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Sunday, October 30, 2016

The Rolling Stones: 12 x 5

THE ROLLING STONES: 12 x 5 (1964)

1) Around And Around; 2) Confessin' The Blues; 3) Empty Heart; 4) Time Is On My Side; 5) Good Times Bad Times; 6) It's All Over Now; 7) 2120 South Michigan Avenue; 8) Under The Boardwalk; 9) Congratulations; 10) Grown Up Wrong; 11) If You Need Me; 12) Susie Q.

England only saw one Rolling Stones LP the year that Beatlemania took over the whole wide world, but the Americans, freshly subscribed to the joys of British Invasion, were more lucky and got this «megapack» of 12 extra songs where the British side got only five: the EP Five By Five, which did indeed contain five songs by five band members, was padded with several A- and B-sides and a few tracks recorded exclusively for the American market, and released as proof that The Rolling Stones could easily compete with the Fab Four now at least in terms of quantity, if not necessarily in quality.

Without these peculiarities it could seem, indeed, that the «sophomore slump» had set in, since there are few, if any, surprises on the Stones' second American record — for the most part, it is the same cocktail of Chicago blues, Chuck Berry rock'n'roll, some contemporary soulful R&B, and one or two half-hearted originals — competent, but not yet suggestive of an individual artis­tic path or anything like that. And now that the «novelty shock» has worn down, it is not that easy, either, to take the world by surprise at the phenomenon of The Rolling Stones for a second time. So it is quite predictable that of all the early Stones' album, this one usually gets the worst rap (well, maybe with the exception of December's Children).

Nevertheless, while there are no great stylistic or substantial breakthroughs, there's hardly a single direct flub anyway — they were so good at those things at the time, just a little more of each one could not have hurt. And besides, they are expanding their stylistic reach, largely re­fusing to record any carbon copies of what they'd already done. The very first two tracks, in fact, show that the boys are here to stay and conquer: ʽAround And Aroundʼ, taken over from Chuck, is merry barroom brawl rock that was sort of lacking on Newest Hitmakers, and not only does it signal the true arrival of Ian Stewart as a boogie piano player to rival Jonnie Johnson and Jerry Lee Lewis (even if, unlike those two, he always humbly keeps to the background — how many actual piano solos are there on Stones' albums?), but it also firmly establishes Keith as the un­questionable inheritor and perfector of the Chuck Berry lick — he doesn't play much, but every note that he does play sounds heavier, grittier, and, somehow, more fully and decisively realized than the way Chuck played it himself. The most important new element is Jagger, though — with his vocal delivery, the "but we kept on rockin', goin' 'round and 'round..." bit becomes openly and overtly rebellious, a barely veiled call to rip out them theater seats and go full-out riot mode, even if essentially this is just an innocent have-a-good-time piece of boogie. I don't know, really, but every time I compare the two, Chuck's version just makes me want to dance — the Stones' version, in comparison, gets my blood boiling. Just such a perfect combination of piano, guitar, and voice, and I'm still not sure how they used to hit the spot with such precision.

Then there's ʽConfessin' The Bluesʼ, with Mick again in full-out «midnight rambler» mode and the guitarists supporting him with a grim, dry, snappy sound. Mick is strained a little, but that's exactly what makes the song so enticing — unlike Chuck Berry or Little Walter, who sang the verses very naturally and largely undistinguishably from any other piece of 12-bar blues, Jagger is here to make a difference, and his near-geometrically principled modulation is perfect — he has this way of emphasizing specific lines with a high-pressure glottalized burst ("oh, baby... can I ha-a-a-ve you for myself?") that would have been considered offensive and criminal a decade earlier; but the real cool stuff is how he floats between different vocal styles, transforming a potentially deadly dull 12-bar blues into a journey of seduction that, at times, sounds downright creepy. Again, this is not just a love song, and not even a stalker's monolog: even as I am relis­tening to it in 2016, there's something deliciously Satanic about it, a tinge of that old "my name is Lucifer, please take my hand" vibe (not that Ozzy could ever begin approaching Jagger's level of mephistophelianism).

The big hit single, ʽIt's All Over Nowʼ, they got from Bobby Womack and The Valentinos, and while Mick could never compete with Bobby on a technical level, he is not trying — instead, what he does is try and take that «bitch-slappin'» potential of the vocals to a whole new level: each verse is shot out at you in one unfaltering timbral wave, like a revved-up prosecutor's speech that has to keep the audience on the edge of their seats without stopping. Throw in Keith's ins­pired, chopped-up, sputtering, stuttering solo break that came absolutely from nowhere (nothing even remotely like it on The Valentinos' original) — and I still insist that it directly inspired Dave Davies for ʽYou Really Got Meʼ, recorded just a few weeks after ʽIt's All Over Nowʼ hit the UK market — and you get yourself yet another fully legit contender for «first punk song ever», even if the tone is misogynistic rather than anti-social. Another cool thing about it is the extended coda, bringing the length well over three minutes, and sounding unusually repetitive and even noisy for the times; perhaps they just thought that little power chord riff was fun to play, but incidentally they came up with a sort of proto-Velvet Underground sound anyway.

These are the big ones, but there's plenty of joy to be gotten from some of the smaller ones as well. Of course, The Stones have very little business covering The Drifters, but I have always loved the groove tightness on ʽUnder The Boardwalkʼ, and how even here they managed to intro­duce an odd strain of darkness — the "under the boardwalk, under the boardwalk..." backing vocals are anything but joyful, more like voices of all the spirits of those unfortunate enough to drown somewhere in the vicinity of the boardwalk. Solomon Burke's ʽIf You Need Meʼ is given as strong a Jagger-jolt as ʽYou Can Make It If You Tryʼ — no tenderness whatsoever, but these glottal contortions produce a fabulous sensation of cockiness and such self-assurance that... well, if you need him, why don't you call him? Don't wait too long, in a few years he'll start losing that magic grip. Even the instrumental jam ʽ2120 South Michigan Avenueʼ has its moment of great­ness when all the instruments quiet down for a few bars, creating an atmosphere of suspense, and then Jagger's harmonica blasts start raining down from the sky (note that the recent remaster of the album restores an extra minute and a half of the jam with a long-lost Richards guitar break, although it is not one of his best); note also the nasty fuzzy tone on Wyman's bass, bringing this much closer to proto-hard rock than it could seem. And while the definitive classic rock cover of ʽSusie Qʼ still had to wait for John Fogerty to mature, this short and super-tight blast is no slouch, either: the boys scoop out all of the swamp from Dale Hawkins' original and replace it with early rock'n'roll fury — this is easily the single best group performance on the album, with everybody giving it his best, Bill and Charlie almost owning the result with fairly psychedelic bass zoops from the former and near-tribal drumming from the latter.

In the meantime, the number of original compositions has increased drastically — counting both Jagger/Richards and the «Nanker Phelge» moniker, there's five, of which ʽEmpty Heartʼ, a plea­ding, brooding R&B number with interlocking guitar, organ, and harmonica parts, is arguably the best: most of the time it isn't even so much of an actual pop song as it is more of a shamanistic ceremony, a multi-layered magical incantation to attract the missing lady (or ladies). ʽGrown Up Wrongʼ, a rather thin one-line guitar vamp, and ʽGood Times Bad Timesʼ, an acoustic blues-pop ballad, are less impressive, but the former is still fun, and the latter, once again, features some super-exuberant harmonica playing at least (the lyrics are total crap, though: "there's gotta be trust in this world / or it won't get very far / well trust in someone / or there's gonna be war" should be considered an insult to Dartford Grammar School, never mind the London School of Economics). ʽCongratulationsʼ, however, is a bit of a beaut — an early precursor to the band's baroque pop flirt in the mid-Sixties, in a way, judging by how the two guitars create those interlocking rippling patterns (Jagger's vocals here are a weakness, though — he is not yet as good at sentimentalism and sadness as he is at sneering and grinning).

So, ultimately, what we have here is not a breakthrough, but a quiet refinement of the band's talents — some new ground covered, some songwriting experience gained, some basic training with overdubs and production technology (it didn't hurt, either, that parts of the album were re­corded during the Stones' first visit to the legendary Chess Studios in Chicago), and, above all, a strong confirmation that the band would continue to dwell on the creative side, not content with merely supporting a rigid «bad boy» image. If, on the whole, the record still feels a tad weak in between those that surround it, this is only because it was a bit rag-taggy in the making, and was never even intended to become a fully grown LP in its own rights. And still, a big thank you to the American market, because that way it at least ensured that the Five By Five EP, an impor­tant step in the band's development, would not disappear without a trace in the depths of the «rarity section» of the discography — so, a thumbs up without hesitation.


  1. I'm surprised at your turn-around on "If You Need Me" and "Empty Heart". What happened there? Not that I'm disagreeing (I kind of struggled to understand your contempt for them in the old reviews), but it seems like a big change from then. Was it just repeated listens that changed your mind?

  2. My blog started the Stones at Big Hits, and I only went back in time after the fact. As far as British Invasion albums go, this one's not bad, but it could be better. Here's my take:

  3. Great as usual. You always give me a new perspectives on music I've heard a million times.

  4. Minor correction: the harmonica in "2120 South Michigan Avenue" is not Jagger, but Jones. They are actually quite easy to tell apart:
    - Jagger usually plays more in the low register with long, menacing notes, and he seems especially influenced by the Chicago school of amplified harpists. Also tell-tale is that when Jagger is the harpist, the harmonica never sounds alongside the vocals. Also if there are ostensibly two guitars, especially if there is slide guitar, the harpist is Jagger. Examples from the two albums you've reviewed so far: "Honest I do", "Little by little", "I'm a king bee", "Confessin' the blues".
    - Jones usually plays more agile lines, but sounds less evil and also ventures more on the higher registers of the instrument. Also he has a tendency to play alongside the band throughout. You know the harp is Jones when he plays behind Jagger, when there is only one guitar, or when there's also percussion like maracas or tambourines which might be played by Jagger. Also usually he's the one who plays the instrumentals. Examples from these two albums: "Not fade away", "I just want to make love to you", "Now I've got a witness", "Empty heart", "Good times bad times" and "2120 South Michigan Avenue"