Tag Archives: Sticky Fingers

Rocks In The Attic’s buyer’s guide to…The Rolling Stones (Part 1 – The Decca Years)

– 3 essential albums, an overlooked gem, a wildcard, one to avoid, and the best of the rest –

A 1962 advertisement in Jazz News by a young guitarist named Brian Jones had consequences the blues purist could never have imagined. Jones’ ad, searching for similarly-minded musicians to play with, led to the formation of undoubtedly the world’s biggest rock band, and twenty two studio albums later they’re still going strong.

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Twenty two studio albums is quite a body of work – there’s a lot of gold amongst those records, but there’s a decent amount of average (and even sub-par) material too. Given there’s just so much to get through, I’ve split this buyer’s guide into two parts – firstly the years between 1964 and 1969, when the Stones’ albums were released on Decca Records (or London Records in the USA), and the second era from 1971 to present, where releases appeared first on their own label, Rolling Stones Records, and then much later on Virgin.

A handy marker to distinguish releases between the two eras is the famous tongue and lips logo, designed by John Pasche. This was introduced in 1971 and appears on the sleeve of Sticky Fingers, their first Rolling Stones Records release, and onwards.

But first, here’s a guide to the first decade of the band – one that started innocently with a group of like-minded individuals paying homage to their Chicago blues heroes, and ended in a double-dose of tragedy.

Start off with: Beggar’s Banquet (1968, Decca)

Stones2Beggar’s Banquet marks the band’s first confident steps away from their former leader, Brian Jones. Up to this point, it was very much Brian’s band. He put the band together, he named the band (after a Muddy Waters song), and he was the driving force behind a lot of their early covers. Mick Jagger and Keith Richards had other ideas though. This album represents a return to what they do best, compared to Their Satanic Majesties Request a year earlier. On that departure of a record they were still very much Beatles copyists, but with Beggar’s Banquet they were setting up their own stall, becoming a rock group rather than a ‘60s beat group. If there’s one Stones album that sets the template for every Stones record to come, it’s this one.

Follow that with: Let It Bleed (1969, Decca)

Stones3It’s a major understatement to say that the ‘60s ended badly for the Stones. First, the ousted Brian Jones is found face-down, floating in his swimming pool. Then Jagger watches from the stage at the Altamont festival as a fan is stabbed and beaten to death by the Hells Angels. Let It Bleed was released in between those two events, and the smell of death hangs over the record like a black cloud. ‘Rape, murder, it’s just a shot away’ sings backing vocalist Merry Clayton on Gimme Shelter (the L.A. Times reported that after recording that track, Clayton suffered a miscarriage upon returning home – yet another bad event surrounding this record). Their last record of the ‘60s, the Stones end the decade with the seven and a half minute long You Can’t Always Get What You Want. Taken at face value, it feels like a song about the death of the ‘60s dream, but it’s covered in hope – ‘if you try sometimes, you just might find, you get what you need.’

Then get: Aftermath (1966, Decca)

Stones4To the Stones what A Hard Day’s Night was to the Beatles, Aftermath was the first studio album consisting solely of Jagger / Richards compositions. It’s not their best record, by a long shot, but it shows that they could write a body of work without needing to go digging in the well of Chicago blues songs. The important thing here is that its Mick Jagger and Keith Richards writing the material, not Brian Jones – the first nail in his coffin, perhaps? Amongst the stand-out tracks are Mother’s Little Helper, Lady Jane and Out Of Time (a UK #1 for Chris Farlowe) – but the centre-piece is Under My Thumb, the song that the band was playing when Meredith Hunter was killed at Altamont (the common misconception is that they were playing Sympathy For The Devil at the time).

Criminally overlooked: The Rolling Stones (1964, Decca)

Stones5Their debut record marks out their territory well – edgy, energetic and respectful to their R&B and blues heroes. A cover of Chuck Berry’s Route 66 kicks things off, with Mick spitting out the American towns in Bobby Troup’s lyrics. Thirty three (and a third!) minutes later, a cover of Rufus Thomas’ Walking The Dog closes the album by what the American release would call ‘England’s Newest Hitmakers’. They only managed one original composition – they’d work at this over subsequent releases – but the eleven covers they chose showed which road they were going down.

The long-shot: Their Satanic Majesties Request (1967, Decca)

Stones6Terrible cover. Supposedly the Stones’ worst album. A psychedelic cash-in. Believe what you will, but I don’t think it’s that bad. There are definitely worse Stones albums from this period (more on that in a minute). If you ignore the shameful lack of originality on the cover, and maybe sweep a few of the lengthier trying-too-hard-to-sound-psychedelic-and-out-there songs out of the way, it’s a decent listen. The obvious comparison – due to the cover – would be Sgt. Pepper’s but the Stones sound more like Syd Barrett-era Pink Floyd. Plus you get She’s A Rainbow – a celebration of squirting girls everywhere, with a string arrangement by Led Zeppelin’s John Paul Jones – and 2,000 Light Years From Home, driven by one of Bill Wyman’s best bass riffs. Thankfully they would leave the joss sticks and kaftans behind for their next release – Beggar’s Banquet.

Avoid like the plague: Between The Buttons (1967, Decca)

Stones7Between The Buttons is odd in that each and every Stones album up to this point was a little better than the one before it. Each subsequent Stones album would have more Jagger / Richards compositions on it, culminating on the fully self-written Aftermath in 1966. But with Between The Buttons, their second attempt at this feat, they overreached and produced a boring, snoozefest of an album. Connection is the album’s only glimmer of hope, and even that is just two short minutes of schoolyard rhymes. If anything, it sounds like it was ghost written by the Gimme Some Money-era David St. Hubbins and Nigel Tufnel. Speaking of buttons and schoolyards, I once ingested a button up my nose when I was at infant school. It was a more enjoyable experience than listening to this record.

Best compilation: Through the Past, Darkly (Big Hits Vol. 2) (1969, Decca)

Stones8At the last count, there are about three hundred and nineteen Rolling Stones compilations commercially available, all of varying quality. The band’s second hits collection, with a great octagonal cover, is arguably the better of the two released during the ‘60s. Dedicated to the recently departed Brian Jones, the album contains four white hot Stones singles – Jumpin’ Jack Flash, Let’s Spend The Night Together, Ruby Tuesday and Honky Tonk Women – all available only on 7” up to that point. In fact, it doesn’t matter what the meat of the sandwich is, the very fact that the record opens with Jumpin’ Jack Flash and closes with Honky Tonk Women makes it one of the greatest records ever.

Best live album: Get Yer Ya-Ya’s Out! The Rolling Stones in Concert (1970, Decca)

Stones9Great between-song banter – “I think I bust a button on me trousers, hope they don’t fall down…you don’t want my trousers to fall down now, do you?” – and audience chatter – “Paint It Black, you devil!” – make this a great listen. Those moments are so good, you could almost forgive them for sounding like the sloppiest live band ever to grace a stage. Because that’s the truth of the situation – they might produce the occasional lightning bolt in the studio, but on stage they sound resolutely awful. The very fact that most people don’t notice this is a testament to how good some of their classic material is. Who cares what they sound like, as long as they’re playing Jumpin’ Jack Flash?

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Rocks In The Attic #344: The Rolling Stones – ‘Let It Bleed’ (1969)

RITA#344Rape…murder…it’s just a shot away. Nice lyrics there. This is a pretty bleak album, and those backing lyrics really set the scene. This was the first album to feature ex-Bluesbreaker Mick Taylor on guitar, and the last album to feature Brian Jones, who only plays on two songs.  By the time the album was released, Jones had been fired from the band he put together.

Of the ‘Big Four’ Stones albums, this is the one I got around to last. I inherited Sticky Fingers and Exile On Main St. from my Dad, both on vinyl, but he only had Let It Bleed on CD, so I left it. I then went back to the beginning and listened to the rest chronologically, meaning that I got to Beggar’s Banquet first, and this – it’s follow up – last.

It’s probably the one I listen to the most though. The sense of doom and gloom that seems to be hidden in the grooves – along with the music – is a big attraction – like the ending of The Empire Strikes Back, or the second half of Nabakov’s Lolita. It’s a downer, but it’s beautiful.

You can say what you want about the Stones – that they’re a devastatingly average rock ‘n roll band who have ridden on a wave of mediocrity for the last 50 years –  and you’d be more or less right; but you can’t take those four albums away from them. I’d say they’re all perfect, but it’s the imperfections that make them what they are.

Hit: Gimme Shelter

Hidden Gem: Live With Me

Rocks In The Attic #314: The Rolling Stones – ‘Metamorphosis’ (1975)

RITA#314Metamorphosis is the Stones’ third post-Decca compilation (after the two Hot Rocks releases in ’71 and ’72 respectively). It’s hardly their best forty eight minutes committed to vinyl, but I guess by this stage the barrel was being well and truly scraped.

A hotchpotch of demos, outtakes and alternate versions, the album has little in the way of hits – although Out Of Time is a well known pop hit of the ‘60s. The album was released on the same day as the first Atlantic Records compilation of the band’s material, Made In The Shade, and any cursory glance over that album’s tracklisting – pulling together material from Sticky Fingers, Exile On Main St., Goats Head Soup and It’s Only Rock ‘n Roll – suggests a much better way to spend an hour of your time.

The album’s one saving grace is its cover – a trippy Kafkaesque illustration of the band as various man-size bugs, clothed in late ‘60s garb, holding masks of their human form: the Stones as we know them. Both Brian Jones and Mick Taylor are present, making the band an odd-looking sextet. And speaking of guitarists, most of the tracks on the first side were recorded with session musicians – namely Jimmy Page and Big Jim Sullivan.

I have tickets to see the Stones very soon, in Auckland, and I can’t wait. They’ve always eluded me in the past – I’ve been busy doing other things, or tickets have been too expensive – but I just had to get tickets this time. Time is running out and all that. I remember hearing about a few European gigs they did back in 2003, supported by AC/DC. Man, that would have been a great show.

We have tickets in the cheap seats; well, standing actually, and they weren’t cheap either! But it’s okay – I’m not sure I want to be that close to a rapidly aging Mick and Keef. The word on the street is that Mick Taylor may be making an appearance, and that would just make my night, but I’ll be happy just to see the band before they pack it in for good.

Hit: Out Of Time

Hidden Gem: I Don’t Know Why

Rocks In The Attic #244: The Rolling Stones – ‘Goats Head Soup’ (1973)

RITA#244This album gets a lot of stick, mainly because it has the nerve to the be the record that followed Exile On Main St. Well, one record had to be, didn’t it?

The highlight on this album – aside from the oft overlooked Doo Doo Doo Doo Doo (Heartbreaker) – is the piano playing by Nicky Hopkins and Ian Stewart, on most of the tracks, but also some really nice clavinet parts by Billy Preston. Keyboards usually have to struggle for space with the ever-present guitars on a Rolling Stones record, but on Goats Head Soup, a lot of the tracks are full of piano. Is this is a sign that Keith Richards and Mick Taylor outdid themselves on Exile, and were taking a well-earned rest?

Angie definitely points to a more delicate change in direction, a natural progression from Wild Horses from Sticky Fingers, and basically the template for every future Stones ballad. It’s the perfect representation of the album as a whole – laid back, low-key and a sign that the band was starting to wind down after three or four intense years spent changing the musical landscape.

Hit: Angie

Hidden Gem: Doo Doo Doo Doo Doo (Heartbreaker)

Rocks In The Attic #163: The Rolling Stones – ‘Sticky Fingers’ (1971)

The album cover to destroy all other album covers, I learnt very quickly to put this in a very thick plastic sleeve. When I first owned this (well, when I first “borrowed” it from my Dad’s record collection), I only had this and Exile On Main Street (again, my Dad’s copy). That particular record has a couple of now-permanent grooves in the rear of its sleeve from the pesky zip on the front of Sticky Fingers.

I now have all of the Stones albums on vinyl (in a fit of pique I bought both of the 2010 vinyl box sets – 1964:1969 and 1971:2005), so I have Sticky Fingers twice now – but only one of them carries the pesky zip (they thought better of including the actual zip on the version included in the 2010 box set).

Sticky Fingers has always been, and I think will always be, my favourite Stones record. It’s damn-near perfect – and the one record in their back-catalogue that almost acts as a line in the sand. Prior to this, they were a Beatle-esque beat combo with a growing tendency towards a heavier sound. From this point on however, they were a rock band, no questions asked.

My favourite Stones period by far is the Mick Taylor years – Sticky Fingers was his first full record with them – and although he looked slightly out of place playing with them live – like a sixth former who’s just won a scholarship to tour with a rock band – his playing really wakes the band up and turns them into something far superior to their years prior to him. The extended jam that forms part of Can’t You Hear Me Knocking would never have happened with Brian Jones in the band – unless the jam consisted of glockenspiel, harp, kazoo, marimbas, etc.

Exile is always considered to be their hour in the sun, and although I love that record too, I have a special place in my heart for Sticky Fingers because I found this one first.

Hit: Brown Sugar

Hidden Gem: Can’t You Hear Me Knocking