Probably the most convincing of The Stones’ late 60s/early 70s blues rock efforts.
A step up from Goats Head Soup, but still well short of the best Stones albums. It opens strong, and some of the later throwaway songs (“Time Waits for No One,” “Luxury,” “Dance Little Sister”) still have a catchy quality to them. But on the minus side, some forced and vapid songwriting (“Till the Next Goodbye,” “If You Really Want to Be My Friend,” “Fingerprint File”) can really drag.
I always find it annoying that people never recognize how weak the middle of this album is. The strained guitar solo on “Can’t You Hear Me Knocking” and the pathetic attempts at delta blues on “You Gotta Move” and “I Got the Blues” (which pale compared to the Stones’ stuff back around ’65) come to mind. Still, the two ends more than make up for that. Apart from the hits, be sure to take in Paul Buckmaster‘s arrangements that brilliantly complete the last bit of the record. Not to mention that “Dead Flowers” is probably the most romantic, the most pained, the most hopeful, the most dedicated, the most sincere, the most beautiful country song ever written. What keeps the album so very good is the general weariness which precludes the easy ways out, keeping the Stones attentive, more or less. They are sensitive and without comfort. Restless as if there is no rest for them, at least not the kind of rest that would satisfy them. The high points on this eclectic disc are about as high as the Stones got.
Like Black and Blue, this is one of those Stones albums that lacks any real “hits” but is nonetheless pretty decent all the way through, for the most part. It’s rather light fare, vaguely bluesy rock with little undercurrents of disco, ska/reggae, and punk circulating throughout. Probably not the first Stones album that comes to mind when I want to listen to them, but I don’t think I’d ever complain about giving it a listen either. I do rather like “Let Me Go” and “Dance (Part 1).”
Wait, what??? Where did this album come from? Where did it come from?? The Stones ditched the attempts to sound contemporary of Black and Blue, Some Girls and Emotional Rescue in favor of something a bit more in line with what they had been doing ten years earlier. Yeah, strangely enough it works. What’s more, the ballads and slower material of side two are about as strong as the rockers on side one. A weird anomaly and really the last time The Rolling Stones sounded like they had anything worthwhile to offer.
Black and Blue is something of the black sheep of 1970s Stones albums. There are no classic tunes to be found, and the songwriting in general just doesn’t impress. Yet, there is something to say about these simplistic yet gritty jams. Iggy Pop once gave an interview where he commented about his own most recent record being stupid rock music and sometimes you just need stupid rock music. Well, Black and Blue is precisely that kind of stupid rock music! The jams are often quite danceable, especially those with a disco flavor, and work out all right with the help of a rotating cast of guitarists. This one plays best as mood music, background music. If that’s not what you want, it’s time to look elsewhere. You wouldn’t even have to look far, because two years later Some Girls took the stylistically varied approach of this album and combined it with more focused songwriting to generally more acclaim.
The Rolling Stones made one out-and-out psychedelic album. It was Satanic Majesties. The record is a non-stop creative journey. While perhaps the most idealistic Stones album, Satanic Majesties also has a gritty, cynical realism just under the surface. Somehow this lends power to the dreamy psychedelia. It makes the music more legitimate. The uplifting qualities aren’t escapist.
“She’s A Rainbow” is such a wonderful song. It opens with an electronic and found sound segment before leading into sweet piano melody. John Paul Jones (future Led Zeppelin) provided string arrangements. While there is a lot of effort to organize the music, this is still more instinctual than perfectionist. It feels so natural. Even the eeriness seems to belong where it is. The array of instruments used, from horns to a xylophone, make songs like “Sing This All Together” vibrant. Each little sound contributes something unique.
Two more of the very best songs are “2000 Man” and “2000 Light Years from Home.” The disillusionment and desire of “2000 Man” make quite a potion. The acoustic guitar seems to merge with the sitar. I sometimes think it is a song about a homosexual in a heterosexual marriage, but I see that as only one of many interpretations. It also is about modern alienation and the desire to cure intractable loneliness. The spooky “2000 Light Years from Home” has a Moog synthesizer slinking along a rather hip rhythm.
“Sing This All Together (See What Happens)” tends to get a critical thrashing, but this is unfair. This post-modern sound collage went down before Captain Beefheart, Funkadelic, Miles Davis or just about anyone else in rock, pop or jazz dared actually try such a thing–though The Mothers of Invention did some similar things around the same time.
“Citadel” is a rocking song about New York City. Jagger throws in some references to some locals including Candy Darling (also the subject of The Velvet Underground’s “Candy Says”).
“Gomper” and “In Another Land” tend to wander a bit, though they still are for the most part good songs if taken on their own terms.
People tend to dismiss this album as a failed attempt to match The Beatles’ Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. I have never been convinced Sergeant Pepper’s is so great an album, even if it has a few great songs. But more to the point, this album is more like Pink Floyd‘s The Piper at the Gates of Dawn than Sergeant Pepper’s anyway. In any event, Satanic Majesties is a wildly unique, modern and enjoyable album–not just among Stones albums. I start listening to it to try to entertain myself but then I always go further and open my mind to new ways of hearing and thinking.
After the artistic triumph, and commercial failure, of Exile on Main St., The Rolling Stones brought forth the thoroughly mediocre Goats Head Soup. Aside from Got Live If You Want It! this was their worst effort so far by quite a large margin. It rocks about as hard as gym class, and the songwriting flirts with inspiration only on a momentary basis. Mostly this feels as contrived and inauthentic as a political photo op. Sorry sports fans, but this set the stage for just about everything that came later.
There was something in early Stones records that wasn’t in early Beatles records. The Beatles seemed to pick up Afro-American songs and meander through white bread renditions that tended to conform to a white bread middle class lifestyle, tending to unwittingly bleach the black out of them. The Stones had more enthusiasm in what they did. Playing a Marvin Gaye or Solomon Burke song gave the Stones opportunity to share in a “break-free” attitude that was becoming a centerpiece of rock ‘n’ roll. The Stones added their own personality to their records, sometimes by accident, but they always found what was eternal in the soul of American rock ‘n’ roll songs. Just because Mick Jagger and Keith Richards became such noted songwriters doesn’t mean the beauty of their performance of others’ songs should diminish.
“The Last Time” is side one’s hit. Side two opens with “Satisfaction.” The songs of less popular distinction are still amazing. “The Spider and the Fly” is a fantastic delta blues number probing the immobility of the moving rhythms. It was the B-side to “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction.” It also is the kind of song the Stones needed more of in the years after Brian Jones. “The Under Assistant West Coast Promotions Man” is a smooth number at a medium tempo. That song wouldn’t work as a single but it does so much for side two of the album. There is positive energy always coming through.
This is a record with no pretensions. Later Stones albums get more hype but they generally don’t have the offhand, hurried and unguarded charm of Out of Our Heads. The high and low cool of Keith Richards’ guitar is like no other joy. Set against the unidentifiable genius of Brian Jones the Stones ramble on with Mick Jagger strutting past his agony as if he would never consider whether it could overtake him. On Sam Cooke’s “Good Times,” Jagger sings with credulity. His voice feels right–graceful enough. In a way you don’t ever consider proving since every instinct says you can trust it, it comes from a good place.
[Note that the UK version of Out of Our Heads, which came out after the US version, did not have the hit singles on it and added tracks from December’s Children (And Everybody’s), which was not released in the UK. The UK version of Out of Our Heads may be the better album.]