Their Satanic Majesties: A Guide To The Rolling Stones, Part 2 (1968-1981)

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Beggars Banquet (1968)

Released December 6th, 1968 on Decca/London Records

Peaked at #3 UK, #5 US

Singles:

Street Fighting Man” (#21 UK, #48 US)

After the poor reception to their studio experimentation of 1967, the Stones returned to their roots and never left them thereafter.  Beggars Banquet represents a stark reset, a largely minimalist, acoustic album of slack, drawn-out  Delta blues dread.  It kicks off with the calling-down-the-darkness voodoo vibe of “Sympathy For The Devil”, which manages to completely wash out the tired-hippie schtick of Majesties in favour of stark, subtly violent tones.  The tone of the decade itself was turning decidedly more violent itself; the Vietnam war ground on, youth revolts were taking place in France and America, and many thought the West on the verge of a genuine conflict.  “Street Fighting Man”, kicking off side two with electric verve, reflected this perfectly.  The real star of the show, though, is the slide guitar that features prominently on many of the songs.  Most of it was Keith Richards, although the fat, looping slack on “No Expectations” was one of the last constructive things Brian Jones would contribute to the band.

Let It Bleed (1969)

Released December 5th, 1969 on Decca/London Records

Peaked at #1 UK, #3 US

Singles:

Honky Tonk Women” (#1 UK, #1 US)

Let It Bleed” (Japan only)

Let It Bleed rung in the bad times; the day after it’s release, the incident in concert at Altamont would bring the curtain down on the era of Love Is All You Need.  The dread-evoking, devil-calling Delta vibe they summoned on Beggars Banquet was the core of this, although it was more electric, more hard rock than the largely acoustic previous album.  “Gimmee Shelter” warned that rape and murder were “just a shout away” while the album’s lone cover song, Robert Johnson’s “Love In Vain”, evoked the original’s whisky-soaked lamentation of a lost mind.  “Midnight Rambler” conjured up a serial killer, and “Monkey Man” wondered if they might not be “a trifle too satanic”.  The gospel-shrug of “You Can’t Always Get What You Want” marks a perfect end to the whole deal, coming to a final resolution with the high-minded ideals of the time by saying “just get by, Jack”.  As far as cultural touchstones go, it would presage the disappointment and disillusion that the 1970s would bring, and remains a vital document of the moment the cultural mood shifted in the West.

Sticky Fingers (1971)

Released April 23rd, 1971 on Rolling Stones Records

Peaked at #1 UK, #1 US

Singles:

Brown Sugar” (#2 UK, #1 US)

Wild Horses” (#28 US)

For the Rolling Stones, the 1970s would be a decade of excess, starting right from the beginning with an album of slow, druggy, sexed-up blues numbers and weary, country-tinged ballads that count among rock’s most eloquently emotional songs.  Sticky Fingers would be the band’s first album after leaving Decca (flinging off the guaranteed-to-be-rejected single “Cocksucker Blues” to fulfill odious legal requirements) and the excitement and joie de vivre that the band’s new life as their own masters generated is palpable.    For an English band, it was a very American record, deeply rooted in primitive bluesmen and the lonesome cowboy records of dusty country music.  “Can’t You Hear Me Knocking” shows a willingness to extend that into the Mexican diaspora; although its switchblade riff is classic Keith Richards, the coda is a heart-on-sleeve love letter to Latin music.  It’s a monumental effort and an album that can always find an occasion.  Love, sex, and death; it’s music designed to hit you right in the id.

Exile On Main Street (1972)

Released May 12th, 1972 on Rolling Stones Records

Peaked at #1 UK, #1 US

Singles:

Tumbling Dice” (#5 UK, #7 US)

Happy” (#22 US)

The Stones left England one step ahead of the taxman in 1971 (where’s George Harrison when you need him?) and settled in the south of France, putting a mobile recording studio into Keith Richard’s basement.  Mick Jagger was newly married, and Keith Richards had decided to make his heroin usage into a habit; the scene at his French villa was so legendarily drug-heavy that William Burroughs showed up at one point.  Out of these sunny climes and druggy times would spring the pinnacle of expression in the realm of American rock ‘n’ roll.  Exile On Main Street is a lived-in distillation of country, raw blues, dirty soul, and soaring gospel.  It heaves, struts, and exhales weary smoke; Jagger’s voice is mixed low, one more part of a tobacco-stained jukebox kicking out tunes in a hot southwestern bar.  People were lukewarm on it when it was first released; it has very few hit singles (“Tumbling Dice”, mainly) but it contains a staggering amount of memorable songs, including the steam-on-tarmac Texas blues of “Shake Your Hips”, the shrug-and-bear-it hurt twang of “Sweet Virginia”, and the smoking Robert Johnson cover “Stop Breaking Down”.  As a double LP it’s exhausting, in the best way, with a length that runs into the monolithic.  This would be Keith Richards’ finest moment, his supreme statement of American roots music; his heroin addiction would worsen as the Seventies dragged on and the reins of the band would pass on to the more sober Jagger and drummer/band anchor Charlie Watts.

Goats Head Soup (1973)

Released August 31st, 1973 on Rolling Stones Records

Peaked at #1 UK, #1 US

Singles:

Angie” (#5 UK, #1 US)

Doo Doo Doo Doo Doo (Heartbreaker)” (#15 US)

After Exile On Main Street there was really nowhere for the band to go but down.  That being said, Goats Head Soup is still a solid album, it just finds the band all too willing to indulge in decadence and willful vulgarity.  In the face of the seemingly casual toss-off of brilliance on the record before, this one seems too deliberate, almost calculated.  Jagger had taken over the musical direction of the band and this meant a more mercenary look at expanding their musical horizons, although this falls a bit flat at times (as on “Dancing With Mr. D”).  This expansion was likely aided along by the bands newfound exile to record in Jamaica, one of the few nations on earth that would hold Keith Richards for a long enough period of time to make an album.  “Angie” is the ballad that makes the album, a heartfelt declaration of love in fine Stones lovemaking form.  “Star, Star” represents the flipside of this; it kicks into a filthy Chuck Berry groove and rolls around in the mud in the most blatantly nasty way possible.  In all, not a stumble, but definitely a step down.

It’s Only Rock And Roll (1974)

Released October 16th, 1974 on Rolling Stones Records

Peaked at #2 UK, #1 US

Singles:

It’s Only Rock ‘n’ Roll” (#10 UK, #16 US)

Ain’t Too Proud To Beg” (#17 US)

It’s Only Rock ‘n Roll follows in the same vein of elegant decline as Goats Head Soup, but with a bit more, er, rock ‘n’ roll.  The sharp edges of 1968-1972 are worn down, so that it comes off as an album knocked out by a touring rock band who wanted some new material (which, in essence, it was).  It’s the sound of a band accepting their mass appeal and their arena-star status, leaving behind was made them truly appealing in the first place.  There are tracks here that rank among some of the best they’ve done (mainly the title track and the Supremes cover, “Ain’t Too Proud To Beg”) but for the most part it’s a collection of comfortable, unsurprising, unexciting rock tunes speckled with some half-hearted attempts at genre experimentation (as on the reggae-tinged “Luxury”).

Black And Blue (1976)

Released April 23rd, 1976 on Rolling Stones Records

Peaked at #2 UK, #1 US

Singles:

Fool To Cry” (#6 UK, #10 US)

Hot Stuff” (#49 US)

The lowpoint of the Seventies, Black and Blue is an album comprised more of studio jams than it is of actual songs.  A lot of this is due to Mick Taylor (who’d originally replaced Brian Jones) leaving the band; several guitarists show up on the album, and Keith Richards has since disparaged it as being an album that was mainly about auditioning replacements.  Ronnie Wood (who played a 12-string guitar on “It’s Only Rock ‘n Roll (But I Like It)” originally) would win that particular sweepstakes, just in time for the band to come out of its funk for the next album.  There is nothing essential about Black and Blue, but it does showcase the band as a primal force when it comes being a cohesive whole, and as a band continually willing to experiment with the evolution of black music (as on the reggae cover “Cherry Oh Cherry”).  In that, I suppose, it becomes an interesting artifact of the era, if nothing else.

Some Girls (1978)

Released June 9th, 1978 on Rolling Stones Records

Peaked at #2 UK, #1 US

Singles:

Miss You” (#3 UK, #1 US)

Beast Of Burden” (#8 US)

Respectable” (#23 UK)

Shattered” (#31 US)

The opening salvo in the generational changeover was fired by the Sex Pistols, the Clash, and the Ramones in 1977; at the same time, pop music was spending a lot of time dancing in the flashy, coked-up discotheques of the day.  In between, traditionally blues-based rock ‘n’ roll was feeling the squeeze and would never really recover the heights it once held.  Some Girls, though, was an artillery flash in the night as the fortress began to fall; seen as a response to the new youth movements, it showed the Stones as the best they’d been since Exile On Main Street.  It’s hooky and flashy in the best Stones tradition, and there’s some real seed and real grit in tracks like “When The Whip Comes Down” and the title track.  “Miss You” shows their mastery of the new disco wave, although as an extension of funk this should never have really been in doubt.  Jagger took the reins again, guiding a vision of New York City as he’d fallen in love with it; Richards, having barely dodged a Canadian heroin bust, would play with newfound exuberance and force.

Emotional Rescue (1980)

Released June 20th, 1980 on Rolling Stones Records

Peaked at #1 UK, #1 US

Singles:

Emotional Rescue” (#9 UK, #3 US)

She’s So Cold” (#33 UK, #26 US)

The Goats Head Soup to Some GirlsExile On Main Street, Emotional Rescue is a collection of mainly filler with a few strong tracks.  It follows a similar path as before, but adds a sheen of decadence that prevents anything from really taking off except for the title track and maybe the old-style rocker/second single “She’s So Cold”.  It was the first album to really point to a serious decline in quality for the band, although the next album would mitigate that decline to an extent.  As far as their catalog goes, file it under “unessential”.

Tattoo You (1981)

Released August 24th, 1981 on Rolling Stones Records

Peaked at #2 UK, #1 US

Singles:

Start Me Up” (#7 UK, #2 US)

Waiting On A Friend” (#50 UK, #13 US)

Hang Fire” (#20 US)

The last real pillar in the Stones’ canon (you can make arguments about A Bigger Bang or that “Doom and Gloom” single) finds them reveling in solid hard rock on the first side (some of the most consistent work they’d done, in fact) and meandering through some so-so ballad work on the second side.  Most of it was rejects and cast-offs from the Some Girls, Black and Blue, and Goats Head Soup sessions (as was much of Emotional Rescue) but it serves to further affirm how white-hot the band had really been in the late Seventies.

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