, who rarely gets the credit he deserves in that area. As for the rest of the band, this album may well represent Taylor's finest hour with the Stones, as his bluesy, more straightforward lead playing style took the band to another level, especially live where he was at his best. Jagger and Richards do their part as usual, with Mick supplying some amusing stage banter to an energized crowd who amp up the proceedings. As for Wyman and Watts, they do nothing to dispel the common belief that they're among rock's best rhythm sections, and Mick even goes so far as to comment "Charlie's good tonight, isn't he?" Yes he was, they all were, even if "tonight" was really spread across multiple nights in Baltimore and New York City. Then again, I don't care much about the "authenticity" of live albums so long as they sound good, and on the majority of Ya-Ya's The Rolling Stones live up to their title as "The Greatest Rock and Roll Band in the World."
Sticky Fingers (Virgin ’71) Rating: A+
With Mick Taylor's muscular yet fluid guitar tone now firmly entrenched as an essential part of their sound, and with the Jagger/Richards axis writing an outstanding set of varied songs, Sticky Fingers stands as arguably the band’s finest hour. Despite being recorded with the band in turmoil - people were pissed at them for Altamont, Jagger was dumped by Faithfull and subsequently replaced her with the polarizing Bianca, Keith was clearly a junkie, and they were trying to extricate themselves from Klein's clutches - the drug addled, death obsessed end result somehow still turned out to be one of their signature works. The band's first U.S./U.K. #1 album, the first album on their own Rolling Stones Records label, and the first album on which their signature lapping tongue band logo appeared, Sticky Fingers was as famous for its Andy Warhol designed zipper cover (which has to be obtained on vinyl to get the full effect) as its great music. But consistently great music it does contain, both hard rocking and more often laid back. Increasingly, r&b elements were being seamlessly interwoven within the Stones’ sound (the album was partially recorded in Muscle Shoals and the Stax-y horn section of saxophonist Bobby Keyes and trumpeter Jim Price are all over the record), and the album also included a pair of classic country numbers. Perhaps no song better epitomizes the classic Stones sound than "Brown Sugar," the lewd, lustful party anthem that leads off the album, and the next track, "Sway," a great guitar showcase for Taylor (Keith doesn't even play on it), is definitely one of the great "overlooked gems" in the Stones catalogue. "Wild Horses," a beautiful country ballad containing one of Jagger's most affecting vocal performances, is easily one of the greatest Stones songs ever (I'd rank it #4, with "Paint It Black" rounding out my top 5 for those who are curious), and it's followed by "Can't You Hear Me Knocking," one of the band's longest (7:16) and most ambitious songs. Starting with those memorable stuttering riffs and moving onto a soaring Keith-led chorus, the song controversially morphs into an extended, jazzy jam, with moody organ from Billy Preston (a significant contributor to the album), Santana-styled Latin percussion from Rocky Dijon, and some groovy soloing from Keyes and Taylor that's either "inspired improvisation" or "pretentious noodling," depending on your perspective (I definitely vote for the former though this is far from a unanimous opinion). "You Gotta Move," a Fred McDowell cover that's by far the weakest of the blues covers on their last three albums, is the albums weak link in that is seems almost like a blues parody rather than the real thing, but the ship then gets righted on "Bitch," a tough, attitude soaked hard rocker that's a veritable feast of memorable riffs (Keith's imprint is all over this baby), punchy horns, and sneering vocals. Though not a standout considering the competition, the self-explanatory "I Got The Blues," presumably about Faithfull, features a heartfelt, impassioned vocal from Jagger and some soulful accompaniment from Preston/Keyes/Price, and the bummer portion of the album then continues with "Sister Morphine," a haunting drug tale whose lyrics were at least partially co-written by Faithfull, who recorded it in 1969. So did the Stones, even if it wasn’t released then, and the song's sparse yet effective instrumentation, including some stellar bottleneck guitar work from Ry Cooder, yielded another terrific album track, on which Mick's ghostly vocals are most memorable. Fortunately, things then briefly brighten on “Dead Flowers,” a catchy, lighthearted (despite being another obvious drug song) country number on which Stewart plays boogie piano and Richards chimes in with some flavorful backing vocals. Finally, “Moonlight Mile,” also recorded without Keith, provides a grand finale that stands as one of the Stones’ most evocative efforts, in no small part due to Paul Buckmaster's string arrangements (which had also appeared on "Sway"). Thus ends the classic Sticky Fingers, the album on which the band's loose, ramshackle sound was arguably at its most perfect, as the best Stones lineup settled into its unstoppable prime.
Hot Rocks (1964-1971) (Abkco ’72) Rating: A+
Released by Abko to cash in after the Stones had finally ditched Klein's devious tentacle-like clutches (though to their horror Klein still owned their '60s catalogue), this is The Rolling Stones album that I grew up with so it remains near and dear to my heart, and it's still a great Rolling Stones primer since it collects most of their biggest and best hits from this time period. However, great though it is, the fact of the matter is that this 2-cd compilation barely scratches the surface; you really should continue onto the original albums. Plus, only three of these songs aren’t also included on the later released 3-cd set The Singles Collection (The London Years), which otherwise boasts a staggering 37 more songs than Hot Rocks, with better sound quality to boot. “Under My Thumb,” “Gimme Shelter,” and the live version of "Midnight Rambler" are the omissions from The Singles Collection, and they are tremendous songs, though again it should be noted that the parent albums from which these songs were plucked are all well worth having on their own. As for the rest of the track listing, one word: wow. "Time Is On My Side." "Play With Fire." "(I Can't Get No) Satisfaction." "As Tears Go By." "Get off of My Cloud." "Mother's Little Helper." "19th Nervous Breakdown." "Paint It Black." "Under My Thumb." "Ruby Tuesday." "Let's Spend The Night Together." "Jumpin' Jack Flash." "Street Fighting Man." "Sympathy For The Devil." "Honky Tonk Women." "You Can't Always Get What You Want." "Brown Sugar." "Wild Horses." Damn, those are some great songs, even if the The Singles Collection has supplanted Hot Rocks for many people. Still, if you’re not a big Stones fan but feel that you should probably have them in your collection, Hot Rocks has a better hits-to-misses ratio than The Singles Collection and is therefore still a superb document of the Stones' greatest years. Maybe Klein wasn't so bad after all...
Exile On Main Street (Virgin ’72) Rating: A+
This album actually received mixed reviews upon its release, but today it has pride of place among all Rolling Stones albums on most all-time greatest albums lists. In turn, this has led many in recent years to claim that the album is overrated, which if you look at the above rating you'll know that I think is complete nonsense! So, what makes this album so great? Well, it's hard to define, exactly; the album contains no all-time classic tracks like "Sympathy For The Devil," "Gimme Shelter," or "Brown Sugar," and there are several tracks that I wouldn't vehemently disagree against if you referred to them as filler. But Exile is its own self-contained world like few albums, and therein lies its magic, as even the most flawed songs generally add to the overall ambiance of the album. So I guess I was wrong in my Satanic Majesties review when I said that it was the only Stones album that was more about sound than songs - the difference is that this album has tons of great songs too. As for the sound, well, who isn't aware of the album's murky sound quality, courtesy of Richards' villa basement in the South of France (where they were tax exiles due to money problems)? The raw, dirty sound actually works to the band's benefit, and the Stones wrote a diverse batch of songs that dip into r&b, blues, soul, country, gospel, and ragged rock n’ roll with equal assuredness. Also, Jagger sings with an uncommon force and directness, even if his unintelligible lyrics are often buried amid the raging rhythms and slashing guitar interplay (you could argue that this album represented Richards and Taylor's peak as a guitar team). Once again session stalwarts such as Nicky Hopkins, Billy Preston (if the organ has a church-y sound it's probably Preston rather than Hopkins), Bobby Keyes, and Jim Price play a key role in coloring the albums incredibly rich overall sound, which also includes many a soulful female backing vocalist. Still, it is the band’s airtight rhythms, even when grungily applied, that anchors their sound, and Keith also aids with some emotional backing vocals as per usual. As for individual song highlights, "Rocks Off" and "All Down The Line" are simply great groove rockers, "Rip This Joint" delivers a pure adrenalized blast of rock n' roll, "Sweet Virginia" is a soulful, countrified sing along, and "Ventilator Blues" (Taylor's only credited co-write with the band) is a bluesy, brassy stomper on which Mick sounds all hot and bothered and the guitars really cook. "Tumbling Dice," with its memorable riffs and catchy backing chants, is the album's best known song for good reason, and "Happy," a gloriously surging rocker, similarly earns its distinction as being Keith's signature vocal showcase. The band's earthy, spiritual brand of gospel rock is in ample evidence on stellar tracks like "Loving Cup," "Let It Loose," and especially the sublime "Shine A Light," while the melodic, countrified "Torn and Frayed" is similarly superb yet criminally underrated. Having mentioned what I consider to be the album's best songs, I must also duly note that Exile On Main Street is a "repeat listens" sort of album that really must be listened to as a whole in order to be fully appreciated. Even then it seems that not everyone "gets" this album, and maybe there's some validity to those among you who would criticize the lo-fi sound while also claiming that the album overextends itself at eighteen songs. But aside from maybe ditching one or two tracks I wouldn't change a damn thing about it, as this gloriously unkempt collection is as richly authentic and representative of the band's greatness as any of their previous albums, even if it doesn't quite match up to the last three on a song-for-song basis (as an aside, I'll note that most of this album is obscure radio-wise, which further endears it to me). Alas, this would be the last time that the band would ever work at such a consistently high level again.
Goats Head Soup (Virgin ’73) Rating: B+
Coming off of several terrific albums and a spectacularly successful 1972 tour that many regard as the band's peak (for proof check out the excellent Ladies And Gentlemen... The Rolling Stones video, finally released in 2010), Goats Head Soup was a comparative letdown. After such a string of stirring successes, complacency set in as Mick was busy living the high life with the jet set crowd and Keith was debilitated by drugs, as was Jimmy Miller, who would helm this last album before being booted by the band. The resulting album, oddly enough recorded in Jamaica, too often lacks edge and inspiration, as the band were drowning in their own decadence, though it has several extremely notable highlights and when judged strictly on its own merits it has much to recommend about it. In addition to two classic singles and two terrific album tracks, the album features lots of wah wah soloing from Mick Taylor, who does some of his best work on this album. Charlie and Bill are also as rock solid as ever, but the "Glimmer Twins" minds were elsewhere and as a result the material wasn't up to their usual high standards. "Hide Your Love" and "Can You Hear The Music," which sound like Exile and Satanic Majesties rejects, respectively, in particular are rote numbers that should've been rejected or at least reworked. And though I'll admit to having a soft spot for them, there's no denying that lyrically speaking the band slips into self-parody on songs such as "Dancing With Mr. D" (which rehashes the Satanic angle but sure ain't no "Sympathy," though I dig its danceable rhythms), "Coming Down Again" (a weary Keith sung drug ballad that's musically pretty but also too long and boring, plus I could do without imagery like "slipped my tongue in someone else's pie"), and "Star Star" (a glammy Berry-esque rocker about groupies that was originally called "Starfucker" before the band's new boss, Atlantic Records Ahmet Ertegun, insisted on the name change). Much better is "100 Years Ago," which is notable for Billy Preston's electric clavinet and a pair of wailing wah wah solos from Taylor, who also shines on the hazy, string saturated ballad "Winter" (shades of "Moonlight Mile" for sure), the standout song on the rather lackluster side two and one of the band's all-time underrated gems, in my opinion. As for side one, it contains the two aforementioned classics, my favorite of which is the hard rocking "Doo Doo Doo Doo Doo (Heartbreaker)," on which Taylor and Preston again shine. So does Mick, who sings powerfully lyrics that present seedy, violent urban dramas with a gritty realism. The horns, arranged by Price as was often the case, hit the spot as well, as do those catchy "doo doo..." backing chants. As for the album's smash hit single, "Angie," many fans at the time felt that it was too "schmaltzy" for such a quintessential rock band, and maybe the strings are laid on a bit thick, but I for one really like this sensitive acoustic/piano ballad. Rumored to be about David Bowie's then wife Angela or maybe Mick's ex-Marianne Faithfull, nobody really seems to know for sure, but Mick affectingly sings it like he really means it, and he's obviously haunted by the titular heroine, whoever she is (I wonder how his wife Bianca felt about this song?). Anyway, on the whole this album, the band's third straight U.S/U.K. #1, is a pretty far distance from their recent run of excellence, as the Stones were an unfocused, intellectually lazy group at this point. However, these guys could still flat-out play, thereby elevating several of the less substantial tracks, for example the enjoyably energetic country-tinged rocker (and it does rock) "Silver Train," on which Stewart plays his standard boogie piano while Taylor adds scorching slide guitar (Johnny Winter actually recorded the song earlier that same year on his Still Alive and Well album). And let's face it, the early '70s Stones at less than their best were still better than 90% of the rock bands out there.
It's Only Rock 'n' Roll (Virgin ’74) Rating: B+
Having ditched Miller, who helped steer the band's golden era, the Glimmer Twins decided to self-produce for the first time since Their Satanic Majesties Request. Unsurprisingly, the muddy sound is somewhat lacking, and by most accounts the album's sessions were in disarray as nobody was there to take charge. Still, the album that emerged from the drug rampant (nothing new there) sessions is in my opinion better than what has often been reported, though there are reasons why this album is often overlooked and is primarily remembered for three things: the anthemic title track, which was actually a chart disappointment (#16 U.S./#10 U.K.) but has since reached iconic status as a longtime stage favorite, for being the first post-Miller album, and for being their last album with Mick Taylor. Though his fluid, graceful playing elevated certain Stones songs immeasurably, Taylor apparently never felt completely comfortable in the band, and he was rankled by not receiving what he felt were proper songwriting credits. His departure was a major loss for the band, what with him being their only traditional lead guitarist and quite simply the most talented player they ever had, but at least he makes his presence felt on It's Only Rock 'n' Roll, which truth be told like Goats Head Soup is a pretty hit or miss affair. Still, there are few flat out bad songs on the album. Among the lesser songs is the leadoff track "If You Can't Rock Me," a funky riff rocker that never really catches fire, though it is still moderately enjoyable. "Luxury" has really annoying reggae affectations from Jagger, though at least it has some tasty riffing and is pretty catchy. "Dance Little Sister" is a Stones-by-numbers boogie rocker, and "Short and Curlies" is another short boogie that's among their silliest songs ever (my friend calls it "the dumb 'she's got you by the balls' song"). Though I appreciate the ambitiousness that is too often lacking elsewhere, the funky wah wah infused "Fingerprint File" is also only semi-successful, in part because like several songs here this one is longer than necessary (6:30, to be exact). Still, it was tracks such as this one (whose paranoid lyrics I actually really like) and the earlier "Dancing With Mr. D" that paved the way for their later massive disco hit "Miss You." As for the songs I like, and again I don't really dislike the lesser efforts, let's start with their version of The Temptations "Ain't To Proud To Beg." Well, it's certainly better than the earlier "My Girl" (if not as good as the later "Imagination"), and it's notable for a rare Richards (as opposed to Taylor) solo, but though it's quite enjoyable this cover song's mere presence indicates a certain cruise control mindset that permeated The Rolling Stones at this point. The band does seem to be trying their hardest on certain songs, such as on the classic title track, but this tune is very telling, too. Although tongue in cheek to a degree, Jagger's provocative lyrics (i.e. "if I could stick a knife in my heart, suicide right on stage, would it be enough?..") indicate that he feels put upon, that rock 'n' roll has become a job. It's only rock n' roll, after all, he doesn't need to do this anymore, but it pays the bills (handsomely) so he and his bandmates continue onwards. Heck, maybe I'm reading too much into it, and either way I certainly like the song's slashing guitars, and it's quite catchy and rocking (in a T. Rex sort of way) as well. As for other songs that I'd consider highlights, "Till The Next Goodbye" and "If You Really Want To Be My Friend" are two of the band's better ballads. The former song is a twangy, regret-filled acoustic ballad on which Hopkins (whose elegant playing is all over the album) adds delicate decorations and Taylor also shines. The 6-minute latter song is a soul ballad with support from the vocal group Blue Magic; the song takes awhile to get going, and it's not as inspired as some of the churchier attempts on Exile, but it's still quite enjoyable, with Taylor's solo again providing the icing on the cake. Speaking of Taylor, his lack of a co-credit on the albums second best song, "Time Waits For No One," which also exceeded 6 minutes, was reputedly the last straw that ensured his departure. One can see why, as even though Jagger supplies the philosophical lyrics, Taylor musically dominates the song with his beautiful soloing, though some critics had a point when they said that it sounded more like Santana than the Stones. This was in no small part due to percussionist Ray Cooper, who also has a significant presence throughout the album, though the horn section of Keyes and Price, recently so prominent, is mysteriously absent. Anyway, on the whole this is an enjoyable album, but it's also true that with this album, or maybe the previous one, The Rolling Stones became just another good working band whose transcendent peaks from here on in would be few and far between.
Black and Blue (Virgin ’76) Rating: B
The last time a guitarist had left the band, Keith Richards had proven his greatness, producing some of his finest work on Beggar's Banquet and Let It Bleed. This time around however, his drugged out carcass was in no shape for a repeat performance; a second guitarist was desperately needed, and the sessions for Black and Blue became famous for being the auditions for the band's second guitar slot. Rumored participants included Jeff Beck, but among those whose contributions actually appear on the album, most prominent were Harvey Mandel, Wayne Perkins, and Ronnie Wood, the latter of whom would win the audition. The different guitar styles that appear throughout is one of the most interesting aspects of Black and Blue, but when push comes to shove it's just another average Stones album; half of it is really good (not great), but too much of it is merely decent and there's also a dreadful misfire. Featuring only eight long-ish songs, at the very least the album is more ambitious even if it's less successful than It's Only Rock 'n' Roll, as funk, reggae, and even jazz are attempted in addition to more typically Stonesy riff rockers. (Of course, the dichotomy between Jagger the bandwagon jumping pop whore more willing to experiment and Richards the too straight traditionalist is one of the things that makes the band so interesting). The forced funk of "Hot Stuff" hits on a repetitive groove and isn't much of a song, but at least it's salvaged by Mandel's flashy guitar soloing, and likewise the more generic "Hey Negrita" is a groove looking for a song, yet it too features some fine guitar work. The less said about the awful reggae of "Cherry On Baby" the better, while "Melody," a jazzy duet between Jagger and Billy Preston (again a prominent contributor to the album), is also decidedly different even if it's not necessarily all that good. Which brings us to the four tracks that I actually really like, starting with "Hand Of Fate," a straightforward rocker with a good melody and strong soloing, nothing fancy, really, but highly effective. "Memory Hotel" is a very good if overly long (7:07) ballad that deserved a better lead vocal than the overly affected one delivered by Jagger (who too often barks rather than sings his lyrics elsewhere, an increasingly annoying trend), but Richards shines on backing and even some lead vocals, while Perkins and Mandel add melodic guitar work. My friend Doug despises the schmaltzy ballad "Fool To Cry," and I can see why he and many hardcore Stones fans were appalled by such overt sentimentality and crass commercialism (plus the synths haven't aged well), but there's also a reason why this was the album's big hit, namely Mick's falsetto vocals which are extremely affecting. Finally, "Crazy Mama" is a rowdy riff rocker with impressive guitar interplay that ends what many would call "just another Stones album," as most Stones albums would be from here on out. Indeed, aside from a few good but far from all-time classic tracks here, what was most notable about Black and Blue was that Ronnie Wood emerged as the band's official second guitarist. He wasn't nearly the player technically that Taylor was, and in retrospect it's clear now that he had already done his best work with Rod Stewart and The Faces, but personality-wise Wood fit in with the band much better than Taylor or Jones, which is why he's still in the band 30+ years later.
Some Girls (Virgin ’78) Rating: A-
With Wood now a full-time member and emerging as a key contributor, the Stones were briefly reenergized, and if Some Girls isn't quite as good as the prime albums from their late-'60s/early-'70s heyday, it wasn't too far behind and it's better than anything that the band has done since. Wood and Richards' rich guitar work is their best together on record, and the young punks over in the U.K. lit a fire under the old geezers, who were obviously paying attention to what was hip and popular. As such, "Miss You" shouldn't have come as too much of a surprise (remember my line in the previous review about Jagger being a trend jumping pop whore), even if it divided many of the band's fans who were none too keen to hear the Stones record a disco song. Still, the song was an enormous hit so obviously plenty of people did like it, yours truly included (I consider it a great guilty pleasure). Besides, the song is still guitar-based, Mick delivers an effectively nuanced vocal, and then there's Sugar Blue helping out on harmonica and Mel Collins' sax solo as well. It may not be your typical Stones song, but in retrospect that's a good thing, and the song has rightfully become regarded as a latter day Stones classic. Continuing, the stripped down "When The Whip Comes Down" is a fast-paced effort that's a tad on the generic side but which rocks so hard and has such a catchy chorus that it easily overcomes its shortcomings. Other fine rockers include the pissed off "Lies," which rocks righteously if rather generically, and the terrific "Respectable," a nasty yet catchy rocker that again betrays the influence of punk in the way that the slashing guitars rage. Elsewhere, the band again successfully revisits The Temptations catalog with an update of "Just My Imagination" (here titled simply "Imagination"), on which they turn the sweetest of ballads into an enjoyably melodic rocker, with Wood/Richards' rich guitar work again leading the way. The mid-tempo title track was controversial and got the band branded as sexist racists (mostly due to the line "black girls just want to get fucked all night"), but the lyrics were very likely tongue in cheek, and again its the guitars that really matter, plus Sugar Blue is again memorable on harmonica. "Far Away Eyes" is this album's country number, with Wood shining on pedal steel guitar. Sure, Mick's parodic vocals take some getting used to, but I find them amusing and at times hilarious, and the harmonies are easily singable, making for a minor yet enjoyable album track. On the "major album track" side is "Before You Make Me Run," often referred to as "Keith's outlaw anthem." This song alludes to Keith's situation at the time, as he was awaiting his fate after a recent drug bust in Canada. It's quite possible that the uncertainty about what would happen to Keith helped give this album an urgency that other recent albums lacked; this could've been the last Stones album, period, for all they knew. Fortunately, despite much fretting, Keith's actual punishment was quite lenient, as per usual, but back to this strong song, which is notable for Keith's scruffy yet effective off-key singing and the way Wood and Richards play off one another. Finally, the album ends with a spectacular 1-2 punch with two tracks that still get regular FM airplay: "Beast Of Burden," which is simply one of the band's best ballads ever (my wife loves it), and "Shattered," a strange, twitchy rocker most notable for Mick's idiosyncratic vocals (even if he again barks rather than sings too often on this song and others). On the whole, the Stones sound like they have something to prove on this album, and despite some generic moments Some Girls became the band's best selling album ever for good reason. In addition to successfully trying out different styles, as well as delivering prototypical "Stonesy" rockers, this gritty, streetwise album is notable for the way that it brings New York City vibrantly to life, which as a native New Yorker I find extremely appealing. You see, Mick had ditched Bianca and was now regularly seen frolicking in NYC hot spots such as Studio 54 with model Jerry Hall, who he had swiped from the suave Roxy Music leader Bryan Ferry (but hey Mick was a bigger rock star!). Given that this album is primarily Mick's triumph, with a major assist from the others of course, I tend to think of Some Girls as the band's "New York City album," but more than that it is simply a great rock album that despite minor flaws I find enjoyable from start to finish.
Emotional Rescue (Virgin ’80) Rating: C+
Major slump, as much of this album is comprised of leftovers from Some Girls, as the Stones were getting lazy at this point. Heck, they could afford to, as the disappointing quality of this album didn’t affect them at the gate (it was another U.S./U.K. #1), and on a heartening note at least Keith was both free and drug free at this point. Still, by now the band’s too often pedestrian riff rockers (“Summer Romance,” “Let Me Go,” “Where The Boys Go”) were instantly forgettable and difficult to distinguish from one another. At least “Summer Romance” has guitar work that Mick Taylor wouldn’t be completely embarrassed to attach his name to, and I always get a chuckle when the girls come in at the end of “Where The Boys Go,” but these are average tracks at best. That’s more than can be said for “Send It To Me,” another ghastly reggae attempt that’s better than “Cherry On Baby” but which still sucks, as most of the band’s experimental attempts, where they branch out beyond their comfort zone, fail to work beyond perhaps being “so bad they’re good” guilty pleasures. For example, “Dance Pt. 1,” the third funkily danceable album opener in a row, has a good groove (with an assist from ex-Santana percussionist Michael Shrieve) and I like its singable “ooh and it's got me moving” vocal hook, but the song is also an overly busy mess on which Mick raps more than he actually sings. “Indian Girl” is decidedly different with its mellow tropical island flavor, but that doesn’t mean it’s actually good, and I can still remember my shock upon first hearing the hit title track. Granted, this song has a good slinky mid-tempo groove, and Bobby Keyes’ sax playing is always a plus (when your session sax player is the standout performer on an album, something is probably wrong), but the song is severely compromised by Mick’s fruity, much-mocked falsetto vocals, plus the spoken word section is completely laughable. This album’s “Keith song,” “All About You,” isn’t anything special musically but it is notable due to its subject matter, since it is seemingly autobiographical and much more personal than most Stones songs. Basically, this slow ballad is a bittersweet goodbye to Anita Pallenberg, with whom he spent 12 years together and fathered three children; the final straw was when a 17 year old died allegedly playing Russian Roulette at his home when he wasn’t there. Anyway, the final “so how come I’m still in love with you?” kicker makes the song for me, but really there are only two songs here that I’d even consider for my eventual Rolling Stones playlist. “Down In The Hole” is a gritty, moody, intense blues on which Sugar Blue again helps out on harmonica while Mick adds impassioned vocals and Richards/Wood wail on guitar. The other highlight is the catchy minor hit “She’s So Cold,” one of several rockabilly tinged efforts and by far the best one. Still, it says something that this admittedly enjoyable but relatively minor CCR knockoff, which is widely regarded as this album’s best song, likely would’ve been the fifth best song on the much-maligned (at the time, anyway) Goats Head Soup! All in all, there’s no way to sugar coat that this was easily the least inspired Rolling Stones album to date, though it would soon have competition on that front after one last ditch grasp at greatness.
Tattoo You (Virgin ’81) Rating: A-
Although this was basically another album of leftovers, this time they were good leftovers. Besides, nobody knew it at the time, the band deliberately omitting credits on the album, thereby screwing Wayne Perkins and Mick Taylor one last time. The band must’ve gotten a laugh at all the reviews talking about what a great “comeback” this album was, and it went on to be a huge seller (9 weeks at #1), while the band’s subsequent tour was a monstrous success also notable for being the first tour supported by corporate sponsorship (not a positive development but an important one to note). The band would later subsequently admit that most of these tracks (aside from “Neighbors” and “Heaven”) were old songs, some going as far back as '72; much credit is due to producer Chris Kimsey, who sorted through the large stash of discards and provided the band with the starting points (taken almost equally from sessions from the past four albums) that they (mostly Mick) then used to elaborate on, rewrite, or re-record. Tattoo You can be conveniently divided into the rock side (what used to be side one on the record) and then the ballad side (tracks 7-11), the latter of which I prefer since it is more consistent and has an enticing “chill out” vibe. Side one is good too, starting with “Start Me Up,” a classic riff rocker with a catchy harmonized chorus that became an instant concert favorite and radio standard. “Hang Fire” also received airplay back in the day (not so much anymore, though) and is notable mostly for its controversial lyrics critical of their U.K. homeland and for being a delightful ode to ‘50s doo-wop (what with its memorably singable “doo doo doo doo” backing vocals). “Slave” is basically a single repeated riff and phrase, and though it’s not much of a song proper (more like an elongated jam) I rather like it, even if the most interesting contributions are made by the session musicians (Preston, Hopkins, and legendary jazz saxophonist Sonny Rollins). The Keith-sung “Little T&A” is a sly little groover, likely about new flame and future wife Patti Hansen, that features a catchy chorus alongside blaring guitars. A minor track, perhaps, but a winner just the same and one of Keith’s best vocal showcases, and I also like (but don’t love) “Black Limousine,” a nostalgic, bluesy rocker on which Mick’s harp and Stewart’s boogie piano are prominent, plus I like the lashing guitars as well. Unfortunately, side one ends with a letdown, as “Neighbors” is kinda catchy but also annoying due to Mick’s obnoxious vocals (there he goes barking again) and an overly loud drum sound (very ‘80s). Fortunately, the stronger second side begins with “Worried About You,” which features a far better usage of those fruity falsettos and layered vocals than “Emotional Rescue,” that’s for sure. There’s also a soaring guitar solo, likely courtesy of Wayne Perkins (obviously this song originated from the Black and Blue sessions), and the next track, “Tops,” features more falsetto harmonies and is lightly funky, that is until Mick Taylor lets ‘er rip (this song originated from the Goats Head Soup sessions). My only complaint is that I wish they would’ve let him solo longer, but in 30+ years Wood hasn’t had a moment to himself quite as impressive as this; I’m sorry, I love Ronnie’s work with Rod Stewart and The Faces, but he was never a particularly good match with the Stones, though I suppose his drug habit was as big a problem as being suppressed by Richards. Anyway, back to this album: “Heaven” is an effectively dreamy mood piece, and “No Use In Crying” another solid effort notable for its ragged harmonies, but it is “Waiting On A Friend,” a wonderful ode to friendship and each other, that provides the highlight on side two and along with “Start Me Up” is probably the last Rolling Stones song that can legitimately be called an all-time classic. This evocative ballad features great vocals (lead and backing) that are deeply affecting, Mick Taylor and Nicky Hopkins again shine, and the icing on the cake is provided by Rollins, who adds perhaps the most famous sax soloing on any Stones song (possible exception being Bobby Keyes’ work on "Brown Sugar"). Sure, you could complain that this soft ballad is “adult contemporary,” with all the negative connotations that label implies, but even so it is still of the highest possible standard. Of course, I wouldn't say that about Tattoo You on the whole, because lets face it any album of leftovers isn't likely to compare well to the band’s earlier purple patch (Beggars through Exile). However, this is a consistently enjoyable album with several classic tracks and a minimum of filler, and in retrospect Tattoo You was the last truly necessary Rolling Stones studio album.
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