Sunday, 4 October 2020

The Rolling Stones - On With The Show (1966-1967)

As The Rolling Stones started, like The Beatles, to put out full albums of their own material, we moved nearer to the indulgent excesses of the psychedelic era. This was a period that never suited The Stones and it resulted in one of their most ill-conceived albums.

Aftermath (1966)

Mother's Little Helper/Stupid Girl/Lady Jane/Under My Thumb/Doncha Bother Me/Goin' Home/Flight 505/High And Dry/Out Of Time/It's Not Easy/I Am Waiting/Take It Or leave It/Think/What To Do 

"It finally laid to rest the ghost of having to do these very nice and interesting, no doubt, but still, cover versions of old R&B songs – which we didn't really feel we were doing justice, to be perfectly honest" - Mick Jagger                          

Aftermath, released in early 1966, and recorded, for the first time, in the USA, was something of a turning point in The Rolling Stones’ career. After several albums that featured quite a few r’n’b the and blues covers, this was the first album to feature only Jagger and Richards songs. Granted, there were a few throwaway songs, a little bit of “filler”, included among the album’s fourteen songs. But, make no mistake, this was seen as a “serious” album. It also included an eleven minute blues jam in Goin' Home, a highly unusual thing among popular music albums of the day. The album is clocked in at fifty minutes in length, another notable thing. Most contemporary albums were around thirty minutes in length. The album also saw Brian Jones’ skill as a multi-instrumentalist feature heavily. He played, among other things, marimba, sitar and organ. The song writing of Jagger and Richards was also developing at quite a pace, however, some puerility still existed in their schoolboyishly sexist lyrics at times, notably in Stupid Girl and Under My Thumb, with its pompous put-downs. 

The album’s lively opener, Mother's Little Helper - sung in Jagger’s affected “mockney” voice - was patronising, lyrically, to say the least. No matter, really, though. They were still comparatively young. Check out the slightly disconcerting picture below dating from the period, though.

Both Stupid Girl and Under My Thumb, though, have great riffs and hooks, as does the soulful Out Of Time, a huge hit for Chris Farlowe, and the catchy Flight 505

The lively blues rock of It's Not Easy and the thumping, bassy, folky blues of High And Dry are also both upbeat, appealing numbers as indeed, is the unique, Elizabethan-influenced Lady Jane, with Brian Jones on medieval dulcimer. A similar instrumental vibe exists in I Am Waiting before it bursts in to a slightly overloud chorus. The track reminds me of something else but I can’t put my finger on what. Something by The Kinks or Cream, maybe?

Dontcha Bother Me has a great slide blues guitar riff, but it is a bit “blues by numbers”. Enjoyable enough though. Sounds great in mono. 

What To Do is a bit like The Beatles country rock outings, and has some poor Beach Boys “mba-ba-ba” backing vocals, which were unnecessary. 

Think has some interesting instrumentation, but is unremarkable otherwise. Standard mid-60s pop. 

Take It Or Leave It is a melodic, emotive and catchy ballad with a sad, mournful chorus. A nice song.

The sound in both stereo and mono is impressive. The mono is much more powerful and bassy than the follow up, Between The Buttons.  Returning to this album, I realise I should do so more often. It is not at all bad. It must be tempered, though, with the realisation that Beggars’ Banquet was only two years away. Maybe it wasn’t quite so good...

** Non-album material from this album's period included the hit single 19th Nervous Breakdown, which mined the same seam as Mother's Little Helper and contained Bill Wyman's epic rubbery bass line run near the end. 

Its b side in the USA, but not the UK, was the bluesy ballad Sad Day, which also featured a bit of that Elizabethan-style keyboards too. 

Also from the same late 1965 sessions was the underrated Ride On Baby, which was covered, admittedly better, by Chris Farlowe and the jaunty, surprisingly lightweight Sittin' On A Fence. 

Then there was the excellent single of Paint It, Black, of course, and its solid blues-influenced b side, Long Long While.

Between The Buttons (1967)

Yesterday's Papers/My Obsession/Back Street Girl/Connection/She Smiled Sweetly/Cool, Calm And Collected/All Sold Out/Please Go Home/Who's Been Sleeping Here?/Complicated/Miss Amanda Jones/Something Happened To Me Yesterday 

 "I don't know, it just isn't any good. 'Back Street Girl' is about the only one I like." - Mick Jagger
This was The Stones last "60s pop/rock" album, before the psychedelic experiment of Satanic Majesties and then the blues rock of Beggars' Banquet. In that respect it marks the end of an era, although on the other hand it marks the start of proper, fully constructed albums, with a vastly-improved sound quality from the tinniness and monaural airs of the earlier albums. It is an often-forgotten album though, the band rarely, if ever, resurrect any of its tracks to play live (apart from Connection) and the tracks just sort of come and go when one listens to it. They all seem a bit throwaway, often dominated by an unaccompanied bit of Charlie Watts drumming, such as on the two lively openers, Yesterday's Papers and My Obsession.

The Stones seem almost polite and shy-ish on much of the album's material - certainly no Get Off My Cloud defiance, Stupid Girl misogyny or Let's Spend The Night Together lust. Jagger's beautiful vocal over Brian Jones piano-accordion is typical of this. Like Lady Jane, it is almost Elizabethan in its instrumentation and ambience.

Connection is one of the rockiest numbers. One of the only ones with any sort of faint grit, or bluesiness. However, it ends far too quickly. It is soon back to the mild-mannered stuff though, with the non-lead guitar, organ-backed slowie She Smiled Sweetly. Jagger's saccharine vocal is not one of his best. Nice bass from Bill Wyman though. 

Cool, Calm And Collected is one of those quintessentially British, music-hall style rollicking singalongs best left to Paul McCartney and The Kinks (by whom this is so influenced). It certainly doesn't suit The Stones. Ray Davies could get away with that silly "posh" voice, such as on Dedicated Follower Of Fashion, but sung by Mick Jagger it just sounds ludicrous. One of the album's low points. It goes on too long, too.

All Sold Out is more like it, more typical of mid-60s Stones material. At last, a bit of Keith Richards guitar, and some pounding Watts drums. About time too. 

Some more bluesy guitar is to be found on Please Go Home, another impressive track with a Not Fade Away/Mona Bo Diddley rhythm. Apparently a "theramin" instrument was used on this to make weird noises. The Beach Boys had memorably used one on Good Vibrations not long before. The Stones did not really need to use gimmicky instruments like this, just use Keith's guitar, for God's sake. 

Who's Been Sleeping Here is also a good track, good vocal, nice bass and drums on a mid-pace rocker with even a bit of harmonica returning. Shades of Dylan's electric guitar/organ sound on here as well, together with oblique, mystifying lyrics. It wouldn't sounded out of place on Highway 61 Revisited.

That old Charlie Watts drum sound is back for the more typically Stones-sounding Complicated. It's ok, but basically sounds like a reject from Aftermath

Miss Amanda Jones expresses Jagger's fascination with "society" girls, as voiced before on Lady Jane and Play With Fire. Some Chuck Berry guitar prevails, thankfully, for the first time on the album. Keith Richards was criminally underused throughout. The album's best rocker.

Something Happened To Me Today was a Kinks meets The Beatles in a music hall unfortunate prelude to The Stones' derivative era - whistling, a tuba, some New Orleans jazz brass and those "posh" affected voices that would blight parts of Satanic Majesties. The Stones should never be doing stuff like this. Ever.

On Satanic Majesties, The Stones aped The Beatles, on this album they aped The Kinks. They were The Rolling Stones. They didn't need to ape anyone.

** Not included on the album from its sessions was the lyrically odd Have You Seen Your Mother Baby, Standing in The Shadow?, which saw The Stones featuring a brass section for the first time. 

Its b side was the impressive blues rock of Who's Driving Your Plane? It was a single with two question marked titles. 

Another fine stand-alone single/b side combination was Ruby Tuesday and Let's Spend The Night Together, neither of which need any introduction, do they?

Their Satanic Majesties Request (1967)

Sing This All Together/Citadel/In Another Land/2000 Man/Sing This All Together (See What Happens)/She's A Rainbow/The Lantern/Gomper/2000 Light Years From Home/On With The Show  

"Basically,'Satanic Majesties' was a load of crap" - Keith Richards

So, here we have The Rolling Stones most non-Rolling Stones album - a leap on to the "psychedelic" bandwagon with blatant echoes of The Beatles' recently-released Sgt Pepper (in June of the same year), musically, conceptually and artistically (the cover, in blue instead of red, was embarrassingly Pepper - influenced). Quite what possessed The Stones to come up with something like this is unclear, maybe they just thought "everybody's doing it, man" and went ahead, not wondering how it may appear. After all, groups like Pink Floyd, Traffic, The Kinks and Cream were all going weird. Why, even The Beach Boys were messing around with animal noises and multi-tracked, multi-instrumented "experimental" music. This was just The Stones' contribution to the contemporary vibe. Fair enough, I suppose, it was 1967, but it still stands alone as one big mistake in so many ways. The Rolling Stones are just not suited to this sort of thing are they, in any way, and to be fair to this album, there had been hints on Between The Buttons that led to some of the material we were subjected to here. All that hippy philosophy and communal generosity of spirit did not sit easily with a band who preferred to be affectedly rude, perverse and very much out on a limb as opposed to being part of some perceived "movement".

The album provides the most obvious bridging point in The Stones' career. Gone was the 60s pop, the frantic blues covers and blues-influenced pop that so characterised the mid-60s. In was experimentation and ideas allowed to run away with themselves, particuarly as producer Andrew Loog Oldham had left, and The Stones reacted like kids chucking paper around when the teacher has had to leave the room. Yes, it is intriguing and, at times, there are some genuine inspirational moments in there, hidden away. However, maybe we should just take Keith Richards' word for it, that "basically, Satanic Majesties was a load of crap".    

Sing This All Together is a communal "we're all part of the show" (typical of the era), somewhat silly singalong introduction. However, at about two minutes in, it has some interesting eastern-sounding percussion bits on it. Despite the supposed animosity (mostly press conceived) between The Beatles and The Stones, John Lennon and Paul McCartney appear on backing vocals, in an All You Need Is Love conglomerate. 

Citadel is not a bad track at all, one of the album's best, featuring some chunky guitar riffing in addition to the obligatory swirling "psychedelic" keyboard sound and a distant Jagger vocal urging us to visit him in his citadel which exemplifies its mystifying lyrics. 

In Another Land, oddly and rarely, features Bill Wyman on vocals. This was not surprising, maybe, as he wrote the song (breaking the Jagger/Richards monopoly) and only he and Charlie Watts of the regular Stones appeared (fully, apart from later backing vocals) on it. Steve Marriott of The Small Faces played guitar and Nicky Hopkins played piano. It has one of those medieval-sounding keyboard pieces. It has echo, reverb vocals and a general 1967 "hippy rock" sound that often sounds more like Pink Floyd or Cream or Traffic with hints of The Kinks than it does The Beatles, although the drum sound is very Ringo. I have to say that the snoring at the end has always put me a little on edge.

2000 Man is not too dissimilar to a lot of the material on Between The Buttons - the jangly guitar and the rhythmic, sometimes unaccompanied drum sound and some lyrics typical of the era. Again, something about it all that has touches of what The Kinks were doing at the same time. Quite a bit of studio trickery was involved in its production too. It all sounds a bit tinny, however.

Sing This All Together (See What Happens) has a woodwind introduction that is pure 1967 Beatles but then we get a rather seductive guitar-drum-weird sounds part and some horn parts. It all has considerable appeal. Some excellent bluesy guitar a couple of minutes in, some more funny noises and it all just continues like some blurry drug-addled party. However, an eight minute jam with a few good bits and some unusual instruments, such as The Beach Boys' favourite - the theramin - makes for a testing listen, to be honest. As I said, it has its attraction, but it really just doesn't sound much like The Stones as anyone knew them. I should imagine many people at the time thought 'so this is what taking drugs does to you' and decided against it.

She's A Rainbow is a brilliant, addictive piece of pure 1967 in the same vein as Love's She Comes In Colours. It has an unforgettable keyboard hook and an affecting Jagger vocal. It just sums up the zeitgeist, man. 

The Lantern has some genuinely impressive bits - very Beatles-ish psychedelic, with that Starr-inspired  drum sound again. However, it was not all derivative, there is some excellent guitar and piano and Jagger's vocal is one of his best on what was not a great album for him. 

Gomper is the album's Within You Without You - the tabla drum sound, Eastern quasi-religious ambience and dreamy lyrics. Some great guitar sounds also make for a interesting listening experience but, let's face it, it is so Harrison it's untrue. To be fair to Brian Jones, though, he had been into Eastern instruments long before Harrison.

Incidentally, at this point I must say that the album sounds much better in stereo than it does in mono, mainly due to all those strange sounds floating around. It is particularly noticeable on this track, although I have to admit that 2000 Light Years From Home sounds truly awesome in mono.

Along with communality and peace, the other leitmotif of the era was space travel. It was here that The Stones produced something that was ahead of the game. 2000 Light Years From Home got on the space rocket a few years before others, expressing the perceived loneliness of space travel before David Bowie (Space Oddity) and Elton John (Rocket Man), and the mystery of space travel in general long before Hawkwind's 1972 Silver Machine single. Instrumentally, it is also a most impressive track, great drum sound and psychedelic guitars and an ethereal vocal. It is by far the high point on the album. Along with She's A Rainbow they were the album's only two really properly memorable tracks. The others just sort of wash over you, seemingly incomplete in some way, however good parts of them are.

On With The Show was a blatant tap-in to Lennon's circus imagery of Being For The Benefit Of Mr Kite!, almost embarrassingly so. It also uses those "posh" English voice samples that had crept in to Something Happened To Me Yesterday on Between The Buttons. No need for all this silliness. The Stones needed a sea change, quickly. They needed to move onward and upwards while revisiting their roots. In 1968 they would do just that, and some.

** The two non-album tracks that appeared as a single were the Moroccan-influenced dirge We Love You (featuring John Lennon and Paul McCartney on backing vocals) and the hippy-ish Dandelion, which seemed a bit of a throwback in 1967. Thankfully, stronger stuff was just around the corner.

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