I had every intention of writing about the new Monkees album, Good Times!, currently sailing up the summer pop chart fueled by songs penned by Rivers Cuomo (Weezer), Noel Gallagher (Oasis)/Paul Weller (The Jam), Andy Partridge (XTC), and Ben Gibbard (Death Cab for Cutie). Perfect for the earbuds while watching the kids at the splashpad. But so much is being said and written about it that adding my own two cents seems pointless.
Moreover, I got side-tracked. While very much in a ’60s frame of mind I noticed that Rolling Stones drummer Charlie Watts recently celebrated his 75th birthday. I mentioned this on Facebook, noting how I admired Watts for eschewing the hedonistic rock n’ roll lifestyle while adding, “I can count on one hand the number of Rolling Stones songs I really like.” Which got me wondering: is that really the case?
So for fun I got on Spotify and scoured the billions of tracks the Stones recorded over a 43 year span to see if I could find enough material to comprise a playlist — an album’s worth of “greatest hits” for a band I really don’t like. I wanted a baker’s dozen, 13 seeming an appropriate number for the Stones. I couldn’t even find 12. But throwing in a couple for purely sentimental reasons I came up with eleven. Nigel Tufnel’s cardinal number.
Here they are in the order I would listen to them:
- “Mother’s Little Helper.” I gave this song to my youngest daughter as a guitar exercise for working on chord changes — and to watch her expression when she heard Keith Richards’ cackling crow call slide on the electric 12-string. She was unfazed. “I like it. But unless I capo it I won’t be able to sing it.” You go, girl.
- “Honky Tonk Women.” This one reminds me of a tall blonde babysitter my brother and I had over the summer of 1969. My bro and I were four and eight, respectively, and she was 14, but very much grown-up to me. When she came over to watch us she would play football with me in the vacant lot next to our property. I remember tackling her once — actually, she ran over me. My face collided with her collar bone and, after a flash of light, the sensation of her frame raking over me: hip, knee, ankle. I opened my eyes to a bouquet of mown grass, perfume, and girl-sweat. Toward the end of that summer our families met at a lakeside park for an outing. She and her sisters sat around me at the picnic table in their swimsuits like sea nymphs, and “Honky Tonk Women” came bursting over the park’s PA speakers. Not that she was ever that kind of girl, mind you. But these memories from summers ago are summoned whenever I hear that cowbell and drum intro.
- “Factory Girl.” Tracks from side two of Beggars Banquet (1968) make up over a third of my list. Both waggish and wistful, this acoustic work finds the band handling the old-time country idiom with a reverence that would win Ralph Peer’s approval. It ranks with Zeppelin’s “Going to California” among tracks you’d least expect from a British rock band. Mumford can’t touch this.
- “Lady Jane.” Keeping it acoustic we go flipside of “Mother’s Little Helper,” from a song redolent of Appalachia to one featuring Brian Jones on Appalachian dulcimer. I read somewhere of Mick Jagger (I think) saying this instrument was used in the olden days of England. But the lap dulcimer is actually German in origin. Regardless, this stately yet fragile piece, done in a modal Renaissance form, stirs like dawn light through stained glass.
- “Stray Cat Blues.” This is an instance where Richards’ maxim on “weaving” guitars actually works. Later in the ’70s some of his and Ronnie Woods’ live duos sounded to my ears like cats fighting; here, the coordination, the energy between the guitars and piano is scintillating. The extended, hi hat-driven outro anticipates Led Zeppelin II.
- “Dandelion.” No apologies to Stones purists here. As a Syd Barrett fan I’m a sucker for a musical childhood frolic with hints of darkness crouching in the willows. The Stones could never write like Barrett, but this comes close. I remember hearing this song as a youth late at night on an AOR station and thinking, “Hmm. So the Stones did some spacey, psychedelic stuff? I need to check out more of them sometime…”
- “Street Fighting Man.” This. Not only is this unequivocally the best Rolling Stones song, it’s one of the greatest rock songs of all time. Period. It came out the summer of ’68 on the heels of the MLK and RFK assassinations and the donnybrook of a riot at the Democratic National Convention. What amazes in this song is that the only electric instrument present is the bass. The rest is a tour de force of compressed acoustic guitar thrashing, Watts pounding on a toy drum kit, Jones’ sitar hanging over the mayhem like clouds of detonated white phosphorous, and Nicky Hopkins’ reverb-drenched piano galloping off in the left channel. Add to this Jagger’s best vocals of his career: “Heeeeeyyyyyy! Said my name is called Disturrrrbaaance…”
- “Ruby Tuesday.” A song so lovely even Jagger liked it. “Who could hang a name on you?” Well, a Maryville, TN-based restaurant chain liked it enough to hang its name above their doors. As on “Dandelion,” this features Watts’ jack-hammer drumming blasting its way through one side of a dream pop soundscape framed by Jones’ classically-inspired recorder.
- “Under My Thumb.” The most conventional pop song of this lot, it sounds like the sort of thing Major Nelson’s square friends would get up twisting and contorting to during an after-dinner shindig on I Dream of Jeannie. I’m not a Brian Jones groupie, but something I like in common with these other tracks is his incorporation of unconventional rock instruments — in this case, the marimba. I’m convinced that after his tragic departure the group could only move in a garage band direction.
- “Gimme Shelter.” This is the song that launched my search through the Stones catalog. I was familiar Richards’ minacious intro — that spooky, foreboding 40-second annunciation of the end of the ’60s era — but I couldn’t remember the name of the dang song. Apocalyptic is an apt description. This song points not only to the violence that marred the Altamont Free Concert (Dec ’69) but to our age of neoconservative and “humanitarian” interventionism and perpetual war.
- “Prodigal Son.” The final track finds the Stones paying homage to their blues roots. Jagger sounds remarkably like a wayfaring Charley Patton — who always ended his sets with a gospel number — with the ill-starred Jones slashing on slide guitar (he wouldn’t live a year past this recording). Listening to this familiar biblical story we hope that by the end these boys have found their way back home.
So that’s my Stones playlist. It seems to touch all the stylistic bases they covered between ’65-69 — the years I regard as their true golden period. The more I listen to these tracks the more I discover and appreciate about the band. And that’s something coming from a hater.