The Rolling Stones – Out of Our Heads

Out of Our Heads

The Rolling StonesOut of Our Heads London LL 3429 (1965)

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.]

The Rolling Stones – Between the Buttons

Between the Buttons

The Rolling StonesBetween the Buttons London PS 499 (1967) [US release]

Starry-eyed idealism worked wonders for The Beatles. The Kinks had nostalgia. For The Rolling Stones, the raw energy of rock and roll was their near constant source of inspiration. Early on, The Stones worked exclusively with the blues and R&B at the root of all rock music. That soon changed. It was a pair of albums they put out in 1967 that confounded any notion of the group being easily placed in one category of rock and pop music. Between The Buttons was the first of those. The album, and especially the U.S. version with the singles “Let’s Spend the Night Together” and “Ruby Tuesday,” has all the catchy pop hooks of a Beatles record plus all the ragged stylistic shredding of any other Stones record.

“Let’s Spend the Night Together” is joy. The simple pleading of a boy in love, Jagger encouraged to a desperate pace confirmed in the wordless ba-duh-bap-bap of his associates and the prodding of a relentless piano. Desire is so strong that doubt hasn’t room to breathe. This could be the most uninhibited song the group recorded. For purity of emotion, there is no equal. Pleading, pleading, pleading, with the moment ready to pass sweetly by, every attempt is made to realize the possibilities that could, at any time, collapse under the effort convince some exquisite being of something that words hardly convey, with another plea, and another, the beautiful possibility–excuses, apologies fail–for a wonderful night together. Trembling with confidence, there can only be success. The bass rambles by, undeterred by anything around it. The guitars drift in and out. They mirror the strongest melodies, making them practically invincible.

“Ruby Tuesday,” an exposition of simply the finest baroque chamber pop, matches its aristocratic etiquette only in its bittersweet delicacy. Its coarser sibling is “Yesterdays Paper’s,” whose treatment of a casual dismissal overflows with neglect.

In every odd turn the album takes, a surprise is waiting. “Connection” is a driving piece, full of energy. Less obvious are the textures loaded in every pulse. “She Smiled Sweetly” sways on the tones of an organ, with a romantic attachment to lingering memories and the instinctive desire to live them again. What makes the song unshakable is the plain and honest fact that the sweet smiles of those very occasional girls who put the world within reach can keep you alive for months. If she tells you not to worry, then days become a blur. The blur is the image of her blending bleeding into everything else. Having her in mind is happiness. All that comes in a song.

The Rolling Stones’ greatest ability was in absorbing the possibilities of every kind of pop music. In that way, Between the Buttons is exactly in stride with the path of a group who had already mastered their own heartfelt transformation of American blues. The focus simply moved to encompass the sweeter strains of pop. Even still, their music is open to anything. “Miss Amanda Jones” is a manic workout that looks forward to sound The Stones took up a few years later. The vaudevillian humor in “Something Happened to Me Yesterday” and elsewhere takes the eccentricities of the album the furthest. So carefree. Between the Buttons is wonderful nonsense, and one of the group’s best efforts.

The Rolling Stones – Some Girls

Some Girls

The Rolling StonesSome Girls Rolling Stones Records CUN 39108 (1978)

If 1960s music, especially late 60s music, could be summed up in a line, it would be that boundaries were crossed and all possibilities were put on the table.  In the 1970s, the bands and artists that made such strides in the 60s had to do something with the newly socially permissive culture of the West, while tacitly acknowledging that the battles of the 60s for civil rights et al. were not definitively won by the forces of good.  So by the latter part of the 70s, there was a definite slide among more successful rockers towards decadence.  It’s in that milieu that the Stones delivered Some Girls.  It continues the attempts of Black and Blue (their last studio effort) to update the band’s sound, and seem relevant to the disco era, while also playing up a stylistic grab bag.  Unlike that predecessor though, this disc features a much greater amount of songwriting effort.  There are some pretty good tunes here, including the classic “Beast of Burden.”  If anything ties it all together it’s a feeling of weariness and anxiety behind a very jubilant facade.  The band can only barely hold it together.  It’s music for a party that has gone on long enough to see daylight.  But the careless hours of partying haven’t amounted to anything.  In truth, this album is not the great one some make it out to be.  In fact, it’s a little sad in many ways…did really everything the Stones do in the 60s and early 70s lead to this, only this?  Into the 80s, the band, like so many other 60s icons, would start to make music that resigned itself to defeat, that gave up on the promise of their achievements of the 60s.  The contented themselves to rest on the achievements of better days gone by.  But that was a still a few years off.  For the time being, the boys had a little bit of fight left in them, and here you can listen to it burn up and slip away.

The Rolling Stones – Exile on Main ST

Exile on Main ST

The Rolling StonesExile on Main ST Rolling Stones Records COC 69100 (1972)

A sprawling thing, Exile On Main ST runs through blues, county, gospel, soul and rock with reckless abandon. Exile is a stellar affirmation of American music, strangely enough coming from some boys from the U.K.

Most of the album writhes in murk (akin to Sly & the Family’s There’s A Riot Goin’ On). Jagger’s vocals sound muffled. Half the time you can’t hear a damn thing he sings. “I Just Want to See His Face” sounds like you stumbled onto some backwoods gospel revival tearing through what turns out to be an anti-gospel song. Jagger moans in front of some backup singers who scream passionately but seem caught on record only by chance. That mystique of careless luck gives Exile its grandeur. The entire album stays true to its desire for unrefined expression.

This is basically the most important Stones album. It would be hard to predict the Stones would have done anything in the 70s after they kicked founder Brian Jones out of the band (and Jones died shortly thereafter). Mick Taylor finds himself settled into the band, finally. His slide guitar works magic on the masterpiece of uncontrollable longing and charismatic bombast “All Down the Line.”

Backup singers belt out harmonies behind Jagger with horns blasting in a fever. Even Billy Preston stretches out for a guest spot on organ and piano on “Shine A Light.” Every piece of Exile comes together.

None of the individual songs achieved quite the popularity of earlier hits, like “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction,” because they are so uniformly brilliant. The album is still greater than the sum of its magnificent parts. Battered losers and hopeless wrecks parade through honky-tonks and the open road, holding on to what they can. Like the Fellini-esque Robert Frank photo collage on the album jacket, freaks stand placed in a precarious kind of order. When you see a song named “Soul Survivor,” you can hardly take the Stones’ word that they in fact “survived.” Rather, listening to the song reveals they barely made it this time (and may not the next). It’s easy to identify with the characters’ endless attempts to find compassion.

Rebellion is a prerequisite for rock and roll. The German artist Joseph Beuys said art is the science of freedom. In the Twentieth Century at least, the pursuit of freedom necessarily involved the rebel attitude so deeply ingrained in the fabric of rock and roll. The Rolling Stones certainly did their part. They always slid in some raunchy songs that chipped away at the establishment. “Loving Cup” and “Rocks Off” are sleazier tunes than they appear and reveal much more than idle ramblings of libertines. Their vices haunt them as they search for something to hold onto. They testify to the simple joys of common failures. You also have the deconstructionist spin of English boys redefining the musical traditions of another land. The Stones carried with the basic ideals of American music while they wandered into new territory.

An album of this breadth and consistency is a rare thing indeed. Exile is never too polished. It is at the same time familiar and new. It seems so real because the results are so fragile.

The Rolling Stones – The Rolling Stones

The Rolling Stones

The Rolling StonesThe Rolling Stones Decca LK 4605 (1964)

The eponymous debut album by The Rolling Stones (renamed England’s Newest Hit Makers for subsequent U.S. release) is a somewhat inauspicious affair.  It is full of energetic takes on American blues.  The group plays with enthusiasm.  Yet aside from a few hints at guitar prowess, there aren’t a whole lot of highlights here.  Still, there aren’t any great missteps, and the effort to reach out across racial lines is admirable.  This was about taking essentially rural music and making it more urban and palatable for middle class youth desperate for a new music to call their own.  Perhaps that wasn’t the precise intent, but it was the ultimate effect.  They got better quickly.  What is stunning is how there are scarcely any cues here to indicate just how good they would get — or how fast they would get there.