THE ROLLING STONES: OUT OF OUR HEADS (1965)
1) Mercy Mercy; 2) Hitch Hike; 3) The Last Time; 4) That's How Strong My Love Is; 5) Good Times; 6) I'm All Right (live); 7) (I Can't Get No) Satisfaction; 8) Cry To Me; 9) The Under Assistant West Coast Promotion Man; 10) Play With Fire; 11) The Spider And The Fly; 12) One More Try.
Once again, we witness the strangely wise strategy of the American market — by integrating the band's strongest singles of 1965 into LP space, it made the American LP positively glowing next to its British counterpart, which only came out a couple months later and looked quite gray and disappointing in comparison, being more the equivalent of the equally disappointing December's Children in America (with which it would also share the front sleeve). On the other hand, there is also no denying that the American Out Of Our Heads seems uncomfortably bumpy in comparison — with A++ level songs sharing the bus with such originals and covers as were, frankly speaking, way behind the times by mid-1965.
So let us first look at the record as if the three big songs (we all know which ones) weren't there at all. What remains, then, is somewhat of a letdown after the near-perfect balance of blues, rock and roll, and R&B that we'd just experienced with Now!. In particular, there is a very strong tilt towards R&B here — Don Covay, Marvin Gaye, Otis Redding, Sam Cooke, and Solomon Burke all get represented? Like, skinny white boy Mick Jagger has to single-handedly take on all five of them in half an hour's time? Sorry, not going to happen, even if he does attempt to give it his best, and even if we remain thoroughly unprejudiced.
At least when he sees some strong support from his buddies, things work out well. Thus, ʽMercy Mercyʼ is given an entirely different face, with an aggressive fuzz riff from Keith that certainly presages the ʽSatisfactionʼ riff in terms of sheer nastiness (ironically, the original Don Covay version is generally assumed to have featured Hendrix himself on guitar — but that was still in his younger days, when he already had the touch but did not yet quite have the flash), and next to that riff, it is fun to see Jagger try and combine pleading and menace in one single delivery: his "I'm gonna make it to the nearest river child and jump overboard and drown" is more of a blackmail message than a broken-hearted plea. For ʽCry To Meʼ, Brian switches to rhythm guitar, and Keith once again helps out with a lead part that is actually more soulful than the vocal — best is saved for last, when the singer and the guitar player fight each other over the coda with machine-gunned vocal barks and bluesy licks, making the whole thing wilder and crazier than the original could ever hope to, even if, left all on his own, Jagger could never hope to steal the show from Mr. «Muhammad Ali of Soul».
But it is not always like that: on numbers such as ʽHitch Hikeʼ, ʽThat's How Strong My Love Isʼ, and ʽGood Timesʼ the instruments all take a back seat next to the vocalist, and there is little other than tolerable competence to support these versions — Jagger's mimicking of Redding's alternating "now I'm soft and tremble and weepy / now I'm incensed and energized and screechy" is a bit ridiculous, and, likewise, he is unable to find a meaningful alternative to Sam Cooke, while all that Keith and Brian can do is just learn and reproduce the chords, so take that "what's the point of listening to us doing ʽI'm A King Beeʼ when you can hear Slim Harpo doing it?" quote and amend it to "what's the point of listening to us doing ʽGood Timesʼ when you can hear Sam Cooke doing it?" and you got it just about right.
Worst thing of all, this time around the R&B covers are not balanced with a decent batch of rock'n'roll ones — the closest they get is with a live version of Bo Diddley's ritualistic vamp ʽI'm All Rightʼ (taken from the band's first official live release, the brief EP Got Live If You Want It!), but (a) it's live, so there are problems with fidelity; (b) it ain't Chuck Berry, and if it ain't Chuck Berry, it ain't proper rock'n'roll with the Stones; (c) there would be a sharper, better-sounding alternate version of this one anyway on next year's live album, although, granted, Brian's «dive-bomb» guitar runs are already as exciting here as they ever would be.
If we throw in a pair of frankly underwhelming originals — the repetitive jam ʽUnder Assistant West Coast Promotion Manʼ, whose only function was to vent some frustration at the alarmingly expanding ego of Andrew Loog Oldham; or the annoyingly moralistic ʽOne More Tryʼ, whose only redeeming feature is a smooth harmonica solo from Brian — it is not difficult to understand how Out Of Our Heads seems to be stalling, bogging the Stones down in covers that they have a harder time appropriating than they used to. Perhaps it was just one of those brief periods when they wanted to get away from the «it's only rock'n'roll» ideology, but they'd already ended up stuck with evil grins on their faces, so excuse me for just one moment if I am unable to find Mick Jagger singing "ain't felt this good since I don't know when..." totally convincing.
But then there are the singles — ʽThe Last Timeʼ with ʽPlay With Fireʼ as the B-side, and that other one, ʽKeith Richard's Dream No. 9ʼ. How they can abide on the same album with ʽOne More Tryʼ on it is a little beyond me, but that's what the word «transition» is there for; after all, in 1965 the Stones, like most of their British pals, were still substantially a «singles band». ʽThe Last Timeʼ is not a personal favorite of mine, but remains a milestone, as it basically introduces Keith Richards The Riffmeister — that simple, jumpy, unforgettable chord sequence, probably developed by the man as he was riffing around the ʽEverybody Needs Somebody To Loveʼ groove, broke open the doors and initiated one of the greatest riff-writing sequences in the history of popular music. Other than that, the song is also notable for its booming, echoey production (Phil Spector was on board to lend an easily recognizable hand), but I would still define it as transitional, too: Jagger's lyrics here still owe too much of a debt to his R&B idols, the solo break is a bit underwhelming (as if neither Keith nor Brian had any good ideas in store), and the pissed-off mood is fairly straightforward. (In other words, I sometimes get bored with the song and get the temptation to cut it off after the first verse/chorus).
A completely different kind of a breakthrough comes with ʽPlay With Fireʼ — the song that announces an entirely new type of Stones music, one that would reach its apogee in 1966-67 and then, more or less, depart forever: the «Anglo-Stones», almost for the first time turning their heads away from across the Atlantic and back to their native shores. A dark acoustic ballad, colored further with Jack Nietzsche's «baroque» harpsichord lines, and with lyrics that dare mention English realities, replacing the barely known (and barely pronounceable) Winona, Kingman, Barstow, and San Bernardino with the more familiar Saint John's Wood, Stepney, and Knightsbridge and sounding like a barely veiled threat to the upper classes — and, above all, recorded and released several months prior to ʽLike A Rolling Stoneʼ, with which it shares at least the basic theme, if not the details. If Mick Jagger sounded like a lascivious midnight rambler in 1964, then on ʽPlay With Fireʼ he actually sounds like a real menace — and all he has to do is keep his voice down to a stern, but calm, half-spoken tone: "Well you've got your diamonds and you got your pretty clothes...", and the first line already gives it away that this situation is probably not going to stay the same for very long. So what do we have here? Simply the Stones' very first venture into «(dark) baroque pop» and their very first «socially conscious» song, ever; and a certain milestone not only in the Stones' career, but in the history of British music as well.
On ʽSatisfactionʼ, I'd like to keep quiet, because ʽSatisfactionʼ is ʽSatisfactionʼ, and no amount of critical / analytical dissection of the song is going to make it any less fabulous than it is. (My one moment of indecision regarding that song concerns the opening vocals — I have never been able to decide if the original soft, breathy, oddly seductive vocal tone suited the whole thing better than the sneery bark that we usually witness on later live performances; I guess the sneery bark can be seen as a more logical choice, given the presumed mental state of the protagonist, but I still have a quasi-nostalgic soft spot for the original soft start, and wouldn't at all mind if it returned to the stage one day — perhaps when Jagger hits 90?). Instead, let me devote a few lines to the single's B-side, the much overlooked ʽSpider And The Flyʼ, which is one of the most lyrically smart early Stones songs ever — they admitted to borrowing the melody from Jimmy Reed, but they made it more poppy, or, even, more Brit-poppy, and the cool, calm, collected tempo, the self-assured, cocky, sly-grinning vocal delivery, the diabolical intonation with which Jagger pronounces the greeting "Hi!", all of this make it a direct predecessor of ʽSympathy For The Devilʼ: admittedly, on a minor scale, but even Lucifer has to start somewhere. (Though if the lyrics are to be interpreted correctly, this Lucifer just had his ass handed to him by a 30-year old machine operator — he still had to build up some experience).
None of the criticisms voiced above prevent the record from getting a firm thumbs up — anything less for a record with ʽSatisfactionʼ on it, even if everything else was a bunch of by-the-book Frankie Avalon covers, would be an outrage. But I have always found it fun to see how the development of one's own songwriting talents might go hand-in-hand with the decrease of the ability to brilliantly interpret others' material — and there's no better illustration of that than the second half of 1965 for the Stones.