Wednesday, 18 December 2019

The Rolling Stones - The "Big Four" (1968-1972)



For many, these four albums, released between 1968 and 1972 are all the Stones you need. A bit excessive, maybe, but there is a compelling case for this four year period containing the very essence of The Rolling Stones at their swaggering, seedy best.

The albums are:-

Beggars' Banquet (1968)
Let It Bleed (1969)
Sticky Fingers (1971)
and Exile On Main Street (1972)

Scroll down to read the reviews chronologically.

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BEGGARS' BANQUET (1968)

1. Sympathy For The Devil
2. No Expectations
3. Dear Doctor
4. Parachute Woman
5. Jigsaw Puzzle
6. Street Fighting Man
7. Prodigal Son
8. Stray Cat Blues
9. Factory Girl
10. Salt Of The Earth     

After the ill-advised and uncharacteristic venture into psychedelia that was 1967's Their Satanic Majesties Request, The Rolling Stones were in dire need of a re-discovery or reassertion, whatever the case may be, of both their image and their musical roots. They needed to get away from the counterfeit feelings of "community" and hippy love for all that they seemed to have drifted into, almost unwittingly. Musically, they needed to forget about matching The Beatles, forget psychedelia and get back to their blues rock roots.

They did exactly that with this, one of the "big four" albums that straddled the end of the sixties and the beginning of the seventies - Let It BleedSticky Fingers and Exile On Main Street. Blending blues rock with nods to early delta blues and Americana-style country music they adopted their "bad boys of rock" personae once more and became the band parents didn't want the children liking, the band that was indeed the spawn of the devil.                                 
The old devil thing was never given greater significance than in the album's dramatic, iconic opener, Sympathy For The Devil  - a menacing, intoxicating devilish brew of mesmeric voodoo-influenced percussion, searing Keith Richards guitar, insistent "woo- ooh" backing vocals and one of Mick Jagger's best ever sneering vocals. An absolute Stones classic.

From then on it was blues to the fore in the stark, bass and slide guitar-driven No Expectations, with its plaintive, bluesy vocal and laid-back, dusty blues sound. Dear Doctor was a bit more upbeat, but it was still very much "blues" in its ambience - acoustic guitar again and a wailing harmonica in the background and Jagger leering away in his best cod-US accent. The Stones were cementing themselves solidly now as blues rockers, no messing around with songs about space travel, Eastern mysticism or British music hall pastiches. This "new Stones" would see them through another five decades and counting.



Parachute Woman was a chugging, solid blues rocker with some superb guitar and another great, slightly slurred vocal. The bluesy Stones really were back - and how. Jisgaw Puzzle began with some excellent slide guitar and piano and the lyrics are decidedly influenced by Bob Dylan's Desolation Row - "here comes the Bishop's daughter..". The Dylan influence is also there in Jagger's vocal delivery. It is more rocky than the previous three definately blues numbers. The same applies to the next track and even more so. It is Street Fighting Man, an ideal anthem for the turbulent summer of 1968, which saw students rioting in the streets (pictured at the bottom of the review) and fighting running battles with police, particularly in Paris. The song takes Martha Reeves & The Vandellas' Dancing In The Street and paraphrases its title and meaning into something darker. Musically, it gives us the first truly great guitar "riff intro" since possibly Get Off My Cloud or Under My Thumb and Jagger's affected vocal - "my name is called disturBOWANCE". Great stuff. As a ten year old boy who had always preferred The Stones to those milksop Beatles, this was music to my young ears. This was how I wanted my Stones to sound, even then.

 

The Delta blues was well and truly back with the acoustic blues of Prodigal Son, a rambling, thumping blues about feeding swine and killing the fatted calf. After three years of treading lightweight sixties water, The Stones were made for this sort of material as the sixties came to an uncertain end. The menace and parental disapproval returned for Stray Cat Blues about it being "no hanging matter, no capital crime" to have sex with a fifteen year old. Different times indeed. The Stones were re-revealing themselves as rude, haughty, arrogant and rough-edged and one feels the music scene needed them to be like that. Musically, the song ends with a great piece of Richards guitar similar to hat used in Sympathy For The Devil.

Factory Girl is a lively, acoustic guitar and percussion piece of country-style rock. Rather than aping The Beatles as they had foolishly tried to do on some of "Satanic Majesties", The Stones were very much in The Band of "The Basement Tapes" territory now, although the music still had their own unique stamp on it.

Salt Of The Earth is an anthem to the honest working class which is a little bit incongruous, to be honest, but it is a pretty good slow rocker with a lazy singalong gospel-style chorus.

1968 would prove to be the beginning of The Rolling Stones' best four years. This album heralded it perfectly.

The sound on the stereo remaster is superb, incidentally.  I have it in mono too, but it just doesn't quite compare. Having said that, the bluesy tracks like No Expectations, Jigsaw Puzzle and Prodigal Son sound thumpingly, speaker-shakingly wonderful in mono, so there are benefits to listening to both.



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LET IT BLEED (1969)

1. Gimme Shelter
2. Love In Vain
3. Country Honk
4. Live With Me
5. Let It Bleed
6. Midnight Rambler
7. You Got The Silver
8. Monkey Man
9. You Can't Always Get What You Want     
The Rolling Stones said goodbye to the decade that spawned them, the sixties, with another of their "big four" albums that straddled the turn of the decade that had begun so successfully with the previous year's blues rock masterpiece that was the magnificent Beggars' Banquet. With the emphasis a bit more towards "rock" than "blues" on this album, it is pretty much the equal of "BB" in many ways.
      
The Stones were now firmly established a the masters of riff-domniated rock with a bluesy touch and this is exemplified magnificently in the iconic opener, Gimme Shelter. With a mesmeric opening guitar part and some typically drawled vocals from Mick Jagger it is a true tour de force. Certainly one of their best ever introsA candidate for The Stones' best ever track. Love In Vain is a convincing return to the Delta blues style of the previous album, all acoustic and wailing, twanging bottleneck guitars and laid back bluesy vocals - "All your love's in voin". One of The Stones' best ever blues. If not the best. Keith Richards' blues from later in the album, You Got The Silver is from the same mould. Country Honk sees a re-adoption of the country rock, Americana-influenced style used on the previous album's Factory Girl. Here is produces a backwoods fiddle-dominated version the non-album hit single, Honky Tonk Woman. Nowhere near as good as the single, but it somehow fits the album and, to be honest I prefer it used here to using the single version.

  

The album's big blues rock anthem is the sprawling menacing Midnight Rambler with Jagger and guitarist Mick Taylor on superb form. Just check out that insistent, rumbling drum/guitar/harmonica intro. Just before this mighty track are two wonderful rockers - the leery Live With Me with its thumping drum sound and the acoustic/piano/drums of the the lazily lusty Let It Bleed. Again, Jagger's odd phrasing is to the fore as on "BB" - "we all need somewoh-an to lean o-wan". His sometimes quite ludicrous voice is perfect though, it wouldn't be the same with anyone else, or indeed anywoh-an else. Similarly Monkey Man ("Monn-kayy My-een") is just as it should be on another of the album's copper-bottomed Stones down 'n' dirty rockers. That sort of sums this album up - it certainly is down 'n' dirty, axle-grease caked blues rock. Indeed, Jagger refers to "my dirtyfilthy basement" in Let It Bleed. It sounds like the whole album was recorded in that basement.

Then there is one more genuine Stones anthem to end proceedings, the even mightier You Can't Always Get ("git") What You Want - an extended rock anthem with build-up shades of Jimi Hendrix's The Wind Cries Mary and an invigorating gospel choir massive, dramatic ending.

The Rolling Stones at their absolute best.

Finally, there is a mono edition of this album in The Rolling Stones In Mono box set. Don't even think about it. Stereo every time for this one.

Culturally, the sixties ended in so many ways with this album and then The Stones' catastrophic decade-ending open-air concert at Altamont, in December 1969, Northern California (pictured below). The event was the very opposite of that summer's peace and love vibe of Woodstock. Much has been written about it elsewhere, so I have concentrated on the music, which deserves to be assessed in isolation from the event that blighted it at the time.



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LET IT BLEED (THE 2019 REMASTER)



It has always been about the music, for me, I am not interested in coffee table books, pictures of Mick Jagger or sleeve notes. I fully accept that £140 is a ludicrous price to pay for the vinyl box set and it is a price I would never, ever consider paying. However, I am prepared to purchase the download remaster ( I am listening to it via a streaming service at present), particularly as it has been remastered by the legendary, respected knob-tweaking fingers of Bob Ludwig.

1. Gimme Shelter
2. Love In Vain
3. Country Honk
4. Live With Me
5. Let It Bleed
6. Midnight Rambler
7. You Got The Silver
8. Monkey Man 
9. You Can't Always Get What You Want                                         

So, does it sound any different? The previous remaster sounds excellent, so this one would need to go some to match it. In some tiny respects it does and is worth owning, for me. Just. The changes are VERY subtle, however, particularly to my proudly non-audiophile ears. This is what Ludwig has recently said about it -

'...If you listen on a good set of speakers or good headphones, you’ll hear subtle things in the background that are now much more clear that were somewhat hidden before...".

He is right. I am able to pick up little bits here and there - nuances in the guitar, oomph in the bass or the drums, just small bits that make me think 'hold on, that isn't on the previous remaster". I keep listening to the songs side by side and there are a few differences, but they are unfortunately so minute as to render it virtually impossible for me to really describe them effectively. I have listened to it through several times and feel that Love In Vain, Live With Me, Midnight Rambler, Monkey Man and You Can't Always Get What You Want possibly sound better than on the previous remaster, but Gimme Shelter possibly sounds worse. Or maybe I'm just imagining it all? It is that difficult to pin down.

There you go. I am sorry if I have not really provided a concrete answer about the sound. I have tried my best!

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STICKY FINGERS (1971)
 
THE ORIGINAL ALBUM


1. Brown Sugar
2. Sway
3. Wild Horses
4. Can't You Hear Me Knocking
5. You Gotta Move
6. Bitch
7. I Got The Blues
8. Sister Morphine
9. Dead Flowers
10. Moonlight Mile  

This review is for the version which includes the original album, the extras and Roundhouse live cuts, and the Live At Leeds University gig.                                                 
The album needs no real introduction. From the risque rock of Brown Sugar, with its iconic riff,  and the punchy horns of Bitch, through the blues rock of Sway, the pure blues of You Gotta Move and I Got The Blues to the sheer, unparalleled beauty of Wild Horses, the morbid Sister Morphine, the prelude to some of Exile that is Moonlight Mile and the enjoyable country rock of Dead Flowers - it is an absolute delight.

The "two tracks in one" of Can't You Hear Me Knocking with its vocal introduction and extended instrumental outro, featuring some Santana-style guitar, is always a high point. Remastered impressively, giving truly excellent sound quality, you can't go wrong with this slice of leery early seventies Stones. Everyone is on top form, instrumentally and vocally. A very, very strong case for being their best ever album. Of course, the monumental Exile On Main St had not appeared as yet.

THE STUDIO EXTRAS

1. Brown Sugar
2. Wild Horses
3. Can't You Hear Me Knocking
4. Bitch
5. Dead Flowers

Brown Sugar with Eric Clapton on it is very enjoyable, Clapton's whining guitar adding something extra. While not out-doing the original it is certainly interesting. The acoustic take of Wild Horses has a stripped down beauty. Lovely acoustic guitar on it, particularly at the three minute mark. The sound is crystal clear. Up there with the original. Can't You Hear Me Knocking is largely the first part of the original without the extended percussion outro. Some nice rumbling bass on it, some riffy guitar action around 1.40 and Charlie's rough and ready drums. It has its appeal but I prefer the original. Just when you want it to continue the groove it unfortunately stops. 

 

Bitch is extended and has a different vocal delivery from Jagger, slightly. More rambling than the original and had this been the original I would have preferred it, if you get my drift, but as I know the original so well I have to stick with it. Nice guitar interplay around 2.25. Again at 4.23. The extended bit is basically the horn riff given a longer fade out, with a great bass line right at the end, a bit like a live gig extension. Enjoyable. 

Dead Flowers has the bass to the fore and a Byrds-ish jangly guitar at the beginning. The steel guitar is laid on a bit thicker. Worth it for the bass and the rough and ready feel. Rock guitar pushes its way into the country feel a bit, for the better, particularly at the end. I think I prefer this cut to the original. Feels like a first take live in the studio cut. Jagger's vocal is a little lazier too. Seems somehow lower down in the mix.


LIVE FROM THE ROUNDHOUSE

1. Live With Me
2. Stray Cat Blues
3. Love In Vain
4. Midnight Rambler
5. Honky Tonk Women                                                                          
A great "live" feel on these cuts. Great sound quality without losing anything or sanitising it. Down and dirty, uncut and live. 

A punchy, bass-rumbling opener in Live With Me that rocks like the a canine's nether equipment. The Stones were really on fire live in 1971. The Brussels Affair from 1973 probably betters the 1971 material, but only just. For me, the live stuff from 71-73 beats Get Your Ya-Ya's, but that's just my personal taste. most people prefer Ya-Ya's. No doubting that The Stones were cooking in this period though. Stray Cat Blues is urgent, lazily dirty and bluesy. It really doesn't get much better than this. In 1971 they could still get away with this song. Love In Vain continues the blues, of course. Great guitar and vocal. My God, Mick Taylor was good. 

Midnight Rambler is as you would expect. Very clear sound though. Laid back and almost a bit jazzy as opposed to bluesy at the beginning, then the riff and harmonica takes over. Honky Tonk Women winds things up after the band introductions. I can never tire of hearing this. A great rendition of an often-played song here. Still a (relatively) new song to play live and the enthusiasm shows.

LIVE FROM LEEDS UNIVERSITY

1. Jumpin' Jack Flash
2. Live With Me
3. Dead Flowers
4. Stray Cat Blues
5. Love In Vain
6. Midnight Rambler
7. Bitch
8. Honky Tonk Women
9. (I Can't Get No ) Satisfaction
10. Little Queenie
11. Brown Sugar
12. Street Fighting Man
13. Let It Rock                                               

Originally recorded in mono for BBC radio broadcast, the show from the short UK tour in Spring 1971, would appear to have been excellently remastered, in stereo. Kicking off with a heavy, menacing Jumpin' Jack Flash, we get excellent versions of Live With MeDead FlowersStray Cat Blues and, as with The Roundhouse cuts, the sound quality is good, but the live feel has not been lost. You feel as if you are there. Nice to hear Little Queenie and, of course, the old Brown Sugar 'B' Side Let It Rock. The sound is slightly better on "Roundhouse" but no real matter, it is just good to get this gig remastered and official, at last.

Funnily enough, Leeds was from 13th March 1971. Roundhouse was the next day, the 14th March, yet the band sound tighter on the second gig. That one of those vagaries of touring I guess. Some nights are better than others.

  

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EXILE ON MAIN ST. (1972)

1. Rocks Off
2. Rip This Joint
3. Shake Your Hips
4. Casino Boogie
5. Tumbling Dice
6. Sweet Virginia
7. Torn And Frayed
8. Sweet Black Angel
9. Loving Cup
10. Happy
11. Turd On The Run
12. Ventilator Blues
13. I Just Want To See His Face
14. Let It Loose
15. All Down The Line
16. Stop Breaking Down
17. Shine A Light
18. Soul Survivor   

The final album in the quadruple set of superb Rolling Stones albums that included Beggars' Banquet (1968); Let It Bleed (1969) and Sticky Fingers (1971). While Sticky Fingers had been a dynamic thump of what was to become typical Stones blues rock, Exile On Main St was an absolute tour de force. Without doubt The Stones' finest album of the seventies, there is a compelling case for its claim to being the finest Stones album of all time.



Recorded at the moment in time when The Stones were their most "debauched", the group were by now gnarled old veterans of the rock music scene, having outlived The Beatles already by two years. Along with Led Zeppelin, they were the "big" rock group of the early seventies. The lived it too, the drugs, the drinking, the private jets, the women. Recorded largely in a sweltering hot basement in Southern France, the album has often been labelled a work of lazy, rough and ready, don't give a whatever genius. In many ways this is true, the sound has always been a bit muffled and it plays like one long drinking and rocking session. However, on this 2009 remaster, the sound is surprisingly good, nowhere near as bad as that on the follow-up, 1973's Goat's Head Soup. The bass is full and warm and the drum sound excellent. Even Jagger's supposedly "slurred" vocals are, for me, at times clear, energetic and impassioned. A lot of the musicianship on the album is deceptively impressive, contrary to the "lazy" description usually attributed to it.

For much of the album, blues is the name of the game. This is so much a blues album, possibly one of The Stones' best. Blues rock of the highest order. While Sticky Fingers had set the standard high with an album of what would now become typical Stones blues rock, this album went one, no two, no three better and blew the roof off.

 

                                 
It kicks off with Rocks Off, continuing the sound from Sticky Fingers' Bitch - punchy horns, big full bass and a general sound quality that is much better than one had been led to believe. Rip This Joint is rousing, fast-paced bar-room rock with Jagger on fine form, rocking boogie piano and a great saxophone solo at the end.

Shake Your Hips is some New Orleans-style rhythmic boogie blues, intoxicating and menacing with some wonderful percussion and guitar and a sneeringly nasal vocal from Jagger. The blues feeling continues with Casino Boogie, some genuine thumping kick-ass Stones blues. The Stones never played blues rock better than this. Then there is Tumbling Dice, vaguely Southern states-style, drawling rock, lyrics about gambling and a great choice for a single.

Sweet Virginia has and acoustic guitar leading proceedings. Very rough and ready with yet more excellent boogie piano. Torn And Frayed gives us even more blues heaven, that wonderful guitar again and Sweet Black Angel is has a creole, Haitian-style voodoo rhythm. Very seductive.

Loving Cup sees the return of the horns to yet another bluesy number, while the upbeat, rocking, riffy Happy is possibly Keith Richards' finest "solo" Stones number.

The blues gets even better with the excellent Turd On The Run with its powerful bass lines and the industrial, potent Ventilator Blues. This album just gets better and better. the mysterious, mesmeric I Just Want To See His Face sees the return of voodoo-style drums. This section of the album concludes the most bluesy part of it.

What would be more like typical Stones 70s rock returns with Let It Loose, which wouldn't have sounded out of place on "Goat's Head Soup" - slow-paced guitar, drums, keyboard riffs and a tortured, affected Jagger vocal. The upbeat All Down The Line, a concert favourite, continues the rock feel.

Shine A Light gives us a bit of gospel in an anthemic, soulful underrated classic of a song, while Soul Survivor ends the album with some classic Stones rock, introducing the riff that would be used by The Stones again on It Must Be Hell on 1983's Undercover and by guitarist Slash guesting on Michael Jackson's mid -80s Black Or White.

For many, The Stones did not produce anything of any real worth after this, which is a bit harsh on some other great material, but in terms of true, copper-bottomed greatness, it is probably true.

  

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THE EXILE EXTRAS  

Similar to the Some Girls sessions extra tracks released on 2010's Deluxe Edition, these tracks were recovered from the Exile On Main St vaults and their foundations re-vamped and enhanced by new vocals and some new instrumentation, together with an upgrade in sound quality. It is sort of like a new album, but one that has its roots in those heady days back in 1972. Only two of the out-takes are un-doctored, so to speak - Good Time Women (an early Tumbling Dice) and Soul Survivor.

Many have criticised this decision to effectively re-record this material around its original foundations but not me. Yes, the material they found could have been released as half-finished, scratchy demos, but this gives us an idea as to how good the eventual songs may have sounded, while in effect releasing a new Stones album at the same time. The material, like that for Some Girls, is most impressive.

1. Pass The Wine (Sophia Loren)
2. Plundered My Soul
3. I'm Not Signifying
4. Following The River
5. Dancing In The Light
6. So Divine (Aladdin Story)
7. Loving Cup (alternative take)
8. Soul Survivor (alternative take)
9. Good Time Women
10. Title 5

Pass The Wine (Sophia Loren) is a deliciously bassy, shuffling groove with a lasciviously drawled Jagger vocal. It is clearly enhanced by some latter-day instrumentation, particularly the brass sections, but that it not a problem for me, it is a great track. Quite what the link to Sophia Loren was is unclear. The sound quality on this is by far the most "modern" and it certainly sounds like a new 2010 song as opposed to an old 1972 session leftover.

Plundered My Soul is a mid-pace slow rocker with a fair few hints of the original album about, especially in its slightly muffled, dense muddiness. Mick Taylor added a new guitar part in 2010. The piano-driven blues of I'm Not Signifying is one that kept its original Jagger vocal. You can tell, it has that Exile-era lazy feel to its sound. Jagger added a killer harmonica solo in 2010.


Following The River is a typical piece of slow but powerful Jagger balladry led by piano and subtle backing vocals. It wouldn't have sounded out of place on A Bigger Bang. Dancing In The Light, as with quite a lot of the material, is a bit more 1973-74 sounding than 1972. It is a rhythmic number with a few vaguely funky hints in its backbeat. It has a great guitar solo on it.

The enticing, seductive and mysterious So Divine has slight echoes of Paint It, Black in its guitar riff. It has a very strong Exile feel to it as well as those sixties vibes and Keith Richards recorded a new guitar part it for it. It is one of my favourites from the collection.

Loving Cup is an out-take that originally dated from 1969, three years before Exile. It has a lot of that Memo From Turner late sixties/early seventies sound, particularly on the guitar backing and indeed on Jagger's vocal. There is a sort of seediness it that possibly out-does the original. I love the guitar at the end. Apparently it is two out-takes moulded together, but you can't really tell, well I can't anyway.

Soul Survivor is different in that it features Richards on lead vocal, giving it a sleepier ambience. Good Time Women, while an early version of Tumbling Dice, has musical similarities but pretty much functions as a different song with nearly all different lyrics. Yes, you think of Tumbling Dice when you hear it, but you can still listen to it in its own right. The spacey, psychedelic instrumental, Title 5 actually dates from early 1967 and listening to it, that becomes clear.

This collection of material is certainly not throwaway stuff, it is an interesting and enjoyable addition to the original, classic album, and stands up in its own right, separate from it.

Above photo from the NME. Below photo from Rolling Stone.



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