This article originally appeared in Issue 9 of
Do you remember three or four years ago, at the height of the folk revival? Didn’t it seem like everybody and his brother was trying to make it? You could walk down Bleecker or Mt. Auburn Street any time of the day knowing that anyone you passed was secretly practicing his three-finger picking as hard as he could in anticipation of the great day when he too would burst upon the folk scene. Everyone got into the act for a little while, and almost everyone finally grew out of it. Ultimately, most of us came to realize that there were only a handful of people who had anything to say and that all the three-finger and flat-picking machines hadn’t advanced or affected the development of the music. When folk finally did die down, we were all left to contemplate the handful who really did have something to communicate. And who still do.
Right now in rock there is a somewhat parallel development. Everybody and his brother is buying thousands of dollars’ worth of equipment, getting himself good and stoned, and trying to be like the big boys who run the show. For every Beatles, Mamas & Papas, Springfield, or Butterfield, or Dylan, there are a thousand imitators and musical know-nothings trying to make it. Top 40 music is becoming over-saturated with Electric Prunes and Question Marks and Blues Magoos, while the few talented people continue to create the genuine item.
Not every group that has a hit record is worth listening to, and a lot of groups that don’t, are. Five years from now, when all the Hoyt Axtons and New Christy Minstrels of rock are forgotten, what will remain? What will we still be able to listen to? I think we’ll always be able to listen to the Rolling Stones, and most especially Between the Buttons.
I: The first thing to realize is that the Rolling Stones did not walk into a studio, pick up their instruments, and start to play. They were experienced musicians before they released their first LP, The Rolling Stones, and the high quality of the musicianship on that album proves it. Because their primary interest at that time was rhythm & blues, most of the tunes on that album are familiar. Still, a certain aura of excitement is present on these cuts that make them seem distinctly the Stones, even today. Much of the album is pure imitation: Jagger saying “buzz a while” on “King Bee,” a direct lift from Slim Harpo’s rendition, or Richards lifting Berry’s guitar from “Carol.” But this is the Stones learning the tricks of the trade. They’re getting their feet on the ground with some basic rhythm & blues material. They are trying to master and imitate the styles of Jimmy Reed, Muddy Waters (the only case in which they’re completely unsuccessful), Chuck Berry, Marvin Gaye, Rufus Thomas, and Buddy Holly, all people whose material is performed on this album. On the whole it is an exciting record, and shows the instrumental capacity of the group beginning to blossom.
From the point of view of original material, the first album offered no great promise. Two of the originals were group jams; the other was a wretched C—A minor—F—G tune that sounded like it belonged in the early sixties—”Tell Me You’re Coming Back to Me.” Unlike many of the original-material-based groups, the Stones developed slowly as songwriters. Their second album, 12×5, which was pretty much a comedown from the first, presented some particularly bad material, e.g., “She’s Grown Up All Wrong,” amidst fine original and traditional rhythm & blues. “Time ls on My Side,” however, was the first good example of what was to become the Stones’ approach.
When you come to The Rolling Stones, Now!, their third album, you are dealing with a higher breed of animal. That album represents a synthesis of the Stones’ work in the rhythm & blues tradition (“Little Red Rooster,” “Down Home Girl,” “You Can’t Catch Me”) with a now strongly developing, but r&b-based, songwriting style (“Surprise, Surprise,” “What a Shame”). It’s a great piece of work from every conceivable point of view. And the first album on which Mick Jagger’s singing is equal to the playing of the group. A real note of warmth, a sort of balance to the hardness and harshness of the overall sound, is beginning to appear in the playing, and especially in the vocals. Listen to how on “Mona” Jagger yells the name the first time he says it and then almost oozes the name the second time. On “Pain in My Heart,” notice how Jagger bends the “Love me, love me,” at the end of the chorus. He is developing here the capacity to offset his generally harsh vocal style with bits of warmth that are extremely potent. Instrumentally the group isn’t as tight as they were on the first album—l don’t think that Richards has ever equaled his soloing on that first record—but they are a good deal freer, so that we get the totally relaxed yet driving quality of their “You Can’t Catch Me” and the happiness of “We’ve Got a Good Thing Going.” The album, both in original material and standards, represents the height of the Stones’ rhythm & blues playing. And while as a blues group they don’t have the instrumental greatness of some other white blues bands, all of the Stones’ blues have a sort of raw, vital excitement and wholeness that many blues bands of greater technique can’t even begin to approach. In any event, everything the Stones do after this album moves away from conventional rhythm & blues, so this album must stand as their statement on that musical form. It’s damn good.
Before leaving the Stones and blues, a word about lead guitarist Keith Richards. On these first three albums his overall level of performance is fantastically high. His style of soloing is hard rock as opposed to pure blues. The difference is that in pure blues style—Eric Clapton, B. B. King, Mike Bloomfield—the main point of emphasis is melodic. In hard rock soloing—Dave Davies, Barry Tashian, and Richards—the emphasis is more on building up rhythm. Hard rock soloists will take two-stringed riffs and work them over in a fast, varied way that complements the beat that a hard drummer like Charlie Watts is putting down. Basically all hard rock soloing gets back to the kind of riffing Chuck Berry used on his fast numbers, most importantly “Johnny B. Goode.” Berry played pure blues on his slow pieces, and usually hard rock on the faster numbers. Richards borrows tremendously from Chuck on these first three albums, but never without innovations. “Down the Road Apiece” on the Now album is hard rock playing taken almost exactly from Chuck’s recording in the earlier choruses, but later develops into pure Richards (Berry version is on Chess 1448). Overall, Keith’s performance on these three albums is enough to make him the best recorded hard rock lead outside of Berry himself. Check especially “Empty Heart,” “Little by Little,” “You Can’t Catch Me,” “lt’s All Over Now,” and what I consider to be Keith’s best hard rock performance, “Route 66” (in which he outdoes the Berry original with a beautiful series of riffs and slides). The main thing to listen for in Richards is not Clapton-type runs but the way in which the riffs and rhythmized lead blend perfectly into the new sound, and the way his soloing always heightens the excitement of the performance.
Everything after The Rolling Stones, Now! points in one direction. The Stones have assimilated and created their own r&b style. They have gone through a period in which they’ve all mastered their instruments. Now they’re ready to create their own brand of rock. Out of Our Heads does the trick. “The Last Time” and “Satisfaction,” both tremendous hits, guarantee that the Stones will never be able to go back to doing other people’s material, by sheer virtue of the popularity of these new originals. People like the new Rolling Stones. Hence, even though Heads is loaded with other people’s r&b, most of it done up to standard, that aspect is now completely overshadowed by the original material. That’s what people want to hear since “Satisfaction.” To talk about the Stones’ development as an original-material-based group it’s easier to discuss their most recent singles, as opposed to albums. The singles I want to comment on are: “Last Time,” “Satisfaction,” “Get Off of My Cloud,” “19th Nervous Breakdown,” and “Paint lt, Black.” In the songs up to “Breakdown,” the Stones project an image of themselves as wild, arrogant, egocentric, and rebellious. The songs are all fantastic. “Last Time” has an ominous quality I’ve never heard re-created by any other band performing this song. It’s like the way every high school kid would like to be able to talk to his girl. It is almost evangelistic in its threatening tone. “Satisfaction” is lyrically a variation on the theme, expressed in such an aesthetically perfect way that it multiplies the impact of “Last Time” to infinity. “Satisfaction” is so perfect in its expression of general discontent that it really leaves the Stones very little room to develop further this emotional basis for communication. Resultantly, as good as “Get Off of My Cloud” is, it is only second-rate Stones when compared to “Satisfaction.” Of course, “Cloud” is marred by a sloppy performance, something which is certainly not true of “Satisfaction” (it can be considered one of the half dozen finest singles ever made). Still, with “Breakdown” the Stones seem to acknowledge that they have pursued the “Satisfaction” line as far as it can go and that they’re prepared to try something new.
Instrumentally the Stones on these three singles are developing the toughest instrumental sound on the scene. On “Last Time,” Brian Jones plays what has to be the perfect figure for that song. Richards’s fuzz-tone on “Satisfaction” is the best use that little device has ever been put to. And on “Cloud” it’s Charles’s drumming that catches us—the Watts roll that Charlie turns into a trademark on Between the Buttons.
From “Breakdown” on, the band continues to tighten and toughen its instrumental sound, but the lyric and mood gradually begin to shift. “Breakdown” is analytic. Not only is Jagger accusing and shouting, he’s finally trying to explain his involvements and situation: “On our first trip l tried so hard to rearrange your mind / But after a while I realized you were disarranging mine.” The pure violence is gone. There’s a little humility beginning to creep in: “Nothing I do don’t seem to work / It only seems to make matters worse.” Finally, in “Paint It, Black” we get a masterpiece; a hard rock band giving us a hard rock sound, but communicating a deep and confusing emotional situation that completely transcends the emotional simplicity of “Satisfaction” lyrically, while retaining all the drive and excitement of that record musically.
With “Paint lt, Black” the stage is set for an album of the quality of Between the Buttons. Instrumentally you have a totally trained, creative, and capable group of musicians assimilating all the aspects of rock and blues that make the kind of playing on Buttons possible. And lyrically we have seen the Stones pass into and out of a verbally limited expression based primarily on egocentricity and arrogance, great when it happened, but which no longer could work. With “Paint It, Black” we’ve seen the Stones grow up musically, at the same time forcing their listeners to do the same. It’s like they made us love them for “Satisfaction” and then took us so much higher that we couldn’t accept anything less from them than what they’ve given us: Between the Buttons.
ll: The first thing that grabs you about Between the Buttons is the supporting cast, especially drummer Charlie Watts and producer Andrew Loog Oldham. As a drummer, Charlie in the past has been somewhat hit-or-miss. He never plays anything very complicated—nothing a one-year drum student couldn’t manage—but most of the time it works very well. He has had a tendency towards sloppiness, like on “l’m Free” from December’s Children, but that’s completely gone here. His style on Buttons is still simple, but it seems to fit better than it ever has. On “Let’s Spend the Night Together,” the alternation between the tour-beat patterns (where he is hitting the snare on every beat), and two-beat patterns (every other beat) is perfect. On “Connection,” the lack of cymbals is extremely effective. And on the more conventional cuts, like “All Sold Out,” he is his usual tough old self—just great.
But what is giving Charlie, and the record as a whole, that extra push is the fact that Oldham apparently decided that he really was going to produce this album. He has paid particular attention to Watts, with excellent results. The close-miked snare and hi-hat fit what’s happening perfectly. The dry, un- or lightly echoed thing he is working with Watts gives the overall sound a tremendous bite, which is really central to this album.
The songs on Buttons are all by Mick and Keith, and they don’t all confirm my judgment that the group is moving in new directions lyrically. Still, there isn’t a single “Stupid Girl” or “Under My Thumb” on this record. The closest we get to pure aggression is the sweetly obscene “My Obsession.” And that is, naturally, a great cut with a terrific vocal by Mick and a good variation on the “Cloud” beat by Charlie. “All Sold Out,” a song of justified rage, uses the “Cloud” beat in a more recognizable form, and has the new Richards guitar sound, although somewhat under-recorded. Richards has developed a sound which is pure treble, but uses it in only a few places. On this cut it is less effective than elsewhere. Still, Jagger is in very good form, and it you listen close enough the cut will definitely do things to you.
“Complicated” seems to be in the same lyrical and instrumental groove. It is a song of frustration and is the type of thing at which the Stones excel. Jagger’s “raves” are fine and Watts once again grabs us with a beat that sounds like he was trying to lower his drums through the ?oor of the studio. As a single unit of Buttons, “My Obsession,” “All Sold Out,” and “Complicated” are all fine cuts performed excellently. However, on this album they can only be considered holdovers from the past because everything else is so radically different lyrically.
“Let’s Spend the Night Together” is classic. From the title, one expects a “Satisfaction”-type job. Instead, it is a serious lyric comparatively deeper than anything Jagger has given us before on this subject. The leer is gone. It’s been replaced by a modicum of sensitivity and lots of honesty. This is not a song of rage or frustration: it is a proposition in musical form.
The instrumental sound of “Night” is one of the best on the record. It introduces the new piano-organ thing that dominates the album spectacularly. Notice especially how the organ doesn’t get into the picture until the break in the middle, and how it proceeds to creep up on you for the rest of the cut. The vocal is Jagger at his tensest and best with fine backup from Richard and Wyman.
The flip of “Night” was of course “Ruby Tuesday.” Here we have, lyrically, the new
Jagger in full bloom. The hardness is completely gone. No arrogance, no egotism; rather a sense of estrangement and inadequacy. There is no precedent for this kind of thing in all the previous Stones recordings. Instrumentally there are strains of “Lady Jane,” but the main point is that the instruments are exquisitely in tune with what Jagger is saying. Again, a nearly perfect cut.
Coming to the two slightly lesser achievements, “She Smiled Sweetly” and “Who’s Been Sleeping Here” almost amount to a tribute to Bob Dylan. The vocal sound and lyrics are so close to Dylan that no effort is made to disguise his influence on them. Instrumentally, Watts shows a bit of inflexibility on these two cuts and gives them too stiff a beat, but Wyman almost makes up for that with some extraordinarily smooth and melodic bass work. The pair of tunes again show the group as a whole functioning on a higher level than previously. And while I think that they’re still groping in the new vein (the pianos on both cuts are terribly muddled), it’s a groove that they’re moving in the directions that they are.
“Amanda Jones” seems to be the Stones’ version of good-time music. That Richards guitar sound creeps in again with its sharp, piercing single-note patterns, while Brian Jones on rhythm works a complex, but solid, figure. The whole thing is a happy, wild kind of tune, filled with very little bitterness and even a few smiles. It has a lot of the good-timey feeling, if not the sound.
Not so of “Connection,” which is almost desperate in its musical franticness. On first hearing the meaning of this song seems clear, but the more you listen the more enigmatic it becomes. Anyway, it’s the best cut on the album for several reasons. First, the guitar. Richards has “that” sound beautifully under control, mixing it with just a perfect touch of country. Vocally, it is the most successfully performed number on the album, with perfect harmony by Keith. Instrumentally they get that drier-than-ice sound with everyone playing just the right thing. As a whole, it is a beautiful part of Between the Buttons.
What’s good about “Yesterday’s Papers” is how they get a big band sound with so little effort and so few instruments. The break with the fuzz-tone, in which everything but the drums and lead seems to be standing still, is a perfect example of the kind of tension good rock can create. You could almost think that nothing’s happening. Lyrically it’s good if you go for cute lyrics—which I happen to in this case. And the vocal arrangement is far better than average for a group that has seldom worked more than two voices in the past.
Finally, if you’ve seen the Stones you know they can be extremely funny. On Buttons we get two examples of their humor: “Cool, Calm, Collected” and “Something Happened to Me Yesterday.” They both make it, spectacularly, and both cuts go a long way toward putting Between the Buttons over the top as an album. There is something weirdly beautiful about Keith Richards’s voice on the choruses of “Something”—he should sing more. The more you listen to these cuts, the more you see they’re kind of double-edged, and there’s maybe a little more to them than the obvious yuks you noticed first time around. To me they represent the height of the new Stones: I think that behind the sarcasm and satire, there is something very warm about their sense of humor.
Ill: The central fact about Between the Buttons is that it works in a way few rock albums have before. Despite any shortcomings I’ve mentioned here, there is no doubt in my mind that this is one of the four or five greatest rock albums ever made. Definitely in the Rubber Soul, Blonde on Blonde category. And even a little beyond that in some ways.
Above all, Buttons is multidimensional. Most groups attach themselves to a single, specific sound and work within it, developing and growing within a recognizable context. Just think of the Byrds, Yardbirds, Mamas & Papas, the Airplane, and most of our other really fine groups. Any one album by these people has a “sound.” Even a Blonde on Blonde has a certain strain to it that tells you that any one cut on the album belongs to that album.
Between the Buttons doesn’t have a “sound.” Each song on Buttons stands on its own musically, independent of most of the others, and yet fitting into the overall experience perfectly. There’s really nothing far-out about the whole thing, nothing “Eastern,” nothing “futuristic.” It’s a very straightforward, direct bag, to the extent that there is a bag here at all. And it’s not the Beatle thing either, although they remain the only other group without a sound, because the Stones are more personal, more direct in some ways. For example, there aren’t any triple-tracked, speeded-up backup vocal tracks that sound like they couldn’t really be sung by human beings here. The Stones never sound distant to me, nor can they ever sound impersonal, which sometimes maybe the Beatles do.
The Stones make you feel their presence in a way that is so immediate, so essential, so relevant, that one can’t turn his mind away from what they’re doing. The Stones in very large measure have destroyed the barrier between listener and performer that almost automatically exists with recorded music. Between the Buttons is one of the handful of records that can make you feel, listening to your phonograph, what you should only be able to feel by being there listening to the Stones live.
It is ultimately a record that makes you feel good just because you realize in listening to it that other human beings are capable of doing something as beautiful as creating the music that Between the Buttons is.