Monday, 27 April 2009
News, Views and Music Issue 29 (Top Five): Rolling Stones B-Sides
♫ And now the latest in our series of top fives: the five best Rolling Stones B-sides! Now, unlike the Beatles and the Hollies, who used their flipsides to experiment with early songwriting attempts and gave them an opportunity to hone in on their own writing style without the hoo-hah of being played a million times on radio, the Stones actively used their B-sides to carve out a new niche for themselves away from their rock and rolling image. Very few of the Stones’ 60s B-sides are rock and rollers – instead we get one blues jam, a rockabilly instrumental, a throwaway comedy and oodles of passionate heart-warming ballads. For the purposes of this review, we’re sticking to non-album B-sides here and we’re also missing the double ‘A’ side of ‘Let’s Spend The Night Together/Ruby Tuesday’, simply because its too well known (and which one was the flipside anyway? They both got over-the-counter-request sales). So which other definitive B-sides should you own? Well, blue may turn to grey and we may well be playing with fire here, but we think we might just have the answer.
5) As Tears Go By (B-side of ‘19th Nervous Breakdown’, available on ‘Rolling Stones Singles Collection – The London Years’).
Marianne Faithful has been doing the rounds again recently and everyone seems to have trotted out this gossamer light ballad asbeing perfect for the young Marianne and somehow less than excellent in the Rolling Stones’ fans. Actually this Jagger/Richards ballad suits the Stones like a glove – they were always better at ballads than their hell-raising reputation and it’s generally the ballads that stand out on their more recent CDs. ‘As Tears Go By’ is simple and workmanlike in places but it sports a pretty tune and Jagger has a convincing air as the narrator here, half genuine in his sadness and half sending the whole thing up, giving this recording an edge that Marianne was simply too young and inexperienced to give to her version.
4) The Spider And The Fly (B-side of ‘Satisfaction’, available on ‘Rolling Stones Singles Collection – The London Years’).
Wow, clever wordplay, a fine blues-rock riff and some storytelling lyrics – why wasn’t this is a single in its own right? It would have sparked off quite a new phase in the Stones repertoire, a million miles away from the relentless angst of the A-side. The story is this – the young, inexperienced narrator gets seduced Mrs Robinson-style by an older woman, unable to escape her charms as he falls into her trap. The song was hilariously revived for the band’s mid-90s tours where the age of the female in question went from ‘dirty, flirty, she looked about 30’ to ‘thrifty, nifty, she looked about 60’. Brian Jones seems to be having fun on this track too, a rarity in this period of Stones history, something the sweet blues riff must have had something to do with.
3) Play With Fire (B-side of ‘The Last Time’, available on ‘Rolling Stones – Singles Collection – The London Years’).
Hmm, nice. The Stones might have only just begun writing A-sides in this period, but already they’re writing genius cast-offs for their B-sides too. A spooky Mick Jagger vocal and a surprising amount of restraint in the instrumentation (considering the clatterbang of musicians on the A-side anyway) make this drama-queen ballad almost unique in the Stones’ back catalogue. Richards’ riff is a low grumble, taught as any of his killer electric riffs, and Jagger’s lyrics are up a notch from normal in this early period, warning off his latest girlfriend with a menace not heard outside ‘Sympathy For The Devil’.
2) Dandelion (B-side of ‘We Love You’, available on ‘Rolling Stones Singles Collection – The London Years’).
For my money, ‘We Love You’ is the best single the Stones ever made, even though hardly anybody mentions it anymore (it didn’t sell as well as some of the others, which might be why it was unceremoniously booted off the ’40 Licks’ compilation in favour of such, err, classics as ‘It’s Only Rock ‘n’ Roll’ (too right!) and ‘Fool To Cry’ (yuk!) The B-side is lighter, fluffier but equally devastating in the scary-choral harmony stakes, with some terrific drum rolls from Charlie Watts and an emphatic Jagger lead. A close cousin of ‘She’s A Rainbow’, this is the Stones in commercial spot-on catchy pop phase, but this template pop song is performed with such force and wild abandon that it still ends up sounding like a drum-heavy rocker. The lyrics are more typical Jagger fare, with the narrator trying to get rid of his girlfriend without having to tell her directly (a la most of the songs on 1966’s ‘Aftermath’ and 1967’s ‘Between the Buttons’ albums), hoping that she would ‘blow away dandelion!’ Despite its low visibility on the Rolling Stones radar these days, the band were seemingly fond of this song at the time – Keith Richards even named his daughter ‘Dandelion’ until she decided to rebel in teenager-hood and started calling herself after another Rolling Stones song from the ‘Goats Head Soup’ album (see review no 58 again; clue: it’s not ‘Mr D’ or ‘Doo Doo Doo Doo Doo’).
1) Child Of the Moon (B-side of ‘Jumping Jack Flash’, available on ‘Rolling Stones Singles Collection – The London Years’).
An absolute classic, this sweet and swirling slab of psychedelia shows just how good the Stones could be at this sort of thing when they put their minds to it. Jagger sings to Brian Jones’ mellotron accompaniment and like many of Brian Jones’ parts, it’s the bit that makes the song, pulsating and rumbling underneath some more of those scary but beautiful Stones harmonies. Jagger’s at his best in this song too, sneering his way through the verses as if in disdain of the weakness of the song’s character and the way he/she (we never find out which!) keeps breaking down at the slightest thing, but the gorgeous choruses find the singer letting down his guard and showing some real compassion and warmth to his subject. Given the unusual subject matter and the unusual lack of gender here, I’d hazard a guess that this is Jagger/Richards’ parting gift to Brian Jones, offering him almost the last opportunity to solo on a Stones record before the band get back to rocking and rolling and leave him behind for good (as per the A side). If so, it’s a fine farewell, with Richards’ melodic guitar passages and Wyman’s angular bass finding the perfect complement in Jones’ sweeping keyboard parts, creating one of the most ethereal and romantic feelings the Stones have conjured up since the similarly constructed ‘Lady Jane’. An absolute gem and – dare I say it – a song that beats its more famous A-side companion hands down.