THE ROLLING STONES: FLOWERS (1967)
1) Ruby Tuesday; 2) Have You Seen Your Mother, Baby, Standing In The Shadow?; 3) Let's Spend The Night Together; 4) Lady Jane; 5) Out Of Time; 6) My Girl; 7) Back Street Girl; 8) Please Go Home; 9) Mother's Little Helper; 10) Take It Or Leave It; 11) Ride On Baby; 12) Sittin' On A Fence.
More like Jailflowers, considering that a mere three days after the album's release, Mick and Keith were to serve the first (and, snicker snicker, the last) day of their prison terms — and while this is almost certainly just a coincidence, all five of them on that album cover do look like they are staring at us from solitary confinement, rather than from the vantage point of having actually mutated into humanoid flower buds. (The issue of Brian Jones being the only one totally deprived of foliage is also legendary — and quite deliberate, according to Bill Wyman's memoirs). The most important part, of course, is still the psychedelic design of the lower part of the cover, indicating the band's readiness (on paper) to play the «flower power» game of 1967; yet only a few actual songs (or, rather, parts of actual songs) on the album could be deemed psychedelic, as this is a clear case of «image-updating» running ahead of musical values.
In fact, although the album came out in June '67 (and so, technically, it was this record, rather than Satanic Majesties, that could be seen by the public as the band's «answer» to Sgt. Pepper), all of the songs here had been recorded over a year-long stretch from December '65 to December '66, and selected for yet another «odds-and-ends» package to saturate the American market. It had all the chances to become the embarrassing sequel to December's Children (and many fans still forcedly claim to be embarrassed by it) — if not for the fact that by 1966, the Stones had become such amazing songwriters that even their odds and ends were far superior to almost everything else. Besides, only a few of these tracks, like ʽMy Girlʼ and the last two originals, were de facto outtakes; for the most part, it was still a matter of providing Americans with tracks that UK audiences already had had time to enjoy.
So, what we have here is (a) a bunch of tracks that had been included on the UK editions of Aftermath and Between The Buttons, but left out on US editions (ʽMother's Little Helperʼ, ʽTake It Or Leave Itʼ, ʽBackstreet Girlʼ, ʽPlease Go Homeʼ, and a misguidedly abridged version of ʽOut Of Timeʼ); (b) one single A-side that never was part of any previous LP on either side of the Atlantic (ʽHave You Seen Your Mother...ʼ); (c) three songs recorded in 1965 and left in the American vaults (ʽMy Girlʼ, ʽRide On Babyʼ, ʽSittin' On A Fenceʼ); (d) least satisfactory of all, three tracks that already were there on US editions of Aftermath and Between The Buttons — ʽRuby Tuesdayʼ, ʽLet's Spend The Night Togetherʼ, and ʽLady Janeʼ. One wonders, of course, why the hell did they not prefer to put up some other A- and B-sides instead, such as ʽ19th Nervous Breakdownʼ and ʽWho's Driving Your Planeʼ... but it does seem as if there were certain «conceptual» considerations involved as well.
For one thing, ʽRuby Tuesdayʼ works really great as an album opener. It does not take much more than Mick's deep-lodged "she would never say where she came from..." to establish an atmosphere of romantic mystery, and it does not take much more than the song's baroque-pop arrangement to make one go, "wow, they're really traveling full speed on that Art train now!" It sets the mood perfectly — to the point that, as far as I recollect, Flowers happened to be my first Rolling Stones LP back when I was only beginning to go through the Sixties-fandom stage, and it forever shaped my perception of the Rolling Stones as a subtle, sensitive, psychological art-pop band, a perception which, as it turned out, was also crucial in assessing all the subtle nuances of their «blunt» blues-rock and country-rock recordings.
For another thing, as much as I hate to say it, quality-consistency-wise, Flowers is pretty much the number one record of the band's entire «pop» period. Every single song here is at least very good, and the majority represent the absolute pinnacle of pop music in 1967. People frequently complain about the inclusion of ʽTake It Or Leave Itʼ, and it does seem a little stiff and monotonous (and the "oh la-la-la-ta" chorus does seem a bit silly), but I've always had a soft spot for its «winding stairway» of a vocal melody, somewhat reminiscent of what the Beatles did on ʽIf I Fellʼ, and its general tone of soft reproach rather than condescending condemnation — at the very least, it's a cleverly written tune. People also complain about the hyper-sweet cover of Smokey Robinson's ʽMy Girlʼ (not surprisingly, this is the oldest recording of 'em all), but the Stones invest a ton of effort into this one — it comes out more stiff and mechanically robotic than any of the classic R&B versions, but it's still robotic perfection, and a little bit of robotic perfection never hurt a perfectly written song. Besides, we sometimes need evidence of Mick Jagger and the boys being able to express the simple, quintessential joy of being in love, rather than always expecting them to be dissatisfied with one thing or another.
But ʽMy Girlʼ aside, Flowers is still the Stones at their «misogynistic» peak — other than the "I'm-in-love with an exclamation point!" attitude of ʽMy Girlʼ and the "I'm-in-heat with ten exclamation points!" attitude of ʽLet's Spend The Night Togetherʼ, it's all about asking her to ʽRide On, Babyʼ, or at least to ʽPlease Go Homeʼ, because who would really like to keep a ʽBackstreet Girlʼ who's permanently ʽOut Of Timeʼ? And some of these are downright nasty — ʽBackstreet Girlʼ, in a way, might be the nastiest thing Jagger ever wrote, simply because you never know how much of this "don't want you out in my world, just you be my backstreet girl" is acting and how much is sincere attitude, considering the sheer number of "backstreet girls" the man did keep around the world even in his married life. The truly perverse thing about it is, of course, how tender and pretty the melody is — the acoustic folk melody almost makes you see visions of Joan Baez, with the accordeon adding a bit of a French feel (gotta love these stereotypes, the only thing missing is Mick imitating a French accent — ah, ces Gaulois, les rois d'adultère!), so that the whole thing really has the sound of a sentimental serenade.
Perhaps the acid, holier-than-thou-bitch attitude of the lyrics is constantly softened by the melodic side — thus, the flaming accusations of the protagonist's former partner in ʽRide On Babyʼ are tempered by Brian's harpsichord and marimbas, setting a playful, genteel mood; and ʽOut Of Timeʼ, with even more marimbas and a tango-ish three-note bassline that seems to stem out of the same ballpark as ʽMy Girlʼ, sounds more like a slow, sensual, sexy dance with a courteous partner than the proper soundtrack for a bitter rejection. In other words, the Stones here play a sort of «fifty ways to leave your lover» game with you, as long as each of the ways is paved with gallant musical mannerisms. Even ʽPlease Go Homeʼ, one of the heaviest tunes on here, with a Bo Diddley beat at heart and the most crashing drum sound from Charlie ever, is turned psychedelic and has Brian playing with an oscillator (was there anything that escaped the guy's attention in 1966? it's amazing to think how quick his downfall was in 1967) — far removed from baroque-pop values, but still set upon tricking you into headbanging and blowing your mind and not noticing how cruel the words are. (Granted, it is the protagonist who is accusing the girl of cruelty, so we are really in the dark about who's truly hurting who).
Yet let us not make the mistake of being swept away by too much political correctness and keep on remembering that the greatness of Flowers lies in the melodic instincts of Jagger and Richards, in the sonic instincts of Brian Jones, and in the general atmosphere of the time, which somehow opened up the most inventive and experimental qualities even in the souls of such sidemen as Ian Stewart or Jack Nitzsche. No two songs on this album sound alike — hooks are being cast at you from everywhere in the form of feedback blasts, brass fanfares, harpsichord flourishes, marimba rolls, guitar riffs, and even folksy acoustic picking patterns such as Keith and Brian demonstrate on the nearly forgotten gem ʽSittin' On A Fenceʼ (a brilliant showcase for some weaving techniques that I don't think they ever repeated anywhere else). All of this makes Flowers the greatest Rolling Stones album that was never intended to be a Rolling Stones album in the first place — and, by the way, unlike Between The Buttons, it does not come across as so completely «Brit-centered», which is only too natural considering how it was made specially for the American market.
A rip-off it may be, but it still feels coherent and even conceptual enough to merit being retained as a permanent fixture in the band's active catalog... and so it is, apparently, even up to this day when it could have been safely dissolved and transformed into bonus tracks by ABKCO executives. (Not that they're driven by any noble artistic motives, mind you — one more Stones album to sell is one more source of income). Regardless, it should get every bit of support from us that the previous two albums get — thumbs up a-plenty.