Me and the Stones


… – a non-fan recommends

I’ve had a fraught relationship with the Rolling Stones. I’ve never forgiven them for the dismal experience of seeing them play live at Wembley, back in ’82. There were other factors at play that day, but I’ve never rated them as a live act, especially in the Ronnie Wood era. Shambolic, making a virtue of their sloppiness, painting the music not so much with broad brush strokes as kind of introducing it to a still-closed tin of paint, shelved, in a DIY shop in receivership in another city.

My best friend at school had a few 60s Stones records. Loaned them to me, but they didn’t take. I didn’t even like the headliners, the big singles, all that much. The Brian Jones Stones were too bluesy for me, too Alexis Korner, too intent on following the Beatles’ lead.

On the other hand, I’ve always loved Mick Taylor’s Rolling Stones. I’ve owned various Taylor-era records over the years. All that currently remains in the house is a copy of Exile on Main St on CD, which somehow never had the magic, for me, that it did on the vinyl copy I had so many years ago. There’s something about that four-sides/four-genres structure that only works on vinyl.

So I was watching an episode of the short-lived TV series Happy Town. There are many things you could say about this series. Had a great cast. Wanted to be Twin Peaks. Music choices were ace. But just didn’t work. In this particular episode, they played a Stones song I didn’t recognise. It sounded good. Songs often do, on soundtracks, but then are disappointing when you hear them in a different context. I wondered if it was some rare gem from the last 25 years or so, but when I looked it up, turned out it came from Black and Blue, their first post-Taylor album, one which features a sprinkle of Ronnie Wood, but not all the way through. I remember hearing snatches of that album, back in the 70s, and being disappointed. I did  like Some Girls, the 1978 follow-up, which was Wood’s first full album, but after that things became patchy again, and then I saw them live.

Anyway discovering this track via Happy Town prompted a long-overdue downloading jag of all the individual Stones tracks I actually really like. Some of them pre-date Taylor, some of them post-date him. My download list doesn’t include Exile on Main Street, which as you know I already have. There are probably no surprises here. But if you want a 70s Stones primer, here it goes:

60s (Love) Hangovers

  • Under My Thumb – nasty song, with a nasty sentiment, from as early as 1966, but it’s the 60s Stones track that is most like their nasty selves in the early 70s. The Stones’ whole schtick is to be nasty, so.
  • Sympathy for the Devil – I use this song so often in my teaching that I couldn’t not include it. Check out the Rock and Roll Circus version above, with Mick Jagger’s provocative fake Devil tattoos.
  • Jumpin’ Jack Flash – A staple of documentaries about How The Sixties Went Wrong, this is more Stones nastiness with a memorable video with more face painting fakery.
  • Honky Tonk Women – the biggest disappointment about the album Let it Bleed is that the version of this song on it is the country version, and not the blues. The single version is best.
  • You Can’t Always Get What You Want – shambolic and half-baked as it is, this is still good. Something about their sound wasn’t as perfect as the Beatles, was it. They didn’t ever have the production values.
  • Let it Bleed – the title track to their best 60s album, and the beginning of their hot streak. This album is to Mick Taylor what Black and Blue is to Ronnie Wood. As the Beatles split up, the Stones found a new style and actually made sense.
  • Gimme Shelter – yes, the #1 choice of film soundtrack compilers everywhere, a track that depends for at least half its effect on the co-lead vocal of Merry Clayton.
  • Midnight Rambler (Live) – one of the few Stones songs you could say is often better as an extended live version. Part of their late 60s dabbling with the occult and evildoing, this one references the Boston Strangler and more than hints at serial killing. The first half of this is typical Stones live fair: the tempo is too high, it chugs along like a Quo boogie, but then it breaks down to the extended improvisation and it gets (much) better.

70s Heyday

  • Dead Flowers – My favourite from Sticky Fingers, my band used to perform this live as an encore to our set. Used to go down quite well, too. One of the better Stones country songs.
  • Bitch – a tremendous groove from the same album, this is a step away from straight riffing. And love is a bitch.
  • Wild Horses – two great country songs on one album cannot be wrong. Try to forget all the terrible cover versions of this number.
  • Brown Sugar – proper riffing, but, like “Sweet Home Alabama”, this one’s lyrics do not stand up to scrutiny.
  • Doo Doo Doo Doo Doo (Heartbreaker)so funky, a sequel to “Bitch”. Considered “Angie” from the same album (Goats Head Soup) but I don’t think it has aged well.
  • If You Really Want to Be My Friend – I’m a sucker for a guitar played through a Leslie.
  • It’s Only Rock ’n’ Roll (But I Like It) – I’ll never forget that bubble tent video
  • Ain’t Too Proud to Beg – one of their better soul songs (“Beast of Burden” being the best)
  • Crazy Mama – decent enough groove from Black and Blue
  • Fool to Cry – Billy Preston, Jagger’s falsetto. Nuff said.
  • Memory Motel – shambolic, but has some heart
  • Hand of Fate – this is the soundtrack fodder from Happy Town that got us onto this jag. A throwback to late 60s/early 70s nastiness and you can’t believe Mick Taylor isn’t playing on it.
  • Hot Stuff – Yes, this too could be from the Taylor era, from the funkier end of things.
  • Beast of Burden – these years later, their standout track on the quite-good Some Girls and one of their best numbers of the whole decade. For once, the shambolic interplay between Ronnie Wood and Keith Richards actually works (don’t listen too closely though). Held together by Bill and Charlie, of course. I love the bit that goes, “There’s one thing baby I don’t understand / You keep on telling me I ain’t your kind of man” and then Mick slips into his falsetto for the next bit: “Ain’t I rough enough? / Ain’t I tough enough?”. A stroke of genius.
  • Some Girls – again, don’t listen too closely to the questionable (sexist? racist?) lyrics. Just let it wash over you.
  • Just My Imagination (Running Away With Me) – my second-favourite track on Some Girls. I think there’s a genius in the repetitions in the fade: “runaway runaway runaway runaway runaway runaway run run run run run…”
  • She’s So Cold – I’m counting 1980 as the last year of the 70s (deal with it), so these numbers from Emotional Rescue, the disappointing follow-up to the creative renaissance of Some Girls are the last of their 70s heyday. “She’s So Cold” gets by on the energy Jagger puts into it.
  • Emotional Rescue – falls to pieces towards the end, but this title track has Jagger’s falsetto on it. So.
  • Send it to Me – occasionally they tried to do some reggae or calypso or whatever it was meant to be. I still enjoy this.

And I go no further. No, not even “Start Me Up,” just because it’s obviously a cleaned-up outtake from Some Girls and amounts to self-parody.

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