Tuesday, May 22, 2012

She Smiled Sweetly

I don’t think there is a single band that perplexes the two of us more than The Rolling Stones.

Yes, they are (obviously) an absolutely all-time rock-n-roll band, first ballot Hall of Famers who changed the face of rock-n-roll. We know that and we embrace it. And when they were at their bestlike on 40 or 50 absolutely awesome tracksthere were very few bands who ever topped them.

But therein lies the problem. Because they have so seldom been at their best the last 40 years. For starters they are awful live, and I do mean awful. I have never heard one Stones track live that I thought outdid the studio version. Not one. Some sloppiness is a virtue in rock-n-roll. But when that sloppiness turns into apathetic, garbled, half-assed readings of songs people pay good money to hear? No. Not a good thing. It’s worse than badit’s a cynical slap in the face to the fans and listeners. Do you want to hear Mick atonally shout-sing “Jumping Jack Flash,” or hear Keith get maybe half the licks right on “Honky Tonk Woman?” Me neither. There’s a reason the songs are legendarythey are great freaking songs. And to phone them in onstage, well, it sucks.

Also, let’s face it, they’ve released a lot of drek over the last 40 yearsSome Girls and Tattoo You are solid albums, but not Emotional Rescue. Not Dirty Work. Not Bridges to Babylon. Not Black and Blue. And not (ugh!) It’s Only Rock-n-Roll. For the most part those albums are at best mediocre and at worst downright bad.

It may be unfair, but for a band that produced such amazing music from 1964-1972, including that epic four album run of Beggar’s Banquet to Let It Bleed to Sticky Fingers to Exile on Main Streeta run that no band or artist has ever outdonewe have to expect more. And the truth is the Stones have given us exactly oneoneB+ or better album in the last 40 years (Some Girls). They should have been better than that.

Yet still, all that said, again, when they were great, they were unspeakably great.

Here’s a track that shows why. It likely doesn’t register in people’s minds as one of their Top 25 songs. And maybe doesn’t make their Top 50 in terms of popularity. But it’s so lovely and sweet, with Mick and Keef delivering harmonies as well as they ever did. For a band known as the nasty-ass rockers in that era, it really speaks to their talents that they could put something so delicate together.

They’d done it before, of course, and would do it again (“As Tears Go By,” “Ruby Tuesday,” “Wild Horses”) but this track from 1967’s Between the Buttons shows a band as much in transition as the Beatles were the previous year. The Stones were moving a bit away from the early R&B sound (though never abandoning it) and into the world of country, psychedelia, soul and even folk rock. This song gives you a little bit of all of that, yet still backed subtly by that delectable sense of danger they always brought with them.

It isn’t quite as ballad-y as, say, “Ruby Tuesday,” but it conveys a weariness of a band steadily on the move towards something else. Listen to Mick breathily sing the chorus and you can faintly hear the roots of post-punk and even grunge slowly starting to work their way through the soil. It’s always annoying to hear that the Stones were the rockers and the Beatles were the gentler ones. While there are dozens of examples of how hard the Fabs could rock, so too are there prime examples of the softer side of The Rolling Stones.

This is one of them. And it really does showcase the band’s true greatness. How many bands would have killed to have this as their biggest song, their signature hit? For the Stones, it was just one more diamond. Pity we haven’t seen more in the last 40 years.

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