Monday 21 May 2018

Rolling Stones Essay: Standing In The Shadows

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

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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