Monday 24 February 2014

The Rolling Stones "It's Only Rock and Roll" (1974) (Album Review)

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Rolling Stones "It's Only Rock 'n' Roll" (1974)

If You Can't Rock Me/Ain't Too Proud To Beg/It's Only Rock 'n' Roll (But I Like It!)/Till The Next Goodbye/Time Waits For No One//Luxury/Dance Little Sister/If You Really Want To Be My Friend/Short and Curlies/Fingerprint File

Oh dear. Oh no no no no no. Not in a million years. As I hope you've already found out for yourself if you've shared even a tiny fraction of this website journey with me or made a similar realisation for yourself, there is no 'only' about rock and roll. It can help you think, it can help you heal, it can help you understand the world better, it might be about the only means we have left of connecting with what we humans are meant to be doing on this planet before 'the man' got involved. It can set your heart soaring, your foot tapping, your sense of injustice and empathy rising and it can, to a certain extent, set you free (well, not totally free but 75% freer than any other medium, certain terms, rules and conditions apply - like not listening to the Spice Girls). In its time it's helped collapse the Berlin Wall, brought an end to Vietnam, put a man on the moon and healed countless souls - perhaps not one album, or one song, or one person, but en masse the effect of rock and roll on the world is incalculable. The possibilities aren't just endless, they're infinite - there surely can't have been a deep subject raised by rock and roll we haven't covered 300 reviews into this website. The only thing rock and roll isn't is 'only'. I could ignore this album's title and the hideous song it's named after had The Rolling Stones meant their remark as irony but yet, on arguably their first really disappointing album (most people reckon it's 'Goat's Head Soup' but they're wrong as you'll know if you read our review of it), for the first time a new Stones release isn't a statement for their peers, something for the men in suits to fear or a direct link to the 'Devil's music' that started them in the first place: it really is only rock and roll. Two years on from 'Exile on Main Street' and only three from 'Sticky Fingers' the Rolling Stones are now an institution getting by through the least amount of work possible. Whoever named 'It's Only Rock and Roll' (probably Mick Jagger) clearly has either a wicked sense of humour or unfortunate timing because it's here with this one album that the word 'only' starts being used before 'another Rolling Stones album' and the band become seen as caricatures/has-beens/past their sell by date (delete as appropriate).

Which is a shame, because it's not as if 'It's Only Rock and Roll' is a truly bad album. Compared to a lot of the 1980s albums to come it's never less than pretty and often it's downright beautiful, the single best place to hearMick Taylor shine (easily the band's greatest guitarist). The Stones have finally got the knack of writing those sort of free-flowing ballads that were al the rage in the mid-70s and of all their records this one is arguably the most spot-o0n for the times, an excessive prog rock album where most of the songs last five minutes and sound like they might easily have floated on for another five minutes. If you like your Stones slow and thoughtful, with an emphasis on ensemble playing rather than lyrics, then 'Rock and Roll' is the Stones album for you. But there's a major problem here that the title doesn't just highlight but actively flaunts: it doesn't rock and it doesn't roll. Yes there's a bit of a reggae groove here and there and had we not had 12 years of examples of how to construct the perfect rock songs then the half-hearted swagger of 'It's Only Rock and Roll' and 'If You Can't Rock Me' might have passed the time amicably. But it's as if the Stones have forgotten their own self-proclaimed status as the 'greatest rock and roll band in the world' - and unlike their psychedelic years they haven't hit on anything to replace rock and roll with either. The result is an album where a lot of clearly talented musicians are coasting, recording more in the hope that inspiration will turn up than with a great deal they want to get off their chests.

As ever, there are many reasons for this. Keith Richards had been falling apart more and more since the 'Goat's Head Soup' sessions of 1973 when he'd let Mick Jagger take charge. There are many songs on 'It's Only Rock 'n' Roll' where he clearly isn't involved and although co-credited on every song except the album's lone cover (of a Temptations classic) that seems more a case of the business partnership he and Mick wrote up where they would both be credited for every song the pair wrote (taking their cues from the similarly divisive stance taken by Lennon-McCartney). With Keith gone Mick seems to have turned to every writing partner he can find in this period, including the band's 'other' guitarist Mick Taylor (who was annoyed not to get the co-credits he was expecting on songs like 'Time Waits For No One' and 'Till The Next Goodbye') and their next guitarist Ronnie Wood (the title track is really a Faces recording with Mick Jagger replacing Rod Stewart and with some Keith Richards guitar part added later; Ronnie doesn't get a publishing credit but does get the strangely named ' inspiration by...' credit on the song, which was about as generous as Jagger-Richards got with their loyalties back then). People often say that Jagger is the voice and Richards the heart of the Stones; I don't hear that myself - many of the band's most provocative and emotional material that fans assume to be Richards classics ('Wild Horses' 'Gimme Shelter' 'You Can't Always Get What You Want') are chiefly Mick's songs. Braver than is usually reckoned and more honest than any other reviewer reckons, Mick is easily capable of writing a full Stones album by himself (which is just as well, given Keith's state in the years to come) and has more heart than most fans give him credit for. But he used all his good ideas up on 'Exile' and 'Goat's Head' so when he's left to come up with the goods a third time in a row the creative well is somewhat empty. What Richards brought most to the Stones table in my eyes (and ears) is a rhythmical swagger - without that to play against Mick is left writing songs based around the words rather than music and coming up with melodies that aren't bad so much as uninspired. Things clearly have to change.

More than perhaps any other Stones record this is a Mick Jagger album. The record might credit the 'Glimmer Twins' (aka Mick 'n' Keef - the nickname came from an American taxi driver who'd never heard of the Stones, but on hearing they were famous celebrities asked the pair to 'give me a glimmer') as producers for the first time, but once Keith's parts were done he wasn't really around. Producing an album is difficult work, doubly so for as stubborn and fractious a band as the Rolling Stones and Mick does a good job here (perhaps too good to be honest; the Stones will never sound 'earthy' again once the band learnt how to make their work sound crystal clear as it does here). With such little emphasis on choppy acoustic guitar, this is one Stones album that 'flows', instead of charging and chugging along in small bursts, also part in thanks to Mick Taylor who finally gets a chance to shine on his last Stones LP without having to play 'around' Keith. For this album - and arguably for this album only - the production suits the new-look Stones like a glove; it's the albums after this, when the addition of Ronnie Wood and later Keith's recovery from drugs mean the sound goes back to a chopping-and-charging joust instead of a mini-symphony that the production no longer suits the Stones. To be honest, though, I can't be alone in wishing the band had kept the services of Jimmy Miller: even his much-maligned production for 'Goat's Head Soup' sounds daring and edgy to my ears, in comparison to every other record around in 1973 if not to the band's past standards. At times 'It's Only Rock and Roll' just sounds wet, like a Rolling Stones record playing at half-speed.

At first the idea for 'Rock and Roll' was simple: the album was to be one of those studio-live hybrids that were all the rage in the mid-1970s and which would be only the second live album that the band had had any hand in ('Got Live If You Want It' from 1967 was Decca's idea, not theirs). The other side would feature a handful of studio blues covers that would help get the band back to their 'roots' and would be easy enough even for Keith to play along with. While hardly the most riveting-sounding release the Stones ever made (it had only been five years since the live 'Get Yer Ya-Yas Out!'), the album would at least have solved the problems of needing product for their new label Atlantic and covering up the fact that Keith was in a bad way. Nobody quite knows why the idea got shelved (although Mick wandering in one day with the tapes for 'It's Only Rock and Roll' might have inspired the band to start a new album from scratch) and only one song from the original sessions (the Temptations cover 'Ain't Too Proud To Beg') made it to the LP, (although a bootleg favourite and still sadly unreleased cover of rock and roll classic 'Drift Away' - which we covered on our review of Hollie Allan Clarke's ' Headroom' at - is much more deserving of a release).

One of the ways the band 'hide' Keith's difficulties is by giving so much of this album over to the piano side of the stage. Keyboards had been an intrinsic part of the Stones sound right up to and occasionally beyond their signing by Decca, when poor Ian Stewart got booted off a full-time gig with the band simply because manager Andrew Loog Oldham thought six group members was one too many for an album cover. Along with the fact that Brian Jones' role got smaller and smaller as the years went on, this drew the Stones ever further from their original R and B sound. Loyal to the last, Stu continued to hang around the band waiting to play on r and b style songs that suited his playing and is at long belatedly last front and centre on a whole three songs on the album. Not co-incidentally two of them are the only songs on the album to have any real sense of rock and roll to them at all: the 'Exile' style swampy rocker 'Dance Little Sister' and the retro 'Short and Curlies'. The band's two other regular keyboard players in this era - the great Nicky Hopkins, who played on almost a quarter of all the albums we cover on this site and with a large percentage of the groups we cover - and Billy Preston, enjoying his celebrity status after a stint with The Beatles. All three pianists fill in a great deal of the space where Keith's choppy rhythm guitar should be and all have their own recognisable styles that bring the very little range and eclecticism this album has, all perfectly cast on their respective songs (Stu's boogie woogie piano rolls make a good contrast for Nicky's flowing classical feel and Billy's gospelly, soulful roots). Usually the Stones tend to be clumsier than this across the 1970s, using whoever's available oblivious of how well they fit on a song (partly the result of having the multi-talented Brian Jones in a band, able to play anything at a moment's notice). But with more time to play with than normal to make this album and all three pianists on stand-by for each song, the one major plus point you can give 'It's Only Rock and Roll' is that it's a very thoughtfully cast album.

Talking of casting, just have a look at the way the band are all dressed up as film-stars on the front cover of this record (the band are even listed 'in order of appearance' on the inner sleeve, which is good news for Keith but not for Bill; hang on a minute, playing the opening of the album again it should be Jagger entering last and Charlie first: was the running order for this album changed at the last minute? Or did Keith simply refuse to be placed anywhere but first?). The Stones hadn't given much instruction to 'pop artist' Guy Peeleart when they asked him to design the album sleeve and probably expected something more in keeping with his usual risque and grotesque work (his most famous painting is arguably the 'Diamond Dogs' one for David Bowie later the same year. Unusually for a semi-serious 'painter', Peeleart adored rock music and even took part illustrating a book about the 'rebellion' spirit of rock and roll titled 'Rock Dreams'. His cover for the Stones is probably more accurate than either he or the band intended, portraying them not as something dark or dangerous (as per the Bowie cover) but as worshipped Gods surrounded by angels. Most Stones albums are decadent, if only from the snarling expressions on the band's faces, but this one is more like the elaborate covers Hipgnosis used to make for Pink Floyd or the Moody Blues, making 'It's Only Rock and Roll' look like a 'prog rock' album as well as sound like one. More down-to-earth was the graffiti campaign that went along with this album and which took record promotion to new heights: the graphic style print of the artist name and the album scrawled across the 'grand staircase' on the back cover (neither of which were on the front cover - did Preeleart refuse to alter his designs or was this his comment on how famous the band were?) suddenly 'appeared' on all sorts of public buildings in the UK and US on the album's release, although nobody quite owned up to having planted them.

In the end, you have to question whether the aggro of this album was worth it. 'Rock and Roll' was a strong seller, but sold slightly less copies than the five year run of albums that came before it (starting a pattern that will run until the mammoth advertising campaign for 'Steel Wheels' in 1989). Despite the part-loss of Keith, both Bill and Charlie have less to do than normal here, relegated to 'extras' status on their own albums (neither play on the title track, for instance, and Keith's writing role could quite easily have been filled by Bill, whose first solo album 'Monkey Grip' came out four months before this album and, while a tad bland compared to his later, better efforts is no blander than most of 'It's Only Rock and Roll'). Neither Stu nor Nicky Hopkins works with the Stones much after this - probably because he wasn't asked in the former's case and because of health problems in the latter's. Poor Mick Taylor came out of this album worst of all: having served his 'apprenticeship' with the band for five years and having had more chance than ever to have put his stamp on the album filling in for Keith, he was most aggrieved to discover his name had been taken off some of the album's lucrative publishing credits yet again (he'd been promised after 'Goat's Head Soup' that this mean trick would never happen again). The famous quote about Taylor was that he joined the band a 'teetotal vegetarian' and left it a 'desperate junkie', neither of which is strictly true, but his years coping with pressures of stardom and being in the middle of the Mick and Keith tantrums had taken their toll. 'It's Only Rock and Roll' proves once and for all what a great guitarist Taylor was for the band, giving them a polish they'd never had before and they should have cherished his input more instead of continuing to make the shy guitarist still feel like an outsider in his own band. When Taylor served his notice at the end of 1974, turning his back on potentially millions as a member of the Stones, everyone thought he was joking; it was only when the band reluctantly started rehearsing for a new tour in 1975 that it began to hit them that he really had gone. It's one of rock and roll's tragedies that, one solo album apart, Taylor was never heard of again till the late 1980s (and only then on some lesser live LPs with Carla Olsen, a singer who'd been collaborating with Byrd Gene Clark just before his death in 1991). If a good 50% of this album is down to Mick Jagger, a good 25% of the rest is down to Mick Taylor and his loss will be keenly felt across the next 40 years and counting of Stones LPs.

In all, then, 'It's Only Rock and Roll' is a lacklustre album from a band who perhaps should have known better but had problems of their own in 1974 and given the tales about Keith Richards' behaviour in this period it's amazing that this album isn't worse. You would never recommend 'It's Only Rock and Roll' to someone who didn't know the Stones as evidence as why the band are great and compared to the past two albums (the variable but likeable 'Exile on Main Street' and under-rated 'Goat's Head Soup', the last dying breath of the Stones as a subservient menace to society) this album simply doesn't cut it: musically it coasts along where it should rock and roll and lyrically it drifts along where it should be standing loud and proud. But even on auto-pilot there are moments of magic in here, mainly down to the two Micks and Stu: Taylor's guitar single-handedly rescues over-long and epic ballads like 'Time Waits For No One' and 'If You Really Want To Be My Friend', Stu's boogie-woogie licks turn 'Short and Curlies' from the Keith Richards album throwaway into something special and memorable for fans who still remember their 1962-era sound and Jagger's acting has never been better than on 'Fingerprint File' (and that includes all his actual film roles). Yes these songs could be better: there's only one truly great lyric on the album and that's buried underneath one of the Stones' ickiest attempts at sounding black (on the I-can't-believe-it's-meant-to-be-reggae 'Luxury') and only one riff anywhere approaching the band's greatest work (the edgy, paranoid slashing chords in 'Fingerprint File'). But the Stones are getting the hang of ensemble playing now, unafraid to let songs stretch out to their fullest instead of fading them early. What a lot of people reviewing this record forget is how generous the running time is: at 48 minutes it's only 14 shy of the double album 'Exile on Main Street' and pretty much double the length of every Stones album released before 'Aftermath' in 1966. Not all of the songs need and deserve the extra space but at their best (usually when Mick Taylor's playing) the Stones sound like a band who are genuinely enjoying each other's company and are working as a 'team' (even if, as per usual, a lot of the album was made through overdubbing). No 'It's Only Rock and Roll' isn't a classic album by Stones standards and is where the rot starts for me, the sign of complacency from a band that once made the establishment more scared than any other band before or since (the Sex Pistols were never busted on a drugs charge and despite all the claims the press made in 2000 Pete Docherty was only ever a danger to himself). But listening to rot setting in has never been as enjoyable an experience as it often is here, with the Stones attempting to sound like Santana and (occasionally) getting away with the re-moulding themselves. Certainly this album is a lot more enjoyable than next LP 'Black and Blue' (an eight-song auditioning process for the second guitarist role that should never have been released as a bona fide Stones LP and would have been disappointing even on bootleg) and much of what is to follow. It's only rock and roll? Not quite - the Stones generally have an ace or two up their sleeve even if most of their future albums are lost on points - but the band start getting dangerously close to that concept from this point onward...

'If You Can't Rock Me' is, like most of the album, not as interesting as it might have been. A kind of Stones version of 'Super Trouper' this song is about the band's point of view when they're on the stage 'and it's one of those nights'. Sadly what could have been quite an entertaining look at how the Stones bond together during the song's first verse ('the drummer thinks he's dynamite!') is spoilt by the narrator's insistence that he can get laid with any girl in the audience and is busy picking and choosing which girl to bring back stage. Of course you can, you're Mick Jagger - tell us fans something we don't know! Even the plaintive cry to feel sorry for us because the narrator 'only has one heart' for all these girls, in a typical piece of Stones bravado mockery, can't make us warm to what is a terribly cliched song. The riff too sounds like one of those Mick Taylor labelled a 'self-parody' after the album came out: it's a cross between 'Rocks Off' and 'Soul Survivor' but weaker and less urgent, more like something a Stones-copyist like Free or Credence Clearwater Revival would have come up with rather than the real thing. There are two things that rescue this song from the ordinary, however. One is Mick Taylor's stunning guitar outburst which, after allowing Keith to take the instrumental passage of the song for himself, simply soars over the top in a masterpiece of timed musical abandon. The other is Charlie Watts, who really does play like dynamite on this track and for once on this album is right where he should be in the mix: central to the song, with everyone else slotted round him, but at just the right level (the 90s and 00s Stones albums insist on making him louder than everything else, rather missing the point that Charlie is the point the rest of the band spark off). A good band performance half rescues a rather bland and half-written song, then, but this song might have been better still had the band's rather garbled harmonies not been so curiously mixed. It could be that the 'Glimmer Twins' were trying to ape the beautifully slurred sound of 'Exile' here but if so they missed the point: on that album everything is tinged with murkiness whereas here only the vocals are blurred. 'I been talking about it for much too long, I think I better just sing one more song...' says it all, really.

'Ain't Too Proud To Beg' takes the other tack, a cover of a Temptations hit from 1966 that sees Mick sounding more humble and desperate than ever before. I actually prefer this song to the original, which is unusual for a Stones cover: Billy Preston adds a touch of authentic soul to the song while Jagger performs with a twinkle in his voice that suggests that for all his pleading he's not actually all that bothered whether his girl leaves him or not. Many Stones cover choices simply aren't that suitable (why listen to Mick Jagger when you can listen to Otis Redding?) but the Stones have learnt what to do now and have sufficiently 'Stones-ised' the song, adding a 'whiter', simpler tempo for the chorus, which then creates an interesting tension between this and the verses. Keith also seems particularly together here (did his drug problems come a little later in the sessions?) and somehow manages to make his simple Chuck Berry-ish guitar solo sound like it belongs in this fusion world of Motown and soul. I know a lot of fans are sniffy about this song, claiming that it sounds like any group of musicians having a jamming session, but in contrast to the rest of the album it's actually impressively together and taut, without the indulgence of so much of the rest of the album. On this evidence a half-album of covers might have been a good thing, although it's still a shame that the band's even better cover of 'Drift Away' was passed over in favour of this one. Whisper it quietly but, minor as this cover is, it's the third or fourth best thing on the album!

By contrast 'It's Only Rock and Roll' has become seen as something of an anthem, a Stones classic that's as rebellious as the band's 1960s masterpieces. On closer inspection, however, the song turns out to be drivel. There's a reason Mick slurs the lyrics for the verses and why his vocal is so low in the mix: these are some of the worst words he ever wrote while as Rolling Stone. The message is so miguided: Mick is telling us - us!!! - off for buying this music and slagging the band off, before he's even had a chance to hear what we think of it (was this a response to the poor reception given to 'Goat's Head Soup'?) 'If I could stick a pen in my heart, spill it over the stage, would it satisfy you?' he tersely begins, before telling us that, yep, what he's writing isn't much cop really but that doesn't matter because 'I like it!' It speaks volumes that a song that's now become seen as one of the most 'quintessential' Stones records features only Jagger as part of the original backing track and Keith thanks to some later overdubbing. The song is actually a Faces performance with Mick replacing Rod Stewart: a definitve improvement, I have to say, but of the backing band (with Willie Weeks substituted for Ronnie Lane, sadly) only Ronnie Wood sounds like he knows what he's doing. I adore the Small Faces, with Lane and Kenney Hones one of the greatest rhythm sections of them all, but Wood aside this backing track is truly limp, the new ad hoc band struggling to connect with each other and simply rambling through the chords from A to B. You can hear why Wood became a Rolling Stone after making this song, as his rhythm guitar part is already a good foil for the Keith Richards guitar part that hasn't even been added yet (he almost certainly came up with the tune too although his writing credit has turned into one for 'inspiration' so Mick 'n' Keef don't have to part with any publishing money), but despite their similar boozing, groupie-loving images there's a world of difference between the slapdash Faces and the blurry Stones and without the Charlie Watts back-beat Jagger sounds hopelessly lost here, unsure whether the song is meant to be heartfelt or a joke. That wouldn't matter so much if the song was a good one, but it isn't: it's a singalong chorus that's catchy but doesn't really say anything stapled together with the simplest words he can find, some of which sound like the 'pleading' lyrics from 'Ain't Too Proud To Beg' again (which idiot programmed these two lyrically similar songs together on the record?!) and the other half like Jagger defending his day job to his new wife, model Bianca (who hated rock and roll and all it stood for). If so, Jagger doesn't sound as if he's having much fun in his day job as he doesn't exactly cast rock and roll at its best here talking about it as a cure for 'loneliness' more than anything else. Has he already forgotten the flood of anger about the world around them that the Stones brought to songs like 'Sympathy For The Devil' and 'Street Fighting Man'? Far from defending music, it sounds as if Mick is secretly agreeing with Bianca that prancing around a stage at the grand old age of 32 is silly. The site I'm using for lyrics (it speaks volumes that, for once, the band don't print the lyrics for the album with the original artwork or the CD re-issues) claims that the song ends with 'unintelligible murmurs'. Sadly you could say the same for the rest of the song. Surprisingly, though, 'It's Only Rock and Roll' has grown in stature over the years (at the time the song only made #10 in the UK and #16 in the US, which by Stones standards is the lowest performance they'd had for a song not then available on an album since second ever single 'I Wanna Be Your Man' eleven years before) to become one of the Stones' best-loved and most requested songs. It's a funny old world sometimes...this isn't just the worst song on the album, it may well well be the worst Stones track of the 1970s, misguided, mis-played and mis-sold as an anthem it honestly isn't.

'Till The Next Goodbye' sounds even less like the Stones, but is actually the quiet highlight of the album. Clearly composed to sound like 'Wild Horses' (the opening acoustic strumming is near-identical), this song is the yin to that song's yang, the 'goodbye' to that song's hello' (for those who don't know, 'Wild Horses' is, in part at least, about the birth of Keith's son Marlon). The song doesn't have much of a melody and runs out of steam early on, but at least when the band coast on this song they do so quite prettily, with Nicky Hopkins and Mick Taylor at their instinctive best. Mick does a good job with the vocal too, sounding more sincere than he does on the rest of the album and uncharacteristically believable as the romantic narrator who doesn't want to leave his date and go home. Most fans think of 'Goodbye' as simply the latest in a long line of pretty Stones ballads that don't have much to say, but to these ears the song seems to be a lot deeper than it lets on. 'Wild Horses' was written by Keith while heavily under the acoustic and country-rock influence of Byrd Gram Parsons - indeed, the Byrds spin-off band The Flying Burrito Brothers released the song a few weeks before the Stones did. Outside the Stones (and possibly including them) Gram was the closest friend Keith had in the early 70s and Keith felt very guilty when his friend died under mysterious circumstances in September 1973 (shortly before the first, ultimately aborted recording sessions for this album). Although traditional seen as a 'Jagger' song, was this at least partly meant as Keith's goodbye to an old friend? If so then the song is all the more powerful, with the band saying goodbye only till 'the next time' and admitting that, whatever they do in the meantime, 'we'll be thinking about you' (Keith only sings on three songs across this album and his reedy, drug-pockmarked harmony vocal here is particularly effective). Alternatively, is this song a 'goodbye' to Mick Taylor, who'd made it clear that he wanted to leave the band? Whether by quirk, planning or fate, 'Goodbye' ended up being the last song the guitarist played on and makes a fitting farewell for him too (the band's claims that they didn't think he'd really leave and they'd 'call his bluff' may have been wishful thinking rather than an action plan). However you view this song, 'Till The Next Goodbye' is another strong ballad in the Stones' longstanding tradition of sweet songs, not as dignified or as complex as many of the best ones but still very pretty and quite moving, especially the unexpected switch to a major key in the middle eight that's born for a singer like Mick Jagger to howl out his pain on.

'Time Waits For No One' is a good example of just how good the Taylor-era Stones could be, with a cracking backing track where the two guitarists play off each other brilliantly, more like the Grateful Dead than what most people think of as The Stones. As a song, though, this track is right out of the Jefferson Starship's catalogue: complex, bordering-on-pretentious lyrics about growing older and how man is only a part of nature, ending in a monumental instrumental that lasts a good minute longer than you think they'd ever dare to release (the song itself ends at 3:40 - the other three minutes are all without vocals). The rock press had made a big story out of Jagger turning 30 in August 1973, as if this inevitable event somehow signalled the end of rock and world. All that talk must have got to him, as for the first time ever the band confront their own mortality (contrast this with, say, The Moody Blues who spent most of their 20s on the theme). The lyric is odd rather than profound or heartfelt ('Star crossed in pleasure the stream flows on by, but as we're sated in leisure we watch it fly') before getting onto more familiar aggressive Stones territory ('Time can tear down a building or destroy a woman's face'). The simple chorus, though, is a delight, with Jagger singing more or less alone and sounding vulnerable, something he's actually rather good at though he doesn't often get the chance to show that side of his vocal talent. For those Stones fans who love the band only when playing rock and roll playing at full speed then this song is the anti-christ: a slow, occasionally boring ballad that seems to go out of its way to not sound like the Stones on any level. Unlike 'Angie' or 'Fool To Cry', however, this is a song that's a classic in it's own right and not just because it's the Stones sounding out of character: at times Jagger is genuinely moving, Nicky Hopkins is on top form once again, Mick Taylor's exquisite playing makes even the elongated ending of the song a joy and even though this song over-reaches itself on occasion (especially the lyrics) it's great to hear the band trying something new and doing so well with it. Well worth seeking out if you have a soft-spot for the prog rock of the early to mid 70s and wonder what the Stones will sound like - and, surprisingly, perhaps, the Stones actually sound happier and more comfortable here than when they try to sound like themselves. If this song does only exist because Keith's absence pushed the others to seeing what they could do without him, then perhaps it's a shame he didn't go 'missing' more often...

'Luxury', for instance, surely started life as a Keith Richards song, but it's nowhere near what he'd been writing even a few short years before this. Even the Stones, purveyors of black music like no other during the 1960s, never quite got the hang of reggae and this song is worse even than the later attempts in the 1980s (though it's still not quite as bad as on next album 'Black and Blue'). Mick's faux-Jamaican accent is excruciatingly painful, in fact, making the Stones sound like the Ali G of musical groups: what the band's close friend (and fellow 'Rolling Stones Records' labelmate) Pete Tosh made of this is left unrecorded, which is probably for the best. What's disappointing about this song is that if they'd done this as a Stonesy-rock and roll song it would have been one of the best on the album. Mick's lyrics about having to work his fingers to the bone to keep his family happy and comfortable, before discovering that this means he no longer has a chance to spend quality time with them, is a surprisingly down-to-earth lyrics from a man who hadn't had to worry about money for at least a decade. Lines like 'such a strange thing, giving me concern - half the world got nothing, the other got money to burn' may be simple but they hit the nail on the head much more than other politically minded bands who should know better. The lines about 'making millions for the Texans and a couple of dollars for me' are spot on too, saying more about capitalism (and the dangers thereof) in a single line than most political manifestos. Unfortunately the Jamaican accent and the lame attempt at coming up with a reggae-ish swing (which Charlie, particularly, can't get his round after 20 years playing jazz and rock) makes it sounds as if the band are laughing at rather than with their subject. What a pity because, lyrically at least, this song is easily the best one the album and more of this song's frustrated earthiness would have served the band well in the 1970s. The many CD versions of this song adds another 30 seconds, unbilled, that didn't appear on the original album - it's not exactly welcome, simply giving us more of the band's lame reggae attempts without Jagger singing on top of them, but it's still strange why they were cut (at 4:50 this is one of the album's shortest songs anyway).

'Dance Little Sister' is the first song immediately recognisable to 'outsiders' as the Stones since the opening track! The return to style is welcome, even though 'Sister' is hardly classic Stones, foreshadowing the 1980s and 1990s when whole songs were written around ideas that would have taken up a single line back in the 1960s and early 70s. A simple tale of a strutting peacock of an elder brother looking down on his younger sibling's attempts to act grown-up and party with disdain, this is about as close as the band could get to their 1960s misogyny in the 1970s. It's not particularly welcome, either, when all the narrator's little sister do is 'dance' rand have the fun her elder brother is having, although this does at least give the band a chance to return to their hell-raising ways for the first time on the album (most of the lyrics are poor and repetitive but the closing 'We're Bacchinial and there ain't no dawn' - referencing Bacchus, the Roman God of Alcohol - is one of the better Stones 'party' cries. Keith's found a pretty good grungy guitar riff for the song and this may well be the only time on the album he's playing live with the rest of the band, although again it's the two Micks who are the stars here, Jagger having fun doing what he does so well and Taylor finding a way to fit his style into the band's trademark sound for almost the last time (the answer - play what Keith does, but twice as fast and with a few additions thrown in every few bars). Another case of a strong band performance rescuing a so-so song, then, which on most previous albums would have sounded poor but here sounds quite good. For reasons best known to the band this song has received some belated airplay recently after appearing on the 'deluxe' edition of the band's compilation 'Grrr!' Not as awful as some, but nothing like as good as most Stones-style songs, it seems like an odd track to choose for a 'best-of'.

'If You Really Want To Be My Friend' is another drippy ballad that sounds as if the band have been listening to too much Motown. The only 'slow' song on the album's second side, it doesn't quite have the honesty of 'Time Waits For No One' or the beauty of 'Till The Next Goodbye'. Normally you'd expect Billy Preston to crop up on this kind of a song, but no it's Nicky Hopkins again sounding a little lost, to be honest, on a song that's soulful rather than intelligent. The soulfulness comes instead from the band Blue Magic, a soul band from Philadephia who are best known to AAA fans for the clever song 'Sideshow' (covered by Hollie Allan Clarke in 1976). It speaks volumes that they sound right at home here, on a song that relies on long drawn out sighs and not much happening while Mick Jagger doesn't: just as with the Otis Redding songs he used to cover, Mick just can't do long drawn out tracks like this one. Lyrically the song is on safer ground and is clearly another song written as a kind of letter to new wife Bianca: if you really love me, the narrator says, you won't tie me down and suffocate me and understand that I still have to hang out with the boys and party. While perfectly in keeping with Mick's persona and behaviour in 1974, you wonder what he thinks of the song now, a painful divorce and the adultery confessional 'Laugh, I Nearly Died' (from 'A Bigger Bang' in 2005) later. This song ought to be really great: the opening is ear-catching, really standing out for its 'new' sound even on this most eclectic of Stones albums, there are fan-pleasing references to past Stones songs ('I really wanna be your man' ) and some truly inventive lyrics ('I never want to scar you with my brand' ; 'If life's a thriller, you be the vampire - I'll be the killer!') But somehow that isn't enough to make up for the large hole at the song's centre where the melody should go or the feeling that we've heard songs like this played a million times over by bands who actually understand what they're doing. Not to mention the fact that this re-write of the vastly superior 'Yesterday's Papers' makes Mick sound more than a little hen-pecked, which is unthinkable given Mick Jagger's image in the 1960s when even Marianne Faithful couldn't slow him down.

Talking of which 'Short and Curlies' has the typically Stones chorus 'Too bad - She's got you by the balls!' Is this Keith (who shares the lead with Mick, the closest he comes to singing lead on the whole album) having fun at Mick's expense and the way Bianca is calling the shots in their new marriage? (The fact Mick got married at all surprised many). If so, Mick seems to be revelling in the joke, pouring scorn on the hapless un-named character in the song 'trapped like a rat in a hole' and this is one of his best vocals on the album. The retro feel of the song is a welcome return to the band's roots for the first time since 1971 and Ian 'Stu' Stewart's long awaited return to piano playing is a neat reminder of how the Stones must have sounded in their early days (interestingly Keith's new lived-in voice makes him sound more like Brian than himself - Jones would, of course, have naturally sang the harmony on most Stones songs up to somewhere around 1965). I'd have liked to have heard a bit more invention in this song, which simply repeats the first verse over and over again by saying the same things in new ways, but then that's really the point of a song which is meant to take us back to the early 60s when songs lasted two minutes (this one lasts 2:45, which by this record's standards is ridiculously short) and didn't have much to say. Cute and clever and genuinely funny, 'Short and Curlies' is nothing like as deep and mature as the other songs on the album but in it's own way it's one of the album's standout songs, the whole band enjoying the chance to get back to their early sound.

'Fingerprint File' ends the album on the album's most intriguing song. Sounding more like the not-born-yet Dire Straits than the Rolling Stones ('Private Investigations' especially), Mick purrs his way through a song big on atmospherics and low on structure. A tortured song about being followed by spooky Government officials, this song could either be a memory of the way the band were hounded during 1967 (when, famously, the court case brought against them for drugs collapsed on appeal and the policemen who did it got a right ticking off) or possibly something contemporary we didn't know about it (1973, just before Watergate broke, found Richard Nixon at his most paranoid about the counter-culture and convinced they were about to overthrow him; we know the FBI put the 'frighteners' on John Lennon; did they do the same to the Stones, who were seen as even bigger thorns in the establishment's side? That might explain why this album and 'Goat's Head Soup' are so - comparatively - empty of anarchy and rebellion). The song could easily have ended up another whinger ('It gets me do-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-wen!' howls Mick in the closest thing this song has to a chorus), but Jagger cleverly turns the song into a cat-and-mouse tale where he veers from whispering to screaming at the drop of a hat on one of his career best performances. Bill Wyman, too, is having fun, re-creating the sound of 'Shaft' with his memorable bouncy bass line, while Charlie Watts isn't far behind revelling in the open space this song has finally given him and out of all the songs on the album this is clearly the one where the Stones stapling their usual trademark sound to something slightly different works best. Only Mick Taylor sounds out of place here, making you wonder why the band didn't try and re-create this song's successful stance when he left the band ('File' is a popular track with fans too, although the song was only short-lived in the band's setlists). Whether this song is heartfelt, based on what the band knew other people were going through or is simply a made-up television movie reproduced in music, this song sounds real and on this often artificial album that's enough to make 'Fingerprint File' really stand out. While I'd have preferred a better ending (Mick's comical 'sleep tight!' isn't in keeping with what's come before) 'Fingerprint File' is the closest the 'Rock and Roll' album comes to an iconic, classic track.

Overall, then, 'It's Only Rock and Roll' is by turns too slow, too generic and too weird to be the Stones at their best. All too often the band try to replace Keith Richard's guitar with something unsuitable whether it be reggae, balladry, prog rock or soul and yet of all the band's albums this is arguably the one with the least discrepancy between the 'good' and 'bad'; tracks. Yes we've had a bit of a moan at '#Luxury' and 'If You Really Want To Be My Friend' but only the title track is truly embarrassing, as opposed to a good idea that went wrong - and that isn't truly a Rolling Styones recording, as we've seen. Considering the problems going on, that Mick Jagger was now doing most of the work with only an increasingly disgruntled Mick Taylor to back him up it's a wonder that this album isn't terrible. The fact that it's lacklustre and only occasionally sparks into life means that I can't really recommend 'It's Only Rock and Roll' either, but I've heard plenty worse - especially from the Stones in the coming years. At the time the album was a disappointment but greeted as a stepping stone before the band move on to greater things - as it turns out this is the start of a downward slide when that familiar easy-sounding Stones style becomes harder and harder to re-create and the alternatives the band try out instead get weirder and weirder. For now, though, there are still sparks of life and while not a big blockbuster like the band's classic period between 1967 and 1973, 'Rock and Roll' is still quite an entertaining and occasionally well made B movie. Sometimes it is only rock and roll and frankly we don't like - but on occasion the band still have what it takes to both revisit old places and go into interesting new ones.

A Now Complete List Of Rolling Stones and Related Articles To Read At Alan’s Album Archives:

'No 2' (1965)

'Out Of Our Heads' (1965)

‘Aftermath’ (1966)

'Between The Buttons' (1967)

'Their Satanic Majesties Request' (1967)

'Beggar's Banquet' (1968)

‘Let It Bleed’ (1969)

'Sticky Fingers' (1971)

'Exile On Main Street'(1972)

'Goat's Head Soup' (1973)

'It's Only Rock 'n' Roll' (1974)

'Black and Blue' (1976)

'Some Girls' (1978)

'Emotional Rescue' (1980)

'Undercover' (1983)

'Dirty Work' (1986)

'Steel Wheels' (1989)

‘Voodoo Lounge’ (1994)

'Bridges To Babylon' (1998)

'A Bigger Bang' (2005)

Ronnie Wood and Bill Wyman's Rhythm Kings Solo

Rolling Stones: Unreleased Recordings

Surviving TV Clips and Music Videos

Non-Album Recordings Part One 1962-1969

Non-Album Recordings Part Two 1970-2014

Live/Solo/Compilations Part One 1963-1974 

Live/Solo/Compilations Part Two 1975-1988

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