WordPress has conveniently pointed out that Saturday was the 8th Anniversary of my first post on this blog.
For that post I looked at a couple of things beginning with Z. I’m not about to go through the whole alphabet – William over at a1000mistakes has done that and I don’t think I could to the same – so let’s carry on going backwards instead and go for the 18th (8 back from 26) letter of the alphabet: R
R is for Radiohead, R.E.M, The Replacements and Rollings Stones all of whom feature to varying degrees of heavy in my record collection as well as on this blog. It’s also for Rogue Wave and Rilo Kiley who formed part of that early-2000s alt/indie revival that I so enjoyed and occupy a good few spaces on the shelves alongside other ‘R’ artists Damien Rice and some Chili Peppers of the Red Hot variety (I also caught these guys live back in 2001), The Raconteurs, Refused, Rage Against the Machine and one of my favourite singers ever, Otis Redding.. so I’ve put together a quick ‘R’ playlist featuring a couple of my favourites from the above. Sticking to no more than two per artist proved tricky for some but the trickiest bit was trying to get it to flow when the only thing some of these have in common is the letter R. This proved impossible so this is in purely alphabetical:
It’s also for Rainbow – not as in the kids TV show with Geoffrey, Bungle, George and Zippy but as in the band Ritchie Blackmore formed after Deep Purple’s shift in sound didn’t agree with him and is perhaps suitably best known for the belter ‘Since You’ve Been Gone’ which features singer Graham Bonnet and one of rock’s ultimate drummers, Cozy Powell. It seems like I must’ve heard a thousand times as a kid and still enjoy, so:
R is also for Rearviewmirror, one of my favourite Pearl Jam songs and any opportunity to put a little Pearl Jam in a post is a welcome one*:
Also neatly slotting under this one is Romania, which is almost a blog unto itself but as we’re covering R it seems like an opportunity for a roundup. As mentioned in the Out of Europe series (which I need to get back to know those cock weasels pulled the trigger), it’s a country to which I owe so much and have a huge amount of love for despite its contradictions. I’ve been trying to keep my ear in for Romanian music and I’ve got an ongoing playlist on Spotify which I’ll also embed below, should you be so inclined.
I’ve also been able to up my game since starting this blog in terms of finding and reading more fiction from Romanian authors, so much so that I can even share five recommended Romanian reads with you:
Wasted Morning – Gabriela Adameșteanu: this one slots into my Top Ten of all time
For Two Thousand Years – Mihail Sebastian: also very much worth checking out is his Journal 1935-1944 which is a real eye-opener in terms of Romania’s treatment of the Jews during WW2 and will make you think differently about the next author too.
Youth Without Youth – Mircea Eliade: the shelves in our library here have many a story by Eliade on them in both English and Romanian, there’s a plethora of short novellas and volumes of short stories as Eliade (as much of a dick as he was to his friend) was a prolific writer and his work is often surreal and deals with a lot of spiritual stuff. This is my favourite and a full length novel that was adapted into a film by Francis Ford Coppola in 2007.
Forest of the Hanged – Liviu Rebreanu: I’ve read very few WW1 novels and this is a great one which really takes off and develops into an exploration on the themes of identity, faith and, of course, how ordinary people change in the face of the extraordinary.
The Book of Mirrors – EO Chirovici: a much more recent (2017) effort that caused a real stir as this was Chirovici’s first novel written in English and was grabbed by publishers in 23 countries in 2015, landing him a likely seven-figure sum just in publishing deals way ahead of its actual publication. It’s also very very good.
Since the start of the new millennium, Romania has also been experiencing something of a revival in terms of it’s film industry, with some really great films picking up acclaim and awards throughout the world. I’m nowhere near as up to speed with these as I’d like to be but, if you’re looking for a good film and fancy seeing what Romania has to offer in this arena you’d do well to check out these.
I think that’s R covered.
*Gigaton review coming just as soon as I can express my thoughts coherently.
1989 saw two events that would have a massive impact on my future, though I didn’t know it at the time: the fall of the Berlin Wall in November and the Romanian Revolution in December. At the time, as an 8 then 9 year old, I wouldn’t have known about the importance of these events – or David Hasselhoff’s involvement*.
But the arrival of glasnost had an impact on the music news of 1989. In January, Paul McCartney Снова в СССР (Back in the USSR) – an album of covers – exclusively for release in the Soviet Union with no exports. Copies that did make their way into ‘the West’ fetched daft money for a Macca album until Paul decided to release it universally in ’91. August’s Moscow Music Peace Festival was held in Moscow, showing the Russians exactly why Western music should be banned with acts such as Ozzy Osbourne, Mötley Crüe, Skid Row, Cinderella, The Scorpions and Bon Jovi doing their bit to undo decades of international politics and create a hole in the ozone layer over Russia with hairspray use.
1989 marked goodbye for The Bangles, The Jackson 5, Gladys Knight & the Pips, grunge and Seattle scene forerunners The U-Men and both a ‘hello’ and ‘goodbye’ again to The Who – who had reformed for a heavily criticised The Kids Are Alright anniversary tour and promptly called it quits again until 1996. 1989 was the year Bruce Springsteen made a few calls and told the E Street Band he would not be using their services for the foreseeable future. It was hello to The Black Crowes, The Breeders, The Cranberries, Hole, Mazzy Star, Marilyn Manson, Mercury Rev, Neutral Milk Hotel, Morphine, Pavement, Red House Painters, Slowdive, The Stone Temple Pilots… oh; and Marky Mark and the Funky Bunch, who all formed in 1989 and were (mostly) poised for some heavy action in the 90’s and presence in my music collection.
In terms of album releases, 1989 has plenty to offer. Five years on from the ‘Boys of Summer’ featuring Building The Perfect Beast, Don Henley and his ponytail released The End of the Innocence with help from Bruce Hornsby and Heartbrakers Mike Campbell and Stan Lynch, I still quite enjoy the title track. 1989 saw a massive return to form for The Rolling Stones: Steel Wheels saw Jagger and Richards healing the rift between them and crafting an album packed with great Stones songs though was the last for both their label Columbia and to feature Bill Wyman who would leave the group at the end of the tour behind the album (though it wouldn’t be announced until ’93).
I’ll also go a little away from the expected here and say that 1989 also saw the release of an absolutely great pop album – Madonna’s Like A Prayer which mixed just under a dozen cracking songs (including one written and produced by Prince) with a classic, lush sound courtesy of Patrick Leonard’s production. Stepping back into this blog’s wheelhouse, Tom Petty released his first ‘solo’ album Full Moon Fever which went onto sell a crazy amount of records and would become his commercial peak. We all know this one – it’s packed from head to toe with pure gold: ‘Free Fallin’, ‘I Won’t Back Down’, ‘Runnin’ Down A Dream’, ‘Yer So Bad’, ‘Alright for Now’… they’re all on here.
Stevie Ray Vaughan and Double Trouble’s fourth album In Step arrived in June of ’89, Billy Joel released Storm Front and let the world know that while he didn’t start the fire, he could create one hell of an earworm alongside the stately ‘Leningrad’ and personal favourite ‘The Downeaster ‘Alexa” and Mother Love Bone released their debut EP, Shine which featured pretty much their only decent songs**:
Anything else released in 1989? Fuck… how about The Cure’s Disintegration – one of the best albums ever?
Or Nirvana’s debut album Bleach? Yes – both of these were released in 1989 along with Soundgarden’s second album and major label debut Louder Than Love which matched them with metal producer Terry Date and then lumped into the ‘heavy metal’ genre for some time much to the complete bemusement of their Seattle contemporaries and fans who knew how different they sounded usually. I think it was Mudhoney’s Mark Arm who pointed out that, pre-Nirvana, when an ‘alternative’ band signed to a major there were only two ways to go: the metal Guns ‘N’ Roses route or the REM route. Soundgarden were heavy and went the metal route.. they’d not really shake it off until 94’s Superunkown.
Meanwhile, riding high again without being high, Aerosmith decided to up the ante with their next ‘comeback’ album and knocked it clean out of the park with the best album of the second-half of their career: Pump. As strong and gleaming as Perry’s torso on the cover, Pump is an album of back-to-back GOLD, with Aerosmith’s raunchy, hard-edged riffing married to a great-sounding production. Less cheesy than Permanent Vacation and less over-worked than Get A Grip, Pump is Aerosmith at their peak and revelling in it, better songs, more power and clearly here to kick arse:
There was also Don’t Tell A Soul by The Replacements in 1989. Much-maligned, the album was royally buggered up by the mix that Chris Lord-Alge decided to apply what, according to Wikipedia, he and his brother were famous for “abundant use of dynamic compression for molding mixes that play well on small speakers and FM radio, thus somewhat contributing to the loudness war” to some of Paul Westerberg’s finest compositions to date. It killed the album at a time when the band were probably at the only point in their career when they coulda shoulda woulda broken through. Instead it’s one for the faithful only to really love and wouldn’t be heard as intended until last years’ Dead Man’s Pop box allowed producer Matt Wallace to release his original mix.
Oh, and then there’s the fact that Bob Dylan decided 1989 was the right time to return to his power and prominence by teaming with Daniel Lanois (who was recommended to him by someone called Bono. You may not have heard of him, he’s the singer with an obscure, little-known Irish band called U2) with the phenomenal Oh Mercy which features more than enough classic Bob Dylan songs to rank it as a vital addition to any fan’s collection:
I’m sure I’ve probably missed a few key albums from 1989 but there were so many. But if none of the above great, classic releases make it as my featured album for the month then it must be Boston’s other famous act….
Pixies – Doolittle
Album number 2 from Pixies is an out and out classic. I still hold by my statement that the band have never released a bad song, but Doolittle contains out and out classics from start to finish – ‘Debaser’, ‘Tame’, ‘Monkey Gone To Heaven’, ‘Here Comes Your Man’, ‘Wave of Mutilation’… it’s just perfect.
I got into Pixies long after they called it a day, I can’t and won’t pretend I was into them when they were originally a going concern. But by the time they got back together and playing shows again in 2004 I was already way up to speed and in love with their back catalogue. When they did eventually get around to making new music (minus Kim Deal who didn’t want to be involved), I was straight on the pre-order link for EP1.
Doolittle was my, and I’m sure loads of other fans’, first Pixies albums and remains an absolute favourite – I got into them on the back of references in interviews of artists who count them as influences (amongst the many, Cobain would consistently cite them as vital) and having heard ‘Monkey Gone To Heaven’. I didn’t look back and within a few weeks had quickly added their then compete works to my collection.
The band’s second album, Doolittlewas the Pixies’ first international release and has continued to sell well since release (let’s not get ahead of ourselves; Pixies don’t exactly shift mega numbers) and is often placed in lists of greatest albums be it alternative, 80s or just great albums.
Doolittle marked the band’s first album with producer Gil Norton, they’d work with him on their next three albums (including Indie Cindy) but it wasn’t an instantly harmonious relationship. I’ve often read that Norton isn’t the easiest producer to work with and on Doolittle sessions he’d suggest adding to songs and changing their structure in ways that would often piss Frank Black off especially as he’d try and lengthen their songs. Apparently it got to the point that Black took Norton to a record shop and gave him a copy of Buddy Holly’s Greatest Hits as a kind of “if short songs are good enough for Buddy Holly..” point making exercise. Black would say of Doolittle “this record is him trying to make us, shall I say, commercial, and us trying to remain somewhat grungy”.
Whatever the process and arguments (and I’m not even gonna touch on the whole bickering between Deal and Black), the result is unarguably a classic that was critically and (for the band) commercially well received with sales up to a million units and it remains both one of the best alternative albums of the 80s and a big favourite of mine.
*I don’t know what’s gone wrong in the Hoff’s head or when it went wrong but the man remains convinced he played a, if not the, pivotal role in the reunification of Germany.
**Sorry, as important as the group is to Pearl Jam history they’re a little too glam / Poison cover band for the most part in my ears.
Alrighty, lets see about combing the two usual focuses of this blog into one post – music and books, books about music.
A good book about music or musicians isn’t as common as you’d think. There are shit loads of duffers out there – poorly researched and badly written fluff pieces. Some musicians who you’d expect a really good book out of tend to spend more time talking about their model railway collection than about the making of After The Gold Rush and some make it a little too obvious that they have an ulterior motive in a book release other than just a memoir – Kim Gordon’s Girl in a Band, for example.
But, there are some bloody belters out there and there’s a reason that a good chunk of my library is given over to a ‘music’ section. I’m sticking close to this blog’s wheelhouse here, obviously, but honourable mentions should go to The Rest is Noise: Listening to the Twentieth Century by Alex Ross and Peter Doggett’s There’s a Riot Going on: Revolutionaries, Rock Stars, and the Rise and Fall of 60s Counter-culture.
In no particular order, then, are my ten favourite music biogs / auto-biogs / books etc…
Pearl Jam – Twenty
Put out as part of the celebrations surrounding the band’s twentieth anniversary – the clue is in the title – which included a Cameron Crowe helmed documentary, CD, live album, two-day festival and short tour… Pearl JamTwenty is a year-by-year oral history of the band’s career. Stuffed to the bindings with imagery and photos, this is as intimate and candid as you’ll get for Pearl Jam, notoriously shy of publicity and exceedingly unlikely to offer anything resembling an official biography. There’s a wealth of humour and details in here given the format and it’s fuelled many a post on this blog and every time I open it up to refresh my memory I end up absorbed again.
Keith Richards – Life
Did you know Mick Jagger started an autobiography? Sometime in the 80’s – presumably during the lull in Stones activity, he got quite far with his book but promptly forgot about it – when he was later approached by a publisher he could neither remember writing it or let it be published. Somehow, Keith Richards remembered even more and not only finished but published his autobiography, Life. Could have been something to do with the publisher giving an advance of $7m based on a short extract, but Life is an essential read for even a minor Stones fan like me. Yes there’s the thrills and vicarious spirit of rock ‘n’ roll excess – but it’s his honesty and unflinching and everlasting love for music that really comes across, you understand how he became known as the human riff. Worth following up with the Netflix doc on Keith too if you’re in the mood.
Mark Yarm – Everybody Loves Our Town: An Oral History of Grunge
This book is, frankly, immense. In its scope, its telling and impact. Just reading it you can feel how much work and love has gone into this telling of the Seattle music scene – from its origins to its current status. The highs (both natural and chemical) and lows – some of which are pretty fucking dark and were a real discovery for me – are all covered in a forthright manner that manages to remain factual and detailed while also a clearly affectionate chronicle, sometimes gossipy, often hilarious and regularly revealing. It can’t be easy to build a narrative from so many and often conflicting memories (The Melvins’ Buzz Osborne comes across as a bit of a contrary prick) but Yarm has created what can only be described as the Bible of the scene here.
Bob Dylan – Chronicles Vol. One
“I’d been on an eighteen month tour with Tom Petty and The Heartbreakers. It would be my last. I had no connection to any kind of inspiration. Whatever was there to begin with had all vanished and shrunk. Tom was at the top of his game and I was at the bottom of mine.”
Wait, what? Nobody was expecting it, but Bob Dylan’s Chronicles Volume One appeared like a revelatory bolt from the blue in 2004 after he got ‘carried away’ writing linear notes for planned reissues of Bob Dylan, New Morning and Oh Mercy. The memoir – apparently the first of three (who know when) – is a detailed and candid insight into Dylan’s life, thinking and writing at the time of those three albums. The dejection and lack of direction he felt for his career while on tour with Petty is pre- Oh Mercy which, it turns out, came about thanks to Bono, an obscure singer with a little-known Irish band called U2* who, for some reason, Dylan showed the songs he’d started putting together and, while old Bob thought about burning them, suggested he call Daniel Lanois instead…
There’s a lot to discover in these three ‘vignettes’ considering the brevity of the periods covered and it’s a vital read for any Dylan fan. For a less personal and fuller Dylan read, Howard Sounes’ Down The Highway does a comprehensive and enjoyable job of telling Dylan’s story while keeping clear of the myth(s).
Speaking of stripping away the myth..
Peter Guralnick – Last Train to Memphis: The Rise of AND Careless Love: The Unmaking of Elvis Presley
This isn’t a double-header, I’m not sneaking two books into one slot, both deserve a spot on this list but as you just can’t read one and not the other I’ll cover both in one go. I bought these books a long time before I got to reading them. I’m not a big fan of Elvis, I can quite quickly name a Top Ten but I don’t go deep with the King. These books do and I’d mark them as essential.
Last Train to Memphis does a magnificent job in detailing – and I mean detailing – the rise of Elvis Presley right up to the point where he’s shipped out to Germany in 1958. Where he’s from, who he was as a person, his love for music, getting started, this book is rich in detail and interview and a real eye-opener. Guralnick finds the truth behind what has become a much retold and embellished story that’s become so familiar that the truth of a poor young truck driver who loved nothing above his mother and music and came out of nowhere to become the biggest thing the world had seen is far too often forgotten. Take, as an example, the words of Marion Keisker, the secretary at Sun records who recognised something special in the polite teenager’s voice, words on the enigma surrounding Elvis: “He was like a mirror in a way: whatever you were looking for, you were going to find in him. It was not in him to say anything malicious. He had all the intricacy of the very simple.”
The degree to which Last Train to Memphis manages to deliver the real Elvis Presley makes Careless Love all the more affecting. Once again – the demise of Elvis’ career and the man himself are too often mistold and the stock of parody: fat Elvis dying on the throne trying to take a dump surrounded by hamburgers and tv sets….
CarelessLove gets underway with Elvis’ time in the army in ’58 and chronicles the gradual unravelling of the dream that had burnt so bright in Last Train To Memphis and details in disturbing detail the complex playing-out of Elvis’s relationship with his plotting, money-grabbing and manipulative manager, Colonel Tom Parker. The lying Dutchman’s desperate attempts to stop Elvis returning to the road after his comeback special (he’d have less control of him on the road), his continual pushing of terrible movie after terrible movie, the appalling contract and commission he took which fuelled his greed…. it wasn’t drugs that did for Elvis if you ask me. Written with a grace and affection for its subject, Careless Love is the real deal, a true insight into the end of one of the biggest and misunderstood figures of the 20th century.
While neither made me run out and buy anything beyond the couple of compilations that sit on my shelves, both of these books changed how I thought about Elvis.
Oddly, looking back as I write this, it’s not an Elvis song that comes to mind here:
George Harrison – I, Me, Mine
My love for this book isn’t so much down to what’s revealed or any ‘shocking truths’ – this aren’t necessary really. Though apparently John Lennon was pissed off (it came out a few months before he was murdered) and claimed to be hurt as the book doesn’t refer to Lennon as being a musical influence. What I love is the warmth and feel of I, Me, Mine. My version is that which was published in 2002, not long after Harrison had passed, with a new forward from his wife Olivia. The autobiography itself isn’t essentially long or detailed but it’s everything else about this book I love – the bounty of photos and the song lyrics- copies of handwritten lyrics included – with details on the writing of each: “‘What is Life’ was written for Billy Preston in 1969. I wrote it very quickly, fifteen minutes or half an hour maybe…. it seemed too difficult to go in there and say ‘Hey I wrote this catch pop sing; while Billy was playing his funky stuff. I did it myself later on All Things Must Pass.”
Aerosmith – Walk This Way
My first taste of musical bios is a pretty extreme one. I bought this when it came out (first edition hardback still sitting on my shelves looking rather well read) and I was really starting to get into Aerosmith. Written by Stephen Davis and the band, Walk This Way was the first official telling of the Aerosmith story, from the band members’ origins and the formation of the group through to its early rise and debauchery to its drug-fuelled collapse and nadir before being reborn via sobriety in the mid-80s – much is given over to this process and the resentment Tyler felt at the time, Perry being involved in the intervention while still using etc and the troubles that nearly caused another break up prior to Nine Lives.
Since publication three of members have written their own memoirs (oddly I’ve only read Steven Tyler’s) and have suggested that Walk This Way is perhaps a little… sanitised and glosses over a few things. Odd considering just how shocking some of what this covers …
Mark Blake – Pigs Might Fly: The Inside Story of Pink Floyd
I mentioned this one recently and I still believe it deserves a place in my Top 10. While there’s never likely to be as complete and comprehensive a Pink Floyd autobiography as desired – Nick Mason’s Inside Out comes close but is obviously his own story – as a) Gilmour and Waters don’t really get on and b) Syd Barrett and Richard Wright are no longer with us… Pigs Might Fly is a thoroughly detailed and researched ‘as close as you’ll ever get’.
Bruce Springsteen – Born To Run
Of course this is bloody well going to be on here. This is pretty much top of the list and sets a new benchmark for how autobiographies should be written. I wasn’t expecting this one to be written so well or so candidly. In my original review for this, which was extensive so I won’t go overboard here, I said: It is an absolute blast to read. Written completely solo and without the assistance of a ghost-writer, the voice is clearly that of Bruce – at times cuttingly honest, at others poetic and then written as though delivering a sermon from the stage on the LIFE SAVING POWERS OF ROCK AND ROLL!!! (yes, the caps-lock button is Bruce’s friend). Contained within its five hundred or so pages is the story of how a young man from a poor, working class family in the town of Freehold, New Jersey, fell in love with music, got a guitar, learned how to make it talk, refined his craft and cracked the code. It’s fascinating and joyous stuff.
*If there isn’t a tribute band called ‘Not You Too’ then I’ll bloody well start one.
… for years I’ve been mishearing that lyric as “flea bit beat-up monkey”, what the hell is a peanut monkey?!
I’m not a huge Rolling Stones fan. But there’s a lot of Rolling Stones songs that I love.
Monkey Man is one of em.
Id say I have a handful of Stones albums – a couple of compilations, Their Satanic Majesties Request, Sticky Fingers and Exile… I couldn’t say that I’ve listened to them all that much – more a cherry picking of tracks. Until I read Life by Keith Richards.
But… in that imported-non-event Black Friday and the subsequent weekend of discounts, my local chain music store (if I can I still buy independent but we’re all on a budget) dropped the price on a handful of albums – going so far as to slap “1 purchase per customer” on them as if the £5 discount was as monumental as a signed cover – and I grabbed Let It Bleed.
It’s already been round the turn table a good three or four times. I’ve often sought it out and for three reasons: Monkey Man, Gimme Shelter and You Can’t Always Get What You Want. Any album with those on it is automatically elevated to great status.
One of my favourite song writers – Mr Bill Janovitz of Bufallo Tom – is a huge Stones fan. He’s even written a couple books; a 33 1/3 on Exile On Main Street and one called “Rocks Off: 50 Tracks That Tell the Story of the Rolling Stones”. I don’t know that I could list 50 songs of theirs that I enjoy, probably a dozen or so.
“I used to work with a salesman who wore a Rolling Stones tongue-logo tie every day. His Stones were the Stones of “Satisfaction,” “Start Me Up,” and even (yuck) “She Was Hot”—huge arena-rock songs with instantly recognizable guitar-riff intros. Then there is the Stones fan of the classic-rock variety—the “Under My Thumb” and “Jumping Jack Flash” fan for whom the group, and the world, ceased to matter around 1968. My Stones are more about “Moonlight Mile,” “Monkey Man,” “Gimme Shelter,” “Rocks Off”—tracks that have the rambling, wide-open blues and rock sound that the band perfected in the 1970s. All three of us will devour Bill Janovitz’s “Rocks Off: 50 Tracks That Tell the Story of the Rolling Stones.”
I fall in the middle – my favourite tracks are, for the most part, of that “rambling, wide-open blues and rock sound that the band perfected in the 1970s.”
So, in the spirit of Top 10s (if it was Top 5 there’d be very little that wasn’t on Let It Bleed) and lists…. they are, in no real order:
Can’t You Hear Me Knocking
It’s not Brown Sugar, nor is it Sway or Dead Flowers… the standout track on Sticky Fingers, to my ears, is Can’t You Hear Me Knocking. I first heard this when it was used in Tedd Demme’s drug-smuggling, Scorsese-like Blow (more on Scorsese and the Stones to come of course) . I love the nasty, dirty-feeling power of that guitar riff, the breakdown and resolve of the saxophone (the hugely talented Bobby Keys appears on so much of their best work) and the fact that the breakdown happened, according to Mick Taylor because “toward the end of the song, I just felt like carrying on playing. Everybody was putting their instruments down, but the tape was still rolling, and it sounded good, so everybody quickly picked up their instruments again and carried on playing. It just happened, and it was a one-take thing.”
It’s a powerful, swaggering monster of a Stones song that contains every element of that blues rock sound that they nailed down so hard and perfectly in the Seventies.
Another belter and, of course, also used in a few films – Goodfellas being the most memorable for me. Mick Jagger has said of it that “That’s a kind of end-of-the-world song, really. It’s apocalypse”. I read that Keith came up with the tune while stuck indoors as it was pissing down outdoors, meanwhile Mick was off filming Performance in which he beds down with Keith’s then-girlfriend Anita Pallengberg. Keith was just starting to use heroin and the anxiety and dread are palpable in the tune and it’s just a glorious tune that – while Satisfaction, Start Me Up or Brown Sugar might be the most well known – is undoubtedly their best.
So; I’m a flea bit peanut monkey…. Whatever that means. The lyrics here are filled with snarl and bite (“I’ve been bit and I’ve been tossed around by every she-rat in this town”), the guitars even more so with Keith giving it some hard bluesy blasts, the piano is cracking and, like so much on Let It Bleed, pinned down by some ominous, urgent sense of menace. While Jagger’s line of “I hope we’re not too messianic or a trifle too satanic” is a classic, for me it’s all about the yell of “I’m a MONKEY…….”
You Can’t Always Get What You Want
For me, one of the best few seconds of any tune comes 50 seconds into the last Stones song of the Sixties. The choir finishes, the acoustic guitar has a few seconds alone and then the French horn pipes in with what could easily be considered a lament to the decade and the first chapter of the band’s life – the song was essentially all Mick in creation, Keith was beginning his journey into heroin addiction and Brian Jones was practically gone. And yet… it’s hopeful. Despite the universal doom and gloom Jagger sings of the song comes across as a near-rousing song of hope. The gorgeous arrangement, the keys, the horns, the shuffle of the drums and the kiss-off of the chorus “you just might find, you get you need” sung with a joyous sounding choir.
She’s A Rainbow
This is here almost entirely for personal reasons – it’s a song loved by my wife and I and played during our wedding – but it’s still a great Stones tune. Undoubtedly the prettiest thing they ever did and really the only one on Their Satanic Majesties Request that stands up on repeated listen. The delicate, pastoral piano, the shakes of the tambourine and then the dissonant breakdown with sharp, stabs of strings and the lewd “she comes in colours…” If the album was their attempt to take on Sgt. Pepper this song shows they could have knocked the Beatles into a hat and then jumped on it.
Their Satanic Majestieswas a turning point in a way probably not intended. However, from here they went into an unbroken run of classics up to and including Exile On Main Street and kicking off with Beggars Banquet, featuring…
Street Fighting Man
To me, more so than Sympathy for the Devil, this one marks the start of the next chapter for the Stones. The lyrics came after a massive anti-war protest Jagger had witnessed, there’s no electric guitar on it with Keith building layer upon layer of distorted acoustic (via a cassette recorder!) and Brian Jones adds sitar and tamboura into the mix, keeping it rooted in the Sixties.
Thru and Thru
Ah Thru and Thru… Perhaps not the most obvious choice and I’d be surprised if it turned up in too many critical lists but this is my list and I love this. I first heard it when used on an episode of the Sopranos and the subsequent soundtrack. That it’s a Keith-sung number threw me off at first as I didn’t realise it was a Stones song. I love the slow build up, the layered vocal of “waiting on a call from you…” and Keith’s bluesy growl (though the ‘love as a takeaway’ lyric might not be his best). You know the subtle strings, build up and minimal guitar is going to break, has to break – especially with the thunder-crack drums appearing around the two minute mark – and yet the build up continues perfectly for more than half of the song and when the full-band does kick in, it’s glorious.
Mother’s Little Helper
“What a drag it is getting old….” An absolute ripper of a song about pill-popping mothers all wrapped up in under three minutes with a gleeful “oi” at the end. I continually find myself singing that opening line.
Yeah, yeah… but it had to be on the list really. But it’s only lately that it’s snuck in there (over, say, Honky Tonk Woman) for me. Why? Because I read that Keith had written the chorus for his infant son as they were about to head off on tour. As a father I know that sentiment all to well. That it’s also among the best examples of how Mick and Keith wrote together – Keith had the riff and chorus, Mick added the rest (supposedly his relationship with Marianne Faithful going into his lyrics) and the pair of them sharing the mic for the chorus. The music is that most Gram Parsons inspired acoustic strum Keith had down at the time andsounds like it could sit on the Almost Famous soundtrack, underpinned with some beautiful electric lines and piano and is so well known it really won’t benefit from my prattling on about it.
Paint It, Black
Of course you can’t have any kind of Best Of list for the Stones and not have this song. That drone, that sinister sitar (Brian Jones’ legacy, to me, is in how much of their early work he got that instrument into), the drums and those lyrics that would no doubt inspire only Bailey knows how many ‘moody’ emo lyrics –
“I look inside myself and see my heart is black
I see my red door I must have it painted black
Maybe then I’ll fade away and not have to face the facts
It’s not easy facing up when your whole world is black”
Even if, according to Keith, it was written as a bit of a joke, they penned a classic here. Aftermath is the first Stones album to benefit entirely from the Jagger / Richards song-writing partnership, a move which meant Brian Jones got a tad bored with guitars and began exploring instruments like the sitar. This song is the perfect summation of the early-Stones’ parts.