Thursday, 19 May 2011

"The Rolling Stones" (1964) (News, Views and Music 100, Revised 2014)




“Well if you ever plan to go West, try take my way – that’s the highway that’s the best, get your kicks on route 66!” “I can tell by the way you walk that walk, can tell by the way that you ‘baby talk’, I can tell by the way you treat your man, I can love you baby – that’s the way I am” “Ohhhhh Mona, Ahhhh Mona, tell you Mona what I’m going to do, I’m going to wait right here for you...Oooooooh Mona, Aaaaaaah Mona!” “Tried to see you last night, trail you in my car, but I was afraid what I was looking for, little by little I’m losing my love for you, little by little I found out you was untrue”  “I’m a king bee, buzzin’ around your hive” “Oh Carol, don’t let them steal your heart away – I’m gonna learn to dance if it takes me all night and day” “You’ve said  we’re through before, you walked out on me before, I tried to tell you but you didn’t want to know, this time you’re different and in coming to go you’ve got to tell me you’re coming back to me...”

The Rolling Stones “The Rolling Stones” (1963)

Route 66/I Just Want To Make Love To You/Honest I Do/I Need You Baby/Now I’ve Got A Witness (Like Uncle Phil and Uncle Gene)/Little By Little//I’m A King Bee/Carol/Tell Me (You’re Coming Back)/Can I Get A Witness?/You Can Make It If You Try/Walking The Dog

(Note: this review was first published as part of a special article celebrating the 100th issue of 'News, Views and Music'. That week found us in party mood for having reached our milestone, which you might need to know to make sense of the rambling introduction): What a bright future our AAA stars have it seems – a great new Hollies compilation (note: 'The Clarke-Hicks-Nash Years'), a return to form for the Human League (note: 'Credo') and a mouth-watering Pink Floyd re-issue campaign to look forward to (note: all the expensive  'Experience' and 'Immersion' sets that I'm still trying to pay off all these years on). But of course what we enjoy doing best on this site is looking to the past – and traditionally what we do for our ‘special’ numbered issues is take you right back to the beginning. We’ve already covered the true beginnings of the AAA on The Beach Boys’ ‘Surfin’ Safari’ review on our 1st anniversary (news and views no 28). We’ve also studied the point where most British music collectors jumped in with this collecting lark – The Beatles’ debut ‘Please Please Me’ (covered for our 200th article on news and views no 92). So for this week we’re going to give you the start of an alternative time-stream, the point where collectors suddenly had a ‘choice’, a division in their record collecting path that enabled them to swear allegiance to either The Beatles or a new swinging band in town offering a seemingly quite different way of life. We know now of course that The Beatles and Stones were great mates whatever the music press tried to tell us, that George Harrison suggested to Dick Rowe (the Decca label boss who turned the band down) that the label might be interested in signing their pals the Stones, that Brian Jones desperately wanted to be a Beatle and that John Lennon would probably rather have been an outspoken Stone from the first day Brian Epstein told him to wear a suit. We also know that despite his image Mick Jagger is far more polite in private than any of the Beatles ever were, that John and George in particular were always getting into trouble and forever having to have the Beatles’ manager/roadie/associate to step in to diffuse rows and that – contrary to popular opinion – the Stones weren’t unkempt or unwashed at all (in fact had Brian Jones spent as much time writing songs as he did washing his hair the  band could have doubled the length of their back catalogue!)

But that’s what we know now – back in 1964 the Stones were groomed to be rivals, to divide collectors down the middle and force them to take sides (no less a person than Neil Young, trying to explain the difference between his two main bands Crazy Horse and CSNY explained that all bands could be put into either the 'Stones' or 'Beatles' camp). Dangerous, wild and ostensibly far more directly inspired by the black songs coming out of America in the 1950s (though John championed Arthur Alexander and Paul Little Richard) the Rolling Stones came along at exactly the right time to make an impact, just as the Merseybeat boom was on the verge of fading and rock and roll was looking to move on to something new. When I started collecting the Stones I always assumed they went back further than they did, that they were contemporary to the Beatles, the Hollies and The Searchers but just happened to be part of the swinging London scene rather than the Mersey scene. I learnt very quickly that that was wrong – the band didn’t release anything till the Chuck Berry cover ‘C’Mon’ in June 1963 (by which time all three of these acts were recording or releasing their second LP) and didn’t release this, their first album, till April 1964 (when the Mersey scene is at its peak, with ‘A Hard Day’s Night’ ‘Here I Go Again’ and ‘When You Walk In The Room’ all riding high in the charts). Despite their slow beginnings, though, and some stiff competition from The Kinks, the Stones 'owned' 1964 in a way that The Beatles had 'owned' 1963: suddenly every band wanted to sound and look like they did - slightly scruffier, hair slightly longer, music slightly bluesier and attitude slightly snarlier. Thanks partly to their natural charisma but mostly to the hard work of manager Andrew Loog Oldham, The Stones were getting all the best headlines in 1964 when this album was released and none of them good: 'Would you let your daughter do out with a Rolling Stone?' being just the most alarming and much quoted one of several (Others included Maureen Cleave - the same journalist who got the 'Beatles bigger than Jesus' quote from John Lennon - claiming that the band had 'turned ,middle-class society on it's head', some tired lines about 'shaggy haired monsters' and unglamourous publicity about Bill Wyman getting caught short in the garage of a rather grumpy elder owner who wouldn't allow them to use it). In fact not till punk did music get this kind of snobbish tut-tutting ever again, something that alone would have made this the must-buy record of the year whatever the contents sounded like.

For a time Decca weren't at all sure that the Stones had a full album in them. While both had sold respectably for a new band, neither 1963 single ('Come On' and 'I Wanna Be Your Man') had yet lit up the charts. Unwilling to finance a full LP Decca decided to put out a 'halfway house, an EP also titled 'The Rolling Stones' and it's the success of this record and its formula (four Rhythm and Blues standards that have been 'rolling stoned' into a new shape) that sets the template for this record. To some extent it's not the record that fans of their early concerts would have been expecting: blues purist Brian Jones was reportedly mortified at how much his early vision for the band had already changed (with this record closer to rock and roll than R and B at times), while nobody would have been expecting the slight 'pop' feel that crops up in parts of the album (especially Mick and Keith's first song 'Tell Me'). However for its times first EP and then record are deeply daring - earthier, rawer and still bluesier than any other single record released by white English kids had ever been (the band's closest rivals The Animals come along a few months later). Only Jimmy Reed's 'Honest I Do' (and of course the band's lone original) come from a 'white' background. This would have been a shock at the time. The crossover between white and black styles has been the revelation of the past 20 or so years, with influences stretching back and forth (in fact its arguably the only reason to bother listening to music made these days by new bands); but in 1963 it had to be conveyed not through direct imitation but through a series of smoke signals. Most of the artists the band cover on this record (Chuck Berry, Willie Dixon, Slim Harpo) were either dead or in prison when it came out, their releases having been made a full decade earlier in some cases. Only Motown was considered an 'acceptable' form of white artists covering black ones (as The Beatles do on 'Please Please Me' and various others); most of the acts the Stones cover no one listening at home would have heard of. Forget whether it's any good or not; the fact that this debut album exists at all makes it an important enough historical artefact to own.

After all, The Stones would have been pleased enough to have made any sort of a record promoting any of their original heroes. It had been a long hard heavy road since Mick and Keith had been friends at primary school, meeting up accidentally as teenagers at Dartford train station where Keith was pleased to see so many of the rare R and B records he already owned under his old friend's arm. The pair of friends teamed up in a band named Little Boy Blue and the Blue Boys - in case you were wondering, there wasn't an actual 'Little Boy Blue' in the band! For a long time the band assumed they were the only band in the country formed out of a love for old blues records, but then they found an advert that Alexis Korner had pout in a local paper, advertising R and B nights at London's 'Ealing Club'. Members of The Animals, Kinks and Manfredd Mann also answered the advert, along with fellow Londoner Brian Jones. The trio immediately bonded and moved into the middle of a three-storey flat in Edith Grove together to be nearer the music (funded by Mick's student grant - he occasionally turned up to the London School of Economics until the memorable week the band were signed by Decca, whereupon he drove a new motorbike he's just bought into the university hall and got expelled!) The trio, along with guitarist Dick Taylor (who went on to found THe Pretty Things) and Ian Stewart (a full-time member of the band until the Decca contract was signed and who'll still play occasionally with the band up until his death from a heart attack in 1985) began playing regularly in a support slot to Alexis' band 'Blues Incorporated' (with Mick occasionally playing double shifts in Alexis' band). Charlie played with anybody and everybody who needed him, unable to get any of the paying gigs as a jazz drummer he longed for. Bill Wyman, older and with more experience, auditioned for the band after their temporary drummer Tony Chapman recommended him - the drummer didn't last but the bassist did, the others particularly bowled over by his shiny new amplifier which Wyman was obliging enough to plug their guitars into too.  Moving out to Richmond in Surrey, the band started their own mini-Sounds Incorporated, becoming the mainstay regulars at a club known as the Station Hotel. A regular haunt of several influential people, this proved an important station on the band's path to success, leading to first a BBC session, then the Beatles becoming fans, then Andrew Loog Oldham falling for their sound - then Dick Rowe (who'd already heard of the band's reputation before The Beatles encouraged him to sign the band). At first the band were much better treated than The Beatles at EMI - they kept the right to their own masters (which meant they could record anywhere - not just Decca-friendly studios - and 'lease' the studios the recordings; unlike The Beatles they couldn't be made to  record songs they didn't want to do but sadly didn't mean the band escaped the American re-interpretation of English albums for their own market).

Nowadays, after 22 Stones LPs which all seek to shock in various ways and with various degrees of success, it’s hard to see what the fuss is all about. The Stones will never sound as young and inexperienced as they do on this record again (unlike most debuts, surprisingly, which yearn to sound sophisticated even when the players aren’t yet) and their means of overthrowing Western civilisation as we know it is restricted to nine cover versions, one oddball jam session, one so-so original pop song and the twee-est track Jagger and Richards will ever write for the band. When you know the originals of some of these songs – Chuck Berry’s majestic ‘Carol’  Willie Dixon’s risqué (for the day) ‘I Just Want To Make Love To You’ and Rufus Thomas’ half- straight bluesy, half-comedy hit ‘Walking The Dog’ – the Stones sound hopelessly young and out-of-their-depth, kids singing deep songs about love and life and the rest of it. But for white British teenagers in 1964 who never had a hope of hearing the originals on the radio in the UK this first Stones album was the personification of everything that was subversive and cheeky. Don’t forget, the Stones got together to make precisely this kind of music – Mick, Keef and Brian were all convinced that they were the only people in Britain listening to this kind of music before they met and Keef still recalls his shock at seeing old school chum Mick Jagger walking past with one of his own favourite r and b records under his arm, convinced, he’d bought the only copy in the whole of London. For the fans who hadn’t come across this music this record was the opening to a whole new world and as such is treasured in a way that few others are (in fact it was the best selling Stones LP via word of mouth until 1971’s ‘Sticky Fingers’.

Certainly if you play this record back to back with other releases of 1964, back in the days before The Who had were around and Jimi Hendrix was still the non-singing guitarist in Little Richard’s band, ‘The Rolling Stones’ does sound darker and more threatening than anything else around in the British charts (with the possible exception of the early Animals releases). No other record of 1964 Britain would have included lines like ‘I can make honey, baby, so let me come inside’ – although by the sound of it Mick Jagger doesn’t quite know the hidden meaning of the words he’s singing here. There are better Stones records around than this one – pretty much all of them, in fact, although I do prefer it to the two follow-ups the unloved ‘No 2’ and the surprisingly weak ‘Out Of Our Heads’ – and fans who only know the Stones from self-penned classics like ‘Sympathy For The Devil’ and ‘Gimme Shelter’ might wander what all the fuss is about (and why their favourite band sounds like a band of posh middle class teenagers with bad transatlantic accents). But for all it’s faults ‘The Rolling Stones’ is a turning point in music circles, offering an alternate way of life to the thousands of fans who saw in the Stones everything they wanted to do and say but were too afraid (for now) to copy. Without ‘The Rolling Stones’ LP the 1960s revolution might have been down to ‘just’ Merseybeat (though goodness knows there’s enough great Mersey records to keep fans going for years to come) and the great sea changes to come might have been merely a small sea-wave or two.

Perhaps the most inventive and groundbreaking factor of this album, though, was the cover. Whilst The Beatles had gone all serious and grown-up in polo-necks for ‘With The Beatles’, the Stones are young and scruffily dressed, proudly showing off their pock-marked teenage skin without recourse to make-up and sneering rather than smiling for the camera. Although The Who will go on to top this cover in terms of teenage rebellion with ‘My Generation’ (where Pete Townshend looks like an angry disillusioned old man at the age of 20!), for its day the cover for ‘The Rolling Stones’ looked like nothing else on earth. For the first time, too, there was no band or album title on the front, just that picture and the ‘Decca’ logo – and never have five clean-cut men in suits looked more threatening. The Stones won’t smile on a Stones cover till, well, have they ever actually smiled on an album sleeve? (the closest we get is Charlie Watts’ half-grin on ‘Aftermath’ – and even that could easily be a grimace!)     

Like many a 1960s Stones LP the first thing that hits the modern listener isn’t the subversiveness or even the cover but the album’s poor muddy sound, typical of Decca who still treated rock and roll recordings in the same way they recorded orchestras. Manager Andrew Loog Oldham didn’t help matters much by his insistence on overseeing recordings, despite having no prior experience – Keith and Brian’s guitars were directly plugged into the recording equipment, without a chance to get the mix of instruments right, and it was the unexperienced engineer who was left to balance the results the best he could in final mixdown. The result actually helps the record, though – unlike the Stones’ later, more sophisticated LPs, giving this debut a raw primal energy that won’t be heard again until at least 1968’s ‘Beggar’s Banquet’. For this album at least, less is more and in many ways its a shame that the band clean up their act for the next LP. 

Usually when I talk about the band’s most elaborate moments its Brian Jones I’m talking about, the band’s unsung multi-handed musician who could coax a sound out of anything. In 1964 there’s nothing in the band’s sound past bass, drums, vocals and two guitars and yet Brain still manages to be the star of this record. The band’s undisputed leader at the time, before Mick and Keith grew into songwriters and their confidence took off, this album is the closest to Brian’s vision of the band as r and b interpreters, without recourse to the pop or rock dilutions of other bands, and its easy to see why the Stones made such an impact on stage at the time (this album is almost a straight copy of their early setlists, give or take the two originals and a jam session). Brian’s choppy guitar work is a revelation, perhaps the only time on record where Jones is Richards’ equal across an album, and his gruff secondary vocals are much more in line with the r and b material than Mick’s own work. Jagger isn’t yet the pop hero we all worship – he sings most of this album as the 19-year-old kid he is, struggling to convey the deeper emotion of the songs and slurring off the notes in an oops-type-way rather than a look-at-me-break-all-the-rules kind of a way. He’s learning fast though – it’s easy to see why Mick’s charisma caught so many headlines in the day and even here, when he’s often out of his depth, its impossible to take your ears off him. Keith hasn’t got much to do yet but ‘Carol’, written by his beloved hero Chuck Berry, is the best template here of his future sound – a sort of mimicked but not watered down white version of black American snarling, with a quick-lightning solo that’s pretty impressive for another 19-year-old with no recording experience. As the oldest member Bill Wyman has more to say than normal, adding some swooping bass lines, especially on ‘King Bee’, that are inventive for the day and show that his much-applauded bass playing on songs like ‘Jumpin’ Jack Flash’ had actually been invented many years before. Charlie, meanwhile, is trying to keep up, having only been in the band a matter of months, and is still getting to grips with how the heck a jazz musician should play rock and roll – all too often he sounds like a bad imitator of the drummers on the original records but there are snatches of genius that point the way forward. Rather sweetly, when asked to try a muffle drum sound for the making of this record, the drummer reportedly took off his winter coat and draped it over the drums, the clothing staying there until the album sessions were officially over! (The drums do have a highly distinctive muffled sound that no other Stones album quite catches).

Overall, then, 'Rolling Stones' is patchier than a famous, rule-breaking record should be. Some of the cover song choices seem or compared to the gems that were already in the band's catalogue and its odd in retrospect that the band weren't recording more of the two things that everyone who saw them live in their early days commented on: their ability to out-rock Chuck Berry and out groan Bo Diddley (with just one song apiece). 'Tell Me' is not an auspicious debut song either, laughably twee even by January 1964 standards. Heard now, when this style is both worn out and 50 years old, you might begin to wonder what all the fuss was about. But underestimate this album at your peril. That album cover looks like nothing else that had been seen before, threatening and sinister. For most of the album The Stones sound like nothing that had ever been heard before either, with eleven slices of varying r and b which at their best ('I Just Want To Make Love To You' and 'Mona') has a charge and energy that's daring even now. Mick in particular has a sound like nothing else heard before - caught halfway between authentic black singers and twee white singers, the long lost love child of Chuck Berry and Buddy Holly. Every other 60s record by the Merseybeat wave of rock and rollers had been made in brighter and brighter shades of sunshine; this one lurks in the shadows (literally, given the cover), as one of Mick Jagger's (much) later solo albums will put it 'Primitively Cool'. This isn't perfect, the band are clearly still learning and in truth compared to most of the AAA artists we cover on this list who were going by 1964 are a little bit behind. But owning this album in 1964 was a genuinely daring act and meant a little bit of the revolution could be carried around with you at home or (if as seems likely you weren't allowed to play it) taken to parties and youth clubs. Don't just lock up your daughters, lock up everybody - the Rolling Stones are here and life will never be the same again.

Oh, by the way, this album is probably better known to fans nowadays as ‘England’s Newset Hitmakers!’ the title given to this record in America on release in 1964 with a new tracklisting which is still, outrageously, the only version available on CD for the modern fan. You can’t imagine any other band’s best-selling catalogue being treated in this way (see above for EMI getting the Hollies’ canon just right) and yet, for more than a generation now, this album has been out of print in the way the Stones originally intended. The differences are minimal - unlike the next two Stones LPs which sound mighty different in American hands – although the Stones’ current single ‘Not Fade Away’ is substituted for the album’s best track ‘Mona (I Need You Baby)’ which is itself now one of the Stones’ rarest recordings. Typical!   

The Songs:

First track [8] ‘Route 66’ reveals just what a different world we’re listening to. Nowadays when we think of America we think of fast food, dodgy wars, the Katrina hurricane, commerce and industry and politicians making u-turns. But back in 1964 few people in Britain had ever been to America and the Stones had between them never been out of the UK. It just wasn’t done in those days before plane travel became affordable and industries became global so for the band’s fans, like the band themselves, America sounded mysterious and fascinating, a sort of Britain-but-not country that was hip, cool and happening man. On the face of it ‘Route 66’ is one of many on-the-road songs around at the time, a driving down the highway song about teenage abandon and escape. But back in the days when Britain didn’t have highways of its own – well, motorways, the grey-sounding UK equivalent – this song was excitement personified, in a land where the roads were paved with gold and anything could happen. No wonder the band sound so excited here, with Keith turning in his best solo to date and Mick putting on his best fake American accent so he can sound like he knows what he’s talking about. It’s Briaqn and Bill who sound most at home here, though, with the former adding some natty rhythm guitar that weaves around Keith’s parts to make them sound earthier and impatient, while the latter holds the whole song together, with Wyman taking his time to highlight the ‘beats’ in the song’s tempo rather than play at a hundred miles an hour like everyone else. Nat ‘King’ Cole’ has the hit with a slower version of this Bobby Troup song, but the Stones learnt it from Chuck Berry’s rockier original, which remains one of the best chosen Stones cover songs in terms of message and reinterpretation. A snappy start to the band’s album career, with the band inviting their new-found audience to get their ‘kicks’ from American musicians like the band did themselves.   

Whilst ‘Route 66’ doesn’t sound that different to the original, [9]‘I Just Want To Make Love To You’ sounds almost unrecognisable to Willie Dixon’s sultry original or Muddy Waters’ better known cover. The song’s tempo has been upped by 100 mph, the band sound raucous and desperate rather than coolly knowing and this song’s risqué lyrics are rattled off so quick they don’t have anything like the same impact. The Stones, though, sound great here – Mick’s given up trying to sound American, Brian has never sounded more at home than he does on this track’s harmonica blues wailing and Keith’s angry, snarling guitar is the  engine driving the band on just the way it will almost always be from now on. Nothing like as sophisticated as the albums they’d been listening to for years, the Stones have already found out the secret of doing these ‘sacred’ r and b songs their way – really fast, with a primal energy and abandonment that’s so exciting you can hear the band’s delight bouncing off the walls of the Decca studio. Best of all is the middle eight, when the band keep hitting the same riff over and over again until the song suddenly switches back to the chorus, letting the whole band let off steam and all that sexual tension at last. One of the band’s better ideas, no wonder it was used as a B-side in America or that Muddy Waters, passing by the studio, declared himself ecstatic with the result, calling the Stones ‘my boys’ in many an interview after this song’s release. 
 
Alas Jimmy Reed’s slinky ballad [10] ‘Honest, I Do’ fares less well. Jagger just hasn’t had the vocal or life experience to do this song’s genuine apology justice and the slowed down tempo puts the emphasis firmly on Mick and no one else. Only Brian’s glorious harmonica breaks through the ‘sound barrier’, a cry from the heart that sounds far more earnest than anything else here. To be honest its not one of Reed’s better songs either, without much to say apart from ‘sorry’ and ‘I love you’ and this is one of this album’s few songs that overstays their welcome (despite lasting just two minutes!) I’d much rather have heard the other Reed songs in the Stones’ set at the time: ‘Bright Lights, Big City’ and ‘Close Together’, which are much more suited to the energetic Stones. Even by this time, however, Jagger was being seen as an unlikely sex symbol by teenage girls so it seems that this number is recorded especially for them. 

No such worries over [11]‘Mona’ aka ‘I Need You Baby’, a Bo Diddley song built on a tricky compound time signature with a characteristic ‘shakey’ hypnotic beat that builds and builds with each passing bar. Mick Jagger’s urgent vocals are tailor-made for songs like these, where he can get the most out of his barking, seductive vocal and Brian too sounds very at home with his distortion-heavy guitar part (Keef is curiously missing from this track for perhaps the only time on a 1960s Stones LP!) Above all, though, this is a song about the rhythm, with tambourine, maracas, handclaps and drums all emphasising this song’s tricky whack whack whack whack-whack beat, a world away from what was in the British charts in 1964, which were all about melody and words, not rhythm and soul like this. This track is all about urgency and dependency and the Stones record trumps the original by letting the ‘sound’ of the song take over, building the narrator’s cry for a partner into an epic that’s the most important thing in the narrator’s life by the end. Long for the day –3:38 –it was very brave of Decca to let an untried and tested band fill up so much running time with a patently un-commercial sound (perhaps the main reason why it was this track that was booted off the American version of the LP). It’s ‘Mona’, though, not the catchy or poppy stuff here, that really shows the way forward for the band’s sound, with Mick ducked in the mix in favour of the stomping percussion and the guitar sound effects. More than anything else, Mick sounds like the singer we come to know and love in the future here – old before his time, adult, seductive and breaking all the rules about what a white middle class boy from London should sound like. The best thing on the album by a huge degree, this is better even than the band’s more famous Diddley cover ‘No Fade Away’ (alright so its a Buddy Holly song really, but the band based their version on Diddley’s percussion-filled cover). If only the band had recorded more songs like these but, alas, that’s it now for spacey rhythm-based rockers until at least 1971’s ‘Can’t You Hear Me Knocking?’

[12] ‘Now I’ve Got A Witness’ is a band original that isn’t at all original – or at least it sounds so suspiciously familiar to the forth-coming album track ‘Can I Get A Witness?’ that I’m amazed Holland Dozier and Holland didn’t sue. Basically it’s an instrumental version of another album cut about 20 years before we started hearing such things on B-sides and 12” mixes and its a pale shadow of the later version with vocals. What it does do is offer a welcome glance at the Stones without Mick Jagger’s lead, leaving the work to his fine harmonica puffing, Keith’s extraordinarily good Berry-ish steel guitar solo that seems to beam in from another planet somewhere about the middle of the ‘song’, so improvised and dangeorus does it sound compared to the rest of this song’s plod, and the ‘sixth Stone’ Ian Stewart making a cameo appearance on a Hammond organ that makes this track sound more like a Billy Preston song than a Stones one. In other words, its a filler – the kind of thing AAA readers are used to hearing on Beach Boys albums rather than Stones ones – and not a very good one at that. The ‘Uncle Phil’ and ‘Uncle Gene’, by the way, refer to session guests Phil Spector and Gene Pitney, who must have been thrilled at being dismissed as elderly ‘uncles’ rather than fellow kids when they were both in their mid-20s! Not an auspicious beginning for the Jagger-Richards writing team, who are credited to the band pseudonym ‘Phelge’ on this record (the real surname of Mick, Keef and Brian’s roommate of 1962, which always tickled them for some reason – a ‘nanker phelge’ was band slang for pulling an ugly face for annoying reporters asking for a picture!) Pitney will do rather better with a cover of the Jagger-Richards team’s first real song ‘That Girl Belongs To Yesterday’, which was too ‘square’ for a Stones song but became a big hit for Pitney a few months earlier.

Luckily the second original on a Stones record is a lot better, if not yet up to the standards of the cover songs the band are singing here. [13] ‘Little By Little’ is best known as the B-side of ‘Not Fade Away’, with a Phil Spector co-credit despite sounding a million miles away from his epic orchestral work, being the first in a long series of Chuck Berry sound alikes that purr rather than pounce, with a sultry beat and some epic instrumental passages that help make up for some imperfections in the lyrics. Interestingly, though, its not a re-write of a Chuck Berry or even Bo Diddley song this time but another Jimmy Reed song ‘Shame Shame Shame’, which is closed enough to the original not to need a DNA test. Basically it’s a song about mistrust – a key Jagger/Richards theme to come – with the narrator out spying on his girl to see what she’s up to and seeing if she really is as untrue as he suspects. We never find out if she is or not and there’s no resolution to this song at all, a sort of early version of Lennon/Mccartney’s ‘No Reply’, with just two short verses that are sung by Jagger in such a drawling way they’re hard to decipher anyway. To be honest the best thing about this song is the two instrumental breaks, the first with Keith Richards playing out of his skin (he sounds more like Dave Davies than Keef’s usual work!) and clearly relishing being able to write his own chord changes instead of fitting his playing around somebody else’s and the second with Mick Jagger at his harmonica playing best. Not the most distinguished recording the Stones will ever make, but it’s an impressive stepping stone towards greatness this one.

[14] ‘I’m A King Bee’ is a Slim Harpo blues cover that sounds like it went way over the band’s heads. It’s probably one of the most innuendo-filled songs that the Stones didn’t actually write themselves and is about as risqué as you could get away with in 1950s America (which might explain why it was so popular – the Grateful Dead used to do this song in their early days too). Basically the narrator thinks he’s a great lover and wants to make ‘honey’ with his ‘Queen’, along with lots of references to ‘stings’ and ‘hives’ that are clearly meant to be sexual. Now I’m not saying that Jagger didn’t know that – most 1950s r and b songs have sex in their theme somewhere after all – but he does sound as if he doesn’t know quite how to play it, sounding a bit lost and unsure of himself (he sounds like he’s thinking ‘oh my God my parents are gonna hear this!’ rather than ‘ha ha ha take that you censors and upper class twits!) The rest of the band don’t sound much more comfortable, as without their fast tempos and youthful exuberance  to keep them going there’s not much room for them to work here and this song’s relatively slow tempo shows up the mistakes in their playing rather than their  abilities. Not one of the band’s better moments, even if Bill Wyman manages to fit in some great swooping bass riffs that really do sound like bee stings and Keith gets to do a fair impression of a buzzing wasp.

[15] ‘Carol’ is much more like it, the kind of uptempo driving rock and roll that non-fans assumer all Stones records are full of, although in truth few of them actually are. One of the best Chuck Berry songs, this is a very teenage song about getting a girl to like you which suits the Stones and their fan-base better than the more grown-up work here. Charlie Watts especially sounds greatly at home on this one, with the drummer finally given off the chance to keep to a beat he knows how to play and with a few flourishes that are all his own work. Mick and Keef are developing their famous interplay here too, with the guitarist answering every question posed by Mick with a burst from his ringing guitar. Like many of Chuck Berry’s songs, this somehow manages to make a simple boy-meets-girl encounter sound like the be all and end all of life, with a driving urgency and simplicity that really suit the band at their punkish best. Berry’s material was always the best of the covers the Stones did and this is one of the best of the lot, sounding tight and polished here, even though comparatively speaking it was quite a new song in the Stones’ set, having been rehearsed just a few weeks prior to the album. No wonder the band kept this song in their set-lists for years - 1969 to be exact – over and above any other song from this period including the hit singles, as it’s the second-best thing on the album.

[16] ‘Tell Me’ is the third and final Jagger-Richards original on the album and in truth it’s a bit of a mess. It starts off like the long lost elder sister of ‘As Tears Go By’, softer and quieter than most Stones songs, sung to a dramatically strummed acoustic guitar and some thudding drums. Alas the song soon descends into a poor man’s Beatles, with a nonsense chorus that runs ‘tell me you’re coming back to me’ ad infinitum and a kind of inane grin that shrieks insincerity in contrast to most of the rest of this record. The verses fare better, mainly thanks to Keith’s 12-string acoustic playing – the first time the band recorded a non-electric song – and a throaty deep vocal from Mick that does a good job at making this material sound deeper than it really was. Like many early songs by all writers, this song has a list rather than a lyric, a long list of lines that run into each other breathlessly without any pauses and the rhyming scheme is more or less non existent (nearly every line seems to end ‘again’). To be honest, the band probably only came up with this filler to get it on the B-side of one of their singles back in the days when their songs weren’t strong enough for singles in their own right (‘It’s All Over Now’). It’s interesting, though, for hearing what the Stones would go on to write and the fact that it’s a poppy ballad rather than the r and b sound-alikes you’d expect to hear and like many early songs has a charm and innocence that’s rather more appealing than some of the band’ s better known songs (I’d much rather hear this song than the dire ‘It’s Only Rock ‘n’ Roll’ or ‘Honky Tonk Women’ for instance, as at least there’s some originality here even if there’s not as much as normal).

[17] ‘Can I Get A Witness?’ finds the band adding yet another genre to their collection, with a poor man’s impression of Motown. The plodding piano riff is already familiar from the ‘Now I’ve Got A Witness’ jam and actually sounds worse here, with Stu’s piano boogie woogie sounding even more wrong than it did on organ. Mick’s gone back to trying to sound like an American subversive on this track but instead he just sounds like he’s doing a bad impression of Gene Pitney (who was again present at the recording). This song is otherwise best known from a Marvin Gaye recording which is much more menacing and tense than this song, which has little in the way of dynamics and just sounds like a noise (and not a good one as on ‘Mona’!) There’s nothing to distract the ear on this recording, no middle eight or instrumental; break and even the chorus is tacked onto the end of the verses – somehow that doesn’t matter on the original or on most Motown songs where the repetition is the whole point, but here the Stones just sound like the ultimate no-no for 1960s stars – they sound boring! Wrong song, wrong band, wrong arrangement. Only Brian Jones sounds at home on the shrill backing vocals, although listen out too for what must be Keith Richards’ first recorded vocals, at  a much higher pitched than his better known recordings from the late 1960s!

[18] ‘You Can Make It If You Try’ aka ‘Honest I Do’ part two, is a screechy soul ballad that finds Mick Jagger painfully off key and the rest of the band competing for the small amount of space the mix gives them. Now, as a general rule soul will suit the Stones quite well – certainly much more than Motown – and their Otis Redding covers like ‘Pain In My Heart’ and ‘That’s How Strong My Love Is’ are among the best Stones covers. But here Mick Jagger sounds hopelessly miscast on Gene Allison’s gentle, subtle song about hope and optimism, with only his wry vocal grin at the end of the song at all convincing. The rest of the band really don’t sound much more convincing, with some hilariously wrong ‘ooh’ backing vocals and that horrid organ sound back again. Now, I like Ian Stewart’s other contributions to the band – by and large they show up how good his basic approach is compared to better respected keyboardists like Billy Preston and Nicky Hopkins – but here I can see why Andrew Loog Oldham decided to ‘demote’ him from the band he’d co-founded because his approach here is so un-rock and roll (in fact this whole song sounds like a demented American gospel meeting where the preacher is drunk and the congregation tone deaf!) One of the worst moments of all Stones album, this is the band playing it the ‘square’ way and without the excitement, energy or rebellious feel there’s no point to this cover – it just shows up how bad their playing still could be in those early days. Erm, perhaps this track should have been called ‘They can’t do it no matter how much they try’!

The album then ends on yet another unexpected genre – comedy! Rufus Thomas’ gruffly earnest [19] ‘Walking The Dog’ has been many things to many musicians over the years – a pastiche song about swaggering macho singers (the way Roger Daltrey does it on his first solo album), a song about how girls can let you down and canines never do and even a song about a yo-yo trick. Here the Stones do it almost straight – right up until Mick starts doing some comedy stuttering on the phrase ‘j-j-j-j-j-j-j-just a walkin’ and Brian Jones joins in – but they never really convince. This nonsense novelty song is quite sweet in its own way, what with all the dog whistles and swoops from Jagger and Jones and some ad libs snatched from nursery rhymes, but its not what fans would have been expecting from the Stones then nor now. Brian Jones’ deliberately gruff vocal is also unique to this recording – he sounds more like Lou Reed here and yet seems to find the whole thing hilarious – well, perhaps this is the end of a very long recording day...The only part of this whole mess that makes sense is yet another great guitar solo from Keith Richards which sounds like Chuck Berry on speed, drenched in distortion way ahead of its time (it’s another three years till the summer of love ‘n’ feedback don’t forget!) and it almost makes you forgive the rest of the things going on behind him. Oh and is this song really about Max The Singing Dog as many AAA fans have suspected? Erm, probably not, seeing as I can’t remember the last time I saw him walk anywhere – except down to the pub with Bingo!


Right that’s that then.  12 songs, two classics, four unlistenable novelty numbers whether lengthy studio jams, twee pop songs or numbers about taking canines for a walk. That’s actually not bad odds for a hastily put together album by a bunch of earnest but inexperienced youngsters, a manager acting as a producer who didn’t have a clue what he was doing and a record company that didn’t really care about what the results sounded like. In retrospect, it’s surprising that the Stones tried to make such an eclectic record as their debut, taking in Motown, Soul, novelty comedy, spaced out rhythms and pop as well as the r and b standards their fans would have been expecting from their first three singles. To be honest, most modern fans won’t be expecting that mixture either, which is why this album has fallen off its pedestal in the last 40 years or so. But in its day this was an iconic, best-selling LP that spent a staggering 11 weeks at no 1 and achieved the unthinkable – it knocked the second Beatles LP from the top spot. The Stones will get better, although strangely not for another 18  months or so in which time they’ll stick pretty much religiously to this album’s mix of r and b, ballads and a few unexpected genres – all with less style and taste than this one. All fans really need to know is that this album contains the two prototypes that reveal just how daring and exciting the Stones could be: ‘Carol’, which will set the template for the rock and roll to come over the next few years and ‘Mona’, which reaches out far beyond that to the stars towards psychedelia. These two songs are about so much more than simple girls’ names – they’re everything that was good and exciting about rock and roll in 1964 and they open up a world of sounds that would have been unthinkable to such a mainstream audience just a year before. In truth there’s nothing else here up to their standard but then again there’s little even vaguely approaching these cover versions around in 1964. The path to greatness, for both the Stones and rock and pop music in general, came into much greater focus with this album, back in the days when parents really were scared about letting their children off to the circus to go with the Rolling Stones...

Other Stones reviews from this site you might be interested in reading:


'It's Only Rock 'n' Roll' (1974) http://alansalbumarchives.blogspot.com/2014/02/the-rolling-stones-its-only-rock-and.html

'Some Girls' (1978) http://alansalbumarchives.blogspot.co.uk/2009/05/news-views-and-music-issue-30-rolling.html


'Undercover' (1983) http://alansalbumarchives.blogspot.co.uk/2013/09/rolling-stones-undercover-1983-album.html

'Steel Wheels' (1989)http://alansalbumarchives.blogspot.co.uk/2011/09/news-views-and-music-issue-113-rolling.html



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