The British youth of the late 1950s and early 1960s took to imported American blues in a big way, internalizing it and regurgitating it in conjunction with their own folk traditions. From this sprang the British Invasion: pop-oriented bands that borrowed heavily from sweaty Delta blues and the post-war industrial clang of Chicago blues. The Beatles spearheaded this invasion and were the happy, teen-friendly version; close behind them charged the Rolling Stones, who represented the opposite side of S.E. Hinton’s mod-and-rocker divide. They were sarcastic, sexed-up young louts, dangerous individuals who flashed guitars like switchblades and prowled the night in search of your daughter and your drugs. Their early albums played second fiddle to the singles, like most of the British Invasion, and plotting them out can be a bit tricky from 1964-1965. Presented here are the strongest versions of the collections that were released in both the U.S. and the U.K. There are innumerable compilations and singles released during the era that are not represented here, as the compilation/EP/single/live album discography would require a guide all on its own.
The Rolling Stones / England’s Newest Hitmakers (1964)
Released April 16th, 1964 on Decca Records
Peaked at #1 UK, #11 US
“Tell Me” (#24 US)
“Not Fade Away” (#3 UK, #48 US)
In the heady days of the early British Invasion, Decca Records infamously passed on signing The Beatles, claiming that “groups of guitars are on the way out”. Not wanting to rub dirt into a wound that in a post-“I Want To Hold Your Hand” world must have been gaping, the label siezed upon another up-and-coming group amongst the kids, the Rolling Stones. The Stones were dirtier than the Beatles were, though; they had originally come together over a love of American blues and their live shows were evidence of this, featuring raw covers of American blues standards. This is pretty much the gist of the band’s first album, as well; they were initially not confident in their own songwriting abilities, officially contributing only one original composition (“Tell Me”) and hiding a few others behind the pseudonym “Nanker Phelge”. Still, it’s a great picture of the white-hot blues-fan scene of Britain’s early Sixties, even if there’s nothing all that original about it.
The Rolling Stones No. 2 (1965)
Released January 15th, 1965 on Decca Records
Peaked at #1 UK, #3 US (released as 12 X 5)
“It’s All Over Now” (#26 US)
“Time Is On My Side” (#6 US)
The band’s second British LP release, superior to the US-issued version (12 X 5) due to the inclusion of many great tracks including “I Can’t Be Satisfied”, a Muddy Waters cover that loops out the devil’s own slide guitar. Like their first album, it’s a collection of mainly blues and R&B covers, with a couple of original compositions that fail to really impress. Again, it provides a great snapshot of where British youth culture was at in 1964-65, but it’s otherwise non-essential.
The Rolling Stones, Now! (1965)
Released February 13th, 1965 on London Records
Peaked at #5 US
“Heart Of Stone” (#19 US)
The first American release to really be worth anything separate from a coinciding UK release, The Rolling Stones, Now! has some of their best early tracks, including a cover of Willie Dixon’s “Little Red Rooster” and a couple of songs that showed that the Jagger/Richards songwriting team was finally coming into its own, “Heart of Stone” (a Top 20 US single) and “Surprise, Surprise”, which wouldn’t see UK release until it backed the 1970 “Street Fighting Man” single. Bo Diddley’s “Mona” and Otis Redding’s “Pain In My Heart” are also given excellent treatment here; as a collection of solid renditions of classic R&B, you could definitely do worse than this one.
Out Of Our Heads (1965)
Released September 24th, 1965 on Decca Records
Peaked at #2 UK, #1 US
“The Last Time” (#1 UK, #9 US)
“(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction” (#1 UK, #1 US)
“Play With Fire” (#96 US)
The point at which the Jagger/Richards team proved themselves to be able to write classics as enduring as anything they were covering. Out Of Our Heads features some amazing originals, first and foremost “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction”, a track that would elevate them from simple blues fans to being riff-heavy blues-slingers with a modern, rapid-fire vision of their own. Also pegging them as men with futures were “The Last Time” and “Play With Fire”, a menacing threat to a rich socialite featuring a mean arpeggio figure that evokes calculated dread. The covers are all here, of course, although many of them seem to be contemporary soul numbers, with the best of them being Sam Cooke’s “Good Times” and Marvin Gaye’s “Hitch Hike”. Out Of Our Heads marks a band in transition, from being a heady, dangerous band chronicling the preferred soundtrack of Britain’s youth culture to being a vital, original piece of that culture themselves.
December’s Children (And Everybody’s) (1965)
Released December 4th, 1965 on London Records
Peaked at #4 US
“Get Off My Cloud” (#1 US)
“As Tears Go By” (#6 US)
December’s Children would be the last cover-heavy Stones album; afterwards, the Jagger/Richards machine would take hold and bring the band into its own as the Sixties turned psychedelic and then druggy. As far as it goes, it’s pretty much a thrown-together sort of collection: some recordings from singles sessions, some R&B covers, some left-overs from the recording sessions for the UK version of Out Of Our Heads. The originals show a band coming into its own with great force; “Get Off Of My Cloud” in particular is a key indicator of where the band would be moving in the future. “As Tears Go By” and “The Singer Not The Song” were also strong compositions that gave credence to the idea that the Beatles weren’t the only premium songwriters to come out of the wilds of the British rock scene.
Released April 15th, 1966 on Decca Records
Peaked at #1 UK, #2 US
“Paint It Black” (#1 UK, #1 US)
“Mother’s Little Helper” (#8 US)
“Lady Jane” (#24 US)
Aftermath was the first album to be completely composed by Jagger and Richards. It’s a good start for them as far as completely self-written albums go, although it can be tiresomely inconsistent at times. The band seemed insistent on proving themselves to be England’s tough bad boys, and the misogyny here and there can be a bit much. Still, stone classics like “Mother’s Little Helper”, “Under My Thumb”, “I Am Waiting”, and “Paint It Black” make this a great harbinger of things to come. “Paint It Black” in particular would show off their skills as creators of some of the darkest music to come out of the 1960s; certain songs are inseparable from the upheaval in both America and the world, and the eerie sitar played by Brian Jones would become indelible as years wore on. Aftermath found them still set into juvenile mode, but would point towards the liquor-and-drugs-soaked men they would later become.
Between The Buttons (1967)
Released January 20th, 1967 on Decca Records
Peaked at #3 UK, #2 US
“Let’s Spend The Night Together” (#3 UK, #55 US)
“Ruby Tuesday” (#3 UK, #1 US)
1967 would see the rock ‘n’ roll world shift sharply into LSD-soaked psychedelia, with Pet Sounds and Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band leading the Flower Power charge in the Summer of Love. The Stones, stalwart blues and R&B champions though they were, would attempt their own form of psychedelia as well. The first of these would be Between The Buttons, which eases into the trippy paisley weirdness with an album that combines their usual hard-rocking, up-tempo style with much more delicate, lacy songwriting that takes a decided romantic bent. Whether or not it was calculated to take advantage of the shift in youth culture towards day-tripping through the flowers, it still holds up well over time, with a number of classic Stones tracks making their appearance
Their Satanic Majesties Request (1967)
Released December 8th, 1967 on Decca Records/London Records
Peaked at #3 UK, #2 US
“In Another Land” (#87 US)
“She’s A Rainbow” (#25 US)
As the Summer of Love dragged on, things were not so rosy in England. By the end of the year, 3/5 of the Stones were facing drug charges following a sharp crackdown on pop stars and drugs by the London police. The recording sessions for Their Satanic Majesties Request would drag on, the slow speed compounded by the band’s prodigious drug use and a large increase in the number of ‘guests’ each member was bringing by the studio. The result, released in December, was a jumbled mess of an album, a response to Sgt Peppers in name only. The band’s antics caused their producer, Andrew Oldham, to leave partway through; the remaining sessions were produced by the band themselves, which did them no favours. Contemporary critics were savage on it, sharply divided as to whether it held any worth and derisive of its obvious debts to the Beatles, Beach Boys, and Kinks. While there are a couple of admittedly great songs on it, it remains by and large a low point in their catalog.