Ruminations on TV Shows, Comics, And Music
During the early days of her career's shuttle-like rise (it took years to prepare for, but once she reached the digital platforms, she shot into the stratosphere), Billie Eilish was interviewed on a late night show. During the course of the interview, she was asked about Van Halen, and she didn't know who they were. She was massively ridiculed online for Not Knowing this seminal 80s rock band. But the thing is, you can't know Everything. And even if you, like Eilish, devour thousands of bands and albums, you're going to have a blind spot.
Sometimes a blind spot is sort of intentional. For me, that's The Rolling Stones. Apart from their massive hits, I've never really got into them. When Metric asked "Who would you rather be? The Beatles or The Rolling Stones?" I wanted to shout back. The Beatles, Of Course. My reimagined discography of The Beatles would be one of the lengthier discoveries I've done, even though they were only really around for a decade (though I would absolutely slot in their Anthology singles from the 90s). The Rolling Stones? You get two albums.
When I was in high school I bought their four Greatest Hits albums, which include their work from 1964 - 1981. And I thought "This is too much. Not all of these hits are very great. You could probably squish all the good songs on to one album."
So I've had my own Greatest Hits mix of The Rolling Stones for decades now. But since I was doing these discographies, I thought I should go through and listen to all their albums. Maybe a couple of times to really give them a chance.
At the end of the third listen-through, my opinion hadn't changed very much. The band, minus Mick Jagger, are extraordinary. They're versatile. They've evolved over the years. They're incredibly talented. But they're rarely innovative. When they are innovative, like they are on "Gimme Shelter" and "You Can't Always Get What You Want", they're transcendent. But when they're playing American blues rock, they're just a very talented cover band with a nasally lead singer.
Mick Jagger is the problem. He's an excellent front man. Great energy, easy to impersonate, and when he's got a song in his range, you want to sing along with him. But, particularly in the 60s and 70s, he would try and be bluesy or morph his voice in interesting ways, and it just never worked for me.
One of my closest friends has an Exile On Main Street shirt, and has talked about the album at length to me. So I was excited to sit down and devour it. I imagined I would have a three or four album discography, and one of them would be a condensed Exile On Main Street. I listened to it twice in a row, trying to find anything that I would want to listen to again, and there was nothing for me. A group of tax dodging British millionaires trying to emulate Black American culture comes off exactly as disingenuous you might imagine from that description. Yea, the instruments sound great, but the nasally vocals clash with them, and the lyrics could be replaced with an air conditioner warranty manual, and they would have the same effect.
If I were going to be stuck on an island for a year, and given the choice between Exile On Main Street or a Right Said Fred album without even "I'm Too Sexy" on it, I'd choose Right Said Fred.
There is no Beatles album that I would even consider swapping out for Right Said Fred.
At the end of this last listen-through, I came out with a two album discography. And, I want to make it clear, I LOVE these two albums worth of songs. There was no struggle to fill up the two albums. I could listen to any of these songs on repeat (except "Let It Bleed") and be content.
1. Tig Notaro has a routine about being in school, and having a teacher that asked students to bring in their favorite song. The teacher would play the beginning of the song at the end of the class. And, one day, a kid who was not Tig's friend asked Tig, because Tig is cool, what would be a cool song to play. Tig answered, honestly, You Can't Always Get What You Want. It is a very cool song. BUT it starts with a boy's choir singing the lyrics acapella. And the teacher only played that part of the song, making the kid embarrassed that people would think that he was super into boys choirs. It's a great routine. The dichotomy between that boys choir that floats at the beginning and end of the track and the Mick Jagger, congos and maracas and background singers chunk of the song is perfect.
2. The drums and "yeows!" from Sympathy For The Devil creep through the end of the previous track. I first heard parts of this song during a live version of "Bad" by U2, and decided I needed to hear the original. Its a song that's been liberally covered by bands that I loved. But as much as I loved Guns N Roses in the 90s, I could never imagine deliberately listening to their horrendous whispery growled cover of this song. It sounds like a karaoke version recorded just after Rocky Horror Picture Show let out. The Rolling Stones version is such a weird mix of bongos, piano, and hooo-hooos that it always makes me smile. The guitar sounds like some sort of alien mosquito, occasionally buzzing by the song. It also has some of The Stones best narrative and lyric writing.
3. So, uh, I also only sought out Ruby Tuesday because it's part of the same medley from the end of that live versino of U2's "Bad". Like "Sympathy For The Devil", it's more piano based than guitar. It also has the best fluttery flute use in rock and roll. I feel like, having grown up in the 80s and not the 60s, I don't usually enjoy this Frolicking In The Flowers rock. It (the genre, not this song in particular) was a cliched object of ridicule when I grew up. But this had the kind of catchy energy that makes it a bit of an exception. I can imagine this in an Ernest Goes Somewhere movie.
4. The first really rock song on this imagined album, with it's fantastic drum intro, drum fills, and basic-ass riff is Get Off Of My Cloud. This was a song I'd hear on the oldies station pretty regularly. It's almost a Kinks song. It's nice and dirty with very 60s garage production. I can see it being a song where people at high school dances would shout the chorus at each other.
5. And it leads into the dirtiest riff they ever produced. Even if you've tried (and tried and tried) to avoid The Rolling Stones, there is no escaping (I Can't Get No) Satisfaction. What is there to say about this song? It's on every Best Rock Songs Of All Time List, even the one that's called Best Rock Songs Of All Time Not By The Rolling Stones. It's just that pervasive. I wonder if the lack of girly action is what led Jagger to Bowie.
6. There's a bit of a twangy guitar transition from "Satsifaction" to another piano rag song, Let It Bleed. I kind of hate Jagger's vocals here, the fake drawl that he uses only at the end of certain lines. It's definitely a Get Ready To Stumble Home Drunk song for the end of the night at a very shitty bar.
7. I think the only reason I enjoy Street Fighting Man is because I used to have a mashup of its music along with the vocals to The Temptations' "Ball Of Confusion", which is one of my favorite songs from that era. The music on "Street Fighting Man" is bright and flawless but the vocals have never really grabbed me. Too nasally and too cemented to the beat for a rock song about revolution. But that guitar riff is perfect.
8. Similarly, the piano riff for Let's Spend The Night Together demands my attention every time I hear it. I do prefer the Bowie version, which I heard first, even though it is Uber 70s space rock. But this version is okay, too. The bada-bop-bop-bop-ba-da-das and the Beatlesque background vocals really make the song.
9. Under My Thumb should really be a song about espionage rather than a song about taking control of a relationship from someone who used to be controlling. The lyrics on this song are kind of shitty. But that marimba and fuzz bass? *Chef's kiss" And the quality of Jagger's vocals are perfect for this song. I just hate the lyrics.
10. Tina Turner covered "Under My Thumb", and it's not one of my favorite songs when she sings it, either. But she should have covered Stray Cat Blues. How would it sound for an older woman to sing about how much she wanted to fuck a 15 year old groupie? Would it still be considered "a classic"? This is another song where I love the music but wish the lyrics were different.
11. On the flipside, I love the lyrics on Mother's Little Helper. Great narrative, great rhyme scheme, great chorus. Getting old totally is a drag.
12. Partially for the thematic dissonance with the previous track, and partly because I do love the organ intro and the fiftiesesque echoey production, the next track is Time Is On My Side. This has to be their best throwback song. This could be a Big Bopper track.
13. The Rolling Stones have a lot of songs that are covers or blatant rip-offs of American blues. Most of them don't land for me. But Heart Of Stone sounds more like Cream or the other British bands doing blues-rock, and that hits differently. I like it. Jagger seems to be content to sound like Jagger, while the background vocals bounce between 50s croony background vocals, and the harsher 60s sound.
14. Another song I first heard by U2 is Paint It Black. I love U2. They were my favorite band in high school, when I first heard their cover. I could not, with a straight face, say that their cover does the original justice. It's a paint-it-black-by-numbers version. I am glad that it turned me on to the original, though.
15. Yesterday's Papers was in weird rotation on the oldies station my parents listened to. They often highlighted the echoey, barely produced rock with the slightly off-key doot-do-do-dooods in the background that were pervasive in the 60s. The highlights of the song for me are the haunting marimbas dripping off the equally hautning vibraphones giving the track something that's both very creepy, and very elevator jazz. It just makes me think about period pieces in the 60s about the 1940s for some reason.
16. I almost think that the radio station previously mentioned used to medley "Yesterday's Papers" with Not Fade Away, since I hear them seeming to flow into each other, though they clearly do not. The vibraphones and marimbas are jettisoned for harmonica, tambourine, and hand claps. It's one of those covers that I am more familiar with than the original, even though it is not a better version.
17. For me, the best song on this album is the closer. There's a lot of history behind the song that I've heard via poets, and VH1, and articles about bands who wreaked havoc on other musicians who worked with them. It's not my place to talk about it, but you should really research the history of Gimme Shelter. It's pretty dense, and important to music history. It's also just a killer song. Jagger is always better with background singers. He's never once been the best singer on a Rolling Stones album. I can't think of a single song that should even attempt to follow this.