This Friday, we reach a kind of milestone - the first anniversary of my Band of the Month posts. My posting has been a bit spotty this year, but this feature has been going strong - and I see no end in sight. There are lots of bands to go!
This month might be the end of my autobiographical organization, though. This brings us full circle - I started at the beginning and the top, with the Beatles - and now we come back to the top, their closest rivals - The Rolling Stones. It's back to the beginning, in a way as well - back to the 60s, to a band that has been on the radio all my life. Maybe not as much, in the early years, as the Fab Four, but certainly by the time I started listening to the radio deliberately, I heard the Stones, and heard them all the time. They were, as far as I can tell, always taken for granted as one of the Great Bands - which might be a hint to why they come at the end of this series. By the time I really started listening with intent, I was inclined to take them for granted. That's around the time of Black and Blue - a time when they'd settled into a certain style, a bit too familiar and predictable. They were the very model of the mainstream hard rock band. They sounded like everyone else, since everyone else sounded like them. It was easy (for me) to treat them as elder statesmen, admirable enough, but nothing too serious... Though even then, that was missing the point. After all, they followed up Black and Blue with Some Girls, which did vary the sound a bit, slipping some disco into the mix, changing up the way Mick sang... And even then, I heard their older songs too, and knew they hadn't always sounded like It's Only Rock and Roll. There was a teacher in high school who had a record player in his classroom, and 2 singles - one was Hey Jude/Revolution; the other Hey, You, Get Offa My Cloud; the teacher was notorious for showing up to class late - and we kids would put on the Stones or the Beatles and groove. The early songs were different - the difference made them more interesting... But I still didn't quite embrace it.
How do you put that? It was obvious how good they were; my friends and I liked the Stones - could sing along on most of their songs, probably considered half a dozen of them as good as anything... But I didn't obsess about them, and I'm not sure I had any friends who did. I had friends were obsessed over Springsteen (in high school and college); over the Beatles; Led Zeppelin; people who talked all the time about Pink Floyd or the Doors or Black Sabbath - later, U2, The Ramones, The Police, Prince.... I myself obsessed over the bands I've been writing about - The Who, the Zep, The Beatles, U2, Bruce - but I don't remember anyone who treated the Stones like their favorite band. We all knew them - loved them - but took them for granted. I did - I remember it that way. And it stayed that way, and might have to this day - except it didn't. Maybe there was an external reason - maybe they reissued all their CDs in the late 90s, and I bought them (I never bought the Stones before that - why bother> I had heard all their songs on the radio, I knew the good ones by heart - why bother?) - then listened to them (in those days before the iPod when I listed to whole records) - and suddenly found myself a convinced Rolling Stones fan. Whether it was taking the time to work through their records, being able to separate the actual music from the general (and generic) adulation, being able to separate their music from their imitators, or maybe being able to really understand the universality of their influence - whatever it was - I understood.
For they are a force. Impressive in their way for hanging around as long as they have - though I can't say I've followed the latter stages of their career. They were impressive enough for hanging around into the 80s, still making decent records - I had a cassette of Tattoo You that I listened to a great deal in college; Emotional Rescue and Undercover were still more than passable. But before that - they had a long run at their best - and at their best they were magnificent. With a much better range than I had noticed in the 70s and 80s - they moved through rather distinct phases: the early blue band, evolving into a pop band (though with a dark undercurrent, at their prettiest), trying psychedelia, before arriving at the rootsy sound they settled into - until they started paying around with disco and funk in the late 70s, and so on. They were credible at all of it, though some of it sounds a bit odd - they seem a bit lost and out of sorts in the Between the Buttons/Their Satanic Majesties Request era, though even there, the songs are still well crafted and made, and they are full of ideas and imagination. Between the Buttons, especially, can be a very jarring and cool sounding record - the cuts in the middle of the record, All Sold Out, or Who's Sleeping Here? or Cool, Calm Collected are very odd, very cool pieces, various kinds of pop disintegrating in your ears. They almost have a Frank Zappa vibe - things going in every direction at once....
Still - that's not their natural mode, exactly. The truth is, they are first rate songwriters, superb craftsmen, and better served by the songs where they establish a sound, a groove, a riff, and go with it. Nobody wrote better riffs. And nobody did a abetter job of working their riffs into the texture of the song, working the words into the riffs. And then playing them - they were tight and hard at the beginning; they were tight and hard in the 70s - they can still play those songs. Charlie and Keef are rightly worshipped; Mick Taylor ought to get some love too - he was only in the band for a few years, but he added high end guitar solos to the spines of those songs - things just take off... but all their guitar players give them something - Brian Jones put much of the decoration on those mid-60s records; Ron Wood regrounds them - brings out the core sound, though his presence also feels like a retreat: I like Mick Taylor... but that's all right.
And finally - the Stones don't get quite the credit they deserve as lyricists. They should - they should be considered among the elite there too. (Not that they didn't write a lot of dreck - but it's always mixed with the brilliance.) Very early on - Satisfaction, 19th Nervous Breakdown, As Tears Go By - they were writing clever, smart, sharp turns of phrase. They get to be as quotable as anyone - he can't be a man cause he doesn't smoke, the same cigarettes as me - your father's still perfecting ways of making ceiling wax - the squirmin' dog who's just had her day (now - I can't say they're lyrics are exactly edifying - more on that in a while) - I was born in a cross fire hurricane - I went down to the demonstration to get my fair share of abuse - when you're sitting back in your rose pink cadillac making bets on Kentucky derby day - I been walking' central park, singing after dark, people think I'm crazy... this can go on forever. Now - there's no doubt, they are willing to go over the line - songs like Under My Thumb, Brown Sugar, etc., are pretty nasty bits of work - but as crafted as anything, and part of the craft is not quite letting you in on the joke. Is Under My Thumb a joke? it's certainly played up - siamese cat of a girl, the sweetest [pause] pet in the world... it probably doesn't matter if Mick meant it - he sells it, he writes it - the story it tells and how he tells it make it a heck of a song.
And so? Now? if I were making lists of bands here - they would probably get #2 - and in moments of weakness, maybe when heads is tails, I think that might be putting them too low. They are brilliant.
And so - Rolling Stones, top 10:
1. Sympathy for the Devil - this might be the main reason they might be #1 - because this is not just their best song, it might be the best rock song of them all. That groove; the solos; the rolling piano and bass line - and the lyrics: it's Jagger at his best (and he is among the best) - clever wordplay, a clear story, political and social commentary, literary references, delivered in his best drawl - I never get tired of hearing it. (Or quoting it - every cop is a criminal, and all the sinners saints...) And then you listen to the version on Get Your Ya Ya's Out, Keith and Mick Taylor trading solos - Taylor's a masterpiece (and Richards' a cool, biting, rhythmic stab at the song - they're both fantastic.) That recording does justice to the best rock song there is.)
2. You Can't Always Get What You Want
3. Dead Flowers
4. Jumpin' Jack Flash
5. (I Can't Get No) Satisfaction
8. No Expectations
7. Street Fighting Man
8. 19th Nervous Breakdown
9. Gimme Shelter
10. Under My Thumb
AS always, I could go to 30 without much difficulty... what can you do. Video? Start with very old Satisfaction performance:
And the Mick Taylor years - Jumping Jack Flash, live in New York:
And a complete set at the Marquee Club, if you have 40 minutes:
And some songs I should have put on the list - like Loving Cup, live in the 70s:
Or Mick singing to a track (and the others watching) of Play With Fire...
And high 80s video - disco! Mick in a white suit and a mustache! Keef as a terrorist!
And the present? if you try sometimes, you just might find, you get what you need...