Sunday, November 25, 2012

Gathering Moss

Its hard to recall how unfashionable the Rolling Stones were in the early 80s. Whereas the Beatles were neatly packaged in nostalgia; long ago broken up - and, with Lennon's death - never to reform; the Stones were still there, chugging away, with bad hair, bad denim, and worst of all, bad songs. The first Stones album I remember coming out was, in fact, a bit of a return to form - "Start Me Up" was the lead single from "Tattoo You" in 1981, and I liked it, as I did "Undercover (of the night)" a couple of years later. But recall hearing some of the former album played on Radio 1, and its lyrical S&M and tired riffs sounded dated. My dad had the "Rolled Gold" compilation and I used to play that now and then, though mainly those glorious sixties hits like "Satisfaction", "Get Off of My Cloud" and (mostly) "Paint it Black."

The first Stones albums I bought was a cassette double pack of "Aftermath" and "Beggars Banquet" from a Woolworths in Australia in 1985. I liked them both, but the tight mod pop-rock of "Aftermath" was my favourite then, and remains so now. I guess the only sense of the Stones being "cool" came with seeing Jagger in "Performance" - a revelation in every way.

So, I was always interested, but their back catalogue was in a bit of a state - all those ABKCO albums released in the seventies; and the tendency of radio to only ever play the sixties hits. I'd pick up Stones songs in the oddest places: Dream Syndicate's live cover of "Under Assistant West Coast Promo Man"; the Sisters of Mercy doing "Gimme Shelter"; hearing the lovely "Angie" on the radio one afternoon. I don't even think their albums tended to make the "best albums of all time" lists of the time. (I've checked - the "best 100 albums" of all time from NME writers in 1985 only had room for "Exile on Main Street" - preferring albums by Lloyd Cole and the Commotions, Jimmy Cliff and the Buzzcocks to "Let it Bleed" or "Beggars Banquet.")  Not everyone was listening to the critics of course, and Primal Scream were one band whose love of the Stones combined with their own classic coolness.

Here we are then, in 2012 and the Stones are 50 years old. That their relevance was over thirty years ago doesn't really matter, as they had a good couple of decades. Never having broken up, despite losing the odd member - tragically in Brian Jones case, they are part of the triumvirate with Dylan and the Beatles that still towers above our memory of the sixties. Whilst the Beatles were writing for everyone, and Dylan was the ultimate ideas magpie, the Stones made a very little go a long way. They never strayed that far from the idea of the group composition - the band as an integral part of any song that Jagger/Richards wrote. Keyboards and piano were only included on their records as another blues instrument; and if in the seventies they dabbled in funk and disco (quite well) and reggae (less so), then it seemed a natural progression for an R&B band. I've still never got on with the bluesy earthiness of "Exile" - but their soulful psychedelia always had a little of the devil in it, explicitly so on "Sympathy" and hardly needed the bandwagon chasing of their psychedelic album (though it includes another song that I heard first elsewhere - "She's a Rainbow" which was covered by Manchester's World of Twist). My own Stones pantheon would run from 1964-1981 at a stretch. That they managed to take the simple blues template and - without ever going too far from it - extracting so much else, that seemed entirely relevant to the times they were living through, remains a wonder.

A personal Stones Top 10

1. Sympathy for the Devil
2. Paint it Black
3. Play with Fire
4. Salt of the Earth
5. What to Do
6. Gimme Shelter
7. You Can't Always Get What You Want
8. Miss You
9. Angie
10. Wild Horses

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