So the Rolling Stones are 50 years old, some of them have been remarkably great years, though most mediocre. Still they are the greatest rock’n'roll band in the world for all time, for creating that bag-o-bones sound that stutters to keep standing then gels into something so obvious and simple yet beyond what any other band could possibly do.
The Stones changed my life ever since I became a fan at exactly the wrong time, just after they released their last good album: 1981′s Tattoo You. So I spent most of the years since, probing the past. Buying everything, studying the sounds, and learning when acoustics and slide guitars and harmonicas turned to falsettos and electric pianos and wah-wahs (and songs that sounded so much like kd lang they gave her a co-writing credit!).
So I’m making a list of their Top 50 songs. This is my list. Stuff I think is best, most important, most ridiculous, most Stones. Happy birthday Rolling Stones. May your next few years be better than your past 30.
1. “SHATTERED” (1978) No one else in the world could have made this song. When the Stones played this on Saturday Night Live in 1978, wafer-thin Mick Jagger was actually scary. Coked-up, bizarre, ripping his shirt open, he spoke-rap-yelled his way through what may be the most original pop song ever recorded. The breathless studio version is better, of course. It’s built off a couple repetitive notes, and anchored with a throwback doo-woppy “ah, shadoobay” – delivered blissfully in monotone. Mick, eyeing punk angst, delivers great passages in this New York City anthem (“people dress in plastic bags… some kind of fashion”). There’s that unexpected musical break at 1:24 with hand-claps, steel guitars, extra tom-toms. Reggae guitar pickings come in subtly at 2:25. Other than Keith’s rare use of effects on the chugging guitar base, the rest feels EQ-free, just the energy of the room plugged straight into the board and occasionally popping into the red (eg Mick’s “sex and sex and sex and sex!” line). For your next listen, give full focus to Charlie Watts’ inspired drumming. Particularly the song’s final 30 seconds, beginning with a sudden snare fill, a piercing open-high-hat crash on the unexpected “three-and” beat, then huddled toms fills with more high-hat crashes, and finally ending it – and the great album Some Girls – on a ringing crash.
2. “JUMPIN’ JACK FLASH” (1968) In May 1968, the Rolling Stones decided to stop trying to follow the Beatles, and finally left them behind (perhaps because of this goofy video). This song, wow, is built around, more or less, a remade “Satisfaction” riff, but comes off nothing like it. It marks the true birth of the “Rolling Stones” Rolling Stones, nearly six years into their career. They’ve played it live more than any other song, but all live versions pale to the gutsy studio original, a pure sonic treasure that never appeared on a studio album. Guitars sound like ringing electrics, but are just acoustics Keith Richards records via an overloaded tape player. Best is the debut of the Stones’ patented layered outro, where a progression is built to finish the last minute of a song (see “Tumbling Dice,” “Ain’t Too Proud to Beg,” many others). Here, listen as the low “jumping jack flash, it’s a gas…” chant begins at 2:45, following the meaty bass-line hook and open chords; then – and this is beautiful – that doubled harmonica holding a sustained note seven seconds later, continuing as high guitar pickings come in, then make room for a duel with the organ. Obladi, obladon’t.
3. “GIMME SHELTER” (1969) Forget devils and midnight ramblers, “Gimme Shelter” will always be the Stones’ most terrifying song. An ode of dread cast over the ‘60s sun, released in that decade’s final weeks, starts spooky with Keith’s doubled guitar, one dragging slightly behind the other. But it’s the duet with Merry Clayton, a gospel singer born on Christmas who recorded the original version of “The Shoop Shoop Song (It’s in His Kiss)” in 1963, that gives such an apocalyptic feel. Unknown to many today, Clayton has had a few other big moments, including singing backups on Skynyrd’s “Sweet Home Alabama.” She recorded a dynamic version of “Shelter” for herself a year later, surprising as the Stones version was so grueling for her that she apparently suffered a miscarriage shortly after the recording.
4. “TUMBLING DICE” (1972) When a millennial asks you for the quick gist of what the Rolling Stones are, put this one on. It’s not the flashiest, or biggest, or most meaningful. But it sure is Stonesy: a horn-filled single with quick rhymes of gambling metaphors and lovely backing vocal singers. At 2:25 in, focus on Keith’s outro guitar (beginning to right, then doubled on left). He plays a 10-note riff broken into three parts: a bright two-beat beacon, followed by a subtler two-fer lift-off, and the dragged triplet heading left down the neck, and done twice. Quintessential Keith, quintessential Stones. Then the band gradually rises around it: with big saxes, bass drums then toms, backing vocal chorus, Mick riffing on vox, a third chorus layer (Keith-led) of “you got to roll me,” as Charlie moves from the toms to the ride, and a steel guitar filling the holes. It builds and builds, then fades out. They make a mess of their stew, at times, but really no one else could have made this.
5. “HONKY TONK WOMEN” (1969)This song is perfect. Three minute and two seconds built off a pre–Run DMC rap beat, peppered with cowbell and an irresistible countrified chorus. The guitars sound beautiful, leaving restrained, gaping holes filled with that constant drumbeat. It’s remarkable to hear how good it was when Mick and Keith actually sang together, particularly when Keith reaches for those high notes on the “give me” choruses. I once tried to sample that wonderful opening beat, by crudely putting a mic on my stereo speaker and looping it by guess-work on a four-track, to trial an East Village ‘90s rap song. It was called “Honk-Tonk.” And it failed unspectacularly.
|The Charlie/Bill glance is rock-video genre’s finest moment
6. “START ME UP” (1981) The lead-off single from 1981’s Tattoo You was an accident, pieced together from previous recordings of a discarded reggae incarnation. You know the product, and how good those guitars sound (they make me think of cedar for some reason; maybe linked to the cedar chips in my hamster Davenport’s cage). But listen next time for three things: 1) Charlie’s deceptively jarring lead-in: a simple reverted, snare-bass drum-bass drum-snare intro that’s A-B-C easy, yet can make you stumble; 2) Ron Wood’s guitar “solo” economically filling the gaps of the second verse, rather than demanding its own section; and 3) Mick’s WONDERFUL elongation of “I’ll take you to places that you never never seen… AY-EE-AY-AYYN” at the 2:45 mark. Easily my favorite single Mick moment of the past 50 years. And don’t get me started on how delicious the $250 video is.
7. “SATISFACTION” (1965) Rolling Stone magazine dubbed this the #1 rock song of all time, calling the guitar riff the rock equivalent of Beethoven’s Fifth. As riffs, I admit, it could beat up you and your dad. But the song to me, sure it’s great, but it’s just not yet a fully gelled “Rolling Stones” (eg Charlie wouldn’t have done that frantic double-beat by 1968 – and in fact didn’t; he never plays it that way live). But why nit-pick? One of my favorite Stones moments comes at 2:33, at the end of the third “I can’t get no Satisfaction” refrain, when a single burst of noise pops the gap after “and I try, and I try, and I try” – then, if you listen, a loud BLATT! For years, I thought – or rather hoped – that Brian Jones snuck in the studio to hit a low-register note on a baritone sax there, but it’s just Keith stepping on the distortion box early. Perfectly timed. When I hear the song now, though, I usually picture Laurence Fishburne dancing on that boat deck in “Apocalypse Now.” And then he died.
8. “BEAST OF BURDEN” (1978) Mick Taylor, who played lead guitar from 1969 to 1974, is unquestionably superior player to either Keith or Taylor’s replacement, Ron Wood, who was born to be a Stone. But Taylor’s era usually led to songs that kept apart rhythm and lead guitars at playtime. With Ron, came – as Keith put it – the “ancient weaving” guitar style where “lead” and “rhythm” merge into a messy, delicious smoothie of no boundaries. It rarely works better than here, particularly in the final minute (or in stretched-out versions during that year’s tour — wow). It’s also worth noting Mick’s comically, baiting-by-falsetto “ain’t I tough enough?” at 2:59.
9. “LOVING CUP” (1972) The Rolling Stones have always been one of the world’s worst bridge makers. In most of their first 18 years, they did the whole verse/chorus/building outro like kings, but too often an obligatory verse feels tacked on – particularly in Mick’s later songs. This rather obscure one though, a beauty for all its 4:24, conceals one of the Stones’ greatest crafted 60-second breaks in its 50 years. I want you to listen to it. As the bridge begins at 2:00 in, the music drops to high-hat and cacophony on horns, building to piano and acoustic, Charlie lazy on the beat, with Mick following his passive “I feel your mouth kissing me again” with the – no other word for it — soaring “what a beautiful buzz.” It leads to a verse-line finale, with Keith doubling every word, “I’m nitty, gritty, and my shirt’s all torn, but I’d love to spill the beans with you till dawn.” Sure, it’s silly reading it out of context, but it’s capping a spellbound minute of layered parts building to the song’s terrific outro of syncopated horns, “gimme little drink” chants, boogie pianos and, if you listen closely, steel drums. By the way, anyone know what a loving cup is?
10. “SWEET VIRGINIA” (1972) The lead-off of the sublime countrified second side of Exile on Main Street would be a household name if not for the radio-unfriendly “got to scrape the sh*t right off your shoes” chorus. It sounds like a dozen or more people are leaning in to a single mic in the sweaty basement of Keith’s French mansion where much of the album was recorded. An opening harmonica lead over acoustic guitar pickings leads to Mick’s ragged vocals, that soon get echoed with a light sax line, and make memorable thanks to California grapes for saving French wine. Note how Charlie pops the snare behind the beat for Nashville effect. I have no idea who leads the last round of the chorus (or whoever says “far out” during the fade out). Considering the state of things – done deep in Keith’s heroin years – I bet no one does.
11. “STREET FIGHTING MAN” (1968) This is better than any of us credit it for. Built off Keith’s overloaded, furiously strummed acoustic guitars, the Stones follow a “Jumping Jack Flash” template a few months later – down to the sonic drone of a lone sax during the outro, and Bill Wyman’s bass filling the progression of the chorus/outro. Without that eery crackle of pychedelia peppering the choruses (or perhaps Charlie’s toy drum kit used here), this song never sounds good live.
12. “LOVE IN VAIN” (1970/1978/1995) Re-listening to Robert Johnson’s original from 1937, you hear how much the Stones changed it, with added lyrics and an entirely new music structure. Either way, it’s fantastic – Keith’s acoustic work reminds you he actually knows how to play guitar well and Mick gives particular care and emotion to this live, instead of his usual hit-the-rafters campy shout. And do look for live versions. The recently released “Some Girls – Live in Texas” (1978) DVD/CD is better than the more famous one from 1970’s Get Your Ya-Ya’s Out. Also surprisingly effective is the version from the weird in-studio Stripped live album from 1995, with Keith messing up the beginning and demanding to re-do it. “I hate it when I don’t get that in.” And hear how he taps the acoustic with his skull ring deeper in.
12. “YOU GOT THE SILVER” (1969) Few Stones songs are built like this, on masterful acoustic play by Keith, with background organ and surprisingly distorted slide guitar as it goes. The drums only fully appear 115 seconds into the 175-second song. The real majesty though, of Keith’s song to Anita Pallenberg, is that he got to sing it at all. First versions were of Mick, though they were lost after he bolted to shoot the so-so “Ned Kelly” in Australia (bootlegs show how much better Keith was suited for it). And of Keith’s many lead vocals, I’m not sure any can compare. “You Got the Silver” is also the last Stones recording to include Brian Jones (on autoharp), who died a few months after it was recorded.
16. “LET IT BLEED” (1969) Can we finally admit how awful the Beatles song “Let It Be” is? It is awful. This feisty acoustic song, meanwhile, is a completely unplanned piss-take at litle Paul’s little Mother Mary anthem. It is vastly superior. It’s almost futile to compare. By the way, if this had been recorded in any year but 1968 or 1969 would have been directed by a electrified Telecaster.
17. “EMOTIONAL RESCUE” (1980) This meatless sandwich of a song is both laugh-out-loud hilarious and impossible to emulate. I first heard it by pilfering Kristy Dalby’s collection. It’s so barebone. You get Charlie on high-hat and bass drum, some spidery bass then that sparing electronic piano slide on the 7 and 8 beat, a bit of percussive guitar as the songs builds, but it’s all driven with Mick’s absurd, dynamic falsetto lead, which persists for the songs first 2:28, often dueling with a sax. I remember smiling, eyes closed, with my chunky headphones on when Mick finally dropped an octave for that “yeah, I was cha-a-a-anging last night,” and his echoed, spoken-word “hmm, yessss, you could be mine… I’ll be your knight in shining armor…” It was hypnosis to this young Oklahoman. And it’s better than “Miss You,” even if it’s a copycat.
18. “NO EXPECTATIONS” (1968) Mick’s sedate lamenting of leaving – by either train or plane, he doesn’t seem to care – is a rare sit-down song from a stand-up band. It’s surprisingly obscure – given that folks like Johnny Cash, Waylon Jennings, Joan Baez and Beck have covered it. There’s no drums. Charlie just hits the clavet to keep the acoustic guitars together (Brian Jones’ slide work is his last great Stones moment). I used to think that line “turn pearls to swine” was a Jagger creation, too bad.
19. “SYMPATHY FOR THE DEVIL” (1968) When Mrs Gunn had us read poetry in speech class at Byrd Junior High, I asked if it were OK if I read a Stones song about a devil instead. “Sounds interesting,” the Tulsa public schools teacher replied. So I did. But the Stones only put lyrics inside their albums once the albums got bad (beginning with 1986’s terrible Dirty Work), and there was no Internet searches, so listening and relistening, I tried to transcribe historical references that evaded by eighth-grade education (again, Tulsa public schools). Troubadors? I didn’t even know how to spell Lucifer. I butchered so many lines, so when I hear it now, I’m remember murmuring a few during class. It’s easy to see 21st-century Stones as caricatures of themselves and forget they were once subversive. Jean Luc Godard immortalized the evolution of this song in his weird One Plus One documentary that mixed Stones studio footage with black supremacists terrorizing blonde English girls. Then when bearded Birminghamian Chuck Leavell took over keyboards for the band, and directing songs, for bad albums and big tours in the ‘80s, he had the nerve to add a digitized triangle in this song – the crime is for all to hear on the tepid live album Flashpoint). Seriously: A song about the devil has fake triangle! Chuck. Must. Be. Fired.
20. “MIDNIGHT RAMBLER” (LIVE) (1970) The stop/starts were built for the stage, the Let It Bleed studio version feels empty. Look for the 1972 bootlegs of this song on that tour, breaking 12 minutes – the Stones were never like that before/after.
21. KEITH’S DRUNK VERSION OF “NEARNESS OF YOU” (circa 1981) If there’s any hope of the Stones making anything worth hearing again, it rests with Keith, a piano, and no one around but a lone engineer to hit the “record” button. Hearing his “Learning to Game” bootleg, you can sense a nearby bottle of bourbon and a several spent butts in the ashtray. The best of this remarkable illegal recording, and most unexpected, is the inclusion of this Hoagy Carmichael ballad from 1938, which has been recorded by dozens of artists including Ella Fitzgerald and Norah Jones. (Keith would revive it with the Stones, less effectively, in 2002, but this rugged live take, singing alone on piano, is a gift to those wading past anti-piracy ethics.)
22. “WORRIED ABOUT YOU” (1981) The Rolling Stones aren’t really known for their guitar solos. And their best — I’d argue — isn’t by a Stone at all. It comes buried in this lost song, opening side two of their last great album, Tattoo You. The vocals are inspired – carrying on the falsetto torch from 1976’s “Fool to Cry,” “1978’s “Miss You,” 1980’s “Emotional Rescue” – and starting sparse with open chords and electric piano, and building energy with sly guitar noodles and peppy drums. Then it explodes open at the 2:46 mark, as a stunning guitar solo fills 34 entire seconds, a decadent span for this band. The man behind it is a session player named Wayne Perkins, as it dates from mid-70s sessions where the Stones tried him out for a replacement to Mick Taylor.
|Who’s that guy?
23. “WAITING ON A FRIEND” (1981) People like Bobby H— said this song was “gay” in 1981 (“I’m not waiting on a lady, I’m just waiting on a friend”). I always loved it. The reverbed guitars and shuffling beat, relaxed, melancholy – dating from eight-year-old sessions – mark a sad salute, as the band’s last good Rolling Stones album faded to a close. Even the sax sounds good. When I moved to New York City, years later, I lived briefly on E 2nd St, now Joey Ramone Place; one of the first things I did was walk to St Mark’s and 1st Ave, and follow the trail of Mick and Keith in the hilarious unpolished video, where they meet on the stoop of the building Led Zeppelin used for their Physical Graffiti album, and swagger down to St Mark’s Bar – where Mick did that absurd dance, Ron drank in a boy scout’s shirt, and Charlie and a visibly drunk Bill goofed off farther down the bar. By the way, if anyone knows who the blond guy in the window is, and why Keith snickers and points at him, can you let me know?
24. “IMAGINATION” (1978/1982) OK, the Stones’ original cover version of this Motown classic, from Some Girls in 1978, is precious and – I’ll go ahead and say it — better than the original, done with a twang, some steel guitars, and a punky spirit. But I have a soft spot for it live too, particularly from 1982’s Still Life, with Mick’s throaty vocal, juicy guitar sounds, some acceptable over-the-top SNL sax action, and a fun trompe l’ear moment at the 1:47 mark. Listen for it. Piercing the mix, a single bell that sounds exactly like the doorbell in my childhood Tulsa home. Every time I’d hear it, I’d throw off the chunky headphones, dart off my fake leather recliner on my checkerboard-carpet room and run downstairs to find no one at the door. Not even a chocolate Pop Tart–brown UPS truck bringing my mail-order of fake vomit or magic tricks discovered on the back of a comic book. Must have been just a stray keyboard note. It’s definitely not a mind trick running away from me. It’s there.
25. “DANDELION” (1967) The thing about Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band – the great so-called psychedelic album by the Beatles – is that it isn’t psychedelic. “When I’m Sixty Four”? “I Get By with a Little Help From my Friends”? That goofy title track? And as wrong as the Rolling Stones’ lame attempt to cut-and-paste that thunder with Their Satanic Majesties Request might be, it is actually fascinating in how far the Stones were willing to go down that the real Lucy in the Sky of Diamonds road. It would have been better if the album had been more in line with this peppy obscure B-side to a dreary obscure A-side (“We Love You”). “Dandelion” is good. Brian Jones is on on oboe, there’s bigger-than-usual drums by Charlie, and it’s rumored John and Paul singing the backups (the “ahhs” and ending “dand-EE-line” sure sounds like them – and maybe they purposely hit that flat note at the 2:00 mark). Psychedelic music, thankfully, had just a year or so in the sun. I wouldn’t have minded a bit more of this version.
26. “ROCKS OFF” (1972) The Stones kick-off their lone double studio album, and an infamous year of sex, drugs, rock’n’roll, with this strained classic, with inspired interplay between chugging, ‘50s-rock guitars and Mick’s weathered vocals focusing on pirouettes in all the wrong places and really boring sunshine, Mick confesses he “only get my rocks off when I’m sleeping.” The guy’s tired. Note how Mick’s vocals gets lost in rising guitars and horns of the chorus, probably an accidental metaphor, apt of the mood, even if it may have kept this from being a better known song.
27. “YOU CAN’T ALWAYS GET WHAT YOU WANT” (1969) The reason it warrants a Top 50 mention, other than being so great, isn’t the overblown choral backups, Keith’s terrific electric picking after Mick’s first chorus, or even the French horn melody early on, but Mick’s bizarre Chelsea drugstore scene in the third verse. Where the narrator meets an eery “Mr Jimi” and has a “cherry red” soda with him, before Mr Jimi reviews the song with one word, “dead.” Guessing it’s about drugs?
28. “BROWN SUGAR” (1971) Look, it’s a classic. But, the #1 hit about slaver rapists, was never my favorite. Written by Jagger, it’s one of the Stones’ most orchestrated, structured songs – like how Lynyrd Skynyrd’s, Eric Clapton’s or Eagles’ “blues” always feel too careful. Listen to how the acoustic comes in perfect synchronicity as Charlie obediently switches from toms to the ride and Mick Taylor strums his electric. Stones never are that precise. Even at its looser, irresistible “yeah yeah yeah woo” ending, and it’s good, everything (the sax lines, the boogie woogie piano) is in the proper place Jagger put it. And I just can’t stand that a song like this with a full sax solo.
29. “SOMETHING HAPPENED TO ME YESTERDAY” (1967) Back when we made mix tapes, I’d started every incarnation of my unasked-for “Stupid Rolling Stones Songs” with this downright fun mess that ended the Between the Buttons album. Sung like a childhood TV show, with advice to wear white when riding your bike at night, there’s horns, and wink-winks, and some nice lines Keith gets to sing on his own. Very British, very campy, very much Paul McCartneyish. I think they had to get it out of their system.
30. “THE SINGER NOT THE SONG” (1965) I was the second worst baseball player on the Francis Scott Key Cobras in 5th grade. Alfie Mizer was the worst. They stuck us in the farthest depths of the outfield – Alfie in center, me in left. One day in a grudge match against Grissom, a rare high fly ball flew over the second baseman towards Alfie. Stumbling over his oversized cleats, Alfie ran forward, glove extended. I remember thinking how cool it was that he was actually going to try. Then, just as the ball was about to drop into the field’s clumps of weeds and red ant hills, he caught it! His only catch of his two-season career. We mobbed him in center field, right then and there, two outs into the bottom of the fourth inning. This great little lost song somehow reminds me of that.
31. “THIEF IN THE NIGHT” (1997) Since 1981, pretty much only the Keith songs – on solo or Stones albums — are ever worth hearing. And in this span, Keith has increasingly done with vocals what he used to do with guitars: blending one part over the other, upsetting the normal balance of lead here, back-up there. This dreamy song prods slyly forth off Charlie’s ringing ride cymbal, with much coming/going – a little acoustic guitar lead, a vibrato open-chord on electric, a lasting sax note. Most of all, it’s how the back-ups play off Keith’s low-key vocal. Mick is absent.
32. “UNDER MY THUMB” (1966) Built off a gimmick – Brian Jones on marimba – the song works so well for how it doesn’t hurry. Keith plays off three-chord acoustic strumming, with some select piercing notes on electric, while Charlie settles into a relaxed groove before, curiously, dropping out for the modest guitar solo. I never really understood the expression of its title. Must be a very small woman.
33. “MISS YOU” (1978) The “disco song” was the Stones’ last #1 single. And never my favorite. Its R&B groove wears you out after the years, but it has to be in the Top 50 for one reason: Mick’s ad-libbish, rambling verses: “hey, what’s the matter man? We’re gonna come around at 12 with some Puerto Rican girls that are just dyyyyying to meetchoo” and “I’ve been walking Central Park, singing after dark, people think I’m cra-zy…. Asking me, what’s the matter wich you bo-oy?” Yes, Mick Jagger >Styx.
34. “SHE’S SO COLD” (1980) One day at Byrd Junior High’s lunch hour, I looked up from my sandwich and straight into the face of Todd Hutchens, who once had his mom drive over to buy my Death Star toy set. And I asked what music was playing. “Uh…” – and he really did sound like Butthead – “that’s the Rolling Stones.” Disgusted, I looked back to my sandwich and forgot all about it. That was where my Stones mania began, reluctantly, and it was “She’s So Cold,” a fun throw-away single from a fun throw-away album. Built as a replica of “Shattered” – with a chugging weave of untreated guitars, an unexpected musical break mid-way through – and adding on a hilarious horn chorus chiming a solo note at 1:59 for no reason. Mick is good here too. The whole “put your hand on the heat” and “when you’re ollllddd…” stuff. Listen how Keith’s rhythmic guitars in the left ear pierce the gaps Mick leaves open. This is still a great band in 1980. Todd Hutchens, I just want to thank you.
35. “SHE’S A RAINBOW” (1967) The best of the psychedelic misfire Their Satanic Majesties Request, this one – saved by Nicky Hopkins’ piano – is a little lost single, with a Cubist construction that balances violin breaks with popping drums, trumpets and Keith’s outmatched “ooh la las.” In all, it’s as huggable as a box of puppies. I first heard it at 15 before basketball practice. Then I listened again. And then I was late to basketball practice. And doing laps with Keith’s out-matched backups ringing in my ears. By the way, I stole Bryan Rittenberry’s dad’s (valuable) 3D-edition of the album cover. Still got it.
36. “LET ME GO” (1980) I love this song. I love it. And I know it’s not very good. But the band has fun. Solos are good, Charlie rides the ride through the verses, and stop/starts fills mid-way through bars for no particular reason other than doing so is so much fun. And Mick stretches syllables in a faintly country voice with some of the lyrics hitting new depths of lazy (“so you think I’m giving you the brush off? I’m just telling you to shove off!”). And, as in “When the Whip Comes Down” two years before, Mick flirts with “gay bars” on the “west side of town.” I guess whatever it takes to get this lassie to please please please… let… the… poor… man… go. By the way, the live version on 1982’s underrated Still Life is excellent.
37. “PRODIGAL SON” (1968) I used to throw papers. Some houses sent in checks, others didn’t, so you’d have to go “collect.” Mostly I didn’t care – checks didn’t feel like money – but some houses paid in cash. So whenever I needed a new Stones record, I’d bike over to the duplexes, who always seemed to pay the in cash, I’d pocket the $12 owed, ride to Buttons Records, and buy one. Once I returned, probably age 14, with the white cover version of Beggar’s Banquet and Bryan Rittenberry was waiting to play Intelevision hockey. I accidentally put on side two first, as the puck hit the ice. First: “Street Fighting Man,” sure – I knew that from Hot Rocks. Score: 1-0, me. Then this, 2:52 of the Stones’ rawest acoustic blues, sounding like it was recorded by a lone mic. Just Charlie’s high-hat, harmonica wavering in the distance, Keith’s open tuned acoustic, then – the reason to listen – Keith letting go a joyous “hey-ye!” just before it ends, his only vocal contribution. Whoa. Bryan gets an unfair-through-goalie-legs equalizer here (1-1), but only because I had to get up and move the needle back to hear it again. I didn’t really remember when I bothered to learn what “Prodigal Son” meant. But I am certain I won the hockey game.
38. “ALL ABOUT YOU” (1980) This is the most heart-breaking song you’ve never heard. Just listening to it, and few do, may feel like reading someone else’s mail and finding a forlorn, tear-soaked, angry, sad farewell. Because it is. After a decade of decadence – heroin, a dead baby, various busts and bruises – Keith and Anita Pallenberg break up, and he makes this pained ballad loose, with ribs showing, a lounge song for an empty room, ever a beat away from complete collapse. The main guitar sticks mostly with two strings, Charlie pit-pats lightly, swelling horns come and go obscurely, and the great backing chorus is notably free from Mick (listen to the tasty faux-echoed “you get, you get, you get, you get, you get” at the end). Keith lays out some abuse along the way (“I’m so sick and tired of hanging around with jerks like you”), but then comes the surprise heartbreaker to end it, and the album: “so how come I’m still in love with you?”
39. “AIN’T TOO PROUD TO BEG” (1974) The last 75 seconds – where the band finally gets clicked in, split guitars start to meld, organs and pianos crisscross, Charlie leaning forward in his seat as the beat pushes its double-beat faster — is the freshest, most inspired the Stones sounded in the abyss that is 1973 to 1977, or the years between Exile on the Main Street and Some Girls. Maybe because it’s a Temps cover.
40. “IT’S ONLY ROCK’N’ROLL” (1974) This really embarrasses the Who’s “Long Live Rock” by saying a lot more by not being so damn dramatic. The song reads as a conversation between the adored rock band and the audience, as Jagger wonders if he needs to kill himself on stage to “satisfy” or “ease the pain” of an audience demanding more and more in the post-60s, pre-punk era of glam and funk. The subtlety of the music gets sometimes lost by the demanding chorus and extended outro. Listen closely, particularly in the verses – where the best of the song resides: a trio of Chuck Berry guitars driven forward over a couple acoustic guitars. Note how the song starts, backing in, with a snare popping over a tentative acoustic. The Stones never do it that way live, unfortunately, likely because it’s so unusual and hard to reproduce.
41. “PLAY WITH FIRE” (1965) Do you think Bruce Springsteen sort of had this in mind for his song “I’m On Fire” from 1985? The 100-second song with a three-and-a-half-minute video and the weird storyline of car mechanic Bruce getting picked up by a (never-shown) lady heiress who has a home in St John’s Wood? I remember thinking when Bruce turned, with a grin, and didn’t ring her bell, that the guy had a long walk home. (And that he’s not a half bad actor.) Sort of like Robert DeNiro did at the end of the film “Midnight Run.” The Stones were good when they went broody like this.
42. THE LAST THREE SONGS OF GOATS HEAD SOUP: “WINTER,” “CAN YOU HEAR THE MUSIC?” & “STAR STAR” (1973) I’ve been a long apologist for side two of the dud of a Goat’s Head Soup album, particularly the last three songs. The orchestrated, melancholy “Winter” almost works. Mick Taylor lays out big-time solos (Keith’s likely not on the song, nor the next) and Jagger has some fun deliveries: “I’m gonna wrap my coat around-jjjyaaa, wo-mannn!” This is followed by a song so dumb you can’t but help and give it a wide-eyed car-wreck glance. A chorus of flutes start “Can You Hear the Music?” before leading to an over-effected guitars and organs, and meanders for five minutes. You’re rewarded for your effort, if you’re still there, with the follow-up: a Chuck Berryish pisstake of groupie life with a rousing and inspired “Star Star” (aka “Starf*cker”), which gets specific on Polaroid antics and Steve McQueen’s lower appeal. (You do know the song, don’t you?) On it’s own it’s pretty good; after suffering side two to get this closer, it sounds like an all-timer.
43. “HANG FIRE” (1981) More books should be 128 pages, and more songs should be two minutes and 21 seconds. And this song, the second single from Tattoo You, is two minutes and 21 seconds. It’s not very ambitious – a ‘50s-style number, charging with some post-punk urgency, a weird guitar solo Mick sings over, a bit of goofing on Elvis, and some fun “doo da doo-doo” back-ups. But after hearing it, no matter where you are or how many unpaid traffic tickets you have, you feel a little bit better. Hey! In the video, Mick turns to Keith when he sings “we just lost our shirt” and both smile. Anyone know why? I used to spin the vinyl backwards to see if there was a secret message. It sounded about the as Ozzy’s “Suicide Solution” does backwards: undecipherable crap.
45. “BLUE TURNS TO GREY” (1965) This lost song has a cult following, and is surely a keeper of the few melancholy Stones songs, initially written for the Mighty Avengers then popped up on the Stones’ half-baked December’s Children (and Everybody’s) album. It’s written, like so many early Beatles songs, of the viewpoint of one bloke reassuring another (“she loves you” mate), with Mick and Keith insisting, as 12-string guitar jangles through the verses, “you just don’t feel good” but that “you must find her, find her, find her.” Its very vulnerability – contrary to Mick’s typical-of-the-time “stupid girl” bravado – not only suggests there’s a deeper blue than blue, but that this one came from Keith.
46. “SHORT AND CURLIES” (1974) I nearly spit out my Coca-Cola slurpee when I heard this the first time. What? You can build a song off little pizza-parlor pianos and the lyric “too bad! she’s got you by the balls”? Balls! She certainly doesn’t sound like a very nice person.
47. “WHAT TO DO” (1966) Playing off early ‘60s pop songs by lesser bands, even stooping for a “bow bow bow bow” back-up, this unassuming closer of the UK version of Aftermath is just cute as can be. Particularly as it wraps up and Ian Stewart quarter-notes two piano notes to nice effect (to right in mix).
48. “WHO’S BEEN SLEEPING HERE?” (1967) The opening 15 seconds of this song are lovely – a tinkly acoustic takes form as a hum of harmonica passes, like morning birds, and a feedback guitar ebbs menacingly to suggest not all is well this foggy morning. This is the most ambitious architecture on their most British album, Between the Buttons, with its parceled mix of pianos, acoustics, feedback, pianos. Since the midnight rendezvous, quite-English cast includes butlers, brigadiers and cavaliers – Mick had clearly been listening to Dylan’s character-driven songs from his first electric albums — the folks over at “Downton Abbey” oughta use this for next season’s TV promos. I’d buy their stupid DVD and t-shirts if they did.
49. “100 YEARS AGO” (1973) If I could steal a Stones song, call it my own, I’m taking this. It wouldn’t be missed. One of their more goofball efforts: built in three individual parts. The first, with funk organ and some wah-wahs, is built around Mick’s dictum “don’t you think it’s wise not to grow up?” Then the funkier middle – with Mick Taylor wah-wahing a solo and no discernible lyrical theme. The music suddenly ducks, and Mick sings, “please excuse me while I hide away…” (the “please” gets to me) then segways into a brief, unnecessary passage with Mick pleading “call me lazy bones,” before dancing into a heavier funk-organ exploding outro. Seriously, I bet Keith’s never heard it, much less played on it. Guys, can I have it?
50. “SEND IT TO ME” (1980) This is a pretty bad reggae song you probably didn’t know existed (and I doubt most of the band remembers it either). It’s here because it’s fun, and Mick is hilarious. Catch the quick, spoken-word opening: “I think I had enough! Religion’s tough! It’s a state of mind, I don’t neeeeed it!” Then the stretched-out final verse, where Mick makes his call-out plea a next-door factory girl: “she could be Romanian, she could be Bulgarian, she could be Albanian, she could be Hungarian, she could be Ukrainian, she could be Australian, she could be the alien! Send her to me.” That he tacks on Australia, and aliens, to a tour of the Soviet bloc cracks me up. Particularly when since I work for a company based in Melbourne.
I love even bad Stones songs when the band was still good. Happy 50.