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The Holy Bee Recommends, #17: The Rolling Stones’ Post-Exile Trilogy

There is a blindly-accepted mythology that began as soon as the 70s ended. The myth goes like this: The Rolling Stones were a scrappy London R&B band that rode the first wave of the British Invasion, had some monster singles, did a classic mid-60s album (Aftermath), stumbled briefly with a psychedelic Beatles knock-off (Their Satanic Majesties Request), then righted themselves, found an excellent producer in Jimmy Miller, and made the Holy Quadrilogy — Beggars Banquet, Let It Bleed, Sticky Fingers, and Exile On Main Street — each an irrefutable cornerstone of their massive legacy and four of the greatest rock albums ever made.

And after that — Some Girls aside — it all went to shit.

The “Ultimate Classic Rock” website, the internet’s click-bait custodian of lazy rock factoids, perpetuates the well-trodden path, describing the first post-Exile album, Goats Head Soup as “the end of the Stones’ classic era, with two more increasingly careless albums following until the band got back on track five years later with Some Girls.” This sentiment has been robotically repeated ad nauseam for almost forty years now.

The Stones themselves even bought into the narrative, self-deprecatingly naming a compilation of their post-Exile material Sucking In The Seventies.

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Supposedly, the three albums between the mighty Exile and the fluke disco/New Wave-era smash of Some Girls represented a trough of mediocrity, but I’m here to tell you that those three albums — the aforementioned Goats Head Soup, along with It’s Only Rock ‘N Roll, and Black And Blue  — are totally underrated. Classics? Maybe I’d stop just shy of that. But they have an adventurous spirit and willingness to mess with the Stones’ formula a little, and an air of breezily coked-up, rock-god Dionysian decadence impossible to replicate in any other era. Every track, even the weak ones, has something at least interesting about it, which is more than I can say for some of their 80s albums (the true trough of mediocrity, in my opinion –buy me a drink and raise the topic of Dirty Work.

And for two of these three albums, the Stones still had the services of “second” guitarist Mick Taylor, a Clapton-esque blues virtuoso, whose jazz-tinged soloing lifted many of these songs to a new level. For the first time since the Brian Jones era, Keith Richards’ slashing, open-tuned riffage wasn’t the dominant sound. Although Keith always claimed his 70s heroin habit did not slow him down much, the instrumental line-ups on these songs frequently tell a different tale. He’s just not there on about a sixth of them, and on several more he’s just croaking out backing vocals, or strumming a single sloppy rhythm guitar buried in the mix, or plunking on the bass (the Stones’ actual bassist, Bill Wyman, was somewhat minimalized on these albums, his role frequently usurped by Richards or Taylor).

NPG P851; Mick Jagger by Laurie LewisFor better and worse (see below), this era was Jagger’s version of the Rolling Stones. His lyrics were some of the best he ever concocted, and the empty space left by Keith was filled by his own guitar work, which grew more confident with every album. Sadly, these albums are tainted in a lot of people’s mind by Jagger’s increasing buffoonery. The whirling dervish of the ‘69 concert stage was now a glam-rock self-parody (this reached its nadir with the “Dancing In The Streets” video of ‘85 before he finally dialed it back for the Stones’ more recent tours.) So…try to hear these albums without picturing Jagger’s eye-shadow and spangly onesies with the necklines that plunged to the pubes, or the band as a whole’s incredibly dated visual aspect during this period (despite the images I’ve gone ahead and inexplicably included.)

Goats Head Soup is often described as the “hangover” after the wild party of Exile On Main Street, and according to the myth, the drop-off between the two is steep. But at the time, Exile was considered something of a sprawling disappointment, and the hazy, bleary sounds of Goats felt much more of a piece with its predecessor. Jimmy Miller was still producing (for the last time), and some of the songs pre-date the Exile sessions.

Britain’s tax laws forced the band to spend a large part of the year outside the country, and the Exile sessions (in the French Riviera and L.A.) began the tradition of recording on foreign shores as much as possible. In November 1972, the Rolling Stones and pianist Nicky Hopkins set up camp at Dynamic Sound Studios in Jamaica. Their chief road manager, “sixth Stone” Ian Stewart, also served as occasional pianist, and he was there too, of course, but he only played on songs he liked. He did not dig most of the Goats Head material. With a major narcotics case against Richards still pending, Jamaica was the only suitably cool country that would give them an extended work visa. 

Although they were all reggae fans (especially Keith), they admitted they were not ready to pull off any real reggae tracks in the same studio where so many of the genre’s classics were made, including the Harder They Come soundtrack and the early Bob Marley records. (Some would say, based on the mixed reception their later reggae-based tracks received, that they never achieved that state of readiness.) Nicky Hopkins departed at the beginning of December, and Billy Preston was flown in to spice things up with his gospel organ and clavinet.

The sessions continued in May and June 1973 at Olympic Studios and Island Studios in London, where they added elements such as brass, strings, the congas and shakers of noted Ghanaian percussionist “Rebop” Kwaku Baah, and additional percussion by mysterious and eccentric electronic music pioneer Nik Pascal.

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Goats Head Soup, 1973

The album, released in late August 1973, opens with “Dancing With Mr. D,” invariably described by naysayers as a tepid, silly sequel to “Sympathy For The Devil.” But apart from name-checking the Horned One himself, the two songs aren’t really similar. The frenzied samba of “Sympathy” is in no way referenced by the grinding party funk of “Mr. D,” and while Jagger doesn’t come close to his “Sympathy” lyrics, lines like “Down in the graveyard where we have our tryst/The air smells sweet, the air smells sick/He never smiles, his mouth merely twists/The breath in my lungs feels clingy and thick” have a certain eerie flow and Halloween-y charm.

This is followed by what may be my favorite song on all three albums — “100 Years Ago.” “Went out walking through the wood the other day/And the world was a carpet laid before me/The buds were bursting and the air smelled sweet and strange/It seemed about one hundred years ago…don’t you think it’s sometimes wise not to grow up…” A mid-tempo quasi-ballad about the power of memory that breaks down almost to a full stop (“Call me lazybones…”) then upshifts into a furious instrumental outro, with Mick Taylor leading the charge. This is right up there with “Tumbling Dice” and “Brown Sugar” for me.

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Nicky Hopkins

“Coming Down Again,” a slow-burner sung by Keith at a snail’s pace over a watery bed of phased guitar and Nicky Hopkins’ moody piano, perfectly captures the feeling of waking up with the dry heaves, alone, confused, and regretful. The mood is quickly shattered by the unfortunately-titled “Doo Doo Doo Doo Doo (Heartbreaker)” with its urgent traffic-jam horn section and spine-chilling urban jungle lyrics about “accidental” police shootings and poverty-stricken children OD’ing in the gutter. “Angie” was the big radio hit from the album, and despite the inclusion of lots of down-tempo stuff, this is the only song that could be classified as a traditional ballad. Nicky Hopkins once again shows why he was the most in-demand session pianist of the era, providing tasteful accents to the gently dueling acoustic guitars of Richards and Taylor.

“Angie” closes side one, and side two kicks off with “Silver Train,” the one song on the album that sounds the most like a typical Rolling Stones riff-rocker. It was originally recorded two years before the other songs, and was handed off to Johnny Winter, who recorded a blistering version that spurred the Stones to re-record theirs at the end of the sessions in London and put it on the album. “Hide Your Love” dates from the same late-stage London sessions. The simple, hypnotic number is based around Jagger’s echo-heavy piano vamping, and is built up into a primal Delta blues pastiche, Robert Johnson-style. “Winter” is another one of those tracks that critics of this period in the Stones career have to admit is a beauty. Similar in tone to Sticky Fingers’ “Moonlight Mile,” you can almost feel the chill and see your breath as the song glides along on a stream of orchestral strings.

As much as I like them, each of these albums has a total misfire buried in its track listing. “Can You Hear The Music” is a plodding, discordant mess that uses some world-music/psychedelic flourishes to cover up its lack of direction. The album closes with “Star Star,” a Chuck Berry-inspired, old-fashioned bit of rock & roll that sounds like something the ‘64 Stones would have played (except for the lyrics.) Ian Stewart finally lets loose on the ivories in his trademark boogie-woogie style.

One web reviewer calls the Goats Head Soup “the album that set the Stones on a course of mediocrity from which they have yet to return…” Then goes on to say: “It’s not that Goats Head Soup is bad, in itself…” Well, then, what the hell? “[It] set no musical agenda…did nothing new.” Which is totally incorrect. The Stones were never AM radio balladeers before. “Angie” changed that, whatever you think of the song itself. (I love it.) They were beginning to explore the funk genre, aided by sideman Billy Preston’s churning clavinet and Taylor’s wah-wah guitar (“Dancing With Mr. D,” “Doo Doo Doo Doo Doo”). And they crossed the boundaries of what could and couldn’t be stated in a rock lyric with the gleefully sleazy (and brutally explicit) “Star Star” (original title: “Starfucker.”)
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This Used To Be My Playground, Part 19: Pulp Friction In The Voodoo Lounge

#143. “Black Hole Sun” — Soundgarden

The pattern began before I moved to my new apartment. I had recently swapped out my old Mazda Sundowner pickup for an ‘86 Bronco II, which had been my family’s workhorse for years prior to its being put out to pasture with me, and gaining the sobriquet Millennium Bronco (its hyperdrive was similarly unreliable, and I never even attempted the Kessel Run.) I would drive to Danielle’s house, check if her car was in the driveway, and if it was, ring the doorbell. (Calling ahead was for chumps.) If it wasn’t, I would seek out Caspar’s dad’s liquor cabinet. If that failed too, it was a disappointed return home and locking myself away with Soundgarden, Green Day, and Nine Inch Nails.

sg_0I had way more free time on my hands than Danielle. By the end of August, she was at high school six hours a day. She had an evening math class at the college (just like I did the year before, but hers was due to her being too advanced, rather than mathematically retarded like me.) She had a job at Round Table, and just got a second job as a hostess at a family restaurant. (Yuba City folks loved them some family restaurants — Sizzler, Lyon’s, Perko’s, Jerry’s, Hal’s, Mr. Steak, and the ever-present Denny’s just across the river in Marysville.) That August and September, the precious few hours she had each week before doing something productive were more often than not spent on her family room couch with me, watching videos, or listening to some new CD I’d bought over to spin on the player perched on her kitchen counter. She was also undoubtedly bracing herself for the inevitable moment when I would try to kiss her. Between coughs.

The aforementioned Soundgarden, Green Day, and Nine Inch Nails were also all over MTV right around then. The intensely creepy video for the pseudo-psychedelic “Black Hole Sun” was in heavy rotation that summer, so viewers were treated to its face-melting CGI nightmare fuel every 45 minutes or so.

We did get off the couch occasionally. I took her to the opening weekend of the215px-NBKillaz Oliver Stone gonzo bloodbath Natural Born Killers, illustrating how completely tone-deaf I was as to what girls might want to see at the movies on a date. I don’t even recall asking if she wanted to see it. I just announced that was what we were seeing.

But Danielle seemed to tolerate me. When I finally worked up the courage to kiss her cheek (high on the jawbone, near the ear), she accepted it gracefully, but it did not lead to a make-out session. I even asked “Was that OK?” (ever the gentleman) and she said “Yeah, it was nice.” I didn’t push any further at that point.

In my defense, her mother, little brother, and two dogs loved me. Her brother, a sophomore, was another overachiever-type and worked at the McDonald’s in the same shopping center as my video store. He would make me quadruple quarter-pounders (just called “pounders.”) Eating these on a regular basis may be solely responsible for the shooting pain in my left arm every time I rise from a seated position two decades later.

A lot did seem to be going right. But I couldn’t push through to the next level with her. The issue couldn’t possibly be me, could it?

The pattern continued…

#144. “When I Come Around” — Green Day

Gas was cheap in ‘94, hovering around a buck-twenty per gallon. I did a lot of aimless driving around, listening to sports talk or the oldies station (no CD player in the Millennium Bronco…yet), but I always ended up seeing if Danielle was home.

As we’ve discussed, Danielle was a busy girl. Her car was there maybe one out of every three or four days that I checked. I imagined her being disappointed on the days she was there and I somehow missed her. Missing her was a highly unlikely scenario because I watched that driveway like a hawk, but I imagined it nonetheless. “When I Come Around” was Green Day’s version of a ballad, and it was then and remains today my favorite song by them. The lyrical narrator is always “out on the prowl,” while the object of his affection is just sitting around “feeling sorry for [her]self.” I naturally applied this scenario to my situation. I was the roaming free spirit, she was the faithful waiter. Pure fantasy, of course…but there was an odd little hiccup that indicated I was subconsciously aware that whatever was going on with Danielle was kind of doomed.

I had a habit of slightly tweaking song lyrics when I would sing along with them to better suit my current state of mind. Even at the height of my delusions, I couldn’t kid myself about the last verse of “When I Come Around.” I mentally reversed the pronouns when I sang along with the song (which was often), switching the song’s “you” and “your” for “I” and “my.” As in “I may find out that my self-doubt/Means nothing was ever there/I can’t go forcing something if it’s just not right…” Very telling.

But “forcing something” I did. I pushed my chips to the center of the table one night as I was leaving, and planted a kiss squarely on her lips. She smiled, and continued saying whatever she had been saying before I moved in. But she did smile. I was hoarding whatever positive signs I got from her, because evidence that this was not going to work was piling up. (The coughing was a purely a nervous reflex at this point, and still lingering.)

Not long after that, I finally asked her to make it official with me. We were up in her bedroom, and she was doing something incredibly labor intensive (draining a waterbed, I think), and I sat cross-legged (not helping) on the floor, nervously fingering my shark’s tooth on a pukka shell necklace that I got in Hawaii a couple of months before. (It went nicely with the three-button polo shirt I was also wearing at the time. Why anyone would let me in their house is beyond me.) I steered the conversation toward Official Couplehood, and she didn’t steer it elsewhere (lack of panicked refusal = permission to continue). I ended up making clear that I was very low-maintenance. But the way I phrased it — “It doesn’t take much to make me happy” — didn’t come across the way I intended it. “Oh, thanks,” was the sarcastic reply. Smooth operator that I was, I somehow rescued the situation, and left for work that evening with the (ambivalent) impression I had a girlfriend again.

And I had one more ace up my sleeve if all else failed… Continue reading

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The Holy Bee Recommends, #10: Grow Your Own “Flowers”

Flowers

The bastard step-child of The Rolling Stones’ discography. Generally forgotten or ignored by younger fans (i.e, those under 50), it lingers on in the mind of two types of people: those who were actually around when it came out, and music writers. Every time a Stones song missed the mark for the next two decades after its release, critics would say “sounds like it should have been dumped on Flowers,” or words to that effect.

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I have gone on at some length before about the 1960s policy of U.S. record labels chopping up and altering British albums — ostensibly as a money-making measure (fewer tracks per album in the U.S. resulted in more albums to sell), but they seemed to go out of their way to put them together in the clumsiest, most haphazard manner possible. It is folly to try to follow the thought processes of these record executives, but it almost seemed a deliberate attempt to make the worst decisions possible regarding song choices and sequencing. Yes, yes, they were clueless “suits” handling “product”, but shouldn’t a little understanding of their product have crept in by 1967, when the practice finally started dying out?

There was a theory that The Beatles’ famous hastily-withdrawn “butcher cover” on just such a hideous American re-packaging (Yesterday And Today) was their protest against the practice. (It wasn’t. It was just a random photo session, and the photographer, Robert Whitaker, had overly-arty sensibilities. The Beatles had no say in what Capitol Records slapped on the covers of U.S. albums)

The Stones’ American label was, ironically, London Records, and was an enthusiastic participant in these practices. On their ‘65 tour, the Stones were stunned to spot a massive billboard in Manhattan advertising an album they had no idea had been put out under their name — December’s Children (And Everybody’s). A typical collection of leftovers wrapped around a recent hit single (“Get Off Of My Cloud”), but the label didn’t even try to politely call it a compilation — it was presented as their “latest album.” At least by ’67, they weren’t trying to fool anyone.

So Flowers is generally referred to as a compilation album, but most people’s idea of a “compilation” album is a collection of previously released material (e.g., a best-of, or retrospective), and most of Flowers was unheard, at least in America — with three absolutely ridiculous exceptions. “Ruby Tuesday” and “Let’s Spend The Night Together” were two sides of a big single — but also the key tracks from the U.S. version of the album Between The Buttons, released a mere four months earlier. “Lady Jane” was even more puzzling — it was a non-single album track from their year-old album Aftermath. Why stick it on Flowers? Your guess is as good as mine. Continue reading

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