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The Rolling Stones give value to nostalgic releases

With another Stones box set due, Bill Wyman, Andrew Loog Oldham, Andy Johns, Marshall Chess and others explain what made the band's recordings so special.

By Harvey Kubernik

Last November for the very first time in history ABKCO Records and Universal Music Group joined forces to offer two limited edition numbered box set collections spanning over 40 years of the Rolling Stones’ career. The box sets include 23 original studio albums, two “Big Hits” collections as well as two rare EPs.


“The Rolling Stones 1964-1969 Vinyl Box Set” (above) contains chronologically the Stones’ early U.K. LP releases. The first five titles in the set are presented in their original mono format affording, for the first time in years, an opportunity for Stones fans to enjoy remastered versions of the tracks “I Just Can’t Be Satisfied,” “Time Is On My Side” (Version 2), and “Down the Road A Piece” as originally released. “Through the Past, Darkly (Big Hits Vol. 2)” is packed with its original octagonal cover and artwork intact. “Metamorphosis” is also included in the set; the album was first released in 1975 but is wholly comprised of tracks recorded from the early-to-late sixties.

Jody Klein, ABKCO Music and Records CEO, remarked, “With the current marketplace resurgence of vinyl, these collections are certain to delight both long-standing Stones fans as well as contemporary vinyl devotees. The quality of the pressings and the care with which these historic releases have been remastered is breathtaking.”

"We are honored to continue our campaign to preserve the Stones legacy with the highest quality sets for fans to enjoy," added Bruce Resnikoff, President/CEO, Universal Music Enterprises (UMe).

Andrew Kronfeld, Universal Music Group International’s Executive VP, International Marketing, said, “Vinyl was the Rolling Stones’ accomplice from day one, so this is the way to hear the world’s greatest rock ’n’ roll band. There’s nothing else to say… just listen.”

Also set for late April 2011 is UMe’s “The Rolling Stones – The Rolling Stones Singles (1971-2006) Box Set (45 CDs)” (at left).


“Box sets are a new kind of museum,” suggested record collector and KCPR-FM DJ Dr. James Cushing. “It is difficult to look at a box set and not immediately and completely assume that it represents something completely finished done. And that represents the completed and finished product of a body of work. An effort that has come to its fruition. In other words: This is it.

“And when I see that with music I loved,” Cushing continued, “I am moved very strongly in two directions at once: One direction is great, that means we have entered the realm the history, we are substantial objects now. We must be taken seriously by the world. We are represent by something that has weight. We’re important. We’ve made it.

“Another direction, owing to Bob Dylan’s ‘Bringing It All Back Home’ vinyl LP, more and more the artists that were taken seriously were the ones who made unified LP’s that were conceptually composed and arranged. In the Stones’ case, it might be a time period from ‘The Rolling Stones No. 2,’ original U.K. release January 15, 1965 through ‘Exile On Main Street,’ distributed May 12, 1972.

“A vinyl album then had to be a composition. And in order to hear this composition you had to be usually in a home which created an interesting dynamic to the rock ‘n’ roll situation. Because rock is a very public and very widely popular Dionysian festival party kind of music. But it was being absorbed in a more or less ritualized way in the home. And usually in the home and during a private listening. Rock had become both a public and private experience. When it was public it was political and revolutionary. And then private it became potentially obsessive and psychological,” Dr. Cushing concluded.

The Stones’ “1964-1969” audio world is a much more desirable item. Primarily because the Stones’ work from 1964-1969, holds up brilliantly now because it has some of that feeling of blunt young people working out on a step by step basis what blues music means to their culture. What could R&B, a black American art form, mean and sound like in the context of post war Britain? And the band answered that question better than anyone else. At the same time Mick Jagger and Keith Richards lyrics expressed a kind of larger social dissenting view from society as opposed to the more optimistic romantic view of the Beatles. The decline in the Jagger/Richard songwriting in general is obvious after the first Stones’ ABKCO world to the second companion UMG offering. Spontaneity gave way to calculation.

One of the big differences between the first and second retail products is the under-presence of the Beatles. That other English group that gave the Rolling Stones clue after clue and hint and hint and suggestion after suggestion about what to do next: Beyond songs “Let It Be.” “Let It Bleed.” “Yesterday.” “As Tears Go By.” “All You Need Is Love.” “We Love You.” Apple Records To Rolling Stones Records.

"Ironically, however, it was the Stones who continued to provide a sharp, nagging, but absolutely necessary thorn into the side of The Beatles," theorized pop musician/historian Gary Pig Gold. "I think what the Stones succeeded in doing, both on record but even more so on stage and in the press, was precisely what John Lennon in particular (secretly?) wished HIS band could've pulled off as well. Sure, perhaps the baby Beatles were just as raw as the Stones ever were back in their Hamburg and Cavern daze, but once the world was watching, things were given a totally Fab, thoroughly cleansing make-over. That seemed to irk John throughout his entire life; he was still bitterly rolling over the Stones throughout his final 1980 interviews, in fact.

"So, in retrospect,” concluded Gold, “while the primary two song-writing Beatles especially rose the bar enticingly high for the Stones and every other mid-Sixties musician, it was the Stones who paved the way in liberating how rock and roll grew, and was presented, clear into the Seventies and beyond. It's hard to imagine the Beatles ever surviving as a functioning band past 1969, whereas that pivotal year was actually just opening up entire second acts for the Rolling Stones."

The Jimmy Miller-produced the Stones’ period, 1968-1974 is of a different order than the albums Andrew Loog Oldham conceptualized and produced. Andrew’s recordings are more nearly unique in the history of popular music. The Miller efforts are recorded more clearly than Oldham’s endeavors owing to advances in technological facilities and larger record label production budgets made available to him. Oldham’s productions relied on knowledge, instinct, and particularly serendipity and accidents, more than Miller did.

In my book, “Hollywood Shack Job: Rock Music In Film and On Your Screen,” Andrew Loog Oldham discussed producing the band and recording in Hollywood, Ca.: “I remember the sessions for ‘Aftermath’ where ‘I Am Waiting’ sprang from. There’s incredible clarity to what they were doing. It was like a linear thing. Filmic. They were vivid, and the key to that vividness was Brian Jones. The organ on ‘She Smiled Sweetly’ by Brian is just amazing. I like ‘She Smiled Sweetly’ more than ‘Lady Jane’ and ‘Ruby Tuesday.’ Sweetly” was boy/girl, living on the same floor. Whereas, both those other songs have a ‘To The Manner Born’ quality to them. Trying to write and evoke. And Mick’s vocals…Remember: He’s an actor. He can’t sing. He acts the words. There you go. ‘Between The Buttons’ and ‘Aftermath,’ without a doubt quite a few harried moments. And we did it in Hollywood at RCA.

"‘Aftermath’ works. They wrote every song on the record. The session for ‘Paint It, Black’ was not nearly done! Bill (Wyman) started futzing around with the pedals of the Hammond B-3 organ, basically imitating Eric Easton, (The Stones co-manager) who used to play organ on the pier at Black pool. And Brian’s sitar on the song. It was a visual instrument. The fun times were the work. We’re in Hollywood. Some of Hollywood came through the door and I’m one of the conduits dragging it in.”

To partially understand and comprehend the sonic aspect of The Rolling Stones’ work stored in the ABKCO library, the listener needs to know about the famed RCA studios, particularly during 1959-1967.

Before the Stones arrived to record in 1964, RCA had been home to Sam Cooke, Ann Margaret, Elvis Presley, Shorty Rogers, Jesse Belvin, Henry Mancini and Elmer Bernstein, among others. Stones’ engineer Dave Hassinger was Al Schmitt’s pupil, and broke him in as an engineer. I interviewed Schmitt a handful of years ago about the RCA studios.

“Studio A and B were both the same size,” Schmitt volunteered. “They were big rooms, and then there was also Studio C, a smaller room. You could mix in either room. The studios had very high ceilings and a nice parquet floor. One of the things that made them so unique was that we had all those great live echo chambers. I think there were seven of them.

“There was very little overdubbing then. The nice thing about doing everything at one time was that you knew exactly what it was going to sound like. When you started layering things you were never sure. Then a lot of experimenting came in and it took longer and longer to make records and the expenses went up, ya know.

“RCA had a great microphone collection,” Schmitt remembered. “Just fabulous. Great Neumann and Telefunken microphones. Great RCA microphones. Plus, they had the great, original Neve Console. And they were just spectacular. They were so punchy. There was a punch and a warmth and still one of the best consoles ever made. They were using a lot of Scotch tape then. Dave (Hassinger) learned microphone technique and how to use them, the most important thing.

“There were no isolation booths. None whatsoever. But we had gobos, we would move around. Like a separator where you could isolate things. We did have some small rugs that we would put down sometimes under the drums and things, but no too much. The Stones also started a situation where songs weren’t done in a standard four-hour session. They had the studio for weeks to do albums. That was new,” marveled Schmitt.

Andrew Loog Oldham currently resides in Bogota, Colombia. He emailed first hand memories and insights into Chess Records and the sound of the legendary room: "It was Chess records, the vinyl actuals, that re-united Mick Jagger and Keith Richards on Dartford Station in 1962. It was Chess Records, the company, the work, that drove Brian Jones to form the Rollin' Stones. It was Chess Records - the wave, that came over me in the Station Hotel in Richmond in April ' 63 when I first saw the Stones and we began our way of life together.

“Chess was always the underbelly of the Stones beast; the fuel that charged the engine, even after they became their own brand. In fact, for sure after, " Spider and the Fly" in 65 and on 95's " Stripped" shows the ongoing road the Stones continue on with all that is Chess. The first US tour by the Stones was not the Beatles tour. We had a cult following in the cities and were abandoned in the sticks. The boys needed cheering up. I could not have them de-planning in London looking like the brothers glum.

“I called Phil Spector from Texas where the Stones had just supported a band of performing seals and asked him to get us booked just as soon as possible into Chess studios. Phil or Marshall Chess called back and said he'd set up two days of recording time, two days hence. Chicago was a piece of heaven on earth for the Stones. The earth had been scorched on most of our mid-American concert stopovers. We hadn't set any records; we didn't yet have the goods, apart from a trio of wonderful one-offs, ‘I Wanna Be Your Man,’ ‘You Better Move On’ and ‘ Not Fade Away.’ We had yet to find our vinyl legs.

“2120 South Michigan Avenue housed Chess Records and Studios and in two days the group put down some thirteen tracks — their most relaxed and inspired session to date —moved, no doubt, by our newfound ability to sell coals to Newcastle. Who would have thought a bunch of English kids could produce black R 'n' B in the States? And here they were in the sanctum sanctorum of Chicago blues, playing in the lap of their gods. The ground floor was a gem, as was Chess engineer Ron Malo. He treated them just like...musicians. Nothing sensational happened at Chess except the music. I was producing the sessions in the greatest sense of the word: I had provided the environment in which the work could get done. The Stones's job was to fill up the available space correctly and this they did. This was not the session for pop suggestions; this was the place to let them be. Oh, I may have insisted on a sordid amount of echo on the under-belly figure on ‘It's all Over Now,’ but that was only ear candy to a part that was already there.

“I can remember being impressed with the order of things and how quietness and calm got things done. I remember meeting Leonard and/or perhaps Phil Chess, and being cognizant of the fact that there was no suppressive limey stymieing from the head office to the factory floor. There was just a factory floor and a very relaxed combo of artists, musicians, engineers, and salesmen all at one with each other and getting their jobs done and royalty Cadillacs royally driven."

In 2002 I interviewed bassist Bill Wyman about the Stones recording in Chicago at Chess and RCA as well. “Andrew helped arrange for us to record at the Chess Records studio. Willie Dixon tried to pawn a song on us and Muddy Waters did help us in with the gear. It’s in my diary that day. The greatest thing about Chess Records wasn’t the recording, or having Buddy Guy walk in, Muddy, and Chuck Berry coming and saying ‘Swing on, gentlemen, you are sounding most well, if I may say so,’ — and he knew he was going to make some money but it was being told we could go down in the cellar and pick some albums if we wanted. Racks of Little Walter albums we had never seen. That was the magic of Chess for us. And me plugging into a plug direct for the bass. Direct!

“When we came into L.A. we went to RCA. We walked into the studio and it was too big. We were really worried. We were intimidated. We were used to recording in little places like Regent Sound. The studio was like this hotel room.

“Suddenly we’re at RCA and it’s enormous. It was like Olympic (in England) later. But we solved that same problem. We thought. ‘God, we can’t record in here. We’re gonna get the wrong sound.’ But Andrew (Loog Oldham) had this brain wave and he put us all in the corner of one room, turned all the lights down, and just tucked us all around in a little small circle. And we forgot about the rest of the room and the height of the ceiling. And we just did it in this little corner,” revealed Bill.

“Dave Hassinger the engineer got all the sounds we wanted. Brian (Jones) picked up all the instruments in the studio. The dulcimers, the glockenspiel, the marimbas. And I played some of that stuff as well. The organ where I laid on the floor and pumped the rhythm for ‘Paint It, Black’ We just experimented in there. Brian brought in electric dulcimers, autoharps. He just did so much to those songs from 1964-1966 in RCA. And he was brilliant at that. (Keyboardist) Jack Nitzsche, sweet man, said it was the first time in his life that he saw a band just come in with no thought or no preparation or anything. We’d just do it and it sorta blew his mind. Because we had no pre-plans and just do it in three takes. ‘Let’s do that one.’

“I always thought…As long as me and Charlie (Watts) could got it together, then the rest of the band could do what they’d like and it worked. And that’s what happened in the studio, and that’s what happened live. Me and Charlie were really always on the ball, always straight, always together and had it down.

“If we had our shit together we got it right. What he was doing and what I was doing, standing next to him and watching his bass drum, and all that, which a lot of bass players don’t do, stupidly, once we got our thing going, and the group was there, then anything could happen. That’s all there was.

“There was simplicity. It wasn’t how many notes you played, it’s where you left nice holes and I learned that from Duck Dunn and people like that.”

Engineer Andy Johns was behind the console for numerous Stones’ efforts, the albums “Sticky Fingers” and “Exile On Main Street,” among them. I spoke to him in 2010 about recording the band.

“’Tumbling Dice’ was going to be great but it was a big struggle. Eventually we get a take,” Andy recalled. “Hooray! I thought, ’Let’s kick this up a notch and double track Charlie.’ ‘Oh, we’ve never done that before.’ ‘Well, it doesn’t mean we can’t do it now.’ So we double-tracked Charlie but he couldn’t play the ending. For some reason he got a mental block about the ending. So Jimmy Miller plays from the breakdown on out that was very easy to punch in. It was a little bit different than some of the others.

“Jimmy was an extremely talented man. His main gift I think was his ability to get grooves. Which for a band like the Stones is very important. Look at the difference between ‘Beggar’s Banquet’ and ‘Satanic Majesties.’ He put them right back on the rail. So he was quote influential then and came up with all sorts of lovely ideas for them. In fact that’s him playing the cowbell at the beginning of ‘Honky Tonk Woman.’ He sets it up.

“’Rocks Off’ from “Exile” went on for ages. Keith would sit down stairs and at one point he sat there for 12 hours without getting out of his chair just playing the riff over and over and over. On the ‘Rocks Off’ mix we put on an echo effect on Mick’s voice and got lucky. It ties together,” exclaimed Johns.

“(Guitarist) Mick Taylor in the studio was just a shinning light. When he plays his guitar and we’d do 100 takes on something he would come up with something slightly different every time. Faultless. Mick’s slide playing. He’d put a bottle on his little finger and then he’d do chords with the rest of his hand. So he could do both at once. Usually it’s a separate deal but that was part of his style. His sense of melody was unbelievable.”

In March, 2011, a book, “and on piano... Nicky Hopkins The Extraordinary Life of Rock's Greatest Session Man,” by Julian Dawson was published. “(Pianist) Nicky Hopkins is all over the ‘Exile’ album,” reinforced Andy Johns. “He was the best and the greatest. God bless Nicky Hopkins. He added so much to that band. Sometimes you wouldn’t really notice it. But if you take the piano out then the house of cards collapses a bit. He was always coming up with gorgeous little melodies. Earlier, ‘She’s A Rainbow.’ That’s Nicky. Of course he was doing a lot of things like that. Plus he was extremely rhythmic. He would make the groove happen sometimes. If he took him out, ‘Oh, what happened here.’ Which is normal. If they are listening to him they are gonna play around him. Or with him. And if you take one of those elements out ‘What happened here?’ It’s music. See. That’s how it works,” Andy beamed.

Writer/record producer Ken Kubernik, and a contributor to “Variety,” was a gawky, teen-aged fanboy when he crashed a Stones' mixing session for "Exile" at Sunset Sound in the fall of 1971. As a "talent-challenged but enthusiastic" piano student at the time, his take on the album centers around a long-neglected contributor to this epochal recording.

"Keith Richards describes the Stones' sound as a 'weave,' wherein the guitars mesh their tone, their tunings, and their respective parts into a sonic wash that delivers the wallop of a horn section. Not surprisingly, Richards' hero, Chuck Berry, initiated this approach, deploying the 'banana-handed' pianist Johnnie Johnson to capture this harmonic and rhythmic density on his genre-defining '50's recordings.

"Nicky Hopkins brought this same dynamic texture to the Stones' music during their most productive years. As lean and unassuming as a fence post, Hopkins belied his anonymous session musician status with an instantly recognizable style - part Albert Ammons, part ballet accompaniest. And nowhere are his talents put to greater effect than on 'Exile On Main Street.' When Hopkins drops in with his pumping eighth-notes on the second verse of the album's opening track, 'Rock's Off,' the weave is complete. Almost every song benefits from his elegant taste in note selection and a sumptuous sound which centers the ramshackle melodies buried throughout the notoriously graveled mix. His range is encyclopedic: a dollop of Floyd Cramer on 'Sweet Virginia;' beefy barrelhouse on 'Soul Survivor;' Delta triplets on 'Ventillator Blues;' and his majesterial orchestral coloring on 'Loving Cup.' 'Exile On Main Street' is nothing if not a testament to Nicky Hopkins' pianistic genius."

“On stage the Stones have the alchemy, the magic of becoming one,” said Marshall Chess, former President of Rolling Stones Records, overseeing label activities from 1970-1978. “When bands lock together, and become as one, it’s much greater than any individual. It becomes a very magical thing. Music is a very magical thing. Music can conjure up magic, and they, by not on purpose, by fate, chance, whatever you want to call it, they make magic sometimes. And not every time they play. But they make it on their records, they make it live. Even when they played badly people get carried away with it. I’ve seen that one. I used to tour with them. Keith…Just a brilliant intellect. Mick, Keith and Charlie have a fantastic intellect. They were very responsible, a Jewish kid from the suburbs of Chicago, even though I knew about black culture, their intellect, and the people they attracted around them, I’m talking about Andy Warhol, Robert Frank, all those people that I met through them. Rudolph Nureyev. They opened up a whole world of oriental carpets of museums, things that I barely knew about. Producer Jimmy Miller was a wonderful guy. I loved him. I was in Jamaica for ‘Goat’s Head Soup.’ Heartbreaker…’ Great songs on that album. A great period. The effect of being thrown out of England, we were living in different places but when we came to record we would get totally absorbed with the atmosphere. It wasn’t that ‘Goat’s Head Soup’ recording in Jamaica then made it a reggae album. ‘Black and Blue’ was my last thing when I worked with them. It’s all stayed together to me as one big lump.

“So I think I did that with the Stones, and I really have no qualms of saying I spent as much time, or even more time then anyone except Mick and Keith in the studio on my seven Stones’ albums. More than Charlie, more than Bill, more than Mick Taylor. More than Ronnie. I came to the full mixing, the overdubbing. I loved Mick Taylor in the Stones. That was great. Because I liked Mick Taylor’s feminine warm sounds intertwined with Keith’s masculinity. And I felt Ronnie was brilliant, I knew him from the Faces, Ronnie is like Keith. It’s like two Keiths. They’re both very similar. But that Mick Taylor had something, the texture. Even now when I listen to the Stones’ channel on Sirius, I hear those Mick Taylor solos…Does something to me.”

300 candid, revealing and intimate photographs of The Rolling Stones taken by their U.S. Tour Manager, Bob Bonis during their first US tours, 1964 – 1966, have also just been published for the first time in a new book, “THE LOST ROLLING STONES PHOTOGRAPHS: The Bob Bonis Archive, 1964-1966” by author Larry Marion (It Books). Andrew Loog Oldham endorses the pictorial. “The book looks super! The photos are, the band is, the music was. For Stones fans it is terrific!”

And now just made available ABKCO and Hdtracks just announced the second installment of the super high definition digital downloads of the Rolling Stones original catalog of ground-breaking studio, compilation and live albums in sparkling fidelity FLAC formats. These Rolling Stones recordings are offered in both 176.4kHz/24-bit and 88.2kHz/24-bit and both versions are DRM-free.

Four additional ABKCO Rolling Stones albums on HDtracks have been released, made available exclusively from online store at Eighteen more ABKCO Rolling Stones titles will subsequently be released.