Silver Train keeps a runnin', running on down the line. While prog rock provided a spacial ambiance and musical mural of otherworldly landscapes, or quick precision-lightning fast guitar work, The Rolling Stones were quite the opposite; They were that oil-leaking Chevy that rumbled in the driveway. When the likes of other bands conjure up images of long-haired warriors with guitars and walls of amps, the Rolling Stones give us naked girls, empty beer bottles and heaping ashtrays. The differences between The Stones and any other bands were as profound as day from night.
The lure of The Rolling Stones wasn't as much the music--which was hot--but rather the attitude of the band. They weren't just bad boys on the block; they were unique in the sense that they just did what they wanted to do. They were the ones who didn't excel at voracious love songs, but anthemed dark sex, violence, anarchy, and invited you to into their world.What struck me the most about the Stones' persona was the fact that they just didn't seem to care what anybody else thought about them. They did what they did, end of story. As a kid growing up in the 60's, The Rolling Stones were just as important to me, and I loved their songs, but I was still a kid, and the music was just an ambiance to my play time. When I got older, started noticing girls and had older and more mature feelings, The Rolling Stones slowly began moving into the title of "The Greatest Rock and Roll Band in the World." There was no other rocket fuel in the world that could equal what The Rolling Stones presented in the 70's.
The Rolling Stones felt like a club that neither the heads nor the straights belonged to. They were a different populace, another world, the dark side of human nature. If there was ever a cigarette-on-the-tip-of-the-lip-beer-for-breakfast presence, they were it. I felt like I fit in perfectly with them. I, among the socially manacled loyal Stones fans, could appreciate them like no others. I often felt that I should have been one of them. It didn't take long once I figured out the harshness of the chord arrangements vs. lyrics that they soon became my absolute favorite rock and roll band.Keith Richards did not, and does not strum chords; he drives them, shifting gears, down-shifting, gliding in neutral, then stomping on the gas again to beef up a riff. His guitar was a switchblade. Mick's vocals were a deliberate swagger. Each Rolling Stone was unique in what they did and how they did it.
How many times has "Jumpin' Jack Flash" and "Satisfaction" been mimicked, copied, and covered over the years by hundreds of other bands? Who else mastered Chuck Berry tunes like they were related to the man? Answer: The Rolling Stones. Each album carried tunes with unseemly titles. Gritty, back alley, scratching their way through the vinyl, each Stones album for me was my own Jekyll/Hyde conversion. My bad side needed the Stones like it needed air to breathe, and again, it was great to have that RS persona, a dark side to revert to whenever needed.The Rolling Stones, 1964
Okay, enough preamble, time for a little backstory. Originally a blues band, The Rolling Stones have drawn record number audiences for fifty years! This is impressive. I can recall with clarity the first time I ever laid eyes on The Rolling Stones. It was winter of 1964, and they appeared to me as a mirror image of The Beatles, only in a back alley sort of way. They didn't dress uniformly, and their presence was snide. Their songs had an edge to them. These boys were unpolished, even I, at nine years of age, could see it. Fronted by a wiggling and writhing singer with a legendary stage presence, The Stones matched The Beatles with catchy tunes and memorable guitar riffs. Still, their presentation was rough. There was no safe and sweet glimmer about the boys that so plagued the imagery of many earlier 60's groups. When The Stones stepped out of the car, any sugar-coating was left in the trunk.
When the song "Satisfaction" came out, it turned the rock and roll world upside down. The hard "fuzz" sound of the guitar became in itself, an icon of sound. Songs like "Paint it Black" and "Under My Thumb" made me stop and re-visit how I saw my own existence. As a kid, I couldn't put my finger on the sound, nor could I really understand the harsh lyrics, but the sound was undeniable. There was something so wrong, so beautifully wrong about it that I just couldn't get enough. As far as their earlier songs go, "The Last Time" was the ultimate rocker and remains today in my top 10 of Rolling Stones tunes. Its errant riff repeating like a pulse was far too genius for mere words to describe.
The Rolling Stones' leader was guitarist Brian Jones.
Though more or less a silent and rather stern looking figure, Jones was running the band from the background. As a guitarist, he was great. His riffs on "Around and Around" from the album 12 x 5 were stove top hot. He had an edgy style, and seemed to be a corner stone of the band. Had he survived, his public exploits would have been legend, but at age 27, he was found dead at the bottom of his swimming pool. However, with escalating problems between Jones and the rest of the band, he was eventually dropped when he could not tour out-of-country due to pending drug convictions. When they recruited their new guitarist Mick Taylor, things began to really look up for The Stones. They began touring hard again and made their 70's presence a force so incredible that it re-bookmarked rock and roll as the world knew it.
In 1971 I picked up a bootleg album called "Liver Than You'll Ever Be" by the Rolling Stones. It began circulating the Pacific Northwest in 1970. This album became the mother of all bootlegs spurring several re-masters over the years. In truth, it should be archived into a national time capsule as it changed the face of live rock performances by offering us an illegal luxury: bootleg albums. Taken from a live show in Oakland, CA in 1969, it features some of their best touring material ever. The performances of "Prodigal Son," "You Gotta Move," and "Love in Vain," are some of the best "back porch blues" pieces I've ever heard. The record was a raw synthesis of pure animal rock n' roll, 6-string energy, traditional root-bound rock flavor, and the charisma of front men Mick Jagger and Keith Richards. This illegal LP not only fascinated me by its very existence--and the fact that I owned it--but for the untethered performances from the greatest rock and roll band in the world. This was my first live hearing of "Sympathy for the Devil" and I found it very difficult to return to the studio version ever again. I was thunderstruck at how five guys could take control of a stage and just slug it out with their nasty-but-nice riffs and sexual lyrics.
However, the album is still a bootleg, and its sound quality is like fingernails on a blackboard. This album version features the nicest slide guitar blues I've ever heard from Mick Taylor on "Love in Vain." The bootleg was released on "Lurch" records and was probably my proudest acquisition in the world of rock albums.
I always felt that Mick Taylor was an accident looking for a place to happen. First off, it seemed to me that there just couldn't be two "Micks" in the band. That was anti-protocol and therefore was a portent of wrong things to come. However, there was no wrong. Still, Mick Taylor just didn't seem like a "Rolling Stone." His guitar playing was top notch though, and his solos were as smooth as glass. It was just that it didn't seem like it wasn't going to be a lasting relationship. And it wasn't. But while it did last, it was the best stones lineup ever. Oddly enough, my loyalty wasn't nearly as strong as it should have been, for when Mick Taylor left the band, I left as well. There was something about the music that changed. I can't explain it, but the infusion of Ron Wood changed the look and style of the Rolling Stones forever. Ron, however, was a perfect fit. Perhaps if he'd been the first choice to replace Brian Jones the music would have been different.
A ton of incredibly valuable Rolling Stones information can be gathered by reading a wonderful book by Robert Greenfield called "Exile on Main Street: A Year in Hell with the Rolling Stones." Greenfield likewise alludes to the fact that Mick Taylor was not a good fit in the band, and any rowdy outside activities that the most engaged in, Mick T. was usually nowhere to be found. He seemed more like a session player, showing up for concerts and studio time, then evaporating into an invisible woodwork. I could feel that he just "wasn't there."
Death was in the air
for the doomed Altamont Speedway Free Festival. Saturday, December 6, 1969, at the Altamont Speedway in northern California was the setting for a seemingly normal and expected peaceful free concert which included several top name bands. Enter the Hell's Angels contracted to "keep the peace." Eighteen year old Meredith Hunter was reported to have been attempting to gain access to the stage as The Stones were playing. They were in the middle of "Sympathy for the Devil" when the violence erupted. Also reported was the fact that Hunter tried to pull a pistol from his lime green suit, and was stabbed in the ear, repeatedly kicked and beaten, and stabbed more times. He was pronounced dead at the scene. Something evil was already in the air as Jagger had been punched by a concertgoer the minute he emerged from a helicopter. In fear, the Rolling Stones immediately fled the concert after their performance.
Let it Bleed
In all fairness, and even though I'm only writing about the 70's Stones, it would be a sin to omit 1969's masterpiece "Let it Bleed." This LP saw the end of Brian Jones as a contributing member of the band, and introduced a whole new attitude within the ranks of The Rolling Stones. New guitarist Mick Taylor was recruited to fill in for Jones when a U.S. tour was planned, as Jones could not leave England due to outstanding drug warrants. There's so much country flavor on this record, and it journeys deep into the heart of one of their most beloved musical styles: the blues. Pound for British pound, The Rolling Stones are probably one of the best blues bands in the world. Their love for American music, country, skiffle and blues was deep and abiding, and they paid the ultimate homage and respect when it came to them. "Midnight Rambler" probably one of the most swaggering pieces ever written, is always great live, but on this album, it rocks. "Gimme Shelter" is a haunting, yet splendidly performed song. (The 70's Grand Funk Railroad paid a pretty decent tribute to it). "Gimme Shelter" zings in and out with a wonderfully slow chord picking sequence reportedly performed on an acoustic guitar amped with numerous distortions which broke during the recording of it. When the song takes off, it really takes off. The final additional vocals by the more-than-qualified Merry Clayton, bring absolute justice to an already perfect piece. One of my personal favorites is the title track "Let it Bleed" which I immediately took as an opaque slam to "Let it Be." "Well, we all need someone we can cream on, and if ya want it, well you can cream on me."
Get Yer Ya-Yas Out
"Get Yer Ya-Yas Out" was far too tame a live album for me, and as a release, felt mediocre. To this day I never listen to it. It's a cleaned up version of the Rolling Stones in concert. The bootlegs were by far more fun and felt raw though they suffered in quality. Still, "Ya-Ya's" is a beloved and cherished album by many Stones fans, and I'll admit I did, and still do, give it many a dedicated listen. There was nothing to match the animal stage presence of the bootlegs. However, The Stones did manage to massacre many of their greatest songs on stage, but in turn, that "live edge" was impossible for them to capture in the studio. "Midnight Rambler" was a decent version on this record.
Rolling Stone albums didn't get any better than "Sticky Fingers." First off, it was the first album to debut on their new label Rolling Stones Records with the "Hot Licks" icon that we Stones fans have come to know and love. However, the album had one bad thing going for it: the metal zipper on the cover. This album couldn't be stacked because that zipper would mangle other album covers. Therefore, it usually sat in the near front where the weight of other albums leaning on it couldn't harm anything. The songs on this record are first-rate, incredibly stylish, and wonderfully produced. I got this album in 1974, 3 years after its release. I was overly excited at having learned "Wild Horses" on my newly acquired acoustic guitar. "Can't You Hear Me Knocking?" has one of the hottest, and sexiest guitar intros of all time, then ending with a Santana-esque guitar flourish that makes this one a timeless piece. How many amongst us have played "Dead Flowers" over and over and over again? Then of course we have "Brown Sugar", another of a series of relentless guitar chords grinding out a frenzied cadence that aligns itself perfectly to the nasty lyrics.
Exile on Main Street
Exile on Main Street was a two-record set that I think I wore out so quickly I needed a backup copy. The damn thing got a skip on "Rocks Off" and "Happy", two songs that need to play out without interruption. The album is a rocker, probably one of their wildest, and marks a passage in time for the band that is probably a secret password to their untamed lifestyle. The book "Exile on Main Street: A Year in Hell with The Rolling Stones" by Robert Greenfield should be required reading for any loyal Stones fan, and offers tremendous insight into the band at the time, and the ensuing problems just getting the record made.
"Exile" was where we separated the men from the boys. There was a broken bottle edge to this album; it was back-alley gritty, cutting, and sharp. The top tier positions of my favorites were "Torn and Frayed", "Sweet Black Angel", "Sweet Virginia", "Rip This Joint", and "Tumbling Dice." Again, the album is yet another paean to American blues and country roots. It's my opinion that this is the only of the Rolling Stones albums that has that rebel flavor that attracted me to them to begin with. It looks and feels like a bootleg, only with great sound. "Rip This Joint" takes off like missile. The mariachi horns of "Rocks Off" add a strangely magnetic presence to the song. The tired ol' "Sweet Virginia" has a strong Gram Parsons-ish feel (He was at Nellcote when the record was trying to get made), and became a party sing-along favorite. We all just needed t' set down n' scrape the shit right off our shoooooz. This record is a blast from beginning to end. It is my favorite Stones album by far. Adding to its weird flavor is a strong sense of non-unity or conformity to its outer shell. The design of the album looks like a bland collage of useless, but odd postcards and scrap memorabilia all designed to hide two records within its sleeves. As for the album, I also feel that it's a full-blown masterpiece well worth the hellish trials and tribulations it has reportedly gone through in the making.
Goat's Head Soup
Goat's Head Soup was a great album. It was recorded in Kingston, Jamaica as it was one of the very few countries that would permit Keith Richards to enter. I thought this album was great. I loved the lineup of songs, even though according to the Stones themselves, they weren't happy with the final product. I was very happy with it. It was no "Exile" by any means, but it still rocked like a monster. My favorite was the song "Star Star" ("Starfucker" the true title), was a driving ass-kicker with perhaps the rudest-ice water-down-the-back set of lyrics ever sung yet.
Your tricks with fruit, were kinda cute, I'll bet you keep your pussy clean..."
"...Ali McGraw got mad at you for giving head to Steve McQueen..."
Reportedly, Hollywood bad boy Steve McQueen enjoyed the reference to himself in the song. How apropos that this piece ends the album because it truly feels like a swan song. "Silver Train" is a great tune, full of relic slide guitar that Mick Taylor was so great at. Plus, the song moves like a train, hard and fast. Even though "Heartbreaker" crunches like heavy metal, it's driven by an electric piano. This is a hot song. "Winter" was a tune I really liked, probably because of its melancholy and nice arrangements. Jagger's vocals were a little more theatric on this song and I can only wonder what it would have been like on stage. "Angie" was an okay, nice tune, but it felt like they were reaching for the charts. It was the only song I'd heard from them in years that resembled the flavor of "As Tears Go By."
Like A Rolling Stone
During those evolving and life-changing years of the 70's, I felt I felt like I'd been initiated into the band. I understood where they were coming from. As for music in general, I was heavily into prog rock and the new British invasion, but whenever my dark side needed feeding, heavy servings of Rolling Stones were in order. By 1974 I was so far into the Stones I knew I'd never get out alive. I bought my first guitar, a red Lyle hollow body electric. It wasn't exactly what I wanted, but what I could afford. I also bought a nice amp, a Peavey Classic. I then purchased a Rolling Stones songbook for guitar and managed every song in it. Some months later, I bought a really nice Lyle acoustic guitar--a hummingbird knockoff--and began focusing primarily on Stones music.In conclusion,
Goat's Head Soup" proved to be my Exile from Stones Street. After the release of "It's Only Rock N' Roll", I began to drift away from them. I felt that it was a completely inferior album, and I gave it only a few listens. It wound up in a used record store shortly after. Mick Taylor left the Stones at this point, and sadly, so did I. With Ron Wood now filling the lead guitar slot, something went haywire with their style. Great things still came from The Stones, but their edge had disappeared.
The 70's Stones were a wild adventure, raw and magical, full of fire and life from behind closed doors. These were the five guys that I loved so much and when their records hit the turntable, they invited us all in, but only at our own risk. Brian, Mick, Keith, Bill, Charlie, and Mick T. all helped redefine rock and roll as I knew it, and in doing so, stapled their bill to an era gone by.
I love The Beatles, and so many more who brought me to where I am today musically. But there will never be a love affair so grand and so lasting as mine with The Rolling Stones.