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Fifty years of "Between the Buttons"

Dave Thompson explores the making of The Rolling Stones’ “Between the Buttons” album on its 50th Anniversary — and let’s not forget the band’s remarkable creativity during that period.

The Rolling Stones taken during the "Between the Buttons" cover photo sessions on London's Primrose Hill. Photo by Gered Mankowitz.

By Dave Thompson

Sequestered deepwithin The Rolling Stones’ mid-1960s archive, there’s a song called “English Summer.” Entire legends have grown up around it; collectors dream of some day hearing it, researchers dream of pinning it down. The best recollections of historians, musicians and observers alike insist that it was recorded at Olympic Studios in November 1966, potentially to become the Stones’ next single.

But the “Let’s Spend The Night Together”/”Ruby Tuesday” coupling stepped in instead, and “English Summer” was left to languish in the vault, not even considered worth completing for the band’s next album.

It was handed on to Marianne Faithfull, for use in her own decelerating career — she recorded it the following May, allegedly alongside a version of The Beatles’ then still-unreleased “With A Little Help From My Friends,” but it’s not a gift that she recalled when asked about it a few years ago.

Quite simply, “English Summer” vanished as quickly as its seasonal namesake usually does, and maybe that’s just as well. It could never have been as great as the legend insists it must be; and, although the title resonates like no other, that’s just hindsight talking. Yes, the band was heading towards its most tumultuous summer yet; yes, the music scene in general was swinging into its most turbulent. But, sitting in the studio one cold, damp November evening, the Stones could not have known any of that. Could they?

Besides, there’s another reason why the Stones have never released “English Summer.” Because they’ve never needed to. From the opening twang of “Mother’s Little Helper,” opening “Aftermath” in 1965, to the closing clang of the single “We Love You,” 18 long months later, they had already said everything on the semi-mythological subject of Swinging London at its sun-drenched peak that ever needed to be said.

Yet, while 1967 might have been the Summer of Love for everybody else, it was also the year that the Stones’ world went pear-shaped.

There was Mick and Keith’s Redlands drug bust and the ensuing court room dramas. There were the riots that accompanied the band’s first shows in Poland. The accelerating deterioration of guitarist Brian Jones and the departure of manager-producer Andrew Loog Oldham. And there was the almost unanimously negative reception for their latest album, December’s “Their Satanic Majesties Request.”

Guitarist Keith Richards of The Rolling Stones sits on a chair in a recording studio and strums his Epiphone guitar in 1966. (Photo by Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images).

Keith Richards sits on a chair in a recording studio and strums his Epiphone guitar in 1966. (Photo by Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images).

Both individually and collectively, these events conspired to ensure that a year that began with minor controversy (the band was forced to amend the lyric to “Let’s Spend The Night Together” when they appeared on the Ed Sullivan Show) could only speed downhill from there. Read Keith Richards’ autobiography, and you could believe the Stones barely made any music at all that year.

Yet 1967 is also the year in which the band released not one, not two, but three albums that are now regarded among their crowning jewels, culturally, creatively and musically. Plus a fourth, the late ’66 concert recording “Got Live If You Want It,” that at least served as a barometer of how fast the band was now moving. And which, taken together, make it impossible not to marvel at the sheer diversity of all that the band was then attempting.

Work on what would become “Between The Buttons” commenced at the beginning of August 1966, eight days at the RCA Studios in Los Angeles sandwiched in between the Stones’ latest American tour, and their next U.K. outing. The long-established studio pairing of Oldham and engineer Dave Hassinger was well-oiled by now and, by the time the sessions broke up on August 11, some 20 songs had been laid down in various states of completion.

Of these, both sides of the band’s next single (“Have You Seen Your Mother, Baby” and “Who’s Driving Your Plane”) would see the light of day before the year’s end, while “Let’s Spend The Night Together” was also on hand. All 12 songs that would find their way on to the U.K. version of the new album, too, were in place, while there was also time to lay down the rudiments of up to five further tracks, known to collectors (if not the Stones themselves) as “Godzi,” “Something Happy, Something Blue” (allegedly, a very early version of “Dandelion”), “Ya Bask Blues,” “Panama Powder Room” and “Get Yourself Together,” the latter now better known, thanks to a Chesterfield Kings cover, as “Can’t Believe It.”

Back in London, the end of August saw the “Have You Seen Your Mother” single completed, and three further songs commenced, “It’s Been Quiet Here At Home,” “If You Let Me” (a performance ultimately destined for the “Metamorphosis” out-takes collection) and a lovely version of Smokey Robinson’s “My Girl,” before the final album sessions at Olympic Studios in November brought “English Summer” and the supremely lovely “Ruby Tuesday” into focus.

Already, however, the final shape of “Between The Buttons” had been agreed upon and, while there were a few more overdubbing sessions to follow (including a memorable December 13 visit to Olympic, where Brian Jones added trombone to the closing “Something Happened To Me Yesterday”), by the end of the year Oldham was back in Hollywood, preparing the final mix.

The album was in the stores on January 20, 1967, although it is debatable whether Brian was there with it. The cover photograph, shot by Gered Mankowitz on a chilly morning on Primrose Hill, sees the Golden Stone central but sinking into his collar, chuckling at a private joke and scarcely seeming aware of his surroundings.

Arguably, “Between The Buttons” would be Jones’ last true musical fling; from thereon — his solo work on the “A Degree of Murder” soundtrack, “Satanic Majesties,” and his faltering contributions to “Beggars Banquet” and “Let It Bleed” — it was downhill all the way.

Widely praised today for both its coherence and quality, “Between The Buttons” is also interesting for the absolute lack of acknowledged Stones classics on board.

While the American edition appended both sides of the “Ruby Tuesday”/”Let’s Spend The Night Together” 45, and saved “Back Street Girl” and “Please Go Home” for “Flowers” a few months later into the year, British buyers were, and remain, tempted by titles that rarely make any serious Stones Top 20 — “Yesterday’s Papers,” “My Obsession,” “All Sold out,” “Miss Amanda Jones” and “Something Happened To Me Yesterday,” which still sounds like the sort of music hall number Herman’s Hermits would once have killed to get their hands on.

But wrapped together across two sides of vinyl, “Between The Buttons” possesses a musical continuity that no other Stones album had previously enjoyed (and only a handful of subsequent efforts would approach), switching from scene to song and back again with a knowing wink and a lascivious leer, while Andrew Oldham’s production goes into luxuriating overdrive.

Perhaps, as a handful of U.K. reviews mused at the time, he was allowing his own studio ambitions to run riot — “Andrew used to think that anything was possible if you put enough echo on it,” Keith Richards memorably quipped. But how can that be a bad thing when those ambitions were so effortlessly achieved? Catch “Between The Buttons” in its 2002 SACD incarnation, and you can almost bathe yourself in the sound.

Lyric-wise, the predilections that marked “Aftermath” remain strong. “Yesterday’s Papers” and “Please Go Home” both reprise the realities that could be termed misogyny, while the lyric to “Back Street Girl” is so skin-crawlingly patronizing that Oldham had no choice but to drench it in plaintive acoustics, Parisian atmospheres and Jagger’s sweetest little-boy vocal. The singer would have been torn to shreds if he’d sung it to the accompaniment it demanded — although, when one remembers that he was dating a Baroness’ daughter at the time (Marianne Faithfull), you know there’s an awful lot of tongue in cheek as the song goes on.

This story is from the March 2017 issue. Ti purchase an instant electronic download of this issue, click on image.

This story is from the March 2017 issue. To purchase an instant electronic download of this issue, click on the above image.

Across the hymnal “She Smiled Sweetly,” the knockabout singalong of “Cool, Calm and Collected,” and the faintly country-esque “Who’s Been Sleeping Here,” the pastoral mood is contagious. “Connection” and the Bo Diddley-esque “Please Go Home’ both rock hard without disturbing the gentle mood of the proceedings, while the end of the journey, “Something Happened To Me Yesterday” remains one of the most unexpected endings any Rolling Stones album has ever served up, a romping ditty full of off-hand observations, rhyming for the sake of it, and wrapping up with a lyrical lift from what was then one of British television’s most storied institutions, the police drama “Dixon Of Dock Green.”

Every week, the show’s avuncular namesake would close the adventure with a few words of advice, and a farewell “evening all.” So, “don’t forget, if you’re on your bike, wear white.” Dixon would have been thrilled.

A year later, with “Their Satanic Majesties Request” beneath their belt, sniping critics would accuse the Stones of having set out to make their own “Sgt. Pepper” and failed. That may be true, but it overlooks one crucial fact. They had no need to, because they’d already done it, and a full six months before the Fabs.

In creating a sequence of songs that, though they had no overt thematic connection to one another, nonetheless flowed with an unprecedented cohesion, a conceptual offering in all but storyline, “Between The Buttons” blueprinted all that The Beatles would go on to achieve. “Sgt. Pepper” was The Beatles’ attempt to make their own “Between The Buttons.” And you know what? Song for song, mood for mood, they failed.

The Stones, however, kept on building. With the best will in the world, the Pepper project can be swollen by just three further songs that could be said to “belong” within its boundaries — “Strawberry Fields Forever,” “Penny Lane” and “Only A Northern Song” or, two gems and a jab. “Between The Buttons”, on the other hand, could be rebuilt as a triple album.

In so seamlessly slipping into the sense of musical continuity that “Aftermath” precipitated, “Between The Buttons” possessed an organic purity that the often-labored inventiveness of “Sgt. Pepper” left behind on the laboratory floor. With the genius of George Martin firmly establishing him as the true fifth Beatle, you could scarcely avoid hearing the studio trickery that gave Pepper so much of its verve and pizzazz — and, if you did manage to blot it out, you’ve been reading about it for the last 50 years regardless.

“Between The Buttons” was just as much a child of its environment, but it had no technological point to prove, no semi-secret brief to prove themselves the cleverest of the clever. But there again, they didn’t need to justify themselves to a public that had just been shocked by the news that The Beatles were no longer touring. Because they just kept on keeping on.

Two days after the album release, the Stones were appearing on British TV’s Sunday Night at The London Palladium, performing both sides of the latest 45, plus the oldie “It’s All Over Now,” and the new album’s “Connection,” before riling an entire nation of traditionalists by refusing to take part in the show’s established finale, of standing on a revolving stage and waving to the audience. (A week later, comedians Peter Cook and Dudley Moore would crown their own Palladium performance by boarding the roundabout with cardboard cut-out Stones.)

February 9 then saw the band back in the studio for two weeks, working with Oldham on the roughest rudiments of what they were already seeing as their next LP — a dozen or so tracks that included further work on “Get Yourself Together,” a Jones-led cover of Elmore James’ “Dust My Broom,” an early stab at “You Can’t Always Get What You Want,” and a handful more songs, largely untitled at the time, that common sense suggests would develop into the rudiments of “Their Satanic Majesties Request.” “Loose Woman” certainly became “2,000 Light Years from Home,” while it has also been suggested that Wyman’s “Acid In The Grass” — better known now as “In Another Land” — was first attempted at this time, despite Wyman’s own insistence that he did not write the song until early July.

It was back on the road in March, for a European tour would take the quintet as far afield as Sweden, West Germany, Italy, Austria, Switzerland, France, Poland and Greece, and, doubtless, other live work would have been lined up to follow, had the heavy hand of the British constabulary not fallen on Jagger and Richards in February.

The drugs bust at Richards’ Redlands home on February 12, and a preliminary court appearance in May, did not initially hamstring the band’s activities. The day after he and Richards appeared at Chichester Crown Court to plead not guilty of possession of drugs, Jagger was at Olympic Studios, adding backing vocals to the next Beatles’ B-side, “Baby, You’re A Rich Man.”

The following week, the full Stones line-up was back at the same studio, recording what would become the final LP version of “She’s A Rainbow,” together with the ultimately-junked “Manhole Cover” and “Telstar II,” while making their first approach at a song that was destined to become both their next single, and the soundtrack to the entire judicial witch-hunt that was building around their ears, “We Love You.”

The establishment wanted the Stones — or, at least, what it perceived as the most dangerous Stones — behind bars, and things do get cloudy here. Conspiracy theorists, however, are more or less convinced that, although the drug bust was engineered by the News Of The World, the scurrilous Sunday tabloid that built its entire reputation, and readership, on its crusade against the barbarians assaulting the bastions of British decency, the story (or the seeds for the story) were planted from higher up the authoritarian chain, within the halls of a government that itself was becoming increasingly concerned about the behavior of “modern youth,” and the arrogant pop stars who pointed the way.

The Stones, though their long hair and unwashed demeanor had long ago ceased to excite the rage of the nation, remained the uncrowned princes of revolution and disarray, and the harbingers of the end of civilization. So the newspaper was simply following its own nose for sensation when it named Jagger in an article on drug-taking pop stars.

Jagger responded by announcing that a writ for libel was already being prepared. The following week, however, Richards’ home was raided by his local police force, and Mick and Keith were charged with possession. They pleaded not guilty at their first hearing; they would be returning to court on June 27.

In the meantime, they had a new single to make and, though it would not ultimately be released until August, by which time Jagger had been both found guilty and jailed, then bailed and granted leave to appeal, still it is impossible to hear the pounding, staccato piano line that heralds “We Love You” without feeling the walls closing in around the embattled band, and the lawmen running to celebrate their catch. The clanging cell doors that were added to the record on the eve of its release, and the backing vocals of a passing Lennon-McCartney, are simply the icing on the cake.

While all this was still unfolding, of course, the Stones still had a recording career to care about and, in early June, their U.S. label, London, released what is now regarded as the closing installment of the Stones’ English Summer trilogy, the compilation album “Flowers.” And, so richly does it compliment the two discs that preceded it that the term “compilation” scarcely does it justice, as Andrew Loog Oldham explains. “‘Flowers’ has come to be regarded as the natural follow-up to ‘Between The Buttons’.”

Even at the time, however, he lavished attention upon it. “Lou Adler gave me the title, and I used the Monterey graphics team for the cover.”

“Flowers” was initially conceived to allow American listeners to catch up on the songs that had been dropped from the domestic versions of the last couple of Stones albums, to make way for the latest singles, with a few bonus rarities to make up the disc. In terms of filling a hole and fulfilling a need, however, “Flowers” is no more a ragtag of out-takes and re-dos than “Tattoo You” (an album that actually fulfills that description with far greater ease).

“Sittin’ On The Fence” and “Ride On Baby” dated back to the December 1965 sessions that produced so much of “Aftermath.” Stateside singles “Mother’s Little Helper,” “Lady Jane,” “Have You Seen Your Mother” and “Ruby Tuesday”/”Let’s Spend The Night Together,” the Stones’ original of Chris Farlowe’s “Out Of Time” chart-topper, “Back Street Girl” and “Please Go Home” all piled onto the platter.

So did the crowning glory of another unissued gem, “My Girl,” and only the absence of the group’s then-forthcoming new single, the double A-sided “We Love You”/”Dandelion,” held “Flowers” back from perfection. But it still came close.

“Flowers” would also become the last “new” Stones album to credit Andrew Loog Oldham as producer, just as “We Love You”/”Dandelion” would be their final single together (and mid-June’s “Lady Fair” became their final out-take).

Recent months had seen a growing distance between artist and management, founded around what the Stones perceived as his lack of concern for Mick and Keith’s legal problems, but also a natural consequence of the band’s own sense of self.

Oldham preferred to work in a closed studio, with only the necessary players granted access to the inner sanctum. The Stones (or, at least, some of them) wanted their friends in on the party, with all the distractions and diversions that entailed. And finally, Oldham had had enough. He walked out, and nobody bothered to call him back.

The Stones were on their own.


"Between the Buttons":
The non-existent Deluxe Edition that Goldmine would like to see

The Original U.K. Album

1. “Yesterday’s Papers”

2. “My Obsession”

3. “Back Street Girl”

4. “Connection”

5. “She Smiled Sweetly”

6. “Cool, Calm & Collected”

7. “All Sold Out”

8. “Please Go Home”

9. “Who’s Been Sleeping Here?”

10. “Complicated”

11. “Miss Amanda Jones”

12. “Something Happened to Me Yesterday”

“Flowers,” Plus and Minus

(Tracks 1-7 from original U.S. release of “Flowers”; remainder released as noted)

1. “Ruby Tuesday” (single, January 1967)

2.”Have You Seen Your Mother, Baby, Standing in the Shadow?” (single, September 1966)

3.”Let’s Spend the Night Together” (single, January 1967)

4.”Out of Time” (alternate mix of “Aftermath” track)

5. ”My Girl” (out-take, spring 1965)

6. ”Ride On, Baby” (“Aftermath” out-take)

7. “Sittin’ on a Fence” (“Aftermath” out-take)

8. “Who’s Driving Your Plane” (B-side, September 1966)

9. “If You Let Me” (“Aftermath” out-take, released on “Metamorphosis”)

10. “Title 5” (ALO production, spring 1967, released on “Exile on Main Street” 3-CD deluxe)

11. “Dandelion” (single 1967)

12. “We Love You” (single 1967)

The Out-takes and Legends

(All tracks unreleased: 1-4 rumored “Between the Buttons” out-takes;
5-12 Andrew Loog Oldham productions, Spring 1967)

1.“English Summer”

2.“It’s Been Quiet Here At Home”

3. “Love is the Same as Hate”

4. “Get Yourself Together” (aka “Can’t Believe It”)

5. “Dust My Broom”

6. “Loose Woman” (aka “2,000 Light Years From Home”)

7.“Acid in the Grass” (aka “In Another Land”)

8. “She’s a Rainbow”

9. “Telstar II”

10. “Manhole Cover”

11. “You Can’t Always Get What You Want” (instrumental)

12. “Lady Fair”

A Rolling Stones photographer remembers