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Sunday, December 11, 2016

The Rolling Stones: Between The Buttons


1) Let's Spend The Night Together; 2) Yesterday's Papers; 3) Ruby Tuesday; 4) Connection; 5) She Smiled Sweetly; 6) Cool, Calm & Collected; 7) All Sold Out; 8) My Obsession; 9) Who's Been Sleeping; 10) Complicated; 11) Miss Amanda Jones; 12) Something Happened To Me Yesterday.

The Rolling Stones' follow-up to their first fully autonomous album was recorded at around the same time as the Beatles' Sgt. Pepper and the Kinks' Something Else — and, unsurprisingly for the times but curiously from a retrospective point of view, sort of sounds like an uneasy, but fascinating cross between the two. Neither Mick nor Keith had a lot of kind words to say about it afterwards: Mick, in particular, complained about the production, dismissing it as overwrought, eccentric, and too much corrupted by the psychedelic atmosphere of the times (a complaint that would be thrice as relevant for their next album). Not counting the hit single that was plopped onto the American release of the album, they almost never performed any of these songs live after their touring schedule was cut short because of the 1967 busts — even in later years, when the Stones actively resuscitated a huge part of their old legacy, I think that ʽConnectionʼ (a vocal showcase for Keith) was the only number from B&B that they agreed to bring out on stage. And, naturally, this also agrees with the «conventional» critical view that the Golden Age of the Stones does not properly begin until they purged their respiratory system clean of Brian Jones and completely settled into the image of «midnight ramblers with sympathy for the devil».

Despite all this, ever since «art pop» became one of the key preferences of serious music fans around the world (about twenty years ago or so), Between The Buttons has managed to surrep­titiously strengthen its positions — and today it has pretty much become the banner around which are gathered all those who say «The Rolling Stones are — or, at least, were — really so much more than generic, ballsy blues-rock!» In fact, quite a few of these people seem ready to rate the band's pop phase around this time as completely equal to The Beatles and The Kinks, albeit, of course, strongly infected with the Stones' usual nastiness and sneeriness, which gives it a hooli­ganish charm all its own. Who knows, perhaps one day Mr. Jagger will cave in to the admiring reactions of these people — somehow it seems to me that his bad associations have more to do with the overall tense atmosphere of that transitional period, when the deteriorating mental condi­tion of Brian Jones, the erratic behavior of Andrew Oldham, and the upcoming drug busts would turn the «Summer of Love» into, arguably, the most miserable period in the personal and public lives of The Rolling Stones.

It can hardly be denied, of course, that Between The Buttons feels somewhat specialized. Jag­ger's lyrics here teem with bits and pieces of contemporary British reality, also both public and personal (at least two, if not more, of the songs seem to have been written directly about Mari­anne Faithfull), and the band's musical influences include music hall and vaudeville — later on, they may have regretted becoming so hypnotized with the UK pop fashions of 1966, but the thing is, they were a bunch of British kids, and they had what it takes, in their blood, to subvert these influences and use them correctly. (In fact, it makes far less sense to deride the Stones for going all «dandy» on our asses than to criticize them for the faux-country flavor of something like ʽDead Flowersʼ — not that I have anything against the latter, because the Stones were using the country idiom for their Stonesy purposes, rather than trying to become «legit» speakers of the country idiom; but then again, they did precisely the same with the Brit-pop idiom).

Before proceeding on to the songs, the usual UK/US debacle has to be taken care of: the US edi­tion, as previously mentioned, took two songs off the record (ʽPlease Go Homeʼ and ʽBackstreet Girlʼ, perhaps picked out for their particularly vicious brand of «misogyny») and replaced them with the contemporary hit single ʽLet's Spend The Night Together / Ruby Tuesdayʼ. Unlike the changes on Aftermath, which caused the US edition to lose some of its British flavor, this parti­cular decision does not affect the results too seriously: the baroque melancholy of ʽRuby Tues­dayʼ is an acceptable substitute for the softly mean serenading of ʽBackstreet Girlʼ, and ʽLet's Spend The Night Togetherʼ is clearly superior to ʽPlease Go Homeʼ, although its braggardly, entertainment-oriented facade does seem to be somewhat out of context here. At the very least, they could have preserved ʽYesterday's Papersʼ as the original opener — its spirit is much closer to the overall spirit of the album.

Anyway, since the same two songs would later be reproduced once again on Flowers, we'll talk about them later — here, let's try to concentrate exclusively on what makes Between The But­tons so, well, exclusive. ʽYesterday's Papersʼ does set the tone, combining brutality (in the guise of Keith's distorted guitar and Bill's heavy bass line) with gentleness (represented by Brian's vibraphone and Jack Nitzsche's harpsichord), but what really makes the song special is Jagger's vocal delivery. The song is usually supposed to be about his breakup with Chrissie Shrimpton, the recent heroine of ʽStupid Girlʼ and ʽUnder My Thumbʼ — but if on those two songs the singer intentionally sounded as mean and obnoxious as possible, ʽYesterday's Papersʼ sounds sad in comparison: despite the usual nasty words ("who wants yesterday's papers, who wants yesterday's girl?"), there's clearly a lot of pain in the singer's voice, and it's almost as if he is trying to coax himself into believing these words. It's ironic, isn't it? On one hand, we do know that "Seems very hard to have just one girl / When there's a million in the world" is pretty much the definitive slogan of Jagger's entire life, yet, on the other hand, these lines here are delivered without even the tiniest smudgeon of lasciviousness — on the contrary, there's an echo of desperation, ampli­fied by the «alarmed» falsetto backing vocals. Somehow, insecurity and even fear have entered the picture — a stark contrast with the cocky, self-assured spirit of Aftermath.

What this means is one more step down the ladder of psychological depth, and indeed, the multiple pictures of women that the band paints on this LP, both musically and lyrically, repre­sent genuine artistic progress compared to the somewhat flatter imagery of Aftermath. Not sur­prisingly, though — if Aftermath was Jagger's Chrissie Shrimpton album, then Between The Buttons is his Marianne Faithfull album, and Marianne, in his own words, is "very complicated", because even if it is true that "she knows just how to please her man, softer than a baby lamb", she's also quite "educated, doesn't give a damn", and, for the first time ever, the hero is even ready to admit his own inferiority: "she's sophisticated, my head's fit to bust". ʽComplicatedʼ is one of the many underrated gems on this record — combining a ʽSusie-Qʼ-style jungle beat with  music-hall poppy sentimentality, it totally succeeds in presenting its protagonist as deeply confu­sed, a scratch-your-head-in-bewilderment portrait of a relatively simple guy who is not quite sure of what to do with this unexpectedly over-intellectualized piece of ass that fell into his hands straight out of the sky. It's neither a loving serenade, nor a misogynistic condemnation, but a song of genuine bewilderment (and, perhaps, one of Mick's most honest ever songs about women).

Elsewhere, there is at least one loving serenade — ʽShe Smiled Sweetlyʼ is the band's most beautiful and original love confession up to that point. A song where the chief driving instrument is the Hammond organ (again, played by Jack Nitzsche, I guess), giving it a bit of a solemn church feel, and the chief secondary instrument is Charlie's drumset (he is pretty much dueting here with Jagger, setting up the stage for every important vocal move of his), and the heroine is addressed as the only person who can soothe and calm down those insecurities and fears that keep haunting the male hero. It is the Rolling Stones' equivalent — in their own way, of course — of ʽHere, There And Everywhereʼ, only in reverse: where McCartney projects his own sweetness, like an enveloping cloud, onto his imaginary lover friend, Jagger feeds on the sweetness of the imaginary lover friend to save him from his bad dreams. Which either makes McCartney a self-sacrificing brave knight and Jagger an egotistical bastard — or makes McCartney a narcissistic, condescending fop and Jagger an honest-to-God, grateful lover. You decide.

Of course, a Brit-pop era gallery of female portraits as painted by the Rolling Stones cannot be completed without a couple caricatures — ʽCool, Calm & Collectedʼ begins the job on the album's first side, and ʽMiss Amanda Jonesʼ completes it on the second one. The former is the Stones at their most music-hall-ish ever, clearly competing with Ray Davies in his ʽDedicated Follower Of Fashionʼ and ʽDandyʼ mode, except they prefer to sing about ladies rather than gentlemen, and they like to set those good old values on their head, taking the genre to absurd heights by frantically speeding up the tempo towards the end until everything collapses in a de­cidedly un-cool, calm, and collected manner. There's a symbolic dimension to it, too — the song can be interpreted as representing the mad socialite whirlwind in which the heroine is trapped, whirling ever faster and faster until... well, you know. But what sort of symbolism would be at­tached to the bizarre chords that Brian plays on that dulcimer, introducing each new verse with a few bars of some drunken, off-the-wall neo-Celtic dance pattern? I have absolutely no idea, but it's so totally cool that it's there anyway. There's elements of whirlwinding on ʽMiss Amanda Jonesʼ, too — I love how the guitars catch on to Jagger's "down and down she goes", "on and on she goes", "up and up she goes", and how the song, in its brief three minutes, becomes even more of a fussy madhouse than ʽCool, Calm & Collectedʼ.

Every other song on the album is good in its own way — I'm not going to fawn over the indivi­dual merits of every single bar of music here, but the vocal and instrumental hooks, the dense arrangements, the mood shifts, the psychologism are a permanent fixture. By the time we get around to the carnivalesque conclusion of ʽSomething Happened To Me Yesterdayʼ, the song is fully prepared for at least two interpretations — literally, this is the equivalent of the protagonist waking up after an acid trip, but figuratively, it is also an awakening from the psychotic confu­sion of the rest of the album — with its relatively sparse arrangement, enlivened by a loud, but very «earthy» support from the brass section, it really feels like "what the hell was that? Okay, time to pick yourself up and go home"; and, by the way, it initiates a whole string of similar dust-yourself-off finales for Stones' LPs where you could be shook up, stressed out, rocked and rolled, wined and dined, kicked around and tossed about all the way, but the last number (ʽSalt Of The Earthʼ, ʽYou Can't Always Get What You Wantʼ, ʽMoonlight Mileʼ, etc.) would always leave you off with, if not a glimpse of optimism, then at least a drop of sanity. This is neither good nor bad, it's just a manner of work for the Stones. Say what you will about the bad boys image — in rea­lity, ever since 1967, they have subconsciously regarded themselves as obligatory guardians of your sanity, morality, and general well-being. I mean, I don't know about yourself, but my own gut reaction to ʽSomething Happened...ʼ had always been «Gee, these guys really know how to make themselves my friends» before I actually took the time to study the lyrics and understand that they were inciting me to drop acid. And it's not as if my English was particularly bad or any­thing at the time. It was just a friendly gut reaction.

I'd be almost prepared to state that the album is better than Aftermath (and I might have some objective backing here: at the very least, the stylistic diversity and the musical complexity are at unquestionably higher levels), but perhaps it is the invisible hand of Mick Jagger that stops me at the last moment, indicating that, after all, Aftermath is a clearer and more genuine representation of the band's state of mind at the moment. On the other hand, this is essentially a futile point: both records are great in somewhat different ways, and the only reason to incite such a dispute would be to complete the restoration of Between The Buttons to the position of a classic record in its own rights — let us, once and for all, demolish the retrograde tradition that says «The Rolling Stones weren't really too Rolling Stonesy in 1967, so those albums have their moments, but leave Brit-pop to The Kinks, and psychedelia to The Beatles», and let this not-so-complicated thumbs up rating be a small contribution to that.


  1. To me, it's the best Rolling Stones album, no matter what Jagger thinks. Really shows that the guys could come up with excellent melodies and stop themselves after two or three minutes, instead of dragging the same tuneless corpse for five minutes, as they would soon start doing on "Let It Bleed". Yes, this one and the two or three around it are my favourites.

  2. Hey George, have you stopped shading the songs Red and Blue? Btw the Stones played She smiled sweetly in the Forty Licks tour.

  3. In recent years BtB has become a favorite of mine -- as hard as it can be to rank "Aftermath" through "Exiles", this would still land in the top half. Perhaps the most diverse record they've done, proving they were right behind The Beatles in drawing in "alien" styles and synthesizing them into the Stones paradigm. As a devotee to the UK releases, though (the only band where I follow the US releases instead are The Animals -- a benefit (or curse?) of coming to this music after it was easier to access in its original form), I find that it lacks a certain something with "Let's Spend" and "Ruby Tuesday" instead of "Back Street Girl" and "Please Go Home" -- not that the single wasn't stunning and wonderful in its own right.

  4. By strange occurrences, this is the first Stones album I owned and memorized. Here's my take:

  5. Ditto just about everything in Pink?'s post. A few weeks ago, I started poking around every corner of the Rolling Stones heretofore unexplored or ignored (I'll probably pop in for a comment on those reviews, too, if only in half-hearted defense of "Suck on the Jugular")...lo and behold, Between the Buttons is their pre-Golden Age masterpiece. The poppers, rockers, and weirdos all gel perfectly under the Stones umbrella and with perfect flow. "All Sold Out" is a simple, gritty Who-ish stomper (some groups would use this as an opportunity to "tee off;" the Stones nearly fade the song out TOO early). "Who's Been Sleeping Here?" is such a Dylanish parody of Dylan himself, I'm sure old Bobby got a chuckle or two. Finally, "Miss Amanda Jones" gives us the prototype "generic Stones rocker" of which we'd be getting at least one per album very soon ("Dance Little Sister," anyone?). But hold it! What's with that fantastic Beatles-y bridge? And that guitar tone is just gooey as hell.

    Yeah, I'd put it up there with Exile and Sticky. Top-shelf melodies, arrangements, and vocals, and just oozing with humor and self-irony. The Stones never made and then immediately dismissed a better record.

  6. Oh, no George! Why did you stop shading the great songs red and the bad songs blue? Please dont leave that out of your next Rolling Stones reviews! It gives your reviews a greater insight into what you truly feel about an album! Well, at least that's what I think! Please go back to that!