Archive for The Rolling Stones

On The Fortnight Between The Beatles’ White Album and the Rolling Stones’ “Beggars Banquet”

Posted in Music with tags , , , , , , on November 17, 2018 by johnbuckley100

 

All week long, we’ve immersed ourselves in the 6-CD 50th anniversary release of The Beatles.  In both Giles Martin’s revelatory new mix and with the legendary Esher Demos finally available, the album opens up in a way that both highlights the collective genius that was The Beatles, and provides a master course in band creativity.  But we had not realized until yesterday that while The White Album came out on November 22nd, 1968, what is likely the Rolling Stones’ greatest album, Beggars Banquet, followed two weeks later on December 6th.  Two weeks that changed our musical world.

They couldn’t be more different.  The Beatles is packed to the gills with creativity, whimsy, at once hard rocking and delicate, a summing up of the pop music Lennon and McCartney had been producing since Rubber Soul and something far different; a carry over from the near psychedelic past of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band and the off-balance Magical Mystery Tour and something wholly new.  Beggars Banquet, on the other hand, is a quieter, country-blues return to basics as the Stones reconfigured themselves largely without founding member Brian Jones, incorporating Nicky Hopkins, the greatest piano-playing side man in rock, as functionally a full member of the band.

The Beatles were winding themselves up to the explosion that would shut down the band, the inevitable end where the creativity among three of the greatest songwriters the world has known would, like a rocket with a MIRV warhead, shoot off in separate directions.  The Stones, with songs like “Street Fighting Man” and “Stray Cat Blues,” prepared for a run as a live band that would continue to this day.

We don’t want to set this up as a competition.  In some ways, it’s no contest.  The Beatles may be the single greatest album of music the surprisingly long-lasting genre known as rock has ever produced.  And yet Beggars Banquet could well be my entry in the next edition of Stranded, that wonderful Greil Marcus-edited book in which rock critters were forced to choose a single album to take with them to a desert island.

In part because we have the Esher Demos, where we can get a sense of how the Beatles returned from the Maharishi’s Rishikesh retreat with competing notebooks filled with songs, in part because we finally, through the liner notes, understand who played what and how the songs came together, the White Album is comprehensible not just as an iconic, massive collection of songs, but as a single piece of art. A deep dive suggests that John Lennon, in the creative turmoil that was leaving Cynthia and falling in love with Yoko, produced his greatest batch of songs; Paul McCartney, long slagged as a control freak, was the multi-instrumentalist genius that helped both Lennon’s and George Harrison’s songs reach their full potential.

What is perhaps best about the new release is the way that Giles Martin has reconfigured the songs from the inside out, and with a mix that undoes, largely, what his father did with the technology and sensibility of his day.  Martin fils reveals for our ears what long has been hidden.  Quick example: on “While My Guitar Gently Weeps,” Eric Clapton’s guitar, which long dominated our understanding of the song, is reduced in the mix, but the piano and acoustic guitar in the middle now shine brighter.  It’s not subtle, it’s amazing. And that’s just one example among many that take less exalted songs like “Birthday” and “Why Don’t We Do It In The Road” and places them on a pedestal, and elevates “Dear Prudence,” likely our favorite Beatles song ever, allowing us to see the whole world in 3:55.

Beggars Banquet wasn’t designed to be a competitor to The Beatles.  Where the Beatles were, less than 18 months later, still building on Sgt. Pepper’s (Magical Mystery Tour having been the rare misstep made understandable by the realization that it came in the immediate wake of Brian Epstein’s death), the Stones were living down their derivative flop, Their Satanic Majesty’s Request.  The Beatles were pushing to see just how far they could go, while the Stones were getting back to basics, playing the blues, woodshedding with acoustic guitars, but also going deep into a new formula of songwriting that, between December ’68 and May ’72, when Exile On Main Street was released, would culminate in their iconic oeuvre.  Both bands had a remarkable work ethic — the Beatles exhausting the studio staff (George Martin went on a holiday to Greece midway through the sessions) as they perfected their album, the Stones setting off on a half-century run of touring, largely off the strength of songs from Beggars Banquet and the next three albums. It’s hard not to admire both bands at some core level, though in part because of the work here, in part because they left us just 18 months later, it’s harder not to think the Beatles were gods, the Stones amazingly talented mortals.

We love Beggars Banquet, and the new mix, released yesterday to mark its 50th birthday on December 6th, is the one we will listen to now, as we still do often.  But this new mix and six-CD release of The Beatles is the greatest musical event of the season, as it was in 1968.

To have two of the greatest albums in the history of the art form come out within a fortnight of one another shows just how volcanic were the cultural forces in play in 1968.  We face, in 2018, an even greater crisis than we did in ’68, but the music being released this year does not seem likely to be so remembered 50 years from now.  We know a smart 21-year old who, when asked if he can appreciate the Beatles, replies instantly, “The Beatles invented music.”  And so they did.  If you’ve any doubt on that score, just listen to the new release of the White Album.

The First Great Rolling Stones Album In More Than Three Decades

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , , , , on December 4, 2016 by johnbuckley100

Quick, play “Look What You Done” on December’s Children (And Everybody’s), and then put on the Stones’ incredible Blue & Lonesome, where instantaneously upon hearing the first song, “Just Your Fool,” it’s clear this is the same band. Oh yeah, that’s Mick, not Brian Jones, sounding like Little Walter on the harp, and sure those quarter-century’s-duration “new guys” have replaced Bill Wyman and Stew, but it’s the same band.  Only better.

How long have we waited to say that a newly recorded Rolling Stones record is worth listening to? The new tracks released from the Exile sessions are the closest we have come since 1980 to be enthusiastic about a new Stones offering.  Thirty-six years ago! Yes, their grudging release of the 1973 Brussels concert, and the fantastic live shows from the ’71 British tour, when the “classic Stones” band was assembled (Mick Taylor, Nicky Hopkins, Bobby Keys, and Jim Price as sidemen) mercifully was included in the super duper release of Sticky Fingers.  But not since Emotional Rescue have we put on a Stones album and played it and played it and played it.  And so you know, we play the Stones constantly.  Just nothing, usually, of a vintage later that Exile.

The original Stones were the very best British blues band.  They had roots in the Chicago blues, Delta blues, as well as R&B and Chuck Berry.  Too many British blues bands, good as they might be, were just vehicles for a lead guitarist and a singer, from John Mayall to the Yardbirds to the Jeff Beck Group, or like a number of the San Francisco bands, just an excuse for high-powered noodling over a 12-bar frame.  Sure, Cream was something different, a jazz-rock fusion band contained within blues and pop music.  But while the Beatles were influenced by R&B, they really never played the blues.  The Stones, though, they had swing, Charlie Watts being a superb blues drummer, and Brian Jones was in his element playing Elmore James. They actually recorded at 2121 Michigan Avenue, they hung out at Chess Records, and took on tour with them the black bluesman they so loved.

Blue & Lonesome is one of the very finest white blues band albums ever — up there with The J Geils Band and John Hammond’s 1971 masterpiece, Source Point.  The reason we love it so is because of who the Stones sound like here, aside from themselves, of course. Listen to I Gotta Go and then a song from any of Little Walter’s albums, and you’ll hear the sound of shuffle drumming (Charlie channelling the late Fred Below) and the interplay of the guitars sounds like Robert “Junior” Lockwood and Luther Tucker.  “Commit A Crime” could be an outtake from 1971’s  The London Howlin’ Wolf Sessions (on which Charlie played drums.)  Going for a sound that invokes Walter Jacob’s and Chester Burnett’s bands (with the great Hubert Sumlin on guitar) is bliss itself.

Have to say this too.  This is Mick’s album.  He carries it with amazing musicianship on harp, and his septuagenarian voice is both strong and aged like a true bluesman.  Years ago, when Keith said the Stones could play on and on into old age like their blues idols, we really wished it were true.  But every exposure we have had to the Stones playing their old songs confirms the rightness of our adage, “I love the Stones so much, I can’t bear to listen to ’em live,” which I coined in 1989 and have militantly stuck to since.  If the Stones went out on the road to play these songs, I’d camp out to buy tickets.

Thoughts On “Lolita” And “Stray Cat Blues”

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , , , , , , on July 6, 2015 by johnbuckley100

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The image above matches precisely the postcard that Vladimir Nabokov sent Edmund Wilson in the summer of 1949.  Well, maybe the postcard photographer was fifty feet below where we stood, and the aspens — not a willow — stood on the right side.  But it is close.

We know this because we are midway through the excellent Nabokov In America by Robert Roper, which includes an image of the postcard while covering the writer and lepidopterist’s most productive years.  These were years in which Nabokov — Russian aristocrat and exile, genius in both Russian and English — tramped across the Mountain West, butterfly net in hand, while also writing Speak Memory, Pnin, and of course, Lolita.

We should note that in recent weeks we’ve also been listening to the amazing live recordings included in the super duper reissue of Sticky Fingers, and wouldn’t you know it, one of the best performances from both of the spring 1971 sets the Rolling Stones played at the University of Leeds, as well as that tour’s finale at the Roundhouse in London, is “Stray Cat Blues.”

Which prompts this thought: what are we to make, in 2015, of both Lolita and “Stray Cat Blues,” both incredibly appealing works of art, both centered on child rape?

We’ve read much if not all of the Nabokov oeuvre, but as great as both Pale Fire and Speak, Memory are, the standout work by the 20th Century giant is, of course, Lolita — a story about an adult who knowingly manipulates his way into being the sole caregiver of a 14-year old girl, so they can have sex three times a day while traveling the American West.  The novel is at once hilarious and appalling.  Our sense of its duality has always been there — it has always been both hilarious and appalling, and hilarious because it is appalling, appalling because it is hilarious.  But as a college student reading it, we didn’t struggle with it in quite the same was as we do now… now that we are older than Humbert Humbert, older than Nabokov when he wrote it.  Now  that we are in a position truly to think about what it means that this was Nabokov’s best seller, his breakthrough, coming at the front end of the Sexual Revolution, published before 1963, which Philip Larkin has decreed is the year that sex began.

For many, many years, we have considered “Stray Cat Blues” to be the standout performance on Get Yer Ya-Yas Out, the Stones’ live album nonpareil from their ’69 tour, and the song is, at worst, the third-best one on Beggars Banquet, that album we would take to a desert isle.  On the studio album, Jagger says he can see the young groupie is “just 15 years old,” which is bad enough, but by the ’69 tour he’d revised her age downward to 13, where it remained for the ’71 tour of the UK.  (The Stones dropped it for the ’72 tour, and as far as we know, it stayed dropped for the next three decades at least.  Though they have returned to it, from time to time.  One wonder what kind of life the girl, 13 when she would have slept with the Rock Star, has had in the nearly 50 years since…)

And here we are, in 2015, and pedophilia — child rape — isn’t an amusing topic, if ever it was.  Martin Amis famously rejected Nabokov’s focus on nymphets — N’s word for the pre-pubescent girls to which Humbert Humbert, whom we know is not a stand-in for the author — in something like six of 19 books, not on moral grounds, but aesthetics.  There were too many of them, these pubescent girls so much on Nabokov’s mind.  And yet, even if there were one, isn’t that too many?  Not for reasons of aesthetics: let us be clear, we are talking about morality.

Over the years, we’ve read about Lolita as a metaphor for Nabokov, the cultured European, discovering his love for the young, quivering America he sailed to on literally the last boat out of France before the arrival of the Nazis.  (In a way, similar to Roman Polanski, are we supposed to excuse Nabokov his child lust because he was a victim, first of Lenin, then of Hitler?)

But we can’t.  We adore Lolita, one of the great novels of the 20th Century, and a miles better American road novel than On The Road.  We can listen to Mick Taylor playing lead on “Stray Cat Blues” six days per week.  Martin Amis also once famously defended Philip Larkin against the charge of his sexism and cultural obtuseness by reminding readers of the epoch in which Larkin wrote his poetry, comparing the censoriousness against him as equivalent to condemning pre-Renaissance painters for not having yet discovered perspective.  But we don’t actually buy this defense here.  Lolita is hilarious, yes, but it is a horrific story, and we do judge it.  And the same goes for “Stray Cat Blues.”

And yet we read the one, listen to the other, all the while understanding how glad we are that as a culture we have, finally, discovered perspective.  Today, few are the artists who will find an audience writing or singing so casually of molestation.

We Were Right That Richard Hell Wrote The Best Essay On The Velvet Underground, But…

Posted in Music with tags , , , , , on April 1, 2014 by johnbuckley100

The evolutionary trend by which rock critics become rock’n’roll musicians seems more typical than a rock star becoming a critic, but it’s not like the latter is a crime against nature or anything.  After all, said rock musician probably gravitated toward his calling out of a deep love for music, and certainly we know bands going all the way back to the Beatles and Stones began to bash around on guitars out of the sheer cussed joy of wanting to emulate their idols.  So let’s just take as a given that rock’n’rollers have great knowledge about the music that lit their particular match.  Nonetheless, it’s unusual for a musician to become a rock critic, and highly unusual for one to become anywhere near as erudite as Richard Hell is.

Last week, we wrote with admiration that Richard Hell’s piece on the Velvet Underground in New York Magazine was the best essay ever written about that band.  We were right and wrong.  Hell did write the best essay ever on the Velvets.  The thing is, it was a different essay, published in 2008 in a book called Rock And Roll Cage Match, edited by Sean Manning, in which Hell had the Velvets post up against the Stones, out of which he called a winner.

We’d never seen the book or read the essay ’til Richard pointed it out to us in the series of emails in which he let us know that the new Velvets essay was, in fact, online.  He sent us the earlier essay, and we also went out and found the book.  And we have to say, his piece on the Velvet Underground vs. the Rolling Stones is one of the best essays about rock’n’roll we’ve ever read.   We won’t go so far as to mimic the book and set up a fantasy cage match battle between Hell and Lester Bangs, or John Mendelsohn, or Byron Coley, or Richard Meltzer, or even Robert Palmer.  Let’s just say that posting Hell up against any of our fave rock critters, he’s indomitable.

The Velvet Underground are not our all-time favorite band, but they sit cross-legged near the settee in the middle of our pantheon, and let us give ourselves credit where it’s due, they have been so since we were a mere boarding-school vinyl-head, and we glommed onto Loaded upon its release.  Yes, the last of their albums released while the band was extant, even if the worst of their four core albums (VU, which came out in ’85, had enough good stuff on it that at the time we’d never before heard that it deserves to be considered as one of their original records.)

But much as we have loved the Velvet Underground for more than 40 years, if we had to testify to who our favorite band ever was, it would be the Rolling Stones.  Yes, we’ll admit it, even though  if you look at the Tulip Frenzy “About” section, we make no mention of the Stones.  That’s because, from the moment that Ron Wood replaced Mick Taylor, from the time Nicky Hopkins no longer got their phone calls, and Bobby Keys and Jim Price were no longer paired as the horn section, it has been all downhill.  But no band has ever had that command of our attention, that claim on our affection, as the Stones did in the early ’70s.  We were out-of-our-heads excited in ’79 to see the Clash; it doesn’t begin to compare to how excited we were to see the Stones play in Boston Garden, and then Madison Square Garden, in 1972.

So Hell writes an essay about both bands together, or shall we say, about the Velvets and Stones in opposition, and it is brilliant.  He sets up the hugely successful Stones versus the commercially unsuccessful Velvets in a way that is incredibly insightful and amusing.  And then he does a position comparison like it’s the first game of the World Series and you have to give one team or the other the edge at First Base.  We’re not going to quote it here.  We’re going to try sending you to the book, so you can buy it.  But let us just say that Hell gives the best description ever of what one wants from a front man in a rock’n’roll band, defines the essence of the Rolling Stones — which of course we already knew was Keith, but also — by a single word: soul.  He gets a few things wrong, in our opinion — we are higher on Beggars Banquet than he is.  He gets so much else so right.

Okay, okay, we have to quote, listen to this insight on Lou Reed’s songwriting: “Reed’s lyrics probably do come the closest to poetry of any in rock and roll.  Dylan is his only competition.  Dylan rules, but I’d venture that the lyrics on The Velvet Underground are the best as a suite, as an album set, of any in rock and roll history.”

So true!  If we were a teenage girl reading a favorite novelist, we might even underline that six times and put an exclamation point in the margins.  As it is, we just have to nod and agree.  As we do, interestingly enough, with his ultimate conclusion.  (You already know from what he wrote in New York that he would put the Velvets on the podium just above the Stones.  In our rock’n’roll dotage, we are now inclined to agree.)

Go buy the book.  Better yet, go buy his books, especially I Dreamed I Was A Very Clean Tramp.  We’ve long known the man can write.  His essay on the Velvets vs. the Stones is even better than his recent essay on the VU, and one of those pieces of rock critterdom that is as breathtakingly thrilling as even Richard Hell and the Voidoids playing “Time.”

 

 

Sam Cutler’s Nuanced View Of Altamont

Posted in Music with tags , , , , on June 19, 2010 by johnbuckley100

Everything appears to be ready, are you ready? Thus are Sam Cutler’s introductory words from the Stones’ ’69 tour memorialized on Get Yer Ya-Yas Out, introducing, in his lifted superlative, “The Greatest Rock’n’Roll Band In The World.”

Now, more than 40 years on, Cutler has written a superb autobiography entitled “You Can’t Always Get What You Want,” the best parts of which center around his stint as tour manager for the Stones on their epochal ’69 tour.  Less than a year ago, we had Ethan Russell’s great book of photos from the tour, Let It Bleed, along with written accompaniment, but Cutler’s book is a well-told, up-close look at interactions the Stones had along the way, the most historically important element being his telling the tale of what happened at Altamont in a nuanced manner that not only names names, but gives a different interpretation of events.

Cutler imparts like a slow-motion car wreck the events that led to Meredith Hunter’s death at the hands of Hells Angels.  The San Francisco bands and forces that encouraged the Stones to do a free concert in the Bay Area, but were organizationally too diffuse to think through the implications of a December outdoors concert.  The sleazy moves of the mysterious hood John Jaymes who attached himself to the Stones and with no actual authority, claimed the right to commit to the Altamont site, which proved to be so inappropriate.  The buckets of bad acid that were passed through the crowd, leading to a cacophony of bad trips.  The way the San Francisco bands who’d egged the Stones on into throwing the concert all disappeared when it hit the fan.

He describes how the chief instigators of violence against the crowd — the pool cue thugs, the puffed out sadists — were for the most part either Angels in training, on probationary status, or hick Angels from, like, San Jose, not the main branch in San Francisco lined up, mostly by Rock Scully of the Dead, to provide stage security.  Now, this is a little like blaming the Cambodian Holocaust not on Pol Pot but on the notion that the Khmer Rouge were from the country and just didn’t like those effete Phnom Penh residents.  But throughout the book, there’s the ring of truth, and Cutler is a straightforward, organized writer.  You get the feeling that he writes the way he probably ran the tour: no BS, just a workmanlike effort to get the job done.

His story of abandonment by the Stones within literal hours of their return to San Francisco from the concert, their leaving him to hold the bag, his sense of duty and honor infusing a possibly suicidal effort to straighten things out with the Angels afterward, is absolutely fascinating.  Makes it harder to see Mick’s remorseful face in Gimme Shelter watching the death of Hunter — for very quickly, Mick was out of the country, in his safe European home.  The Angels immediately  wanted to get their hands on the Maysle Brothers’ film to see what evidence of murder might be pinned on which Angel.  It’s a great read, and we’re glad that Cutler took the opportunity to write it.

“Exile” Reissue On Day Two: Listening To The Stones Peak

Posted in Music with tags , , , , on May 20, 2010 by johnbuckley100

Some thoughts, after having lived with the deluxe set (including the DVD and the booklet):

  1. Anthony DeCurtis has put together an elliptical, very well crafted set of notes on the creation of Exile On Main Street.  One point Jagger makes, and which Anthony wisely develops, is that by having Nicky Hopkins, Bobby Keys, and Jim Price on premises, rather than calling in a piano player or charting horns as needed, their very proximity insured their organic use.  With all the mythology around Nellcote, with Keith talking about “living above the factory,” perhaps the biggest impact on the music from that working arrangement is that the Stones’ optimized sound, which sprang to life in that basement, came from something so simple as the availability not just of heroin and hangers on, but killer instrumentalists who could add such a great dimension to the sound.
  2. Now that the Stones have released excerpts from Ladies and Gentlemen, The Rolling Stones” — on the DVD, we have “Happy” and “All Down The Line” — what, exactly, is the reason this movie can’t now find its way into an HD DVD release?
  3. The credits, both on the original and on the deluxe re-release, don’t seem to tell the whole story.  David Gates’ Rolling Stone piece states that Jimmy Miller needed to play drums on a key passage of “Tumbling Dice” — no credit here.  Aren’t those steel drums at the end of the original “Loving Cup”?  No credit, if that’s the case… There are more mysteries.
  4. The narrative about Exile has pretty much centered around Keith.  It was his house, the riffs the songs are wrapped around have his DNA, and his is the larger-than-life eminence over all.  And yet it must be said, Jagger never sang better than on this album.  If you look at the credits, the photos, Jagger is everywhere.  Sure, maybe he was tending to the pregnant Bianca in Paris some of the time, and yes, while Keith nodded out, the Stones could not really come out to play.  But Jagger’s impact on this record is extraordinary and every bit the counterpart to his Glimmer Twin.  Never really thought about that til now, but listening to the gloriously remastered CD several times in succession, the standout presence is Mick.
  5. Has there ever been an album where the drums sounded better?  Think of Charlie’s entrance on just these songs: “Rocks Off,” “Tumbling Dice,” and “Loving Cup.”  Kickin’ the stall all night.  In the booklet, he says that the basement created a great sound for the drums.
  6. The combination of Nicky Hopkins and Mick Taylor — both incredibly lyrical musicians, virtuosi, clearly gentler souls than some of the rougher blokes around, but musically no pushovers — are the ingredients that make the confection work.  There have been thousands of words written about the Stones’ Golden Age centering on portentous world events, the death of the ’60s, revolution in the air, etc.  Methinks it can be traced to two elements. Nicky and Mick.
  7. Although live, the Stones still had the three great tours ahead of them (’72 America, ’73 Hawaii, Australia, Nicaraguan Earthquake benefit, ’73 Europe tour with Billy Preston, not Nicky), there is a late August feel to Exile. The leaves are just about to turn, but damn, the sunsets are beautiful, the light clear, the days crisp and clear. By the time Andy Johns mixed the tapes in Sunset Studio, the Stones had nowhere to go but down.  There were some good moments — a song or three on Goats Head Soup, a brief rebirth with Some Girls and Emotional Rescue. But the saddest thing about listening to Exile On Main Street is the knowledge that when the Stones came up out of the Nellcote basement, The Greatest Rock’n’Roll Band In The World had peaked.

With Two Weeks To Go Until The “Exile On Main Street” Re-Release

Posted in Music, Uncategorized with tags , , on May 5, 2010 by johnbuckley100

We have been listening to Stones bootlegs.  To the many, many sets we have collected of shows between 1971 and 1973, spanning the era of the Exile band — the Stones with Bobby Keys and Jim Price, and the magnificent Nicky Hopkins.  So let’s call it the bootleg span from Get Your Leeds Lungs Out — British tour, pre-release of “Bitch” and “Brown Sugar” — to Happy Birthday, Nicky — the Perth sets from the 1973 tour just before Billy Preston (unfortunately) replaced Nicky for that year’s European tour.  And of course the best recording qua recording is the Leeds set from ’71, and we just realized why.

You know how when the Franco government refused to let “Sister Morphine” come out on Sticky Fingers, and rather than have it be a blank four minutes of vinyl they put on that version of Let It Rock”?  Well, that song came from the Leeds show.  How do I know?  Because it’s on the Leeds bootleg… from ’71.  It was an official recording!

The set isn’t perfect.  They haven’t yet figured out how to incorporate the horns on certain songs (“Street Fighting Man” is a botch.)  But it is an official recording, from the Rolling Stones sound truck.  And for that reason alone, it’s magnificent.  Go track it down.

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