This was not the Stones’ first trip to the EP well. That distinction goes to their self-titled disc released in January ’64. The Stones would not truly embrace songwriting until the following year, so that first The Rolling Stones EP featured the usual fare of Anglicized R&B covers from the sublime (Arthur Alexander’s “You Better Move On” is given a gorgeous acoustic treatment and one of Jagger’s best early vocals) to the typical (Chuck Berry’s “Bye Bye Johnny” is sloppily bashed out in a sped-up, amphetamine-drenched tangle similar to most British covers of the era, and both it and “Money (That’s What I Want)” strain the limits of the primitive mics and tape machines used back then), to the forgettable (the Coasters’ novelty hit “Poison Ivy” was once intended as the Stones’ second single — wiser heads prevailed.)
What makes Five By Five much more special than their first EP attempt is not just their growing musical prowess, which was audible with each release, but where it was recorded. At this time, British bands were content to record in British studios, whose limited technology and stodgy engineers simply couldn’t provide the muscle and bottom-end achieved in more forward-thinking American facilities. (How the Beatles wrung such sonic magic out of stuffy old Abbey Road Studios is detailed in engineer Geoff Emerick’s book Here, There, And Everywhere: My Life Recording The Beatles.) The Rolling Stones broke the ocean barrier, becoming one of the first British acts to utilize American studios almost exclusively through this early era.
And what a studio to start with! In the midst of their difficult first U.S. tour, the Stones took two days off to visit 2120 South Michigan Avenue in Chicago. This was the home studio of Chess Records. Two vital elements, represented by two legendary studios and their associated labels, blended to become what we know as modern rock: Sun Records in Memphis focused more on the white, country-influenced sound of rockabilly, while Chess Records provided the raw, hardcore African-American blues and R&B. I’m over-simplifying greatly, of course, but I think it captures the essence.
The Chess artists were the ones who most inspired and influenced the Rolling Stones: Muddy Waters (whose song “Rollin’ Stone” gave the band their name), Howlin’ Wolf, Willie Dixon, Bo Diddley, and Chuck Berry used Chess Studios to record the songs that made them deities. Over the course of June 10 and 11, 1964, the Rolling Stones put their mark on the place, recording sixteen songs — more than enough for an album. Alas, no one thought to take advantage of the opportunity for a full-length “Chess Album,” and we have to be content with this EP of Chess-recorded material. (The rest of the songs were spread out over their next two albums and two smash singles, “It’s All Over Now” and “Time Is On My Side.”).
The upstart band even met their heroes in the process: Bassist Bill Wyman remembers Muddy Waters helping them carry in their gear (Keith Richards insists Waters was also painting the studio ceiling at the time, a story everyone else present refutes), Willie Dixon attempted to peddle them some songs, and Chuck Berry poked his head in during the recording of “Down The Road Apiece” and complimented their “swinging” style, which was a little different than other British bands of the era due to the jazz-based drumming of Charlie Watts.
The EP eases out of the gate with the slow, pleading “If You Need Me,” originally by Solomon Burke, and dominated by longtime supporting keyboard player Ian Stewart’s gospel organ. The Stones were one of the few British Invasion bands to stray from the faster-is-better method of R&B covers (although they did their share), bravely attempting to perform actual soul numbers in their intended style and tempo as opposed to the jackhammer chugging most of the other bands cranked out. This sometimes resulted in them falling on their faces (their version of Marvin Gaye’s “Hitch Hike” from the following year is pretty laughable), but when they pulled it off, as they do here, the results are impressive for a bunch of white English boys.
Next up is the EP’s lone original, “Empty Heart.” Not really an early attempt at songwriting, it’s a semi-improvised jam. No writing credit yet, then, for the soon-to-be-familiar byline “Jagger-Richards.” For something tossed off like this they would frequently use the pseudonym “Nanker Phelge” collectively for the whole band. (A “nanker” was the group’s made-up name for the face you make when you push up your nostrils and pull down the corners of your eyes, and Jimmy Phelge was an early roommate of the band, fondly remembered for parading around the flat with soiled underpants on his head.) Lyrically little more than a few lines made up on the spot by Jagger as he whacked his tambourine, “Empty Heart” is a good early example of the skills of guitarist Keith Richards, who layers a swampy, echo-laden rhythm piece with piercing lead licks. Multi-instrumentalist Brian Jones concentrates on the harmonica, and Stewart contributes some nice organ flourishes toward the end. It’s followed by an energetic vocal-less jam session, named after the studio, by the same instrumental line-up and kicked off by Wyman’s bassline, which was downright funky for 1964.
Side Two of the EP belongs to Chuck Berry, who was possibly the single most important influence on Keith Richards, if not the entire band. “Confessin’ The Blues,” was a semi-obscure jazz-blues number that had been kicking around since the 1940s. It was featured on Berry’s 1960 album Rockin’ At The Hops, where the adolescent pre-Stones no doubt heard it for the first time. Berry performed it in his typical jaunty, upbeat style, but the Stones turned it into a grinding Delta-style blues. They stripped it down and slowed the tempo to a thudding crawl, making plenty of room for the guitar interplay of Richards and Jones, and the wailing harmonica of Jagger (who would rapidly eclipse Jones as the Stones’ primary player of the integral R&B instrument.) “Around And Around” was the B-side (here we go again) to Berry’s 1958 smash “Johnny B. Goode,” and once again sideman Ian Stewart steals the show with his rollicking, barrelhouse piano in the choruses. Richards plays a gruff guitar solo that’s almost Neanderthal in its simplicity, but manages to be awesome in spite of itself.
Five By Five‘s cover also boasts one of my favorite pictures of the early Stones: Nattily dressed in their ’64 mod finery (with the exception of Keith in the foreground in a lumberjack shirt), all of them glaring at the camera, cigarettes in hand. Even Charlie Watts looks menacing. The Stones were the first British band to reject matching stage suits, and performed in their street clothes, which as you can see, are pretty damn sharp. The Stones soon took to recording at RCA in Hollywood, but returned to Chess twice more (in November 1964 and May 1965) where they could not quite recapture the magic of the first time.
Incidentally, there was a half-decent movie that came out a few years back that told a version of the Chess Records story. Called Cadillac Records, it got mixed reviews and the chronology is scrambled (everything was highly–highly–fictionalized, but there was no reason not to put the events that did happen in the right order), but it has a good cast (Jefferey Wright as Muddy Waters, Beyonce Knowles as a way-too-thin Etta James, and Mos Def is a dead ringer for Chuck Berry) and is totally worth watching for the musical scenes alone. The only part that was howlingly bad was the few minutes where the Rolling Stones showed up. Played by obviously American actors using worse fake accents than Dick Van Dyke in Mary Poppins, and sporting hair that just seems…off, the scene lasted less than a minute, but almost sank the whole thing. (Then again, maybe that’s how the older bluesmen saw these young limey interlopers. Touring the U.K., veteran Chess artist Sonny Boy Williamson once said, “These young British kids want to play the blues so bad. And they play the blues…so bad.”)
BONUS: Hey Kids! Assemble your own Rolling Stones Chess Album! If you want to create what Decca Records should have created in the summer of ’64, you can use iTunes to assemble the material from the June 10-11 Chess sessions into a cohesive unit. Do what the dumb ol’ greedy, hopelessly square and out-of-touch record execs didn’t have the vision to do! The songs are: “It’s All Over Now,” “I Can’t Be Satisfied” (the Muddy Waters song, not to be confused with their similarly-titled hit of the following year), “Time Is On My Side,” “If You Need Me,” “Look What You’ve Done,” “Confessin’ The Blues,” “Down The Road Apiece,” “Empty Heart,” and “2120 South Michigan Avenue.” Six other songs, “Stewed And Keefed,” “High-Heeled Sneakers,” “Down In The Bottom,” “Don’t You Lie To Me,” “Reelin’ And Rockin’,” and “Tell Me Baby,” amazingly, have never been officially released, but are widely available from…uh, unofficial sources, but you didn’t hear that from me.
If you want to keep your nose clean, you can substitute the officially released songs from their later Chess sessions: “What A Shame,” “Mercy, Mercy,” “That’s How Strong My Love Is,” and “The Under Assistant West Coast Promotion Man,” a novelty B-side that does not fit the blues/soul theme of the rest of the material. Yes, there are also a handful of unreleased songs from these later sessions, too (including an embryonic version of “Satisfaction”), but my heavens, look at the time! We’ll need a Part 3 to discuss the Kinks and the Who…