It’s only rock & roll, but I like it
For Jagger and Richards, the challenge is not which songs to put on a set list, but which to leave off
EVEN after six decades of playing together, the Rolling Stones still have the capacity to surprise.
When they hit the stage for the opening night of their 60th anniversary tour in Madrid on June 1, the Stones stunned their audience by dusting off a song that had been recorded 56 years ago and never played live before.
‘Out of Time’ is an early Jagger-Richards composition from their 1966 album Aftermath, a jaunty singalong about a dumped girlfriend. It’s a testament to the strength of their songbook that the Stones have tunes of this calibre just sitting in the vaults.
That’s the challenge Mick Jagger and Keith Richards face every timethey put together a set list; it’s not a case of which songs to include, but which ones to leave out. Without a very disciplined editing process, they could easily end up with a list of 40 to 50 songs stretching a concert to three or four hours.
After six decades together, the Glimmer Twins have a repertoire that is virtually second to none. Only Bob Dylan and Paul McCartney can boast of anything comparable.
This is partly due to longevity: the two core members of the Rolling Stones have been playing together longer than almost anyone alive. But it’s mostly due to the strength of their songwriting partnership, especially in the first two prolific decades of their career when they were at the peak of their abilities.
It’s easy to forget that there was no road map when the Stones were starting out; along with the Beatles, they virtually invented the way a rock band should sound and look. Everything was up for grabs and experimentation was par for course. The Stones songbook is not just massive, but extraordinarily diverse, from the Blues and rock & roll standards they began playing through to swinging sixties pop, psychedelia, roots rock, country and western, soul, hard rock, and even reggae. Yet from the first note, there is never any mistake that this is a Rolling Stones song.
Any Rolling Stones concert must contain the standards: ‘Satisfaction’, ‘Sympathy for the Devil’, ‘Start Me Up’, ‘Honky Tonk Women, ‘Miss You’ and others. These songs have become so much a part of our culture and the soundtrack to our lives that it’s hard to imagine the impact they must have had when heard the first time.
Yet looking at footage of their current tour on YouTube, they still enjoy playing them despite having performed them literally hundreds, if not thousands, of times before.
The real fascination in the lead up to attending the Hyde Park concert on July 3 is which obscurities will they also showcase in their two hour set.
Would they attempt ‘Can’t You Hear Me Knocking’, the funky seven minute work out from Sticky Fingers? What about one of the hidden treasures from Exile on Main Street like ‘Torn and Frayed’? Or an early classic like ‘Ruby Tuesday’ or ‘She’s a Rainbow’?
And which songs will Keith choose for his two vocal performances? ‘You Got the Silver’? ‘Happy’? Or perhaps ‘Before They Make Me Run’?
The truth is that the Stones could play a four-hour set and still leave us wanting more. On any given night, there are certain to be a dozen or more favourites we won’t hear, among them songs like ‘Brown Sugar’ and ‘Star Star’ whose lyrical content might be frowned on today.
As that July 3 concert date fast approaches, here are a baker’s dozen of tracks that tell the story of the Stones’ progression over their 60 years as a working band, some staples of classic rock radio, others less well-known album tracks. Any one of them would be at home in a present day Stones set list.
Little Red Rooster (1964)
The Stones were first and foremost a group of Blues nerds who began their career by covering standards by the likes of Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf and Willie Dixon along with favourites from the early days of Rock & Roll by Chuck Berry and Buddy Holly. It was not until 1966 that they consistently began to record Jagger-Richards compositions. ‘Little Red Rooster’, recorded at Chess Studios in Chicago during the Stones’ first visit to America in late-1964, is one of the finest early examples of their ability to interpret the Blues while putting their own stamp on the genre. Charlie Watts, Bill Wyman and Keith Richards lay down a hypnotic shuffle style groove but the song is really a showcase for the virtuosity of Brian Jones on slide guitar, which he makes howl and squeal at key moments. Above it all, Mick Jagger imbues the lyrics with a vocal performance that is simultaneously menacing and lascivious. The overall effect is swampy Delta blues via Chicago via the suburbs of London. The song reached number one on the British charts for a week on December 5, 1964, and remains the only Blues recording to ever achieve that feat.
(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction (1965)
If the Rolling Stones were famous for just one song, this would be it. Legend has it that Keith Richards woke up with the riff playing in his head, picked up the acoustic guitar from next to his bed, pressed play on the little tape recorder on his bedside table, played a couple of bars and then promptly went back to sleep. Whether true or not, once the riff was played through a fuzz box, the Stones knew they had a hit. But what makes ‘Satisfaction’ one of the greatest songs ever recorded is not only the riff, but Jagger’s lyrics and vocal delivery, which must have been truly threatening to the mainstream establishment of 1965 when he sang of sexual frustration and his contempt for the materialism and commercialism of the older generation. Their parents may have hated it, but the kids loved it and ‘Satisfaction’ was a massive hit around the world, spending weeks at number one on both sides of the Atlantic. Most bands spend their entire career searching for a riff, let alone a song, of this quality, but at their peak, the Stones were able to knock them out effortlessly; bear in mind their next single was ‘Get Off My Cloud’, which still gets a regular pounding on classic rock radio today.
Paint It, Black (1966)
The genius of Brian Jones was that he could pick up virtually any instrument and within a few hours be able to play it proficiently. The Stones weren’t the first band to have a sitar on their recordings — The Beatles had already done that with ‘Norwegian Wood’ in 1965 — but they were not to be outdone. For this ode to a dead girlfriend or a lost love, Jones added a sinister, menacing tone to the simple notes he picked out on the sitar, giving ‘Paint It, Black’ (why the comma?) an otherworldy atmosphere. The song is propelled by a thumping rhythm track, while Jagger’s vocals alternate between quiet, melancholic, verses and riotous choruses. Significantly, while The Beatles were still primarily singing about love and holding hands, the lyrics of ‘Paint It, Black’ show the darker side of the Stones, setting the scene for what was to come.
Under My Thumb (1966)
Aftermath was an important milestone album for the Stones because it was the first time they recorded only Jagger-Richards compositions with no cover versions. Overshadowed by Revolver which was released the same year, it is the Stones’ first really great album, as much due to the virtuosic talents of Brian Jones as it was to the principal songwriter pair. It was Jones whose multi-instrumentalism could transform a song like ‘Under My Thumb’ with a riff played on the marimba that gave it a jazzy, dreamlike feel. In contrast to the laid back music, Jagger’s lyrics are among his most misogynistic, boasting of how he has brought a girlfriend to heel, dictating her life right down to the clothes she wears and “the way she talks when she’s spoken to”, with the nonchalant way he delivers the words making them even nastier. Like numerous Stones’ songs — ‘Bitch’, ‘Stupid Girl’, ‘Star Star’, and ‘Brown Sugar’ immediately spring to mind — the words haven’t aged well, even if the music has. But hey, they were young and this was the pre-Women’s Lib swinging sixties.
Jumpin’ Jack Flash (1968)
When the Rolling Stones entered the familiar surrounds of the Olympic Studios in April 1968, the stakes could not have been higher. The previous year had been a disaster for the band, dominated by the infamous drug bust at Keith Richards’ Redlands estate and the trial that followed when the band felt the full weight of The Establishment coming down upon them. Brian Jones was also busted for drugs and began a rapid mental and physical deterioration, worsened when Keith stole his girlfriend Anita Pallenberg from under his nose. Musically, 1967 was also patchy at best. While Between The Buttons, which had come out at the start of the year, had some memorable highlights (‘Yesterday’s Papers’), and the double A side ‘Ruby Tuesday/Let’s Spend The Night Together’ was a hit. But its follow up, Their Satanic Majesties Request, recorded in a rush amid court dates, was universally ridiculed as a poor man’s attempt at psychedelia. Meanwhile, arch-rivals The Beatles were being feted as geniuses. The Stones’ solution to this turmoil was to get back to basics. Leaning heavily on a riff that bore similarities to ‘Satisfaction’, ‘Jumpin’ Jack Flash’ was probably the hardest rocking song the band had recorded to that date. It was also their first collaboration with American producer Jimmy Miller, who would almost become a sixth Stone over the next half a dozen years as he oversaw the band’s golden period. Lyrically, Mick Jagger seemed to revel in his notoriety as he sang of being born in a crossfire hurricane, raised by a bearded toothless hag and wearing a crown of spikes on his head. From this point onwards, there was no looking back.
Sympathy for the Devil (1968)
In their heyday, the Stones had an uncanny knack for tapping into the zeitgeist, and never more so than with Beggars Banquet, an album that captured the smell of revolution in the air in 1968. ‘Sympathy for the Devil’ set the standard for what was the first truly great Stones’ LP. Sounding unlike virtually anything else in their body of work — for a start there were no guitars for the first 165 seconds — the tone is set by a manic samba beat and Nicky Hopkins’ distinctive piano fills, really coming alive with two incendiary lead guitar breaks by Keith Richards. Jagger’s lyrics drew from Russian author Mikhail Bulgakov’s novel The Master and Margarita, which had been released in English in 1967, as he passed through history in the guise of Satan, dropping in on momentous events like the death of Jesus, the Russian Revolution and the murders of the Kennedy brothers. He seemed to be saying that if the Establishment wanted to cast him as the anti-Christ, it was a role he was willing to play. The development of ‘Sympathy’ was a fascinating process captured by Jean-Luc Godard’s film of the same name, beginning as a slow folk-like song before gaining a life of its own when Rocky Dijon joined the band on congas, and stepping up a notch when Anita Pallenberg and Marianne Faithful joined the rest of the band for the “whoo, whoo” vocal refrain. ‘Sympathy for the Devil’ was one of numerous highlights on Beggars Banquet, which is one of the most consistent suite of songs the Stones’ recorded. ‘Street Fighting Man’ has also become a fixture in their live set — its ringing chords signalling the start of each concert of their 2022 tour — while elsewhere the band delved into the Blues (‘Prodigal Son’, ‘Parachute Woman’, ‘No Expectations’) and even Country music with the hilarious ‘Dear Doctor’.
Gimme Shelter (1969)
It’s the end of the sixties and the dream has gone sour. War is raging in Vietnam, a cultural revolution is being fought in the streets of North America and Western Europe, and the hopes of their generation, the Kennedys and Martin Luther King have all been murdered. For the Stones too, there is danger everywhere. Brian Jones drowned on July 3, 1969, aged 27, while Keith is entering the early stages of a long and intractable heroin addiction, and the horror of Altamont is just around the corner. The chaos finds its musical release in the opening track of the band’s final album of the decade, an impassioned plea for shelter that is matched by an instrumental tour de force. From its spine tingling opening arpeggios to the powerful fade out, punctuated by Merry Clayton’s incredible vocal cameo, this is among the most powerful few minutes of rock music ever recorded. And to think the closing track Let It Bleed, ‘You Can’t Always Get What You Want’ is almost as good.
By the start of the 1970s, with The Beatles having disintegrated, the Rolling Stones were the undisputed Greatest Rock & Roll Band in the World. Sticky Fingers, released in 1971 and the third of the golden run of albums produced by Jimmy Miller, found the band at their peak, effortlessly knocking out classic song after classic song. From the opening notes of ‘Brown Sugar’ (another contender for greatest riff of all time) to the haunting, string-laden ‘Moonlight Mile’ which closes out the second side, there is not a dud among its 10 tracks. ‘Sway’, the second track, more than holds its own among the better known ‘Wild Horses’. ‘Can’t You Hear Me Knocking’, ‘Bitch’, ‘Dead Flowers’ and ‘Sister Morphine’. A precursor of the sonic bluriness of the band’s next album, ‘Sway’ is a slow burner with Jagger’s vocals buried in a sludgy mix that sounds as if it could fall apart at any moment and takes a few listens to reward the listener. Eventually, the individual parts of the song become clear: Charlie Watt’s powerful drumming, Mick Taylor’s plaintive lead guitar, the swell of strings, Ian Stewart’s piano. The song exudes a rawness and the lyrical fatalism and world-weariness (“it’s just that demon life, got you in its sway”) that would become more prevalent in the Stones’ music over the next few years.
Rocks Off (1972)
Upon its release, Exile On Main Street, was initially panned by critics who couldn’t get past its dense, murky mix to appreciate the songs contained on its four sides. But it did not take long for them to revise their opinions and recognise it as the exalted masterpiece it is. Partly recorded in the dank windowless basement of Keith’s rented mansion in the south of France that was the band’s temporary headquarters, you can almost feel the sweat dripping off the walls in this collection of songs that draw inspiration from the Blues, country, rock and roll, gospel, and soul. Picking just one track to exemplify the sprawling ambition and controlled chaos of this album is nigh on impossible. Is it the grinding, claustrophobic ‘Ventilator Blues’ or the ragged acoustic beauty of ‘Torn & Frayed’? The heavy blues of ‘Stop Breaking Down’, or the gospel-tinged ‘Shine a Light’? Perhaps it is opening track ‘Rocks Off’ that best encompasses the album’s dark vision. Kicking off with another contender for greatest riff of all time, the verses echo with weariness, lethargy and paranoia, bursting into brief euphoria alongside the classic horn section of Bobby Keys and Jim Price in the choruses but even that is an illusion (“I only get my rocks off while I’m dreaming”). It all breaks down in the middle, as if we’ve suddenly been thrust into that dark and humid basement studio with the walls closing in, before the release of a new verse; but all that offers is brief respite (“the sunshine bores the daylights out of me”). And so begins the descent into the circles of hell from which we will only emerge an hour later with closing track ‘Soul Survivor’.
Miss You (1978)
Much of the Stones’ best music has come from when the band have had their backs to the wall. The recording of ‘Miss You’ emerged from yet another moment of adversity. Keith had been busted for heroin possession (yet again) in Canada in 1977 and faced the very real prospect of jail, while Mick seemed more interested in hanging out at Studio 54 than being the front man of the Rolling Stones. But worse was that musically, the Stones were in danger of becoming irrelevant after a decade and a half as recording artists. Their last few albums had their moments, but were passable at best and the replacement of Mick Taylor by Ronnie Wood had failed to reignite the spark. Punk, with its energy and anarchic spirit, was a direct challenge to the bloated rock royalty of which the Stones were top of the pile. And disco was also appealing to an audience who rejected sixties rock relics as old and boring. The Stones hit back with Some Girls, recorded in Paris and New York during late-1977. Opening track ‘Miss You’ swung hard, a raunchy, sleazy 4 minutes and 49 seconds held together by a funky bass line and jazzy guitar fills from Richards and Wood, and featuring excellent harmonica and saxophone from guest musicians. Some Girls had other highlights, not least ‘Beast of Burden’ and Keith’s ‘Before They Make Me Run’. Once again, the Stones had defied their critics and showed there was life in the old dog yet.
Waiting On A Friend (1980)
Throughout their careers, Jagger and Richards have had an uncanny knack of bookending Rolling Stones albums with terrific opening and closing tracks, and Tattoo You is a prime example. ‘Start Me Up’ was born to be played in a stadium before an audience of 50,000, but ‘Waiting On A Friend’, with its gentle, loping rhythm is the album’s real gem. While the opening track is an assertive expression of male teenage libido (somewhat incongruously sung by a man who is well past the first flush of youth), ‘Waiting On A Friend’ finds Jagger entering middle age more graciously and paying tribute to the simpler things in life, like male friendship. Nicky Hopkins on piano and Sonny Rollins on tenor sax add gorgeous texture to the simple backing track and Jagger’s vocal has a tender fragility too often missing in the Stones’ later work. ‘Don’t need a whore/Don’t need no booze’, he sings as the music ripples beneath his voice. The video is a gem as well, the camera following a clearly wasted Keith as he weaves his way through the sidewalk traffic and meets up with Mick, who is without a doubt the whitest man in New York as he waits patiently on the steps of a brownstone doorstep alongside three black dudes.
Blue and Lonesome (2016)
For their final full length studio recording with Charlie Watts, the Stones reverted to what originally brought them together as musicians: the Blues. Recorded mostly in single takes over three days, with Eric Clapton dropping in for a cameo, Blue and Lonesome was the band’s first album of all Blues covers since the early-sixties. And while this might suggest a band that has run out of fresh ideas and originality, the playing on their 23rd album is anything but going through the motions. Older and wiser, the passing of years having added depth and texture to their interpretations, they no longer sound so much like white English boys attempting to pass themselves off as Delta Bluesmen and more like the grizzled, veterans of a hard life that they have become. As a consequence, running through a dozen old standards by Willie Dixon, Howlin’ Wolf, Little Walter and others, they sounded more fired up and enthusiastic than they had for decades. The result is probably the Stones best album for 20 years. The title track, originally recorded by harp player Little Walter, begins with a crescendo of distorted power chords and cymbals, before laying down a steady groove under which Ronnie Wood fires bursts of dirty, screeching guitar. Jagger is unmistakably Jagger, but sounds authentically raw and in a short harmonic solo shows just how under-rated he is as an instrumentalist. There’s nothing particularly ambitious or polished about this or the other 11 songs on the album, but the spirit with which they play them informs us that the Stones will never go quietly into the night, but will always rage against the dying of the light.
Living in a Ghost town (2020)
Who expected Mick and Keith to come up with something this relevant and this damn funky in the middle of the 2020 COVID pandemic? ‘Living In A Ghost Town’ was the band’s first original song in eight years which, as some critics pointed out, was the same length of time between the Stones’ first recordings and Sticky Fingers in 1971. Jagger added lyrics inspired by the lockdowns that were in place around the world at the time to a reggae/dub infused backing track that the band had laid down the previous year, before anyone had even heard of COVID-19. The spacey, sparse backing cleverly evoked the feeling of the time, and surprise, surprise, this quartet of septuagenarian gentlemen had beaten musicians a third of their age to the punch. Sure, it’s not a patch on ‘Honky Tonk Women’ or ‘Tumbling Dice’, but name me any other geriatrics who can still pull something like this off.