In 1969, rock journalist Nik Cohn famously wrote that the best thing that could happen to the Rolling Stones would be for them to go down together in a plane crash short of their 30th birthdays, thus preserving themselves forever in our minds as they were then.
Thirty-three years later, as the Stones roll into town for a series of shows at Madison Square Garden (Sept. 26), Giants Stadium (Sept. 28) and Roseland Ballroom (Sept. 30), it’s an interesting notion to contemplate.
Think about it. What if the band had never made it home from Altamont? There’d be no Sticky Fingers , no Exile on Main Street , no Some Girls . The world would never have heard “It’s Only Rock & Roll,” “Memory Motel,” “Start Me Up” or “Saint of Me,” or seen the videos for “Waiting on a Friend” or “Love Is Strong.”
Keith Richards wouldn’t have developed the grizzled visage of a Navajo shaman, Charlie Watts wouldn’t have begun to bald like a Franciscan friar, and neither of them would have gotten strung out on smack. Mick Taylor and Bill Wyman wouldn’t have left the band, and goofy Ron Wood would never have had the opportunity to join.
As for Mick Jagger, well, he would have never grown the jowls of a St. Bernard, or married a Nicaraguan socialite or a horse-faced Texan model. His last relationship would have been with Marianne Faithfull. He never would have sung “Star Star” (a.k.a. “Starfucker”) in concert while straddling that ridiculous inflatable phallus, or run around onstage in jogging clothes, or released any of those horrible solo albums. And Rolling Stone editor Jann Wenner would never have given five stars to his buddy Mr. Jagger’s most recent onanistic effort, Goddess in the Doorway -the album that Mr. Richards has been making a point of calling Dogshit in the Doorway whenever the media is listening.
If the Rolling Stones had ceased to exist in 1969, the last song on their last studio album would have been “You Can’t Always Get What You Want.” “Brown Sugar” and “Wild Horses” would have been released posthumously.
Of course, there would be studio outtakes and demos to be released down the line, but the core of the Stones aural legacy would be limited to the 22 records-that’s counting greatest-hits compilations as well as both the U.S. and U.K. versions of some releases-that represent the band’s output between 1963 and 1969. Those albums were recently remastered and reissued by ABKCO Music-the label owned by the band’s former manager, Allen B. Klein-and a month spent listening to these sonically superior CD’s reminded me of what an incredible body of work the Stones laid down in their first seven years as a band. As good as the best of the post-60’s Stones would be, if this ABKCO catalog was all there ever was, it would still be rock ‘n’ roll’s defining legacy.
The British Invasion was about six months old when the Rolling Stones hit America in June 1964. The Beatles had already placed eight songs in the Top 10, and the Dave Clark Five, the Searchers and a few others had all hit the Top 20.
Yet for all the excitement, it was an extremely safe incursion. The bands all wore jackets and ties on stage, and though everybody’s hair was a little long, no one-not even, at this point, John Lennon-was looking for trouble.
The Stones’ first American television appearances slyly subverted these tidy notions. They appeared twice on The Hollywood Palace , where stupid jokes were made at their expense by host Dean Martin, and once on WPIX’s Clay Cole Show . I saw them all, but it’s the Clay Cole appearance that I won’t forget. Mr. Jagger performed in jeans and a pullover-it could have been a sweatshirt or a sweater, but whatever it was, it looked even grubbier on my small black-and-white set. His outfit screamed “Fuck you!” to everyone who thought a proper gent got dressed up to perform.
And then there was the music. Unless you came of age in this period, chances are you’re unaware of the pre-“Satisfaction” Stones era, during which they covered everything from R&B to soul to hard-core Chicago blues, Marvin Gaye to Solomon Burke to Willie Dixon. No white guys ever played black music better-and no matter what artist’s lyrics Mr. Jagger was singing, he always put his own undeniable imprint on them.
At a time when the Beatles were riding the charts with “P.S. I Love You,” the Stones’ sound was anti-pop: aggressive, intense and nasty-a rawer version of Phil Spector’s Wall of Sound, with the relentless beat driven home by raging guitars, wailing harmonica and, most of all, Mr. Jagger’s cocky, arrogant, lewd voice.
As I watched Mick Jagger leering into Clay Cole’s camera, flapping his huge wet lips and singing “I Just Want to Make Love to You,” my mother stood in the bedroom doorway watching me watching the Stones. Eventually, she called out for my father to join her.
I was thrilled. Teenagers-particularly teenage boys-are an angry lot. They’re confused and embarrassed by the chemical changes their bodies are going through. They’re increasingly aware of how imperfect the world is, and how harshly the world can judge their own imperfections.
In short, they’re pissed off . And it’s not enough to tell their parents about it. They need to make them feel the way they do, experience their rage and revulsion, and the time-honored way to do this is to embrace that which their parents fear and hate.
There was nothing about the Rolling Stones that said “Love me,” and for that-and for the looks of horror that these surly hooligans put on my parents’ faces-I instantly and passionately loved them.
Like all the great, prolific groups of the 60’s, the Stones put out three or four great singles a year and managed to fill sides of albums with great tracks. But it was the singles that kept them vital. Every three or four months, they put out a little artistic bulletin about where they were at exactly that moment in time, and how everything they were listening to-which was the same stuff we were listening to-was affecting them creatively.
As a result, the singles became events. The first time I heard “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction” was when the band world-premiered it on Shindig in 1965. As I recall, they played it under the closing credits, which meant the show faded to black before the Stones did, but I still knew that this was the best rock ‘n’ roll song I’d ever heard. I still think so today, though “Honky Tonk Women,” Pink Floyd’s “Comfortably Numb” and Eminem’s “Stan” are pretty damn close.
It all peaked in 1969. Despite the loss of the brilliant but drug-addicted Brian Jones, who left the band and quickly drowned, the Stones recorded “Honky Tonk Women” and released Let It Bleed . Mick Taylor joined the band, they toured the States, they recorded “Brown Sugar” and “Wild Horses.” Then they put a cherry on top with a free concert at the Altamont Speedway.
If your introduction to the Rolling Stones was “Miss You” or “Start Me Up,” or even “Tumbling Dice,” you’d already missed almost everything by the time you found them. These 60’s CD’s are the best opportunity you’ll have to be there then. Or, if you were there then, to be there again.
The quantity of quality songs is pretty astonishing. Out of 180 tracks, more than half are just plain great. And yes, the label’s claims that the remastering has greatly improved the sound quality are justified-the analog warmth of the original albums is back, and supposedly they’ll sound even better on an SACD player, which no one I know has yet. Anyway, the CD’s that we were urged to buy in the 80’s because they sounded so much better than our records have now been upgraded to sound as good as our records.
Unfortunately, what these albums make up for in sound, they lack in packaging. The CD’s come in digipaks with no booklets and almost no information-an extremely shoddy effort given the scale and importance of this reissue.
Still, these are must-have albums. Not all of them-several are redundant, and one or two are even rather bad-but the true rock fan is going to spend upwards of $200 on these, and that’s with deep discount pricing.
Here’s what to buy to get what you need:
· The Rolling Stones (1964), 12 x 5 (1964), The Rolling Stones, Now! (1965), Out Of Our Heads -U.K. version (1965). The eponymous debut is widely believed to be the best first album any band ever put out, but each of these early collections of mostly cover versions have several must-have tracks that are unavailable elsewhere, among them (but by no means limited to) Slim Harpo’s “I’m a King Bee,” Rufus Thomas’ “Walking the Dog,” Chuck Berry’s “Around and Around,” Bo Diddley’s “Mona,” Don Covay’s “Mercy, Mercy” and Larry Williams’ “She Said Yeah,” a 90-second-long buzz saw of pure punk energy that summed up the Ramones’ entire career a decade before it started.
· Aftermath -U.K. version (1966), Between The Buttons -U.K. version (1967). Twenty-six tracks between them, all written by Mr. Jagger and Mr. Richards, and even the tracks I’d thought were B’s back then seem like A’s in the context of what’s out now. “Mother’s Little Helper,” “Stupid Girl,” “Lady Jane” and “Under My Thumb” are just the first four tracks on Aftermath , and Buttons is an equally strong, if less familiar, collection, with “Miss Amanda Jones” and the gorgeous waltz “Back Street Girl” among the highlights.
· Flowers (1967). Almost everything on this album is available elsewhere, but damn it, you still need it for “Ride On, Baby” and “Sittin’ on a Fence.”
· Their Satanic Majesties Request (1967). I had such a strong memory of the trippy-dippy garbage on this Sgt. Pepper –influenced album that I was surprised to find that there are also things on it that rock harder than anything on the current A.O.R. charts. Still, even with “2000 Man” and its prescience about cybersex (“I am having an affair with a random computer”), only the completists need this.
· Beggars Banquet (1968), Let It Bleed (1969). On the first you’ll find “Sympathy for the Devil,” “Street Fighting Man,” “Stray Cat Blues” and “Salt of the Earth.” On the second, you have “Gimme Shelter,” “Let It Bleed,” “Midnight Rambler” and “You Can’t Always Get What You Want.” These two albums represent the Stones at their creative peak.
· Get Yer Ya-Ya’s Out! (1970). The Stones at their live peak.
· Metamorphosis (1975). An uninspired collection of demos and inferior alternate versions released by ABKCO to cash in on that year’s Stones tour. Still, completists will need “I’m Going Down,” a raucous outtake from the Let It Bleed sessions.
· The Rolling Stones Singles Collection: The London Years (1989). A three-CD set with every single and B-side released in the U.S. and the U.K., almost all of them in mono. “It’s All Over Now,” “The Last Time,” “Get Off of My Cloud,” “19th Nervous Breakdown,” “Paint It Black,” “Jumpin’ Jack Flash”-everything you can think of is here, along with plenty of underrated gems like the ominous “Tell Me,” the cacophonous “We Love You,” the crazed “Have You Seen Your Mother Baby, Standing in the Shadow?” and the sinister “Memo From Turner.” As for Hot Rocks (1972) and More Hot Rocks (1973), you only need them if you want stereo versions of the hits. Completists note: More Hot Rocks has several otherwise unavailable early R&B covers.
· You definitely don’t need Got Live if You Want It! (1966), a horrible recording from the days when rock concerts lasted about half an hour and you couldn’t hear the music over the screaming of the fans. Also superfluous are Big Hits (High Tide and Green Grass) (1966), Through The Past Darkly (Big Hits Vol. 2) (1969), December’s Children (and Everybody’s) (1965) and the American versions of Out of Our Heads , Aftermath and Between the Buttons .
I remember reacting very badly at the time to that Nik Cohn quote, certain that the Stones’ early demise would deprive us of a huge treasure trove of great music to come. And, as I’d expected, they have continued to give me enormous pleasure. O.K., Some Girls was their last great album, but there have been enough good tracks over the last quarter-century to keep me interested.
They exist in the culture now not as a vital creative force but as late-night TV-monologue fodder, aging men-grandfathers and a future knight, for God’s sake-whose wizened visages peer at us now not from the cover of Rolling Stone but Fortune : “Inside Rock’s Billion-Dollar Band.”
But these ABKCO CD’s re-create that fleeting period when the Stones mattered. On these albums they will always be bad boys, playing the purest and dirtiest rock ‘n’ roll ever made. Unlike The Picture of Dorian Gray , the Stones themselves get older, but this music stays forever young.
If you’re one of those people who thinks the Strokes or the White Stripes or the Hives or the Vines is the hot new thing, and you are not intimately familiar with these early Stones albums, I envy you. You still have the discovery of the quintessentially timeless hot new thing to look forward to.
A Case for Neko
Listening to Neko Case’s fine new album, Blacklisted (Bloodshot), is a lot like watching a David Lynch movie. The images and music that Ms. Case creates are as enigmatic as they are cinematic, and often laced with dread and danger. The album’s opening track is “Things That Scare Me,” and it’s a theme that seems to run through this album. On that first track, a stormy swirl of guitar, banjo and snare drum, she sings that she’s “hunted by American dreams,” but Ms. Case also seems haunted by death, relationships, girlhood and the scary specter of lost youth.
The album’s high point comes early on “Deep Red Bells,” which seems to be some sort of a hymn for a murder victim. It’s hard to tell-Ms. Case is rarely literal but always vivid. In the first verse, she describes a hand print as looking “a lot like engine oil, and tastes like being poor and small / And Popsicles in summer.” It’s a haunting image that takes on darker connotations as the song unfolds: “Who’s left to suffer long without you? / Does your soul cast about like an old paper bag?” Ms. Case sings as the ghostly wail of a pedal-steel guitar and the dark throb of a baritone guitar compete in the background. “Past empty lots and early graves of those like you who’ve lost their way / Murdered on the interstate / While the red bells rang like thunder.”
These lyrics benefit from Ms. Case’s striking clarion voice, which sounds like a deeper, steelier version of Tammy Wynette’s, minus the cornpone Southern inflections. It’s particularly resonant on the chorus of “Deep Red Bells,” where Ms. Case empties her alveoli in a way that’s both sexy and scary-just like the song.
Though this is Ms. Case’s third album, it’s the first in which she wrote or co-wrote all but two of the 14 songs. Here’s hoping she writes again. In the meantime, she’ll be performing tracks from Blacklisted at the Bowery Ballroom on Sunday, Sept. 29, with her band, Her Boyfriends. It should be one night that The Sopranos won’t have a monopoly on the seductive dark side of the human experience.