These days, the Stones are known as a seemingly eternal rock ‘n’ roll brand, with a rather straightforward approach that doesn’t appear to take too many chances beyond an established musical template. Yet, a lot of critics, and even some of the fans, forget that Jagger and Richards are accomplished songwriters, putting out tunes in their heyday that were not only immediate pop hits, but were also as highly interpretable as anything Lennon and McCartney ever put out.
The thing that strikes me most about their work is how prescient it is in terms of stylistic changes to the trajectory of rock music. In much of their work, they seemed to anticipate the development of blues rock, country-rock, and even post punk well before those ideas developed.
So, here are 10 Rolling Stones covers to surprise and amaze you. You’ll notice that many of them are as far removed from what you might think as being songs written by Jagger and Richards, who have become less known for their incredible songwriting past, and more for their tenacity as a touring unit. Yet the fact that acts as disparate as The Sundays, The Feelies, and Ike & Tina could pick and choose tunes from the Jagger/Richards songbook reveals the measurement of the quality of the songs themselves.
In the early days of their career, Mick Jagger and Keith Richards were not songwriters. They had to be bullied into it by their then-manager Andrew Loog Oldham, who had another act he was trying to develop by 1964. That act was a very young Marianne Faithfull, a virginal daughter of European nobility with a great name and the right look that Oldham knew would pay off.
Her first hit was the Jagger/Richards penned ‘As Tears Go By’ a song that Oldham demanded to evoke ‘high cathedral windows and no sex’ to suit the image of his new act. Of course, Faithfull would be corrupted by the Stones in other ways, taking Jagger as a lover, and eventually plunging into a heroin habit that would almost claim her life. But this song does what it sets out to do; be a song of innocence, sung by an angel who is untouched by the evils of the world.
The debt the Stones owe R&B is incalculable, building a career on cover versions of Chuck Berry, Howlin’ Wolf, and Solomon Burke, among many others. It must have been quite an honour to in turn be covered by one of the greatest soul singers of his era, and perhaps for all time. Otis Redding was a giant in soul music, easily crossing over into the rock world by delivering one of its anthems in a sweaty Southern soul package.
Where the original version is powered by Keith Richards’ central riff, here the song is all about Otis’ voice. And the thrust here is less about the lustful tone of the original, and more about the song as a sermon. Somehow, Redding makes this into a pleading address to the state of the world. The art of the cover version is all about tone, about subtlety, and adding dimension to the source material in some way. Redding covers all the bases here with ease.
Between 1969 and 1974, it is possible that Rod Stewart was the greatest rock vocalist on earth. And he holds back none of his considerable chops here, on the Jagger/Richards 1968 anthem ‘Street Fighting Man’. Rod put it out on his debut album the following year, and is backed here by future Rolling Stones member Ronnie Wood on slide guitar, Stewart’s writing partner in the Faces.
I think what Stewart brings here is a sense of the pervading tensions of the era, a time when the Paris riots and the riots in Chicago seemed to mark the time that 60s idealism was coming to a head, and that violence was not only to be a possibility, but was rather to be expected. Half of this cover version adds something of its own melody, the song of someone confronted by a violent world. By the end, Stewart takes up the full thrust of the original melody (with a quick nod to another Stones single ‘We Love You’ as well ), presuming to have become a part of that violence sung about at the top of the song. Stewart’s version turns the song into a little movie of one man’s reaction to a world gone mad.
Mick Jagger’s androgynous stage appearance was an early stand-out, owing much of his success on his ability to move on stage less like Elvis, and more like Tina. This was the case from early on, when she and Ike took the band to England to tour in the 60s, with the Stones in tow on the bill. Jagger watched her in the wings, took mental notes, and was advised by Tina herself. Later, by the 70s when he’d perfected his stage presence, the Stones would return the favour when Ike & Tina opened for their big stadium shows.
Despite Jagger’s debt to a female role model, a common indictment against the Stones is that of misogyny. In many of their tunes, women are sexual objects with little dimension. The intricacies of this are arguable. But, what is revealed on this version of the song, with none other than Tina Turner singing lead, is that the song itself lends as much to female empowerment as it may do to the image of the philandering male. In this tune, Tina is in charge, and the song does nothing but support the idea.
Keith Richards and former Byrd Gram Parsons had become great friends by the end of the 60s and into the 70s. As such, the country music that Richards had been interested in since he began came alive to him in a whole new way thanks to Parsons. With his friend’s influence, he was able to write this tune, a bona fide country song, which appeared on the Stones’ Sticky Fingers in 1971, and also covered by Parsons’ band the Flying Burrito Brothers. It was also covered by Jerry Garcia’s The New Riders of the Purple Sage.
But, my favourite version is this one by country legend Townes Van Zandt, which takes the wasted desolation of the original to new lows, in a profoundly impressive way. His craggy voice, the brittle acoustic guitar accompaniment, and the whooping sounds of the live crowd, is perfect for the sound of this song, a country song about the darkness and ultimate loneliness of drug addiction. Unfortunately, this was something that Van Zandt, Parsons, and Richards himself knew quite a lot about. And only Richards would live to talk about it.
In Technicolor Swinging 1960s London, I wonder what music fans made of this song, which despite Brian Jones’ sitar, sounds less 1966 London, and more like the 1979 Manchester of Joy Division, or indeed the 1979 New Jersey of the Feelies. Even though the Feelies play this one pretty close to the original, they certainly bring out the genius forward-thinking that caused Jagger and Richards to write it in the first place.
You can see that the pessimism that lay at the heart of the original fits perfectly into the Feelies milleu, along with the thudding, base rhythm that really drives this one along. And once again, it proves that the new wave/post-punk era didn’t so much erase the past, but brought out what lay at the heart of rock music of the classic era all along.
Break-up songs in rock music are many. But few hit such a vital chord as this song does, written around the time the celebrated relationship between Mick Jagger and Marianne Faithfull had turned sour, and came to a crashing end. But, the song itself is bigger than any autobiographical background that lies behind it. By the 90s, the Sundays version of the song had found a new audience outside of its classic rock home base.
I’ve mentioned in an earlier blog post about the Sundays that lead singer Harriet Wheeler’s voice is a vital instrument, with all immitators left in the dust when it comes to plaintive-yet-honest vocal delivery. With this song, she brings fresh-faced optimism to a song that is about heartbreak. With this song, you get the feeling that even though the narrator is struggling for a lost cause, that she’ll be OK in the end. As such, The Sundays have turned this song about the tragedy of a dying romance into a hopeful tune somehow.
If the Stones wrote songs which could be construed as pessimistic, than they were equally adept at writing optimistic anthems, too. And this is certainly one of them, one of their lesser known songs that seemed to fit perfectly into the celebratory subculture of early ’90s dance-rock.
And one of the proponents of that sound was the Soup Dragons, with this being a big club favourite and an anthem to the scene. Perhaps it’s ironic that in a scene where the state of rock music was decidedly away from traditional guitar rock, that one of its most vital club anthems came from the Stones, who by the 90s were not exactly on the cutting edge. Yet, their song was, written twenty-five years before this version was released, and before dance-rock was conceived.
The measure of how influential a band is often down to how many different types of musical seedlings they are able to plant with their own body of work. So far, we’ve seen that many of the songs written by Jagger and Richards added dimension to blues-rock, country, dance-rock, and even indie music and post-punk. Another branch of the musical spectrum is alt-folk by the end of the 90s and early 2000s. And one of the most notable bands of this scene is the Handsome Family.
Where the original version of this song is something of a low-rent redneck short-story, the Handsome Family make it into a stark, cinematic excursion in dustbowl-era sepia tones. The original has the rock ‘n’ roll rebel of Jagger’s smirking, faux-Bakersfield accented hero at its centre. But in this version, a po-faced and dour outcast on the fringes of society stands in his place. The Handsome Family take the source, and make it into a tale of Biblical doom. This is a tribute to their ability to repurpose the original song to build a portrait of old, weird America. It shows the strength of the material, too, that encourages creative interpretation as any great text does.
With all of their rock ‘n’ roll decadence, and drug-addled misadventures both on record and in real life, Jagger and Richards’ firm hand when writing and performing love songs is often forgotten. And this song – taken from their 1969 Let It Bleed album, and sung by Keith Richards on his first lead vocal on a Stones album - is one of their best. One of the reasons, possibly, is by using the images of diamonds, silver, and gold as poets do, but as told from someone in love who can’t really find a way to describe that love.
Blues and roots singer and guitarist Susan Tedeschi takes the original and brings out the crystalline beauty of the song. Where Richards delivery seems to make the narrator tentative – What is in your eye? Is that the diamonds from the mine? - Tedeschi proves that the narrator was right on the money, that once again it is the small things about a person that we love the most. The result is of course is that this is a love song which is as honest as love itself, and just as difficult to ultimately define. And Tedeschi preserves this, while bringing clarity at the same time.
For a couple of guys who never intended to be songwriters, it’s clear that they hit a stride important enough to influence a multitude of musical branches. Even if their reputation for established stadium rock endures more so than their reputation as songwriters, the songs themselves have been proven to be bigger than any narrow ideas surrounding them as a band, or even as individuals. Once again, art is greater than the artists.