Monday, 10 September 2012

Top 50 Rolling Stones tracks

The group

The Rolling Stones emerged in the 1960s as part of the British blues scene which paid respect to American urban blues - in particular the work of such neglected artists as Chuck Berry and Muddy Waters. While during their peak period from 1965 to 1972 they remained close to both the musical style and gritty attitude of the urban blues, they also explored and integrated other world music styles, and gave the whole a popular beat and gloss, coupled with intelligent and evocative lyrics, that made them commercially successful, as well as significantly influential on what would become defined as rock music.

The list

#50 I'm a King Bee
While not as gritty as the original this Slim Harpo cover from the Stones' mostly limp first album is a solid and faithful rendition (with the addition of some scorching slide guitar by Brian Jones), and, along with a handful of other covers on the album, announced the band as an important part of the electric British Blues movement.

#49 It's Only Rock n Roll
After Exile on Main Street, the Stones have produced few tracks of merit. This is the last song which carries the energy of the Stone's peak period, and is one of the last recordings with Mick Taylor. The tune is up-beat and contrasts with the edgy lyrics setting up an interesting dissonance which emphasizes the lyrics' theme of not quite communicating.

#48 Walking the Dog
Another cover from the first album - this by Rufus Thomas. The Stones' manager objected to another cover of a song by a middle-aged black singer, yet this set up both the basic R&B sound of the band, and their association with gritty authentic rock music. Although they did later drift toward pop music, they did not embrace soul, tin pan alley and musical standards the way the Beatles did - and it was their continuing commitment to R&B which set them apart from other bands of the sixties.

#47 Angie
There were soft rock ballads before this song, but the success of this set up the rock ballad as the staple of most AOR bands. It glides the razor blade between hideously naff and genuinely moving. I dislike the obvious banality of it as much as I admire the slick commercialism. And though I hate it, I enjoy it as well.

#46 Too Much Blood
Bizarre. Funky and with that extra-ordinary made up on the spot rap about Issei Sagawa, the real-life Japanese cannibal (who was freed within two years of having killed and eaten a woman in Paris!), and the lines about the Texas Chain Saw Massacre - "There's a bloke running around with a fucking chain saw. Oh no. Don't saw off me leg. / When I get to the movies, you know I'd like to see something more romantic, you know. Like 'An Officer and a Gentleman' or something. Something you can take the wife to, you know what I mean?" Bizarre and quite compelling!

#45 Carol
Another cover from the seminal first album - Chuck Berry's Carol. The Stones played Berry better than anyone - this is tight, hard and exciting. It was due to the Stones interest in Berry's music that he was able to make a comeback when he was released from prison in the early 60s.

#44 Can't You Hear Me Knocking
From the sublime and perfect Sticky Fingers album. Every track a classic. The Stones at their creative peak. After the classic opening Stones riffs this lays down a groovy and sultry beat produced by the god-like Jimmy Miller. Smoke a joint, turn out the lights and bliss away....

#43 Off The Hook
The first decent self-penned Stones song. This was the b-side of Little Red Rooster, a single that I played over and over again when I was a youngster!

#42 You Gotta Move
It hardly feels more authentic than this - oozing out of the Delta mud with a raw gospel wail, this stinks of pain and suffering. How could such millionaire rock stars "get it" so well. This reveals that it has always been a genuine, deep abiding love for the music. Always. Well, until around the mid 70s when they seemed not to care any more, and the music died.

#41 I've Got the Blues
Another track from the masterpiece, Sticky Fingers. A majestic guitar intro, followed by shimmering, stately Stax horns, and then the Hammond organ swirling like a church organ, this is a brooding, ravishing exploration of Stax soul, well met with Jagger's measured and soulful voice. A quiet, brooding, genuinely soulful piece.

#40 You Better Move On
The first Stones' hit - a number 1 EP which gave Decca confidence to allow the Stones to record a full album. The EP was a mix of very early recordings of covers, and though You Better Move On is an soul/R&B song it does have a distinct pop feel.
#39 Time Is On My Side
An oldie but goodie! I have long been a Stones fan, but I have been very impressed by the consistent depth of quality of their work over the 10 year period of their peak while doing this Top 50.
#38 Heart of Stone
The second Richards/Jagger hit single, but the first decent one. This trend for mournful ballads would follow the Stones throughout their career and come to the fore with the sublime Wild Horses. But it started here

#37 She's A Rainbow
Departing from their R&B roots the Stones on the Satanic Majesties album embraced psychedelia and the playful experimentation with various Asian and African rhythms that the Beatles had explored on Sgt Peppers, but without much success - apart from this beautifully melodic piece.

#36 Tumbling Dice
The most laid back track on the otherwise exuberantly rockin' Exile on Main Street. If it doesn't sound as natural and smooth as other Stones tracks that was because of the difficulty in achieving the final groove. They'd worked it for over 100 takes, and musicians had switched places so that Mick Taylor plays bass as well as slide, Jagger plays guitar, and Jimmy Miller joins Charlie on drums. The end result, however, is a beautiful finger snapping boogie that gradually seduces, sucking you into that smoky casino.

#35 Love in Vain
Love in Vain was a return to the Stones roots - covering an old blues number (this one by Robert Johnson), something they hadn't done for over three years. And this time they stepped it up a notch and made it distinctly their own. This Hyde Park concert is the first appearance with Mick Taylor after Brian Jones' death, and so marks the start of the Stones

#34 I Just Want To See his Face
Smoky, mysterious, soaked in gospel, blues and soul, this is something new and original in music. The Stones themselves didn't develop further the ideas in this, but others have - most notably Primal Scream and Tom Waits.

#33 Under My Thumb
From the Aftermath album. Often played on the radio, but never released as a single.

#32 Torn and Frayed
The Stones has occasionally dabbled in Country music, but it wasn't until Exile that they explored it fully, and devoted one side of the album to Country influenced songs. Torn and Frayed is very much in the style of the country-rock of Gram Parsons, and he was present during the recording of this track. It's a sloppy, messy honky tonk song, typical of the Stones shambling beast approach to music making, but takes it a step further with a swirling gospel feel, a Stax majesty, and a Baroque richness that fully supports the lyrics about a shambolic musician in a torn and frayed coat who steals your heart away - a modern Pied Piper

#31 It's All Over Now
The band's first number one, a cover of a Bobby Womack song, is as loose, scruffy and arrogant as the band themselves. Keef's apparently inarticulate guitar break, the stumbling, stuttering notes spilling over themselves, would be picked up by Jimmy Page and passed on to Dave Davies of The Kinks who used it for the sublime solo in You Really Got Me the following month - a solo that would inspire generations of garage bands.

#30 Sweet Virginia
Stonking great 16 Bar Blues. Nuff said.

#29 The Last Time
The first self-penned number one. It was this song (or rather, producer Andrew Oldham's own version of it) that the Verve sampled on Bitter Sweet Symphony and got taken to court for ALL the royalties, plus the song-writing credits, so when Bitter Sweet Symphony was nominated for a Grammy, it was Jagger/Richards name not Richard Ashcroft's that was used.

#28 Not Fade Away
The Stones really get inside this Holly classic and make the most of the Bo Diddley beat - the simple rhythm based on the musical variation Shave and a Haircut.

#27 Rip This Joint
Now we're getting up into the REALLY good Stones tracks. This is from the breathless first side of Exile on Main Street. What a rocker! Pure primitive rockabilly - it starts fast and never lets up! Short, sharp and stunning. This is the pure joy of rock music. It needn't get more complex than this, and a few years later R&B and rockabilly were the musical base used by Punk bands. We are overdue another return to the pleasure of a good beat.

#26 Sway
Mick Taylor asserts his place in the band with this track from the mighty Sticky Fingers. He is the un-credited co-writer, and the principle guitarist, and his playing dominates this track in a distinctly un-Stones like manner. This is nudging into the Hard Rock areas where bands like Led Zeppelin were starting to go. Sadly we don't hear much more of this sort of stuff, and eventually Taylor would leave in frustration.

#25 Happy
Don't mess wiv Keef!

#24 Bitch
Another from the sublime Sticky Fingers. This is a live favourite, and there are plenty of live recordings, but the studio production on this is very much a part of the appeal. It is rich and deep and thick and creamy - great barping Stax brass, and a big drum sound. It starts with a crack of the drums, and then rolls on like a boulder downhill. Some chunky rhythm guitar from Keef, and some hot licks from Taylor. The Stones could bottle excitement like no other band living. I get a tingle in my tummy listening to this! And this video has some great photos of the oh so cool and sexy Keith Richards. Keith's guitar comes out the right speaker and Taylor out of the left

#23 Get Off of My Cloud
The follow up single to the hugely successful Satisfaction is, as Jagger and Richards have often said, a big "fuck off" to their management and record company who wanted them to keep on making pop hits. There are echoes here of the teenage rebellion of The Who's "My Generation", and the autobiographical appeal to be considered as an individual not a hit-machine of The Beatles' "Help!", all released the same year - 1965.
#22 The Spider and The Fly
The B side of the pop hit Satisfaction is this solid blues number which sounds authenticity raw and folksy, yet was written by the Stones themselves under the Nanker, Phelge pseudonym they used when the whole band were responsible for creating the song. This filmed version is rather different to the released version which is slightly faster, and contains some subtle guitar play from Brian Jones interweaved with Keef's guitar. However, this film is an interesting statement, providing a laid back alternative to the studio version.
#21 All Down the Line
A live favourite from the moment that the Exile album was released, and no wonder, as this is a straight ahead, good time rocker with exquisite slide from Taylor, rootsy rhythm from Keef, those hot brass hits, and Jagger's throaty lyrics. Full blown no holds barred rock, sweaty and exciting. For some reason the Stones never produced any sweaty rockers or blues inspired songs after Exile. Exile was the end of a golden era.

#20 Midnight Rambler
Into the Top 20 and this is an undisputed classic that would be in anyone's Top 20 Rolling Stones tracks. A firm live favourite, there are some great live recordings, particularly the whip cracking 1969 one from Get Yer Ya Ya's Out, but I like the beefy studio version with Keef playing all the guitar parts. The dark tension in the music perfectly matches the dark lyrics. Keef has called it the first "blues opera" because of its unusual structure - the pace changing several times, and having distinct sections. And it hurts....

#19 Let's Spend The Night Together
A rather steamy (for the times) song that caused problems. Many radio stations played the b-side, and when doing TV shows Jagger would be asked to change the lyrics from "night" to "time". The very direct hunter-gatherer heterosexuality of the song was subverted in Bowie's version into something more exotic, metro and perverse. You takes your pick on which you prefer - the primitive, sweaty sexuality of the Stones, or the intellectual, urbane seduction of Bowie.

#18 Have You Seen Your Mother, Baby, Standing In The Shadows
A good rocking track, with the first use of brass on a Stones song, and some great murky lyrics which are darkly suggestive. The B side's Who's Driving Your Plane? is a damn fine blues piece.

#17 Little Red Rooster
The Stones totally own this Willie Dixon song. It's their best blues song, the best piece of slide guitar playing by Brian Jones - very mournful, their last cover released as a single, and - apparently - the first and only time a blues song has been #1 in the UK.There is something quite stark and otherworldly about their recording of the song - while taking cues from Howlin' Wolf's version - particularly the slide guitar, they also pick up some swing ideas from Sam Cooke's version. But the lazy sexuality, and the feeling of a hot, oppressive day is all their own.

#16 Rocks Off
The opening track of the holy bible that is Exile, kicks the album into existence with this high octane roar - a pounding mess of a song that can't be contained within the sweaty walls of Keef's French villa, and can't be contained by the recording equipment. A drug-fuelled song about the pain and joy of excessive drug use, it loses focuses half way through when all the instruments slow and electronically blur out and there's a hazy psychedelic moment before everything kicks back in and the band gather momentum to the long fade at the end.

#15 Sister Morphine
Into the Top 15 and it's another track from Sticky Fingers. I have selected every track bar one from that album - and there's two tracks to come. I've always thought of Exile on Main Street as the Stones masterpiece - one of the greatest albums ever made, etc - though because it's a sprawling four sides, it can be more, er, diffuse than Sticky - which has the same feel and attitude throughout - and so is less concentrated. Sticky has a condensed, distilled power that ensures that track after track is exciting, and due to it shorter length, means the listener is not drained. Exile is more complex and demanding listening. I think I "admire" Exile more, but "enjoy" Sticky better.

#14 Jumpin' Jack Flash
The Stones had two phases during their classic period. The singles period with Brian Jones, and the album period with Mick Taylor. This overlapped slightly during '68 and '69 when the band made the albums Beggars Banquet and Let It Bleed, and this and two other classic Stones singles - Honky Tonk and Street Fighting Man. This is one of the last singles to feature Jones on electric lead. The high tones of the guitar, quickly strummed, capture the excitement of the late sixties while the ominous dark notes of the bass refrain reveal some of the undercurrent of unrest and violence that was present in the social protests, the Vietnam war, and the civil rights movement. This song captures the dichotomy of that age, and directs us to some of the darker moments yet to come.

#13 19th Nervous Breakdown
Classic track from the Stones singles period. This is a band at the peak of their pop creativity - underpinning everything with a rootsy blues sensibility (Brian Jones playing the Bo Biddley riff from Diddly Daddy), yet very much aware of the modern world around them and reflecting it in their music and lyrics. The cruel, sardonic lyrics while picking on some un-named rich girl, reflect on society as a whole - our own mental vulnerability in a pampered, consumer-driven world. The music neatly and cleverly supports the lyrics, and everyone has a play on the theme - the music builds both dramatically and semi-humorously, in a mocking way, with echoes of a fairground merry-go-round, circus clowns tripping over themselves with a clash of cymbals, the pause and restart of each breakdown, the siren alarm of Keef's beefy fuzz guitar riff accompanying each "Stop, look around" refrain, the constant, nervous tip tapping of Charlie's drum sticks on the drum rim, the hypnotic swirl of music that gradually builds to a psychotic crisis in which Wyman's bass lines descend like a stuttering, firing Spitfire while the tape slows slightly - a manic moment of insanity. You can imagine the whole band grinning evilly as they created this!

#12 Street Fighting Man
There is an interesting dissonance in this track - the topic is rebellion, loud, hard and aggressive, and the song is certainly loud and driven, though all the instruments, bar the bass, are acoustic, and several are rather exotic Indian instruments usually used for intellectual and peaceful pursuits, the sitar, tambora, and shehnai - which is usually used for weddings. The lyrics themselves are ambivalent - seeming both to urge involvement in violent rebellion, yet at the same time deny it: "There's no place for a street fighting man". As with much of the Stones material, there's this sense of not getting involved. Jagger is observing in his sardonic, grinning manner, aloof from the whole thing. "Yeah, rebel and fight if you want to, we'll just carry on taking drugs and having a good time playing music."

#11 Route 66
Track 1, Side 1 of the first album, back when they did mostly covers. This is the highest placed cover in my Top 50, and for me this song is associated so much with the Stones that I think of it as a Stones song (in fact I can't think of any other version which comes even close to the Stones version (though Dr Feelgood make a fair attempt). It's a finger snapping, hip little song, capturing the excitement of aimlessly drifting on route somewhere promising. This is teenage irresponsibility made large. And it's great to dance to!

#10 Let It Bleed
This, the title track off the Let It Bleed album, is the stones at their lewd, lascivious, debauched and debased best: "You can cum all over me". It starts in a heavy slow manner, as though they can't be bothered, with Charlie lazily slap, bang, slapping his way through, and Keef's guitar and Wyman's autoharp carelessly going off in different directions - it's just Ian Stewarts honky tonk piano that drives the track on, keeping it all together, pushing slightly faster than Charlie's drumming. Then, near the end, they start to merge, and Charlie's drumming picks up, and they all get into a groove, with Ian now playing quick trills into the fade out.
#9 Paint It Black
Released on Friday 13th May, 1966.

#8 Sympathy For The Devil
The mad hypnotic samba which opens Beggars Banquet is firmly associated with the murder at Altamont, so it seems fitting to use this clip from that concert, though it was actually during Under My Thumb that the murder occurred. Sympathy for the Devil epitomises the dark side of the Stones, yet also their depth of reading. The theme is based on Mikhail Bulgakov's allegorical novel of good and evil, "The Master and Margarita" as well as the writings of Baudelaire. It is literate, philosophical, intelligent and typically tongue-in-cheek, with Jagger as always the sardonic observer not offering any answers, just more questions.
What is missing from this live version is the complex percussion and background vocal noises - grunts, sighs, laughs, and the extra-ordinary "whoo whoos" which see the song to the end - probably the best backing vocals of any song!
A stunning voodoo incantation - be wary of answering Jagger's questions of "What's my name?" as you might invite the devil into your home.
 The studio version.

#7 Honky Tonk Women
Pure sleaze, and pleased with itself!Loud and proud, this is sharp throughout - bright and glistening - then soon gone. Crank up the volume and play it again!
This contains my favourite Stones line:
"She blew my nose, then she blew my mind."
If you don't quite get the several schoolboy meanings of that, then I suppose the Stones will just pass you by....
#6 Wild Horses
Let's be honest - everyone is astonished at how moving this song is. Most Stones fans have it as very high among their favourites, yet - even though often covered by other artists, recently by Susan Boyle - it's never really been given much media attention.The above isn't the full version, but I like the way the film has been shot to show how even the band themselves seemed awed by what they have just achieved.
The full version is  here.

#5 Shine a Light

The high point of Exile, it appears on the last side - the soul side. It's a sad reflective piece, mainly with a gospel feel, though the uplifting aspect of the gospel organ, and the shining light appears to offer no relief and no way out. It has often been recorded that the period in which the Stones recorded Exile was the lowest in their career. Their personal lives and relationships were a mess, and because of their drug use, reputations and legal convictions, they were banned from most countries, so were in "in exile" in those few countries that would accept them.
The album was largely recorded in the claustrophobic and sweaty basement of Keef's French villa, which added to the hemmed in feeling.
Out of this ennui Jagger starts working on an old song from the days of Brian Jones, and most sources feel the song is about Jones and his drug addiction, and it is now being seen after his death, in a regretful, nostalgic, loving manner, yet also reflective of Jagger's own current situation with his own dependency on drugs.
As a song about a previous vulnerable band member, it brings Shine On You Crazy Diamond to mind, and it's interesting that both songs use the word "shine".

#4 Brown Sugar
How raunchy and bad can they get? Even Jagger has said he couldn't write lyrics as naughty as this any more, though they are rather more suggestively naughty than actually over the top. It's what happens in the mind as we encounter the images of the "scarred old slaver" who knows he's "doing all right" with the "young girl"; and the "lady of the house" whose "blood runs hot" with the "house boy", and the "tent show queen" and those young girls / black girls who "taste so good". My oh my! And match all that with the dirtiest, grungiest music the boys ever produced, complete with that juicy, raw bluesy sax. The lyrics suggest the sexual allure of power/authority, especially when inappropriate. Forcing a black girl onto her knees to give sexual favours. As usual with the Stones, it's dark and dangerous, but Jagger as always is simply commentating, not passing judgement. That "brown sugar" is a nickname for heroin just underscores the forbidden and dark nature of the topic.

#3 Gimme Shelter

A work of art. The band's most threatening and scary song - probably the best known song that evokes evil. Though never released as a single it is frequently heard as the media often use it as the backdrop to scenes of violence, anarchy or the Vietnam war. I like this clip setting it to the helicopter scene from Apocalypse Now. Jagger has said that the song was written with the Vietnam War happening, so the images in the lyrics are taken from that war, and he has said that it has a feel of the apocalypse, so all that is appropriate.
The music is pregnant with tension right from the opening guitars, and is then increased with the eerie rasping sound of the guiro, and the bass notes from the piano deepening the feeling of impending doom. The lyrics and music, as always, match perfectly. This is not violence that is here now, this is violence that is about to happen - "just a shot away", "just a kiss away", "a storm is threatening". The apocalypse is approaching, and somehow that is more scary than if it was actually here.

Merry Clayton, a gospel singer, was brought in by the genius that is Jimmy Miller, to add an extra dimension. She provides decent soulful background vocals in the first half of the song, but when she comes back after the guitar break in the middle, she is positively inspired, and she gives one of the most awesome vocal performances on record - her voice is so powerful and passionate it makes your hair stand up - and she holds nothing back, her voice breaks twice with the sheer effort and emotion of what she is doing. A gold star to that girl!

#2 (I Can't Get No) Satisfaction
The song that made the Stones into a global success. Its importance is such that it has to be placed very high on any top Rolling Stones list. Indeed, it has been acclaimed as one of the greatest songs of all time by various critical and popular polls.The backbone of the song is a simple, but driving riff that Keef literally dreamt up. He woke in the middle of the night, switched on his tape recorder, played the riff, sang the refrain, and then went back to sleep. He has since said of that recording: "it's two minutes of Satisfaction and 40 minutes of me snoring."
The song is driven by Charlie's pounding drum. As with all other instrumentation on the song, it is kept simple - a constant back beat with few rolls or trills. It just pounds away, bang, bang, bang - and when the rest of the song pauses and the focus is on the drums, Charlie resists the temptation to play up, and keeps it simple - bang, bang, bang. It's that primitive simplicity that is the heart of the song. We recognise it as something deep within us - it awakens primeval instincts.
And then on top of all this rootsy simplicity, Jagger produces some of his most subtle observational lyrics - conveying a general feeling of dissatisfaction and frustration. People sometimes see it as "anti-commercialism", but it's rather broader than that. In the first verse he's being told something by a man on the radio. This could be a preacher, or a politician or philosopher - it doesn't matter. It's the notion that somebody else feels he has all the answers, and Jagger is doubting that - he questions it and rejects it. There's this sense that society doesn't have the answers for everyone - certainly not for Jagger. The second verse has the observation on adverts. Adverts project images of how life should be lived - aspirational - raising expectations that cannot be matched by reality which, of course, results in dissatisfaction and frustration - and Jagger notes that the messages of the adverts are confused, because one advert says - "Smoke these cigarettes and you'll be a real man", while another says, "No, smoke THESE cigarettes..."
We are assaulted by confusing, conflicting messages which don't hold any real truth, so we get frustrated. And - as usual with the Stones - this gets linked in with sex - so in the last verse we get an image of sexual frustration.
The whole thing sums up teenage frustration so well - frustration at authority and society, and frustration at not getting enough sex. Simple, beautiful, profound!

#1 You Can't Always Get What You Want

This is simply beautiful. Groovy, with a great sing-along hook, some neat musicianship from everyone, well arranged and orchestrated, and an awesome use of one of the world's best choirs, The Bach Choir.
Sometimes things work so well they transcend the ordinary, and this happens here. It is perhaps the most "grown up" and sophisticated of the Stones tracks. The refrain, "You can't always get what you want", and the response "But if you try sometimes you just might find you get what you need", is a development on from "I can't get no satisfaction", and the viewpoint embraces the frustration experienced at times by all of us, and the hope held out that there is some light at the end of the tunnel. This chorus feels like a well worn aphorism or proverb, it is comfortable, familiar, and contains a sense of folk wisdom.
The verses have fascinated and intrigued people for years. Who is Mr Jimmy? Speculation has included the producer Jimmy Miller and Jimmy Hendrix; though the most interesting is Jimmy Hutmaker, the local character of a small American town that Jagger visited in 1964, and according to local legend met "Mr Jimmy" in the town drugstore where Jimmy ordered a cherry coke but got a coca cola instead, so said to Jagger: "You can't always get what you want."
The woman in the song is popularly believed to be Marianne Faithful who at the time of the song's creation was living in Chelsea with Jagger, and had a prescription to help her reduce her drug addiction. But this has never been confirmed by Jagger himself.

67 April 2019