Friday, June 6, 2008

Street Fighting Man

Beggars Banquet
Track 6
"Street Fighting Man" – 3:18 has a lot of great quotes about this song. A compilation:

It was a very strange time in France. But not only in France but also in America, because of the Vietnam War and these endless disruptions.... I wrote a lot of the melody and all the words, and Keith and I sat around and made this wonderful track, with Dave Mason playing the shehani on it live. It's a kind of Indian reed instrument a bit like a primitive clarinet. It comes in at the end of the tune. It has a very wailing, strange sound.
- Mick Jagger, 1995

Street Fighting Man was recorded on Keith's cassette with a 1930s toy drum kit called a London Jazz Kit Set, which I bought in an antiques shop, and which I've still got at home. It came in a little suitcase, and there were wire brackets you put the drums in; they were like small tambourines with no jangles. The whole kit packs away, the drums go inside each other, the little drum goes inside the snare drum into a box with the cymbal. The snare drum was fantastic because it had a really thin skin with a snare right underneath, but only two strands of gut... Keith would be sitting on a cushion playing a guitar and the tiny kit was a way of getting close to him. The drums were really loud compared to the acoustic guitar and the pitch of them would go right through the sound. You'd always have a great backbeat.
- Charlie Watts, 2003

(O)n Street Fighting Man there's one 6-string open and one 5-string open. They're both open tunings, but then there's a lot of capo work. There are lots of layers of guitars on Street Fighting Man. There's lots of guitars you don't even hear. They're just shadowing. So it's difficult to say what you're hearing on there. Cause I tried 8 different guitars. And which ones were used in the final version, I couldn't say... (A) the same time the guitar was going on, I had Nicky Hopkins playing a bit of piano, and Charlie just shuffling in the background. Then we put drums on it and added another guitar while he was doing that. And we just kept layering it.
- Keith Richards, 2002

Jimmy Miller was one of the most simpatico producers I have ever worked with. He could handle a band - especially this band - and give everybody the same level of support. He was a great drummer in his own right, so he could talk to Charlie on equal terms, and he had a very good rapport with Mick. He didn't mind any idea that came up. He loved improvisation. I don't think I could have done Street Fighting Man without him. Mick would get impatient with my experiments sometimes, but Jimmy gave me a lot of encouragement saying, let's take this down the line and let's see where it goes.
- Keith Richards, 2003

"Street Fighting Man" is the musical companion piece to "Jumpin' Jack Flash": they both achieved incredibly high energy levels through Keith's method of recording the guitars (mostly acoustics) through a crappy cassette mic; both tracks featured a simplified but pounding rhythm section, with Charlie laying off the cymbals entirely and Bill Wyman sticking mostly to the chord roots; both songs rounded out the sound later by overdubbing all kinds of exotic instruments later.

It's almost astounding to hear how quickly the Stones found their sound after struggling through their various blues and psychedelic fads, and the way it came together almost all at once.

Also, one of the best mashups I've heard, from Go Home Productions:

Wednesday, June 4, 2008

Jigsaw Puzzle

Beggars Banquet
Track 5
"Jigsaw Puzzle" – 6:17

Here's another song I never paid much attention to before. The highlight is Mick's vocal attack – similar phrasing that he used in "Sympathy for the Devil", but with a lot more bite. I get the feeling that Mick was the driving force behind the composing and recording of "Jigsaw Puzzle" – in addition to the distinctive vocals, the lyrics are rambling and impressionistic in a way that I've never heard before on any Stones tune. At AllMusic, Richie Unterberger notes

... the similarity to some of Dylan's long, wordy surreal songs of the mid-'60s is close enough that it's a little surprising "Jigsaw Puzzle" hasn't been singled out by more listeners as being a Dylan imitation, particularly since it frankly sounds a little hackneyed in its approximation of Dylanesque weirdness.
The lyrics and vocal are pretty much all there is to the song. The band never develops the country/funk groove they use for the first verse, instead add in some acoustic guitar and piano to the rhythm section, and layer on Brian Jones' rudimentary slide guitar on top, turning the song into what sounds like an extended jam.

"Jigsaw" clocks in at over 6 minutes, almost the same as "Sympathy" – both songs lack a chorus or bridge and use the same chord pattern throughout, but while the latter has a clear direction, using changes in instrumentation and dynamics to build to a crescendo, "Jigsaw" simply repeats those four chords over and over without leading anywhere in particular. It's not a bad song, but I feel like it would pack more power if it had been edited and rewritten into something a little more focused.

Parachute Woman

Beggars Banquet
Track 4
"Parachute Woman" – 2:23

Excuse the video.

The Stones go back to the traditional blues for this one, something they haven't done for a while. The instrumentation is stripped down: an acoustic, standup bass, some harp. The Stones recorded the track directly onto a two-track cassette deck, which resulted in the murky mix. (They later added some overdubs in the studio – there appears to be another bass that drops in and out, along with another harp.) I read that the murkiness was more or less a conscious decision, part of their new "getting back to their roots" philosophy, and while it produced great music on the rest of the album, the results are a little less exciting here.

I guess it's the "parachute woman" theme that's bothering me. The Stones were setting out to deliberately re-create the atmosphere of those old depression-era blues recordings they loved, and to my ears they mostly succeeded. But "parachute woman" rings false to me – I just can't imagine Charlie Patton or John Hurt singing those words.

However, that is a minor complaint. Like I said, the song was a mostly successful recreation of a traditional blues, and there's no shame in that.

Dear Doctor

Beggars Banquet
Track 3
"Dear Doctor" – 3:26

This is the blueprint for "Sweet Virginia" and "Far Away Eyes" and other songs that I guess we'd classify as "country-rock". Doing this type of stuff was a real breakthrough for the band: unlike their attempts at blues, which were almost farcical in their slavish attempts at authenticity, the Stones achieved a level of credibility on the country songs precisely because they paid no mind to the traditional values of the genre – they brought their rock and roll sensibility to these songs, and produced music that was vital and exciting.

"Dear Doctor" doesn't quite have the formula down yet – the vocals are mannered and unsure, and the band doesn't quite seem committed to the idea of mixing a country waltz ballad with their rock and roll instrumentation. But this is an important recording for the Stones in that it pointed in a direction that would, in time, produce some of their best music.

Tuesday, June 3, 2008

No Expectations

Beggars Banquet
Track 2
"No Expectations" – 4:02

Yeah, I know I'm not supposed to like it: its self-consciousness is unseemly – Mick's arch vocal is especially irritating. But dammit, the melody is memorable, the first time the Stones have managed to compose something like this. The deliberate and unhurried tempo adds credibility to the fake gravity of the lyrics. Nicky Hopkins' languorous piano part adds class to what should have been a throwaway ballad. So I end up loving it in spite of myself.

Monday, June 2, 2008

Bo Diddley

I'm sure you've all heard by now that Bo Diddley has died at age 79. He was a huge influence on not just the Stones (who covered "Mona", and used his beat on many other songs), but a whole generation of early rock and roll musicians, particularly those in England during the sixties.

The "Bo Diddley Beat" gets all the headlines, but I think his most lasting influence is his guitar – the impact of his rhythmic, distorted playing was visceral. Rest in peace, Mr. McDaniel.

Sympathy for the Devil

Beggars Banquet
Track 1
"Sympathy for the Devil" – 6:27

I wrote this blog entry four times, and erased it four times. If you're counting, that means I'm writing it for the fifth time. The problem is that I cannot summon any modicum of objectivity or distance. The song exists in that wasteland of overplayed classic rock songs – I've listen to "Sympathy for the Devil" maybe hundreds of times, and I just can't hear it anymore. I listen to it, but I'm not hearing anything. It's like that scar I have on my finger, where I had to get a mess of stitches after cutting myself trying to slice a carrot. I know it's there, but I just don't pay it any attention.

I know, in some abstract sense, that it is an important recording in an historical sense, helping to establish Mick's lasting image as... well, something. It also showed a musical progression, from the dippy psychedelia of the Summer of Love to... something else. Dammit, I told you I can't say anything interesting about the song.

Reading the Wikipedia article, there appears to have been quite a bit of public distress upon the release of "Sympathy", something about satanism and such. From our perspective in these enlightened times, that's all faintly ridiculous, but I can't put myself in the position of someone hearing the song for the first time. Was it really all that dark? Was there a discernibly evil vibe? Or were listeners in on the joke? Like I said, I'm too close to the song – it just won't come into focus.

Wait – I thought of one piece of trivia worth passing along: this is the second time the wonderfully named Rocky Dijon makes his appearance on this blog, playing percussion – but the first time, chronologically, he played with the Stones. It won't be the last.

UPDATE: Via friend of the blog Mondo comes this clip of the Stones in the studio playing Sympathy. Pretty cool. The hilarity starts at 1:20.

Also, see

I miss John Lennon.