The Rolling Stones

Happy Birthday, Mick Jagger: 10 Musical Moments

Mick Jagger 1964These days, the role of the rock frontman is well established. Many musicians have approached this role differently over the years, of course. But, the role itself was not one that was defined in quite the way we know it today, before Michael Phillip “Mick” Jagger (born this very day in 1943) came along and helped to lend a certain vocabulary to the guy upfront who sings, fronting one of the defining acts of the 1960s – The Rolling Stones.

Jagger took notes from the greats early on on how to present rock music in terms of pure spectacle. James Brown, TIna Turner, and Jackie Wilson all provided the raw materials to Jagger’s approach. The results were revolutionary.

In addition to providing a template for rock frontman presentation, Jagger was a singular figure who provided an avenue for British musicians hearing and loving American R&B, to reinterpret it using their own voices. He  did so by providing his own take on it without reservation and beyond the reverent imitation of blues and soul styles undertaken by other bands, and other singers, on the early London R&B scenes. He was one of the finest examples to band who would follow – Them, The Pretty Things, The Yardbirds, and beyond.

Here are 10 musical moments of my favourite Jagger-as-vocalist songs that helped to get the Stones, and to get us all, into the evolution of rock ‘n’ roll music in the latter half of the 20th Century.

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The Rolling Stones 50th Anniversary: Time On Our Side Marches On

The Stones were once symbols of anti-establishment pop cultural terrorism in a world that asked, fearfully: ‘Would you let your daughter marry a Rolling Stone?‘. But, today they are now the grand old men of rock, the last of their kind. They are like old knights (well, at least one of them actually IS a knight!) who’s days as errant travelers, albeit ones who’ve traveled on jumbo jets,  to hotel rooms, to stages, and back again, are drawing to an inevitable close, or at least a major wind-down.

Rolling Stones 50 anniversary logo

For, this year, 2012, marks the 50th anniversary of that venerable institution, the Greatest Rock ‘N’ Roll Band In The World, since their days playing the Crawdaddy and Ealing Blues Club in 1962.  Many a book, article, blog post, pub conversation has dealt with the Stones’ tenacity as Road Warriors since those heady days. But, today, Stones fan and author Geoff Moore paints it black, in a year that will be the Stones’ golden anniversary, and perhaps the beginning of a new world to come never before imagined by generations of people – a world without Stones …

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The Rolling Stones Perform ‘Miss You’

Listen to this track from Dartford Kent and London’s favourite rock n roll and R&B quintet the Rolling Stones, with their 1978 hit single “Miss You” as taken from their landmark album that year, Some Girls.

The record was cut and put out just as the band, and the course of pop music, was in something of a transition, being pulled in at least two directions toward new wave and disco. Guitarist Keith Richards was in dutch with the RCMP with charges of drug trafficking. Mick Jagger was in the process of negotiating new deals for the band, while also attempting to update their sound.

And what  was more of an update than this, a clear and present disco record from the Greatest Rock n Roll Band In the World®? But, all is not what it seems on this single, the band’s last (to date) US #1 hit something of a latter-day hit just before their identity as an album band with top 40 hits was to be replaced instead with megatours. (more…)

Happy Birthday Keith Richards: 10 Musical Moments

This coming December 18th is actually the celebration of two birthdays. One, a celebration of the birthday of Rolling Stones songwriter/guitarist, rock n’ roll pirate, and superhuman drug-abuse survivor Keith Richards. And the other, incredibly, is the birthday of this very blog in its present form, which is three years old today. Happy birthday to us!

But, today let’s focus on Keef. He’s  known by many  these days for his ruined visage and onstage tenacity as a rock n’ roll musician. He’s still doing it even on the occasion of his 67th birthday, and also in the year that his biography Keith Richards Life was released.

So, what I’d like to do is to list some musical highlights in a career that offers an embarrassment of riches. Where many of the greatest tracks with the Stones were fronted by Keith’s musical partner, Mick Jagger, Keith himself has often taken the helm, providing lead vocals as well as game-changing touches as a guitar player.

And even when he hasn’t come to the fore as a lead singer, it was established very early on that even if early Stones manager Andrew Loog Oldham was listed as the producer on the band’s early albums, the real musical ear behind their catalogue in the studio was Keith himself. The takes that were used on the records were done so on Keith’s approval.

So, let’s take a look at 10 such moments that best features Keith’s musical signature, which is a cultural contribution unlikely, if not completely impossible, to replace. (more…)

Mick Jagger Performs ‘Memo From Turner’

Listen to this track from the soundtrack of Donald Cammel’s and Nicholas Roeg’s 1970 film Performance, as performed by the star of that movie, one Mick Jagger.  It’s “Memo From Turner”, a song which can be found on The Rolling Stones’ The London Years, and credited to Jagger/Richards. But, this tune was Jagger’s first solo piece, also released in 1970, even if it was recorded in mid-1968 during the filming of the movie, with none of the other Stones featured on the song.

Still in the thrall of his own Byronic image, and presenting it so winningly that he was immediately noticed for cinematic appeal, Mick Jagger took the role of the burned-out rock star Turner in the Cammel/Roeg film that would capture something of the dark side of 60s London.  Faced with his first role in a film, and coached by his actress-singer girlfriend Marianne Faithfull, Jagger decided not to play himself, but rather to amalgamate the dueling personalities two of his colleagues at the time; laconic Keith Richard (later to be known of course as “Richards”, his actual surname), and paranoid, drug-beleaguered Brian Jones.

The film is a dark, impressionistic achievement, marrying the glamour of both rock musicians and 60s gangland London together, revealing the two to be the mirror images of each other.  The tonal darkness to be found here in the movie is perhaps helped along by the fact that the project proved to be a stumbling block for the Jagger/Richard partnership, then at a crucial turning point, creatively speaking.

Jagger’s steamy scenes with Anita Pallenberg, his partner’s girlfriend at the time, which depicted allegedly unsimulated sex between the two, didn’t sit well with Richard.  So, when it came to writing a song for the movie, Jagger found himself abandoned by a fuming Keith Richard.  The full details of this account of the events can be read in Victor Bockris’ Keith Richards biography.

Yet, with the help of studio musicians under the leadership of producer Jack Nitzche, and supplemented by a truly incendiary slide guitar from a 21-year old Ry Cooder, Jagger’s first solo single was something to celebrate.  And in the end, Richard got his musical credit anyway. Despite the unusual circumstance which tested it, their partnership as a creative unit remained intact.

This is just as well, seeing as many of the songs they’d write together to be celebrated as classics of the era were still ahead of them.  Also ahead of them of course would be a real clash between the rock world and the world of organized crime – the free concert at Altamont raceway , captured as it was in another film Gimme Shelter, in which Jagger finds himself in quite a different role as the wide-eyed, sheltered rock aristo in a sea of violence, mayhem, and murder that is well beyond him.

Learn more about the film Performance by reviewing the Performance Wikipedia page.

Enjoy!

10 Rolling Stones Covers To Surprise and Amaze You

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.

As Tears Go By – Marianne Faithfull

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.

Satisfaction – Otis Redding

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.

Rod Stewart – Street Fighting Man

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.

Honky Tonk Women – Ike & Tina Turner

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.

Dead Flowers – Townes Van Zandt

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.

Paint It Black – The Feelies

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.

The Sundays – Wild Horses

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.

The Soup Dragons – I’m Free

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.

Faraway Eyes – The Handsome Family

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.

You Got the Silver – Susan Tedeschi

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.

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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.

Enjoy!

Keith Richards Sings Chuck Berry’s “Run Rudolph Run”

Here’s a clip featuring “Keef the Human Riff” Keith Richards rocking out his hero Chuck Berry’s seasonal hit “Run Rudolph Run”.  This may seem like something of a novelty of course.  But, technically this was Keith’s  first single as a solo artist, releasing it around this time in 1978.  He wouldn’t take on another solo project for another decade.

Richards debt to Chuck Berry from the formation of the Rolling Stones was a big one in terms of style and approach.  But, no one could suggest that the group hadn’t paid Berry back in royalties.  The Stones covered many Berry hits, including “Carol”, “Bye Bye Johnny”, “Little Queenie”, and of course “Come On” which was their very first single in 1963.

Maybe this seems like a lightweight entry for a debut solo single. But, I like to think that Keith was doing this one for the kids.  And it does rock, in a wasted sort of way.  What else would you expect from Keith?

The original Berry version of “Run Rudolph Run”  was released twenty years before Richards’ take, and has since been recorded by a myriad of artists like Dave Edmunds, Sheryl Crow, Reverend Horton Heat, and of course the inescapable Bryan Adams.

Enjoy!

The Rolling Stones Play B-Side “Child of the Moon”

Here’s a clip of an in-transition Rolling Stones and their lesser-known track, “Child of the Moon”.  The song was a B-side to the “Jumpin’ Jack Flash” single, which later appeared on their Beggar’s Banquet album.  “Child of the Moon” can be heard on the superlative collection Singles Collection: The London Years, which takes in the of the Stones’ first phase as a 60s blues-pop and psych-blues singles band starting from 1963 to 1971.

[update: the clip's been blocked. But, I really want you to hear the tune, so click here]

a period of transition

The Rolling Stones in 1967: a period of transition

Before they became the arena-filling behemoths that they are today, the Rolling Stones were once a mighty singles band.  It’s true that their primary musical idiom was a form of blues-rock, mixed in with the R&B flavourings of the whole British Invasion sound.  But, by 1967, the expectations placed upon the pop single were beginning to give way to the use of more ambitious production values, and with greater sonic variety.  And this is besides the fact that the album was beginning to eclipse the pithy, three-minute single, thanks in part to Sgt. Pepper.

So in light of this, the Stones tried a number of grand experiments to stretch themselves. First, they threw a couple of unexpected instrumental textures into their work, largely thanks to Brian Jones who was adept at playing a number of instruments outside of the rock spectrum.  Second, they embraced psychedelia on their oft-derided (unfairly so, I might add) Their Satanic Majesties Request album, which included their underrated singles “She’s a Rainbow” and “2000 Light Years From Home”, which we both a far cry from “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction”.  And third, they brought in sessioners like pianist Nicky Hopkins to add extra flair, depth, and dexterity to their material.

This experimental period would not last long, of course.  This song, “Child of the Moon” was recorded in late 1967, to be released the next May. It caught my ear when I first heard the Singles… box as a tune which didn’t really sound like a typical Rolling Stones track.  To me, it was the choppy guitar lines reminiscent of what U2’s the Edge would employ a decade or so later.  Jagger’s disembodied vocal, and the hazy atmosphere to the track stands as a stylistic testament to a group who weren’t afraid to step outside of their comfort zone.  Where the Stones would incorporate a number of stylistic ingredients into the 1970s which would include reggae and disco, it was here that their experimentation sounds at its most honest, least like a bid for commerciality.

By 1968, the sweetness and light of the psychedelic period had given way to darker tones.  And “Jumpin’ Jack Flash”, “Sympathy For the Devil”, “Street Fighting Man” and, later “Gimme Shelter” fit the bill nicely to suit the turbulent times.  The band established their sound based in the blues, hard rock, and country, a sound which they would develop, sustain, and then arguably let stagnate in varying degrees for decades to come.  As a B-side to “Jumpin’ Jack Flash”, “Child of the Moon” is something of a transitional piece, a last gasp of a band about to transform into an entity which would exist on a different and certainly larger scale by the next decade, when they would no longer be in the position to try something this uncharacteristic.

Where it can be strongly argued that 1968 – 1972 is their artistic pinnacle, there is a lot to be said for the 1963-67 singles-era, when they were still finding their feet as a band, trying different approaches, and gaining some unexpected, and very welcome results.

They would never be this same band again, of course.

Enjoy!

[Update, February 7th 2014 – take a look at this feature on “Child of The Moon” in MOJO magazine.  It covers the making of the track, as well as a promotional film directed by Michael Lindsay-Hogg, who would later go on to direct Let It Be, among other rock films.)

Rolling Stones Co-Founder Brian Jones Died 39 Years Ago Today

Thanks to the good folks at MOJO magazine, I was reminded that 39 years ago on July 3, founding member of the Rolling Stones, Brian Jones was found dead in his swimming pool.

Here’s a clip of the Rolling Stones’ “No Expectations” which otherwise features on their superlative 1968 Beggar’s Banquet album. The song features Jones’ exquisite slide playing. Despite his troubled and checkered character, he was a stunningly gifted musician.

Brian Jones

Brian Jones

Jones had traveled down to London from his home is Cheltenham, as a solo act working under the name Elmo Lewis. When Jagger and Richards caught his act while looking to form a band, they had to have Jones, who impressed them with his slide playing. One of their early hits, a cover of Howlin’ Wolf’s “Little Red Rooster” (AKA “The Red Rooster”), showcases this skill of his very well indeed.

Jones’ skill at being able to pick up nearly any instrument and find a way to get a good sound out of it was his primary contribution to the early Stones singles. And to go along with this, his ear for texture, and his ability to introduce new instrumental additions to singles which were considered off the beaten track for pop records was an undeniable strength. His marimba on “Under My Thumb”, recorder and cello on “Ruby Tuesday”, sitar on “Paint it Black”, hammered dulcimer on “Lady Jane”, and others made great pop records into timeless classics.

But, Jones had a number of personal problems which contributed to a swift decline. First, Jones was a heavy drinker and hard drug-user before the time when this was an accepted fact among rock nobility. All of the Stones dabbled during their early career. But Jones was a dedicated substance abuser, often missing recording sessions, and being generally unreliable while on the road. A growing resentment which caused a power shift in the group would eventually edge him out, and his paranoia was exacerbated to the point where his intoxicated state would make him turn mean. And it was during one of these episodes that Keith Richards and Jones’ girlfriend Anita Pallenberg began their romance, in an effort to get her away from Brian’ erratic and allegedly abusive behaviour. Richards and Pallenberg would have a long-term, drug-addled relationship well into the 1970s.

Although Brian Jones was a member of the band when they recorded the first of their arguably career-plateau albums in Beggars Banquet in 1968, his involvement was minimal. By June of 1969, he was out of the band – fired, in fact, from the group he’d helped to form. And less than a month later, he was dead – drowned in his pool at Cotchford Farm. The Stones honoured him at their outdoor concert in Hyde Park that year, and recruited former Bluesbreaker Mick Taylor to replace Jones on second guitar.

The circumstances surrounding the death of Brian Jones remain to be controversial, and a great many books have been written about the subject along with a not-very-widely released film. Was it murder? Was it the result of an overdose? The questions remain to be unanswered for many. The official death certificate reads “death by misadventure”, which given his predilections for excess is in a strange way a pretty logical conclusion.

RIP, Brian.

A lesser-known Rolling Stones track – “Winter” from Goats Head Soup

The Rolling Stones Goats Head SoupHere’s a song which I always thought sounded like it should have gone directly to Van Morrison’s creative inbox – “Winter” from 1973’s Goat’s Head Soup. This album of course is looked upon by many as the beginning of the band’s decline, when the heroin began to bump the telecaster out of Keith’s hand. Yet, this track and a number of others on this record showed that the group still had plenty of juice.
Check out this clip to hear this tune and judge for yourself. This track on which Jagger performs without Keith Richards (who was absent from the session), and Mick Taylor shines on lead guitar, betrays Jagger’s tendency to be current instead of distinctive, perhaps. Yet, his languid delivery is still pretty compelling.

Enjoy!