Best Group: The Rolling Stones

Ladies and Gentlemen, The Rolling Stones (on Vinyl)!

By Dave Thompson

If you’re any kind of Rolling Stones completist, but the music-buying budget isn’t what it used to be, this probably isn’t something you wanted to hear. Hot on the heels of (deep breath) Keith Richards’ autobiography and The Wingless Angels album; the deluxe edition of “Exile on Main Street” and the revamp of “Get Yer Ya-Ya’s Out,” the “Ladies and Gentlemen” concert DVD, “Stones In Exile” and so on and so forth, the news that two further box sets are on their way can only leave you staring hopefully at Santa, and trusting that you’ve been really nice, and not at all naughty this year.

In fact, box sets may not be quite the word we are looking for. These two packages are more like milk crates. No less than 30 slices of 180-gram vinyl, each resplendent in heavyweight sleeves, and bound in custom packaging, this is the entire Stones studio catalog reinvented for a modern age that wants to remember the golden days. Two U.K.-only EPs tap into the rarities market, two London-era hits collections let you play favorites with the sixties material, half a dozen later albums (spread across 10 sides of vinyl) allow you to rediscover the band’s Eighties, Nineties and Noughties output. And, finally, the vinyl format allows you to experience the albums as they were each once intended, including those delicious few moments of crossing the room to turn the disc over at the end of Side One.

But we’re all grownups here … we know our Stones oldies. There’s a lot of bang for your buck in these boxes, but does every record demand to be replayed? Or are there Stones LPs already on your shelf that you simply haven’t gone back to since the day you first bought them?

Mick Jagger onstage. AP photo

There are, and the box set sensibly avoids a lot of them. There are no compilations beyond “Through The Past Darkly,” which is harsh for fans of “Sucking In The Seventies” and “Flowers,” but does spare us the makeweight muddle of “Made In The Shade,” “Rolled Gold,” “40 Licks” and so forth. Live albums, too, are omitted, so there’s no need to add another copy of “Love You Live” to the list of LPs you never listen to.
And, of the rest… well, modern remastering techniques may or may not be all that they’re cracked up to be, and if you expressed any disappointment whatsoever with the London catalog’s last relaunch, as SACDs in 2002, then the vinyl’s not going to make you feel any better. The same masters were utilized this time, as well.

But, let’s assume that you do get the boxes … or, you go to your record rack and just pull down your old copies. The only question left to answer is, which albums should you play first? In that case, Goldmine’s guide to the Stones’ best vinyl starts here… >>>

The Rolling Stones
Year zero in terms of the band’s long-playing career and still one of the most exhilarating debuts any group ever made. You can hear the Stones’ hunger; you can feel producer/manager Andrew Loog Oldham’s ambition. No matter that both sides of the mixing desk were learning as they went, that the Stones had no more idea what they were doing than the man charged with ensuring they did it. Still, the end result defies all belief.

The first Stones album, the one that subtitled “England’s Newest Hit Makers,” kicks off with the latest of those hits, a Bo Diddley drive-through a Buddy Holly classic, and then motors straight into the heart of R&B 101 — the songs that every British beat band worth its salt was hammering out nightly in the length and breadth of the country, but each one given such a definitive revamp that even the originals sound wan by comparison. Bobby Troupe’s “Route 66” came on the radio while I was writing this, and it was laughable … a gentle day out on a bicycle somewhere, compared to the Stones’ celebration of speeding chrome, the wind in your hair, and a brand-new world flashing past the windscreen.

And why is that? Why, almost without exception, were the British Invaders better placed to sell American music back to the States? Because the Stones (and the rest of the Brit pack) didn’t see America as the Americans did; they saw it only through the multitudinous prisms of romance, raunch and imagination. “The Rolling Stones” is the Promised Land before the wheels came off it, a world of boundless imagination and immensity, distilled into a dozen slabs of short, sharp shock.

So pump it up, and if you’ve got it in mono … now you’re talking.

Aftermath
The Stones had already started songwriting the previous year, but “Aftermath” was the first album to prove what great writers they were — even if Keith, in his autobiography, does still wonder quite why manager Oldham decided to pair him with Jagger as a songwriting partner, when Mick and Brian Jones would have made far more sense. Oldham’s instincts were correct, though, and “Aftermath” is the album that proved it.

“Mother’s Little Helper” gets us rolling and stoned, “Stupid Girl,” “Under My Thumb,” “Out Of Time,” “Doncha Bother Me” and “Take It Or Leave It” let us know the type of boys we’re dealing with here. This has become renowned as the Stones’ misogyny album, and it might well be — certainly there’s a swaggering male arrogance here that only the early Stranglers ever came close to recapturing, but there’s also the grudging admission that man needs to be strong, because woman is ultimately stronger… “Lady Jane,” “It’s Not Easy”…

Buddy Holly resurfaces in the shape of the doomed “Flight 505,” but the king of this castle is “Going Home,” a half-side devouring blues song that almost lurches into jam territory and was, until Dylan went one better with “Sad Eyed Lady of the Lowlands,” the longest single rock song ever recorded.

And that’s why you need to hear this on vinyl. Because, after a workout like that wraps up Side One, you need to stretch your legs just to get you back to reality.

Between the Buttons
In terms of songwriting, this is not the Stones’ finest hour; even the U.S. insertion of both sides of the latest single into the U.K. running order was not going to push the likes of “Miss Amanda Jones,” “Cool, Calm & Collected,” “She Smiled Sweetly” and the neo-surreal vaudeville of “Something Happened To Me Yesterday” into many people’s canon of top Stones songs. (Except for mine, I must admit, but that’s another story).

It’s the production that brings this LP to life, as Andrew Oldham finally stops trying to emulate Phil Spector and wonders what would happen if Spector emulated him. A smorgasbord of baroque belligerence, strings and things as prominent as either the band or the songs, this is the album that blows the rest of the 1960s so far out of the water. And for all the times that people have told you that the Stones’ next album, “Their Satanic Majesties Request,” was an attempt to recreate “Sgt. Pepper,” then what do you think Pepper set out to emulate? It was emulating this.

Beggars Banquet
In 1978, the Stones’ “Some Girls” album was widely regarded as a return to form, following the less-than-scintillating critical reactions to the last two or three studio sets. A decade earlier, “Beggars Banquet” fulfilled that same purpose — the big difference was, The Stones still agree with that declaration.

Their first album with producer Jimmy Miller, following the departure of Oldham from the scene, this is The Stones defining themselves as they redefined rock ’n’ roll; arguably, the next two or three years of hard-rocking blues would spiral out of “Beggars Banquet,” and if fans of a handful of pre-existing combos would dispute that, then listen to what your heroes were doing before they heard this album and what they were doing afterwards. End of debate.

Why do you want to hear this on vinyl first? Because “Sympathy For The Devil” demands it; because “Stray Cat Blues” insists on it; because “Dear Doctor” will lasso you and tie you to the stagecoach if you don’t. The secrets of “Beggars Banquet” lie not in the music, but in the spaces the music occupies, and untainted analog provides that space.

Let It Bleed
This is the first “old” Stones album I ever bought, once I’d picked up “Goat’s Head Soup” at the ripe old age of 13, and still the one that remains their quintessential disc — the menace of “Beggars Banquet” fed through a prism of knowing nastiness, layered with prophecies of the darkness that was to come.

There’s not a song on this album that sits comfortably on the psyche. Whether it’s the title track’s descent into a world of filthy basement apartments, or “Gimme Shelter”’s invocation of a world at war with itself, “Midnight Rambler” searching for new necks to break, or “You Can’t Always Get What You Want” sending innocent choirboys into the war zone, this is the album that transformed the Stones from a rock ’n’ roll band into a rock ’n’ rolling lifestyle.

And though it cannot be divorced from all the trials and tribulations that were just around the corner (this is the album they were recording when Jones died; this is the album they were promoting at Altamont) it stands so far apart from the rest of their future that everything that followed is still playing catch-up.

Sticky Fingers
The last installment of the series of interlocking sessions that began with “Beggars Banquet,” “Sticky Fingers” is the album usually held up as the band’s finest moment, by those of us who aren’t so keen on “Exile On Main Street.” And it’s a valid point. There’s nothing here so delightfully disheveled as “Ventilator Blues,” but Exile doesn’t have “Sister Morphine.” “Just Want To See His Face” is one of the band’s most evocative drifts, but “Wild Horses” is better still. And so on.

Grab the vinyl for the original Warhol zip that tore up all the records stacked on either side of this one… grab it, too, to hear “Brown Sugar” tasting just like she used to when she came out of the radio. But most of all, grab it for the sheer beauty of band and producer (Miller again) knowing exactly what they wanted to achieve.

Goats Head Soup
Are we talking about the best Stones albums? Or the best Stones vinyl? Sometimes, it’s hard to differentiate between the two. But we will — “Exile” doesn’t make this list, because it always sounded too crushed to these ears, as though the medium simply couldn’t keep up with the mud and the mayhem.

“Goat’s Head Soup,” on the other hand, does make it — and for the very same reason.

Recorded at Dynamic Sounds in Jamaica, one of the few top-line studios in the world that knew how to make the most from whatever was thrown at it, the soup is aptly named. “Coming Down Again,” “Winter” and “Can You Hear The Music” are almost drones in the distance, nyahbingi at a time before Keith had figured out what it was, so he led five suburban Englishmen through a crude approximation. “Dancing With Mr D,” “100 Years Ago” and “Doo Doo Doo Doo Doo (Heartbreaker)” are tougher, but they have a looseness still that has defied attempts to remaster them for digital; and even the standard rockers, “Silver Train” and “Star Star,” need wax, not aluminum, to make them stand out.

Plus — and this makes more of a difference than you might expect — if you find the vinyl, you might also find the greatest giveaway the Stones ever gave, a 12-inch square picture of some real goat’s head soup. Mine’s been on the wall for almost 40 years now and it still smells delicious.

Black and Blue
The peak of the Stones 1970s achievements — not because it’s amusing to be contrary and say that one of their least-loved LPs is actually their finest, nor even because we really need 10,000 letters of complaint, all insisting that “December’s Children” knocks this into oblivion. “Black And Blue” is brilliant because it made sense at the time.

It made sense in the context of the day’s radio. It made sense in terms of the Stones’ own development. And it made sense on the dance floor. If you were alive and well in 1976, and you didn’t fall in love at least once to “Hey Negrita”… “Hand Of Fate”… “Hot Stuff;” if you didn’t break your heart to “Fool To Cry” and “Memory Motel”… and if you didn’t feel that bass pounding out of the speakers and realize that The Stones had just made the best-sounding dance album of the age… well, you obviously have no soul.

The next few years would see an entire universe of rock artists embrace the disco movement, with The Stones among the most overt of them all. By those standards, early complaints that “Black and Blue” had gone disco are left sounding rather hollow. Rather, it is funk, it is dub, it is the midnight rambler beating his belt on the mirror ball above your head. What it isn’t is a record that you should even consider listening to on compact disc. You don’t only lose the frequencies, you lose the magic as well.

Some Girls/EmotionalRescue
We promised you 10, but these two are a package, recorded more or less side by side with one another (and with the execrable “Tattoo You” too — never have so many out-takes made so many faves lists), and largely indivisible when you hit the shuffle button. “Miss You,” which opens Some Girls, is the blockbuster, and if you have the 12-inch remix then you’ll know why the vinyl is so important. But “Dance” is just as dramatic, and the rest of both albums is fabulous too, from the swagger of “When The Whip Comes Down” to the tortured blues of “Down In The Hole,” from the sheer bravado of “Where The Boys All Go” to the country honk of “Far Away Eyes,” and on to the Bee Gees in the boondocks squalor of “Emotional Rescue” itself.

We observed earlier that, when “Some Girls” emerged, a lot of people seized upon it as The Stones’ return to form after a few discs of experimentation. It was, again alongside “Emotional Rescue,” their last gasp as well — no Stones LP since this pair has been as cohesive or as compulsive as these, and the arrival of CD in time for the mid-1980s “Dirty Work” saw them able to stop caring about either quality. It’s not so important to make every track count when you know the listener has a fast forward button.

And so we end our survey at the dawn of the 1980s, and rely upon our more contrary listeners to remind us that bits of “Undercover” sounded pretty good too, or to point out the hidden nuances of “Voodoo Lounge.” Such things might well be true, and good luck to you if you find them. The rest of us… well, we might want the milk crates, but we’ve already drunk the milk.


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