There’s a gap in my musical knowledge that many people will find very surprising. I only own two Rolling Stones albums, in total. These are The Story of the Stones, a K-Tel compilation of their early hits which I picked up second hand for 50p when I was eighteen, and Stripped, their mid-nineties pseudo-unplugged album recorded with Don Was. I listen to neither very often, and in fact it may well be twenty years since I’ve played Stripped.
There’s a very good reason for that — I consider the Stones to be far and away the most overrated band in history. I enjoy some of the early singles, in the way you enjoy stuff when it comes on the radio, but have no great love for any of them, and I find everything I’ve heard from after Brian Jones’ death tedious in the extreme. At best, the later Stones stuff is overlong boring pub rock, while at worst it’s overlong racist misogynist pub rock.
Given this, and given that the band members seem like thoroughly unpleasant people, I’ve never delved any further into the band’s back catalogue, reasoning that a hits collection is more than enough for me, and there’s more than enough music out there that I absolutely love without wasting my time on mediocrity.
But… it’s also the case that at this point the Stones are the *only* important sixties band I don’t own multiple albums by. I own and listen to more records by the Swinging Blue Jeans or Billy J Kramer and the Dakotas than I do the Stones, and so I thought I should give them a fair shot at least, if not for my own musical pleasure then to fill a gap in my knowledge (I am planning on writing a *big* book on rock music history soon, and you need to be able to more than fake it when talking about the Stones if you’re doing that kind of thing). And if I’m doing that, I might as well blog about it here.
So, I’ve made a decision — I’m going to listen to The Rolling Stones In Mono, a box set containing the mono versions of all their sixties albums, in both the US and UK versions, plus a bunch of non-album tracks. And I’m going to blog my thoughts here as I do so. This will be more or less a liveblog, although I’ll be doing this in multiple sessions as the box set is nine hours in total, and I won’t be posting it until after I’ve written the whole thing up. At the end of this, I’ll have heard everything the Rolling Stones put out between 1963 and 1969 at least once, and most of it twice (not counting the many times I’ve already heard the obvious singles, of course), and I’ll be able to say to my own satisfaction (if not necessarily to anyone else’s) whether I’ve been right to dismiss this band as thoroughly as I have.
One point to make before I start — I’m listening to this on Spotify, and judging from the early tracks playing as I write this, either Spotify’s rip of this box set is dodgy or my Internet connection is playing up a bit. There’s a lot of swirling and compression artefacts here, which I certainly hope aren’t on the physical media [Edited to add, this only applied to the first disc when I listened to that]. But given the choice between listening to it this way or paying the hundred-plus quid it costs to buy the box set, I think I’ll go for this one. The sound quality isn’t so bad that it would disguise a truly great (or truly awful) performance or song, but it might make me miss the odd nuance here or there (though having said that I’m not under the impression that the Rolling Stones are the most nuanced of bands).
It’s probably an idea before I start to say exactly what I think of the Rolling Stones’ sixties work, so my prejudices are shown up front. My impression has always been that they were a very competent R&B band, for British R&B of the sixties, who also had a bit of a knack with catchy hit singles until they started believing their own hype and stopped bothering with tunes. If I were to rank them on the scale of their peers, they’d be below the Animals, Small Faces, Move or Zombies, about equal with Manfred Mann and just ahead of The Who (yes, I think the Who are worse than Manfred Mann, fight me). They’d be so far behind the Kinks it’s laughable, and the idea of “the Beatles or the Stones?” being a fair comparison would be even more laughable than the “Beatles or Oasis?” question that people asked for a brief while in the mid-nineties.
I’ve never really understood what, if anything, about their music (as opposed to their publicity campaigns) was so appealing to people. Maybe I’ll understand after more investigation.
The first album, The Rolling Stones (known in the US as England’s Latest Hitmakers, with a very slightly different tracklisting there), doesn’t do much to change my perceptions. It’s an album of cover versions, mostly of songs originally recorded by Chess blues artists, along with two unimaginative blues “originals” (there are not enough scare quotes in the world for how derivative these are) and one Jagger/Richards pop song (“Tell Me”) which shows a *very* strong influence from Gene Pitney (who guested on piano on one of the other tracks on the album). “Tell Me” is actually quite good, at least in the verse (the bridge is sloppily double-tracked, and the chorus is just a mess), but as for the rest of the album… there’s no reason for it to exist. The songs they choose are all great — “Can I Get A Witness”, “Carol”, “Mona”, “I’m A King Bee” — but as Jagger himself said later “What’s the point in listening to us doing ‘I’m a King Bee’ when you can hear Slim Harpo do it?”
I already own records by Chuck Berry, Marvin Gaye, Bo Diddley, Slim Harpo, Willie Dixon, and the rest of the people the Stones chose to cover here. Those records have better playing, better singing, and better production, and if I wanted to hear those songs I’d listen to those records. Here the Stones’ interpretations basically consist of playing identical arrangements to the originals, with what few changes are made (such as slowing down “Mona”) almost all being for the worse. Fundamentally, the only reason to own this album would be if you were a Stones completist based on their other material, or if for some reason every cheap Chess and Motown compilation in the world suddenly disappeared, never to be available again. It’s the blues equivalent of those Top Of The Pops albums that you used to be able to get in the 70s where some session musicians would pretend to be Leo Sayer and Abba.
The second album on the set, 12×5, is marginally better, although very much in the same vein. In this case, the album was
not originally intended as an album — this is the US release of what was, in Britain, the EP 5×5, to which were added seven tracks — the A and B sides of two recent UK singles, and three tracks which would appear on the band’s next UK album.
Like the first album, the majority of the tracks here are cover versions of US blues and R&B tracks, although the number of originals (either by Jagger/Richards or by the group pseudonym Nanker Phelge) has increased to five of the twelve. But the cover versions include at least a few more interesting tracks — admittedly it’s hard to imagine more obvious choices for cover versions than “Under the Boardwalk” and “Suzie Q”, both of which must be among the most often covered songs around (and the Stones’ version of “Under the Boardwalk” is absolutely dire — it simply doesn’t suit Jagger’s voice even slightly), but “Time Is On My Side” was a cover of an Irma Thomas B-side (though the version here isn’t the version that the Stones later released as a single, and in fact is sloppy as hell), while “It’s All Over Now” had only got to number 94 in the US in its original version. These were relatively obscure songs, and ones that suited the sound the band was developing, one which had a lot less to do with the blues and a lot more to do with pop music.
That wasn’t the case for their originals, though — “Good Times, Bad Times” for example (not the same song as the Led Zeppelin one of that title) is a laid-back country blues which owes a *lot* to “It Hurts Me Too” by Tampa Red (and because of this sounds eerily premonitory of Bob Dylan’s later “Pledging My Time”, which was also… influenced…. by that song). But when they were covering other people, they were starting to go for catchy melodies that could be reworked into something more suited for the pop charts.
But there’s still a sloppiness here — a lot of the guitar playing is plain *bad*, and not in an exciting punk rock way as much as a not really sure what they wanted to play way. The only time the album really comes alive is with “It’s All Over Now”, which is a genuinely great pop single, and which takes the chugging country-blues of Bobby Womack’s original and turns it into something far catchier without losing the power of the original.
At this point, two albums in, the Rolling Stones are roughly comparable to the Kinks’ first couple of albums, except that those early Kinks albums had a handful of absolutely stunning originals — there’s no “You Really Got Me”, “Tired of Waiting” or “Stop Your Sobbing” here. Two albums in, my assessment of the Stones is largely unchanged — they were a bar band that got lucky.
(One point I should probably make here, given that what I reveal of my tastes here mostly goes towards my love of melodic pop music — I have a genuine, real, love of the music that the Stones were listening to and covering on these albums. It’s not because of a dislike for the blues that I am rating these albums as low as I am. I grew up listening to Willie Dixon, Muddy Waters, Chuck Berry, Bo Diddley, Elmore James, Jimmie Reed, Slim Harpo, and the rest of the musicians the Stones were trying to emulate here. The problem is that what the Stones were doing was copying the surface aspects of those musicians’ performances, without having a true understanding of the music or why it was the way it was. That kind of thing can work when the aspects the foreign copier picks up on are non-obvious ones — one only has to look at the way the comic industry was revolutionised in the 80s by people like Alan Moore or Grant Morrison who were British but grew up reading American comics — but in this case what you have is just a bunch of white LSE students putting on fake Southern US accents and singing words they don’t understand.)
The third album on the set, The Rolling Stones No. 2, shares three tracks (“Grown Up Wrong”, “Under The Boardwalk”, and “Suzie Q”) with 12×5, as well as having a different version of “Time Is On My Side” (the version that became a hit single). Again, this is almost all covers (nine of the twelve tracks on the album are cover versions) but there seems to be a slow transition away from the blues and towards R&B and soul (although this is still only a partial transition — there’s still a Muddy Waters cover version here).
It opens with an overlong cover version of Solomon Burke’s “Everybody Needs Somebody To Love”, which lasts over five minutes with relatively little dynamic variation. At a time when the Beatles barely ever topped the three minute mark and basically never went over three minutes thirty, opening the album with a five minute track (and following it with one that lasts four minutes thirteen and another which lasts three minutes forty) was a strange decision — these tracks were *long* for the time period (when the Animals’ “House of the Rising Sun” was released as a single, there was actually a false time printed on the label, so that DJs would play it, as four minutes thirty was seen as far too long for a single).
Overall this is better than the first album, but still basically pointless — nobody needs to hear Mick Jagger singing “You Can’t Catch Me” when they can get Chuck Berry singing it, and there’s no imagination at all put in to the arrangements or into the writing of the originals (although one of the originals, “What A Shame”, did at least provide the basis for a much better song when Arthur Lee rewrote it as “Can’t Explain”, stripping out the Elmore James-isms).
And again, it’s not the fact that the album is made up primarily of cover versions that makes it pointless — *all* albums by anyone at this point were largely cover versions — it’s that the band add nothing to the cover versions, and that there’s so great a stylistic homogeneity there. This is a band who are regularly compared to the Beatles, but where the Beatles would cover old standards, girl-group R&B, and current hits, would radically rearrange them in their own style, and would write staggeringly good originals, the Stones are covering a very, very, narrow range of material, in versions that are fingerprint-identical to the originals, while their own originals are basically old Willie Dixon riffs with slightly different lyrics on top.
The Rolling Stones, Now! is basically a US repackaging of The Rolling Stones No. 2, with a few tracks cut, the version of “Everybody Needs Somebody To Love” edited to a more reasonable three minutes, and the addition of a couple of singles and their B-sides. One of those singles, “Heart of Stone”, is, three albums into their career, the first actual good Jagger/Richards song. It’s not a great song, mind, and the lyrics are mildly unpleasant, but it’s catchy, it isn’t a direct rip-off of any one other song (although it follows a very standard blues-ballad formula), and it is at least as solid an effort at songwriting as, say, Gerry and the Pacemakers were doing at the same time.
The other single is a cover version of the old Howlin’ Wolf song “Little Red Rooster”, with the lyrics slightly changed — where Howlin’ Wolf sang that he *had* a little red rooster, Jagger sings that he *is* a cock (sorry, rooster, this is definitely not a song about a penis, honestly).
The US version of Out Of Our Heads is the first actual good album in this set. By this point, other than a single Bo Diddley cover (taken from a live EP, and shockingly out of place here), the cover versions have become less blues-oriented and far more soul-based — songs by Solomon Burke, Don Covay, Marvin Gaye, and Sam Cooke — and this forces the Stones to actually rethink the arrangements, as these records mostly featured horn sections and singers with far more mellifluous voices than Jagger’s. The cover versions are mostly worse than the originals, but they do at least bring something new to the table, and four albums or so into their career they’ve finally developed their own sound.
On the other hand, the production here is very, very, poor — tinny, reverby, and muddy.
But it’s the originals where the band finally start to shine. Of course “The Last Time” is still a very unoriginal original — it was a rip-off of a Staples Singers gospel song, with the verse slightly changed (and made unpleasantly aggressive, as was the Stones’ wont) — but it’s still a genuinely excellent single. And of course “Satisfaction” is one of the very best singles of the sixties. As a song, it’s not actually up to all that much, but it’s got such a great *sound* to it (largely because of the decision, with which Richards disagreed, to release the single with Richards’ fuzz guitar rather than the horn section he wanted to play that line) and it still sounds exciting more than fifty years later. “The Under Assistant West Coast Promotion Man” is dull, as is “One More Try”, but “Play With Fire” is musically interesting (though yet again, like almost every Stones original of this period, is threatening towards the female subject of the song — one thing that listening to all this music in sequence shows is just how deeply, deeply, misogynist the Stones’ music is) and “Spider and the Fly” is one of their better blues originals.
But the US Out Of Our Heads is, five discs in, the first of these albums I could imagine myself choosing to listen to again at some point.
The UK version of Out Of Our Heads is much weaker, dropping most of the good originals in favour of tedious cover versions of songs like “She Said Yeah” and “Talking About You”. It does have “I’m Free”, which is the Stones trying to sound like LA folk-rockers and doing a reasonable job (and ripping off “Eight Days A Week” in the process), but which is also an incredibly sloppy performance.
And it may seem like I’m being overly critical, but this is from 1965. Compare the Stones’ contemporaries — the Kinks were releasing “Well Respected Man” and “Dedicated Follower of Fashion”, the Beatles were just about to release Rubber Soul and had just put out Help!, and the Beach Boys had recently released Today! and Summer Days and were in the early stages of recording Pet Sounds. And in the middle of all this, while the rest of the music world was zooming ahead into uncharted territory, the Stones had basically stuck to doing what they’d been doing all along, although their originals were getting slightly better.
December’s Children (And Everybody’s) is… more of the same. A US album which mixes the stuff from the UK Out Of Our Heads which wasn’t on the US version, some live tracks which had originally been issued on a UK live EP, their cover of Arthur Alexander’s “You’d Better Move On” from a year earlier which had been on a different UK EP (and which like all their covers up to this point is utterly pointless — it’s yet again just a direct note-for-note copy of Alexander’s original, except that Jagger isn’t a thousandth of the singer Alexander was) — and their latest single, the rather good “Get Off of My Cloud”. There are a couple of decent new originals there — “As Tears Go By”, the song Jagger, Richards, and their manager Andrew Loog Oldham wrote for Marianne Faithful, and “Blue Turns to Grey”. But at this point it’s become a real slog to get through this. Album after album after album of the same thing.
So the UK version of Aftermath is a pleasant change, so long as you don’t listen to the lyrics. It’s their first album consisting only of originals, and it shows a great leap forward in the band’s sound. They’re still far, far, less inventive than their rivals — this was released a month before Pet Sounds, and while the Beatles were in the middle of recording Revolver — but at least it seems like they’re trying. Or at least, that Brian Jones was trying — while all the songs are by Jagger/Richards, all the inventive musical ideas here are from the instruments Jones was playing (as well as guitar, Jones plays sitar, dulcimer, marimbas, koto, harmonica, and bells).
And Keith Richards holds up his end of the songwriting well for the most part. The opening run of four songs — “Mother’s Little Helper”, “Stupid Girl”, “Lady Jane”, and “Under My Thumb” — is a genuinely impressive set of songs, musically. Up to this point Jagger and Richards had turned in maybe one really catchy song per album, and here they open with four in a row. And while the hooks come from Jones in several of those cases, they’re all melodically strong.
But lyrically… this is misogyny on a level which reminds you that Dave Sim included Mick & Keith as characters in Cerebus. “Mother’s Little Helper” on its own is merely callous — the kind of “social comment” song that could turn into nastiness even in the hands of better songwriters like Ray Davies — but even there it’s notable that Jagger chooses to mock the way middle-aged women self-medicated, rather than, say, the way that almost every middle-aged professional-class man is a functioning alcoholic, or the way that most of his peers were getting by on a mixture of amphetamines and cannabis. But then you get “Stupid Girl”, which is pretty much summed up by its title, and “Under My Thumb” which celebrates having a woman under your control. These songs are deeply, deeply, *deeply* abusive, and no number of retroactive claims of irony can change that.
“Lady Jane” at first seems to be different, and to be a rather sweet pseudo-mediaeval ballad. It seems that way, at least, until you remember that in Lady Chatterly’s Lover “lady Jane” is used as a euphemism for a woman’s genitalia.
So four songs in we’ve got a run of immensely catchy, hook-filled, songs that between them give the cumulative impression that the writers think that women are stupid and need to be controlled, are only worth celebrating for their genitals, and that when in response to a society that thinks of them that way they turn to antidepressants to help them cope, they should be mocked mercilessly.
Nice. Sir Mick really deserves that knighthood, eh?
And sadly after that opening run, the quality of the music falls off a cliff, though at least they stop singing about how much they hate women. Or at least, I think they do, as the next few songs are so dull that it’s impossible to pay attention to what’s going on in them. Track five, “Don’tcha Bother Me” is a bog-standard Elmore James-alike, “Going Home” is an eleven-minute (!!!) long blues jam which nearly has a whole thirty seconds of actual musical or lyrical material, repeated for half an album side. “Flight 505” is a reminder that writing Chuck Berry songs was a lot harder than Berry made it look, and “High and Dry” is some jug-band nonsense that might have been fun in the hands of the Lovin’ Spoonful, or another band who had more of a sense of fun.
“Out Of Time” is a return to form, but even there it’s not as good as the version Jagger produced as a single for Chris Farlowe, and it’s hard to listen to it without wishing one was listening to that track instead — and this version is far too long, coming in at five minutes nineteen (the Farlowe version is three minutes fourteen). At this point the Stones desperately, desperately needed a producer who would get them to tighten up their ideas and not just repeat the same things over and over.
And after that we have a bunch of genre exercises, none of them terrible but none particularly great either — “It’s Not Easy”, a sloppy chugging boogie that sounds only half-written, “I Am Waiting”, which sounds like a rewrite of the Kinks’ “See My Friends” (and which is actually very listenable indeed with an interesting sense of dynamics), “Take It Or Leave It”, which is a pleasant-enough pastiche of songs like “Save the Last Dance” and “Spanish Harlem”, “Think”, which is a straight Stax lift, and “What To Do”, which sounds like the Stones doing the Beach Boys doing Dion, right down to the “bow bow bows”.
The US version of Aftermath is a slightly better listening experience, mostly because it cuts out several of the mediocre tracks (“Out of Time”, “Take It or Leave It”, “What to Do”), though unfortunately it also cuts “Mother’s Little Helper”, one of the better songs, and *doesn’t* cut “Going Home” — but at least it moves it to the end of the album. In place of the four tracks it cuts, it adds “Paint It, Black”, which is of course an absolutely magnificent single.
And then we have Between The Buttons (the UK version only). This is an actual interesting album! A second album, ten discs in, that I could see myself listening to all the way through in the future with some kind of pleasure. Surprisingly so, since on all the previous albums the songs I’ve most enjoyed have been those which were hit singles (the conclusion I’m coming to more and more is that the Stones in the sixties were a singles band more than anything else) and this has none of those on it. What it does have, finally, is an eclecticism to it. There’s a stylistic variation here that isn’t present on any of the earlier albums, except a little on the first few tracks on Aftermath before that album runs out of steam. There’s baroque pop here, and Dylan pastiche (“Who’s Been Sleeping Here?”) and vaudeville-throwback material that could almost be the Kinks or the Small Faces (“Something Happened to Me Yesterday”).
None of the songs make much of an impression on an initial listen, but that’s also to say that none of them make a *negative* impression. Nothing jumps out as being sloppy, lazy, or half-arsed — there’s a sense of basic craft here. And again there’s some instrumental variety courtesy Brian Jones, who here only plays guitar (his original principal instrument) on one track, but who plays organ, recorder, vibraphone, piano, banjo, kazoo, harmonica, trombone, saxophone and clarinet.
But that’s also a worrying sign for the future — Jones is the principal source of musical interest on the album, but he’s also missing altogether from three tracks, which have Richards playing all the guitar parts, where previously Jones would have played some. Indeed, on two of those tracks Richards also plays the bass, cutting out bass player Bill Wyman. The Rolling Stones were fast becoming the Mick & Keith show, with the others sidelined, even as Jones, the band’s original leader, was doing more than anyone else to make the records actually listenable.
Flowers, which follows, is a US-only odds-and-sods compilation including a few songs from Aftermath (including a cut-down version of “Out of Time” which is better than the original extended version), a couple of tracks from Between The Buttons, a cover of the Temptations song “My Girl”, a couple of previously-unreleased outtakes, and (as the first three songs) three massive hit singles — “Ruby Tuesday”, “Have You Seen Your Mother Baby Standing In The Shadow” and “Let’s Spend the Night Together”.
Those three singles are, of course, well known, and I’d actually forgotten what an extraordinary record “Have You Seen Your Mother Baby Standing In The Shadow” is — it’s a really fantastic little single. “Ruby Tuesday” is OK, but the chorus melody is clearly pinched from the Kinks’ “Ring the Bells” (a *lot* of these Stones “originals” have more than a little evidence of just being other people’s songs with the serial numbers filed off), while “Let’s Spend the Night Together” is a little dull. But Flowers is, I think, a better record than Aftermath — it has the better tracks from that album, minus the more obvious misogyny (though I don’t think it’s possible to have a Stones album without any misogyny at all, listening to these records) and with the aforementioned singles.
Their Satanic Majesties Request is… interesting, but not good. Sonically, it’s my favourite of these albums by quite a long way — it’s full of mellotrons and tuned percussion and dulcimers and so on (again, almost all contributed by Jones). I have a *lot* of time for bandwagon-jumping attempts at psychedelia, and this is very much in the tradition of Jan and Dean’s Carnival of Sound or the Four Seasons’ Genuine Imitation Life Gazette, at least in terms of overall sound and arrangement. Unfortunately, where those albums used their sonic gimmickry over solid songwriting, here the Stones forgot to bring any actual songs with them — the album is all sitar and no steak. There’s been a lot of critical disagreement about this album over the years, with some people saying it’s a mess, others saying it’s an underrated masterpiece, and yet others saying it’s a satirical riposte to Sgt Pepper, sending up the whole idea of psychedelia. It’s none of those things — it’s a lazier, less-interesting version of Chad & Jeremy’s Of Cabbages and Kings. Pleasant sounding, so long as you don’t try to listen to it.
And then the last two albums, Beggars Banquet and Let It Bleed, are very much of a piece of each other, and here, finally, as the sixties end and the band completely edge out their interesting member, we get the Stones actually becoming the Rolling Stones as they’ve spent the last fifty years being. These are the albums where they finally find their own voice — or at least, where they find Ry Cooder’s voice and decide to stick with it. Except where Cooder is possibly the least arch musician in the history of the world, the Rolling Stones are all archness.
And as their own style comes into view, I realise that that’s my fundamental problem with them. These records are mostly what is now called “Americana”, an attempt at merging country blues (rather than the Chicago electric blues they’d imitated early on), country music, and swamp rock into one riffy, slide-guitar-and-piano boogie whole. The problem is that those musical forms — all of which I love — rely for the most part on earnest, sincere, expression of intense emotions, and this is something the Stones never, ever, do. Everything with them is a pose, an attitude to put on, and at no point in the entire fifteen discs of this compilation (counting the bonus disc of non-album tracks) did I hear anything that wasn’t clearly knowing, winking at the audience, letting them in on the band’s own knowledge of their own preposterousness.
But the problem with that kind of knowing irony is that it doesn’t work well with simple, blues-based music, because that music is music of the heart and loins, not of the head. The only way you can square the circle is if, like Leiber and Stoller or Chuck Berry, you’re actually very, very funny, so you can apply a knowing wit to the lyrics. But Jagger’s lyrics are mostly rudimentary, going for sound rather than meaning. Where they’re not rudimentary, they’re often thuggishly misogynistic, and in the few cases (such as “Sympathy for the Devil”) where neither is true they’re still not actually witty.
So what we have with the Stones is a band who were, at least in the mid sixties, capable of pop singles at least as good as most of their peers, but who have no real depth of catalogue, at least in their sixties work — there was not one track on this entire fifteen-disc set which I didn’t know but which jumped out at me as an underappreciated hidden gem. There’s not the quality in depth here even of middle-ranking bands like the Turtles — over their sixties career there’s a handful of great singles (actually, to be fair, maybe as many as fifteen genuinely great tracks), a lot of pointless soundalike cover versions, and a hell of a lot of generic unmemorable pub-rock sludge. They fall between the stools of, on the one hand, earnest revivalists like Ry Cooder and, on the other, witty camp ironists like David Bowie or Ray Davies, and manage to embody the worst of both.
At least, that’s my opinion after listening to all this music, and it is, I think, a more nuanced one than my opinion going in (which was still that they had done a few great pop singles and a lot of dull pub-rockery, but without the understanding of where that contradiction comes from).
Yet this is, whether I like them or not, a band who are seriously considered one of the true greats of rock music history — a band who are genuinely adored by tens of millions. The fact that, on listening to these albums, I can’t hear anything which would put them above the Animals or Manfred Mann or the Searchers in my personal ratings must speak to some deficiency in me. I should, as someone who regularly writes about and analyses popular music, be able at least to see what it is that other people get out of this, but I just don’t. There are plenty of things which strike me as not to my taste but where I can see the appeal. But this… it’s not even as if it’s bad. For the most part this just strikes me as aggressively mediocre, and I simply can’t imagine what people are getting from this. It’s as if millions of people were asked what their favourite biscuit was and they all chose rich tea, if rich tea biscuits had “women are all stupid sluts” written on them.
Unless *all* their appeal is based on purely non-musical factors like Jagger’s stage persona or the band’s appearance, or on that handful of very good singles, I just don’t get it. So I’ll probably try this again at some point, just to see if something clicks. But as it is I’ve come to the very depressing conclusion that I understand people even less well than I thought.
This blog post is brought to you by the generosity of my backers on Patreon. Why not join them?
If I had to justify them, I’d say that they’ve been ridiculously influential. It’s all not very well reheated, but it’s their particular blend of not very well reheated that’s been influential. So many bands, from terrible to brilliant, have clearly taken their cues from them. Thus, even if they suck, they’re relevant material for study.
Not that I plan to delve much further into depth, and this review thoroughly does the heavy lifting for me as to why. Well done!
“All sitar and no steak”, ha.
I was waiting to hear your opinion of “Ride On Baby”, though!
I don’t think you’re all that much out of step with the wider perception of the Stones…it’s just that most people probably wouldn’t say “they’re a singles band”, even if in fact it’s the singles that they love. It’s all in the marketing? Possibly it’s all in the marketing, not that I have anything against marketing. There was a line that went ’round and ’round about Madonna in the late Eighties, a “meme” we would call it today, and I still wish I knew who crafted it: “that Madonna, I may not like her music, but you have to admit she’s a shrewd businesswoman”. Actually I never did find it necessary to admit that, but…the marketing, the marketing! Madonna was a singles band too, everything was a single, not because all the tracks were JUST THAT GOOD, but because that’s all they were ever supposed to be, so even if they sank, they sank as singles. I’ve found a couple errant Stones tracks that I liked against all reason, but maybe the “no reason” was the reason…they weren’t singles! So maybe I am the oddball here, and you’re actually occupying the space of the average listener?
Just articulating it more clearly!
In my day, if someone had a rare album everyone else would ask for it to be taped for them. It was an inferior copy of the actual LP, but still your best chance of hearing it. I wonder if the Sixties R&B boom was partly spurred by the original releases being obscure and/or hard to obtain in Britain, so (in the absence of home taping) there was some value in others making tracing-paper copies of them. Perhaps that wasn’t the entirety of it, but I suspect it was a fairly sizeable part.
But with the Stones, even if they started out as a displaced home taping kit, in time they moved the thing on. They shifted from a folk re-enactment of black American music into making it the primary mode of expression for disaffected, horny white boys. That’s why ‘Satisfaction’ became the default Stones song. Whether they were actually the architects of that, or just became the poster boys for it, is something else of course.
And for that reason, they need that archness, Jagger’s bizarre combination of macho and camp. A public school boy wanting to get laid was never going to match a background of poverty and institutional racism in audience sympathy stakes, even when that audience was primarily other white boys wanting to get laid. It needed an undertaste of self-mockery, an awareness of its own absurdity.
And speaking of horny white boys… Misogyny in classic rock music is immeasurable. It’s kind of like looking for ice in Antarctica, it can actually be hard to find specific examples of the stuff when the whole damn thing looks to be entirely composed of it. But I wonder if we get a bit colourblind about this and skip over the similar levels of misogyny in blues music. God knows how many women get murdered in blues songs…
Oh, I absolutely agree with regard to the blues — there’s a *lot* of misogyny in there, and distasteful stuff like “Good Morning Little Schoolgirl” and so forth. But as far as classic rock goes, the Stones seem to be the vector for all of it. None of their contemporaries were anything like as horrific (the Beatles had “Run For Your Life” and arguably “You Can’t Do That”, but that’s about it), and most of the people who came after them who went down that route were from the strutting-frontman-and-guitarist-sidekick school and were clearly more influenced by the Stones than many of their contemporaries.
(One exception there, Zappa in sneering-nastiness mode. His misogyny was absolutely his own.)
Yeah, there’s an odd paradox there. In a genre so misogynist that the misogyny went unnoticed most of the type, the Stones still got noticed for it. And I think that’s largely down to their pioneering status, it became normalised after them. From the sound of it I’m more of a Stones fan than you. But perhaps the bizarre thing with them is that the misogyny isn’t an extra element which can be removed from their music. (Like, arguably, it could have been with Zappa.) Their accomplishment was to turn blues into the expression of the white adolescent male, and there’s no way the misgoyny can be separated from that.
“Under My Thumb” is the sticking-point for me here: surely it can only be a deliberate amplification of misogyny, it’s just so extreme, yet at the same time it’s not exactly offering any justifications for its amplification. It doesn’t really rise to the level of irony — it’s not the Stones’ version of “The Iron Dream”, or anything! — as it’s stretching an awful lot to claim Jagger’s singing “in character” unless the character is just “generic singer of song”. It’s possible to argue about “Brown Sugar”, but it’s borderline absurd to argue about “Under My Thumb”! But, hmm, is that a feature of Rolling Stones songs, that the “singer of song” identity is usually just about the bare minimum that can be gotten away with? And that’s a lot less than Chuck Berry gives you, or Muddy Waters, or even Buddy Holly. Compare “Lola” to “Honky Tonk Woman”, for a glaringly obvious example! The presence of the singer in the song — I mean, the notional identity of the narrator — is beyond desultory, just as though if there’d been a way to make it an instrumental-only-still-with-lyrics that’s what they would’ve done…
I don’t think every Stones song is like that — I’m actually a Stones fan, for God’s sake! — but I think maybe the Stones showed a certain way to have a hit song, as being roughly equal to a certain way for the crowd to sing along? The singer is just minimally sketched-out and it doesn’t really matter what “happens” to him, you don’t identify with him…
Oh God, I sound like Scott McCloud.
But what about “Ride On Baby”?
The things you are listing as negatives are why they achieved such popularity.
This is the band that brought us Altamont. Whether or not they actually paid the Hells Angels 500 bucks worth of beer to be their security isn’t important, it’s the fact that people believed and spread it. That it was credible to their fan base. The misogyny, the smug derision, the self mockery – the Stones were a personification of a kind of snotty “Are you mad, bro?” persona before we ever had the internet. They were an id band.
I don’t have a copy here to get the quote right, but Forced Exposure compared the Stones to the Pink Fairies, describing the Stones as the ’60s equivalent of the Pixies.
The Stones seem just too unpleasantly hedonist and too dark for my tastes…Surely, great, maybe even genius-level, musicians — although Andrew would dispute that — and extremely hard, stress-resistant workers but for the most part, my sensibilities are just completely different from theirs. My favorite Stones music also comes from the Brian Jones era (yes, Between The Buttons!) but there’s at least one record post-1970 which I recommend to a certain degree enthusiastically: It’s Sticky Fingers which is, at least in terms of the instrumental side of things, crafted very, very nicely.
On the other hand I always had an affinity — which I can explain only partially – for The J Geils Band. Sure, the lyrics of their own songs and the R & B classics they liked to cover often weren’t that enlightened, either, but this hasn’t deterred me as much as in the case of The Rolling Stones. At their peak, TJGB was an incredibly tight, energetic touring unit with virtuoso musicians. And they have an absolute pop masterpiece (which unfortunately proved to be their undoing in terms of intra-band politics) with “Freeze Frame” (1981). “Centerfold” and, to a lesser degree, the title song are very well-known but the album as a whole is remarkable, I think. Take for example, “Insane, Insane Again” which I would describe as New Wave Zappa and which very nicely showcases the band’s instrumental capabilities:https://youtu.be/Pidi58ujUJI JGB’s Peter Wolf also has had a long-running solo career with some very nice releases in the last 15 years!
Sorry, this is the correct link for those of you who are interested: https://youtu.be/__dWLPE41_A
Yet this is, whether I like them or not, a band who are seriously considered one of the true greats of rock music history — a band who are genuinely adored by tens of millions. The fact that, on listening to these albums, I can’t hear anything which would put them above the Animals or Manfred Mann or the Searchers in my personal ratings must speak to some deficiency in me. I should, as someone who regularly writes about and analyses popular music, be able at least to see what it is that other people get out of this, but I just don’t. There are plenty of things which strike me as not to my taste but where I can see the appeal. But this… it’s not even as if it’s bad. For the most part this just strikes me as aggressively mediocre, and I simply can’t imagine what people are getting from this.
That’s exactly how I feel about Bob Dylan, after years — decades, now — of genuinely trying to get what it is that people are seeing.
I do agree 100% that the Stones are by some distance the most over-rated in musical history. How people can even mention them in the same breath is the Beatles is just baffling to me. Runners up in the “over-rated” category: R.E.M (Sample lyric: “Bang bang, bang bang bang; blame blame blame”); The Manic Street Preachers; Oasis; The Stone Roses.
Wouldn’t sample Beatles lyrics be “You say it’s your birthday? It’s my birthday too, yeah”, “He got joojoo eyeball/He one holly roller”, and perhaps most infamously “I am the eggman/ Goo goo g’joob?”
That’s fair comment, my sideswipe at a particularly lame R.E.M. lyrics was unnecessarily snide. As I have pointed out myself, the Beatles also perpetrated this:
That it really only goes to show
That I know that I, I, I, I,
Should never never never be blue
I’m not sure I think ‘lame’ is the term. The primary task of any set of lyrics is to work with the music. But the notion that the lyrics contain the ‘meaning’ of a song, and that you get closer to that meaning by abstracting the lyrics from the music, all of that’s got worse now you can look any lyrics up on-line. It’s like taking some other double act, say Morecombe and Wise, transcribing only the Eric lines and then saying you’ve proven it’s not that funny.
Van Morrison sang “And the loves to love to love the love”. Absurd on paper, when he sings it sublime.
It’s so tempting just to build a little house out of the music, and let some lyrics live inside it…but then whether the house belongs to the lyrics or the lyrics merely inhabit the house, no matter how good everything may be all together it’s only good by accident.
That’s my view, about 60% of the time. I can never be sure of making it all “good”, but at least I can make it so it all either stands up or falls down together!
Anyway I think that’s what you have to do when you only have about a medium talent…
Well, I very much agree that lyrics without music is dead: that’s more true for me than for most people, as I seem to suffer from poetry-blindness, an inability to focus on the words of a poem. But, hey, once you started having a go at Beatles lyrics, I thought I could, too :-)
Ah, but I wasn’t saying those lyrics were bad! Just that they needed listening to in the right way.
(Though admittedly I set myself up to fail by including ‘Birthday’. Those lyrics are lazy, and could quite possibly be described as lame. The other two examples I genuinely believe to be good lyrics.)
I thoroughly enjoyed reading this ho-hum review of the Stones! I agree with you on their 60s output especially. They were a singles band for the most part, until they started to find their voice with Let It Bleed and Between the Button. I also sort of like Satanic Majesties. It’s not the best psychedelic late-60s music by any stretch, but I admire their effort on it, and I love “2000 Man” and “She’s a Rainbow.” I prefer Ace Frehley’s cover of “2000 Man” though. I also love love love “Exile on Main Street,” but that’s early 70s and outside the scope of your review.
I agree with almost everything you write here but am a being Stones fan. Some of it is just that you know more music than i do, there are a couple of times when you qualify praise for a song by mentioning someone who did it better and I usually love those songs and don’t know the other version. You say they have had maybe fifteen great singles in the 60’s and I think probably more like 10, but that seems like very high praise to me. Perhaps you know more bands than I do who had 10 great singles in the sixties. Of the bands you mention, I’ll agree the beach boys, kinks and beatles are on another level. I don’t think any of the other bands released ten great singles, although the zombies and jan and dean released more consistent albums than the stones pre-let it bleed. I think the big point of difference between us is that you stop listening right before what i see as there best work. I think that as they settle into americana they begin to inhabit it and lose their archness without their self-consciousness that they’re working in a form that’s in some ways alien to them, and that’s a lovely compliment to the gospel/blues hybrid they’re playing, a sort of world weary sense of homelessness to go with gospel without good news. I think exhile is by far their best album, and has several songs on it better than the best of the zombies, a band i quite like.
Here I was thinking ‘I wonder what Andrew hickey thinks of the stones’, and I log into WordPress a couple of days later and here we are.
I actually think the stones did blues much better than nearly any other British blues band – maybe early Fleetwood Mac and my Irish friends will berate me if I don’t point out Rory Gallagher were superior. Of course you’re right in that not all the stones blues are good. For every ‘little red rooster’ there are 10 plodders.
I agree with you in that they’re a singles band. It takes the death of jones and the addition of mick Taylor to give them a better focus. The role of gram parsons cannot be underestimated. And the role of glyn Johns and jimmy miller. Andrew Oldham was a great publicist, but. Apoor producer. While ‘can you see your mother’ is a great single, it’s a poor production.
If you’re going to continue this, I recommend you have a look at bill woman’s memoirs, but also more importantly Keith’s. Keith’s is a little frustrating. He is very evocative of his early days. The story of the stones up to some girls is fascinating but after then, it has patches of worth, but a fair bit of dross. Much like his career. There’s also a great review by bill wyman the journalist, in which he takes the role of mick Jagger reviewing Keith’s book. One of the best all time book reviews. (If you can’t find it, dm me here or on twitter and I’ll send it through)
The other thing with the stones, at least in my view, is that they are a terrible band, until they click. Many accounts talk of their almost incompetence until the band gels, then things get better. Chemistry is a big part of their makeup. Led zeppelin, say, or the Beatles were virtuosos. Even if they didn’t gel, they’d still be very good. The stones need that chemistry.
(Egotistical plug). Check out ‘time waits for no man’ on my blog. An alternative universe account.
Ps, my Twitter is lord mondegreen of Sydney and Westminster.
I just reread this and now I’m skimming this box in Spotify. Oh my goodness “Under the Boardwalk” is inept. Clumsy bass intro, out of tune guitar, vocal not hitting the note … Everything except the hit singles is just mediocre.
The US Out of Our Heads is indeed not terrible, ‘cos they put in lots of actually decent songs, and the playing is not inept.
yeah, you’ve perfectly captured what is wrong with the Rolling Stones, and why I could never get into this band.
The question remains of how they captured the zeitgeist so powerfully and became the channel for a significant proportion of people to get into this stuff, and a towering influence over rock music going forward.
You’re puzzled by this – because it’s not much to do with the music or their musical ability.
My current hypothesis is something like: good singles, locally-available substitute, right-place-right-time. It’s amazing how much a few well-placed singles can do for your cultural impact. But then, I spent my youth in the applied-postmodernism of ’80s pop …
I think you’re probably right. And obviously, given my current project, I’ll have to think a lot more about this in a couple of years…
The power of having one good idea in the right place at the right time. And a best-of’s worth of singles really does it.
This of course doesn’t explain why they did so well with mediocre photocopied blues. But still.
you may guess that I’ve spent several decades absolutely fascinated with how The Spectacle works, in applied terms rather than theoretical ones.