Rolling Stones

Album Reviews:

1964: 12×5 [US]

1965: The Rolling Stones No. 2 [UK]

1965: The Rolling Stones, Now! [US]

1971: Sticky Fingers

Compilation Reviews:

1964: Around and Around

12×5 [US]

Album: Classic, 8.5/10
Released: 1964
Specific Genre: British Rhythm&Blues
Main Genre: Rock
: Rock&Roll, Rhythm&Blues, Blues Rock, Electric Blues
Label: London

Think about your future, baby, forget about your used-to-be

Among the best of the early Stones records, they tone down the pure rock&roll and find their way in a cool and gruff sound, consisting of hobbling rhythm&blues and soulful blues rock. They stress soul over rock&roll and covers of their US-idols over original material – which is a good thing, because as song material goes, the covers are still the best thing about the Stones at this point. Even so: The appeal here is the sound, not the songs. The echoing vocals, the barnyard quality of the guitars and ragged harmonica, anything to capture what they liked about their adored blues predecessors. As far as cover bands go, this was the gold standard. A first glimpse of future songwriting brilliance comes with “Empty Heart”, even though it’s just a riff: a reckless, confused and wonderful piece with a cool shuffle, a cool harp and cool, improvised wailing by Keith (I think).

Of interest: 12×5 sports the ‘first’ published version (which was the second one they recorded) of “Time Is on My Side”, one of their best early tracks, which is slightly less bluesy and a bit faster than the second version (first to be recorded) that would later crop up on their UK-album Rolling Stones No. 2. The short edit of “2120 South Michigan Avenue” (an homage to their visit to Chess studios) is here. Since that piece is just one cool instrumental blues groove stupidly edited down to “single length” here, I much prefer the long version which showed up on a CD-reissue four decades later – or was available on the German/French LP Around and Around released at roughly the same time, but nowhere else.

Around and Around

Collection: Historically Interesting, 7/10 | Released: 1964 | Recorded: 1963–1964 | Specific Genre: British Rhythm&Blues | Main Genre: Rock | Undertones: Rock&Roll, Rhythm&Blues, Blues Rock | Label: Decca

What a crazy sound

A compilation of sorts issued 1964 in Germany (and France), and while it contains mostly songs from their second USA-album 12×5 (which was issued a few weeks later!), it was clearly meant to supply the continental market with singles and EP-tracks in the LP-format. Even for the UK-market, this was valuable back then: None of these songs were available on a UK-LP at the time! For all practical purposes, there is no reason not to call this compilation a proper ‘Euro-continental’ album measured against the common categorization of UK- vs. US-albums. But that’s not how things were done, so here we are.

Now, the default position would be that this LP, released not even a year after their first (Lennon/McCartney-penned) hit “I Wanna Be Your Man”, must be obsolete, right? But I find it more interesting than that, musically and as an artefact. To sweep past the music very quickly: early Stones doing Chuck-Berry-rock&roll, unmodified deep blues (Jay McShann’s “Confessin’ the Blues”, a choice cut to cover!), soulful Motown-ish rhythm&blues, like the classic shuffle “Empty Heart”, ramshackle and off-kilter, background vocals so amateurish that only this band’s amount of charisma can get away with it.

But it does get better: “2120 South Michigan Avenue” is not only a cooking instrumental blues jam shuffle (play that harmonica, Brian), the title refers to Chess Records’ address (where it was recorded) – and it was cut to about 2 minutes for the EP-releases Five by Five and the first LP-release 12×5. This German LP was the only place you could get the longer cut (around 3:40 minutes) before it replaced the short version on a CD-reissue of 12×5 – in 2002, almost four decades later.

Let’s wrap things up. It is notable that Lennon/McCartney gave a song to the Stones with the explicit purpose of finally producing a hit for them – not only did it work, it basically jots down the elementary differences between the bands. While the Beatles would eventually deliver an incredibly vital, chiming version with ascending harmonies for the chorus, the Stones turn in a proto-punk song, Mick channels all the energy of a snotty schoolgirl embarrassed by the lyrics, and the band simply pounds on a bass-heavy, distorted, twangy hulk of a chord for the entire 105 seconds the song lasts. And did anyone notice the cover photo? “Yes, put the old drummer guy in the center, the one who looks like a constipated, overwhelmed barrister. And make sure the cute lead singer has his eyes closed… and have his mouth wide open. Yes, yeah, that’s the one!” Great artefact here overall – and actually essential for the longer edit of “2120 South Michigan Avenue”, unless you’re planning to get the 12×5-reissue.

The Rolling Stones No. 2 [UK]

Album: Genre Classic, 8.5/10 | Released: 1965 | Specific Genre: British Rhythm&Blues | Main Genre: Rock | Undertones: Rock&Roll, Rhythm&Blues, Blues Rock, Electric Blues | Label: Decca

Everytime I kiss you, girl, it tastes like pork and beans

Their second UK-album came out around 3 months after their second US-album – but it’s not regurgitated material (beside three songs), it’s quite another leap in attitude. Not in virtuosity or mastery of songwriting: There is actually substantially less original material on their early UK-albums than on the American counterparts surrounding them, in need of amping up the exotism in both places (British Invasion for the US, black r&b for the UK-market). The rock&roll (“Down the Road”) is on the verge of becoming stale at this point, but deep blues and southern soul steal the show: Even Otis Redding’s touching “Pain in My Heart” gets a remake replacing romanticism with smoke residue and grime, and especially the somehow hilarious, chugging “Down Home Girl” announces the things to come: Murky, sweaty posturing instead of mop top escapades, aloofness and disgust displayed as affectionate traits. Give another decade and this defining rock attitude would end in heroin benders and amplified misogyny, but this is the formula before it had become a sure-fire commodity. I don’t think they would have bet on this working out. Who could have?

The Rolling Stones, Now! [US]

Album: Genre Classic, 8.5/10
Released: 1965
Specific Genre: British Rhythm&Blues
Main Genre: Rock
: Rock&Roll, Rhythm&Blues, Blues Rock, Electric Blues
Label: London

Sometimes you get you want, but you lose what you had

I have a heavy bias towards UK-albums when it comes to the early 1960s market, but scratch it: Their third US-album winds up being the best early Stones effort by an ever so slight edge: The world’s greatest cover band not only compiled their best material of deep blues (a low-key, non-machismo “Little Red Rooster”) and grooving rhythm&blues (though note that this is the short edit of “Everybody Needs Somebody to Love”), they also throw in their best original piece up to this date: “Heart of Stone” is a wonderful, soulful example how capable they would become in pinching their r&b sources for their own need, combining sincerity with rock&roll’s egocentrism. Half of it corresponds with their second UK-album The Rolling Stones No. 2, while Bo Diddley’s “Mona” even hails from their UK-debut album – although this musical formular of covers and increasingly better originals would still carry them through their next one or two albums, the mix of old deep cuts and new highlights here shows that the muffled, compressed sound of the r&b pirates hit a high point.

Sticky Fingers

Album: Classic, 10/10
Released: 1971
Specific Genre: Blues Rock, Roots Rock
Main Genre: Rock
: Country Rock, Electric Blues, Rhythm&Blues, Hard Rock
Label: Rolling Stones

Can’t you hear me knocking – down your dirty street?

The sonic version of a smoke-stained leather car seat with sunken cushions, the Stones really wear in their 1970s approach to rock with this one. Genres are more easily definable by prototypes, not by trying to delineate their fuzzy edges, and here we are with the philosopher’s stone, the perfected formula of ‘basic rock’. While the blues gets harsher, the rock gets surprisingly more elastic. Guitar riffs don’t slash but branch out (“Can’t You Hear Me Knocking”, the best multi-sectioned song that never leaves ‘classic’ rock), horn sections are employed like dive bombs (“Bitch”) or in the context of Otis Redding’s southern soul style (“I Got the Blues”). There’s blues, straight country, soul, hard rock, some symphonic and even slightly latin and jazzy elements – it’s a blues-based roots rock mélange with some of the best decisions about minimized riffs and extended solos, with some of the best songs written in the genre.