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Tuesday, April 10, 2018

The Rolling Stones

by the Rolling Stones
Year:
1964
Overall Rating = 12

Best Song: I'M A KING BEE

If the brevity of the Rolling Stones’ debut EP was enough to make people sceptical of the Rolling Stones deserving to be seen as the raucous, blues-oriented yang to the Beatles’ energetic, poppy yin, then perhaps their first LP is sufficiently representative of why they, more than anyone else, rose up to become the commonly cited antidote to the Beatles during the British Invasion – and beyond, if you want to include the American market into this. With the Beatles’ near-even mix of originals and covers on their two domestic LPs preceding the Stones’ debut, a ratio of 3:1 in favor of covers might seem a little underwhelming. “That's it?”, you might say. And considering every other blues-based British Invasion band, from the Animals to the Yardbirds, recorded in similar or greater cover-favoring ratios, the Rolling Stones’ reputation, even before Mick Jagger and Keith Richards became the rival songwriting duo to Lennon/McCartney, seems all the more confusing. I guess, for starters, it could be that the Stones came first and helped influence the Animals and the Yardbirds. But, for the most part, I would say that it’s because, unlike what Decca thought when they dismissed the Beatles, audiences generally preferred guitar-based rock, excluding the Animals, and the Yardbirds, for a band so fond of the blues, was a bit too “clean” for mass teenage appeal. The Stones, in fusing blues and rock, didn’t just take the speed of the latter and inject the musicality of the former, they added the soul as well. If the title of “devil’s music” for rock ’n’ roll seemed inappropriate when it was in the hands of Chuck Berry or Elvis Presley, bluesmen like Robert Johnson’s dealing with the devil and their darker, tormented lyrics and melodies were far more deserving of having their art called in such a manner, so you can bet your life the Rolling Stones, in understanding the soul of blues, would truly make rock ’n’ roll into the “devil’s music”.

So no matter the subject matter of the tune, whether it’s fast or slow, whether it was originally written by Chuck Berry or Bo Diddley or Slim Harpo, odds are Mick, Keith, Brian, Bill, and Charlie make it their own. There are a few exceptions, of course, but these weren’t blues or rock numbers originally, being two soul numbers, both near the end of the album, one of Motown soul-pop origin and one of “true” soul origin. It’s not that their cover of Marvin Gaye’s “Can I Get a Witness?” and Solomon Burke’s “You Can Make It If You Try” are bad, it’s just that these aren’t the kind of romantic songs that the Rolling Stones can do well: do you honestly believe a young, snotty brat like young Mick Jagger cares about devotion like these tunes require? And the extra aggression, unlike on their debut EP’s “You Better Move On”, doesn’t really add anything. And yet, contradictorily enough, the only Jagger/Richards original amongst their own contributions – and the only “truly” original one –, is a ballad and is hardly aggressive at all, but it works. Maybe it’s because “Tell Me (You’re Coming Back)” was written by the duo when they were locked in a room by their manager Andrew Loog Oldham until they came up with something Beatles-worthy (it’s unclear which of their early pop compositions this resulted in, but it makes the most sense for it to have been their first). Whatever it is, it has a quasi-Medieval mandolin-like opening guitar lick and, later in the tune, guitar solo, a gradual build-up as the panic of losing his girl sets in, mainly brought on by the shift from a whispered verse vocal to a more impassioned pre-chorus, – although the booming drums sure help –, and the chorus, with Keith’s whiny, nasally backup vocals, is actually convincingly desperate unlike the attempts on those two aforementioned covers, so it’s a definite highlight. Another bit of irony here is that the other “original” highlight (a Nanker/Phelge composition, the group’s collective pseudonym) is an instrumental rewrite of “Can I Get a Witness?” – yes indeed, the “cleverly” titled “Now I’ve Got a Witness” takes the Motown hit’s piano riff, moves it over to combo organ (both played by the band’s regular session keyboard player Ian Stewart), and gives the guys an opportunity to show their jamming chops: from the slick harmonica soloing, to the stinging guitar leads (like on their debut EP, whether it's Keith or Brian, I’m not too sure), to Watts’ metronome-like drum work, to Wyman’s thick bassline battling it out with the organ’s bubbling bass part, they all make a highlight out of what lesser bands would just make a decent groove. And a final bit of irony involving the soul numbers is that one of the blues numbers, a cover of Jimmy Reed’s “Honest I Do”, is done in a soul-like style and comes out a winner. Of course, maybe it’s because they sound like anything but honest as the title implies; with the slow, creeping rhythm, the echoey, pseudo-romantic guitar fills and the equally echoey, but haunting harmonica fills, coupled with the way Mick sings these lyrics of sincere devotion with an air of sleaze and ill intent, it shows that the best way for the Stones to do romantic material at the time is to give the impression that the guy wooing the girl is the last guy she’d ever want to be with. The third and final “original”, a bit more original than the last, tries to do what “Honest I Do” did, but fails. “Little by Little”, a Nanker/Phelge and Phil Spector collaboration (not sure what Spector did other than play maracas) takes the main riff of Willie Cobbs’ blues number “You Don’t Love Me”, and loops it in the background of what’s essentially an uptempo pop song. It’s nice enough, but leave this kind of blues-pop hybridization to Manfred Mann, please (and funny enough, they too would rip-off “You Don’t Love Me”…)

As for the rest, it’s all pure and prime early blues-rock. With the extra length provided in the LP format, perhaps it’s a bit surprising there are only two Chuck Berry covers here, and one is a song Berry covered rather than wrote, but I suppose at the end of the day their undercutting Berry in favor of other rockers/bluesmen was to the LP (and the listener’s) benefit. Besides, they picked good Berry numbers and did them well. Now, “Route 66” isn’t necessarily a highlight, since like “Bye Bye Johnny”, the early Stones’ style of rock isn’t ideal for it, and being only a bit above mid-tempo doesn’t even allow them to fully show their rock ’n’ roll agility, but it still makes a good opener. “Carol” is much better; it’s only a little bit faster, but Keith is basically soloing the whole time, with the sharpest, rawest, twangiest tone he could come up with, consistently playing with the driving beat of the band as a whole, so it makes early British rock ’n’ roll that really does rock unlike anything else at the time. Their cover of Willie Dixon’s “I Just Want to Make Love to You” also rocks like nothing else, taking a slow, lustful descent-into-hell blues and turns it to a speedy rock ’n’ roll rave-up, where Mick’s proto-punk-ish shouts, Keith’s jagged guitar chords and Brian’s harmonica blasts all crash into each other at all times, but it manages to stay consistently rhythmic thanks to the two human metronomes backing them; as I mentioned earlier, material like this in the hands of the Yardbirds would be too clean, and if the band that tried to take the Stones’ crown in a year’s time, ex-bandmate Dick Taylor’s the Pretty Things, did it, it would be so sloppy you would lose the groove completely (which admittedly, does sometimes sound cool). Anyways, after the lull of the Marvin Gaye and Solomon Burke number, the album ends things right with a cover of Rufus Thomas’ “Walking the Dog”. The looping riff sounds great with a Richards guitar tone, of course, but it’s the vocals that truly distinguish from the original; with no one having the thunderous roar of Thomas, Mick’s snot-nosed attitude and Keith and Brian’s appropriately barking backup vocals (a rarity for the latter; he also does it on the two preceding songs to worse effect) and whoever it is whistling loudly at the end of each refrain manage to make up for it. Their other cover of a more rhythm-oriented R&B act (as opposed to soul-oriented like Gaye and Burke) is arguably even better: taking on Bo Diddley’s “Mona (I Need You Baby)” (sadly removed from the US release several months later in favor of their hit single covering Buddy Holly’s Diddley beat-based “Not Fade Away”), they really sink into the groove, with extra loud toms and extra tremolo-ey guitar chords banging out the two chord juba beat, not to mention Mick chanting the exotic dancer-praising refrain as if this was some kind of tribal ritual. And despite being the longest cover (and second longest song overall) at 3:30 minutes, it never gets boring. My favorite tune on the album is their cover of Slim Harpo’s “I’m a King Bee”, though. With the stomping shuffled drums and the weird swooping guitar/bass lick, it sounds like the titular King Bee is swerving back and forth knocking at your window, and as Mick’s calm and cool, yet sneering and sleazy vocals imply, it’s to steal your girl from you, but most importantly, Brian hauls out his slide guitar, so when the song gets around to the solos, you’re not sure whether Mick’s sharp, bluesy harmonica or Brian’s sloppy, one-string slide are a better sonic representation of the King Bee “making honey” with the woman he just conquered.

With all that said, this album easily gets a 12/15. It can’t really get a higher grade, on account of the fact that there are two tunes that I could do without and a couple more that I enjoy but don’t necessarily adore. But, what matters is that this is a great representation of what British Invasion-era blues-rock could sound like from a guitar-based band who found that sweet middle-ground between professional, energetic, menacing and entertaining, and just because it doesn’t have any classics in the traditional sense of the word doesn’t mean their treatment of these tunes don’t deserve to have the same respect as an album chock full of filler with an occasional nugget like “The Last Time” or “Satisfaction”. Of course, as the Rolling Stones would get better at songwriting, their focus on covers would go down, but until they started to make an effort beyond the rumored sessions of being locked-in until they became Lennon/McCartney, they still had a year and a half to improve on the “update our favorite blues/rock tunes” formula, and boy would they. Especially on their 2nd UK LP, which became a clusterfuck mish-mash as two albums stateside… but those explanations are for another time.

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