THE ROLLING STONES: METAMORPHOSIS (1975)
1) Out Of Time; 2) Don't Lie To Me; 3) Some Things Just Stick In Your Head; 4) Each And Every Day Of The Year; 5) Heart Of Stone; 6) I'd Much Rather Be With The Boys; 7) (Walkin' Thru The) Sleepy City; 8) We're Wastin' Time; 9) Try A Little Harder; 10) I Don't Know Why; 11) If You Let Me; 12) Jiving Sister Fanny; 13) Downtown Suzie; 14) Family; 15) Memo From Turner; 16) I'm Going Down.
Although this was technically a compilation rather than a regular album, and although it was, indeed, quite «out of time» by the standards and fashions of 1975, and although the actual Rolling Stones had very little to do with its release (it was more of an Allen Klein / Andrew Loog Oldham project), Metamorphosis still deserves more than just a passing mention. To date, it remains the only officially released (though not officially endorsed by Mick and Keith) collection of early Stones outtakes — and even if it was, first and foremost, a money-grabbin' cash-in, its appearance on the market precisely at the time when the Stones had just landed their first serious artistic crisis was quite a miraculous coincidence.
Indeed, even if there is relatively little greatness to be found among this bunch of demos and outtakes (on many of which the Stones do not even play their instruments — there are several demos here that were written by Mick and Keith for other artists and played by session musicians), many of them compare quite favorably to the state of mind the Glimmer Twins were in when they were producing It's Only Rock'n'Roll. There, in 1974, you had your wasted rock stars, defeated and humiliated by their own excesses; and here, in 1975, you get a glimpse at the same artists before they were rock stars — seriously fresh, a little naïve, and still willing to experiment with all sorts of songwriting styles before comfortably settling in the Rock paradigm. So what's better — a new album from seasoned, but wasted pros, or a bunch of questionable-quality outtakes from young aspiring disciples of the craft?..
Actually, I'm not sure, but at least it is definitely more curious to take a look at this «alternate career retrospective» than it is to see how safely predictable the band eventually became. And curious — to review not only the paths that they had reliably trodden, but also those paths that they ultimately rejected. ʽSome Things Just Stick In Your Mindʼ, one of their earliest compositions that was recorded during the sessions for the first album, for instance, sounds like a country-western reinvention of ʽBlowin' In The Windʼ — which was enough to peddle it to the American duo Dick And Dee Dee (and later get it covered by Vashti Bunyan), but not enough to dare come out with their own version. ʽEach And Every Day Of The Yearʼ, given to another little-known American artist, Bobby Jameson, is a strange ballad with a distinctly Spanish twang — bolero rhythms, matador horns, ecstatic strings — the likes of which you will never encounter in the Stones' catalog proper. ʽ(Walkin' Thru The) Sleepy Cityʼ, released by the even more obscure British band The Mighty Avengers, is an embryonic example of upbeat Kinksy Brit-pop from a time when the Kinks hadn't even invented Brit-pop yet — and we're still only talking about 1964, mind you, when the Stones themselves were mostly covering Chuck Berry and Jimmy Reed.
Now I'm not saying any of these tunes were masterpieces, but one thing they do show is that the pop song explosion of the Stones in 1966 did not happen overnight: apparently, they spent quite a bit of time training and honing their skills. In addition, there are some less surprising cuts from those early years, as they also tried their luck at mind-numbingly repetitive R&B (ʽTry A Little Harderʼ) and romantic country-western (ʽWe're Wastin' Timeʼ); the most predictable of these selections is a nasty-cool cover of Chuck Berry's ʽDon't Lie To Meʼ (probably shelved because the melodically similar ʽRoute '66ʼ turned out to be far superior), and the most historically treasurable one is a version of ʽHeart Of Stoneʼ with Jimmy Page on lead guitar (not surprisingly, I far prefer Keith's final solo on the original release — Jimmy was not quite able to latch on to the required vibe here, pulling the song in a different direction).
After a chronological break, the second half of the record is largely given over to outtakes from 1968-69, mostly around the Let It Bleed era — in theory, this could be a blessing, but in practice, they are mostly jamming pieces on which Richards and Taylor were getting used to each other, so stuff like ʽJiving Sister Fannyʼ and ʽI'm Going Downʼ is required listening only for big fans of the Stones sound in general. More interesting is ʽDowntown Suzieʼ, a sloppy piece of acoustic barroom rock with Ry Cooder on slide guitar — I'm fairly sure some people would have easily welcomed it in the place of ʽCountry Honkʼ, but with those ridiculously low, Zappa-like "yeah, yeah, yeah"'s and all, it's a bit too novelty-like. (I'm also pretty sure that this tune later got reworked into ʽCasino Boogieʼ on Exile, so they salvaged at least the main bulk of the melody). Even more interesting is a cover of Stevie Wonder's ʽI Don't Know Whyʼ, also recorded during the Let It Bleed sessions but stylistically predating the «lazy sinner gospel» style on Exile — and with a great Mick Taylor slide solo to boot; unfortunately, they aborted the process midway through, so the song cheats on you, repeating its last minute twice.
The most interesting tune on the second part, however, is ʽFamilyʼ, an acoustic outtake from Beggars' Banquet with some melodic and atmospheric similarity to ʽSister Morphineʼ — and a set of lyrics that contains more direct stern social critique than the entirety of the album. I think they pulled the plug on that one because they thought it was too Dylanesque — but on the other hand, that did not prevent them from releasing ʽJig-Saw Puzzleʼ that was even more Dylanesque lyrically, and these here lyrics are damn sharper: "What exactly's gonna happen / When he's finally realized / That he can't play his guitar like E. G. Jim (sic! no idea who they mean — G.S.) / Or write St. Augustine if he tried". Of course, ʽSister Morphineʼ ended up creepier, but this is Mick at his best as a lyricist — and, for my money, the line about the father finding out that "his virgin daughter has bordello dreams" actually goes way beyond "I can see that you're fifteen years old" in terms of dark disturbance.
Throw in an early demo for Mick's solo piece of verbal offense, ʽMemo From Turnerʼ (from Performance, a movie whose relevance largely ended with the cessation of demand for Anita Pallenberg's tits — these days, it looks like a rather clumsy and boringly artificial amplification of Jagger's «Satanic» myth), and the collection takes on a decidedly two-faced look: first, the Rolling Stones as innocent providers of pop fodder for pop fodder artists — next, the Rolling Stones as the «Bad Boys Extraordinaire» in the twilight of the Sixties. Which kinda sorta explains the Metamorphosis title, if not the silly sleeve art with its gratuitous Kafka-esque allusions. Regardless, this is essentially a hackjob, rather than a thoughtfully assembled collection of undeservedly forgotten minor treasures — yet still perfectly listenable, because even at their worst the Stones could still have decent songwriting ideas and/or a juicy rock'n'roll sand; and certainly well worth knowing for both seasoned Stones fans and those who are in need of learning more about the breadth and scope of their artistic reach, so as not to peg them away as the "it's only rock'n'roll, but I like it" kind of band.