regardless of what you might think of their questionable exploits in the last 20 years or so, there can be little argument that no one exemplifies the term “rock and roll band” more than the Rolling Stones do. They are the seeds from which all others have sprung: They had the first death by misadventure, the first drug problems, the first tax problems, the first glamorous girlfriends—pretty much every cliche synonymous with rock stars today. While 40 years of such behavior has gotten them labeled as dinosaurs in their twilight years, in those halcyon days of the 1960s, the Rolling Stones were about as cool as it got.

While some might be tempted to pass this mantle to the Beatles, for this writer, it’s never even been close. The “Beatles Vs. Stones” argument has been raging for four decades now, and will likely continue for four more. The debate has always seemed rather silly to me, and yet, in bar debates or across the counters of record stores, I would always come down on the side of the Stones, regardless of whatever embarrassing sell-out move or questionable tour support they might have pulled lately. I’ve never been one for self-reflection, but when thinking about this piece, I started to think about it—I really do love both bands, and have for a long time. So why are the Stones always my choice? My answer cuts to the heart of the matter, and, to me anyway, sums up the difference between the two bands—it’s something chemical. The Beatles might be more pleasing to one’s ears, eyes and brains, but the Stones always head straight for your guts, your crotch and your soul. It’s no contest as to where I’d rather be grabbed.

For as wild and crazy as the later years—especially the 1970s—might have gotten, the Stones were never wilder musically than in their first era, from 1963 to 1965. Sure, the band were still playing primarily blues and R&B covers, but they played them with more passion, energy and invention than any other such bands popping up around London at the time, Beatles included. Compare the Beatles cover recordings on their Live At The BBC set to the Stones itinerary at the time and you’ll find that the Stones out rock them every time. Hell, the early live Stones experience made the Beatles look like Pat fucking Boone. Check out the live tracks on December’s Children or the U.S. version of Out Of Our Heads, or the original U.K. Got Live If You Want It EP—the Stones make the Stooges and the MC5 sound like pikers. So-called “purist” blues groups like the Yardbirds lacked the gritty, loose quality that gave the Stones their sound—compare a young Eric Clapton to Keith Richards and Brian Jones: Clapton sounds like he’s playing from a guitar manual, while Brain and Keith sound like they’re trying to burn their amps from the inside out, simultaneously inventing and perfecting the two-guitar rhythm/lead attack and dropping truly bold amounts of distortion into the mix. Such screaming guitar noise may seem pedestrian by today’s standards, but compared to Paul McCartney singing “Til There Was You” for the Queen of England, it was positively punk rock. The Rolling Stones were the world’s first—and arguably, still the best—garage band.

While their debut single was essentially a non-event (a revved up cover of Chuck Berry’s “Come On” released in the U.K. in June 1963), the Stones’ second 45 was an entirely different matter altogether. Allegedly dashed off by John Lennon and Paul McCartney in under 30 minutes after bumping into Mick and Keith in the street lamenting a lack of new original tunes right for the band, “I Wanna Be Your Man” saw the Stones take British pop music to places not even dreamed of to that point. A relentless, frenetic track that threatens to jump off the rails any second, “I Wanna Be Your Man” was a pretty simple tune at the heart of it—banal lyrics, no bridge, utterly repetitive—and in fact, the Beatles themselves thought so little of it that they let Ringo sing their “heavy samba” recording of the tune. But in the Stones thrashing, primitive hands, it was a blazing thing of glory. Led by Brian Jones stinging, distorted slide riffing, “I Wanna Be Your Man” saw the rest of the band locking down into pure driving rhythm mode with staggering results. A rare early-60s 45 that still sounds somewhat shocking today, “I Wanna Be Your Man” achieved many firsts for the Rolling Stones: it was their first major British chart hit, their first direct comparison point with the Beatles, and the first of their fairly radical reinterpretations of someone else’s material.

The problem was solved with their next single release, a hypercharged take on Buddy Holly’s “Not Fade Away.” Despite the fact that they were attacking acoustic guitars rather than electric ones, the band sounded more crackling then ever, shifting Holly’s mid-tempo rocker into an altogether different gear. With Richards chugging the rhythm and Brian Jones huffing along on a steamy harmonica, “Not Fade Away” was an inventive take on the material that had inspired the Stones to play music in the first place. Sure, they were still essentially just a cover band at this point, but they were probably the most original cover band in history, deconstructing classic blues, early rock and r&b down to a core element and rebuilding them from the ground up with noise, energy and attitude to spare.

The Stones finally released their debut album in the U.K. in April 1964, followed by the U.S. version a month later. At first glance, the differences between the two releases seem slight: the U.S. version added the recent single “Not Fade Away” as the first track on the album and dropped the Bo Diddley-ish “Mona” from the album. But a closer look shows a bit more had changed than initially meets the eye. For one thing, the cover art was slightly different: Both versions featured the same moody profile shot of the band, but the U.S. version added the words “England’s Newest Hitmakers The Rolling Stones” in large letters across the top of the jacket, while the U.K. version took the rather radical approach of having the band’s photo stand alone, with nothing else save the Decca records logo. While the U.S. cover didn’t look bad, per se, compared to it’s U.K. counterpart, it was lacking the ballsy attitude that led the young lions to think that they didn’t even need to put their names on the cover of their debut album.

The other main difference comes from the choice of leadoff track. While the U.S. version leads off with the familiar tones of “Not Fade Away,” the U.K. version kicks off in roaring style with a stomping rendition of the standard “Route 66.” “Not Fade Away” might be aggressive, but the Stones driving take on “Route 66” makes it sound like a quaint little folk tune. Highlighted by a remarkably taut drum-and-bass groove, Jagger’s perfectly rhythmic vocals and some truly stinging guitar fills, “Route 66” shows right away that the Stones mean business. The whole thing barrels along, appropriately enough, like a car with no brakes, finally collapsing in a breathless heap after about the most exciting two-minutes-plus committed to vinyl at that point. Daringly distorted and dynamic, “Route 66” is unquestionably one of the Stones’ most inspired cover versions.

The band’s next full-length efforts marked the real beginning of the band’s U.K. vs. U.S. catalog issues: 12 X 5, the U.S. sophomore effort, issued in October 1964, and Rolling Stones No. 2 in the U.K. in January of 1965. Of the two, 12 X 5 is unquestionably the better album, thanks primarily to its inclusion of the entire U.K. 5 X 5 EP (significantly recorded at Chess Studios in Chicago while Muddy Waters allegedly painted the ceiling) and the successful 45, “It’s All Over Now.” While both albums were hampered by perhaps the worst cover tune the band would ever attempt (a truly awful take on “Under The Boardwalk”), one could clearly see the band starting to develop their own distinct musical identity. Throughout the proceedings, the guitars are more distorted and raw, the vocals more stylized; the originals are better written efforts and the covers are starting to sound less like other’s material than like the Stones’ own. And oh, yeah—“Suzie Q” is about the most amazing 1:50 ever recorded, from Charlie Watts’ thundering lead-in to the fuzzed out riffs to the positively sizzling solo on the fadeout. Highly recommended for anyone who thinks that records from 38 years ago didn’t have any real teeth.

The other significant revelation emanating from these grooves is bassist Bill Wyman, long lamented as the Stones’ weakest link. OK, so Wyman’s awful haircut and stonefaced demeanor might have had something to do with that as well, but his bass playing really comes into its own here, especially on the Chicago-recorded material. U.K. recording studios weren’t as equipped to handle the bottom end as U.S. ones were, and the evidence is startlingly clear on the new ABKCO remasters of the Stones catalog, where the bass and drums are generally improved more than any other aspect of the music; one can generally hear a distinct audible difference between tunes recorded in the U.S. and U.K. studios. After years of thinking Wyman was an utter wanker, I was recently turned by the compelling aural evidence of the remasters. Want proof of Wyman’s worth? Check out the rock-solid groove he lays down on the instrumental “2120 South Michigan Avenue,” or the positively elephantine fuzz bass in the left channel of “It’s All Over Now.” Guaranteed to blow you away, even if it won’t make you forget that awful yellow suit from the Tattoo You tour.

In November 1964, between the release of 12 X 5 and Rolling Stones No. 2, the Stones released what would be their final blues single, coincidentally also the last non-original 45 for a number of years: “Little Red Rooster.” Easily the Stones most authentically “blues” recording, the 45 is highlighted by a stellar Brian Jones slide guitar part and Jagger’s lazy, drawling vocal. The fact that the Stones took an authentic slow blues number to the number one spot on the U.K. charts illustrates how remarkably open-minded music fans were in the 60s, as well as serving testament to the popularity of the Stones, and their unwillingness to do things any way but their own.

While the Jagger/Richards songwriting team showed marked improvement on the above albums (check out “Grown Up Wrong” for one of the band’s most raggedly lopsided rhythm tracks—and possibly the most recorded mistakes), 1965 would prove to be the year when they developed some serious chops. In the ensuing 12 months, Jagger and Richards would unleash the gloriously cyclical “The Last Time,” the relentlessly tough-minded ballad “Heart Of Stone,” the amphetamine rush of “Satisfaction” and “Get Off Of My Cloud,” and the stunning atmospherics of “Play With Fire,” along with a solid set of album tracks and b-sides that your average garage band would give their left nut to have come up with. On a serious songwriting roll, and astoundingly prolific (five albums worth of material between the U.S. and the U.K.), the world would soon be at their feet.

First out of the chute was the U.S.-only Rolling Stones, Now! in April 1965, a Frankenstein-esque album, featuring material ranging all the way back to the first album (the previously displaced “Mona,” which sounds painfully dated and out of place by comparison just a year later), “Little Red Rooster,” the remaining material from No. 2 that wasn’t included on 12 X 5 and a handful of exclusive tracks to boot. The remainder of 1965 album releases beg to be grouped together as a trio: the U.S. and U.K. versions of Out Of Our Heads and December’s Children, released in August, September and December 1965, respectively. Not only does the material on these releases overlap significantly, so does the cover art (between the U.K. Heads and Children) and album titles (the two Heads, oddly enough, even though the other two albums have the same cover photo). Confused? Just wait until you check out those track listings.

Despite the fact that the material is at its most jumbled amongst these albums, it’s also at its highest quality. The U.S. Heads features essential singles “Satisfaction” (see if you can finally hear the piano track on the new remasters) and “The Last Time,” an incendiary live version of concert-favorite “I’m Alright,” and the utterly essential “Play With Fire.” The U.K. version only features four Jagger/Richards originals amongst its dozen tracks, but without the distraction of hit singles interrupting the flow of things, the album actually hangs together better than either of the U.S. albums.

At this point, the Stones were positively huge, and one could sense the confidence and swagger oozing off the vinyl. Where previous ballads might have found Jagger trying to croon his way through with faux-Marvin Gaye smoothness, on later slowies like “Cry To Me” and “That’s How Strong My Love Is” Jagger makes the tunes his own, screaming and rasping in a way that the 1964 model never could, conjuring images of sex and booze (and booze-fuelled sex) with the sheer tone of his voice. At this point, Jagger could have sung from a maintenance manual and gotten the girls’ panties wet. It speaks volumes of the band’s growing power as a unit that even the ballads rock.

Both the U.K. Heads and December’s Children lead off with the same track, the astonishing “She Said Yeah.” Led by one of the dirtiest, crunchiest guitar riffs in history, Jagger’s insistent shout (light years from the 1964 model) and Motown-derived backing vocals from Keith, “She Said Yeah” is an all-out adrenaline rush that sounds as if it could have been recorded yesterday—except most of today’s bands lack the balls to pull this off. Compare this to the Beatles’ “rocking” album opener the same year, “Drive My Car” and you’ll kick yourself for ever thinking the Liverpudlian moptops had anything on Mick and the boys. It’s positively punk.

It’s rather ironic that the last track on the final Stones album of 1965 would be an overloaded live version of “I’m Moving On”: the Stones next phase would begin in earnest with 1966’s Aftermath, their first album of all-original material, and things would never be the same. The band moved away from their bluesy roots and became a genuine pop band (albeit one with a consistent bluesy undercurrent), and as a result (or perhaps vice-versa) Brian Jones would quickly dissolve into a haze of booze and pills and powders. It was the end of one era, but the beginning of an equally classic one.

As fantastic as Aftermath (and most everything beyond it) is, however, there’s an argument to be made that the Stones never stretched out as comfortably in their own material as they did in their early cover-band days. While they certainly were innovators in the years to come, the Stones were never as fiery playing their own material as they were tearing into an old r&b nugget like “Route 66” or “She Said Yeah.” And as countless awful tribute albums in recent years prove, it’s often more difficult to make someone else’s song your own than it is to write your own. There’s plenty new to be discovered in this old band—if you’re listening to these sides for the first time, know that I am green with envy—and every fan of every type of guitar rock owes it to him or herself to check out some (or preferably all) of this material. Even if you don’t deem them worthy of your respect now, the Rolling Stones earned it years ago.

Pop’s Off: 1966-1967: Two Years Of The Rolling Stones
Matthew Weiner


Before they were “The World’s Greatest Rock �N Roll Band,” the Rolling Stones were one of the greatest pop groups, too. Celebrating the first ever release of their Sixties albums on CD with their original tracklisting, Matthew Weiner looks back at their work from 1966-67.

There’s a uniquely Rolling Stones moment on “Something Happened To Me Yesterday,” the closing track on 1967’s Between the Buttons. Essentially their contribution to the seemingly endless line of music hall-era throwbacks of the time (replete with big band, tuba and a toe-tapping melody), the track, by all due rights, should be abysmal—exactly the sort of thing the Stones, reigning bad boys of rock n’ roll, should be avoiding at all costs.

The song begins inauspiciously, with Mick singing of something “groovy” happening to him over Benny Goodman-like clarinet. He’s followed by Keith, bellowing the irritatingly-ingratiating chorus: “He don't know if it's right or wrong/Maybe he should tell someone/He's not sure just what it was/Or if it's against the law.” And when Mick starts embellishing the Thirties feel with quaint McCartney-isms like, “take your partner,” it’s no wonder some thought the Rolling Stones had become pathetic sell-outs to the prevailing pop fashions of the time.

Ah, but then comes the punchline: “Something Happened To Me Yesterday” is about taking acid. Music your parents could love...if it weren’t about drugs. Suddenly, not only does it all make sense, but the song’s instantly transformed from forgettable throwaway into yet another sly, brilliant fuck-you to the establishment, courtesy of your Rolling Stones, reigning bad boys of rock n’ roll.

When we think of the Rolling Stones, it’s fairly safe to say that the first thing that comes to mind for most of us isn’t “pop”—the kind associated with teen idols, old timey crooners and boy bands. “Rock group,” sure, but after all the deaths, near-deaths, blood transfusions, drug busts and all around sleaze, you’re as likely to use the sugary sweet descriptor when talking about G.G. Allin as you are the Rolling Stones.

But look back to the early 1960s, a different time to be sure, when no act made it big without getting haircuts and wearing silly three-piece suits and sweater vests that generally made them look like they were dressed for Sunday dinner at their grandparents’. Look back and you will find no band more uncomfortable being shoehorned into that look than the Rolling Stones.

Of course, they worked hard and fast to shed that image over the last forty years. But the Rolling Stones’ transformation into the World’s Greatest Rock n’ Roll Band didn’t happen overnight. On the way there, with records like Aftermath, Between the Buttons and a run of the greatest singles of all time, they would challenge the aristocratic establishment that raised them by chronicling its nervous breakdowns and pill-popping ways. And when they were finished, they discarded that establishment altogether.

And that’s where our story really begins.

With 1965’s “Get Off of My Cloud” and “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction,” the Rolling Stones had graduated from the ranks of British Invasion bands. No longer mere upstarts, the Stones were now poised to take on the Beatles.

And with the release of four epochal singles in early 1966—the ecstatic proto-punk of “19th Nervous Breakdown,” “Paint It Black,” “Mother’s Little Helper,” and “Have You Seen Your Mother, Baby, Standing In the Shadow?”—they made their move. Sparked by the newly discovered songwriting prowess of Mick Jagger and Keith Richards and the exotic, subtly daring experimentation of Brian Jones, the Stones were no longer simply espousing British youth’s disenchantment with the status quo—they were actively taking on the established order.

Over a rollicking, swelling shuffle, “Breakdown” spoke to the rich, bratty kids that the Stones grew up with and what they had to look forward to. In typical fashion, Jagger offered a dreary, fatalist critique of the price to be paid by those with nothing to add to the sixties’ discourse. “Paint It Black”—possibly the bleakest song in the Rolling Stones catalog—addressed the darkness lurking around corner for their generation. Looking back at the song today, it still maintains a frightening power (“I see the girls walk by dressed in their summer clothes/I have to turn my head until my darkness goes”), its mantra-like sitar-riff—particularly the Shankar-ian guitar intro—clearly influencing the Doors for their equally-downbeat “The End.” Only a rocking chorus relieves an otherwise sinister tension.

Next on an increasingly nihilist agenda, the Stones unmistakably set their sights on their parents’ generation, with the US-only single, “Mother’s Little Helper.” With the opening line, “What a drag it is getting old,” “Helper” hit a nerve, enhancing our boys’ reputation as misogynist pigs by mercilessly poking fun at bored, suburban housewives. Perhaps more dangerously, the song implied none-too-subtly that the generation who’d fought and won the war had about outlived its usefulness.

It was a point “Have You Seen Your Mother, Baby, Standing In the Shadow?” (which the band promoted dressed in drag) drove home, but without its predecessor’s lightheardedness. With an overstuffed, menacing production replete with brass flourishes and slathered in echo and thunderous fuzz-bass, “Shadow” implied that mom was doing more with her time than simply popping pills and waiting for dad to come home. Though the suggestion of infidelity was perhaps the reason the song failed to chart as high as the group’s previous singles, the four singles sent an unmistakable message to the War Generation:

“Step aside and sod off.”

So how did five middle-class boys transform themselves from blues also-rans to chart-topping threats to the establishment? Credit one Andrew Loog Oldham.

Until his sacking in early 1968 following the critical and commercial failure of the Satanic Majesties psychedelic opus, manager, producer and enfant terrible Loog Oldham was in many ways the guiding light behind the Rolling Stones’ success, making the Stones notorious stars with guerilla press tactics presenting the band as the dark side of the British Invasion. Loog Oldham had fallen in love with the band at first sight, vowing to do whatever it took to make them famous. And make them famous he did, publishing ads like the infamous “Would You Let Your Sister Go With A Rolling Stone?” clip that only made the sisters want to go with a Rolling Stone even more.

By mid-decade, Loog Oldham shrewdly recognized that Bo Diddley tribute bands had a limited shelf life, and moved to transform the Rolling Stones into a veritable hitmaking machine. Knowing the precedent the Beatles had set, Loog Oldham’s first steps were to have the band make complete albums. That started with encouraging Mick and Keith to write together.

Though the effort began tentatively, the Jagger-Richards collaboration would bear considerable fruit within only a few years of the pair writing their first song together. At the same time the band was recording albums like Aftermath, Jagger and Richards were laying down fascinating demos of Stones and otherwise uncollected songs with the “Andrew Loog Oldham Orchestra,” many of which are at last available on the long out-of-print compilation Metamorphosis.

Often recorded as guides for other artists, versions of songs like Aftermath’s “Out of Time” take on an added appeal when compared to the Stones’ other work of the period. Where the latter, extended version of the song was sparse, featuring Bill Wyman on marimba, the orchestral “demo” of “Out of Time” would be utterly transformed into a massive Spector-ian production, with sawing cellos and a chorus that whomps with a soulful, Wagnerian grandeur even the classic original doesn’t have. If not the “definitive” version, per se (the backing track became a #1 hit with Chris Farlowe’s vocal), its success outside of the classic Aftermath was one example of the pair’s arrival as a major songwriting presence by the mid-Sixties.

As predicted by Loog Oldham, that presence began to show up in the form of consistent records. 1966’s Aftermath, the group’s first classic long-player, features a wider palette only their singles had hinted at previously, including the delicate “I Am Waiting” and the arch “Lady Jane,” in which Jagger counts the many fair and tender ladies he has conquered, predating the kind of medieval minstrelry that Richard Harris and Jimmy Webb would fashion three years later to great critical and commercial success. “Stupid Girl” and the popping Motown groove of “Under My Thumb,” in which Jagger sneers his girl is a “squirmin’ dog who’s just had her day,” were the most blatantly misogynist Jagger lyrics to date, with the singer fashioning a decadent persona that would be the calling card of the Stones’ work for decades. Even the blues jam of “Going Home,” which on earlier records would have been treated as mere filler, is here transformed into an epic production, clocking in at more than eleven minutes, with tempo changes and an unprecedented textural sophistication.

1967’s Between the Buttons, meanwhile, found the band further venturing into the pop realm, with its jazzy, textured opener, “Yesterday’s Papers” the music-hall vibe of “Cool, Calm, Collected” and “Something Happened To Me Yesterday,” and the proto-power pop of “Miss Amanda Jones.” The influence of the Kinks was undeniable, resulting in their least blues-oriented record yet. And with the success of the fantastic double A-side, “Let’s Spend the Night Together/Ruby Tuesday” the Stones had firmly established themselves as a bonafide pop group. But for the band, as the next year would make abundantly clear, pop was just another hat—albeit one with a pink, frilly plume.

As compelling as their sixties music was, the manner in which the Stones’ records were marketed shouldn’t be overlooked. First and foremost, the sleeve art cut an iconic image; those photos of albums like Between the Buttons, with the band bundled in overcoats, are as enduring as any of the Stones music during that time.

But one of the least recognized but most telling aspects of the Stones’ legacy is how that music was sold. Because this was the Sixties, Decca/London, the Rolling Stones’ UK/US labels respectively, never quite figured whether to issue singles separate from albums or to just take the singles from the albums themselves. The result was often confusing, with UK editions taking the former path, while the US opted to drop a few album tracks for their editions in favor of the hit singles. It’s not hard to understand why Greil Marcus later wrote, “Don't be surprised when you buy "Ruby Tuesday" for the fourth time, come a year from now” in a review of one of the many hits compilations that subsequently became available. Though each compilation seemed like it contained the same collection of songs—“Paint It Black,” “Mother’s Little Helper,” “Ruby Tuesday,” Decca would shrewdly include a gem like “Have You Seen...” that was heretofore unavailable on LP.

Aside from being maddeningly frustrating for the consumer, the marketing strategy had the effect of increasing exponentially the hysteria for an already hysterical audience. It seemed owning everything by the band was always out of reach. Given how that’s a sensation that has continued for thirty years with the recent ABKCO reissues, which have no bonus tracks and a few recordings still missing, its incompleteness is likely no coincidence.

By the time of Their Satanic Majesties Request, the Rolling Stones were—somewhat ironically—leading members of the rock aristocracy—second to only the Beatles in terms of chart dominance. But times were changing. Loog Oldham, his influence on the band fading, was gone from the producer’s chair and soon would be fired as manager. Jones, Jagger and Richards were involved in drug busts by an ever-more threatened establishment. And the decidedly un-Stones-ish psychedelic music was in. Love-ins not being the band’s forte aside, it didn’t stop them from taking a stab at it.

The word on Satanic Majesties from the start was that it was an unfocused, phony, bandwagon-jumping load of pap—sort of the musical equivalent of Sinatra getting “with it” when he donned love beads and sandals following his marriage to Mia Farrow. In the last decade or so, however, a dramatic revisionism has taken place. As the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper has been downgraded from masterpiece to classic, many claim Satanic Majesties—which featured Lennon and McCartney on backup vocals and even imitated Sgt. Pepper’s artwork—to be unjustly neglected. Some have even called the record one of the high watermarks of psychedelia.

A more objective reading of the record brings the hyperbole back down to earth. The Stones were clearly grappling with psychedelia—specifically, how they could adapt to it. And they did succeed—but only partly.

With the double A-side “We Love You” and “Dandelion” single released prior Satanic Majesties, the Stones’ dilemma was on most obvious display. Where the latter track was Jagger’s obvious and failed attempt at flower-power pop right down to its name, the rollicking “We Love You,” opening with the sound of a jail cell door slamming, was a double-edged, bitter put-down of both the hippie movement and the justice system that had now turned the tables on them, with its verse:
You will never win 'we'
Your uniforms don't fit 'we'
We forget the place we're in
'Cause we love you
We love you
Of course we do
“We Love You” was a thinly veiled expression of the Rolling Stones’ disdain for hippies. Unfortunately, its sentiment wasn’t included on the bi-polar quickie that was Satanic Majesties. The record is fascinating from a production standpoint, with atonal brass, swirling, stuttering Mellotrons and strings complimenting fuzz-bass and thunderous percussion. But Satanic Majesties strains to convince the listener that “We Love You” was a fluke—that they’ve really bought into sentiments like love-ins and “singing this altogether.” As an espousal of hippie dogma, the record’s a joke.

Still, Satanic Majesties is an engaging, if not consistently compelling listen. In spite of (and in some cases, because of) unexceptional songwriting, the record is Jones’s moment in the sun, with the opportunity at last to experiment wildly. As a consequence, several tracks are fine, if not classic examples of psychedelic rock, including the fuzz-toned “Citadel” and Bill Wyman’s effects-laden “In Another Land,” which sounds like a lost outtake from the Piper at the Gates of Dawn. And the record has two classics, including the proto-space rock of “2000 Light Years From Home.” A menacing bad trip, “Light Years” is augmented by Jones’ creepy Mellotron, Wyman’s popping bass and the storming drums of Charlie Watts. It’s no wonder the song was long ago critically resurrected as the record’s tour de force.

But again exposing the dark/light discrepancy between the Stones’ approach to psychedelic music, “She’s A Rainbow” was the hit that should have been. Where the accomplished melody and arrangement of “Dandelion” were obscured by the track’s unconvincing grasp at flower power rhetoric, “She’s A Rainbow”—a simple lysergic ode to a mystical hippie girl—suffered no such fate, with majestic Mellotron brass, a striking piano figure and massive hook. Perhaps even more so than “2000 Light Years From Home,” “She’s A Rainbow” is the track from the era that deserves belated classic status.

But the band were among the first to dismiss the record, with the criticism of the ever-cynical Richards particularly harsh. In the wake of Satanic Majesties’ critical failure, the Stones quickly regrouped to record the classic “Jumping Jack Flash” and Beggar’s Banquet, which found the band definitively arriving at the jaded blues-rock that would become their hallmark for the ages. Along with The White Album, the rootsy back-to-basics quality of Beggar’s Banquet would signal the end of a movement that had reached its apex with Sgt. Peppers. All across the industry, from the Beatles to Dylan to the Beach Boys, stripped-down arrangements and painful sincerity were the order of the day. Big productions—ambition with a capital A—were finished.

In retrospect, it all seems fine, if a little boring. Even if Beggar’s Banquet and Let It Bleed are as “classic” as the Stones get, it’s a little safer by comparison, as if nothing were at stake.

Of course, things were still at stake. Viet Nam was ongoing and increasingly bloody. Hard drugs were in. And the dreaded Richard Nixon was president. Without question, by the time of the murderous disaster that was the Altamont music festival the next year, the world was experiencing the hangover of the sixties. Bad vibes and decadence were in to stay. By all accounts, the creators of “Paint It Black” and “Have You Seen Your Mother” should have been thrilled. “Out with the old,” right?

Well, maybe not. Even if they had been the ones ushering it all in, the Stones themselves didn’t seem to have the foggiest notion of what they’d wrought. The sight of Jagger meekly imploring the hopped-up, nasty Altamont crowd to calm down while performing the nasty “Under My Thumb” and “Sympathy For the Devil”—ironic to say the least—is evidence of that. All the Stones had done was to help tear down the establishment, with nothing—certainly not the band themselves—to fill the vacuum.

So maybe that’s why those anti-establishment records are so endlessly fascinating—more so, really, than the balls-out rock n’ roll they recorded since. Even if laughing at conformity or making fun of mom’s pill addiction isn’t exactly cutting edge anymore, for those of us too young to remember, these records remind us vividly of a time when it was. They’re the sound of youth—gifted, arrogant and hell-bent on burning it all down.

Whatever successes they’d have later on—and there were many to be sure—the Rolling Stones were never this vital again.


By: Todd Hutlock/Matthew Weiner
Published on: 2002-11-11
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