Hall of Records: The Rolling Stones, Out of Our Heads (US version, June 30, 1965, London)
by Michael Tatum
The Beatles were incredibly lucky. They rejected Mitch Murray’s lame “How Do You Do It?” for their projected second single, instead pushing for their own original material, Lennon’s “Please Please Me.” After some tweaks from producer George Martin, it became their first number one single in Britain (depending on which chart of the time you give credence to) thus justifying their right to continue plowing through their own supposedly hefty backlog of compositions, the existence of which had largely been a bluff, at least according to biographer and all-around Beatles nut Mark Lewisohn. Despite their touring schedule from 1964 to 1966 occupying a major chunk of their time, they developed a relationship with Martin, his engineers, and indeed the Abbey Road studio itself — not too many artists christen a record after where it was taped. Although their massive talent certainly played a role in the privilege extended to them by EMI, the parent company of the UK-based Parlophone Records, one cannot diminish the role of luck and timing in their autonomy, unprecedented for a recording artist during that period.
Now consider the Rolling Stones, who until 1965’s Out of Our Heads were considered as palpable equals by many in the British press, but remained relatively unknown in America, and even in their homeland their sales hardly glanced off the numbers for Help!. The first Jagger/Richards song to hit the top spot in their home country was “The Last Time” — their sixth UK single, released in February of 1965 and their third number one, the other two being covers of the Valentinos’ “It’s All Over Now” (June 1964) and Howlin’ Wolf’s “Little Red Rooster (five months later). The original “Heart of Stone” had been chosen in 1964 by their American label for a 45 release (it stalled at 19), but in the UK it was merely an album track on the UK version of Out of Our Heads (where it was a year-old relic). This made “The Last Time” as the band’s first true shot at challenging the Lennon/McCartney songwriting juggernaut. Though both bands started at roughly the same time, the time between “Please Please Me” to “The Last Time” spanned about a year and a half, which may seem like nothing from our current historical standpoint, but rock and roll was progressing so quickly by that point in its development that the distance between the two was in its own way an eon — the same amount of time passed between Rubber Soul and Sgt. Pepper. So what took the Stones so long to write their own material? Crucially, with the exception of their slightly botched UK debut, which found manager Andrew Loog Oldham farting his way around a studio without a proper studio engineer, the Stones’ output to that point had been recorded on the run, in London, Chicago, and Hollywood, without real opportunity for wood shedding. It took four albums (five in America, where the philosophy boiled down to more bang for your buck) for the Stones to release an entirely self-penned work, the epochal Aftermath, which appeared on the shelves in May of 1966, a few months before Revolver, and a full three years into their career. It’s no coincidence that it was also their first album since their debut to be recorded entirely in one place: RCA Studios in Hollywood, with engineer cum de facto producer Dave Hassinger.
I suppose if one was to begin exploring the Stones’ huge discography, Aftermath would be the sanest place to start — between “Paint it Black,” “Under my Thumb,” “Lady Jane,” and other classics, with the ten-minute “Goin’ Home” ending the far superior US track listing, it’s the first of several dizzying ’60s masterpieces that aside from their Sgt. Pepper piss-take Their Satantic Majesties Request, wended into the early ’70s with the landmark Exile on Main St. When Rolling Stone and the like publish one of their periodic rundowns of the rock’s essential records (yawn), the quartet beginning with 1968’s Beggars Banquet and ending with Exile is often universally lauded as one of the greatest runs of all time. No argument from me. Yet Out of our Heads, a crucial step up the evolutionary ladder not unlike 1964’s Beatles for Sale, captures the Stones at a key transitional period, transforming themselves from hell-raising amateurs to professional provocateurs, the moment when they refined both their musical and songwriting styles. A good shorthand for this is that they metamorphosed from rock and roll artists to “rock” ones, no longer merely aping their ’50s heroes and forebears, but expanding on their ideas into their own unique vision. You don’t hear any of their pre-Heads material on the radio much — tragically I think, and a sad testament to how rock and roll (as opposed to “rock”) is undervalued. But “The Last Time?” “Play with Fire?” “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction?” Immortal.
I’ll get to those three classics, none of which appear on the version of this album that would appear in the Stones’ native land in September of 1965, in a moment. Because much the same way certain Beatles fans miss the point when they dismiss Lennon’s searing cover of Chuck Berry’s “Rock and Roll Music” in favor of in-house gems like “I’m a Loser” or “Eight Days a Week,” most of the unjustly obscure non-originals on Heads are as indispensable as the cuts everyone knows. For one thing, the Stones go deeper into esoterica compared to the Beatles, with no equal time allotted to white artists — it’s safe to assume not too many of their fans were hip to Solomon Burke or Don Covay. With the exception of Sam Cooke’s “Good Times,” which coming from a cynic like Jagger comes off as irresolute rather than celebratory (I’m betting it was a sop to Keith), all of their covers are chosen because Jagger can do something with them that significantly alters the tone of the original. See if you can hear even a token of sincerity when Jagger promises “I’m gonna work two jobs seven days a week/And bring my money home to you,” in Covay’s “Mercy, Mercy” (and hear how Keith improves the young Jimi Hendrix’s opening riff by being funkier). Then there’s the compelling take on Otis Redding’s “That’s How Strong My Love Is,” which in its original incarnation epitomizes devotion, but in Jagger’s rendition comes off like a threat, a preview of all the nasty things the object of his unwitting desires has to look forward to, particularly in the way he leans menacingly into the word strong. This is a major performance no one talks about. From our current standpoint, the ominous overtones lead straight from here to the Playboy Mansion in the ’70s, faking nuptials to Jerry Hall a few decades later, and all sorts of ugly sexual politics that in life we could all do without. Claiming, as critics often do, that it was a necessary antidote to the anodyne likes of Gary Lewis and the Playboys doesn’t cut it anymore. Yet for me, there is no denying this track’s startling power.
That cruelty extends into the originals. You can claim class resentment for the mock-genteel “Play with Fire,” in which Jagger sneers that these days that girl gets her kicks in Stepney (a slum severely damaged by the blitz, home to mid-century Jewish immigrants, and as of this day only beginning to be gentrified) rather than the tonier Knightsbridge, a high-end retail and residential district. No such defense for the nasty “The Last Time,” which in its impatient bid for sexual gratification necessitates comparison with the Beatles’ chipper “Please Please Me,” which Tim Riley, in a deathless phrase, once described as making a “polite demand” for oral sex. “You don’t try very hard to please me,” Jagger sings contemptuously. “With what you know it should be be easy.” The joys of reciprocation — “Please please me/Like I please you” — never come into play. Instead, he knows what she’s capable of in the sack (probably gossip gleaned from some bloke down at the local pub) and wants to sample the goods for himself. It’s easy to see how the Beatles sneaked fellatio onto the radio — despite the subject matter of “Please Please Me,” there’s a sweetness about it, an innocence, and gosh darn it they seem so nice. How could guys who harmonize that well be any danger to ladies’ virtue? But the salaciousness, the callousness of “The Last Time” was something new to the airwaves, and once again, as with everything else about the Stones, didn’t exactly portend a glorious sexual awakening based in gender equality, let alone a utopia. Jagger’s manic, ejaculatory screams at the end of this song trace directly to the no longer theoretical rapist of “Midnight Rambler,” perhaps culminating to today’s ugly “incel” movement, an unironic bid for what women “owe” men. Again, in life, deplorable. But in art, as scary and uncomfortable to hear as it is thrilling for its conceptual daring.
You could extend this sort of analysis to “Satisfaction,” but lyrically it’s been pulled apart by so many other people it’s beside the point to bother — whoever first pointed out that the third verse rued a girl on her period deserves royalty points. Instead, I’ll answer a more interesting question: why is that riff so damn catchy? And, I would add, “meaningful?” These same memorable three notes (B, C#, D) also appear in Buffalo Springfield’s “Mr. Soul” (as played by Neil Young on fuzz guitar) and Paul McCartney’s “Jet” (by Howie Casey on saxophone). Yet in those songs, the musical effect isn’t quite the same — in both cases, they’re played against a B minor chord, which in terms of musical scales is the “obvious” choice of key. “Satisfaction” takes an entirely different route, pivoting from two chords: E major to A major, very peculiar choices indeed, especially since “D” doesn’t figure into the E scale proper (musicians call this an example of the “mixolydian scale,” a piece of trivia I promise never to bring up again). But the “D” — that’s the highest note in the sequence, the one that’s held by Keith — performs a curious function. It’s played against an A chord, turning that chord into a “suspended” chord, meaning that the middle note of the major triad (C#) is moved a semi-tone up, creating an effect that’s like an itch you can’t scratch — the ear wants to hear that note resolve itself, and it never does. Instead, the riff moves circularly, back and forth, creating an expectation that it never really delivers, leaving the listener to crave a resolution that he never gets. Ergo, no satisfaction.
To suggest that Jagger/Richards did that intentionally is of course farcical, but taking such an intuitive approach in marrying words to music is a sign of how far they had come as songwriters, a technique not unlike sneaking a harpsichord, that denizen of upper class parlor rooms, onto “Play With Fire.” They would continue these kinds of tricks on next year’s Aftermath, with the tip-toeing marimba line in “Under My Thumb,” as devious as hooks get, or the moment in “Think” where the drums drop out and Jagger scolds “Tell me whose fault is that, babe.” It’s a far cry from the blues readymades they started out with. The final cut on side one of Out of Our Heads, the only duff track, is a live version of Bo Diddley’s “I’m All Right,” recorded in March of 1965. The original has a nice rollicking charm about it, but the Stones’ approach is to make it more intense, essentially a punk rave-up, rock sans roll — a heroic attempt to pump a little more energy into the source material, but ultimately misbegotten. You can hear they wanted to move on. The rest of the album documents how they did it.