Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Thoughts of an Aspiring Music Snob: Week 40 - The Rolling Stones

Chris is trying to compensate for his lack of musical knowledge by immersing himself in one new artist each week. At the end of the week, he will write up a brief summary of his opinions. You can read about the origin and parameters of this project here.

Each week, when I pick an artist, I do a little research in order to figure out the best albums that artist has to offer. I usually aim to listen to the most critically acclaimed releases, or at least the one that sold the most copies. The reason why I tend to avoid the clunkers should be obvious; Decade of Dreck aside, focusing on bad art just isn't very much fun.

Still, sometimes I feel that in my predilection toward the well-received, I'm not getting the full story. Every artist has their share of mediocre debuts and noble failures. So, because I had two weeks to focus on the Rolling Stones, I decided to listen to some of their less well-regarded recordings.

I'm not going to play revisionist music historian and pretend that there's any hidden gems in the Stones' back catalog. In fact, there's a few albums that downright suck. Take Their Satanic Majesties Request, the 1967 psychedelic recording that was the band's knee-jerk response to the Beatles' Sgt. Pepper's. It's an awful piece of work, as if someone had sat down and told Mick Jagger about Sgt. Pepper's without actually letting him listen to it. It consists of all the regrettable aspects of Beatles-era psychedelia without any of the redeeming qualities.

But even though it was an unsatisfying record, I'm still glad that I gave Their Satanic Majesties Request at least one chance. It was interesting to hear the Stones in an almost unrecognizable form, as a psychedelic studio band singing about spaceships and rainbows. We have the tendency to focus on a band's hits and pretend like the misses never happened. But at some point, the Rolling Stones sat down in a studio and recorded this tripe, and I'm sure that they were just as sincere in their intentions as when they recorded Let It Bleed or Exile on Main Street.

But what were they thinking? Bad albums raise a lot of questions, and it's interesting to remember that the band that gave us Beggar's Banquet made such a musical faux pas only one year before. Even the best artists make missteps and, while we don't have to enjoy them, it certainly helps paint the whole picture of what they are trying to achieve.

Doesn't mean I'm ever listening to Their Satanic Majesties Request again, though.


ARTIST OF THE WEEK: The Rolling Stones

WHAT I KNEW BEFORE: Anyone who has ever turned on the radio for more than five seconds at a time is familiar with most of the Rolling Stones' famous singles, but I'd never really done much listening beyond that.

MY LISTENING: I had a two week listening chunk for the Stones, so I did things a little differently. The first week, I listened to Exile on Main Street (1972) every day, while listening to Beggar's Banquet (1968), Let It Bleed (1969) and Some Girls (1978) three times, and Aftermath (1966) and Sticky Fingers (1971) twice each. The second week, I did some holiday road tripping, which gave me time to listen to a mishmash of different albums. This culminated with a long drive today from Tennessee to Florida. I listened to England's Newest Hitmakers (1964), 12 x 5 (1964), Out of Our Heads (1965), December's Children (And Everybody's) (1965), Aftermath, Between the Buttons (1967), Their Satanic Majesties Request (1967), Beggar's Banquet, Let It Bleed, Sticky Fingers, Exile on Main Street, Goat's Head Soup (1973), Some Girls, Tattoo You (1981) and A Bigger Bang (2005). That's fifteen albums, and it took over ten hours, so please forgive me if I seem a little Stoned-out for today's post.


First off, this band has energy. Lots of it. From their first cover songs in 1964 to their 2005 sexagenarian jam A Bigger Bang, they've been able to keep their musical adrenaline pumping. Overexposure to the Stones' most famous songs might have numbed me to the music's effects, but hearing some of their lesser known stuff for the first time is truly electrifying.

What I found most interesting, though, is how much most of their music sounds nothing like their hits. I was familiar with classics like "I Can't Get No Satisfaction", "Get Off Of My Cloud", "Ruby Tuesday", "Angie", and "Miss You". I thought these tracks gave a pretty good representation of what the Stones were about... but I was dead wrong. Many of their non-single album tracks are very, very heavily based in blues rock. And not just blues, but all rock roots - country, rockabilly, even a little bit of gospel. My familiarity with their hits did not prepare me for the straight up blues tracks on their early records, or the pure country western of "Dear Doctor" or "Country Honk", or even the wonderful cover of Robert Johnson's delta blues song "Love In Vain". The culmination of all this is Exile on Main Street, a stunning double album filled with a wild combination of blues, country, folk, gospel and good old-fashioned 1950s-style rock and roll. I mean, this is the band that gave us a contrapuntal choir in "You Can't Always Get What You Want"; I was unprepared for them to be so...down to earth on Exile. I was initially suspicious about the Stones' title "The World's Greatest Rock and Roll Band", but perhaps they deserve it for being able to integrate all these different forms of rock and still managing to throw a dash of their own raucous personality into each track.

Finally, though the vocals and guitar lines always get a lot of press, I'd like to point out that the Stones' rhythm section is top notch. Keith Richards' guitar parts sound very improvisatory and jammy, but that's only possible because Bill Wyman's bass and Charlie Watts' drumming lay down such a solid beat from which to draw.


The Stones sound young on Out of Our Heads, cynical on Beggar's Banquet, frenzied on Sticky Fingers, and haggard on Exile on Main Street. But their music never really managed to reach me or make me feel anything. Even their stirring ballads, such as "Wild Horses", manage to be evocative without being emotionally affective.

Perhaps I'm just burnt out after my ten hour Stones marathon today. But I think that the Stones can both rock out and take it slow without really taking any chances. As a result, you're left with a catchy melody, a few good hooks, and no real emotion in the music. There are a few exceptions (the apocalyptic "Gimme Shelter" and the wan-sounding "Salt of the Earth"), but too many of their songs sound good without providing any real substance. I thought that Beggar's Banquet and Let It Bleed gave the listener the most to chew on; Sticky Fingers and Exile on Main Street are catchier without yielding nearly as much emotional weight. I have an easy time believing that everyone enjoys these albums, but it's harder for me to understand why those last two, in particular, would ever be named someone's favorite album.


I learned that any time I thought I was tired of listening to the Rolling Stones today, all it took was five minutes sifting through Alabama radio stations to retreat back to my iPod.

I also learned that I enjoy the Stones' album tracks far more than the majority of their singles. In what sort of world does the schlocky disco piece "Miss You" become such a huge hit while the bluesy, fiery "When the Whip Comes Down" languishes in obscurity on track two?


Keyboardist Ian Stewart was kicked out of the band before it even began after the Stones' manager decided that five young men was a better image, and that Stewart was neither musically essential nor handsome enough to remain a member. He remained the band's road manager and backing musician until his death in 1985. When the Stones were elected to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1989, they requested that Stewart's name be inducted along with theirs.

Also, one time Keith Richards totally snorted his dad.


You'd think fifteen Stones records would be enough. But there's more, including some more early efforts such as The Rolling Stones Now! (1965), mid-career placeholders like Black and Blue (1976), and late career comebacks such as Steel Wheels (1989). Not to mention the live albums, like the critically-acclaimed Get Yer Ya-Yas Out! (1970).

BEST SONG YOU'VE HEARD: "Sympathy for the Devil"