I make absolutely no apologies for this latest musing being unashamedly partial.
It’s the Rolling Stones for goodness sake and frankly they could turn up anywhere in the world and play penny whistles and kazoo (owners of 1967’s “Between The Buttons” can surprisingly enjoy the latter) and I would be deliriously happy but by any account, this has been an extraordinarily productive and affirming year from the band.
Of course, in the maelstrom of the tragedies of artistes taken from us too early in 2016 – especially, Bowie, Prince and disastrously, George Michael (of which more on another occasion) – we have spent a year looking backwards and lamenting lost talent. We rue the paucity of genuine long-term artists and the fragmentation of our shared musical experiences and yet at the end of the year, the UK’s #1 album (and indeed 14 other countries’ as well) was delivered by a band whose four confirmed members combined age would be close to 300 years and who recorded the album in only three days.
And strangely, it sounds as fresh as a daisy.
Ladies & Gentlemen… The Rolling Stones.
I’ll come back to “Blue & Lonesome” because this year has seen some incredible highlights from the band. There was Julien Temple’s entirely captivating documentary on the early life of Keith Richards. The “Ole Latina America” documentary from which was culled the mind-blowing finale of their “Exhibitionism” presentation (now touring the world) where you in glorious 4D the actual onstage experience was recreated and you actually felt you were playing alongside the band in front of thousands.
“Exhibitionism” also gave us the steeliest, the costumes, the guitars, the logos and the opportunity to listen to and manipulate actual tracks a if in their studio. It will come as little surprise that it really was an absolute highlight of my year.
I had the pleasure of visiting with a dear friend of mine, Paul Burke, whose “World’s Shortest Radio Show” on his blog (paulburkecreative.com) is something I would most heartily recommend to all of you who enjoy these whimsical musical reminiscences. He is also far more prolific than I am.
Paul made an interesting comment while were at the Exhibition that unless you were a fully paid-up member of the Stones brotherhood (like me obviously), it was still very easy to think that apart from the twice a decade mega tours, there was no real output from the band since “Start Me Up” and “Tattoo You” – largely held up as the last half decent Stones album from back in 1981.
In that time, however, there have been 6 studio albums, numerous live albums and various greatest hits sets accompanied by new material. Obviously, they are not as great as their classic recordings but it’s hard to hit the societal nail on the head with “I Can’t Get No Satisfaction” when quite clearly as a multi-millionaire you can…
However, when you have the ability and appetite they clearly still have, there are always opportunities for the odd gem. Their previous studio album, “A Bigger Bang” with a little judicious editing of the track listing from 16 down to, say 10, and you would have an exceptionally accomplished ‘return to form’.
Perhaps only aficionados will have noticed that the Stones actually had two new releases in the back end of the year because they also released “Havana Moon” which was (yet another!) tour recording which was largely the same charge-through the expected set-list they have been knocking out since this tour began in 2012. It is the film of the show and the million plus audience – hitherto untouched by the magic of the Glimmer Twins live – that is so special.
And yet lurking in the undergrowth between the hyperactive “Brown Sugar” and the steroidal “Satisfaction”, lies one of those gems that can illustrate the kind of throbbing menace the Stones invented for rock music. Driven by the brilliant Darryl Jones, “Out Of Control” (from 1994’s “Voodoo Lounge” – probably the best of the six) manages to carry all the pre-requisite threat and bluesy-funk that they do so well.
No wonder, the crowd goes nuts.
So there’s a record-breaking tour, a multi-media exhibition, a live album and film, two documentaries and their new #1 album – oh and Mick became a dad again! – where was the inspiration coming from?
Actually, there was one more exceptionally fine release from the band in the early part of the year which was the reissue of their brilliant 1995 album “Stripped” which was their attempt at a semi-unplugged recording – some virtually acoustic and some pared back in comparatively small venues. For that album they had had a real trawl through some of their lesser-known songs and produced a really interesting bluesy recording. It’s a period when all seems happy in the camp and everybody is really enjoying the experience.
My favorite has always been “The Spider And The Fly” – a little-known B-side to “Satisfaction” – which is a wonderful mix of walking blues and hip 60s with its tongue firmly in its cheek.
The Stones have been meticulous recently in looking back at their recorded history and the expanded version of “Stripped” is a really interesting sideways glance at a band you think you know only too well. My suspicions are that in looking back at the bare nature of those now 20 year old sessions, gave them a nudge to revisit a purer recording style more akin to their early days.
So at the tail end of 2015, the Stones got together in the studio having suffered from something of a recording block and for three days laid down an album of recordings of some of their blues favourites. And note well, these are not tracks from the Starter Pack of Blues Classics but some wonderfully obscure tracks from artists they had long championed such as Little Walter and Sonny Boy Williamson. Indeed, it is the mutual admiration for the Blues that brought Keith and Mick that fateful day back at the beginning of the 60s on Dartford Station platform.
It’s easy to forget that this is the band that took the menacing “Little Red Rooster” to number one in 1964 and opened up the Blues to an entirely new audience. Yet here are Mick’s vocals over fifty years later sounding just as dark and leering on “I Can’t Quit You Baby” and especially, “Commit A Crime” – his performance is really the highlight of the whole recording; you can easily forget what a good singer he is. And this is allied to his monumental harmonica wailing, which cuts through like a laser on tracks like “Little Rain” and crunching opener, “Just Your Fool”.
But Keith is also having the time of his life also, with his whole playbook of Blues licks put to great use. I always think the core of the Stones sound comes from the link-up between Keith and Charlie (rather than the bass – although once again Darryl Jones is faultless) and this gives them a unique loose tightness if that can possibly make sense. The loping “All Of Your Love” is a truly epic example.
“Ride ‘Em On Down” is the riot you would imagine could have been recorded in any New Orleans studio and it may be shambolic but it defies you not to tap that dashboard. It surely seems to work for Kristen Stewart.
The fact is this is no band-wagon jumping effort from the longest living dinosaurs on Planet Rock but simply an expression of what they’ve always loved. They’ve never forgotten the Blues and it’s there in every album they make – exhibit A – “Midnight Rambler” – but it has been a while since they were so pure to its essence in every aspect of the recording. Try “Hate To See you Go” and you can see over fifty years of recording lineage mapped out for you.
And whilst only the most loyal fans will remember that this is where they came from, what is very clear is that the Rolling Stones certainly haven’t forgotten.
The Stones have been the Alpha of British Blues for decades and from their breakthrough has come Eric Clapton (who guests on this album), Fleetwood Mac, Jeff Beck, Led Zeppelin and hundreds more that defined a sound that was the basis of Rock Music to the present day. Perhaps it is an awareness of their own mortality that persuaded the Glimmer Twins to return and show their collective respect to their very own wolf mother, The Blues.
And yet with “Blue And Lonesome”, they will surely be the Omega too. Don’t be surprised when some of the more musically astute current artists, such as Ed Sheeran or Jamie Lawson suddenly start dropping “Smokestack Lightnin'” or “Hoochie Coochie Man” into their live sets or guest spots, in an attempt to strengthen their links with their predecessors’ legacies. The Blues has never left us but when it is handled in the hands of the masters who have no reason for doing it other than for love, you easily remember what a truly powerful force they still are.
At a time, when enduring talent is really becoming something of a premium, who could have conceived that it would be the Rolling Stones who would give everyone a welcome refresher course in all that first excited us about listening to records.