My latest band exploration is the Rolling Stones.
I’ve been a “greatest hits” fan of the Stones for a long time. That’s a pretty useful term, I think; it means a person who has known and liked the same songs by a given band as everybody else. In my case, they were my second rock concert, way back in 1989 with the Steel Wheels tour at the age of 17. But this recent exploration of their work was meant to be more in depth.
In part, it was inspired by curiosity. There was a time when the Stones were seen as arguably the most dangerous, anti-establishment rock stars there were, though obviously by the time I became a fan, they were long past that. But the reasons for this onetime popular perception had always escaped me (I always figured it was something to do with drugs, but so what – even by the mid-to-late 60s, all musicians were doing that). Maybe this exploration would give me some insight. At the same time, I made a point of doing some online reading, watching some documentaries on the Stones, etc.
To be honest, the first few albums didn’t do much for me, other than the “greatest hits”. In the beginning the band were exclusively performing covers, and didn’t start releasing albums of exclusively original material until 1966. And it shows – to me those early albums lacked the swagger and confidence the band showed by 1969.
Before listening to it in its entirety, I’d always figured that Their Satanic Majesties Request was one of their more famous albums. I was right, but for the wrong reason: it was swoopy mock-intellectual psychedelic shit. None of the Stones songs I knew were on it. They tried to out-Beatle the Beatles in 1967, and they failed miserably.
But they were persistent…. And damn, did it pay off. In fucking spades. By 1968 it was becoming clearer that the Flower Power era of only a year earlier had already peaked (the Beatles at the end of ’68 released one of the ugliest songs the rock world had heard up to that point), and that things were going to get worse before they got better. “Street Fighting Man” from Beggars Banquet summed this up, even though, like peaceful protest songs of the time (“Give Peace A Chance”, “Fortunate Son”, “Blowin’ In The Wind”), it was still tuneful and singable, and used major chords. It was an attempt to drag the struggle back towards the ideals of a couple of years earlier, by pointing out that violence wasn’t the answer. It was almost desperate – yes, it’s time for revolution, but it must be a peaceful revolution.
“Gimme Shelter” from Let It Bleed in 1969 is a powerful song. And I’m almost embarrassed to admit that, for several years after first hearing it, I didn’t like it. (Why the change from then to now? I credit Martin Scorsese.) An even more powerful and dire warning, this time in minor chords, “it’s just a shot away” repeated over and over. It was a warning to their generation about how messed up things were, and how fucking close the world was to the violent breakdown of a civil just society, or fascism, or Armageddon. (Nearly 25 years later, Rage Against The Machine would shriek the same sentiment in “Wake Up”.)
Starting in 1968, the Stones churned out six (some would say only five, but I say six) epic albums in a row. Which announced the groundbreaking of the foundation of what they would become in the 70s. But that’s for next chapter.