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Sunday, November 6, 2016

The Rolling Stones: Now!

THE ROLLING STONES: NOW! (1965)

1) Everybody Needs Somebody To Love; 2) Down Home Girl; 3) You Can't Catch Me; 4) Heart Of Stone; 5) What A Shame; 6) Mona (I Need You Baby); 7) Down The Road Apiece; 8) Off The Hook; 9) Pain In My Heart; 10) Oh Baby (We Got A Good Thing Going); 11) Little Red Rooster; 12) Surprise, Surprise.

Released hot on the heels of the UK's The Rolling Stones No. 2, this US release is essentially a heavily modified version of that album, omitting the songs that were already issued on 12 x 5 and replacing them either with older material (e. g. Bo Diddley's ʽMonaʼ, which was originally dele­ted from Newest Hitmakers in favor of ʽNot Fade Awayʼ), or newer material (ʽOh Babyʼ, which would only make it to the British Out Of Our Heads), some of it exclusive to the American market (ʽSurprise, Surpriseʼ). On the whole, it's all tolerable, except for two gripes: first, in the process the American catalog somehow managed to lose hold of an excellent cover of Muddy Waters' ʽI Can't Be Satisfiedʼ (with a fine example of Brian's slide playing), and second, there are actually two versions of ʽEverybody Needs Somebody To Loveʼ out there — the original three-minute demo, released by mistake on Now!, and the longer, officially sanctioned, five-minute finalized version on No. 2. Subsequent CD pressings of Now! corrected that mistake and swapped the short demo for the long master take, but here's the rub: I actually like the demo far more than the master take — the latter clings way too loyally to the optimistic, party-spirit tone of Solomon Burke, which I'd rather have from Solomon Burke himself, but the former is unusually much darker, more echo-laden, stuffed with weird ghostly vocal harmonies, and basically feels like a special Halloween version or something. To me, it has always seemed to agree much better in spirit with the delicious nastiness of the ensuing tracks — so I'd advise you to be tenacious and track down the three-minute version, which isn't that hard to do in the digital age anyway.

Anyway, confusing details aside, this is a fairly accurate reflection of what the Stones were all about in early '65 — only just beginning to cut their songwriters' teeth, but continuing to polish and deepen their atmospheric darkness in new, exciting ways. On a song-by-song basis, this is arguably the best release of the early Stones period; for the rest of 1965, there would be a slight dip in LP quality, as records would become more and more populated with early Jagger/Richards originals that still suffered from «greenness», but Now! strikes a very good balance between proper covers, self-credited «rewrites» (new words for old tunes), and just a couple high quality true originals — and there's hardly even one unwise choice among the lot.

Soulful R&B, one of the Stones' biggest loves at the time but also their unquestionably most vulnerable spot, is kept to an absolute minimum — Allen Toussaint's / Otis Redding's ʽPain In My Heartʼ is the only track on the album that could be brushed off as an inferior imitation of a masterwork, but while I won't be defending Jagger's vocals (they're okay, though), the band still comes up with an inven­tive guitar-based rearrangement of the brass-based original, and Wyman's fuzz bass tone gives it a bit of a new face. But the other time that they intrude onto slow Southern territory, with a cover of Alvin Robinson's ʽDown Home Girlʼ, they hit the jackpot — while it is quite obligatory for everybody to seek out the original version (Robinson has a great grizzly Southern voice with a near-unique timbre), this is a tune that Jagger was simply born to sing, never mind the fact that he'd never even seen a proper «cotton field» before, let alone tried walking in one (and what about «doing the second line»?). To hell with it — the sneer in his voice is priceless, and the way Brian mimics it with his bottleneck triple-note «ha, ha, ha!» is even more so. This is one of those moments where even a patented defender of woman rights might want to throw his feminism out the window and grinningly revel in the putdown (to be fair, ʽDown Home Girlʼ is not really a misogynistic song — merely an intelligent swipe at the average rustic poseur, arrogantly «adapting» to the big city).

As good as ʽCarolʼ and ʽAround And Aroundʼ used to be, Now! is also where they reach the top with their modernization of the Chuck Berry sound — for some reason, both ʽYou Can't Catch Meʼ and ʽDown The Road Apieceʼ fell out of their live repertoire fairly early, but maybe they just couldn't live up to the speed and tightness they show here. As befits the title, ʽYou Can't Catch Meʼ zips along at the fastest speed they could get at the moment, with Bill and Charlie setting the frame for a performance that really imitates the spirit of a breathless car race — again, with much of Chuck's humor taken out and replaced by gritty efficiency; plus, there's that odd whiff of something dark and mysterious all over again, exemplified by... oh, I dunno, what's up with that weird «dripping» touch they add? That one lonely "ping!" that comes in at regular intervals like a water splash from a leaking faucet? I have no idea whose idea that was, or even what instrument is producing that, but it's goddamn weird to have something like that in the song.

ʽDown The Road Apieceʼ is clearly less mysterious — an old roadhouse boogie that goes all the way back to the days of the great Amos Milburne, but the Stones, naturally, are once again ex­ploiting the Chuck Berry version, and, once again, are elevating it to a whole new level of excite­ment: not only is the production thicker and tenser, but Keith is given free reign in the studio, and he profits from that by extending the song by almost one whole minute, just so that he can demon­strate his complete mastery of every single Berry lick, which he glues together in a seam­less sequence (the song only begins to fade away once he exhausts the pool and begins repeating himself) and polishes to perfection; additionally, every once in a while he engages in call-and-response dialog with Ian Stewart, banging away like there was no tomorrow in the background — yes, there is a clear feeling here that they are intentionally sweating to beat Master Berry and Master Johnson at their own game, but you know what? They might just be succeeding at that (Chuck himself is noted to have been properly amazed when he saw them recording the thing at Chess Studios in mid-'64).

In the 12-bar blues department, they hit some high points, too: ʽLittle Red Roosterʼ is an early highlight for Brian, having a lot of fun doing animal impressions with his electric slide, but my personal favorite has always been ʽWhat A Shameʼ, another re-write of something Jimmy Reed-ian where the band just sounds so admirably tight — every single musician, including the rhythm section and the pianist, contributing on an equal level, all melodies sharpened razor-style (gotta love Keith's ascending bass line at the end of each verse) and with perhaps the single best case of «guitar weaving» between Keith and Brian on the entire record. Of special interest, actually, are the lyrics — seems like a first, timid attempt at writing something socially relevant, proto- ʽGim­mie Shelterʼ style: "What a shame / They always wanna start a fight / Well it scares me so / I could sleep in the shelter all night"... "shelter", get this? Nobody paid proper attention at the time, I think, but yes, this was, in fact, the first time they'd used the spooky potential of their blues-rock sound to accompany an alarmist message.

And then, in the middle of it all, comes the band's first original masterpiece; I wish I could be original myself and award that award to ʽOff The Hookʼ, but as groovy as Keith's crunchy riff is, the repetitiveness of the song ultimately works against it (maybe a decent bridge could have been a better choice than the endless "it's off the hook, it's off the hook, it's off the hook..." vamp), so I still have to go along with ʽHeart Of Stoneʼ. Curiously, it seems like it may have begun life as a variation on the aforementioned ʽPain In My Heartʼ (they share plenty of similarities in all aspects of melody, structure, lyrics, etc.), but the Stones have turned the tables and made life more complex — now it's not about a girl who's breaking the protagonist's heart, it's about a girl who is not breaking the protagonist's heart, and yet, at the same time, you can sort of feel that the protagonist's heart is on the breaking point anyway, so there's an added level of psychologism here: "...this heart of stone" is delivered by Jagger in such a way that you most definitely under­stand that this is an exaggeration. Keith plays the wailing guitar solo like a man gone crazy with grief, and Mick gives his first truly great theatrical performance; it would still take him a few years to become a consistently first-rate voice actor in the studio (an ability that, unfortunately, he was never able to take with him on stage), but the modulation range on ʽHeart Of Stoneʼ is already quite impressive — from the cockiness of "there've been so many girls that I've known..." to the puzzled intonations on "what's different about her?" to the pleading of "don't keep on looking..." to the desperate self-denial of "you'll never break this heart of stone, oh no...", this shows the Stones already adhering to that one maxim that made their classic period so, well, classic — you may not believe in the stuff you write, but it is your sacred duty to make it belie­vable for everybody else.

And so, while maybe the record was not nearly as fabulous as to allow you the infamous moral right to "see that blind man knock him on the head, steal his wallet and have the loot" (ah, where's an Andrew Loog Oldham these days when you so desperately need one?), it was still totally cutting edge for early '65 — maybe the «shape» of The Rolling Stones was not yet completely formed, as they still had to borrow other people's skeletal structures instead of supplying their own, but the «spirit» was just as vibrant and flamboyant as it would be at any later point of their finest decade. For the rest of 1965, they would go on to be an A-level singles band and more of a B-level albums band; but Now! is just amazingly consistent from top to bottom, and remains, as always, my first and foremost, thumbs up-approved recommendation for a thorough, multi-sided acquaintance with the first phase of the band's career.

1 comment:

  1. Keith is given free *rein in the studio

    You're welcome.

    ReplyDelete