It's Only Rock and Roll: A Deep Dive Retrospective of The Rolling Stones
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The focus of Ceremony is the music I grew up with, and while most of that focuses on modern rock – a category I will define more fully in an upcoming post – I also spent a good portion of my musical upbringing listening to classic rock and the artists that built the rock n’ roll era. As I note often in my profiles, much of my musical tastes and early exposure to artists came via my brother, Aaron, who was ten years my senior. Therefore, while I grew up with ‘80s music he was raised in the formative years of rock over the ‘60s and ‘70s. Yet, despite me, as a young boy, listening to his music while he did his homework each evening, very few of those early rock acts imprinted on me.
It wasn’t until Aaron came back from university each year in the early ‘80s laden with cassettes of modern rock sounds that I started to take on his listening habits as my own. Even then, if we were in the car, he’d put on cassettes of classic rock and try to get me to understand their quality, and I would still resist. And then in my teens, after my brother had long moved out and I was firmly in control of my own musical journey, there was a revival in interest in classic rock and, partnered with regular smoking of pot and hash with friends at school, I suddenly immersed myself in the music of the pre-modern rock era. Whether it was a my maturing, developed appreciation for music, or just the happy pairing of psychedelic music and drugs, but suddenly a solid rock song moved me in ways it never had before.
She Said Yeah
That’s How Strong My Love Is
Blue Turns to Grey
It’s Not Easy
Miss Amanda Jones
Stray Cat Blues
Torn and Frayed
Let It Loose
Dance Little Sister
Where the Boys Go
The Rolling Stones, of course, were a prominent band in discovering that older music. However, being less psychedelic, and by the ‘80s one of the few acts still going from that era and, to a teenager, decidedly uncool, I still passed them over. I picked up the double album greatest hits, Hot Rocks, and enjoyed their hits of the ‘60s, but otherwise didn’t push further. But there were glimpses of what was there – the appearance of the song “Miss Amanda Jones” in the movie Some Kind of Wonderful (in which John Hughes named all the characters after The Stones) or a performance of “Monkey Man” in an episode of 21 Jump Street (replaced with different music on the DVD release, so the original scene can’t be found) or the use of The Stones in any Scorsese movie - that suggested there was more to The Rolling Stones than just the likes of “Satisfaction,” which I generally loathed as a song.
In the early 2000s I decided I needed to close the gap and school myself on The Rolling Stones. By then it was obvious to me how influential they’d been on modern rock artists – hell, The Stones practically invented the idea of the rock star that pushed boundaries and challenged the norms of society. I knew a band of their stature had more going on than just the hits, so I bought all their albums and spent months living with them, soaking in the music and being rewarded with the many gems that weren’t “You Can’t Always Get What You Want” or “Gimme Shelter.” The concept of the deep dive playlist I utilize on Ceremony came from this exercise, and few bands are worthwhile of this approach than The Rolling Stones.
She Said Yeah; Mercy Mercy; That’s How Strong My Love Is \ Out of Our Heads (1965)
As much as The Stones became the embodiment of rock star excess, the marriage of rock and sexual energy, and generally pushed the boundaries of what was acceptable behaviour for public people who had influence on younger generations, the band’s music was, and always has been, firmly rooted in traditional blues music. In that regard modern rock has been a refutation of the likes of The Rolling Stones, except for the fact that The Stones made blues music cool and accessible to a modern generation of youth. So without that influence the experimentation and broadening of rock and pop music couldn’t have happened without the paths forged by Mick Jagger, Keith Richards, Brian Jones, Bill Wyman, Mick Taylor, and Charlie Watts.
In the 2015 Keith Richards documentary, Under the Influence, Keith simply stated the mission of The Stones from the very beginning: to share and promote American blues music. Anything beyond that was secondary, the essential project was to share their passion for the music of Chuck Berry, Muddy Waters, Bo Diddley and the many others that had built an incredible library of music over the preceding years. So when Richards, Mick Jagger (a childhood friend), Brian Jones, Ian Stewart, and Dick Taylor gathered together in 1962, culled from a variety of bands paying homage to blues music, the share mission was clear.
Over the next two years Stewart (who would still contribute often to the band’s music), and Taylor would be replaced with Bill Wyman on bass and Charlie Watts on drums, and Andrew Loog Oldham would become their manager, and in 1964 their first album was released. It wasn’t surprising the first couple of albums (three in the US) were mostly cover songs of American blues, over which The Stones were coming into their own. Their playing and interpretation of songs was getting tighter and the band’s personality was starting to come through. Out of Our Heads, the third UK album release, was still mostly a covers album with only four of the twelve songs being originals (the American version would include six originals, including “Satisfaction,” which of course began their launch into the stratosphere of rock acts), but their covers were starting to stake out the personality of The Rolling Stones. “She Said Yeah” was on the UK album but left off until the next album in the US and was a cover of a Sonny Bono song. “Mercy Mercy” was a cover of the 1964 song by Don Covay and “That’s How Strong My Love Is” was best known as an Otis Redding song also from 1965 and written by Roosevelt Jamison.
The energy, raw power, and musicianship of the band was coming through, built on a tight rhythm section, Richard’s loose and infectious guitar licks, and Jagger’s passionate, forceful, and charismatic vocals, The Stones were not just sharing the blues with people, they were making it their own.
Blue Turns to Grey \ December’s Children (and Everybody’s) (1966)
Think; It’s Not Easy \ Aftermath (1966)
December’s Children (and Everybody’s) was a US release that compiled originals from the Out of Our Heads recordings and other singles going back as far as 1963. Half the songs were covers, but from this LP we have our first original song on the playlist, “Blue Turns to Grey,” and it fits in perfectly with the blues standards with an impeccable melody, classic blues melding of bass and guitar, and Jagger’s voice distinctive and restrained.
The Stones finally, with their fourth UK release and sixth in the US, arrived as a band in their own right with their first full album of original songs, Aftermath. Classics like “Under My Thumb,” “Mother’s Little Helper,” and “Paint It Black” were supported by tight, clever songs like “Think,” and “It’s Not Easy.” The tutorial was done and the British lads were ready to try their hand at the classic American sounds, and it was clear they’d taken their schooling very seriously.
These early songs bridged the gap between the ‘50s sounds of the US artists and the ‘60s feel of the British Invasion bands. The pain and passion of the blues was being repackaged into an accessible, pop format that still delivered a satisfying wallop to the senses. While the hits deservedly gathered all the attention, the quality and consistently of these album tracks revealed why The Stones were moving to the forefront of the wave of bands mining these sounds.
My Obsession; Miss Amanda Jones \ Between the Buttons (1967)
In 1967 there was the Summer of Love, a focus on hippie culture centred in San Francisco and the associated psychedelic and folk music of that scene, and The Beatles were re-defining pop music with the Sgt. Pepper. The Rolling Stones were also starting to pull in some of the psychedelic sounds while still staying true to the blues foundation. However, these two songs better showed the band’s evolving blues-rock sound and the pure talent of the Jagger/Richards song writing juggernaut. “Miss Amanda Jones” was a classic early rock song and should be on any of their greatest hits compilations. The UK release of Between the Buttons didn’t have any of the band’s hit but was a great collection of songs. The US release would include the hits “Ruby Tuesday” and “Let’s Spend the Night Together.” And while these songs indicated some maturation of their sound, they were still rooted in pop-formatted blues songs.
1967 also saw the concept album, Their Satanic Majesties Request, which was inconsistent but included the fantastic, “She’s A Rainbow.” If the album wasn’t as easy a listen as what they’d delivered before, the ambition, experimentation, and expansion of their sound undoubtedly released the band from the tight bounds of the pop format to which they’d conformed. It would be the fulcrum on which the band moved from being a leading rock and pop band to become one of the most important contributors to the classic rock era.
Stray Cat Blues \ Beggars Banquet (1968)
On the next album, Beggars Banquet, the band abandoned the experiment with psychedelia and returned to their rock and blues core, but delivered it in broader, more complex compositions. This was apparent from the opening, track, “Sympathy for the Devil.” Their blues-rock sound came out with more force than ever before in “Street Fighting Man.” Similarly, “Stray Cat Blues” and other album tracks were nary a step down from those iconic songs.
This album was the start of an incredible run of tour-de-force albums that included fully formed rock songs that would come to define the classic rock era. Beggars Banquet was the first of a five-album run that would all become high-ranking classics and the core of the band’s legacy. Picking lesser known songs from these albums is tough given their iconic stature, but also means there are no poor choices.
By this time the rock n’ roll life was taking its toll on Brian Jones. He was barely contributing to the band’s music and was unable to tour the US due to visa problems related to his drug use. He chose to leave the band in the summer of 1969 and died a month later, found in his swimming pool.
Monkey Man \ Let It Bleed (1969)
A strong country influence entered into the band’s sound during this period, such as on songs like “You Got the Silver,” a song sung by Keith Richards who usually had one song included on each album. It was further exploration of American music that had inspired the band from the outset. While Jones still appeared on this album, released in the dying days of the decade, the album also included the first contributions of their new guitarist, Mick Taylor.
Let It Bleed was an incredible collection of anthemic rock songs like “Midnight Rambler” and “You Can’t Always Get What You Want.” The album was the perfect culmination of the band’s evolved sound, closing appropriately with the epic, “Gimme Shelter,” one of the most iconic of rock songs. “Monkey Man” is one of their best songs and one of my favourites. The intro was one of the best ever to a rock song (I wish it went on for at least another thirty seconds to continue the groove and build-up of the song to greater effect) and the guitar work was consummate Stones and perfectly displayed the distinctive and brilliant technique of Keith Richards (it’s easy to forget he’s more than just a punchline or walking cliché of rock excess, but is one of the defining players of his generation). While “Monkey Man” did get a fair bit of attention, it’s still generally overlooked in the Stones’ discography. Perhaps it’s understandable when it shared space with the likes of the other songs on Let It Bleed.
Sister Morphine; Dead Flowers; Moonlight Mile \ Sticky Fingers (1971)
While many pick Exile on Main Street as the Stones’ greatest album, I would probably lean towards this one. The list of outstanding songs and hits was a bit ridiculous: “Brown Sugar,” “Wild Horses,” “Can’t You Hear Me Knocking,” and “Bitch” (though only “Brown Sugar” and “Wild Horses” were released as singles, it is testament to the popularity of the band that the others are as well-known). I choose here to feature the three closing songs, which like many other great albums created a block of incredible music that showed why many yearn for the days of just dropping a needle and sitting back to listen.
“Sister Morphine” was a perfect example of how a list like this can play out for a band of such prolific output. It can easily be argued that it’s a hit or a song that most fans would know, but I would argue it’s not. I didn’t know it until I dove deeper into the band and it was certainly not something you heard on the radio or saw on compilation albums. “Dead Flowers” was a great example of the band’s country-rock format of the time, and “Moonlight Mile” was, well, just one of those special songs that was made to close out a classic album; the kind of song that drew you in and by the end, made you sigh and not wait to play the whole thing all over again.
For any band to release albums such as Let It Bleed or Sticky Fingers in a career would have been a job well done. The Rolling Stones released these back-to-back and after a solid six years of chart-topping singles, and yet were still far from done in making their imprint on the rock world.
Torn and Frayed; Loving Cup; Let It Loose \ Exile on Main Street (1972)
I’m not as big a fan of this album as it is with rock historians, who regularly place it in the upper echelons of ‘greatest’ lists. I love “Rocks Off,” “Happy,” and “Tumbling Dice” so it gets accolades for those alone, but the rest were a little too pure blues and country for me and lack the elements that typically make me stand up and take notice. Yet the album, the band’s first double-album release, was a sweeping and accomplished feat just as they were starting to lose their place atop the music world. “Torn and Frayed” was on the second side and was their consummate honky tonk sound, with a little piano to give it extra flavour. “Loving Cup” closed the second side, was fully piano based with a funky beat and acoustic guitar and captured the loose spirit of The Stones’ music at the time. Finally, “Let It Loose” was the final track on side three and mixed organ and horns with the piano into the standard, mid-tempo blues-rock of which the band was famous.
By the end of 1972 the music world was changing and expanding, and the stripped-down, blues-centred rock of the The Stones was struggling to maintain its pre-eminence. The band could sell-out a tour, their personalities were legendary, and the albums still topped the charts, but their impact on the music world and critical acclaim would start to waver.
Silver Train; Winter \ Goats Head Soup (1973)
I consider Goats Head Soup the last of the five-album run of greatness that essentially concluded The Stones’ ascension to rock gods – musically at least. There were still many great songs to come and we’ll continue to explore them further, but it was on this album that the band started experimentation to keep with the times and the results thereafter would be less consistent. For this album however, you could still revel in the brilliance of the band’s core sound and consummate song writing abilities.
This album was known for the songs “Angie” as well as the catchy and epic “Doo Doo Doo (Heartbreaker).” There was one song after another of quality blues, country, and rock. The band’s look at the time got into glam, and the genre’s musical style can be heard on songs like “100 Years Ago” and “Star Star.” “Silver Train” blended these songs with their country flavour, and “Winter” was another entry in the long list of incredible ballads written by Jagger and Richards. I’m generally more partial to their slower tracks as Jagger’s vocals are drawn back and Richard’s guitar is more poetic.
Luxury; Dance Little Sister \ It’s Only Rock and Roll (But I Like It) (1974)
The Stones were a less dominant act by this album. They sold well but their status had shifted from being at the forefront of new music to being veterans of the prior era. Prog Rock with its classical overtones and ambitious arrangements and glam with its edgier sound and over-the-top presentation made the stripped down look and sound of the The Stones seem like relics.
Of course, being The Stones were still great songs on this album like the title track and “Time Waits for No One.” The deeper tracks offered the lovely “Luxury” and energetic “Dance Little Sister” and showed the band easing off the pure blues and country and hitting straight into rock mode with a little glam flavouring.
As the band made arrangements to record their next album, Mick Taylor decided to depart, never having felt fully integrated into the band. He was replaced by Ron Wood from The Faces (and recommended to Keith by Nils Lofgren) after auditioning an impressive list of potential players including Peter Frampton and Jeff Beck.
Memory Motel \ Black and Blue (1976)
Lies \ Some Girls (1978)
Black and Blue is one of The Stones’ more overlooked albums from the ‘70s and perhaps rightly so. Although it featured the exquisite and falsetto tinged hit “Fool to Cry” the rest of the album was uneven, including an ill-advised foray into disco with “Hot Stuff” and a suspect reggae cover of Eric Donaldson’s, “Cherry Oh Baby.” Yet on every Stones album there was a great ballad, and “Memory Motel” ranked up there with any.
“Lies,” from 1978’s Some Girls album, nicely captured The Stone’s late ‘70s sound as the guitar work picked up the pace and through the album the band tried their hand with both disco and punk. The tight guitar riffs heard in this song would become a staple of the band’s sound for the next three decades. Some Girls issued a respectable quartet of singles: “Miss You,” “Beast of Burden,” “Respectable,” and “Shattered.” It was a return to form for the band after the prior two albums. The LP also included a nice cover of The Temptations’, “Just My Imagination.”
Where the Boys Go \ Emotional Rescue (1980)
Little T&A; Tops; Heaven \ Tattoo You (1981)
As the band moved into the next decade, now confronted with a multitude of emerging genres, scenes, and looks they were now just one of many acts jockeying for attention. Because of their stature they would always sell their albums and put on huge tours, but the influence of their new music most mostly inconsequential by this point. Of course, Emotional Rescue was known for the title track and the hit, “She So Cold.” “Where the Boys Go” was the kind of tight, rock-blues song the band could churn out with effortless consistency.
Tattoo You was the last great album to be issued by The Stones, and I’ve only extended this playlist to this album in order to include these songs. Perhaps since it was a compilation of unreleased songs from the prior decade, it acted as a bookend to their initial era of dominance and the transition from the classic rock to the modern rock eras. The album was as good or better than the prior five and everything following would fail to match the quality and originality of Tattoo You. Perhaps because the songs came from their heyday of their song writing there was a higher quality, variety, and quintessential Stones vibe across the entire album.
For some reason this album always grabbed me more than their others – maybe because it came out as I was coming of age in my own musical appreciation? “Hang Fire” was the lesser-known single due to the dominance of “Start Me Up” and “Waiting on a Friend,” one of the most sublime ballads of their career (written and recorded during the Goats Head Soup album, and thus included Mick Taylor), was the last song on the second side of the album, all of which were ballads and were, as usual, a cut above. “Heaven” drew on the emerging new wave style of the time, and showed the band was continuing to evolve with the times, and featured different sounding vocals from Mick, same as his falsetto on the backing for “Tops.” “Little T&A” was one of the best Keith contributions from any of their albums. Great album, great songs.
The Rolling Stones have issued six more albums over the past four decades plus most recently an album of cover songs. There have been many good songs on those releases but many more forgettable ones, and the band has settled mostly into the standard blues-rock sound they pioneered and perfected. It’s the music they love and has been their reason for being, and they remain true to that mission. They tour occasionally and sell out stadiums regularly, showing their fan base remains vast and loyal.
I think this is a great sounding playlist, as only a band of this stature could produce when stripped of the hits; and shows how talented and pure their early career was over a staggering list of legendary releases in just fifteen years. Their swagger and development of tight, layered, and melodic rock would also influence many a modern rock act over the ensuing four decades. Their reputation is entrenched as one of the greatest rock bands of all time and one that helped build and define modern music.