THE ROLLING STONES: ENGLAND'S NEWEST HITMAKERS (1964)
1) Not Fade Away; 2) (Get Your Kicks On) Route 66; 3) I Just Want To Make Love To You; 4) Honest I Do; 5) Now I've Got A Witness; 6) Little By Little; 7) I'm A King Bee; 8) Carol; 9) Tell Me (You're Coming Back To Me); 10) Can I Get A Witness; 11) You Can Make It If You Try; 12) Walking The Dog.
Sidenote 1: With this review, we inaugurate the "Important Artist Series" as a replacement for the "Important Album Series". This time, instead of following the RateYourMusic recommendations, the series will focus on my favorite artists that had already been reviewed on the old site, in approximate order of appreciation - and, since The Beatles were already done according to the alphabetic principle, what would be the most logical Sunday choice for a follow-up? Okay, stupid question.
Sidenote 2: I did consider a possible change of course, but in the end, I decided to still follow the same path that I originally chose for the old site and review the Stones' American Decca catalog rather than the «authentic» UK releases, simply because the American LP sequence ends up being more comprehensive with its inclusion of singles and American-only tracks. But technically, this record should indeed be simply called The Rolling Stones, and feature Bo Diddley's ʽMona (I Need You)ʼ instead of Buddy Holly's ʽNot Fade Awayʼ, their first hit single that was tacked on specially for the American market.
"What's the point of listening to us doing ʽI'm A King Beeʼ when you can hear Slim Harpo doing it?", Jagger once famously remarked — long after The Rolling Stones had mastered the art of writing their own material, of course; had he humbly and honestly admitted this in April 1964, this could go a long way in ruining Andrew Oldham's carefully constructed promotional campaign. But here we are in 2016, when both Slim Harpo's original from 1957 and the Stones' 1964 cover of the original have all but merged in the same time dimension, and as much as I like and respect Mr. Slim, I think that «the point» is now fairly self-evident.
Too much silliness, some of it PC-motivated rather than substantial in any way, has been spread about the «whiteboy soulless blues imitations» of the British Invasion — well, sometimes there's a grain of truth to it, depending on the level of talent and technique of the artist in question (and, no doubt about it, there were plenty of second- and third-rate imitators back in the day, just as there are in any time period), but in the case of The Rolling Stones, this is an utterly misguided position. The thing is, while early Stones did indeed mostly cover their overseas idols rather than write their own songs at first, they had, from the very beginning, a creative approach to these covers — more creative, in fact, than The Beatles had, which might actually be one of the reasons why it took them so much longer to overcome their shyness and begin writing original songs on a regular basis. They did not feel such a pressing need to write their own songs, because they were simply very happy about how they succeeded in reinventing others.
Take the aforementioned ʽI'm A King Beeʼ — play it back to back with Slim Harpo and then decide, honestly, which of the two you'd like to leave in your collection if you couldn't have both, for some reason. First and most obvious thing you notice is the production: naturally, the 1964 standards of Regent Studios in London make all the instruments sound sharper and clearer than the 1957 standards in Nashville (I used to think it was a Chicago song like all of 'em, but apparently Slim never made it to Chicago). This, however, is but a technical advantage. Much more importantly, the boys capitalize on the potential of the song — immanently present there from the beginning, but never properly explored by the author. Not only does Wyman nail the «buzzing» bass zoop of the song so that it sounds even subtler and more menacing than the original, but in the instrumental break, after the inciting "well, buzz awhile", he actually delivers a fun buzzing solo (the original just went along with the zoops — same thing as the verse without the vocals). And then, the «sting it babe!» bit — Harpo delivered, like, three miserable «stinging» notes, while Brian Jones actually makes his guitar sound like an angry hive going wild on your ass, in one of the most imaginative mini-solos he'd ever devised.
Okay, you'll say, but what about the vocals? Surely an authentic bluesman from the Louisiana region will sound more convincing and authentic than a snotty 21-year old Dartford kid who'd never even seen the Delta, let alone spent some time there? But again, this kind of logic is only valid if we work from the assumption that Mick Jagger wanted to sound like Slim Harpo, and that the idea was to give a credible impression of Afro-American sexual power as conveyed through blues music. If, however, we work from the assumption that Afro-American blues music was simply chosen as a starting medium for venting the suppressed sexuality of young British kids... well, in that case I have to say that Mick Jagger is far more successful here at accomplishing his own personal goal than Mr. Harpo was at accomplishing his — simply because nobody in 1964's Great Britain sounded quite like Mick Jagger. Nobody, not a single frickin' soul.
I mean, I keep running these rowdy young boys of the time through my mind, one by one — Eric Burdon, Roger Daltrey, Paul Jones, Keith Relf, Phil May, never mind The Beatles at all in this category — and there's nobody who would even begin to approach Jagger in terms of a certain «aggressive mystique» in his singing (and also harp playing, by the way). Mick wasn't much of a burly belter — he was more of a midnight rambler, sounding razor-sharp and sneeringly cocky at the same time, like pop music's equivalent of some deadly, impossibly charismatic villain from some TV show or comic series. And yes, half a century later it's all very well for us to smile at the «dangerous» image that was so carefully assembled for him and the boys in 1964, but the fact is, this here ʽI'm A King Beeʼ does sound utterly dangerous for the time. Never mind the promotion, the photos, the staged «offensive behaviour»: The Rolling Stones were considered «dangerous» in 1964 because their music sounded dangerous, far more so than The Beatles.
Speaking of the Beatles, here's another comparison. The self-titled UK version of this record, unlike its doctored American counterpart, opened with the (also heavily reinvented) cover of Chuck Berry's cover of Bobby Troup's ʽ(Get Your Kicks On) Route 66ʼ — a basic three-chord rocker that sounds not entirely unlike the Beatles' ʽI Saw Her Standing Thereʼ if you reduce them to bare-bones structures. Both songs serve as kick-ass energetic openers to capture your attention and devotion from the get-go; but the Beatles use the energy of rock'n'roll to stimulate over-the-top joy and exuberance of a burgeoning teenager — the Stones, on the other hand, use it as a newfangled, barely understood voodoo mechanism. The song, which used to be a fairly innocent ode to the wonders of U.S. highway travel in the days of Nat King Cole, and was still quite happy sounding even in its Chuck Berry incarnation, is here transformed into a mystical romp: Jagger lists all these unknown, enigmatic words like "Amarillo", "Gallup, New Mexico", and "Flagstaff, Arizona" as if they were part of some black magic incantation (surely they couldn't sound any different from the proverbial "abracadabra" for him at the time), and even though the druggy days were still years away from the boys at the time, the line "would you get hip to this kindly tip, and take that California trip" sounds positively stoned in this context.
It does not hurt, either, that in early '64, the Stones emerged on the scene as easily the tightest of all nascent British bands, period. Again, listen to the way they play ʽRoute 66ʼ and ʽCarolʼ in the context of the time — nobody in 1964 played with quite the same combination of speed, tightness, and mean, lean, focused energy. One of the biggest mysteries that I have never managed to figure out is how they got their rhythm section to sound that way: with Charlie Watts' predominantly jazz-based interests and with Bill Wyman being older than most of the rest by a good nine years (and having previously played with comparatively «tepid» outfits), it would seem at first like a fairly suspicious match with their wild pair of guitarists — but from the very first seconds of ʽRoute 66ʼ, it is clear that everybody gels in perfectly, and that Bill and Charlie are only too happy to provide Keith and Brian with the tightest, fastest, grittiest «bottom» that was at all possible in 1964. And Mick, at the same time, proves himself to be a master of the harmonica, refraining from technical feats or wild power-puffs and making it, instead, into a melodic extension of his own voice (ʽI'm A King Beeʼ and Jimmy Reed's ʽHonest I Doʼ are the best examples).
Almost everything here smells of creativity and excitement. For ʽI Just Want To Make Love To Youʼ, it was clear that they couldn't replicate the Olympian swagger of physical love god Muddy Waters — so, instead, they sped the thing up to an insane tempo and subjected their soon-to-be teenage girl fans to the lose-your-head breakneck fury of a young and strong team of British rock studs. For ʽHonest I Doʼ, Jagger knows it is useless to replicate the «toothless voice» of Jimmy Reed, so he is going instead for a Don Juan-ish delivery: you know he absolutely does not mean it when he sings "I'll never place no one above you", certainly not after following it up with the wolf-whistle harmonica solo, but is that reason enough to refuse a lying-'n'-cheating one night stand? It certainly isn't. For Rufus Thomas' ʽWalking The Dogʼ, they pull out all the stops, with the sneeriest, nastiest vocal performance possible and Keith blasting away on that solo as if his life, freedom, and an upcoming 20-year heroin supply all depended on it. I like all the original performances of these songs, sure enough, but they were never as defiant as what the Stones manage to turn them into here, and if you don't feel that quantum difference, you will most likely be unable to grasp the essence of this band, not even after formally swearing your allegiance to the likes of Sticky Fingers or Exile On Main St.
Where the band does slightly fail is on the material that they do not manage to fully drag over to the dark side — the most notable of these failures probably being Marvin Gaye's ʽCan I Get A Witnessʼ, an okay cover, I guess, but Jagger is trying too hard to simply get us up on our feet and dance, without finding himself some extra function that was not already there in Marvin's original; and as an «R&B singer without a back thought», it is clear that the man does not hold his own against seasoned pros. (In fact, I am far more sympathetic towards the instrumental extention of this song — ʽNow I've Got A Witnessʼ features top-notch harmonica solos and another masterful guitar break from Keith). ʽYou Can Make It If You Tryʼ, originally done by Gene Allison but probably heard by the Stones in the more recent Solomon Burke version, is another duffer candidate, but Mick's vocal here commands more respect than it does on ʽWitnessʼ — replacing soul with swagger, it still manages to give you an uplifting kick.
The album contained but one original (ʽTell Meʼ), and it has always amused me that the «evil» Stones would have a tender, sentimental pop ballad (albeit a tragic one) as their introduction to the world of songwriters' royalty (and royalties) — but I'll be damned if it isn't quite a fine-written song for the ʽFrom Me To Youʼ era, with the boys already mastering the art of build-up (tender verse, alarmed bridge, desperate chorus) and, curiously, going well over the typical three-minute barrier, as if they got carried away with their own success. It also set a common standard for them: in the future, the typical Stones ballad would be a bitter lament rather than a serenade, helping to lessen the gap between their rocky swagger and their sentimental side. In any case, ʽTell Meʼ is a respectable keeper, rather than forgettable fluff, and it's kind of a pity that they buried it once and for all in their live set after 1965 (honestly, they wrote quite a few worse clunkers in the balladry department after that).
In short, remember this, kids: there were only two artists in 1964 to top the LP charts — the Beatles and the Stones, and if you do not understand how the artistic creativity and imagination of A Hard Day's Night could be regarded on the same level with the «slavish blues and rock'n'roll covers» of The Rolling Stones, you will probably have to regard this fact as a sorrowful consequence of how Andrew Loog Oldham and his buddies were able to dupe the British public with their titillation-based promotional campaign. (Then again, there are also those who think that Brian Epstein not only made the Beatles, but also was the Beatles, to a certain extent). I have never subscribed to that conspirologist opinion, though, and as time goes by, the awesomeness of the fresh, young, nasty, swaggery Stones only becomes more and more obvious to me even against the ever-expanding musical horizons, so a loyal thumbs up here.