Arguably the first great Stones album, "Beggar's Banquet" found them reasserting their R&B roots after the bandwagon-chasing flower power excess of "Their Satanic Majesties Request" (which I've always rather liked, although rock history hasn't judged it too kindly) with a different kind of experimentation, be it the samba rhythms of "Sympathy For The Devil", Dylanesque wordplay on "Jigsaw Puzzle" or Keith Richards rediscovering his love for the guitar by playing it through a cheap cassette recorder on many of the tracks. One of the four essential Stones albums that every home should have (the others being "Let It Bleed", "Sticky Fingers" and "Exile On Main St"); current vinyl issues reinstate the controversial original graffiti sleeve (home to such pithy observations as "John luvs Yoko" and "Zappa's in the Sisters") and also retain the gatefold banquet photo missing from the CD booklet.
ROLLING STONES Rock And Roll Circus (ABKCO)
Presumably the belated release of this 28 year old artefact has more to do with Allen Klein being down to his last few million quid than any slip in quality control over at the Glimmer Twins headquarters (the reasoning behind its non-appearance having something to do with Mick n Keef not thinking it was good enough: a few seconds brief reflection on their entire post-"Exile On Main St" catalogue might be informative at this point). Still, now we have the video, the laserdisc and the CD (no vinyl, of course), and though it might be pushing it to suggest its been worth the wait theres almost an hour of good clean fun on offer: the relatively unknown Jethro Tull do "Song For Jeffrey", which probably makes more sense with the visuals attached; Keef instructs us to "Dig The Who", and we do, blissfully unaware that their proto-rock opera "A Quick One While Hes Away" is shortly to sire a mutant offspring; Taj Mahal contributes "Aint That A Lot Of Love", which to my ignorant ears sounds a little like "Gimme Some Lovin"; "Something Better" is Marianne Faithfulls then-current b-side, and sounds like an out-take from "Dusty In Memphis" (thats meant as a compliment, of course); John Lennon, Eric Clapton, Keef and Mitch Mitchell howl through "Yer Blues"; Yoko howls; ... and then the Stones close proceedings with the near-perfect setlist of "Jumpin Jack Flash", "Parachute Woman", "No Expectations", "You Cant Always Get What You Want", "Sympathy For The Devil" and "Salt Of The Earth"...and Id rather listen to this than "Stripped" any day.
As padding you get a suave slipcase and a chunky booklet, filled with photos of Mick looking suitably labial, and enough considered prose to suggest that maybe this was the last but one great variety show of the Woodstock era. But then again, perhaps the last line of the credits speaks louder than the rest of the package: it reads "remembering:brian/jesse ed/jimmy/john/keith/nicky/stu".
ROLLING STONES Bridges To Babylon (Rolling Stones)
Primal Scream used to want to be The Rolling Stones, but fortunately for us they grew out of that particular affectation. On their 21st album it looks, superficially at least, as if the Stones want to be, well, if not Primal Scream then at least somebody other than the Stones. What else could explain the presence of rent-a-cred producers such as Don Was (who also worked on 1994s "Voodoo Lounge"), The Dust Brothers (Beastie Boys, Beck) and Danny Saber (Black Grape)? Of course, such well intentioned efforts are inevitably doomed to failure: the day The Stones sound like anybody else is the day Cliff Richard releases his drum n bass album.
However, "Bridges To Babylon" is higher quality fare than the usual tour supplement that Stones albums have become over the last few decades. Certainly at least half of it is no more than generic rock n rawl by numbers, the sort of thing that Mick and Keef can probably write and play in their sleep (and perhaps they did). Also the hints of country that emerged during the finer moments of their last album have been surgically removed (unless you count the rather fine single "Anybody Seen My Baby?", which, rather ironically given the recent kerfuffle over "Bitter Sweet Symphony", borrows its chorus melody from k d langs "Constant Craving"). But there are moments of excellence, to wit "Saint Of Me", where Mick sounds more satanic than hes done for years.
The best moments occur when he decides to leave even earlier than usual, and Keef takes over for the last two tracks: "Thief In The Night" is a stoned shuffle, a lot like "Just Wanna See His Face" off "Exile On Main St", and a source of much unexpected delight, which then slides straight into the even finer closer, "How Can I Stop", where Charlie gets to drum like the jazz musician hed probably rather be, and Keefs voice sounds exquisitely weathered and lived-in. Then Wayne Shorter blows a mean sax on a coda that has to be in homage to John Coltranes "A Love Supreme" before the album closes with a few seconds of percussion that sounds unnervingly like the start of Steely Dans "Rikki Dont Lose That Number". And youre left thinking how wonderful it is that four men in their mid fifties have produced an album that displays more depth and deep-rooted musicality than hep cats like, for example, Oasis and the continually dreadful Prodigy have managed this year...and dont it make you feel good? Indeed it should.
Gimme Shelter (Criterion)
Another Criterion article, "Gimme Shelter" ably demonstrates the tender loving care the company invests in bringing films to the silver disc. A documentary filmed by brothers Albert and David Maysles, "Gimme Shelter" follows the Rolling Stones on tour across America in 1969, unwittingly stumbling on the Altamont disaster that some commentators argue marked the end of the hippie dream.
The commercial, again, runs as follows: accompanying the film itself this disc contains additional performances taped at Madison Square Garden during the tour, plus some backstage footage, a directors commentary, a stills gallery of photographs snapped at Altamont, a 44 page booklet of essays covering the concert, the film and the involvement of the Hells Angels, trailers and a demonstration of the painstaking restoration process the film underwent on its way to DVD. The highlight of all this largesse, however, arrives in the unusual form of excerpts from KSAN Radio's Altamont wrap-up, a program aired the day after the concert. Originally conceived by promoters Tower Records as an opportunity to play recordings from the gig and flog a few Stones albums in the process - in fact DJ Stefan Ponek, clearly shaken by events, shamefacedly plugs the store and their offer of any of the band's albums for only $2.98, in stereo - it became a lengthy post-mortem attempting to uncover exactly what went wrong at Altamont and, by extension, with the 1960s. It makes chilling listening, just as the main attraction makes frightening viewing.
Aside from the fractious speedway showdown, there's much that is great, even thrilling about "Gimme Shelter": the concert footage taped earlier in the tour, for example, stamps the claim that the Stones were the greatest rock 'n' roll band in the world with some authority, and the taping of "Wild Horses" at the Muscle Shoals studio in Memphis will bring you out in shivers and goosebumps. There's also a deal of legal wrangling which appears to be de rigueur in rock films of the time (c.f. D A Pennebaker's Dylan rockumentary "Don't Look Back", or the 1970 Isle Of Wight festival film "Message To Love"). But the overriding, overcast impression is of the brooding fatality of Altamont, a catalogue of disasters that filters and informs the scenes of the film that burn their mark into the viewer's subconscious: Marty Balin being attacked onstage by a Hells Angel during Jefferson Airplane's set, the blank, uncomprehending stare of a gum-chewing stageside Hells Angel as Jagger camps it up, feather sprouting from the back of his pants, and the stabbing scene, refracted and reviewed by Jagger during the editing process.
"Gimme Shelter" is fantastic film-making, a cautionary, tragic tale of what happens when forces that cannot be controlled collide with utopian dreaming. The Stones only ever wanted to play for free, but in the end it cost us more than we will ever know. And as the chilling counterpoint to the equally thrilling "Woodstock", it deserves equal attention from the committed music lover, something that Criterion's superlative reissue (blighted on my copy by some nasty digital blocking and skipping on some of the extras, unfortunately) makes a lot easier.
THE ROLLING STONES A Bigger Bang (EMI)
By my reckoning The Stones 22nd studio album, A Bigger Bang is kickstarted into life by the stuttering riff of Rough Justice. Like much of the album, its peppered with lazy lyrical single entendres, and slathered in slide guitar in an attempt to make everything 1972-shaped. Let Me Down Slow is the first of many occasions in which Sir Michael casts himself as the vulnerable victim, savaged and ravaged by the ruthless sisterhood. Again, the slovenly backing vocals sound like an echo of an older, more interesting era.
Tolerably modern and vaguely funky Rain Fall Down may be, but its something of a shock to hear Jagger spit out words like quid and wankers in his mid-Atlantic drawl. Streets Of Love is the archetypal post-Angie Stones ballad, but Back Of My Hand is probably the most radical moment here, a You Gotta Move-styled faux roughshod blues. The terrible thing is, though, theyve drifted so far from their roots (as folk inevitably will over 45 years, admittedly) that it sounds like a pose, a contrivance designed expressly to make them seem authentic. Biggest Mistake is more rudimentary storytelling by a wounded and regretful Jagger.
This Place Is Empty is a Keef song, and Keef songs tend to be the unheralded highlights of recent Stones albums. So it shapes up to be here, until well, I can take drivel like Its funny how it goes around/Its crazy but its true, and, really, you dont select a Stones album expecting it to radiate with positive feminist messages, but really: Come on in/Bare your breasts/And make me feel at home. What must Keefs place actually be like if thats what it takes to evoke it? A lovely song is spoiled.
Possibly the albums nadir, Dangerous Beauty is more boring than threatening, one of Jaggers S&M wet dreams yoked to equally tired, clichéd music. And would you really look to the Stones for blazing political rhetoric? Sweet Neo Con rhymes hypocrite with crock of shit. Yeah, thanks for that insightful commentary.
Press reviews have screamed that A Bigger Bang is their best since Some Girls, or even Exile On Main St, exactly the kind of high octane hyperbole that keeps the Stones publicity juggernaut rolling. Its neither of those things its a clipped and efficient cog in the tour treadmill, just like Steel Wheels, just like Voodoo Lounge. Actually, scrub clipped: at 16 tracks this is the most substantial outpouring of new Stones product since Exile On Main St. Of course, at their age its miracle enough that the Stones are still standing unaided, the fact that they can still do generally competent as well is a bonus. Nevertheless, I cant help thinking this would have been a more enjoyable, and perhaps more innovative, work had they been courageous enough to strip it back to ten or so of the better songs, a track count that hardly shamed the likes of Beggars Banquet or Sticky Fingers. I also note with some incredulity that its also available in a clean version, which rather seems to circumnavigate the whole point of the bands existence.
THE ROLLING STONES Some Girls (Rolling Stones)
Perhaps the last great Rolling Stones album, “Some Girls”, originally released in 1978, was also the first to fully feature ex-Faces guitarist Ron Wood. (The band’s previous album, “Black And Blue”, essentially functioned as an extended audition for successors to the departed Mick Taylor.) Invigorated by punk and disco, it was here that the band perfected the archetypes they would drive into the ground over succeeding decades.
The disco-influenced “Miss You” is a rare example of the Stones attempting to be of the times rather than wafting imperiously above them. The casually threatening, sloppy-but-tight “When The Whip Comes Down” is just on the right side of familiar, and Jagger manages a reasonably convincing bash at sincerity for a cover of The Temptations’ “Just My Imagination (Running Away With Me)”. The title track’s ethnic stereotyping was exactly the kind of calculated controversy generator expected of the band at the time, and the punkish infusion of “Lies” would set the template for generic fast Stones songs down the years.
Jagger models a hilarious Southern accent for the comedy country of “Far Away Eyes”, “Respectable” is a rare example of knowing self-mockery (Stones in sense-of-humour shock horror!) and “Before They Make Me Run” shores up the cult of Keef in enjoyable fashion. “Beast Of Burden” is simply effortlessly great, and “Shattered” with its observations of a bedbug-plagued New York remains topical today.
The controversial (naturally) diecut sleeve, in which pictures of the Stones modelling wigs rapidly replaced images of celebrities, including Lucille Ball, Farrah Fawcett, Judy Garland and Marilyn Monroe, at the threat of legal action, is a packaging masterclass, the kind of added-value opulence that nowadays would be relegated to a premium-priced deluxe edition if it were attempted at all. Although it’s no sonic delight – outside of the precision-tooled cool of “Miss You” most tracks are buried under the efforts of multiple guitarists and backing vocalists – the original UK pressing I snagged sounds as good as it needs to. So, have they made a better album since? I can’t think of one.