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In Praise of the Rolling Stones

A Swamp Extra because Keith turned 60.

by James Leroy Wilson
December 22, 2003

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In Praise of the Rolling Stones_James Leroy Wilson-A Swamp Extra because Keith turned 60 On Thursday, December 18, Keith Richards, rhythm guitarist of the Rolling Stones, turned 60.

It is easy to make fun of him. He looks like a car crash, a living corpse. If living life to the fastest and fullest was on a scale of one to ten, he went to eleven. Which meant he should have died long ago.

What Keith and his collaborator, Mick Jagger, did instead was re-define what it meant to be a rocker. And what it means to be an older rocker. And what it meant to be older than that.

The American “answer” to Mick and Keith, Aerosmith’s Steve Tyler and Steve Parry, are by now in their mid-fifties themselves. As are such icons as Bruce Springsteen, Elton John, and Billy Joel. No one makes fun of them when they go on tour, or mock them for playing the songs of their youth. That’s because the Rolling Stones did it first. When the Rolling Stones were in their mid-thirties people thought they were too old to rock and roll. But because the Rolling Stones continued to stay together and play together, they inspired others to mature and grow old (dis)gracefully like them.

I think in most of our understandings of how the world works, particularly the business world, fifty is the age in which you either hit the jackpot of greater and greater success in your field, or are “downsized” in favor of younger, cheaper employees with greater computer knowledge. It’s not a pretty picture.

Yet a poster of Keith, at the age of 60, with the wrinkles, the headband, the dangling cigarette, and the guitar, is, if not pretty in the sexy sense, is in its own way beautiful.

For we see two things here:
- a veteran journeyman doing his job;
- an artist doing what he loves best.

For Mick, who I think did honestly love and care about the music, the passion was for sales figures and beautiful women. For Keith, who I think honestly loved having all the riches and beautiful women, I think the passion was the music, of playing that guitar - or should I say playing those numerous guitars, because each one was re-strung to fit the unique chords and riffs Keith gave the world of rock.

There’s no denying that the Beatles were the greatest. The Rolling Stones were the second greatest, and no one else really comes close. The singles the Rolling Stones released were of such brilliance that I still stop and listen to each of them. For any other band, a song like “Paint it Black” would have been its crowning achievement, yet the Rolling Stones could stage a concert and only after the fact can some audience members notice that they didn’t have time to play that one. You don’t go to a Lovin’ Spoonful concert and not expect to hear “Summer in the City,” yet the Rolling Stones produced probably thirty better singles than that.

I think Keith does deserve credit in the world of rock for re-stringing his guitars to produce chords and riffs that were unique. But I don’t think, overall it was their inventiveness, but rather seeing what was out there, and build on and improve it, that defined the Rolling Stones. A certain particular sound is dominating the airwaves and surpassing us? Okay, let’s not copy that sound, let’s improve it by putting our own stamp on it.

When the British invasion, led by the Beatles, came, the Stones probably benefited from Herman’s Hermits and the Animals being initially being more popular. Like the Animals, the Stones had a harder edge to them that evoked fifties rock than the pop sounds of British skiffle, or Phil Spector and Motown pop. Its just that, ultimately, the Stones had better songs and better records. Unless my perception of the time is completely mistaken, it seems like it was always understood that the true rival of the Beatles was always the Stones, even if some other band sold more records than did the Stones (which has virtually always been the case).

Later on: whereas Creedence Clearwater Revival played music that evoked the Cajun swamp and produced the most passionate and greatest singles that an American rock band has ever produced, the Stones picked up on the idea, but took it to New Orleans, added horns and female harmony, and produced songs like “Gimme Shelter” and “Tumblin’ Dice.”

Around this time, Mick and Keith wrote a song for their friend Gram Parsons of an obscure but pioneering country-rock group called the Flying Burrito Brothers. In the hopes of producing a breakout hit, Parsons sang “Wild Horses.” The Rolling Stones soon recorded it themselves. The comparison isn’t even close, even though the Flying Burrito Brothers were a good band and Parsons a more talented singer than Jagger. The Stones took care in arranging their songs. That’s the difference between a pretty good song and an awesome single. And as a country-rock band, the Stones surpass the Eagles easily.

A couple of years later, the Stones supposedly “sold out” by producing another slow love ballad called “Angie.” It is, indeed, a unique song in their repertoire. It is also the greatest slow love ballad of the entire 1970’s. Listen to the arrangement. It’s appropriate for a symphony stage.

Still later, the Stones “sold out” again by producing a disco single called “Miss You.” How many other disco songs have become blues standards?

The Stones were so good, it is impossible to even rank their twenty-five greatest hits. How can one compare “Sympathy for the Devil” with “Nineteenth Nervous Breakdown” with “Start Me Up” with “Heartbreaker (doo doo doo)” with “Street Fighting Man” with “As Tear Go By” with “Honky Tonk Woman?” It’s not like saying that yes, “Let It Be” is better than “Can‘t Buy Me Love.” Rolling Stones singles operate on their own plane, unique in that they were far better than most of the other singles produced by other groups and soloists at the time. Yet they are so different from each other, in their ambition and achievement, that it’s impossible to impose a standard that ranks one over another.

What makes the Stones all that much better were the limitations of Keith and Mick. Keith had inventive riffs, as does, say, U2’s The Edge, but he was never so talented to dominate and overwhelm the songs, unlike, say, Eddie van Halen. And Mick’s voice, which I once thought average and a drawback especially on a song like “Angie,” actually makes the Stones recordings that much better. It is the voice of an “everyman” the voice of “Satisfaction.” Not the voice of a brilliant musician like Paul McCartney or of a tormented genious like John Lennon. But Chuck Berry didn’t have the greatest voice either, especially compared to Elvis Presley. It’s an apples and oranges comparison, I guess. Janis Joplin was no Pat Benatar, but Pat Benatar was no Janis Joplin.

Ultimately, like the Beatles, it won’t just be their 25 best songs that will define the Rolling Stones, but their overall body of work. The Beatles aren’t great just because of “Hey Jude,” but rather for album tracks like “And Your Bird Can Sing” or “You Won’t See Me.” It is the quality of every recording on every album, not just the biggest hits, by which the Stones, with the Beatles, tower over everyone else.

A serious Rolling Stones fan points to four albums recording in the late 60’s and early 70’s: Beggars Banquet, Let It Bleed, Sticky Fingers and Exile on Main Street. The next decade saw a steady stream of great singles, and at least one more great album, 1978’s Some Girls. Over the last twenty years, the output has been less steady, and while often very good, not often great.

Then again, the lasting great bands of the last two decades, U2, REM, and arguably Metallica and Pearl Jam, haven’t really produced that much more. And none of them have produced, in quantity or quality, what the Stones could in their amazing 17-year “hey-day”. in great singles and must-have albums.

So, on occasion of Keith’s 60th birthday, I will recommend 30 Rolling Stones songs that you probably haven’t heard. I will leave out Keith’s signature lead vocal hit “Happy” (from Exile on Main Street) And out of respect for Keith, I will also leave out my personal favorite rock recording of all time, “Moonlight Mile” (from Sticky Fingers) which, oddly enough, Keith didn’t actually perform on. My own collection is limited; I’m not a true rock hobbyist or record collector (only a partial observer, or should I say, partial listener), and I don’t yet own all of the recording of the Stones. Feel free to chime in if you think I’ve left a great song out:

From Some Girls:
  • "Before They Make Me Run" - Keith sings lead: “I wasn’t looking too good but I was feeling real well...”
  • "Some Girls"
  • "Far Away Eyes"
From Voodoo Lounge:
  • "Blinded by Rainbows" - Mick sings that he seriously doubts that anyone who kills in the name of Christ will actually see the face of Christ.
From Let It Bleed:
  • "You Got the Silver" - Keith again: “You’re in my heart, you’re in my soul, you got the silver, you got the gold.”
From Sticky Fingers:
  • "Sway": “It’s just that demon life that’s got me in its sway”.
  • "Sister Morphine"
  • "I Got the Blues"
  • "Can’t You Hear Me Knocking"
  • "Dead Flowers"
From Singles Collection, the London Years:
  • "No Expectations" (b-side to "Street Fighting Man")
  • "Memo From Turner" - driven by Ry Cooder’s slide guitar. Other songs have vulgar words, but none is dirtier than this. From the movie Performance.
  • "Out of Time" - Apparently this was a Jagger solo effort and Keith plays no part. It is probably the greatest overlooked single of all time.
  • "Under Assistant West Coast Promotion Man" - b-side to USA’s "Satisfaction"
  • "The Spider and the Fly" - b-side to UK’s "Satisfaction."
  • "Have You Seen Your Mother, Baby, Standing in the Shadow?" - an a-side single that never got traction.
  • "We Love You" - yes, that’s Lennon and McCartney on backing vocals.
  • "The Lantern" - b-side of bassist Bill Wyman’s In Another Land.
  • "Child of the Moon" - b-side of "Jumpin’ Jack Flash".
  • "Long Long While" - b-side of "Paint it Black".
  • "I’m Free" - b-side to "Get Off of My Cloud".
From Exile on Main Street:
  • "Rip this Joint"
  • "Sweet Virginia"
  • "Sweet Black Angel"
  • "Loving Cup"
  • "I Just Want to See His Face"
  • "Let It Loose"
  • "All Down the Line"
  • "Shine a Light" - a raucous gospel number that reaches out to the lowliest of sinners.
From Undercover:
  • "She Was Hot" - A long forgotten minor hit from twenty years ago.
Add these to the thirty or forty well-known songs of the Stones, and you could say that Keith helped produce at least one great number in each of his sixty years.

So happy birthday, Keith. May your next sixty years be even better than the first.

Comments (1)


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Dr. Spin from Partial Observer writes:
December 22, 2003
An excellent article! I would add Monkey Man from Let It Bleed to your list (or perhaps you consider that too popular). Keith Richards' slide work takes Mick Jagger's somewhat goofy lyrics and makes this into (what I think) is one of the Stones' greatest songs.

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