Trying To Get To You

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

The 60 Greatest Rolling Stones Songs Of All Time (#40-#31)

Round three, with a disclaimer to start:

I would LOVE to post streaming links to the original versions of these songs, or mp3's. But that just ain't possible right now, so if you're checking out some of these songs for the first time, make sure to find the original versions on the albums I've noted they're from.

And with that said, we continue.

40. “Mercy Mercy” (1965, from O
ut Of Our Heads)

In their earliest incarnation as an R&B cover band, the Stones didn’t always improve on the original they were covering. Usually, they toughened up the sound, making it faster and leaner.
With Don Covay's "Mercy Mercy," they not only toughened the song up, they took it away from him. The original is pretty standard R&B fare; a pleading, lilting number begging the singer's love interest to stay. It's a good soul song, but far from special.

The Stones made it special. Keith's intro line supplies an ominousness that is nowhere to be found on the original, and Bill and Charlie outrock and outgroove Covay's rhythm section. But Jagger is the star here; you can hear the first hints of him finding his own style as a vocalist; leonine, with a naughty edge - the Midnight Rambler, junior version. "Mercy Mercy" is the sound of the band growing beyond their source material.

39. "Jigsaw Puzzle" (1968, from Beggars Banquet)

If you grew up on late 70's/early 80's AOR radio as I did, it was easy to miss the true greatness of the Stones. Perhaps there were about 15-20 songs in rotation on Classic Rock radio, mainly from Hot Rocks, along with a handful of late 70's and early 80's hits. I'm embarrassed to say that there was a time I thought the band was overrated.

But that's because radio never played songs like "Jigsaw Puzzle," one of those criminally lesser known treasures from the band's creative peak, 1968-1972. It's got everything - a sinewy and sensual Charlie groove; a propulsive and nasty bass line from Bill; a driving acoustic guitar track from Keith; ferocious slide playing from Brian that is both a peak and a last gasp; and vocals from Mick that are so slyly and smartly phrased it's as though he brings discipline to decadence. Which, of course, is exactly what Mick Jagger does.

38. "Winter" (1973, from Goat's Head Soup)

By 1973, the Stones were exhausted, and they sounded like it. Following the masterpiece Exile On Main Street with the lackluster Goat's Head Soup, you could hear the bill come in on the years of continual work, play and abuse. But on this track, unlike many of the other songs on Goat's, Jagger didn't pretend that he was anything but exhausted, and that's what “Winter” great.

37. "No Expectations" (1968, from Beggars Banquet)

I fell in love for the first time when I was 20. She was older than me, sexy as hell, and far more experienced than me. (I wasn’t a virgin, but I might as well have been.) On our first date, we ended up going back to her place, and we put on my cassette of Beggars Banquet on one side and Let It Bleed on the other and made out continuously, long enough to listen to both albums twice, all the way through. It was magical. For me, at least.

The second time “No Expectations” played, I got distracted, and started thinking about Brian Jones, while this woman’s tongue was in my mouth. “I wonder what it would have been like if Brian had stayed in the band,” I asked myself. “If he had stayed, there would have been no Mick Taylor,” I countered, “and then there’s no Sticky Fingers, no Exile.” As I was having this ridiculous conversation with myself, one of Jones’ great slide licks from the song emerged, and I got my head back to the task at hand, moving slowly but surely from the world of innocence to the world of experience.

36. “It’s All Over Now” (single release 1964, from Big Hits (High Tide and Green Grass) released 1966)

Another good R&B song that they Stones completely stole into something sublime. The original was done by the Valentinos, an R&B outfit featuring Bobby Womack, who would go onto greater glory. The power chord that Keith nails in the chorus is one of the great moments in the history of rhythm guitar. Their first number one hit in England.

35. “Hand Of Fate” (1976, from Black And Blue)

Black and Blue isn’t a bad album, but it presages later albums like Dirty Work, Steel Wheels and Voodoo Lounge in how inconsequential it feels.
But there's nothing inconsequential about "Hand Of Fate," with has just enough impending doom to make it very, very interesting.

34. “Live With Me” (1969, from Let It Bleed)

“I got nasty habits,” Mick declares as I’m closing up the bar where I’ve been DJ’ing all night. I’m there hanging out and indulging myself with the drop-dead-fucking-gorgeous bartender, who doles out lines with every drink she pours us. Johnnie Black on the rocks for me, Southern Comfort straight for her. The sun is coming up, and I have to be at work in about three hours.

Despite the stimuli, I’ve begun to fade, but "Live With Me" immediately gives me a jolt, and I revive, with a big shit-eating grin plastered on my face. I’ve gotten this DJ gig by bonding with the bartender over the Stones, so while it plays, we both light up and sing to each other. I think about how silky the bass is, and I kvell over Keith’s sublime harmony vocals. I also think about what I can do to get this amazing woman into bed, but I don’t make a move on her. I get that I’m so not Mick – he would have gone home with her - but when I kiss her hand and say goodnight (at 8am), I do it gallantly, and I know that Keith would approve.

33. “Miss You” (1978, from Some Girls)

In retrospect, it’s both difficult and easy to understand what all the hubbub was about disco. Difficult, because it’s only a four on the floor beat. Easy, because with its black and gay influence, and its explosive popularity, it was a significant threat to rock’s unquestioned popular dominance. Bruce Springsteen once described the anti-disco backlash as “veiled racism,” and he was right, except that he could have added homophobia as well.

The Stones one contribution to the disco era is also one of their great singles, their comeback after their desultory mid-70’s period, and a statement that they still mattered. It’s also New York in the 70’s; black, white, and Puerto Rican, on roller skates and flatbed trucks, hustling through Central Park, perhaps not getting what it wants, but definitely getting what it needs.

32. “Sway” (1971, from Sticky Fingers)

Mick counts off and the band sort of falls into it, reminding me of what the engineer Andy Johns once said about the Stones, something to the effect of hearing them rehearse hour after hour and them being awful. Then suddenly, it all comes together and they’re the Rolling Stones. “Sway” is murky and ramshackle – and devastating. Jagger’s vocals are white hot and committed – there’s none of the lazy phrasing he would take on later. Charlie’s fills hit harder than almost anything he’s ever played, and Mick Taylor plays a closing solo that the band should be paying him royalties on.

31. “Under My Thumb” (1966, from Aftermath)

The opposite of love isn’t hate – it’s indifference. And even then, the Stones knew that the only way to really gain control is by being indifferent to the object of one's desire. Paradoxical, but when aren't the Stones paradoxical? Power is a central theme of love in the Stones' music, and no one has ever explored power in relationships like they have. Of course, the way Jagger comes off, it seems as though he's the always the one in control, but given how in control he needs to be, you might have to wonder if he's hiding something

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

The 60 Greatest Rolling Stones Songs Of All Time (#50-#41)

And round two begins...

50. “Not Fade Away” (1964, from
England's Newest Hitmakers)

Jovan Mrvos writes:

It’s April 1964 and the location is Chicago, Illinois. I’m 15 years old and a sophomore at a large all boys high school. I’m working at a fancy grocery store on the North side. Life is hell. My parents are all up inside of me. I’m stone cold girl crazy going to school with 5000 other Neanderthals. I’m drinking Budweiser and Canadian Club but looking for reefer whenever I can. I’m confused and starting to get early stages of being dazed.

Top Forty radio rules the fetid air waves and WLS is the king with their Silver Dollar Survey and at number 26 (up from 33) after four weeks are England’s newest hit makers, (ha!) with their rambunctious version of Buddy Holly’s “Not Fade Away.” And it has got me hooked lined and sinkered. I was just a tad bit too young for the original (more my older brother’s thing) but was set up perfectly for this.

Part of my (pre-New York Dolls) “personality crisis” was that I never quite fit in anywhere in my world at the time. My ‘hood was rock solid working class borderline “greaser” culture-racist at heart and intolerant at soul but I loved the gritty bottom of blues based music that was starting to leak out of the UK. Sure, I loved The Beatles harmonies, but it was their Chuck Berry shit that made me nuts and when the Stones popped, I had my identity. I was no mod; I was a rocker…not some amped up Teddy Boy but a long haired misfit just trying to get laid or loved, whichever came first.

Back to “Treasure Island” (the grocery store that I was working in and stealing from). When the store would close at night- we would have to mop the floors and re-stock and would change the station from wall-to-wall MUZAK to 89AM and run goods out the back door to pick up on the way home. It was there that I first heard the sounds that simply would change me forever…”I’m gonna tell ya how it’s gonna be…you’re gonna give your love to me…I’m gonna love you night and day… well love is real and not fade away…” Crazy ass harmonica and that gone daddy gone Bo Diddley beat…Game Over.

Thus began a lifelong relationship with the Stones, one that like any other has had its ups and downs, but has sustained for 40+ years. And, as a side bar, came to full fruition when in 1989 I was The Stones A&R person at Columbia for their Steel Wheels LP and did about a dozen dates with them on the tour. Highlight (among many) was being up at Quad Studios with Michael Brauer remixing the first single ("Mixed Emotions") when Mick came up with a leggy Italian by the name of Carla Bruni but, that, my friends, is a story for another day.

“Your love for me has got to be real
For you to know just how I feel
Love is real and not fade away
Well love is real and not fade away”

49. “Bitch” (1971, from Sticky Fingers)

I’ve always relished how unsentimental the Stones can be about love, and on this track, they depict love as both an agent of disorientation and the ultimate distraction. A bitch, indeed. The riff is like a ’65 black GTO with the pedal floored, driving at 100 mph at night down a dark two-lane road, and between the guitars and the horns, it’s a perfect three minute ride. Only Mick Jagger could write and sing a bad metal/S&M lyric like, “When you call my name/I salivate like a Pavlov dog” and make it sound just right.

48. “Before They Make Me Run” (1978, from Some Girls)

Keith Richards isn’t the coolest man in rock n’ roll; he isn’t even the coolest member of the Rolling Stones. (That honor goes to Charlie Watts.) But to many, he is rock’s greatest outlaw, and this is his greatest anthem. If Frank Sinatra had been a rock and roller, he would have sung this song. Think of it as Keith’s “My Way.”

47. “19th Nervous Breakdown” (single release, 1966)

Right from the start, The Rolling Stones projected a bohemian decadence that made them very attractive to the children of the upper class and won them entry into that world. Jagger soaked it all in, and in “19th Nervous Breakdown,” he depicted the world of the idle rich; the Edie Sedgewicks of the world - beautiful, spoiled and doomed, and he lacerated them. He must have known that his put downs would only make him more attractive to them.

46. “It’s Only Rock And Roll” (1974, from It’s Only Rock And Roll)

Chuck Berry is the Louis Armstrong of rock n’ roll, and the Rolling Stones are his greatest progeny. In the midst of their mid-70’s nadir, one of the relatively few highlights was this updated and mutated version of Berry’s “Little Queenie.” Of particular note is the ridiculous video, with the band in sailor suits, overwhelmed by of all things, bubbles.

45. “The Last Time” (single release 1965, from Big Hits (High Tide And Green Grass) released 1966)

This one is thanks to early manager Andrew Loog-Oldham, who, knowing that there were a limited amount of great R&B songs that the band could cover, locked up reluctant songwriters Mick and Keith in a room until they came with something that they could “take to the boys without being embarrassed.” It’s got one of Keith’s great early riffs, which as writer Dave Marsh later noted, seemed to compensate for the band’s lack of a horn section. The song also helped to establish the Jagger persona – tough and callow – and he sounded far more convincing singing this then more than a few of their beloved R&B numbers. And while they didn’t know it at the time, “The Last Time” served as one of the first nails in Brian Jones’ coffin: Once Jagger/Richards had their writing, the terminally insecure former leader of the band was forever on the outside looking in, getting the Mick and Keith freeze out.

44. “Stray Cat Blues” (1968, from Beggars Banquet)

“Would you let your daughter date a Rolling Stone,” asked a tabloid in the mid-60’s, as Andrew Oldham positioned the band in the media to be the anti-Beatles. Perhaps at first it was only imaging, but the band soon learned to live into it, and with tracks like this one, where Mick proposes a threesome with a 15-year old girl and her friend, it’s easy to understand why they were both revered and reviled as objects of both fantasy and worrisome reality. Perhaps Mick can be dismissed as joking on this, but everything here probably happened in reality, and the snarling guitars and the sinewy bass mean nothing but some very nasty business.

43. “Street Fighting Man” (1968, from Beggars Banquet)

Recorded in the Spring of 1968, when the world seemed to be unraveling (Paris student riots, Prague Spring, the murders of MLK and RFK), the band took all the events in, heard the youthful call for revolution, and viewed it far more skeptically than any of their peers – which had them be wiser than any of them. “Think the time is right for Paris revolution/But where I live the game to play is compromise solution,” sang Mick Jagger, former student at the London School of Economics, his cynicism serving him very, very well.

42. “Shattered” (1978, from Some Girls)
New York City in the late 70’s was a gritty and grimy mess, and Some Girls was the perfect match for that version it – dirty, tough and pornographically sexual. For a certain kind of person, New York City in that era was the greatest adult playground in the world – the same kind of person who didn’t just love the Stones, but lived them, too.

41. “Little T&A” (1981, from Tattoo You)

“Tits and ass with soul,” sings a very much in love Keith Richards, and it’s a line that has always served as a dividing line for me. If you’re offended by it, we probably shouldn’t meet for lunch. If you love it, we might want to talk about getting married.

Monday, May 10, 2010

The 60 Greatest Rolling Stones Songs Of All Time (#60-#51)

Paul Westerberg may have a lyric that says he never goes far without a little Big Star, but I don't go anywhere without having the Rolling Stones nearby. More than any artist - and yes, that includes Bruce, Aretha and Al - I've lived the full range of my life to the Stones - I've listened and conjured with them; fallen in love to them; discussed, advocated and argued for and about them; danced, fucked and partied my ass off to them; and, most importantly, formed many, if not most of the seminal relationships in my life through them. Bruce and Aretha may reach into a deeper, more solitary and spiritual dimension of my soul, but the Stones hit pretty deep, and Bruce and Aretha haven't been there when I've been hanging out with a beautiful woman at 3am. For that kind of peak life experience, there is nothing like the music of the Rolling Stones.

The timing of this list is fortuitous, given the media blitz surrounding the re-release of the Greatest Album Of All Time, Exile On Main Street, but it's not deliberate. I've been working on this list for a while, and there are some guest contributions coming in the next segments.

I have little patience for those who hold opinions that are dismissive of the Rolling Stones. Actually, I have plenty of patience - it's just that I'm not very interested in them. If you don't like the Stones, I'm probably not going to be very interested in anything else you do like. As Robert Christgau has written,

Only rock and roll? The Stones are the proof of the form. When the guitars and the drums and the voice come together in those elementary patters that no one else has ever quite managed to simulate, the most undeniable excitement is a virtually automatic result. To insist that this excitement doesn't reach you is not to articulate an aesthetic judgment but to assert a rather uninteresting crotchet of taste. It is to boast that you don't like rock and roll itself.
And with that, here we go...

60. “Emotional Rescue” (1980, from Emotional Rescue)

“I’ll be your savior, steadfast and true,” sings Mick in a falsetto borrowed from Al Green and a handful of other soul singers. And while it’s hard to imagine that bastard Mick coming to anyone’s rescue, emotional or otherwise, the bridge is so beautiful that you’re desperate to believe every word out of his mouth. Of course, he has to let you know that he’s totally full of shit at the end of it, with that absurdly sung “I’ll be your knight in shining armor” line. Bitch, please. You probably sang that buttoning up your pants as you were walking out the door.

59. “She Said Yeah” (1965, from December's Children (And Everybody's))

Yeah, the Clash may have sang “no more Elvis, Beatles, or Rolling Stones,” but they loved the Stones, especially Keith. And with this buzz saw piece of proto-punk from ’66, you can hear how important the Stones, in both sound and attitude, were to the formation of punk rock. And given that the version they covered was by American R&B artist Larry Williams, you can see the link between R&B and punk, a link that unfortunately, not enough people see or recognize.

58. “Beast Of Burden” (1978, from Some Girls)

What makes “Beast Of Burden” so great is how wonderfully every single member of the band plays on it. There’s another member of the “Keith Richards Opening Riff Hall Of Fame”; Charlie’s laid back swing, with subtle patterns on the hi-hat that reveal his love of jazz, specifically Count Basie drummer Jo Jones; the deceptively simple throb of Bill Wyman’s bass; the guitar weave of Keith and Ronnie Wood and finally, Jagger’s vocals, in which he unveils his full arsenal – from aggressive growl to the sensually effeminate falsetto. And the lyrics are unusually tender - and believable.

57. “Heart Of Stone” (single release 1964, from Big Hits (High Tide & Green Grass) released 1966)

From Smokey Robinson, Leiber and Stoller and other great R&B songwriters, Jagger learned early on of the value of putting subtle twists in his lyrics, which, for an ironist like him, was less a clever writing device than an expressive necessity. The song seems like another early piece of “Jagger-as-Cad,” but when he finds that girl who doesn’t fall for his bullshit, he of course is smitten. An early piece of Rolling Stones irony. There would be much more.

56. “Cocksucker Blues” (Unreleased, 1972)

Weary of battles galore at the turn of the 70’s – with the British government, who wanted 90% of their money, with manager Allen Klein (who won the rights to their pre-1971 recordings) and with policemen everywhere – Jagger sings it like he’s being bent over and taking it; getting fucked for sure, but making sure his antagonists get no satisfaction.

55. “Memo From Turner” (1970, credited to Mich Jagger solo, written by Jagger-Richards)

The sound of mixing drugs – hallucinogenics, heroin, and lots and lots of cocaine – with amoral sexuality (or is it the other way around?), thereby making emotionaly and psychological breakdowns inevitable. Recorded for Jagger’s role in the film Performance, it’s said that Mick and co-star Anita Pallenberg (Keith’s girlfriend) fucked on set while Keith stewed in his Rolls outside, which led to communication breakdowns that probably still haven‘t resolved between the twins of Glimmer. Putting in on forty years later, you can still smell the coke.

54. “Undercover Of The Night” (1983, from Undercover)

Saw the video for this when I was 13 and thought it was absurd – Jagger in a white suit, wearing a pencil mustache - and I was right. But the song has had a longer shelf life then could have been imagined back then. The groove remains monstrous and the riffs sound like they were scraped from a crucible – boiled to the essence, rock hard and true. And the song itself has enough fear and loathing to make it one of their best – a little sexy and a little scary.

53. “Let’s Spend The Night Together” (1967, from Between The Buttons)

Let’s get this straight: The Stones were at their best taking from R&B and making it something of their own. They weren’t as great ripping off white rock artists (white country artists being another matter entirely). So this little Beach Boys-esque ditty is from a period where the Stones didn’t really rock all that hard, but Jagger makes it triumph with a searing vocal coming out of the bridge into the final verse that presages the many triumphs of 1968-1972 to come.

52. “Time Waits For No One” (1974, from It's Only Rock And Roll)

It’s Only Rock And Roll is far from a great album, but “Time Waits For No One” serves as a gorgeous last gasp for the Mick Taylor version of the Stones, the version that created much of the band’s greatest work. Jagger’s vocal is unusually uncertain; he must have known how much time he was wasting in the midst of a lousy marriage, a partner temporarily lost to heroin and a band going through the motions. But it’s Taylor who shines brightest; his solo winds and ascends, as if the Yellow Brick Road went high into the air instead of further down the road. Knowing how it all turned out, for both Taylor and the Stones, you can’t help but be a little sad.

51. “Luxury” (1974, from It's Only Rock And Roll)

One of my favorite lines from a record review is Robert Christgau’s review of The Harder They Come: “The Rolling Stones would have killed to make this album.” Indeed. And here, the Stones make their best reggae ever, filled with humor and a little wistfulness.