Monday, 21 May 2018

Rolling Stones Essay: Standing In The Shadows



They say (or rather manager Andrew Loog Oldham said) that whilst your parents wouldn’t mind you dating a Beatle or letting them hold your daughter’s hand, you would have to lock them up to save them from the Rolling Stones who are ‘here to burn your town!’ They say too that the Stones was the music you played to annoy your parents (not that it worked in my family: my Grandad loved the Stones and didn’t like The Beatles much, which will probably tell you all you need to know about my family!) The Stones have for so long been seen as the ‘anti-Beatles’ that it’s tempting to forget that they didn’t start this way and how we ended up there took a long long time to get there.
Before The Stones got signed to Decca in 1963 it seemed easy: they were only interested in turning on great swathes of the population on to the blues who would otherwise never have heard of it. That’s all Brian Jones thought about from the moment he woke up to when he went to bed several days later (along with whichever girl he was dating at the time) and though less passionate Mick, Keef and Bill all believed in the same goal to some extent (not Charlie – he was just filling in time until a jazz band came along who wanted his services; you suspect that even now in his seventies he’s still waiting for that call). The Beatles didn’t exist so they couldn’t compete – all they knew was that there were rumours of some band up North doing something similar to what they were doing, albeit with poppier numbers in their set and a bit of Motown, not the ‘blues’ as authentically as the Stones did. The Stones didn’t have a reputation for being a ‘dark’ band in this era – they were serious, sure and howled the blues with all the passion they could, but they weren’t into devil worshipping yet and had no interest in any shock value further than ‘wow doesn’t that kid with the blonde hairdo remind you of Elmore James’?
It took Andrew Loog Oldham to realise what he could do with the Stones, buying them up from their old manager Giorgio Gromelsky in April 1963. By then The Beatles were big business, with ‘Please Please Me’ reaching either number one or number two in the UK charts that March and lots of managers began to realise that Brian Epstein might be on to something. At the time, though, there was no rivalry – indeed the very same month the Stones signed with Oldham The Beatles had discovered them by accident during some downtime during their first extended stay in London. The two bands got on really well, swapped notes on instruments and songs and the fab four even plugged the band a few times in the press before getting them that deal with Decca on the back of their friendship (having already turned the fab four down, Decca were eager to hear any of their tip-offs about who to sign next). Chances are, left to their own devices the Stones probably wouldn’t have got the interest of anyone: they wanted to be an authentic blues act and spurned the idea of having hit singles. Loog Oldham, though, had a different vision: the draw for The Beatles, he figured, was their slight air of danger which had then been ‘tidied up’ for a mainstream audience by Epstein because that’s what you had to do to jump through hoops and open doors back then. But now the door was already open, The Beatles had been groomed and turned cuter than anyone who saw the band between 1957 and 1961 could ever have guessed and all he had to do was find the right group to act as The Beatles’ ‘shadows’.
He wasn’t, at the time, sure that he’d found them. The blues wasn’t as marketable as R and B covers were. Mick was, at the time, deeply shy and hated being upfront (he only became the band’s lead singer by accident when their original vocalist dropped out). Their ‘real’ leader, Brian, looked the part but didn’t sound it, with a gruff squawk that was perfect for authentic blues performances but not exactly hit material even for the ‘darker’ look Loog Oldham was going for. The Stones didn’t quite know what they wanted to be yet: Brian was adamant that they should be blues players, but Chuck Berry fans Mick and Keef persuaded him that a bit of R and B in the set would get people dancing. Far from the leering, genuinely frightening band the Stones would become, they were a group of five earnest musicians who were only anti-Beatles in the sense that they didn’t smile on stage and were instead too busy concentrating on  getting the notes right. The entire invention of The Rolling Stones as we know them today was all Loog Oldham’s doing: younger than the band and aged just nineteen when he first met them, he actually had to get his mum to sign them on his behalf as legally in Britain at the time he couldn’t be held responsible for regular wage payments before the age of twenty-one!
The reason it worked, though, was because he did find the ‘right’ band after all. Their blues roots is an important and overlooked factor in what made The Stones’ appeal so dark and alluring. R and B was a largely 1950s variation of soul, without yet a history beyond teenagers having a giggle. But blues was hundreds of years old, it was what slaves sang on plantations and it was born out of real pain – not the sort of pain of losing your job and not being able to afford a Corvette as per Chuck Berry but the pain of losing your wife, your life, your liberty and freedom. The Stones’ early material isn’t all that far removed from their competitors, many of whom also performed blues songs, but the difference is the Stones were steeped in it and blues is itself darker than anything their competitors were playing. Well most of them: The Stones weren’t the only band to come to fame in the 1960s playing a white version of the blues as opposed to R and B; up in Newcastle The Animals were a far more experienced and authentic band, whilst just down the road in London The Yardbirds had a far wider repertoire and record collection. But The Animals used the blues as a vehicle for change, with many of their chosen songs about working class characters who wanted to do right for themselves – the fact that they were themselves such a success with a vehicle with a song as depressing as ‘House Of The Rising Sun’ (a whorehouse which was the only place the narrator could pick up a girl, if you hadn’t already guessed or heard that or maybe read the watered down distillation of the song handed out to music magazines in the day) is almost like an Animals song itself, the working class kid everyone ignored somehow coming good despite the odds. And The Yardbirds were scholars, treating the blues with the precision of a museum curator, the Pentangle of the blues world. For The Stones, though, the blues was a matter of life and death and as many of the songs were too, that has to cloud your judgement of life to some extent.
The odd thing to say here though, while we pause a second, is that nobody knows quite why: The Animals and The Yardbirds were poor and would have ended up down the mines or on the dole had music not worked out for them; The Stones were – comparatively – rich and Mick had to drop out of a degree his parents were paying for when the band took off (riding his motorbike into the middle of the quadrangle when telling the dean he was going!) Admittedly Brian had cut himself off from his rich parents after getting not one, not two, but three teenage girls pregnant in quick succession while Bill and Charlie were genuinely poor, but Keith’s mum even sent her lads food parcels to keep them going (The Beatles didn’t get those in Hamburg!) If anything The Beatles were the ‘real deal’ and were the dark shadows to The Stones.
Oldham was clever: he told the newspapers what to write half the time and they were happy to use it because it was ‘good copy’ and even bad publicity – perhaps especially bad publicity – was good publicity (that famous headline ‘Would you let your daughter go out with a Rolling Stone?’ is really his). Oldham took every opportunity to contrast his band against The Beatles, to the point where almost every magazine and fan assumed there was a ‘real’ war between them (not true, but it helped both bands – those afraid of The Stones ran towards The Beatles and vice versa). Oldham played up the idea that his generally serious band didn’t smile and got them to look like that on almost every album cover and publicity material he okayed; at best he allowed a bit of smirking but The Stones didn’t show off their teeth in public until at least 1967! There was also the infamous incident when after hours cooped up inside a tour bus Bill found himself caught short outside a garage and asked if he could use the private one; the grumpy elderly owner said something rude so four of the band (Charlie stayed in the van) decided to take revenge by urinating against his forecourt (Brian quote: ‘I will if you get off my foreskin!’) Other managers would have paid a lot of money to hush something like this up; Loog Oldham on hearing rubbed his hands with glee and phones up reporters himself to tell them about the incident, with huge coverage of the Stones getting fined a few odd pounds for their ‘obscenity’.
But it wasn’t all fake publicity or exaggeration. There was just enough darkness in the Stones’ world to make them natural shadows to The Beatles’ light. There was a creeping misogyny in their material even this early on, which was mostly because of the era of the material they were performing: the blues singers, long since dead, had no idea of feminism and though much of their material was about being young, hungry and poor, some of it was specifically about being male, hungry and poor, with a wife taking half of what they had left. Women don’t come out of any blues song well right up until the likes of Bessie Smith and Big Mama Thornton started singing it – and most of their songs were about the wrongness of men treating them badly anyway. Just check out some early songs of theirs, from [33] ‘Down Home Girl’ (where a working class girl ‘smells of pork and beans’) to the strutting peacock of [14] ‘I’m A King Bee’. Women are objects, it’s male sexual gratification that matters, not love. It’s only a small step to move to the point where, rather than thanking their largely female fans the way the Beatles did, The Stones looked down on them with a sneer in song once Loog Oldham persuaded Mick and Keef to write their own material (Brian discovering early on that writing wasn’t for him). This was especially true when the Stones knew the girl in question, with Mick’s first girlfriend Christine Shrimpton getting particularly short shrift ([89] ‘Yesterday’s Papers’ claims that she’s an anachronism dressed up in yesterday’s fashions, [91] ‘Back Street Girl’ has Mick forcing her to promise never to show up when his friends are around because he’s ashamed of her and [75] ‘Out Of Time’ refuses to listen to any excuses and dumps her for hesitating when he asks her out). You wouldn’t catch The Beatles doing this and The Stones were encouraged to play this angle up – a lot of girls love ‘bad boys’ and Loog Oldham recognised that there was a vacuum to be filled here.
One other important element of the Stones’ sound that always gets forgotten is the fact that they were signed to Decca. The slowest of the ‘five main’ record labels of the 1960s to realise the commercial potential of rock and roll, they didn’t invest in recording it properly until the 1970s (after all their biggest rock bands had left). To Decca there was no reason why you couldn’t record pop and rock acts the same way you did orchestras; as a result the microphones were often a way above the performers to capture the ‘general’ sound in the room (as opposed to EMI, Capitol and Pye where everything was miked a hundred times over) and the soundproofed walls gave off a particular echoey sound peculiar to Decca recordings of this period. Usually it sounds dreadful: Cat Stevens isn’t himself at all until he leaves for Island Records in 1970 and The Small Faces fought  to get off the label and sign to Loog Oldham’s own ‘Immediate’ franchise in 1967. The Stones, though, stayed put until 1971 (when they set up their own label with help from Atlantic) partly through contractual stuff but also perhaps because they realised how integral this sound was to their records. The Stones, you see, sound great when set against this muffled sound. Together with their already pretty blurry techniques as heard in concerts around the world in this era - they played slower than most bands do – this really gives their recordings a ‘swampy Delta’ feel that no other band of the era matches. Not until ‘Sticky Fingers’ in 1971 do their records start becoming crystal clear (realising this they get ever more murkier still for ‘Exile On Main Street’ in 1972 and thereafter turn into a parody of themselves – partly, so I think, because of this loss to their integral sound). The Rolling Stones, at least in the 1962-1969 and 1972 period, sound like shadows: they’re dark and oppressive and it’s hard to separate what’s happening from one instrument to another. Just check out, if you dare, the intended second single [3] ‘Posion Ivy’ aborted for sounding a mess (really it’s because the band are covering a ‘busy’ song and haven’t yet learnt that less is more inside Decca studios) or [86] ‘Have You Seen Your Mother, Baby, Standing In The Shadows?’ where the murky sound is the whole point. If your recordings sound dangerous even when you intend them to be sweet (hey, [69] ‘Lady Jane’ is sweet! Although there aren’t many other examples…) then you may as well make your recordings dangerous.
The Rollers then be came unofficial spokespersons for everything that was wrong in the 1960s – at a time when bands were falling over themselves to say how wonderful everything is. After struggling for their first couple of years to keep up with their publicity department, The Stones hit a groove from [61] ‘Satisfaction’ on as updated Chuck Berrys, purveyors of everything that was disappointing in modern day living. [82] ‘19th Nervous Breakdown’ takes things further, the narrator driven to despair at the state of modern-day living, signalled by a bass riff that in opposition to nearly every song around in 1966 fears the future and plunged as low as it can go. While everyone else is singing about love and peace The Stones are wishing that they could [84] ‘Paint It Black’ because they’re too depressed for all the bright lights and colours.
It’s surely no surprise that The Stones discover drugs somewhere around around this time in 1965 and unlike The Beatles no one is surprised when they announce it. What’s odd, though, is that for every other band discovering drugs makes their music lighter – it opens the door to technicolour and curiosity and invention, with the world (generally speaking) seen anew with brighter colours. For The Stones this only happens once (and [105] ‘She’s A Rainbow’ is such a one-off in their canon it sounds like a pastiche to me, especially Keef’s angry howling guitars at the end as if he’s fed up of having to play this soppy muck!) Usually, drugs make an already dark world darker: [108] ‘1000 Light Years From Home’ is the very epitome of a bad trip as the Stones float out into space as alone in an alien land as they could ever have experienced. [100] ‘Something Happened To Me Yesterday’ tries to add a jaunty music hall jaunt that’s decidedly creepy. The big Stones singalong jam [101] ‘Sing This All Together’ gets very creepy very quickly, as if the band can’t keep this away. Most infamously a song with a title that in other hands would be upbeat (the astonishing [112] ‘We Love You’) ends up being as sarcastic as hell. ‘We don’t care who you fall in love with’ The Stones chant on the single held back just in case Mick and Keef really did get sent to prison for a very long time by an establishment who were itching for an excuse to bust them and thought they’d found one when a party turned up pills (which were given to Mick on prescription and he even had the paperwork for. Throw away the key I tell you, hanging’s too good for them!) Interestingly this song was conceived as a specific shadow to The Beatles’ ‘All You Need Is Love’ recorded at the same time; Mick and Keef are part of the crowd on that song and John and Paul sing creepy falsettos at the front of the Stones’ record! (Loog Oldham tries a similar thing with cute B-side [113] ‘Dandelion’, with parts of each song ‘seeping’ onto the other side of the disc, but its these two songs that are really the ‘twins’ of the flower power era). While every other band was enjoying a summer of love, The Stones had a real year of darkness in 1967 and that made them seem more like ‘shadows’ than ever before, a darker ‘mushroom’ alternative grown in isolation and darkness compared to the direction the rest of the world was taking.
Amazingly this didn’t hurt sales and something seemed to click in the brains of Mick and Keef, even while Loog Oldham, himself now a drug addict, was being kicked aside from the group. Only now after believeing in their own publicity do the Stones end up where they ended up in 1968-1969, the period when people remember them best, as they broke every taboo going as if it was their birthright. Devil worship? You’ll be wanting [114] ‘Sympathy For The Devil’. Revolution? [119] ‘Street Fighting Man’. Under-age sex? [121] ‘Stray Cat Blues’. Impending doom and Armageddon? [128] ‘Gimme Shelter’. Rape? [133] ‘Midnight Rambler’. Sex with slaves? [142] ‘Brown Sugar’. Drug addiction? [149] ‘Sister Morphine’. [131] ‘Live With Me’ even laughs at bands who think they can be as ‘hard’ or as dark as the Stones but don’t really cut it (‘I’ve got nasty habits, I eat tea at three!’)
Perfect! Think most of their fanbase. The Stones are going to be rock and roll’s bad boys forever and if it goes wrong it will be because of a jail term/overdose/airplane crash. Nothing is going to make this band grow up!!! And then comes ‘Altamont’. When Woodstock happened in August 1969 there was something in the air that wanted it to happen – so many acts giving their time for free (well, a few got paid but the organisation was such a shambles few people actually got their money), so many people all gathered in the same spot to share their love for the music and to point at each other and go ‘wow, there are enough of us to change the world and turn it onto peace, love and flowers now. Yay!!!!’ And then The Stones come along, latching on to a proposed free concert Jefferson Airplane want to give in San Francisco and agreeing to perform mostly to counteract accusations from fans that they were charging too much for tickets. The irony was ‘Altamont’ that December was free and it was ‘Woodstock’ that cost you money to get in. If anything Altamont had a bigger percentage of hippie acts too with history conveniently forgetting that the Airplane, CSNY, Santana and The Flying Burrito Brothers all played (the Grateful Dead were meant to play too but took one look at the bad vibes and ran back to their helicopters).
Some fans said later that they just felt something was going to happen that night. After all, it had started in the worst possible way when the band decided rehearsing for their tour that Brian Jones wasn’t cutting it and threw him out the band he’d formed and started from scratch, wasted on drugs. Brian had, despite comments to the contrary, been in a good place after this and had already considered a future as a pioneer of world music, travelling to exotic lands and recording it for release through the Stones’ own label (of which he remained a part share-holder). But something (an asthma attack, a row with a builder, Brian being obnoxious) on July 2nd 1969 left him face down in his own swimming pool on the estate he’d bought so proudly from the descendents of Winnie The Poor creator AA Milne. The Stones decided to carry on with new guitarist Mick Taylor and continue with the gameplan – but their utopian hippie idyll was changed on them at the last minute when the Mayor of San Francisco, horrified by reports of the sea of people who descended on Woodstock, cancelled at the last minute. The replacement venue in California, Altamont Speedway, didn’t look like a hippie paradise – it was ugly and filled with concrete. The stage was badly made (it was meant to be up a hill until the venue was changed at the last minute) so the Stones were effectively playing at the same level as their audience. The local Californian Hell’s Angels, drafted in at the last minute when the more peace-loving San Franciscan Hell’s Angels begged off travelling, suddenly had their work cut out keeping the crowds who kept surging forward. Every concert that night was hit by skirmishes in the crowd who kept being pushed towards the front and the security (to this day I refuse to go anywhere near the front of gigs without set seating plans, just in case the same ever happens again; as it sometimes does – Oasis’ Manchester comeback in 2005 was hit by similar problems and was stopped repeatedly). Somebody was always going to get hurt – and that someone was Meredith Hunter, a nineteen-year-old fan protecting his girlfriend from being hurt by flashing a knife and getting pummelled to death instead.
The papers the next morning had a field day. Ignoring all the other acts on the bill they blamed The Stones for the fiasco completely. A garbled version got back to the music press that the band had been playing ‘Sympathy For The Devil’ at the time of the stabbing and had been performing black magic on stage (actually they were performing the even uglier [70] ‘Under My Thumb’ and the stage magic was the band desperately flicking through their setlist for a song that would calm down the crowd). Nevertheless it speaks volumes that things went wrong not at the more general gig that happened down the road but at one where the Stones headlined. It speaks more volumes that things went wrong at this gig, which featured more of the Stones’ shadowy songs than maybe any other: ‘Rape, murder, is just a shot away!’ rang out one song. ‘I’m called the hit and run raper in anger!’ screams another. ‘I can see that you’re just fifteen years old, but no I don’t want your idea!’ cackles another. ‘She’s a squirming dog whose just had her day!’ is the Stones’ ugliest song performed just at the point of death. And then there’s pretty much every line in ‘Sympathy For The Devil’. If any gig was going to get bad vibes from the songs in the room it’s this one, without any of the usual levity or beauty like [69] ‘Lady Jane’ or [105] ‘She’s A Rainbow’ or [111] ‘Ruby Tuesday’. The Stones didn’t really think they’d caused it – but you can see them wondering for a moment in the film of the festival ‘Gimme Shelter’ that was meant to be a celebration and ended up a commiseration instead. Just look at Mick’s and Charlie’s eyes as they view back the footage, comparing notes on what they were up to on stage and what they were thinking and wondering where it all went wrong. Keith and Bill are too moved to appear on screen.
Thereafter something pretty big shifts in the Stones’ psyche. It would be too easy that ‘Altamont’ is when the Stones stopped being shadows to the Beatles and the 1960s scene and the self-destruction of the fab four themselves in 1969 is another very valid reason (without anything to be anti-to and push against The Stones Aren’t too sure where to go). They still make some of their most daring material in this era: which song has the record for the 20th century of containing the most swear words of any song ever? Why that’s [187] ‘Star Star’ which includes the ‘f’ word no less than fifty-six times in an era when you couldn’t say it once! However The Stones withdraw a little from the darkness that once burned so bright in them. As time goes by they’ll start moving away from the gloomy darkness of their album covers to the bright neons of ‘Goat’s Head Soup’ and ‘Dirty Work’ (what on earth are they wearing?!?) Their sound will develop after moving away from Decca and into deeper studios into something clearer and crisper that better lends itself to bright and breezy pop like [190] ‘It’s Only Rock ‘n’ Roll (But I Like It!)’. Their topics will move back from celebrating devils and murderers (bar one last go on [256] ‘Too Much Blood’ – the kind of song that protests while still staring through fingers covering eyes) and putting down girls to songs of love and marriage and even the occasional song where the girls get the better of them ([174] ‘Following The River’ [323] ‘Rough Justice’ [334] ‘Laugh I Nearly Died’) which is what comes of marrying girls as tough as Bianca Jagger and Anita Pallenberg! The Stones, though, can’t escape from their past even though they don’t want to go back there, which is my theory as to both why the band now are treated like a caricature these days and why they keep releasing so many flipping live albums (both as an attempt to rid their fanbase of the taste of Altamont and because they are ‘allowed’ to live in their past when they could get away with songs like these).
Don’t get me wrong: I like the modern Stones more than most fans it seems and they’re at their best on material that pushes towards the edge of where they used to go ([310] ‘Saint Of Me’ is a rebellious cry that could have been done in any era; [336] ‘Look What The Cat Dragged In’ is as mean as any Stones song out there and [311] ‘Might As Well Get Juiced’ suggests the band aren’t going to be canonised any time soon). But the biggest fan in the world will admit that they’ve lost….something since their heyday and I don’t think its just age (if anything the band get more energetic with every tour after their early ones when they were stock still, till Jagger developed his persona and cute dancing skills). The Stones lifted the box off something it feels as if they wished they’d never let out – and yet it’s that acceptance that mankind does have such a box of darkness that made them so very special in the first place. It wasn’t just the Stones who caused the end of the 1960s and they’d been doing much the same for much of the decade with less attention given to them anyway. It was when people took them seriously and it stopped being a joke that they begun to back away from it. There is though always a place in every generation for shadows and that’s as true now if not more so in this Godforsaken Trump filled world. If you see your grandfather, baby, standing in the shadows chances are he’ll still be waiting for the Stones to tell the truth about life in a way few other bands can. Even if it all originally started as a publicity stunt.

Other Rolling Stones articles from this website you might be interested in reading:

'No 2' (1965) http://alansalbumarchives.blogspot.co.uk/2015/08/the-rolling-stones-no-2-1965.html
'Out Of Our Heads' (1965) http://alansalbumarchives.blogspot.co.uk/2014/06/the-rolling-stones-out-of-our-heads-1965.html

‘Aftermath’ (1966)
http://www.alansalbumarchives.blogspot.co.uk/2013/03/the-rolling-stones-aftermath-1966.html

'Between The Buttons' (1967)
http://alansalbumarchives.blogspot.co.uk/2008/07/review-9-rolling-stones-between-buttons.html

'Their Satanic Majesties Request' (1967)  
http://alansalbumarchives.blogspot.co.uk/2008/07/review-16-rolling-stones-their-satanic.html

'Beggar's Banquet' (1968)
http://alansalbumarchives.blogspot.co.uk/2008/07/review-26-rolling-stones-beggars.html 
‘Let It Bleed’ (1969) https://alansalbumarchives.blogspot.co.uk/2017/08/the-rolling-stones-let-it-bleed-1969.html

'Sticky Fingers' (1971)
http://alansalbumarchives.blogspot.co.uk/2012/07/rolling-stones-sticky-fingers-1971.html

'Exile On Main Street'(1972)
http://alansalbumarchives.blogspot.co.uk/2010/05/news-views-and-music-issue-61-rolling.html
'Goat's Head Soup' (1973)
http://alansalbumarchives.blogspot.co.uk/2008/07/review-58-rolling-stones-goats-head.html 
'It's Only Rock 'n' Roll' (1974) http://alansalbumarchives.blogspot.com/2014/02/the-rolling-stones-its-only-rock-and.html
'Black and Blue' (1976) http://alansalbumarchives.blogspot.co.uk/2015/11/the-rolling-stones-black-and-blue-1976.html

'Some Girls' (1978)
http://alansalbumarchives.blogspot.co.uk/2009/05/news-views-and-music-issue-30-rolling.html 
'Emotional Rescue' (1980) http://alansalbumarchives.blogspot.co.uk/2014/11/the-rolling-stones-emotional-rescue-1980.html
'Undercover' (1983) http://alansalbumarchives.blogspot.co.uk/2013/09/rolling-stones-undercover-1983-album.html
'Dirty Work' (1986) http://alansalbumarchives.blogspot.co.uk/2016/08/the-rolling-stones-dirty-work-1986.html

'Steel Wheels' (1989)
http://alansalbumarchives.blogspot.co.uk/2011/09/news-views-and-music-issue-113-rolling.html 
‘Voodoo Lounge’ (1994) http://alansalbumarchives.blogspot.co.uk/2017/05/rolling-stones-voodoo-lounge-1994.html
'Bridges To Babylon' (1998) http://alansalbumarchives.blogspot.co.uk/2015/02/the-rolling-stones-bridges-to-babylon.html
'A Bigger Bang' (2005) http://alansalbumarchives.blogspot.co.uk/2016/01/the-rolling-stones-bigger-bang-2005.html
Ronnie Wood and Bill Wyman's Rhythm Kings Solo http://alansalbumarchives.blogspot.co.uk/2016/12/a-short-aaa-guide-to-ronnie-wood-and.html
Rolling Stones: Unreleased Recordings http://alansalbumarchives.blogspot.co.uk/2014/06/another-journey-through-past-darkly.html
Surviving TV Clips and Music Videos http://alansalbumarchives.blogspot.com/2016/12/the-rolling-stones-surviving-tv-clips.html
Non-Album Recordings Part One 1962-1969 http://alansalbumarchives.blogspot.com/2017/01/rolling-stones-non-album-songs-part-one.html
Non-Album Recordings Part Two 1970-2014 http://alansalbumarchives.blogspot.com/2017/01/the-rolling-stones-non-album-songs-part.html
Live/Solo/Compilations Part One 1963-1974 http://alansalbumarchives.blogspot.com/2017/01/the-rolling-stones-livesolocompilationa.html 
Live/Solo/Compilations Part Two 1975-1988 http://alansalbumarchives.blogspot.com/2017/01/the-rolling-stones-livesolocompilation.html
Live/Solo/Compilations Part Three 1989-2015 http://alansalbumarchives.blogspot.com/2017/01/the-rolling-stones-livesolocompilation_30.html





The Monkees: Five Landmark Concerts and Three Key Cover Versions



I don't know about you, dear reader, but so far this book/website has seemed awfully studio-bound: yes there are the odd live albums dotted round in the discographies but a touring life was usually as important if not more so to our AAA artists. Even we can't go through every gig they ever played however, so what we've decided to do instead is bring you five particularly important gigs with a run-down of what was played, where and when and why we consider these gigs so important. Think of these as a sort of 'highlights' covering from first to last, to whet your appetite and to avoid ignoring a band's live work completely! The Monkees are one of those AAA bands who have become, rather unfairly, pegged as a ‘studio’ band. After all, everything in their catalogue except for two albums were made with session musicians and Monkee tours only happen about once every five years on average across their fifty years. Even so, they’ve still clocked up an impressive amount of concerts – somewhere just under a thousand or thereabouts – and considering they are a band made up of four very different musicians with four very different backgrounds (and four people who were hired because they could act, not sing) it’s amazing that their concerts are as good as they are. Forget that whole fuss about this band not playing their on instruments – only The Monkees play for all but example three on this list.

1)  Where: Honolulu International Centre When: December 3rd 1966 Why: First Gig Setlist: Last Train To Clarksville ‘She’s So Far Out She’s In’ You Just May Be The One I Wanna Be Free Mary Mary Prithee (Do Not Ask For Love) Sweet Young Thing I Can’t Get Her Off My Mind (I’m Not Your) Steppin’ Stone ‘East Virginia Blues’ ‘You Can’t Judge A Book’ ‘The Joker’ ‘I Gotta Woman’ ‘I Wish I Could Shimmy Like My Sister Kate’ Take A Giant Step I’m A Believer

The first Monkees ‘performance’ was actually a series of ‘promotional concerts’ that took place up and down America in September 1966. Screen Gems were keen to plug their new series and figured it would be fun if The Monkees got together and played one song – Chuck Berry Standard ‘Johnny B Goode’ seems to have been chosen because it was pretty much the only song all four Monkees knew. The rest of the promotional concerts involved The Monkees standing around whole clips were played or listening to ‘Last Train To Clarksville’. When the powers that be asked if The Monkees would consider a second promotional tour they insisted on having their own input. They were adamant that they had to appear on stage and play for real and took part in a feverish week of rehearsals – all the time they had left in between recording commitments audio and visual. They really got involved too: much of the set list was Mike’s (and features many of his earliest songs, written simply enough so the fledgling band could play them), while Peter got involved in the lighting, doing his homework by going to lots of shows incognito and taking notes to take back to the others. There was a real buzz in The Monkees’ camp in this period, a month before the Mike Nesmith interview about being ‘fake’ that would cause so much trouble for the band – instead this was a chance to do what they all wanted to do, not what their managers and propducers wanted them to do. Considering they hadn’t even met before a year ago and that they couldn’t hear a thing, the four Monkees are said to have played an impressively tight debut gig, though alas nobody thought to record it for posterity (and The Monkees were still too new for bootlegs just yet, with no fans bringing a pricey tape recorder into the gig – well as far as we know, have you checkef your attic lately just in case?) In retrospect, though, perhaps the most ground breaking factor in these shows was the TV screen that played the band as they performed with clips from the series – a mindblowingly revolutionary idea for much of the audience at home. Oh and some footage of civil rights riots in Selma – the FBU were so concerned that they’re meant to have sent along an undercover member to check The Monkees out (I hope he liked the music above all that screaming!)

The opening was pretty spectacular too: as Monkee music played four fake VOX speakers were ‘delivered’ on to the stage – out of which The Monkees would burst on cue. Tradition also dictated that, following an invitation from Hawaiian station KPOI the night before this first gig, that The Monkees would drop in on local radio stations wherever they played to say ‘thankyou’ to their fans. Bobby Hart’s band Candystore Prophets were the opening act and also played backup during the four Monkees’ solo performances, which were already in place during this first gig (as the band insisted on being seen as ‘individuals’) although the songs they played ar notably different – instead of ‘Gonna Build Me A Mountain’ Davy previews a song intended by Don Kirshner for the band’s third album ‘’I Wish I Could Shimmy Like My Sister Kate’, whilst Peter’s banjo solo was ‘East Virginia’ (as briefly intended for ‘Headquarters’) and Micky wasn’t yet James Brown, sticking with the band’s cover of ‘Johnny B Goode’ as his solo piece. Mike, though, always played ‘You Can’t Judge A Book’ during his solo spots all the way through The Monkees’ first two years. Other songs are a surprise too: ‘She’s So Far Out She’s In’ was a song intended for ‘Headquatrters’ that The Monkees never quite nailed despite having played it live for months by the time they made it to the studio, ‘Prithee’ is an outtake intended for ‘More Of The Monkees’ that finally turned up in 1969’s ’33 and a Third’ Revolutions Per Monkee’ film and Davy’s signature tune is not yet ‘I Wanna Be Free’ but ‘I Can’t Get Her Off My Mind’, a song tried out for the debut album but abandoned until ‘Headquarters’ the following February. Some things never change though: ‘Clarksville’ will be played at the start of every Monkees concert from now on, barring the tour in 1969! Audio footage does exist of a Monkees show in Arizona on this tour a month later, included on the super deluxe edition of ‘More Of The Monkees’ – the band’s twelfth show.

2)  Where: Honolulu International Centre When: June 30th 1967 Why: First British Gig Setlist: Last Train To Clarksville You Just May Be The One The Girl I Knew Somewhere I Wanna Be Free Sunny Girlfriend Your Auntie Grizelda Forget That Girl Sweet Young Thing Mary Mary Cripple Creek You Can’t Judge A Book Gonna Build A Mountain I Gotta Woman I’m A Believer Randy Scouse Git (I’m Not Your) Steppin’ Stone

We’ve included this gig partly as a sample for how much the setlist has changed at the start of The Monkees’ second tour (note the appearance of ‘The Girl I Knew Somewhere’, intended as the band’s new single until a copyright dispute, the change of the solo material and the first time anyone had heard ‘Randy Scouse Git’ three months after it was recorded), but also because of the behind the scenes events. The Monkees were particularly big in Britain – Davy’s local status helped, but so did a primtime slot on BBC television on Saturday nights. The Monkees had already turned up there briefly in March (which is where they first met The Beatles, Mike turned up to the recording of ‘A Day In The Life’ and Micky wrote ‘Randy Scouse Git’ in the first place) but on this visit they were very much special guests, hanging out with the fab four a lot. This was also the infamous gig when Jimi Hendrix, then still very much an unknown best known for working with Little Richard, was their opening act – even in a career full of surreal moments, Micky cites hearing Jimi’s cries of ‘Foxy Lady’ drowned out by a crowd of teenagers shout out ‘Davy’ was the most surreal! New additions to the stage set included an equally surreal flower power stage-set that was more like something The Grateful Dead were using and this time the civil rights footage was updated to include another riot in Alabama. The most controversial moment this time round, though, was when footage of The Rolling Stones were shown during a performance of ‘I Wanna Be Free’ – given that two of them were in prison that very week on trumped up drug charges, it was The Monkees’ subtle way of showing solidarity with their fellow music-makers. The end of the tour was released (twenty years late!) as ‘Live ‘67’ but the British shows don’t seem to have been recorded. A lot of photographs were taken though – the Rhino CD re-issue series uses them a lot!

3)  Where: Coliseum Concert Bowl, Vancouver When: March 29th 1969 Why: First Sam and The Goodtimers Gig  Setlist: I’m A Believer Pleasant Valley Sunday Tapioca Tundra I Wanna Be Free ‘Show Me’ A Man Without A Dream Daydream Believer Goin’ Down Someday Man Listen To The Band Don’t Wait For Me ‘Summertime’ ‘For Once In My Life’ ‘Johnny B Goode’ I’m A Believer

By 1969, with Peter out of the band and their reputation on the slide, nobody cared about what The Monkees did on tour – except the band themselves and a small core of loyal fans. Booked in advance in huge arenas that could never be filled, Mike took the opportunity to plug a soul band he’d grown friendly with, ‘Sam and the Goodtimers’, who till now were best known for backing Ike and Tina Turner (just as with Chip Douglas Mike saw them at a local club on Sunset Boulevard and asked them on the spot). With Micky free to walk about the stage without having to play drums and only Mike wiuth an instrument this tour it made sense to work with somebody – but the band choice only confused those loyal fans who’d bought ‘Instant Replay’ all the more. This time Mike, in his long surreal career, always says that watching Davy belt out Sam and Dave’s ‘For Once In My Life’ was his surrealist moment as a Monkee! ‘Show Me’ was the other exclusive cover (perhaps best known to AAA readers for Lulu’s version), belted out by Micky – Mike, perhaps sensibly, stuck to country songs.  All The Monkees songs got a soul makeover too, making it all the more sad that nobody seems to have recorded any of these shows and that all we have to show for them are some photos of The Monkees looking uncomfortable playing to three or four people in some big hats! The tour ended in disarray with several shows cancelled after ticket sales were so slow – alas it would be the last tour with Mike in the band for twenty-seven years and they didn’t even know it was their last show at the time! Some surviving TV footage does exist though, of Sam and the Goodtimers backing the Monkees on the Joey Bishop Show where a soulful ‘I’m A Believer’ sounds particularly strong (no wonder this lineup both opened and closed their show with it!)

4)  Where: Concord Hotel, New York When: May 24th 1986 Why: First ‘Proper’ Comeback Gig Setlist: Last Train To Clarksville A Little Bit Me A Little Bit You (I’m Not Your) Steppin’ Stone Valleri Cuddly Toy Your Auntie Grizelda Yes I Will Sometime In The Morning ‘I’m In Love With Six Girls’ Daydream Believer What Am I Doin’ Hangin’ Round? Rainy Jane I’ll Love You Forever Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On ‘I Want You I Need You I Love You’ ‘Lucille’ Gonna Buy Me A Dog Shades Of Grey Star Collector I Wanna Be Free Cripple Creek Higher and Higher Randy Scouse Git Pleasant Valley Sunday I’m A Believer

The Monkees had kinda, sorta, reunited in 1976, with Dolenz, Jones, Boyce and Hart (‘The Guys who sang ‘em and the guys who wrote ‘em’ – well some of them, in both cases!’) becoming a cult hit, especially in Japan where they even released a live album. However it was another ten years before The Monkees first performed under their brand name again – a full seventeen years after their last tour. The gig we’ve listed here is the first one, a full nineteen years since Peter had taken the stahge with his colleagues, although Mike – busy inventing MTV and with a busy career of his own – stayed out of it for now. Wanting to keep things away from the big press until they were ready The Monkees started with a short Australian tour but that only featured Peter and Davy (Micky was busy) so we’ve skipped that and gone straight to ‘the 20th anniversary tour’ which took place about three months later and had three Monkees all present and correct. The Monkees were briefly a quartet too, thanks to a blow-up doll of a bearded Mike Nesmith made for them by a fan which they insisted on sitting alongside them at their press conferences! The idea was Monkee fan and tour promoter David Fishoff, who had put many 1960s bands together and sold the idea to Peter first – at first the tour was booked for twenty venues but (in contrast to 1969) there was so much fuss that this first tour eventually ended up playing two hundred dates (by far the most any line-up of the band ever played in one go). Sales were no doubt helped by a decision of MTV to repeat Monkee episodes in a regular slot (the first time these had been seen on America since 1971) and Rhino’s re-issue of many of the original albums on vinyl. As a measure of how big The Monkees were again their opening acts included Gary Puckett and the Union Gap and even Herman’s Hermits, for a time The Monkees’ only serious rivals for concert sales after the Beatles and Stones ‘retired’ in 1966. However, despite all this sudden fame, no one thought to record the concert shows, in sound or video, so all fans have are memories.

5)  Where: Wembley Arena When: March 19th 1997 Why: Final Fourway Gig Setlist: Last Train To Clarksville Look Out (Here Comes Tomorrow) That Was Then  This Is Now The Girl I Knew Somewhere A Little Bit me A Little Bit You Randy Scouse Git Your Auntie Grizelda Shades Of Grey Words Valleri Mary Mary I’ll Be Back Upon My Feet ‘Girl’ ‘Lucille’ ‘Purple Haze’ ‘Since I Fell For You’ Heart And Soul I Believe You I’ll Love You Forever Goin’ Down For Pete’s Sake You and I #2 Porpoise Song Listen To The Band Higher and Higher I’m A Believer (I’m Not Your) Steppin’ Stone Daydream Believer Pleasant Valley Sunday
Technically the last Monkee gig seems to have taken place in Australia (on December 16th 2016), at least if announcemernts to the press to be believed. This was a three-way reunion tour with Mike to promote the ‘Good Times’ CD, while the last with Davy took place in Milwaukee on July 23rd 2011. However the final Monkee concert to ever feature all four men on stage came at the end of their lengthy ‘JustUs’ tour celebrating their reunion in which The Monkees played every single note themselves for the first time since 1967. Very good it was too, having been to the British leg of the sixty date tour, with some real surprises thrown in (‘Only Shades Of Grey’, sung by an older sadder band, was particularly spot-on and the live debut of ‘Porpoise Song’ was pretty special tour). The Monkees again used back-projectsion screens, just as they had thirty years earlier, whilst they opened most shows by doing the ‘Monkee walk’ on to the stage! The support act, in the UK at least, was Nancy Boy with one Christian Nesmith on guitar – the same offspring mentioned in the TV show’s second season, now aged thirty. The last song sung by all four men together on stage? ‘Pleasant Valley Sunday’, meaning the Monkees story ends in an oddly fitting swirl of ffeedback. Mike was meant to play the following US tour as well but bottled out after poor review of the band’s UK shows and looming deadlines – that tour ended, amazingly enough it’s Headquarters improve ‘No Time’ – a song choice that is even more poignant when you think about it!

Sometimes when artists pick up that musical baton they pay tribute to their heroes by covering their favourite songs. Here are three covers that we consider to be amongst the very best out of the ones we've heard (and no we haven't heard them all - do you know how many AAA albums out there are out there even without adding cover songs as well?!) The sad fact is Ther Monkees were never ‘cool’ in a way many of our other bands were so not as many musicians ever covered their actual songs (a real pity as Mike, Micky, Davy and Peter were all first-class songwriters). More often than not The Monkees were covering other people’s material anyway. However there are some exceptions – two songs by Mike that snuck in under the radar and a one-off that’s technically by Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil but was written for The Monkees and is too good to leave off this list. Usually we tell you here about an album of cover songs by other artists we recommend – but neither 1992’s ‘Here No Evil’ or 2012’s ‘Steppin’ Stone’ are much cop sadly, with not one decent song anywhere as young and trendy bands try far too hard to be ‘ironic’. No we’re sticking to outside sources for this article with one example from before, one during and one after Monkeemania for you…



1)  [  ] Mary Mary (Paul Butterfield Blues Band ‘East-West’ 1966)

You were a youngster in the mid 1960s who insisted on liking The Monkees after the older kids had pointed out that they weren’t a ‘real’ band, beat you up and stole your lunchbox. What did you do? Well, if you were hip enough to have a wider record collection you might have done worse than to point at how respected Mike Nesmith was as a composer even before he was a Monkee. Hot on the heels of Linda Ronstadt and her first band ‘The Stone Ponys’ covering ‘Different Drum’ was the much-respected Paul Butterfield Blues Band turning a pre-Monkee version of ‘Mary Mary’ into a thrilling slab of pulsating blues and soul. Adding an intriguing doo-der-dum depressed riff to the song , a harmonica break and transplanting the guitar solo to the piano in every verse break, Paul Butterfield and guitarist Mike Bloomfield (before he formed The Electric Flag and worked with Stephen Stills and Al Kooper  on ‘Super Session) re-arrange the song heavily. Clearly The Monkees could never have done this quite so ‘heavily’ in their early bubblegum phase and it’s hard to hear past Micky’s superb vocal on The Monkees’ version. But this is one of the few Monkee songs done better outside the band, with the heavier more desperate and emotional feel far more fitting for Mike’s tale of woe as Mary leaves him. The result is easily the best Monkee cover out there and comes from the Butterfield Blues Band’s best album by far. Kudos to you if you’re a music fan enough to own both polar opposites!

2)  [  ] Papa Gene’s Blues (Floyd Cramer ‘Plays The Monkees’ 1967)

One of the weirdest examples of Monkeemania is country legend Floyd Kramer appealing to an audience half his age with not just one song but a whole album of Monkee covers. It has to be heard to be believed – especially when ‘The Monkees Theme’ sounds like it comes from old Tennessee or Nashville or ‘I’m A Believer’ turned into an instrumental Christian lament. One wonders why Floyd made it – even when they were popular real musicians hated The Monkees and few fans were likely to mistake his oldened wizened self on the back cover for a Monkee (there are some cute toy monkeys on the front playing instruments though, aww). It’s a pretty good album though, especially on the Monkee tracks that already have a countrified edge, which goes double for technically the only Monkee original on the album. ‘Papa Gene’ is much the same, but losing the vocals means we get to hear more of what a beautiful tune this song has and while the guitar part is much the same (and most likely features some of the same musicians) the vocal part is handed over to a twinkly piano part which sounds really good. What a shame poor sales meant we never got a whole pile of AAA cover albums – Floyd plays The Byrds would have sounded amazing!

3)  [  ] Love Is Only Sleeping (The Luck Of Eden Hall ‘A Phase We’re Going Through’ 2010)

Love Is Only Sleeping is not the most obvious Monkee song to cover but it sounds mighty good in a 21st century twist on psychedelia, all banging booming drums, backwards guitar loops and thick fiery bass runs. With more budget than The Monkees had for a Tv series, the amount of effects on this track is impressive and it sounds superb, easily the highlight of a various artists album looking at how modern bands might sound growing up in the flower power era. Named for a glass beaker discovered in Egypt owned by the Musgrave family of Cumberland, this timeless version of a timeless song could have truly been made in any era, from the 1960s to the future. Most modern bands sound stooped doing psychedelia and tend to go too soft or too silly, but these guys – one of the first bands to be supported by crowdfunding - sound great. The only downside is how quickly the song fades without the stunning epic ending on ‘Pisces, Aquarius’.


Other Monkees-related articles from this site you might be interested in reading: 
'More Of The Monkees' (1967) http://alansalbumarchives.blogspot.co.uk/2015/09/more-of-monkees-1967.html

'Headquarters' (1967)  
http://alansalbumarchives.blogspot.co.uk/2008/07/review-10-monkees-headquarters-1967.html

'Pisces Aquarius, Capricorn and Jones LTD' (1967)
http://alansalbumarchives.blogspot.co.uk/2008/07/review-18-monkees-pisces-aquarius.html

'The Birds, The Bees and The Monkees' (1968)  
http://alansalbumarchives.blogspot.co.uk/2009/06/news-views-and-music-issue-34-birds.html

'Head' (1968)
http://alansalbumarchives.blogspot.co.uk/2008/07/review-27-monkees-head-1968.html

'Instant Replay' (1969)
http://alansalbumarchives.blogspot.co.uk/2010/06/news-views-and-music-issue-64-monkees.html

'The Monkees Present' (1969)
http://alansalbumarchives.blogspot.co.uk/2012/06/news-views-and-music-issue-148-monkees.html

'Changes' (1970)  
http://alansalbumarchives.blogspot.co.uk/2011/04/news-views-and-music-issue-95-monkees.html
‘JustUs# (1996) https://alansalbumarchives.blogspot.co.uk/2017/09/the-monkees-justus-1996.html
'Good Times!' (2016) http://alansalbumarchives.blogspot.com/2016/06/the-monkees-good-times-2016-or-are-they.html
'Only Shades Of Grey' : The Monkees In Relation To Postmodernism (University Dissertation) http://alansalbumarchives.blogspot.co.uk/2013/09/university-dissertation-monkees-in.html
Auditions, Screen Tests and Pre-Fame Recordings http://alansalbumarchives.blogspot.co.uk/2016/04/the-monkees-auditions-and-screen-tests.html
Surviving TV Clips http://alansalbumarchives.blogspot.co.uk/2016/04/the-monkees-surviving-tv-clips.html
The TV Series - Season  One (19966-1967) http://alansalbumarchives.blogspot.co.uk/2016/05/the-monkees-tv-series-season-one-196667.html
The TV Series - Season Two (1967-1968) http://alansalbumarchives.blogspot.com/2016/05/the-monkees-tv-series-season-two-1967.html
'HEAD/33 and a third Revolutions Per Monkee/Episode #761' http://alansalbumarchives.blogspot.com/2016/05/the-monkees-head33-and-third.html
Monkee Sidetrips: The Boyce and Hart Catalogue http://alansalbumarchives.blogspot.com/2016/05/monkees-side-trips-boyce-and-hart.html
Live/Solo/Compilation Albums Part One 1967-1975
http://alansalbumarchives.blogspot.com/2016/05/the-monkees-livesolocompilation-albums.html
Live/Solo/Compilation Albums Part Two 1976-1986
http://alansalbumarchives.blogspot.com/2016/06/the-monkees-livesolocompilation-albums.html
Live/Solo/Compilation Albums Part Three 1987-2014 http://alansalbumarchives.blogspot.com/2016/06/the-monkees-livesolocompilations-part.html

Monday, 14 May 2018

Otis Redding Essay: It Takes Two - The Art Of Melancholy In Soul Music


I used to think I knew what the secret to soul music was, dear listener. It was the sound of one stubborn immovable object trying to get another immovable object to do what they wanted to. Not enough loving, too much loving, loving the wrong way, loving the right way but not often enough, too much freedom, too much of a trap: most soul music is men or women huffing or puffing about their other half and getting sweaty as they try to change their minds by force. James Brown, Sam Cooke, Jackie Wilson, Ray Charles – everyone who came before Otis seemed to be not so much ordering as bullying o bargaining. With the odd exception of a song like ‘Shake’ (is it really soul?) that encouraged you to dance, most soul songs weighed you down with the weight of battle. Almost all soul singers spent their careers wanting something so desperately that they would get down on their knees and plead for change.
And then came Otis and suddenly all that soul DNA became enveloped in more dimensions somehow, as if it was telling the part of a wider story. Otis didn’t beg. Otis didn’t plead. Otis didn’t huff and puff the way his predecessors did. Though Otis was physically bigger than any other soul singer (‘six feet one, weigh one hundred and ten’ as he puts it himself in his song ‘Love Man’) and sweated buckets on stage with the best of them, something seemed different about him somehow, subtler. He was vulnerable for starters. Otis’ first big hit and the song that changed his career was titled [  ] ‘Pain In My Heart’ and reacted to events, rather than famous soul songs like ‘Bring It On Home To Me’ or ‘Please, Please, Please’ that demanded things of his partner. Rather than ordering change, Otis spends most of his career trying to put things right with his beloved instead. However he still sounded vulnerable – with power. That’s a huge trick to pull off and to my ears no one else got it right. In fact I’m not sure anyone else ever really tried it. Most soul singers got grandiose ‘characters’ and nicknames’ across their careers. James Brown was the Godfather of Soul. Sam Cooke was the King of Soul. Jackie Wilson was ‘Mr Excitement’. Even Otis’ main rivals Sam and Dave were known as ‘Double Dynamite’. What name did Otis choose for himself? ‘Mr Pitiful’. That name even became a song, so that more people could hear it, a parody of sorts of what all his rivals were doing, upbeat and enthusiastic but at the heart of it all so very very sad. Otis was the one soul singer you could count on to keep you company through a sad and lonely night, a figure for whom nothing ever seemed to be going right, for whom every relationship was going to end in heartbreak and make himself look stupid.
You just didn’t do that in soul music before Otis arrived in 1964. You don’t really do that now: who else but Otis would sing quite so many songs of melancholy in their careers? Songs where, far from seeming like superhuman the people in them seem vulnerable and weak? ‘Pain In My Heart’ was the start in a whole series of original songs about feeling vulnerable: ‘Security’ ‘Cigarettes and Coffee’ ‘My Lover’s Prayer’ ‘Ole Man Trouble’  ‘Chained and Bound’ ‘Dock Of The Bay’…they all come with the feeling that something is going wrong and all the huffing and puffing and sweat isn’t going to put it right. ‘Fa Fa Fa Fa Fa Fa (Sad Song)’ even has Otis trying to write what other soul singers do and realising that he can’t, so he realises that ‘this is the only song I can sing’ instead, a song that in another’s hands would be all smiles, but here is all tears. This theme is less obvious in the soul cover songs Otis did, which tended towards the happy side of things, although that might be why – unusually for a soul singer – he reached into the rock and roll idiom too and his choices are interesting: rather than the common cover songs ‘Day Tripper’ is a rare Beatles love affair that doesn’t work out, ‘Satisfaction’ a teeth-gnashing song of frustration about everything in life, while even in-concert-only Beatles cover choice ‘A Hard Day’s Night’ isn’t exactly the happiest song in the Lennon-McCartney songbook. Nope, Otis is a pitiful figure. ‘My life is such a weary thing’ sighs Otis on ‘My Lover’s Prayer’, ‘You can’t make my life all over!’ Notably the only time Otis ever asks his love to come back to him, as he does on this song, he doesn’t do so in an ‘I promise you the Earth baby and sweep you off your feet’ way like a James Brown, but in a ‘how could you leave someone who needs you so badly he’s going to cry great rivers till you come home lyric?’
Then Otis discovered his backing band – or at any rate Stax discovered them for him. Booker T and the MGs were themselves not your average r and b instrumental band. Their playing, especially when enhanced by the Mar-Keys horn section, tends towards the melancholy. Booker T isn’t a flashy keyboard player – he plays glorious descending chords that sound like teardrops. Guitarist Steve Cropper, who co-wrote so many songs with Otis, is a master of the minor key (just check out that guitar solo on ‘Ole Man Trouble’, so full of despair and desperation). Donald ‘Duck Dunn’ doesn’t so much press home where the song is going as throb and pulse, letting the sorrow of the songs sink in. And drummer Al Jackson can play anything, including the kind of weight-of-the-world sigh that only heartbreak and despair can inspire. Booker T and the MGs can and do play happy songs and indeed most of their own discography tends towards the cheery. But they sound at their best playing sad.
‘So what?’, you might be thinking. Otis was just a sad man with a big voice and a band with the scale to match it. But that melancholy is important because it allows Otis to do things differently to everyone who came before him. It’s easy to get stuck in one place if you sing soul: there are only so many ways you can ‘show off’, plead endlessly, order the person of the opposite sex to do what you want them to do and yell ‘gotta gotta gotta’ while you go red in the face. But the melancholy in Otis’ work allows him to tease out extra nuances in his writing. He’s not tied to just sitting in one place and can go anywhere. Soul music can suddenly do regret, not hope. It can do guilt, not pride. It can do multiple layers and this gives Otis a subtlety his forebears can’t reach. Take a song like ‘Try A Little Tenderness’: it’s his gentler instruction to any macho men listening to soul records for advice in their love lives: sometimes being yelled at by a tough guy isn’t always the way to go, he says, try it with some sensitivity instead. ‘Just One More Day’ is an earlier song on the same theme: ‘I’ll buy you anything you want me to buy, and I will love you till the day you die, if you please let me have one more day!’ Otis cries. You believe him, in a way that you don’t always believe Sam Cooke, Jackie Wilson, James Brown and co who are playing a character. We know that this is the ‘real’ Otis somehow, a gentle giant who has fun playing at a romantic caricature like ‘Love Man’ but is really struggling to keep his shit together like the rest of us.
Where did this come from? Well, here is my guess – but I stress it is only a guess. Otis was an autobiographical writer, perhaps more than he’s ever been given credit for. His life impacted his music more than it did most soul singers – perhaps because he was a lot more sensitive than most soul singers and less concerned about playing a role. Otis, though, was sensitive to the degree that he worried about everything, because he knew how easy it was for life to change and to lose everything. He was certain that he was about to lose everything important in his life any day now and much of the  sadness in his work came out of fear. His dad was poorly with TB for most of his childhood and could have died at any time; this is unsettling for anyone, but it also left Otis was the family’s chief breadwinner from the moment he left school early at fifteen, aware of life’s responsibilities far too young. He then had a baby at eighteen and a wife at nineteen and it changed his life – the couple had a chance meeting after she went to see a band run by local Georgian singer Johnny Jenkins when she fell for backing singer Otis. Keen to make his acquaintance, she got nervous and her words came out as a row: why did he have to sing like that? Their relationship started with an argument then and there would be many more, in between the kisses. It was a relationship that was clearly based on love and where the pair adored each other – but did they adore each other enough to stay together in between the temper tantrums? Otis seems to have been asking himself that question up to the day he died, past his seventh wedding anniversary.
Desperate to make it in the music business, he moved out of Georgia at the age of twenty to try to make it as a singer in Los Angeles – wife Zelda and son Dexter stayed behind. While other soul singers had the life they always dreamed of out on the road, partying every night and with a different girl (sometimes boy) on their arm after every gig, Otis went back to his hotel room alone. He yearned to be with them, doing the things other couples took for granted. He longed to do the ordinary things every other soul singer ignored and make them out to be special moments. Even after he became a success and bought his wife and child a mansion to keep the rain off their heads, he hardly ever got the time to spend with them – he was too busy touring or recording and trying to get a hurried message through to them on the phone. Even the rows in what was an often stormy relationship, the sort of thing that other soul singers always vented about, seemed somehow special to Otis: with so little in his life that was solid and so much risk of it being taken away, he was always anxious to please, to put things right, to make up any differences that happened. Zelda once said to a reporter that ‘every single song Otis sang I felt as if he sang it for me’ and she’s probably not far wrong. Just as Otis got through his first overwhelming gig on the advice that he should aim to sing to just one girl in his audience and the rest would believe it and follow, so he realised more and more that this one girl was her. And he was worried that without her he might not be able to sing at all. One of the most moving of Otis’ songs is a lyric that was written about what he wanted most in his life: not love, not happiness, not perfection. But [  ] ‘Security’. And Otis is wary, paranoid even, that what he’s got is all going to be taken away and that there is nothing he can do about it.
You could argue that he found it. Zelda was so distraught at his early death at aged twenty-six (when she was only twenty-three) that she said she could never possibly fall in love again – and she hasn’t, even with the fiftieth anniversary of Otis death come and gone. There’s never been a moment of doubt in her voice in public in all the years since that Otis was made for her and it would no doubt have done soul’s gentle giant the world of good to hear that. I’ve never doubted it either: most of their arguments were probably not because she wasn’t in love but because she felt insecure too. She was fifteen when they met and she was swept off her feet; eighteen when she had her first child and she was alone for long stretches of their marriage when Otis was off on the road. She thought her husband was the most attractive and talented man in the world and he was off on the road alone; of course she probably feared that he was about to run off any day too. At times he might well have done, certainly that’s what the guilt in many of his songs seems to suggest sometimes. But nobody has ever come forward with a paternity test and said ‘Otis was my father!’ and there has never been a ‘ten girls a day shock’ revelation about Otis, even after he died (and couldn’t sue, which is what happens to so many leading figures after they die – especially when young and famous). Whatever the cause of that doubt, though, it seems to have fuelled both of them in this period. Otis loved Zelda but couldn’t be sure if she loved him; in turn Zelda loved Otis but couldn’t be sure he loved her. There were cracks in their relationship as early as the first album and Otis mines this uncertainty in his songs. Is today going to be the day she walks out on him? Is it today that this minor fight will blow up into something he can’t stop? Otis is terrified of losing what he knows is the love of his life too and the Redding catalogue is a series of songs, original and borrowed, that charts their rise and fall together as a couple far more than any other soul writer ever did (Otis may have got some of this from his hero Sam Cooke, but Cooke’s love life was complex and full of strife: his first wife died soon after their divorce in a car crash and his second was in the process of splitting up from when he died after the death of their son in their family swimming pool, not to mention at least three children born out of wedlock). Otis’ problem, by contrast, is that the family home is his sanctuary and escape – but he also feels a drive to write and record and sing that takes him away from home for so many long periods. Will his wife let him do this? Or will he lose both (with pretty much 100% of his songs about Zelda somewhere?)
On the first album ‘Pain In My Heart’ Zelda is the only thing that’s going right – that he no longer doubts anything when ‘I hold you in these arms of mine’. Second album ‘Soul Ballads’ has Otis pledging himself in a much more determined, anxious way. ‘That’s How Strong My Love Is’ he promises Zelda, while offering to be ‘Your One and Only Man’. Both songs, though, come with an added dimension of worry and doubt – he can’t feel safe when they’re together anymore, he needs her to know it, to prove it to her. Both songs and plenty more on that album come with a weight, a desperation, a pleading that’s hidden away in the minor keys, the sigh of Otis’ vocal in between his promises of love and a horn section that feels unstoppable, a pressure that’s too much for even this powerful singer to bear. ‘Chained and Bound’, a song that reads from the title as if it’s going to be another soul song about escaping the clutches of a girl, is the happiest we ever hear Otis, more than happy to be with the one he loves (‘I don’t have to worry no mo’!’) However even this song has Otis aware that he’s never at home, sighing ‘what kind of love is this I’m giving?’
Then we have the great ‘Otis Blue’, an album released as Otis has realised all his career objectives and become a headline act at last, a popular draw across Europe that everyone is talking about as the next big thing. But you wouldn’t know that from the music: every time he plays halfway around the world he’s another day away from his sweetheart. Emotionally this is the album where all things have gone wrong: it starts with the messy chaos of ‘Ole Man Trouble’, moves on to the argument that ‘I’ve Been Loving You Too Long (And I Ain’t About To Stop Now)’, features a revved up ‘Satisfaction’ and sighs over the fact the narrator never had it so good on ‘You Don’t Miss Your Water’. This is a haunted man, as far away from James Brown’s look-at-me antics as it’s possible to get; Otis wants to run away and hide from everyone. ‘The Soul Album’ seems on first hearing to be happier – but even that record starts with an unlikely opening song with the tearful ballad ‘One More Day’ as Otis pleads with Zelda to stay just one more day so he can enjoy their time together just a tiny bit longer. There’s a four note phrase buried away in this song, in the horn arrangement that’s the most emotional moment of any of these recordings: ‘Please don’t leavvvvve meeeee!’ it intones between Otis’ promises of a brighter future. It kinda works, but fifth record ‘Dictionary Of Soul’ is a very schizophrenic album when you scratch under the surface. Half of it finds Otis strangely at peace: ‘Try A Little Tenderness’ is the sound of someone whose finally worked out how to cope with marital strife, by being kind and supportive and ‘Hawg For You’ is as sexual as Otis ever got, an innuendo song where all that testosterone spills over into a lyric that almost seems to write itself. But then there are the guolty songs: ‘Lord Have Mercy’ is the one time Otis tries his rival’s usual spirit on for size and it doesn’t fit (‘How many kisses have I stole?’ he starts, before backtracking and apologising for the rest of the song); ‘I’m Sick Y’all’ and ‘Lord Have Mercy’ are also both pleas to the universe to put things right because they’re out of Otis’ hands.
It might be significant that the last album of Otis’ career is a duets album, one mostly made up of breakup songs, as if he’s desperate to give an audience to his wife’s views as well. However more significant I think are the songs that Otis went on to write in the second half of 1967 in the most prolific creative outpouring of his life, none of them released in his lifetime. ‘Sittin’ On The Dock Of The Bay’ is the most obvious of course: Otis has lost everything, he has no home to go to and we even hear that his home is in Georgia, exactly where it really was making this a more autobiographical, confessional song than normal. But now Otis is afraid to go home to the house that once offered so much security and so he cools his heels by the docks, wasting time, without even as much of a band as normal to support him as he cools his heels and whistles, completely alone for the first time in song. It’s there in other songs too though: Zelda was herself a wannabe songwriter and though she was reluctant to get her work on her husband’s albums for fear of nepotism it might be significant that the only song of hers Otis ever sang is the heartbreaking [  ] ‘I’ve Got Dreams To Remember’. It sounds to us now like eerie fortune telling as Otis’ lover gets on a plane that ‘stole you away from me’ given that this is what will happen forever only a few weeks (days even?) after the recording took place. But assuming that Zelda didn’t have a premonition it seems like the natural end of their love story that’s been played out on song since the beginning and tells the story from her side: what if after getting on this plane he never comes back? Oh well, at least she found the love of her life and has memories, even if she no longer has his physical presence anymore. Even with all these other sad songs where Otis sounds as if tears aren’t far from his eyes, they’re closest in this song which he almost whispers, afraid of hearing what these words have to say to him.
Almost as eerie is Otis’ own ‘I’m Coming Home’ in which he sighs that his woman has left him and taken the house, leaving him a ‘lost and lonely little boy’ with nowhere to turn. Or [  ] ‘Nobody’s Fault But Mine’ where he sighs that ‘I made a mistake’ and ‘I miss you all the time’. Or [  ] ‘Waste Of Time’ where Otis finally caves in and huffs and haws the way his contemporaries did, only in a twist it’s a song demanding not love but release: ‘My heart can’t stand it!’ he cries. Or [  ] ‘Free Me’ with its haunting opening verse: ‘Turn me loose, free me darling, let me go from your love now’. It feels like a love story that’s run its course and that the melancholy that’s been there since day one has slowly swelled up and overwhelmed the songs to the point where there’s nothing else.
Or is this too simple? Zelda for one is adamant that she never loved her husband more than she did at the end of his life and that they were never closer. She famously sued author Scott Freeman for comments he made in his excellent biography ‘The Otis Redding Story’ that he was thinking of divorcing Zelda. That’s probably going a bit far: the Otis Redding of these songs would never have gone through it. But I do think that he lived with the fear, rightly or wrongly, that she would end it each and every day. Various biographies think that Otis, like many music stars, wasn’t immune to sleeping round during busy nights on tour too. Maybe it was more his guilt that one day she might find that out?
Whatever the source of that melancholy, it makes the world of difference to Otis’ music. There have been other great singers in the soul idiom before Otis, who can hold the attention of a room and use all their effort and willpower to deliver a rocking song. There are some around now, though soul music does seem to be something of a dying art. Hopefully soon in the future there will be more. But Otis is, up till now at least, unique. I love the irony that it took the biggest, butchest, heaviest soul singer with the biggest voice to turn around the world’s most extroverted genre and make it introverted. I love the idea that the man who was given that many God given talents spent his times full of doubts and worries as the rest of us. I love the thought that although Otis was huge and powerful, it was the subtle of his delivery that moves you and that the power was couples with authenticity. I love the fact that he took the most macho musical genre around and urged his audience to try a little tenderness. I love the fact that he called himself ‘Mr Pitiful’ when he was one of the most wonderful musicians on the planet with so much going for him. Otis may shout, but does so when trying to repair a tender flower. He may moan in frustration, but it’s not out of ego but because he really cares. He may have been built like a boxer, but he sang fragile love songs to a fragile love crowd. If anyone helped soul music find its soul it was Otis, by recognising that life doesn’t have to perfect for you to strut your stuff.

Other Otis Redding articles from this website you might be interested in reading: 


'The Soul Album' (1966) http://alansalbumarchives.blogspot.co.uk/2015_04_12_archive.html
'Complete and Unbelievable - The Otis Redding Dictionary Of Soul!' (1966) http://alansalbumarchives.blogspot.co.uk/2016/01/complete-and-unbelievable-otis-redding.html
‘King and Queen’ (1967, with Carla Thomas) https://alansalbumarchives.blogspot.co.uk/2017/07/otis-redding-and-carla-thomas-king-and.html

Surviving TV Footage 1965-1967 plus The Best Unreleased Recordings  http://alansalbumarchives.blogspot.com/2016/11/otis-redding-surviving-tv-footage-1965.html
Non-Album Songs 1960-1967 http://alansalbumarchives.blogspot.co.uk/2016/12/otis-redding-non-album-songs-1960-1967.html
Live/Compilation/Rarities Albums 1963-2014 http://alansalbumarchives.blogspot.co.uk/2016/11/otis-redding-livecompilationrarities.html
The 1968 Xmas Single and Seasonal Extras http://alansalbumarchives.blogspot.com/2016/12/christmas-special-otis-reddings-xmas.html