The Rolling Stones | The Rolling Stones (April 1964)
Rock and Roll / Rhythm and Blues – 33:24
“If you don’t know the blues… there’s no point in picking up the guitar and playing rock and roll or any other form of popular music.”
What do you do when you know you have a talent but don’t have any way of proving it? You know, deep down in your heart, that you have an incredible ability – a God-given gift – that you want to share with the world; a gift that, should it ever be revealed, will bring you hordes of admirers. All it will take is a little effort and you can revel in your new-found fame – if only you had a way of showing the world that this is what it was waiting for. Take musicians, for example; you could be a guitarist or a drummer or even a singer with enough talent to start a musical revolution. But if you don’t have the material, you are never going to be able to convince people that you really matter. It is a problem which many artists starting out have faced – not least of whom were a band who would go on to be one of the most successful on the planet.
As The Rolling Stones prepared to release their first album in 1964, they were faced with a lack of decent material. They had written a number of songs but, as their recording date approached, they feared they were not suitable for the image they wanted to create and passed them on to other musicians instead (in this case Marianne Faithful and Gene Pitney). Even the three that they were satisfied with, only one of them would bear the name of the musicians who wrote it (Jagger and Richards’ Tell Me (You’re Coming Back)). The other two were credited to Nanker Phelge, the name given to any track written by all members of the group – a tactic designed to give all of them an equal share of any royalties. But an album cannot consist of just three songs running to a little over nine minutes in total. More songs were needed to showcase the five boys’ abilities.
The answer was to delve into the Rhythm and Blues heritage which many of the band loved and knew so well. As has been pointed out by other writers far greater than me (in this case, Bruno MacDonald in 1001 Albums…), greats such as Sinatra and Elvis never had any problems filling their long players with covers. So why should it worry The Stones. After all, there was plenty they could do to make their mark on them and call them their own…
Things kick off – literally – on their debut album with a version of Bobby Troup’s Route 66. While there is nothing special about the arrangement, it clearly sets the blueprint for all future Stones’ songs; this is loud, raucous and slightly dirty. By focusing on the blues, Jagger, Richards et al were declaring themselves to be more dangerous than their counterparts The Beatles (ironic, given one of the Stones’ first hits – I Wanna Be Your Man – had been given to them by the Fab Four). Although it is played fairly straight, there is no denying that the statement being made by the Stones’ – this is a band that is here to play rock ‘n’ roll at full volume; it is a band determined to have a good time.
The second track, I Just Want to Make Love to You, is closer to the Muddy Waters original than Etta James more sanitised version – and it is all the better for it. The fuzzy guitar, harmonica and the Jagger voice all combine to create a sound that is dripping with sexual energy. It is little wonder that the Stones were so often viewed as dangerous when they were recording songs like this. While the third song, Honest I Do, sounds out of place as it slows things down a little too much, their version of I Need You Baby is superb. Having only ever heard the pop recording by Craig McLachlan and Check 1-2 back in 1990, it was a shock to discover it was a cover (I’d always believed it had been written by McLachlan for some unknown reason). But hearing the Stones’ take on it, with the slow drawl of the guitar and Jagger’s vocals over the incessant beat of Charlie Watts’ drums, it becomes apparent why it always sounded good. The Stones are able to wipe clear any memories of Neighbours stars attempting to launch pop careers.
Given the musical talent in the group, it is perhaps little wonder that the first track to feature that had been written by the band is an instrumental. Now I’ve Got a Witness is great showcase for the boys to demonstrate how their own talents as writers was already developing to match their heroes. Little By Little is equally good in revealing their skills at writing, even if it is a little too derivative of its roots.
Side two begins with I’m a King Bee, a classic blues song that never really takes off (like many traditional blues songs, it doesn’t seem to go anywhere and simply repeats the most basic of beats and lyrics). Fortunately, it is swiftly followed by a cover of Berry’s Carol, a fine rendition that nicely pumps its way through its short running time. Perhaps most revealing is Tell Me (You’re Coming Back) – the first song to be credited to Jagger/Richard (the ‘s’ was absent from Keith’s name until the late 1970s in the songs he was credited with writing). It is clearly trying to copy some of the popular Merseybeat sounds – something it doesn’t quite achieve – but there is also a hint of songs to come. You can almost hear some of the future classics in the guitar work of Richards; there are strands of Heart of Stone or Play with Fire in the gentle acoustic sound of his instrument. It may not be at the level of the songs to come, but it lays on plenty of suggestions of the brilliance that would soon emerge. The album ends with versions of Can I Get a Witness (excellent) and You Can Make it If You Try (dull) before rounding things off with the brilliant Walking the Dog.
The Rolling Stones’ first album may not show off the songwriting skills that, in particular, Jagger and Richards would go on to demonstrate in just a few short years. But it does lay down the band’s intent to rock, no matter what people may thing. This is a sexy and brilliant debut from a band that would go on to dominate the world. Listening to this album, it isn’t hard to see why.
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Next time: A Look Back at 1960 to 1964 in Music