THE ROLLING STONES: AFTERMATH (1966)
1) Paint It, Black; 2) Stupid Girl; 3) Lady Jane; 4) Under My Thumb; 5) Doncha Bother Me; 6) Think; 7) Flight 505; 8) High And Dry; 9) It's Not Easy; 10) I Am Waiting; 11) Going Home.
Looking back at the era where most bands began as cover acts, and then slowly progressed towards establishing their own styles, images, and writing signatures, this sort of makes me happier than looking forward at the situation where, even if you are a completely immature and insecure struggling 18-year old artist, you are still expected to enter that studio, trembling hands and all, and come out with your own set of writer credits. Imagine an entire album of Jimmy Reed remakes and clones of ʽThe Singer Not The Songʼ — I am much happier hearing the Stones reinterpret Chuck Berry and, for that matter, cover Jimmy Reed directly rather than trying to «write» something in his name. But those first two years helped them work out a solid base, and by the time it became clear that major artist, want it or not, would have to write their own stuff (not to mention all the financial benefits), Jagger and Richards, having finally cut their teeth on the occasional A-grade riff-rocker and the occasional Brit-pop ballad, were ready to play «the Beatles game» for all its worth.
Recorded at the RCA Studios in Hollywood in late 1965 and early 1966, Aftermath features nothing but Jagger/Richards originals and firmly plants the pair in the top rank of contemporary British songwriters. Their artistic ambitions stay true to their inner spirits — they are not even trying to out-Beatle the Beatles by writing painful-soulful confessions like ʽHelp!ʼ or dabbling in early cosmic-psychedelic territory like ʽNowhere Manʼ. Instead, they take their cues from the sneery attitude of Dylan and the psychological surgery of Ray Davies — Aftermath is a penetrating, sarcastic, and, judging by modern standards, delightfully offensive portrayal of a bored young man's life in contemporary England, as the boys set their mastery of the American blues form firmly in the service of painting the reality of British existence. This means that Aftermath will, almost by definition, have a somewhat lesser appeal than Rubber Soul or Revolver, but it does not mean that Aftermath does not possess certain intricate qualities and strong points of attraction that you will never find on any Beatles album — or any Beach Boys one, for that matter.
The continuing discrepancies between UK and US releases began to hurt at this point: Aftermath was the Stones' first intentional stab at a certain conceptuality, and the decision of the American people to take out ʽMother's Little Helperʼ and replace it with the contemporary successful single ʽPaint It Blackʼ, while understandable from a purely financial perspective, would look akin to a classical label's decision to throw out a slow, boring andante movement out of the middle of a Mozart concerto and replace it with Eine Kleine Nachtmusik. They also thought that the running length of 50 minutes was way too revolutionary for the local people (only crazy people like Bob Dylan could get away with something like that), and tossed out ʽTake It Or Leave Itʼ, ʽWhat To Doʼ, and — in a particularly criminal turn of action — ʽOut Of Timeʼ, an essentially Aftermath-like type of song; the fact that two of them later ended up on the US-only Flowers (with ʽOut Of Timeʼ cruelly cut up by about a minute and a half) does not properly excuse the butchers.
Still, once the pattern has been set, it would only make things messier to deviate from it, and so we will be talking primarily about the way Aftermath was served to the American people, beginning with a universalist anthem of bleakness and darkness rather than a bitter sociological observation on the depressed life of British housewives. ʽPaint It Blackʼ does not yet give us the Stones at the ʽGimme Shelterʼ height of their apocalyptic powers — it is much lighter than that, and it is hard to take Jagger's lyrics and vocal delivery too seriously. What really makes the song (or saves the song, if you prefer) is the anger, the sturm-und-drang mode that begins with Charlie's «alarm! alarm!» percussion pattern and culminates in the key change in the middle of the verse: as Jagger turns from the mope of "I see a red door and I want it painted black..." to the bark of "I see the girls walk by dressed in their summer clothes...", it is clear that this is sure as hell not going to be another unsatisfactory fakery à la ʽBlue Turns To Greyʼ — this is more about anger, of the headbanging type, than about drowning in one's own tears. And from that point of view, Brian's introduction of the sitar here is, in a sense, even more revolutionary than George Harrison's introduction of it on ʽNorwegian Woodʼ — here, for the first time, the sitar is actually used as a rock instrument, playing a rhythmic, rocking drone that kicks ass rather than mystifies in some pseudo-Hinduist manner. Throw in those thick bass zoop-zoop-zoops from Wyman, particularly in the coda, sliding his fingers down the strings as if he were figuratively splashing fat blots of black paint at Jagger's red door, and the aggressive interpretation of the song is complete: you can trash the concert hall to the martial sounds of ʽPaint It Blackʼ just as effectively as you could do it to ʽThe Last Timeʼ or ʽSatisfactionʼ.
It is this unusual combination of predictable and unpredictable instruments, familiar forms and unfamiliar substantiations of them, that makes Aftermath still sound so fresh and unique after all these years — provided you give it a serious and fair chance. I mean, when you really sit down and take a close look at the lyrics to ʽLady Janeʼ, it turns out that the general message is not that far removed from ʽYesterday's Papersʼ' "seems very hard to have just one girl / when there's a million in the world" — this is not so much a chivalrous love serenade as it is about dumping one love in favor of another, the whole thing being permeated with thick Jagger irony, both in the words and the faux-Chaucerian accent that delivers them. This contrasts starkly with the most seriously-minded person in the band — Brian Jones, playing the hell out of that Appalachian dulcimer, yet even Brian got caught in the irony when he talked in an interview about the dulcimer being an old English instrument (probably confusing it with the hammered dulcimer). Of course, texture-wise, the song does have an Elizabethan feel to it (though you'd probably be hard pressed to find anything from Elizabethan times that would sound even remotely close), but it only works because it mixes «gallantry» with «mockery» — otherwise, you'd have the Stones as predecessors of Amazing Blondel, and that would probably be a real disaster.
Perhaps the biggest drawback of Aftermath, and the one reason why the album will never find as much acceptance in the circles of «pop aestheticists», is that, unlike the Beatles or Brian Wilson (or Hendrix, for that matter), the Stones do not show as much interest in exploring the technical sonic possibilities of the studio. The songs sound relatively sparse, with few overdubs except for all of those Brian's exotic instruments; experiments with tape, special effects, etc., are kept at an absolute minimum; and all the songs are strictly guitar-based, with Brian's dulcimers, sitars, and marimbas fulfilling the cherry-on-top role. On the other hand, give Keith Richards his due, too: he is perfectly willing, where necessary, to work in the background and just provide the dough for Brian's toppings — Aftermath is not a very riff-heavy album (even on a song like ʽUnder My Thumbʼ, you really get to have a much stronger feeling for its riff only in a live setting; in the studio, you hum along to the marimbas), and it rather gets by on the strength of vocal hooks and exotic instrumentation, justifiedly opening the so-called two-year «pop period» for the Stones.
Time and radio play singled out ʽPaint It Blackʼ and ʽUnder My Thumbʼ as the highlights (and maybe throw in ʽLady Janeʼ, which was also released as a single), but in reality, the album is quite consistent, and contains a good deal of «sleeper classics» that the Stones themselves would subsequently — undeservedly — shun in concert, mainly because those songs did not so well agree with their «roots rock» image. (Or, sometimes, maybe not, because how more «roots» can you get than with the genius-amateur country of ʽHigh And Dryʼ?) Almost everything is catchy one way or another, though sometimes too repetitive — ʽFlight 505ʼ, for instance, sets an excellent mid-tempo groove going, but once it has been established, very little happens with the song over its three long verses and one unremarkable instrumental break, and you begin wondering if the music here wasn't organized around Jagger's gruesome story of an airplane crash rather than the other way around. (Of course, you don't have to think that the song is literally about an airplane crash — it is about having to pay dearly for one's reckless decisions, the kind of which a highly disciplined and precautious English gentleman like Mr. Jagger would never take on his own). More importantly, almost everything tells a story, whether it be the female character assassination of ʽStupid Girlʼ or ʽUnder My Thumbʼ (Jagger's «misogyny», for which he'd be roasted alive in the PC age, even if stupid girls — and cruel boys — are as much a reality in 2016 as they were in 1966), contemplation of one's own loneliness and stupidity in ʽIt's Not Easyʼ, the odd airplane allegory of ʽFlight 505ʼ, or... well, I am, of course, not going to insist that the Stones were as accomplished in the art of British storytelling as the Kinks on Face To Face or Somethin' Else, since too many of these songs are centered around the protagonist's relationships with his numerous Lady Janes and Lady Anns and Sweet Maries, but even as it is, the scope of Jagger's feelings is head-spinning: on Side B alone, he has enough time to (a) blame his woman for dumping him because "she found out it was money I was after", (b) blame himself for being left without a woman (ʽIt's Not Easyʼ), (c) express an abstract hope that it'll all work out in the end (ʽI Am Waitingʼ), (d) revel heartily over the perspective of going home to see his baby as if nothing happened in the first place and he were just some nonchalant Sonny Boy Williamson on his way back from a hard day's work at the factory.
Speaking of (d), the one and only thing that the American release of Aftermath got absolutely right was sticking the 11-minute jam ʽGoin' Homeʼ to the end of the record. Not only is it easier that way to simply turn off the record 11 minutes too early if you hate its meandering, but it also forms a much more natural (and somewhat eerie and foreboding) end to the LP than the somewhat subpar series of filler tunes (ʽThinkʼ, ʽWhat To Doʼ) that capped off the UK version. And I, for one, have always been fascinated by ʽGoin' Homeʼ. What that track does is take a dusty old blues cliché ("goin' home to see my baby", usually delivered in an optimistic key by the bluesman whose only joy in life is his baby) and, as soon as the jam part starts, turn it on its head — the music quickly takes on a dangerous air, with alarming, suspenseful harmonicas and guitars all over the place, and Jagger's improvised ad-libbing is the exact opposite of a love-crazed R&B-er like, say, Otis Redding, burning it on stage: he is 100% in his "midnight rambler" image here, throwing off endless "I'm goin' home"'s and "I'm gettin' out"s and "early in the morning"s and "in the middle of the night"s with the alarming glee of a psychopath rather than a sweet man in love. The only thing missing here is an accompanying video: I can easily picture a setting in some creepy part of nighttime London, with Mick gliding and wriggling his way across the pavement while Richards with his guitar and Brian with his harmonica occasionally show up from behind the hedges, evil grins on their faces and all. Could be creepier than ʽToo Much Bloodʼ, with a little effort invested. Especially that ending — "touch me one more time... come on little girl... you may look sweet... but I know you ain't... I know you ain't...". That's Mick the Ripper, right? You bet your ass that as the night goes by and the first rays of the rising sun put an end to the song, what we're left with is not so pretty a picture.
Of course, that's just one charming way of interpreting things, but if I do not acknowledge this, there's no way I can explain the strange magic of Aftermath that has kept me in its grip for so many years. Yes, it is the album that initiates a relatively «sweet» period for the Stones, one that would be officially discarded only with the advent of ʽJumpin' Jack Flashʼ two years later, but even that sweetness was always mixed with darkness and provocation. Aftermath knows how to switch from tenderness to cruelty, from sincerity to irony, from light optimism to dark suspense without suspending belief in either of these — thanks, first and foremost, to the burgeoning talents of a skilled melodist (Richards), an inspired arranger (Jones), and an unparalleled showman at the peak of their powers. Perhaps, song-by-song, it is not the most consistent set of tunes they had ever produced (I would never include ʽDoncha Bother Meʼ or ʽWhat To Doʼ in my Top 100 Stones songs, I guess), but in terms of highlights, conceptual unity, and innovative breakthroughs (the 11-minute length of ʽGoin' Homeʼ alone is worth something!), Aftermath is as good a Rolling Stones album as can be found. It does not ask you to turn off your mind, relax and float downstream (because that's one sure way to get whupped by the midnight rambler), and it does not pretend that they just weren't born for these times (because they so very much have), but it does tell you, in no uncertain terms, how it feels to be like a rolling stone — so let's just leave it here with a dylanesque thumbs up.