Saturday, March 29, 2008

If You Need Me

12 x 5
Side 2, Track 5
"If You Need Me" (Robert Bateman/Wilson Pickett) – 2:04

Wilson Pickett wrote this one, and had a moderate hit singing it in 1962. Thing is, Pickett was one of the most distinctive soul singers ever, and he just owned this slow ballad.

It would be hard for anyone to top that performance. After Pickett flopped with "If You Need Me" Jerry Wexler at Atlantic Records passed it along to Solomon Burke, who recorded it for Atlantic and had a huge hit with it:

All that happened months before the Stones ever went into the studio to record this album. You know what must have happened then, right? The Stones said to themselves, yeah, Wilson sure knocked that sucker out of the park, and Solomon really went to town on it, too
but I still think we can top those guys.

Needless to say, it wasn't even close. There is simply no way Mick could outsing Wilson Picket or Solomon Burke on a slow soul ballad
not then, not ever. But what I'm really curious about is this: who the hell thought this was a good idea?

Grown Up Wrong

12 x 5
Side 2, Track 4
"Grown Up Wrong" (Mick Jagger/Keith Richards) – 2:05

Another blues shuffle, but this one with a moderately interesting chorus. This site claims that the song has never been performed live, so it's safe to assume that "Grown Up Wrong" grew out of a studio jam, recorded merely to pad the album out to LP length.

Like most of the other Stones songs at this stage of their career, "Grown Up Wrong" features those sloppy background vocals that never come in on time. I can't help but compare these guys to the Beatles, who, by the time of their second album, not only produced more sophisticated compositions, but also recorded filler that was much more interesting than the likes of "Grown Up Wrong", and additionally took pride in their precise background vocal parts. Compare the Stones' song above to, say, "All I've Got To Do", which served a similar purpose on the Beatles' second album. Note how even on an obvious filler track, the Beatles took care to come up with a relatively intricate arrangement.


12 x 5
Side 2, Track 3
"Congratulations" (Mick Jagger/Keith Richards) – 2:29

Keith obviously fell in love with that 12-string on this album. This is the third track so far featuring that acoustic ("Good Times, Bad Times" and "Under the Boardwalk" are the others).

Mick and Keith were
really struggling early in their career to come up with interesting compositions -- "Congratulations" is a slow ballad in swing time with a forgettable melody an generic lyrics.

Friday, March 28, 2008

Under the Boardwalk

12 x 5
Side 2, Track 2
"Under the Boardwalk" (Arthur Resnick/Kenny Young) – 2:46

This is the old Drifters hit, a wonderfully evocative piece of pop songwriting. God only knows why the Stones thought they should give it a shot -- a pairing this bizarre almost has to be a studio executive's idea. Mick Jagger was not then or ever a good pop singer (clearly heard on his attempt at the falsetto in the chorus) and the band clearly has no clue where to take this song, which received its definitive treatment on the first try by the Drifters -- although many other artists tried their hand at it later (even then, mostly as a piece of nostalgia -- see Bruce Willis, Bette Midler, the Beach Boys, etc.).

The only things really notable about the Stones' version are a weird acoustic 12-string solo which comes out of nowhere and the sloppy background vocals (a feature of this album) which come in consistently out of time.

2120 South Michigan Avenue

12 x 5
Side 2, Track 1
"2120 South Michigan Avenue" (Nanker Phelge) – 3:38
Wikipedia Note: "This is the full length version, previously only available on German compilation Around and Around (1964)."

Imagine a stereotypical early-sixties movie scene set in a disco. There's go-go dancers with false eyelashes doing the Mashed Potato, guys with big glasses and funny hats, people dressed in bright blue and orange -- all the colours of Twister. It would probably look something like this:

That is exactly what I think of when I listen to "2120 South Michigan Avenue" -- a generic, unobtrusive instrumental, some studio executive's idea of this dang "rock and roll" music those kids can't seem to get enough of.

Can you believe these same guys that came up with "Can't You Hear Me Knocking" and "Rip This Joint"?

It's All Over Now

12 x 5
Side 1, Track 6
"It's All Over Now" (Bobby Womack/Shirley Jean Womack) – 3:26

Bobby Womack. In addition to having many hits under his own name and with others, Womack was the author of dozens of classic soul songs (including the epic "Woman's Got to Have It"), was a session guitarist and helped arrange many more (including the apocalyptic There's a Riot Goin' On). He was, in a word, a professional.

In 1964, at 20 years of age, Womack had composed "It's All Over Now" and had somehow impressed someone over at Sam Cooke's SAR label enough to get Womack's group, The Valentinos, a deal to release the song as a single. The single barely broke Billboard's Hot 100, peaking at #94, during the summer of 1964. At this time, the Stones were touring the USA for the first time, and when passing through New York City met up with well-known DJ Murray the K, who, it is said, played them The Valentinos' single and suggested that they should cover the song[*] -- which they did a few days later, recording it at Chess Studios in Chicago.

Wikipedia takes up the story:

Years later Bobby Womack said in an interview that he told his manager that he did not want the Rolling Stones to record their version of the song, that he told Mick Jagger to get his own song. His manager convinced him to let the Rolling Stones record a version of the song. Six months later when he received the royalty check for the song he told his manager that Mick Jagger can have any song he wants.
Bobby Womack, after all, was a pro.

I go into some detail because I don't really feel like talking about the Stones' version of the song. For a hit, it's a dull little number. It's not particularly memorable, nor is it offensive. It just is. Nothing to see here, move along please.

[* Mick Jagger mentions the Murray the K connection in a famous Rolling Stone interview from 1968:
Murray the K gave us "It's All Over Now" which was great because we used to think he as a cunt but he turned us on to something good. It was a great record by the Valentinos but it wasn't a hit.
The Rolling Stone Interview, Jonathan Cott, Oct 12, 1968.]

Good Times, Bad Times

12 x 5
Side 1, Track 5
"Good Times, Bad Times" (Mick Jagger/Keith Richards) – 2:30

Another 8-bar blues, this one with minimal instrumentation -- Keith on a 12-string acoustic, Brian Jones with some harmonica support, and someone slapping a drum (or a cardboard box). It's a very low-key outing, with Mick singing the melody very softly, and although Keith's guitar work is very busy it isn't ostentatious. I'm guessing he was going for a Leadbelly feel, and now that I think of it, the whole thing sounds like a Leadbelly-style blues.

Thursday, March 27, 2008

Time Is on My Side

12 x 5
Side 1, Track 4
"Time Is on My Side" (Norman Meade) – 2:53
Wikipedia Note: "This is the "organ" version of this song, as opposed to the version with the guitar intro which appeared on The Rolling Stones No. 2."

Finally, a hit
although not the version I know. You see, the Stones apparently released this song twice, once with the organ intro (the version heard on this America-only album and in the YouTube clip above) and once with a guitar intro (on the UK release). Turns out the UK version was the hit, and the version heard on classic rock radio and included on subsequent greatest hits albums.

There was a reason why the guitar version became the hit and this one became forgotten. Compared to the hit, this version is pretty tame, with none of Mick's bluesy bluster and some rather sloppy background vocals.

Still, I have to give the band credit. This was maybe the most ambitious song they'd tackled up till that point, and they responded with a relatively sophisticated arrangement, and if they weren't able to get it right here, well, as long as they got it right eventually.

Empty Heart

12 x 5
Side 1, Track 3
"Empty Heart" (Nanker Phelge) – 2:37

The first song so far that I'd never heard before. It really is nice after all the crappy blues tunes to hear a fairly straight-ahead rock and roll number, even one as generic as this. There's not much going on here
just a steady ride cymbal, some off-time tambourine (thanks, Mick!), and Keith's great guitar sound. According to this site the track was recroded at Chess Studios in Chicago.

Nanker Phelge once again makes its appearance as a writing credit, and it's easy to see why
the song is essentially a jam, with a simple 2-bar chord pattern that repeats without any changes. Mick's meandering vocal can hardly be called a "melody", a word that suggests some sort of compositional effort.

Not to bad-mouth the track
it has a nice groove, and the vocals, for all their sloppiness, hardly intrude at all. This is the type of song that would be playing in the background of a sixties cop movie, when the detectives visit a club looking for information, only to be shined on by the hipsters inside. It has that informal, unobtrusive groove.

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Confessin' the Blues

12 x 5
Side 1, Track 2
"Confessin' the Blues" (Jay McShann/Walter Brown) – 2:47

This is the old Jay McShann blues song that everybody on earth has taken a stab at, and even here you can see why: the lyrics are pretty good and it has an interesting melody. Like most of the blues songs they've covered, the Stones are unable to do anything interesting with "Confessin'", although they are able to avoid embarrassing themselves (except for the harp player – why is he in the band again?).

Okay, I have to say it: white musicians should probably avoid playing blues music, and this is exhibit A as to why. There is nothing particularly offensive about the Stones' performance
this isn't just a case of one culture ripping off another. But as this track proves, white musicians are simply unable to do anything interesting with the blues, and thereby commit the worst sin for a performer: they are boring.

Around and Around

12 x 5
Side 1, Track 1
"Around and Around" (Chuck Berry) – 3:03

I guess the Stones were contractually obligated to include one Chuck Berry song per album. Like "Carol", from the Stones debut album, 12x5's "Around and Around" doesn't really add anything to Berry's original, but manages to capture the spirit of the song faithfully. Keith once again nails the solo, which sounds great.

It sould be noted that both "Carol" and "Around and Around" are both first-rate pieces of songwriting from a guy who composed dozens of classics. This is probably a good topic for its own post, but I just wanted to say that Chuck Berry is a criminally underrated songwriter, and that the Stones' choices in material shows an uncanny eye.

England's Newest Hitmakers Roundup

England's Newest Hitmakers Roundup

Side 1
1. "Not Fade Away" (Norman Petty/Charles Hardin) – 1:48
2. "Route 66" (Bobby Troup) – 2:20
3. "I Just Want to Make Love to You" (Willie Dixon) – 2:17
4. "Honest I Do" (Jimmy Reed) – 2:09
5. "Now I've Got a Witness (Like Uncle Phil and Uncle Gene)" (Nanker Phelge) – 2:29
6. "Little by Little" (Nanker Phelge, Phil Spector) – 2:39

Side 2
1. "I'm a King Bee" (James Moore) – 2:35
2. "Carol" (Chuck Berry) – 2:33
3. "Tell Me (You're Coming Back)" (Mick Jagger/Keith Richards) – 4:05
4. "Can I Get a Witness" (Brian Holland/Lamont Dozier/Eddie Holland) – 2:55
5. "You Can Make It if You Try" (Ted Jarrett) – 2:01
6. "Walking the Dog" (Rufus Thomas) – 3:10

Walking the Dog

England’s Newest Hitmakers

Side 2, Track 6

"Walking the Dog" (Rufus Thomas) – 3:10

Keith steals the show on this cover of an R&B standard, both with his guitar and his hilariously nasal harmony vocal part. In the spoken middle section, Mick shows the beginnings of the vocal style that would end with the glorious self-parodying in "Miss You", with those "Puerto Rican girls just DAAAAAHHHHHNNN to meeechoo!"

UPDATE: I've since learned that those nasal background vocals come from Brian Jones, not Keith, who didn't sing on this album.

You Can Make It if You Try

England’s Newest Hitmakers

Side 2, Track 5

"You Can Make It If You Try" (Ted Jarrett) – 2:01

A much more convincing display of the Stones early R&B abilities, taking on this obscure (to me, anyway) 8-bar blues. Mick sounds more at home here than he did on "Honest I Do", and although the out-of-time percussion distracted me, the absence of the annoying harp solos which marred many of the other blues numbers on this album make up for that.

Can I Get a Witness

England’s Newest Hitmakers

Side 2, Track 4

"Can I Get a Witness" (Brian Holland/Lamont Dozier/Eddie Holland) – 2:55

This was the first song from this album I really loved, and I'm still not exactly sure why. The original version was a generic Marvin Gaye semi-hit, the kind he was chugging out at a regular clip in those days. The Stones didn't really do anything to it to change it up, but where Gaye and his Motown confederates' professionalism make their "Witness" a fairly routine R&B exercise, Mick's earnestness generates a much more exciting rhythm number – it is, I believe, Jagger's first distinctive vocal, particularly the "up early in the morning!" line.

So far, the only song on the album without a solo, although I think the next track is missing one as well.

For your amusement, here is Dusty Springfield's hilariously over the top treatment of the song:

Tell Me

England’s Newest Hitmakers

Side 2, Track 3

"Tell Me (You're Coming Back)" (Mick Jagger/Keith Richards) – 4:05

There's a great story told in the Beatle's Anthology – it seems that after the band had hit with "Love Me Do" but before they'd proven themselves to be consistent songwriters, producer George Martin had gone looking for a song for the band to cover, a song that would be a likely hit. He found such a song, and gave it to the band. They said, we can't do this song, it's terrible. Martin replied, but it is a surefire hit for someone. The band said, maybe so, but we can't be seen in public doing this song. Martin said, okay, what can you give me instead?

The song the Beatles came up with was "Please Please Me", their first great composition. The song Martin wanted them to do? "How Do You Do It", a bubble gum confection that Gerry and the Pacemakers later turned into an annoying hit, using the Beatles arrangement.

I was always reminded of that anecdote whenever I listened to "Tell Me". "That poor band," I would think to myself. "Forced to perform a pop song clearly unsuited to their style. This has all the hallmarks of studio executive meddling."

Imagine my surprise just now when I saw the Jagger/Richards songwriting credit. I don't know what to think now, or who to blame. Who is responsible for this? The sloppy overdubs, the embarrassing attempts at soul testifying, the incoherent structure – who approved of this mess? I see now that it was released as a single, and actually got to #24 on the Billboard Hot 100, presumably riding the wave of Anglophilia following the Beatles success. I can only hope that the single version recieved some judicious editing – the ablum track is more than 4 minutes long.


England’s Newest Hitmakers

Side 2, Track 2

"Carol" (Chuck Berry) – 2:33

Okay, now we're talking. No more of this blues crap, let's get to the rock and roll, amirite? No, but seriously, this track has some nice touches – the rhythm section drives hard, Mick's vocal doesn't have any of the tentativeness shown on the blues numbers, and Keith could really do a great Chuck Berry solo. But what's up with those handclaps? The Beatles had them too, on their cover of "Roll Over Beethoven". Was that a sixties thing? I don't really remember any other uptempo English tracks of the era having them. Hmm....

And did the Stones not have some kind of road manager in those days, someone who would remember to bring their guitar straps when they had a TV appearance? Was that a joke by the band?

I'm a King Bee

England’s Newest Hitmakers

Side 2, Track 1

"I'm a King Bee" (James Moore) – 2:35

You know, I totally forgot about the near endless parade of mundane blues shuffles that typified the Stones early career. MAKE IT STOP! At least these recordings have the virtue of being short, unlike the Jimmy Page marathons that we'd all have to put up with later in the decadeby which time, the Stones had moved on to more productive applications of their talent.

(Or had they? I don't remember much straight blues on the Let It Bleed/Exile heydaybut then again, I didn't remember this much blues on the debut album, which was once a favourite of mine.)

The most important part about this track is the ludicrous slidey bass part, which at least adds a comedy element.

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Little by Little

England’s Newest Hitmakers

Side 1, Track 6

"Little by Little" (Nanker Phelge, Phil Spector) – 2:39

Another generic blues workout. Maybe I'm jaded now, but I can't hear this song as anything but filler – the Nanker Phelge/Phil Spector co-writing credit gives a little support to the idea that nobody is taking this too seriously. Keith throws in a respectable solo (his guitar sounds great here) and Brian Jones throws in another dull harp break. I can't believe I used to love this album – how did I forget about the near-endless boring blues/rock tunes?

I know it's unfair to compare anyone to the Beatles, but at this stage in their devlopement, they had filler a million times more interesting than stuff like "Little by Little" – their first album had great covers of "Anna", "Boys", and "A Taste of Honey". I'm only at the end of side 1, but I sure hope this album gets a lot more attenion-grabbing than "Little by Little".

A thought struck me: Keith takes his solo after the first chorus – is there any good song that has done that, ever? The only one I can think of now is The Sonics' "Have Love Will Travel".

Now I've Got a Witness (Like Uncle Phil and Uncle Gene)

England’s Newest Hitmakers

Side 1, Track 5

"Now I've Got a Witness (Like Uncle Phil and Uncle Gene)" (Nanker Phelge) – 2:29

Kids, let me tell you a story about the old days. See, back then, bands would create albums by padding their singles releases with filler. Thank god we don't have to deal with that anymore. This filler often took the form of hastily written instrumentals that, unlike the singles which were usually written by professional songwriters, the band could get a writing credit for – or, in this case, an instrumental of an existing Marvin Gaye song, with the melody removed. Nanker Phelge is a pseudonym used by the band for writing credits of these filler songs.

Aren't you glad I told you all that? Aren't you glad you spent two minutes of your life reading that information rather than wasting your time listening to the track, like I did? I'm already dreading the next track on this album, which also has a Nanker Phelge writing credit.

(BTW, and I’m not sure why anyone would care, but the "Uncle Phil" and "Uncle Gene" of the title are Phil Spector and Gene Pitney, who both got credit for playing something or other on this track. I’d try to find out more about why these two respectable recording artists were in the studio with a bunch of English long-haired louts, but the result just isn’t interesting enough for me to do the legwork.)

Honest I Do

England’s Newest Hitmakers

Side 1, Track 4

“Honest I Do” (Jimmy Reed) – 2:09

The old Jimmy Reed pop/blues number. I guess it wasn't old when the Stones recorded it – Reed released his version in 1957. The song has a great melody, but Mick doesn't have the chops yet to do anything interesting with it. I wonder who did the song selections in those days – I'm willing to bet the harmonica player (Brian?) picked this one: he gets two solos, both forgettable. Keith's part is way too busy and loud in the mix. The drums sound great, though.

Note: This site says that Mick was the probable harp player on this track -- but it sure sounds to my ears like the other solos played by Brian.

I Just Want to Make Love to You

England’s Newest Hitmakers

Side 1, Track 3

"I Just Want to Make Love to You" (Willie Dixon) – 2:17

Another blues classic – I think this one was already a standard by the time the Stones got to it. The original Muddy Waters version was slow and insistent with an air of menace running through it. At this point in his career, Mick can't really do menace – so the band double-times the tempo and turns the song into a Bo Diddley-style sexual come-on, complete with maracas. More excellent rhythm/lead guitar work from Keith.

Yet another lame harmonica part – I get the feeling that's not the last time I'll have to say those words. This one suffers further in comparison to Little Walter's sublime performance on the original. Man, that guy could really play.

Route 66

England’s Newest Hitmakers

Side 1, Track 2

“Route 66” (Bobby Troup) – 2:20

Everybody knows this song, but I'm not sure why. It's a pretty pedestrian blues workout, the kind of thing Chuck Berry could crank out without trying hard. Speaking of which – Keith tosses out a great Chuck Berry solo in this one. There's a whole lot of nothing going on here – Mick can't seem to get any excitement going, and when the band screws up the ending they don't even care enough to do another take. If it wasn't for the solo, this track would be utterly forgettable.

I've forgotten it already!

Not Fade Away

England’s Newest Hitmakers

Side 1, Track 1

"Not Fade Away" (Norman Petty/Charles Hardin) – 1:48

The Stones take on Buddy Holly's great Bo Diddley ripoff, bringing forward the Bo-like elements that Holly downplayed – the shaker is practically the lead instrument on this track. Like the pre-Pete Best Beatles, the rhythm's in the guitars here, I can't even make out any drums at all on my muddy MP3 rip. Keith's acoustic really drives the track along. A nice little electric guitar/harmonica break in the middle.

God, Mick sounds so young here. There is no art in his performance, apart from the desire to do the blues right, without trying to sound black.

I always wonder what would have happened if that attitude took root among white musicians – what would have happened if the Stones and Them and very few others succeeded in convincing musicians that you could make a whole new kind of blues, that "authenticity" was a blind alley, a dead end? Would we have been spared the endless blues guitar wankathons of Clapton, Page, and the rest? God only knows.

The Beginning

Here’s the deal: I came across a disk with MP3 rips of 30 different Rolling Stones albums, from England’s Newest Hitmakers! to Bridges to Babylon. It’s been a while since I gave the band much thought – they lost me permanently at Steel Wheels, but to tell the truth, I would have argued that their last good studio album was the 35-year-old Exile on Main Street.

However, I kept running across songs here and there that made me wonder if I dismissed them too easily: “Almost Hear You Sigh” was a neat little melody, some unknown song from Voodoo Lounge captured my attention at a bar five years ago, “Harlem Shuffle” didn’t seem to annoy me as much upon a recent re-listening.

So, in the interests of fairness (to myself – the Stones have no need of any consideration from a lowly blogger like me), I am going to go through all these songs, somewhat in order, posting comments as I listen. Hopefully I’ll be able to re-discover some long-forgotten favourites, dig up some unknown (to me) treasures, and maybe even find some terrible songs that can entertain instead of simply annoy. (I’m guessing the latter is the most likely outcome. We’ll see.)