Sunday, 12 December 2010

The Rolling Stones in 1968: the greatest return to form in music history

My son is bored with contemporaries telling him that the Beatles are their favourite group. Which of us oldsters who were around during the 1960s would have thought anyone would still be saying that nearly five decades later? I wonder if anyone now feels that way about the Stones? Probably not.

It’s hard to be hip when your lead singer has a knighthood: the main interest in the group these days (as it has for several decades) seems to revolve around the possibly supernatural ability of Keith Richards to go on cheating death.

The Beatles produced the most musically brilliant, inventive, and ground-breaking recorded music of their era. But being a perverse bugger, and because of a taste for earthier, cruder, popular music, while I recognized their pre-eminence at the time, I was a much bigger fan of rootsier groups like the Rolling Stones and the Animals. When it came to sheer musical genius, Brian Wilson was my man – even after his brain and the Beach Boys’ career imploded following the astonishing success of “Good Vibrations”, I was buying Beach Boys albums and desperately trying to convince myself they hadn’t lost it (they hadn’t – Sunflower and Holland still sound wonderful, but back then my enthusiasm was taken as a sign of eccentricity or pretentiousness). 

Of course you don't look like a bunch of prats, lads!
I only lost faith in the Stones one time during that magnificent stretch between the release of their superb second single, the Lennon McCartney-penned “I Wanna Be Your Man” in 1963, and the  release of Exile on Main Street in 1972. After 1966’s breathtaking Aftermath album and the great January 1967 single, “Let’s Spend the Night Together”, we were treated to Between the Buttons, an exhausted, below-par LP (especially compared to The Beatles’ astonishing Revolver). But those of us who regarded Buttons as a temporary aberration were in for an even greater  disappointment. In August the Stones released their “answer” to Sergeant Pepper - the abject Their Satanic Majesty’s Request, with its silly 3-D cover on which the former kings of hip apparel were pictured in the wankiest set of hippie duds imaginable. They were supposed to be wizards or necromancers or something – it was Bill Wyman and Charlie Watts I felt sorriest for! The single at the time was the dire “We Love You” – about as convincing as a Charles Manson Christmas carol.
Game over, we all assumed. Fun while it lasted.

But then, somehow, impossibly, in May 1968 they released a roaring classic of a  single, “Jumpin’ Jack Flash” – quite simply the best thing they’d ever produced: ridiculously hard and sassy and swaggering and unbelievably in the groove. Jagger had made a total arse of himself in his younger days trying to dance like James Brown – now his band was creating music as rhythmically dynamic as anything produced by their black American heroes. 

Thus began possibly the greatest musical return to form in pop history. December saw the release of the first in a run of five magnificent albums, whose quality and verve will never be equaled. Ever. All in three and a half years while half the band were breaking world records for substance abuse, and Mick Jagger was trying to kick-start a film career (apparently undaunted by the fact that he couldn’t act).

Beggars Banquet (which included “Street Fighting Man” and “Sympathy for the Devil”), was released in December 1968, leaving no doubt that the Stones were well and truly back. July 1969 saw the release of the brilliant single, “Honky Tonk Women”. In December ’69 we got Let It Bleed, which included “Midnight Rambler” and the sublime “Gimme Shelter” – quite possibly the greatest rock track of its era (bizarrely, neither song was released as a single).

Then came my favourite live album of all time – Get Yer Ya-Yas Out (containing stupendous versions of  “Midnight Rambler”, “Love in Vain”, “Sympathy for the Devil”, “Live with Me” and “Little Queenie”).

April 1971 brought us the single “Brown Sugar” - whose arrogant opening riff confirmed that no one now did openings better than Keith Richards – and the album, Sticky Fingers (“Wild Horses”, “Dead Flowers” – endlessly covered by country rock artists ever since – and “Bitch”). 

A year off in France, and then “Tumbling Dice” in April 1972, followed by the gloriously shambolic, rootsy double album Exile on Main Street a month later (“Rocks Off”, “Rip This Joint”“Shake Your Hips”“Sweet Virginia”, “All Down the Line”).

There would be one or two more highlights to follow – notably “It’s Only Rock ‘n’ Roll” and their last genuine top-notch single, 1978’s final farewell to greatness, “Miss You” –  and then a handful of singles that almost sounded as good as their early stuff (“Start Me Up”, for instance) – but it was basically all over by the summer of ’72.

Oddly enough, no one at the time realized that Exile would come to be regarded as one of popular music’s pinnacles: I seem to remember being quite sniffy about it at the time myself. Now, of course, we all know better. I wonder how much of their wealth the Stones would have been prepared to give up to create another album even half as good as any of those they cut in their glorious pomp. (In “Sir” Mick's case, I’m guessing none.)


  1. Isn't the turning point for the Stones the moment they realise that the Beatles are over and they don't need to compete with the Moptops on their terms? Trend-following me-tooism was why we had to suffer the Rock and Roll Circus, the Satanic Maj Rubbish, Dandelion, We Love You etc., wasn't it? On a muso's point, this was about the same time that Keef nicked Ry Cooder's open tunings and started to experiment with only 5 strings on his guitar, which seems to have liberated a different style in the old fake.

    As to Brian Wilson, if your friends thought your enthusiasm pretentious, changez vos amis!
    Monday, December 13, 2010 - 05:48 PM

  2. I have to disagree with your first point, EX-KCS – the White Album wasn’t released until November 1968, by which time the Stones had already released “Jumping Jack Flash”, so their renaissance started well before the Beatles disappeared: I think they just decided that competing with the moptops was an absolute mug’s game. Keef himself has a slightly different take:

    "There is a change between material on Satanic Majesties and Beggars Banquet. I'd grown sick to death of the whole Maharishi guru shit and the beads and bells. Who knows where these things come from, but I guess [the music] was a reaction to what we'd done in our time off and also that severe dose of reality. A spell in prison... will certainly give you room for thought... I was f*cking pissed with being busted. So it was, 'Right we'll go and strip this thing down.' There's a lot of anger in the music from that period."

    That rings true – but doesn’t mention the elephant in the room: the Fab Four. The ridiculous general adulation of Sergeant Pepper – along with copious quantities of LSD – is what did for Brian Wilson’s confidence as well, the poor sod. Unfortunately, he never really recovered, whereas the Stones’s anger seems to have helped them relocate their musical testicles.

    As for the open tunings – I’d always assumed they started with Jumping Jack Flash or Street Fighting Man, but the first single Richards used them on was, apparently, Honky Tonk Women, by which stage they were well and truly relaunched. (The fact that Richards got that wonderful thin but chunky acoustic guitar sounds on Street Fighting Man by recording himself on a crappy little early cassette recorder and then recording that recording on another cassette recorder has always really pleased me – I wonder if music wouldn’t improve markedly if we forced bands to return to four-track studios!)

    If I stopped being friends with everyone who questioned my taste or motives, I wouldn't have any!
    Monday, December 13, 2010 - 07:02 PM

  3. I don't know about all this technical stuff [shades of Christopher Guest and his amplifier going up to 11], but I was brought up listening to the greats like Berry, Lewis, Little Richard, pre-army Presley, Diddley et al and had no time for British rock music. To me, the Beatles have always been a load of pretentious, over-hyped drips [why do unfunny people try to be funny?]. In 1965 I was working at the Merton Board Mills and my workmates dragged me off to the Wimbledon Palais one night to see this group called the Rolling Stones. I stood close to the stage and when they started I was completely mesmerised. I have never experienced anything like it since. They were astonishingly good and I always pause when a Stones track is played on the radio. Even the vaguely risible Brian Jones "of Weybridge" was good [he always insisted on this title. Why?] and Keith still looked like a human being. It was like opening my heart to Jesus. I'm off to play "Satisfaction".
    Tuesday, December 14, 2010 - 07:36 PM

  4. I don't think that we are disagreeing, Scott. I think something happened in about 1967/8/9 to the Stones. It may be what Keef says in your quote about prison and his realising that copying into the Fab 4 beads and sitars thing was not what made them the Stones. In my view, the Beatles were just a studio band after Revolver. The Stones went the other way, turned to live performance and then stadium rock hence the brilliant Get your Ya Yas out.

    The Ry Cooder open tuning stuff is fascinating to me. Ry was checked out for the Stones at one point. Keef loathed him but his style after that point changed to something more rootsy. There is a solo Jagger track called Memo from Turner with Cooder on slide which in my view sounds like a wake up call to Mr Richard.

    I am sorry to be a bore to Mr Antique. I saw the Stones live twice, thought they were all over the place after 1972 and objected to paying working man's wages to witness Mr Rock n' Roll miss notes, noodle on his 5 strings and fall over on his bottom stoned when I could do it cheaper myself.
    Wednesday, December 15, 2010 - 04:42 AM

  5. Ex-KCS – On Ry Cooder and his open tunings, you’ve given me an idea. I’m pretty sure he’s the guitar player on Nick Lowe’s Rocky Road (if it isn’t, then someone’s got his style down pat). I’ve tried several times over the years to figure out the guitar part and it has always defeated me – reading your comments, I realized it must be in open tuning (I’ve no idea why I never thought of this before – so thank you!). I’m going to retune and give it one more try (if you don’t know it, it’s a lovely, bouncing, delicate thing - you can listen here: In some ways, it was pity Cooder was so obsessed with becoming a solo star, given what he brought to other people’s music.

    Antique Rocker, I really envy you seeing the Stones live at that point. You only have to listen to their live LP, Got Live if You Want It, recorded in October 1966, to realize how stunningly good they were on stage in those days. (Try this:

    And Ex-KCS is dead right too – most footage I’ve seen of their 1970s concerts suggest Keith Richards was simply too wrecked to play and even Mick Jagger had taken to bellowing out the lyrics in an off-key monotone. All very sad.
    Thursday, December 16, 2010 - 03:59 PM

  6. It is indeed Mr Ryland Cooder but I am not sure it's open tuning. You've got Dave Edmunds or Nick Lowe doing the rhythmic strumming and Ry doing a three finger pluck, based round the 9th fret.

    To play it throw away your pick, imagine you are Keef and ignore the two bass strings or bock them off with the palm of your hand. Bar the 9th fret, which will give you a three finger E chord and shape the A and B Ma chords around it. Use only three fingers to pluck. Ry thumbs the low E as a pedal chord. But he's a genius and you and I are not.

    There will be no charge for this service.
    Friday, December 17, 2010 - 10:43 PM