I won’t be hurt if you don’t bother reading this.
Among the handful of truly great books about popular music sits a collection of writing by Nick Kent, once the top of the food chain in British music journalism and a writer of rare talent. There are few to match him; Stanley Booth, maybe Lester Bangs, though he was always a little too pumped for my liking. Nick Kent wrote beautifully and what’s more he didn’t make music just about the music, he made it about the musicians and the myth and what the whole experience of music can feel like. The collection is called ‘The Dark Stuff’ and it is almost perfect from start to finish, and where it is not perfect it is not on account of Kent’s writing but simply because his subject matter wasn’t up to scratch: you’d need a miracle to make any article about Morrissey appealing to me.
Nick Kent liked to follow his subjects around, get to know them a little and this sometimes paid off handsomely. Case in point his flawless article – ‘Twilight In Babylon; The Rolling Stones after the Sixties’. It is by turns warm, damning, funny and just a bit scary and it is written with such brio and casual flare that I could read it pretty much anytime, anywhere. For me it is (perhaps along with his article – ‘Brian Jones: Tortured Narcissus’ and another on Brian Wilson and The Beach Boys) the pinnacle of short form music journalism. Of course there’s no point trying to go there in competition but since we’re (more accurately, I’m) still on a vinyl joyride I thought I’d take a look at another box of tricks: The Rolling Stones Studio Collection 1971 – 2016 (almost as beautiful as that George Harrison box, almost). Kent would say that they weren’t up to much after 1972 and even by then the rot was starting to set in; when you’re supposed to be the best in the business it’s easy to let things slide. I would disagree. Kind of.
Broadly speaking big, successful bands can do one of three things – 1. A rare few can continue producing both good music and touring throughout, but steadily increase the gaps between these events in order to preserve their musical integrity and keep the fans wanting more – eg- Radiohead (I’d like to add U2 but I can’t bring myself to). 2. They can fold up entirely and drift apart, content at least that they have a solid back catalogue and a durable legacy and fan base (they may even be comfortable reforming for various reasons) -eg- Led Zeppelin, Steely Dan, Blur. 3. They will make intermittent studio music of decreasing value and yet rake in untold millions based on a sturdy yet flashy stage show; they won’t care about their reputation that much because they made that decades ago and since they’re still going and the money’s still gushing through the door they may as well just keep doing it, after all what the hell else are they going to do? Take up plumbing? Eg- The Rolling Stones, AC/DC (U2 kind of apply better here).
That’s a rough guide at least, and also conclusive proof that I’m no Nick Kent. Anyway if you read this regularly you’ll know by now that The Stones started the 70’s in rude health with two all killer, no filler albums and a highly successful if also very debauched tour of the US and Europe. And then they started to get lazy. They were always capable of being sloppy but they could also rely on being dangerous too and when they were dangerous they were tight and ruthless and it was as if their blood had turned into music and their heartbeats into the purest form of rhythm possible. If you looked beyond Jagger and their back up gang of studio specialists you were left with four men who were capable of locking into a groove so tight that it’s a miracle they didn’t suffocate. And yes, those session men helped to broaden the sound but you needed the sound to be great to start with. They didn’t need the help of some funky little band: they were, as Jagger himself said “their own funky little band”, and also the greatest in the world when they could be bothered.
1973’s ‘Goats Head Soup’ is a great case in point. A dark, drug fuelled piece of work with some terrific music splashed around. ‘100 Years Ago’ changes gear beautifully and involves some serious guitar slinging and clavinet squawk. Keith Richards’ centrepiece ‘Coming Down Again’ adds some murky corners while ‘Winter’ and ‘Hide Your Love’ are both slow creepers but worth the wait. There is also ‘Angie’, ‘Doo Doo Doo Doo Doo (Heartbreaker)’ and ‘Silver Train’, the last of which is worth it alone for the bass track and the super camp promotion video they recorded for it. Best of all is the highly sleazy, Chuck Berry with a hard-on groove of ‘Star Star’. Taylor may take the lead (and a typically fluid solo) but buried lower down is Richards’ rhythm track which builds slowly in energy until by the end it’s all just a blur of sex and decadence and, most importantly of all, great music. The album was recorded in Jamaica, which may account for it sounding a bit foggy in places. As an LP it is very nicely packaged with a daft photo of the titular soup and a rear cover image by David Bailey of Keith looking, as he said, “charred”.
Onto the next one, which marked the last gasp of the Taylor years and thus the finest line up they would ever have. ‘It’s Only Rock And Roll’ says a lot as a title and that is just about where they were up to. From this point onward you could expect half a great album and half a mediocre one, perhaps even with a stinker chucked in. For me the title track is the most over celebrated song in The Stones cannon. It is slouchy and crass and doesn’t end up anywhere that you’d like it to; even the video of the band twatting around in a foam filled tent, dressed as sailors (read that again, watch it and then tell me how you’d describe it) gives a clear indication that they weren’t overly interested in the music. Also, Richards looks like he’s just been warmed up from a morgue and has borrowed his teeth from a tramp. Look past that however and you can find joy. Taylor’s playing is stunning throughout, as if he knew he was going and wanted to leave a final mark. Richards serves up a great, fat, almost obscene riff on the daft but likeable cod reggae of ‘Luxury’ and the band serve up a frills free masterclass in chunky rhythm on ‘Dance Little Sister’, which I believe Stephen King is also very fond of. The album finishes with ‘Fingerprint File’ and the band going off piste into full on 70’s murky, broad brimmed hatted funk. Taylor should have stayed on, I wish he had, but he didn’t.
Funk and reggae were to play a part in ‘Black And Blue’ too, and that shouldn’t put you off. The Stones went to record in Munich (not exactly the world capital of funk and reggae, I know) and test out new guitar players to replace Taylor. If I had had to choose I would have taken Wayne Perkins for his solo on ‘Hand Of Fate’ alone, but by then everybody knew Ronnie Wood would get the job. I’ve always had mixed feelings about Wood. I’m sure he was good for the band in a gang sense but there is no way you can tell me their music improved in the long run once he was on board. The best way to absorb the album is just to play it and not expect a lot of it to sound much like The Stones. But this dabbling with genres and feels does pay off overall (though ‘Fool To Cry’ is shit and I don’t know what they were thinking) and at least they sign off with ‘Crazy Mama’ which fizzles with energy and intertwining six string magic and has that certain Stones strut that no-one else has ever been able to replicate. It was to get even better. And then get worse. And then not strictly really get better again.
Note of interest (moot) – ‘Black And Blue’ came out in 1976, the very same year I first appeared to save the universe. The front cover of the album is particularly in-your-face and Wifey decided to use the gift of photo fiddling to recreate it with the help of two particularly good friends of mine. This image was presented as my 40th birthday card and it pleased me very much, even though it took me quite some time to get the reference. Flawed it may be but I can think of a lot worse albums to represent 1976. Should you ever visit then I still have the card – it is used to scare away children, burglars and other women.
‘Some Girls’ is the band temporarily re-energised, partly thanks to Wood but also because Keith Richards was looking at a long stretch in jail for liking drugs too much and so needed to throw himself into a project. I suppose he could have painted the back of the house or cleared the gutters, but cutting an album sort of made more sense. It’s not perfect, it’s not even ‘Goats Head Soup’ but ‘Some Girls’ is pretty damn good. ‘Miss You’ is yours to like or not, but don’t tell me you don’t know what it sounds like. The rest of Side 1 is all very well but the real magic happens when you flip it over. ‘Far Away Eyes’ is a glorious country spoof, ‘Respectable’ is not far off a punk energy but a touch classier, ‘Before They Make Me Run’ is Richards’ fantastic, rasping stamp of independence and then we have ‘Beast Of Burden’ which is just delicious; as much a delicious as ‘Fool To Cry’ was shit.
If anything the next big single ‘Emotional Rescue’ was a step down from ‘Fool To Cry’; one where Jagger sounds like a eunuch who has tried to sew his balls back on but has somehow made things even worse. The album of the same name is equally flaccid in parts though there are some throwaway perks to be had with ‘She’s So Cold’, ‘Indian Girl’, the semi successful effort at some sort of hip, street shuffle ‘Dance’, ‘Down In The Hole’ and Keith’s craggy, affecting finale reflecting on the end of his truly dysfunctional relationship with Anita Pallenberg: ‘All About You’. But none of these were truly great and certainly nowhere near their world class best. The next album ‘Tattoo You’ was their last big push before they became proper anachronisms. ‘Start Me Up’ and ‘Slave’ are both perfectly chunky, riff-hunky monkeys, ‘Slave’ is actually rather good in an unexpected way and ‘Waiting On A Friend’ is genuinely touching, but beyond those it’s business as usual if if you accept that business has now become a cash and carry on the A12 near Romford.
The 80’s were cruel to big bands like the Stones. Where once they had set the trend they now tried to follow it and ended up looking about as comfortable as your dad would dressed as a pimp. This of course only works on the assumption that your dad is not a pimp, and if he is well, er, good for him. I love this band but I don’t think I’ve ever managed to get all the way through ‘Undercover’ in one go. It stinks like a fisherman’s glove and has an appalling front cover than could only have been thought of as artistic in 1983; there is not one song I would recommend in good faith. Similarly 1986’s ‘Dirty Work’ has a cover photo that only a blind person or someone with struggling with the concept of taste would find attractive, but at least there are a couple of decent stabs at music, notably the title track (which features some of the only guitar interplay from this era that sounds relatively enthusiastic) and ‘One Hit (To The Body)’ which has a bit of grit to it, even though the accompanying video was laughable.
And laughable is the only word to describe their contributions to Live Aid. Such was the bad blood between them that Jagger chose to flap about with Tina Turner while Richards and Wood teamed up with Bob Dylan for a threesome so unintentionally hilarious and un-sexy it may as well have been Vanessa Feltz and The Chuckle Brothers. Dylan was being typically awkward and as they approached the stage suggested they try ‘The Ballad Of Hollis Brown’, to which Wood (no doubt fucked out of his tree on some chemical or other) responded with “isn’t that a cough mixture”. Even gods get their trousers pulled down in public once in a while. They managed to get back together in 1989 for the ok-ish ‘Steel Wheels’ but by then they weren’t so much bothered with albums but instead now focused on the mammoth, world conquering tours for which they are best known to the general public. Their last four albums (‘Voodoo Lounge’, ‘Bridges To Babylon’, ‘A Bigger Bang’ and ‘Blue And Lonesome’) all have their moments, occasionally more than one, but if you don’t own any Stones albums then they really aren’t the place to start.
I had just finished my first year at university and was spending the summer desperately trying to make a bit of money. After two pitiful weeks trying and failing (a total failure but also therefore a moral triumph) to sell double glazing to angry pensioners over the phone, I signed up at an agency and was offered a night working at the old Wembley Stadium as it hosted The Rolling Stones on their Voodoo Lounge Tour. I ended up behind a burger and drinks bar and my most vivid memory from that was untwisting endless caps off plastic bottles of Carlsberg, for which my reward was a few quid and an absolutely enormous blister on my right hand. The bar closed an hour before the end and we were shushed out while they counted up. Health and safety was still non existent and so we could sit on the steps without being harassed by some jobsworth steward and watch the show finish off, and that was when I got the bug. The tunes that I didn’t realise I knew already and the sheer energy of the audience, and of course the spark of a band who had done this hundreds of times before and were still enjoying it, set me on a path that led right up to this post. I spent the rest of the summer investing my earnings from other jobs (drug mule, rent boy, bare knuckle gypsy pugilist etc) into the start of my Stones collection. I have never regretted one moment; in for a penny, in for a pound (in truth quite a few pounds) as they say. This isn’t meant to make you like them, it’s really just a love story and like proper love that means taking a bit of rough with the smooth.
G B Hewitt. 16.04.2020