There is a blindly-accepted mythology that began as soon as the 70s ended. The myth goes like this: The Rolling Stones were a scrappy London R&B band that rode the first wave of the British Invasion, had some monster singles, did a classic mid-60s album (Aftermath), stumbled briefly with a psychedelic Beatles knock-off (Their Satanic Majesties Request), then righted themselves, found an excellent producer in Jimmy Miller, and made the Holy Quadrilogy — Beggars Banquet, Let It Bleed, Sticky Fingers, and Exile On Main Street — each an irrefutable cornerstone of their massive legacy and four of the greatest rock albums ever made.
And after that — Some Girls aside — it all went to shit.
The “Ultimate Classic Rock” website, the internet’s click-bait custodian of lazy rock factoids, perpetuates the well-trodden path, describing the first post-Exile album, Goats Head Soup as “the end of the Stones’ classic era, with two more increasingly careless albums following until the band got back on track five years later with Some Girls.” This sentiment has been robotically repeated ad nauseam for almost forty years now.
The Stones themselves even bought into the narrative, self-deprecatingly naming a compilation of their post-Exile material Sucking In The Seventies.
Supposedly, the three albums between the mighty Exile and the fluke disco/New Wave-era smash of Some Girls represented a trough of mediocrity, but I’m here to tell you that those three albums — the aforementioned Goats Head Soup, along with It’s Only Rock ‘N Roll, and Black And Blue — are totally underrated. Classics? Maybe I’d stop just shy of that. But they have an adventurous spirit and willingness to mess with the Stones’ formula a little, and an air of breezily coked-up, rock-god Dionysian decadence impossible to replicate in any other era. Every track, even the weak ones, has something at least interesting about it, which is more than I can say for some of their 80s albums (the true trough of mediocrity, in my opinion –buy me a drink and raise the topic of Dirty Work.)
And for two of these three albums, the Stones still had the services of “second” guitarist Mick Taylor, a Clapton-esque blues virtuoso, whose jazz-tinged soloing lifted many of these songs to a new level. For the first time since the Brian Jones era, Keith Richards’ slashing, open-tuned riffage wasn’t the dominant sound. Although Keith always claimed his 70s heroin habit did not slow him down much, the instrumental line-ups on these songs frequently tell a different tale. He’s just not there on about a sixth of them, and on several more he’s just croaking out backing vocals, or strumming a single sloppy rhythm guitar buried in the mix, or plunking on the bass (the Stones’ actual bassist, Bill Wyman, was somewhat minimalized on these albums, his role frequently usurped by Richards or Taylor).
For better and worse (see below), this era was Jagger’s version of the Rolling Stones. His lyrics were some of the best he ever concocted, and the empty space left by Keith was filled by his own guitar work, which grew more confident with every album. Sadly, these albums are tainted in a lot of people’s mind by Jagger’s increasing buffoonery. The whirling dervish of the ‘69 concert stage was now a glam-rock self-parody (this reached its nadir with the “Dancing In The Streets” video of ‘85 before he finally dialed it back for the Stones’ more recent tours.) So…try to hear these albums without picturing Jagger’s eye-shadow and spangly onesies with the necklines that plunged to the pubes, or the band as a whole’s incredibly dated visual aspect during this period (despite the images I’ve gone ahead and inexplicably included.)
Goats Head Soup is often described as the “hangover” after the wild party of Exile On Main Street, and according to the myth, the drop-off between the two is steep. But at the time, Exile was considered something of a sprawling disappointment, and the hazy, bleary sounds of Goats felt much more of a piece with its predecessor. Jimmy Miller was still producing (for the last time), and some of the songs pre-date the Exile sessions.
Britain’s tax laws forced the band to spend a large part of the year outside the country, and the Exile sessions (in the French Riviera and L.A.) began the tradition of recording on foreign shores as much as possible. In November 1972, the Rolling Stones and pianist Nicky Hopkins set up camp at Dynamic Sound Studios in Jamaica. Their chief road manager, “sixth Stone” Ian Stewart, also served as occasional pianist, and he was there too, of course, but he only played on songs he liked. He did not dig most of the Goats Head material. With a major narcotics case against Richards still pending, Jamaica was the only suitably cool country that would give them an extended work visa.
Although they were all reggae fans (especially Keith), they admitted they were not ready to pull off any real reggae tracks in the same studio where so many of the genre’s classics were made, including the Harder They Come soundtrack and the early Bob Marley records. (Some would say, based on the mixed reception their later reggae-based tracks received, that they never achieved that state of readiness.) Nicky Hopkins departed at the beginning of December, and Billy Preston was flown in to spice things up with his gospel organ and clavinet.
The sessions continued in May and June 1973 at Olympic Studios and Island Studios in London, where they added elements such as brass, strings, the congas and shakers of noted Ghanaian percussionist “Rebop” Kwaku Baah, and additional percussion by mysterious and eccentric electronic music pioneer Nik Pascal.
The album, released in late August 1973, opens with “Dancing With Mr. D,” invariably described by naysayers as a tepid, silly sequel to “Sympathy For The Devil.” But apart from name-checking the Horned One himself, the two songs aren’t really similar. The frenzied samba of “Sympathy” is in no way referenced by the grinding party funk of “Mr. D,” and while Jagger doesn’t come close to his “Sympathy” lyrics, lines like “Down in the graveyard where we have our tryst/The air smells sweet, the air smells sick/He never smiles, his mouth merely twists/The breath in my lungs feels clingy and thick” have a certain eerie flow and Halloween-y charm.
This is followed by what may be my favorite song on all three albums — “100 Years Ago.” “Went out walking through the wood the other day/And the world was a carpet laid before me/The buds were bursting and the air smelled sweet and strange/It seemed about one hundred years ago…don’t you think it’s sometimes wise not to grow up…” A mid-tempo quasi-ballad about the power of memory that breaks down almost to a full stop (“Call me lazybones…”) then upshifts into a furious instrumental outro, with Mick Taylor leading the charge. This is right up there with “Tumbling Dice” and “Brown Sugar” for me.
“Coming Down Again,” a slow-burner sung by Keith at a snail’s pace over a watery bed of phased guitar and Nicky Hopkins’ moody piano, perfectly captures the feeling of waking up with the dry heaves, alone, confused, and regretful. The mood is quickly shattered by the unfortunately-titled “Doo Doo Doo Doo Doo (Heartbreaker)” with its urgent traffic-jam horn section and spine-chilling urban jungle lyrics about “accidental” police shootings and poverty-stricken children OD’ing in the gutter. “Angie” was the big radio hit from the album, and despite the inclusion of lots of down-tempo stuff, this is the only song that could be classified as a traditional ballad. Nicky Hopkins once again shows why he was the most in-demand session pianist of the era, providing tasteful accents to the gently dueling acoustic guitars of Richards and Taylor.
“Angie” closes side one, and side two kicks off with “Silver Train,” the one song on the album that sounds the most like a typical Rolling Stones riff-rocker. It was originally recorded two years before the other songs, and was handed off to Johnny Winter, who recorded a blistering version that spurred the Stones to re-record theirs at the end of the sessions in London and put it on the album. “Hide Your Love” dates from the same late-stage London sessions. The simple, hypnotic number is based around Jagger’s echo-heavy piano vamping, and is built up into a primal Delta blues pastiche, Robert Johnson-style. “Winter” is another one of those tracks that critics of this period in the Stones career have to admit is a beauty. Similar in tone to Sticky Fingers’ “Moonlight Mile,” you can almost feel the chill and see your breath as the song glides along on a stream of orchestral strings.
As much as I like them, each of these albums has a total misfire buried in its track listing. “Can You Hear The Music” is a plodding, discordant mess that uses some world-music/psychedelic flourishes to cover up its lack of direction. The album closes with “Star Star,” a Chuck Berry-inspired, old-fashioned bit of rock & roll that sounds like something the ‘64 Stones would have played (except for the lyrics.) Ian Stewart finally lets loose on the ivories in his trademark boogie-woogie style.
One web reviewer calls the Goats Head Soup “the album that set the Stones on a course of mediocrity from which they have yet to return…” Then goes on to say: “It’s not that Goats Head Soup is bad, in itself…” Well, then, what the hell? “[It] set no musical agenda…did nothing new.” Which is totally incorrect. The Stones were never AM radio balladeers before. “Angie” changed that, whatever you think of the song itself. (I love it.) They were beginning to explore the funk genre, aided by sideman Billy Preston’s churning clavinet and Taylor’s wah-wah guitar (“Dancing With Mr. D,” “Doo Doo Doo Doo Doo”). And they crossed the boundaries of what could and couldn’t be stated in a rock lyric with the gleefully sleazy (and brutally explicit) “Star Star” (original title: “Starfucker.”)
Another year, another studio…
Keith’s legal troubles were cleared up (for now), and the world was their oyster. This time the Stones & Co. booked time at Musicland Studios in Munich, Germany for November 1973 and February-March ‘74 and created It’s Only Rock ‘N Roll. Jimmy Miller was out of the producer’s chair (drug-induced unreliability was allowed only if you were Keith — just ask Miller, Brian Jones, and saxman Bobby Keys, who was iced by the band for sixteen years for missing a gig). Jagger and Richards decided the produce the album themselves under the moniker “The Glimmer Twins.” The usual crew of keyboardists (Hopkins, Preston, Stewart) made their contributions, and several songs benefited from the presence of super-percussionist Ray Cooper, known for his work with Elton John and Eric Clapton. The man could make a tambourine and some chimes sound like an goddamn orchestra.
The Stones were now used to taking their sweet-ass time making albums. More recording sessions took place in April ‘74 at Jagger’s country mansion, Stargroves, using the Stones’ “Mighty Mobile” portable studio — a panel truck packed to the gills with cables, speakers, microphones, multi-track tape machines, a mixing console, etc. The final overdubbing and mixing (“sprinkling the pixie dust” as Richards puts it) was done at Olympic in May. The album came out in October 1974, and was described by Stones biographer Stephen Davis as a “muddled holding action.” Ouch. And, no. Wrong again. It’s pretty great.
The rat-a-tat triplet of Charlie Watts’ snare drum locks in with Keith’s snarling rhythm guitar, and Taylor is already wailing during the first three seconds of the song-cum-implied threat “If You Can’t Rock Me” (“…somebody will”) which kicks off It’s Only Rock ‘N Roll. The hangover mood and sleepy tonalities of Goats are left in the dust. This is a band that wants to shake arenas to their foundations.
As long as the originals are still widely available, what’s the point of covering Motown songs? Why mess with perfection? You’re bound to come off looking foolish nine times out of ten. That being said, the Stones’ version of the Temptations’ “Ain’t Too Proud To Beg” beats the odds and comes up a winner, thanks largely to the propulsive drumming of Watts, whose presence barely registered on Goats Head Soup. The interlocking axes of Richards and Taylor also transform the super-smooth R&B of the original into a typically crunchy Stones “guitar song,” which no Motown song ever was. They succeed not through watered-down, slavish imitation (hear that, Michael McDonald?), but by remaking the song in their own image.
Sources are unclear when the initial session for the title song took place. May 24, 1973? July 24? Over the ‘73 Christmas holidays? What is certain is that it took place during a casual get-together at the home studio of Ron Wood, guitarist for the Faces. Ronnie, Mick Jagger, David Bowie, renowned R&B session bassist Willie Weeks, and Faces drummer Kenny Jones took a pass at recording a work-in-progress song Mick had brought along, “It’s Only Rock ‘N Roll (But I Like It).”
When he heard the recording, Keith was a little irked that he didn’t participate on what was clearly a winner of a song. Determined to, as he put it, “steal that motherfucker back” during the later album sessions, he took the master tape into the studio, wiped Bowie’s backing vocals, Weeks’ bass, and almost all of Ronnie’s guitars and replaced them with his own. When it came time to re-do the drums, Charlie could not quite replicate the groovy shuffle of Jones, who ironically was attempting to replicate Watts’ style in the first place. So Kenny Jones stayed on the song. (Keith left a lone 12-string acoustic track from Ronnie in the mix as a token of his affection for the easygoing Faces guitarist.)
From the title, one would expect a fist-pumping stadium rocker, and at recent concerts the Stones have turned it into just that. But the actual recording is more of a loose, rough-edged rambler that swings along lazily and “rolls more than it rocks” (Keith’s highest compliment.) More of a pub singalong than a defiant anthem, more Faces than Stones.
After the one-two-three opening salvo, the album settles down for the pretty, country-inflected acoustic balladry of “Til The Next Goodbye,” which, pleasant as it is, is blown away by the next song in the running order, the stunning “Time Waits For No One.” It’s a ballad, too, I suppose, but an urgent one. It’s the sound of being restless and awake, late into a big city night. The opening (heavily-processed) chords, lightly tapping drums, and ominous chimes set a mood of tension. Taylor’s multiple interwoven guitars thrum under the surface, restrained, until his solos take off into the stratosphere in a jazzy Latin sequence that would make Carlos Santana eat his hat. (It’s been pointed out how many Stones songs are not about the typical rock ‘n roll subjects of love, sex, and good times, but explore the sad, inexorable passage of time — “I Am Waiting,” “100 Years Ago,” and many others.) End of side one.
No one but me seems to like “Luxury.” In all the reviews out there, this one comes in for the most abuse (after “Short And Curlies,” see below), but I think it jams along quite nicely. Not really reggae, since it’s still a straight-ahead rocker and doesn’t have the typical stop-start reggae “riddim,” but we hear definite on-beat reggae/Caribbean inspiration for the first time. Maybe it’s Mick’s affected faux-Rastafarian patois, or maybe it’s the mash-up of the two styles that people don’t like. One reviewer stated that hard rock and reggae go together “like boogers and fries.” Maybe so in every other case…but not with “Luxury.”
“Dance Little Sister” is a good, meaty chunk of pure roadhouse rock, the type the Stones could toss off in their sleep. The Jagger-Taylor Show is on display again with the pleading soul ballad “If You Really Want To Be My Friend,” with another great set of lyrics (and vocal performance) from Mick #1 and another great solo from Mick #2. The Philly soul group Blue Magic was brought in to provide gospel-tinged backing vocals. The album’s misfire is “Short And Curlies,” a generic mid-tempo boogie that was recorded in Jamaica and correctly left off Goats Head Soup. If its pubic hair-referencing title weren’t off-putting enough, then there’s the lyrics, which consist mostly of chanting “she’s got you by the balls.” This one should have stayed in the can.
“Fingerprint File” serves as the album’s epic closer, a six-minute slab of paranoid techno-funk (Bill Wyman mans the synthesizer) that is an early indicator of the disco-flavored near future, and a statement of purpose that, while the Stones would always do “Rolling Stones” songs, they would also always be sniffing out new rhythms and grooves to augment their signature house style.
On December 4, 1974 (the day after I was born, incidentally), Mick Taylor announced he was leaving the Rolling Stones. He was feeling increasingly stifled by the Jagger-Richards songwriting juggernaut, and believed his contributions to several songs’ essential structure and melody went uncredited. When finally out from under the shadow of the Stones, Mick Taylor went on to do…not much at all. “Mick figured he’d learned enough,” said Keith many years later. “He was bored and thought he was now a songwriter of great stature. He had a million plans…but I’m still waiting.” Mick Taylor was an incredibly fluid, melodic guitarist, and became a well-respected journeyman session player on other people’s projects, but the Stones certainly weren’t keeping an unrecognized songwriting genius down.
Sessions for the next album were already booked at Musicland in Munich to begin in three days, and the band decided to go ahead with them, kicking off the December ‘74 sessions as a four-piece. Mick Jagger was now obsessed with the embryonic disco/dance scene, envisioning the new-phase Stones as rivals to the Ohio Players, and Keith’s ganja-stained fingers were itching to wrap around pure reggae…
In January 1975, the Stones set up the Mighty Mobile in an orchestra concert hall in Rotterdam, The Netherlands. They decided to kill two birds with one stone (pun intended?), recording new material while auditioning guitarists. The still-delicate, post-heroin Eric Clapton was called, seriously considered packing ol’ Blackie and heading on down, but couldn’t quite bring himself to go and declined the offer. Noted temperamental British virtuoso Jeff Beck came and went. Noted temperamental Irish virtuoso Rory Gallagher also came and went. (Decidedly non-temperamental, non-virtuoso Ron Wood was who everyone really wanted, but he was still tied to the Faces.)
Alabama touring/session veteran Wayne Perkins, along with former Canned Heat guitarist and Detroit native Harvey Mandel emerged as the finalists. With some interesting songs in the can, the Stones trooped back to Musicland in March. Ron Wood inevitably turned up, fit like a glove, and all other considerations collapsed. The Rolling Stones were a British band and needed a British guitarist. Ronnie was announced as as a “temporary” guitarist on April 14, to accompany the Stones on their Summer ‘75 tour, “on loan” from the Faces.
The “pixie dust” was added to what was now called Black And Blue at Mountain Recording Studios in Montreux, Switzerland in October and November of 1975. Lead singer Rod Stewart broke up the Faces in December to focus on his exploding solo career, allowing Ron Wood to officially become a Rolling Stone. Just a few weeks later, he was posing for the publicity shots of Black And Blue, which finally hit the shelves in April 1976.
More often than not, the Rolling Stones kick off their albums with a tried-and-true rock & roll anthem that embraces their signature sound. Black And Blue opens with an experiment. This is the album where they finally stop dipping a tentative toe into other genres and plunge straight in. “Hot Stuff” is 100% funk — lyrically minimal, with a solid Afro-Cuban groove designed to pack dance floors. Harvey Mandel gels well with the rest of the band here, tearing off a Taylor-esque wah-wah solo just past the two minute mark. The band then shifts back to familiar territory with the typically Stonesy “Hand Of Fate.” The Richards riff machine is dialed up to max (Wayne Perkins handles the soaring leads here), and the Wyman-Watts rhythm section swings effortlessly. This one sounds like a throwback to Exile On Main Street, a little comfort food in the midst of all this re-invention, and how it did not become a Stones canonic classic is beyond me.
After a few years of circling the style warily, the Stones finally record their first pure reggae song, a cover of Eric Donaldson’s “Cherry Oh Baby.” It’s not that good, but it’s kind of adorable hearing this monstrously self-assured band taking such tentative baby steps. Charlie Watts usually plays with total authority, but here he lurches around clumsily. Someone hollers a traditional Jamaican shout of “irie!” that sounds so self-conscious and embarrassed it should have been dropped from the mix. Still, it’s worth it for the novelty value of the Rolling Stones being wide-eyed novices once again.
They recover their swagger with “Memory Motel,” a true epic, pushing past the seven-minute mark. This power ballad stands as the Stones’ “A Day In The Life,” complete with a brief, separately-written segment sung by Keith that interrupts Jagger’s main narrative of a short-but-sweet love affair set in the sandy, windswept Hamptons. Mick parks himself on the grand piano stool, and even Keith leaves his guitar on the stand, and opts for a Fender Rhodes electric piano, normally associated with lounge-lizard cocktail jazz. The guitar work is provided by Perkins and Mandel, the only Black And Blue song on which the aspiring prospects played together (but recorded separately). The song’s greatness was belatedly recognized, and it has since become a latter-day concert favorite.
The misfire here is “Hey Negrita,” another ham-fisted reggae track, but this one sounds like the loutish, drunken older brother of the innocent “Cherry Oh Baby.” It is notable only for the fact that the song’s original framework came from Ron Wood, and it was during its recording (with Ronnie providing the main riff) that realization struck that he was The One.
“Melody,” a duet between Jagger and Billy Preston, is a throwback to the pre-rock era of 1940s nightclub jazz and one of the most interesting and atypical songs the Stones ever put out. A re-working of Preston’s own “Do You Love Me?,” “Melody” boasts great period-piece licks from Keith and a subtle horn arrangement by 70s super-producer Arif Mardin (Bee Gees, Diana Ross, many others).
Those who say the Stones lost their edge in the mid-70s frequently point to “Fool To Cry,” a syrupy, mawkish ballad where Jagger debuts his love-it-or-hate-it falsetto vocal technique. It was a radio staple for a few years, and I’m pretty sure it’s the first Rolling Stones song I heard as a pre-schooler, crackling over my older sister’s clock-radio. When I grew into my teens and got into the Stones for real, I was one of those “Fool To Cry” haters (“Gimme Shelter” or gimme death!) — until the song’s subtle charms finally wore me down. Or I just got old and sentimental.
The album closes with another masterful riff-rocker, “Crazy Mama,” featuring a solid rhythm guitar from Jagger, a rare slide guitar piece from Richards, and even though he’s not credited in the album notes, it sure as hell sounds like a Ronnie solo on his custom Zemaitis guitar, and it would certainly be fitting — taking his place as the new Rolling Stone on the final track.
It’s time to break from the established, rock journalist-dictated mythology and give these albums a chance to be enjoyed on their own considerable merits.
(In all seriousness, Ultimate Classic Rock, if you’re hiring new contributors…I can write shorter things…I’m open to being edited…)