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Sunday, January 15, 2017

The Rolling Stones: Get Yer Ya-Ya's Out!


1) Jumpin' Jack Flash; 2) Carol; 3) Stray Cat Blues; 4) Love In Vain; 5) Midnight Rambler; 6) Sympathy For The Devil; 7) Live With Me; 8) Little Queenie; 9) Honky Tonk Women; 10) Street Fighting Man.

The Rolling Stones' second live album is not simply their best live album ever — much like its only serious competition from the same year, the Who's Live At Leeds, it is a unique sonic and, dare I say it, spiritual experience that either defines «Rolling-Stonism» or transcends it, depen­ding on your default feelings for this confusing term. As far as live performances go in general, the Stones have had their ups and downs, depending on a mix of factors such as drugs, musical fads, and age, yet on the whole, one way or another, a Stones show has always been a terrific experience, especially if you were there in person. However, there was a brief period — a very brief period, largely limited to the Stones' American tour of 1969 — when a Stones show was something bigger, deeper, and perhaps even scarier than just a Stones show.

Two documents capture this brief glimpse best, and can hardly be discussed separately from each other: Get Yer Ya-Ya's Out!, the live album culled from the band's performances at Madison Square Garden on November 27-28, and Gimme Shelter, the Maysles brothers' documentary of the North American tour in general, culminating with footage from the Altamont disaster and the ensuing reactions. Gimme Shelter is the more complete of the two, of course — Ya-Ya's only offers you the first chapter of the story, whereas Gimme Shelter focuses just as heavily on the inevitable denouement. The reason why Gimme Shelter remains such a fascinating experience after all these years, proudly retaining its status of one of the best musical documentaries ever made, is because it was brilliantly molded by its creators in the shape of a Faustian story — here is this supremely powerful, transcendent, God-like musical force that holds an entire young nation in its magical grip... and here comes the payoff, when the Devil, to whom they have alle­gedly sold their souls, finally arrives to collect. Of course, it is all largely a matter of clever editing — from Jagger's opening triumphant "Welcome to the breakfast show!" to the final ex­pression on his face as he gets up and walks away, stunned, from watching the murder footage — but no artistic hyperbole could have such a psychologically devastating effect if it hadn't been at least partially rooted in some deep truth.

There is actually a very deep, though not immediately obvious, rift between the Stones' functio­ning as a live touring band at the end of 1969 and everything they did later — starting off with the infamous touring debaucheries of 1971-72 and beyond. Already in 1972, as can be easily seen in the Ladies And Gentlemen movie, or heard on the classic Brussels Affair release from the next year, the Stones' live show was precisely that — a live show. The glam era had settled in, and the emphasis was placed on extravagance, «going crazy», glitzy costumes, running around, simula­ting totally drunk behavior, and doing much of this at the expense of musicality (although as long as anchorman Mick Taylor was still in the band and Keith was still too constrained by drug intake to do as much jumping and flailing around as he'd begin doing post-clean-up, the musical side still remained impressive). Yet, in a certain way, that, too, could look like a subconscious result of Altamont: one might go as far as to say that Jagger's firm switching to the "It's only rock'n'roll, but I like it" mentality was caused by a deep wish to prevent any further Altamonts. After 1970, The Rolling Stones went on stage to give you a good time. That was all. Could they be blamed for that after what happened on December 6, 1969?

But these here tracks — they were recorded one week earlier than December 6, and at that time The Rolling Stones were a different band. They had only just overcome a huge crisis, and come out completely on top — having established the Jagger/Richards songwriting partnership as the No. 1 partnership in the world (now that the Lennon/McCartney one was over), having acquired a fresh new second guitarist whose well-honed blues-rock chops gave them added confidence in an era of rock guitar gods, and, most importantly, having understood that the world as everybody knew it was really changing, and that they, the brand-new reformed, arrogant, talented, self-confident Rolling Stones, could be spearheading that change the way they liked it.

This is, in fact, the first thing I hear in Get Yer Ya-Ya's Out! — the gleeful pride, the self-con­fidence, the ecstatic feel of a freshly trained magician who realizes that the whole world now lies at his feet. And to do that, they did not even have to begin the album with a set of overdubbed introductions from their road manager, Sam Cutler, announcing "the greatest rock'n'roll band in the world, The Rolling Stones!", a somewhat self-obvious fact at the time — the opening chords to ʽJumpin' Jack Flashʼ would have sufficed alone.

Amusingly, some people have complained over the years about the slowness of the performances as a detrimental factor in their enjoyment of the record — comparing it unfavorably with bootlegs and semi-bootlegs from the subsequent Taylor-era tours of 1971-73, where the average tempo of the songs would be sped up and they would allegedly acquire more «kick-ass power». I have always found this argument to be completely laughable, because it is precisely the slowness, the willingness to take the extra time to unfurl the demonic potential of this material, the chance to properly savor every distorted lick from Keith's guitar and every grinning snarl from Mick's mouth, that gives Ya-Ya's its unique power. It is, of course, very important that all the classics played there were still so fresh at the time — when you have five thousand performances of ʽJumpin' Jack Flashʼ and ʽSympathy For The Devilʼ behind the belt, it must be damn hard to find yet another chunk of your soul that you could invest in the five thousand and first one — but it is not even the freshness, per se, that matters so much, as an instinctively felt belief that what they did actually mattered, that these performances could double as entertainment and a certain wake-up call-to-action addressed to the audience at the same time. The Stones were not alone in this, of course: The Who, Hendrix, The Doors, and a host of lesser performers all shared the same drive, but The Stones had a certain advantage over all of them.

Two players were absolutely essential for «the breakfast show» — Mick and Keith. These days, whenever you watch a 1969 clip on YouTube, the average comment usually goes «thank God for Mick Taylor», but, at the risk of causing the ire of all the guitar god aficionados out there, I would say the greatest thing that Taylor brought to the band was a sharpening of the senses and instincts of Keith, who'd felt himself threatened — there was no way he could easily pick up on all the subtleties and complexities of Mick Taylor's fretwork, so, unless he wanted to become reduced to a mere helping hand on the stage, he had to somewhat compensate for this in other ways; and the sound that he came up with, based on open tunings, distorted tones, and a serious modernisation of Chuck Berry's signature licks, became the epitome of classic hard rock, combi­ning the atmosphere of The Barroom, The Battlefield, and The Seventh Circle of Hell. "Watch it!" goes Mick at the opening notes of ʽJumpin' Jack Flashʼ, and regardless of what he really meant, I've always interpreted it as "Stand back! One step closer to those amps and you go down in flames, mortal!" And the speed — yes, they play it significantly slower than they would do in 1972, but that is just so that you can taste the complete, unabridged power of each single chord in Keith's riff. The mid-section and the outro, too, consist of little other than Keith driving home, one after another, bar after bar of the same repetitive bridge riff (if Taylor is playing lead over it, it is intentionally left inaudible by the engineer), but it has all the brutality of a Tony Iommi, ex­tended with an extra feel of recklessness and rustic hooliganry.

It is for this exact reason that they slow down two Chuck Berry covers — again, both in the past and in the future they would play Chuck as fast as Chuck would play himself, but on this occa­sion, ʽCarolʼ and ʽLittle Queenieʼ are placed in «draggy» mode, for two reasons only: (a) so that Keith can flash his new-found jagged, angular, dirty-offensive post-Berry sound in your face — each of his lead guitar responses to each of Mick's lines on the verses is a priceless slice of nasty arrogance; (b) so that Mick can flash his drawn out, insulting, insinuating, swaggery tone in your face — give him one more year and his on-stage singing would largely shift to faux-drunk barking and brawling, but here he is still capable of gleefully extending and swirling his creaky vowels ("it's not too far back on the highway, not so long a ri-i-i-i-i-de..."). Next to this sound, both of Chuck's originals fall on the innocence level of Chubby Checker: where, in the past, "go, go, go, little queenie!" could really sound like it actually had something to do with a girl dancing, here the implied activity is clearly a much less sublimated one than a rock'n'roll dance. And it sure has everything to do with the fact of Mick changing the infamous ʽStray Cat Bluesʼ line from "I can see that you're 15 years old" to "I can see that you're 13 years old", too.

While I am certainly not implying that the songs here are all superior to their studio versions (like all great studio/live bands at the time, the Stones knew very well how to bring out some aspects of their tunes in the studio and others on stage), they are all clearly far more ferocious than the studio equivalents. Cue ʽMidnight Ramblerʼ, which inevitably loses its subtle, suspenseful, quiet-creepy nocturnal atmosphere, but gets an entirely new and equally exciting coat of tough, gritty, sinister rumble, with a lower, growlier, thicker tone from Keith and a sharp blues-rock lead reply from Taylor — additionally, it also becomes a highlight in illustrating the band's newly found jam power, with Keith and Charlie hacking it out with machine-like precision on the long race after the first two verses; and the "well, did you hear about the Boston... WHAM!" mid-section, so quiet and understated on the studio version, is here turned into a macabre, bloody execution, as Jagger (probably) whips the stage with his long red scarf. Again, by the way, they take the song at a slower tempo than they would on the ensuing tours — a tempo that is perfectly suited to bringing out its chilling potential, instead of just making it look like yet another basic rock'n'roll number, for some reason, extended way out of proportion.

In a context like this, even a supposedly innocent tune of barroom happiness like their latest single, ʽHonky Tonk Womenʼ — which, in its original studio recording, with the cowbell and the brass backing and the somewhat subdued guitar tones, did really sound like a bunch of drunken sailors having harmless sailor fun in the local tavern — acquires an unusually sinister sheen: here, Keith's opening riff plainly states, "don't fuck with me, or I swear to God I'll kill ya", and Mick's sexual boasting, with each syllable perfectly enunciated from the back of his throat, gets all Me­phistophelian, as if, you know, he were pledging to have sex with each member of the audience right then and there, male, female, or otherwise, because he's got enough of that demon seed to satisfy everybody. Ask Keith's guitar for confirmation of said fact.

But just so as not to go completely overboard and make it seem like darkness, sexuality, and hidden menace are all that matters, there are also some performances that invest very heavily in sheer musicality — one of these, paradoxically as it sounds, being ʽSympathy For The Devilʼ, here reinterpreted as more of a funk than a samba number and, consequently, featuring some of Charlie's funkiest drumming ever (he does a very steady and convincing, if not particularly in­ventive job), and a Richards/Taylor sparring lead guitar duel that has long since passed into legend, with people debating even today over which of the two solos is superior — Keith's or Mick's. At least this is unquestionably Keith's finest lead break on the stage, ever: instead of the broken, «sputtering», high-pitched banshee shrieks on the studio version, here he delivers a more tightly integrated melodic passage that follows an impeccable, mistake-free musical logic, goes through a couple of ecstatic climaxes, and finally goes down in a perfect resolving flourish, like an immaculately rehearsed public speech, oriented at maximum effect. Taylor then picks it up from the exact same notes, demonstrates his technical superiority, and makes the song climax a few more times before it ends — but for Taylor this is more or less a routine job, whereas Keith would never ever deliver another solo like that, period. (By the way, it is very easy to think of Keith as a horrible lead guitar player based on the past thirty years or so — you should always go back to 1969 to remember that there was a time when the man could churn out fluent, coherent lead melodies with almost the same ease with which he churned out those riffs).

Taylor's properly stellar moment arrives with ʽLove In Vainʼ, where the slow blues nature of the song gives him his real chance to shine — again, what they have here is neither better nor worse than the studio recording, with its mix of psychedelic slide licks and archaic mandolin trills, but simply different, focusing on Taylor's gift to convert 12-bar blues into uplifting lyricism (unsur­prisingly, perhaps, ʽLove In Vainʼ is the only song from Ya-Ya's that would sound every bit as good on the subsequent Taylor tours, mostly because Mick was the only member of the band to have not undergone any serious stylistic changes post-1970).

And so we arrive at the most interesting, and disturbing, question of all: so was it really this music, with all of its demonic power, that was responsible for the Altamont debacle? The easiest answer is to simply brush it off — after all, Altamont trouble started out even before the Rolling Stones arrived at the concert, not to mention that answering «yes» without any scientific proof would only play into the hands of idiots blaming rock music for the end of the world. But behind that easiness, there still lurks some un-easiness as well — and at the very least, I can vouch for myself, namely, that I have always felt some sort of presence behind the music on Ya-Ya's. Of course, I am not talking about anything supernatural (though it would be fun, wouldn't it?): I am saying that the element of provocation, as delivered over the course of a Rolling Stones show in November 1969, even if it may superficially look weaker than their completely over-the-top behavior of the following decade, is actually much stronger in terms of sheer sonic substance. (And visual, too: just compare this shamanistic clip of ʽJumpin' Jack Flashʼ from Gimme Shelter with this speedier, rowdier, bawdier version from Ladies And Gentlemen two years later and then tell me which one's got more mesmerizing power).

No, it is not really about provoking you into sleeping with 13-year olds, shoving knives right down somebody's throat, fighting in the streets, or even (horrors!) beginning to take tea at three — but it is about provoking you to «think dan­gerous», whatever that might mean for anybody in particular. For some girls (and boys), it might mean wanting to have sex with Mick Jagger; for some, it might mean wanting to go out there and fight the system; for some, it might mean wanting to pull a knife or a gun — you never really know. Whatever be the case, Get Yer Ya-Ya's Out! is a far more disturbing record than all those comparatively mild albums by Prince, AC/DC, and Twisted Sister that would fuel the ridiculous discussion over ratings and parental control in the Eighties — precisely because it transcends the vaudeville limits of «shock rock» and taps into certain Freudian zones where people should not always be admitted without a legal guardian of sorts. I do know that for me, this is the perfect record to play when I get the serious urge to kill somebody — there's nothing as spiritually refreshing and morally relieving as a good old murder in open-G tuning, you know. A juicy, dirty, bloody thumbs up for an experience that could never again be properly replicated — although, after Altamont, I couldn't really blame the Stones for switching the genre tag from «dark ritual» to «glitzy vaudeville».

PS. Technical detail: if you are seriously interested in the deluxe CD reissue of the album, it is not worthy of much attention unless you are a fanatical completist. All you get is an extra set of five live songs from the same shows (including acoustic performances of ʽProdigal Sonʼ and ʽYou Gotta Moveʼ) that, with the exception of a completely re-tuned ʽSatisfactionʼ, do not have the intensity of the originally released material; and mini-sets from the Stones' supporting acts — B. B. King and Ike and Tina Turner — that should probably be enjoyed within the context of those artists' own careers (though, I must say, Tina's quasi-pornographic performance of ʽI've Been Loving You Too Longʼ as captured in Gimme Shelter totally fits in with the atmosphere). Perhaps with time, we might be lucky enough to get cleaned-up and remastered versions of addi­tional performances from the same tour, but there's no telling how long we have to wait for that.


  1. "The glam era had settled in, and the emphasis was placed on extravagance"
    Extra kudos to Ritchie Blackmore and Rory Gallagher - they never joined this trend. It's also an important reason why I think Black Sabbath' Live in Paris their best live record.

    1. Agree about Gallagher, but Blackmore? One of the original kings of guitar extravagance (certainly far more extravagant than Iommi ever was).

    2. If you're talking guitar technique, yes, but that also includes Gallagher, whose technique wasn't any worse. Though both, unlike eg Alvin Lee (who was actually faster than Blackmore), always tried to put their technique in service of the notes instead of the other way round.
      I thought you were talking off-stage shenanigans with the purpose of image building. Blackmore of course quite often was a pos towards many bandmates and members of the music industry, but you will find precious few destroyed hotel rooms and ill-treated fans in his trail. You might also be surprised how many interviewers reported their surprise about how cooperative he was - when he was willing to give an interview in the first place. Almost all problems with Blackmore involved saw people trying to force him to do something he explicitely didn't want to. That's egocentric, but not exactly glam extravagance.
      Now I think about it, Alvin Lee never cared about image building and glam rock extravagance either.

  2. It's fun to blame or credit the power of the Stones' approach to their own music in 1969 for the fatal idiocy of Altamont, but it's only fun for effect. The music had nothing to do with it. Throw the Beatles on a low, impromptu stage at the bottom of open hillsides, surrounded by 300,000 seriously altered fans, with nothing but drunken bikers to protect them, and you'd probably witness a veritable massacre to the musical accompaniment of Hey Jude.

    The musical & visual video comparison is definitely interesting though. The new science of rock & roll crowd control definitely made a difference on their performance.

  3. I listened to this record almost exclusively for a period of a few weeks as I was seriously suffering from depression, but the intensity of the performances allowed to me to respond very strongly to the music. It was at that point that I knew the worst of my depression was over, because as long as you can feel and be in the moment of experiencing music, you are on the path to sanity. I always think of Jumping Jack Flash as the greatest rock song of all time for that reason.

  4. Stanley Booth's True Adventures of the Rolling Stones is, in my view, another essential document of this period. I highly recommend it to serious Stones fans, as well as those who'd like to read arguably the best book on rock and roll. (Booth's other main book, Rythm Oil, is also a worthwhile read.)

  5. Really enjoyed your piece here and agree with much of what you say; Mick Taylor arrived as part of the Clapton/Green continuum of English blues virtuosi, so certainly forced Keith to up his game. Additionally, you could almost argue that 1969 was the year that the Stones finally left their 'beat group' roots behind and became the rockers we knew for most of the 1970's. Another aspect of 'Ya-ya's' worth mentioning is that after the whole Woodstock extravaganza, live albums became 'de rigeur' for a lot of bands, partly to combat the newly-emergent bootleggers (Even the Stones must have been impressed with 'Liver than you'll ever be') and partly because the likes of Cream had shown how much a live album could boost sales with 'Wheels of Fire'. Other notable contributors to this 1969 trend were the Bay Area trio of Jefferson Airplane ('Bless its pointed little head') Quicksilver Messenger Service ('Happy Trails') and the Grateful Dead ('Live/Dead'). As for Altamont, it's become a gift to writers who want to draw comparisons with the myopic hippy rhetoric of Woodstock Nation but having been to a few of these early festivals, I would venture to say that there were others that were equally poorly organised, so it's a wonder it didn't happen more often. The naivete of promoters prepared to entrust 'security' to a horde of self-aggrandising, drunken bikers beggars belief and Altamont wasn't the only festival where that happened. I think the real issue about Altamont and the Stones was that this was a pivotal moment. Jagger, as the frontman, had been flirting with Satanic and biker imagery since 'Sympathy for the Devil' or maybe even earlier and this was the point at which his bluff was called. During the show, he just came over as a petulant little brat and his 'power' to manipulate audiences was exposed as empty braggadocio; just smoke & mirrors, really. As you say, the scene where he views the murder footage after the event is hugely telling - he just looks crushed, broken, impotent. And, as you rightly point out, after that, it was just showtime; keep your distance, give 'em 90 minutes of the Stones Experience, then off into the limos and on to the next one...