So, Bill Janovitz had his "9 Best Rolling Stones Songs" up last week. Being a Stones obsessive since the Summer of 1964, I checked young Bill's list out. It got me thinking. 9 Best? Curious number that. I associate it with John Lennon, don't you? Could Bill not come up with a 10th 'best' track? And what-up with some of those picks? At least a few seem like a dart landed on their title while BJ was throwing blindfolded. Well, chacun a son gout, baby! Makes his forthcoming book that much more intriguing.
So, was I gonna do something about it? Of course, I was.
Okay... just the very best The Rolling Stones have had to offer lo, this past half-century...
After two days of pondering with both frontal and rearal lobes... pondering, tossing aside, picking back up, checking album running orders, chopping some watermelon into bite-size chunks, using a cut-throat criteria of my own divining, I've been able to narrow it down to The Rolling Stones' Top 40 Best Songs...
Hey, Bill and I even agree on four of 'em.
Listen, I have to confess right up front... there are no links to any of these songs. See, what you do is, ya go to YouTube, type the song's title into the search field... I ain't getting' paid enough to do that work for you, k.
So, here's my meager offering...
Not Fade Away... It was mid-June, 1964. I'd walked down the block from my house in Brooklyn to ask the extremely cool 13 year old Paul Shann, a four-doors down neighbor who deigned to speak to an 11 year old me, if he'd heard anything about The Beatles movie coming out that summer... Paul, with a benevolent pity, replied...
"The Beatles, Binky?! [shaking head] The Rolling Stones, man... The... Rolling... Stones." And then kind of shrugged like, "What?"
I didn't know the old "gathers no moss" saying, so what I heard was a bizarre visual non-sequitur that sort of left me dazed. I literally turned and ran back to the house, just in time to catch my Dad leaving for work...
"Please, Pop, please buy me The Rolling Stones' album. It just came out. PLEASE!"
My Dad was a newspaperman. His shift, the shift that mattered at newspapers, and probably still does, was 4pm to 11pm. The next morning, the Rolling Stones' "England's Newest Hitmakers" album was waiting for me on the dining table. It was a school day and only 7:30-ish. Too bad! I put the sucker on the living room hi-fi (mono, natch) loud. "Not Fade Away" came on.
Andrew Loog Oldham, the band's first manager/producer has opined that this should've been credited to the Rolling Stones, even though it was a Buddy Holly song, their take that radically re-envisioned. I can tell you, I'd never heard a sound like that before. There was a thunderous energy, an almost violent sexiness. I was 11. I didn't know 'sexy'. But, with this music, I did.
My father came downstairs and asked, "This is the Rolling Stones?"
"Yeah!" said the overwhelmed with delight me. Holy crap, Paul Shann!
"My God, Bink, that drummer just sped up. You don't hear that on a Beatles album, dammit. [100% true] Oh, God, what a wretched singer, Binky..." Pop was not impressed.
I was In Love!
I Wanna Be Your Man... Yes, it's true. John and Paul, because of their friendship with Andrew Loog Oldham, who'd worked for Brian Epstein for maybe a year, did actually stop by a Rolling Stones rehearsal. Andrew did actually have the balls to ask them if they had a song they could 'give' the Stones. And Paul and John actually did finish this song in the hallway. In gratitude, the Stones cut perhaps the most wildly frenetic track of their career, their version of "I Wanna Be Your Man"... well, okay, after "Have You Seen Your Mother, Baby, Standing In The Shadows". The Rolling Stones' "I Wanna Be Your Man" remains the only cover of any Beatles song that actually bested The Beatles' own version.
Heart of Stone... There is a power in this track that comes through to this day. A slow groove played with an authority I'd never heard in a slow song. There was something new in Jagger's voice. An already-weary vibe that fit the lyrics, his first truly great set, in my opinion, that gave the whole song a tension that was palpable... the frustration of the heartbreaking bastard's thwarted domination over this 'what's different about her?' woman. It was also this song that blew every guitar playing kid watching Shindig that night... Keith, playing a 1959 sunburst Les Paul, the first one any of us had ever seen, played the solo that winds up above the 12th fret. Up until that moment, I actually thought the frets above say, the 5th, were FOR DECORATION ONLY! Watching Keith go up the neck of that Gibson rank as one of the great revelations of my entire life. I am being completely serious.
The Last Time... Jesus, that incessant guitar lick Brian played... it was hypnotic. The lyrics held real venom. Again, there was a dark sort of anger in the groove, even as they made you dance around your bedroom.
Mona... This is my favorite example of one of the Stones greatest talents... Interpreters. They recorded versions of any number of songs that were essentially whole cloth reinventions, as mentioned above re: Not Fade Away". Marvin Gaye's "Hitch Hike", Slim Harpo's "King Bee", the incredible breakneck takes of "I Just Wanna Make Love To You", "Oh, Carol", "You Can't Catch Me", the definitive take of "Route 66", the avalanche that is, "She Said Yeah", the haunted harp on "Fortune Teller"... all just fantastic. But, for my money, The Rolling Stones' version of Bo Diddley's "Mona" exceeds every other cover-song triumph of theirs. The mood and atmosphere is simply unreal, impossible to reproduce, a moment in time, captured... like winning Lotto. Listening to it still makes me feel like I'm floating in ether somewhere very far away.
Satisfaction... It's exceedingly boring to declare this the most important song of their career, and one of the greatest rock songs ever written and performed by anyone from any era. But,there ya go, bored outta yer mind. I devoted an entire Huffington Post column to "Satisfaction," The Summer of 1965, 77 WABC, a clear channel signal that got up the 100 miles of the Hudson River to my sleep-away camp in Wallkill NY, Camp Thoreau. As was WABC's policy, they ran their 5 minutes of news at :55 minutes after the hour. Then, precisely at the top of each hour, they'd play the Number One song on their playlist, tallied by sales and requests. For all 8 weeks of camp, "Satisfaction" was Number One on 77 WABC, and at the top of every hour, all day long, every kid at Camp Thoreau with a transistor radio would turn it on and we'd all listen, yet again, regardless of what activity we were engaged in. And each time, we'd marvel at the raw hardcore filth of the lyrics (all in our minds), flip for that fuzz guitar, and wait for Charlie's little drum break. It is fascinating to me that the original recording has Brian and Bill alternating between E and A while Keith plays a riff that ends in D, thus creating the odd suspended 4th tension throughout the verses. It is an odd choice, one they abandoned once they started playing the song live, when Bill and Brian started going to the D, too. It never sounded as good, either. That recurring sus 4, as it's called, keeps a tautness to the track that never lets up. To this day, the very very very last song of a Rolling Stones concert.
19th Nervous Breakdown... The lyrics were starting to get really nasty. The Beatles were singing about burning Norwegian furniture. The Stones were trying to rearrange minds on 'their first trip'. Bill Wyman's machine gun slides down the neck at the end of the song were the kind of thing we'd wait for like dessert.
Paint It Black... Like most kids at the time, I was sold on the concept of, "If The Beatles Do It, It Must Be Cool". I was trying to get into George's new love, the sitar, but, it didn't seem very rock 'n' roll... Until Brian played one on this track, starting with that gorgeous intro. Charlie's drums come in at a pace that almost doesn't compute and we're off... Another tour de force of lyric/melody meld. This song seemed a harbinger. Things were changing...
Ruby Tuesday... "As Tears Go By", while a lovely tune, had seemed like just a pleasant bit of catch-up to Paul's masterwork, "Yesterday". "Ruby", on the other hand, written solely by Keith, was different. The atmosphere, helped by Brian Jones' uncanny ability to master instruments like a recorder and cello in a day or two, is like nothing we'd heard before. Not really Beatles. Not Kinks. The melancholy was close to shocking. A flat-out masterpiece. A perfect melding of melody and lyric. Good on ya, Keef. Jagger achingly catches the sense of an irretrievable moment.
Let's Spend The Night Together... Somehow a song this utterly filthy came across as almost wistful. Times were so prude, Ed Sullivan made Jagger sing, "Let's Spend Some TIME together..." Something Jagger will still regret 10 years from now. Once again, The Stones showed an incredible aptitude for creating grooves and moods that had a contradictory flavor. There are moments of almost tingling yearning that crash into pure libido. This track heralded a shift in production/sonics/arrangement. Brian's marimba on one of Bill's "9 Best", "Under My Thumb", is another example of the influence The Beatles and The Kinks were having on The Stones. "Mother's Little Helper", on the other hand, might as well have Ray Davies listed as the writer!
Have You Seen Your Mother, Baby, Standing In The Shadows... I am convinced... Just the way McCartney admitted that he was "trying to out-Who The Who" with "Helter Skelter", I believe "HYSYMBSITS" was The Rolling Stones letting Pete, Roger, Ox, and Moon know..."Hey, we can make an absolutely ungodly amount of noise, too." So, it was back to blistering guitars. Yay! There is also an undercurrent of a goodbye to an era here. It was like The Stones had gone as far as they could with the outrage factor. There can be no question, "HYSYMBSITS" is a sheer noise-fest, one that the most avant grade bands of 2013 can only dream of creating.
2000 Light Years From Home... Well, it had to happen. Eventually, even The Rolling Stones committed the common enough sin/mistake of trying to be something they weren't. It can't really be overstated, with the exception of this genuinely spacey/trippy noise-groove fest, Their Satanic Majesties' Request was abominable. Bad enough that The Stones were, for the first time, actually in danger of irrelevance. A shocking development!
Jumpin' Jack Flash... So, do you know who single-handedly saved The Stones' career? Bill Wyman, that's who! Yes, it was Bill who was sitting at a piano, playing a lick over and over again. Ba Ba Baboobah baboobah babooba Ba Ba Baboobah baboobah baboobah Ba Ba..."What's that?!" asked Keef. "Oh, just a little lick I've had for awhile." That 'little lick' literally saved The Rolling Stones' career. "Jumpin' Jack Flash" was/is the most masterful reinstatement of intention n the history of rock music. One of the greatest songs ever recorded. Pete Townshend once said, living your life with the feeling you had the first time you heard "Jumping Jack Flash" was a goal to be strived for. I've mentioned this already. I'll mention it again... Jagger's vocal mannerisms, his stage act, his persona, all get their due props. But, folks, if not The Premier Pure Rock Lyricist, Mick Jagger is, inarguably one of perhaps a half dozen Grand Masters. This track offers more proof. "JJF" is the only Stones song I can still recall the moment of hearing for the first time... on the radio in a '3 for $1.00' burger stand in Times Square. My friends and I were giddy by the time it was over. Now, why isn't the writing credit, Jagger/Richards/Wyman? Why, Keith? Why, Mick?
Honky Tonk Woman... Poor Ry Cooder! He hangs out with Keith in LA, they get ripped, they jam, Ry shows Keith some slick git-tar shit Keith had never encountered... Voila! The Rolling Stones cemented the total annihilation of any memory of Satanic Majesties with this ultra-sparse and huge sounding 'tribute' to Ry Cooder's bag to tricks. The insanely catchy chorus was yet another harbinger. Mick was gonna be unleashing anthems, like, at least two to an album, for the next few decades...
Gimme Shelter... Bill Janovitz and I agree on this bad boy. For me, this song has the single greatest intro ever written and performed. I can recall, along with 4 or 5 pals, hearing this cut and the Let It Bleed album with for the first time... As this opened the record, we looked at each other like, Wwwwwhoa! I mean, it was apocalyptic. It was menacing. It was brooding. It... was... scary! And the rest of the song lived up to its first 40 or so seconds... easy. Not a classic Stones song. A classic, period.
Live With Me... As bleak as much of the ultra-high quality "Let It Bleed"'s vibe is, it also boasts some of Jagger's wittiest takes on his and his band's public image. "Monkey Man", too. Besides a hyperkinetic Keef riff chugging through the verses, the hook, both lyrically and musically, is one of their consummate creations. And, unlike the later close-cousin, "Bitch", this cut is blissfully free of horns. Sorry, Bobby.
Midnight Rambler...Talk about-cher bad ass wicked pissa song! Honey... it's one of those! Cartoon ominous! The absurdly simple inversion of B A E to A E B that divides verse from hook in this song is the kind of thing any writer of rock songs prays he/she will stumble onto. Why did Keith always get there first?!
Brown Sugar... One of Jagger's great anthems. Keith wrote it, but, as Keith himself has pointed out, his job is to get Mick excited, Mick's job is to get the planet excited. Keef got Mick excited on this one. Incredibly cool chord changes in the signature instrumental-only section. I cannot recall how many parties I attended where, once the coda hit, every single person, whether dancing or drinking, would let out that "WOOOOO!" after "I said yeah, yeah, yeah..." It was amazing to first hear this song in the Maysle Bros. Gimme Shelter flick.
Sway... The Sticky Fingers album yields a mere five best Stones songs all by its lonesome. Wanna hear the toughest harshest guitar-centric Stones track of all time that Keef DOES NOT PLAY ON? Yep, "Sway" is all Mick Taylor, grinding out those chords in a way that sets your teeth on delightful edge. Super simple changes, super dark apropos hook. A dark horse here, I'll admit. Tough!
Moonlight Mile... Bill J and I agree once again... I don't find myself often thinking, "Gee, I'm in the mood for 'Moonlight Mile'..." That said, it's an atmospheric masterpiece. An ephemeral something runs through this song that you just have to chalk up to magic.
Can't You Hear Me Knockin'... I have pals who'd swear this was The Greatest Rolling Stones song, Period. The little homage to Santana has always bugged me a tad, even though it is sex-gorgeous. That aside, the verses and hook are immaculate Stones Rock 'n' Roll. If "Brown Sugar" is Mick's, "Can't You Hear Me Knockin'" is Keef's.
Rocks Off... All Down The Line... Unlike most of the world it seems, I found the exalted "Exile On Main Street" album tedious, overblown, and reeking of heroin. Over the years, I've mellowed to the point of feeling there's a solid single LP in that South of France muck. These two songs would be favorites of mine on any Stones album. My own band, The Planets, cover both... to great effect.
Hot Stuff... The Black & Blue album was an oddball affair. It was kinda used as the audition for Mick Taylor's replacement. From the album cover, it's clear the right man won. But, the smokin'-est track on the album, and one of the Stones ultra-killer-groove songs, has the demented Harvey Mandel playing lead guitar. Not the right guy, big-picture, but, on this track, he slays it! "You're welcome, guys... see ya."
Fool To Cry... Memory Motel... That Mick came up with two ballads this strong on one album is amazing. At the time it came out, I wanted to hear Keef riffs and was not happy with either of these cuts. But, with age and experience cuts, these two songs through me like a knife whenever I hear either nowadays.
Shattered... I'm opening my Some Girls picks (four!) with the album's closer. "Shattered" could and would be in the running for Greatest Rock Song of All Time. Uhhh, Bill? Bill? The second this track starts you just know you're in for it. An utterly hypnotic riff-chug (who wouldn't want a 15 minute extended mix?) with one of Jagger's vocal tour de forces. I have no idea how much is from one take or if his vocal was patched together from 35 takes. I don't care. I have heard this song over 200 times and am looking forward to another 200...
When The Whip Comes Down... Is it possible to write a two chord song, A to D, changing like clockwork after every 4th beat... and have it never get boring? No. Only the motherfucking Rolling Stones can do that. Don't try. Really. Your song will suck!
Miss You... Ahhhh, the Infamous Disco Cut... "I got some Puerto Rican girls just dyyyyyyin' to meetcho..." Check, please.
Beast Of Burden... Got overplayed for a long while... and you might no longer be able to "hear" it, if you know what I mean. That's happened to several I'll mention later. But, this is one of the greatest songs ever written. From a pure writing stand point, perfect down to the syllable. Mick's vocals are transcendental. Man, this Sex God could write him some ballads! Yeah, yeah, Keith helped. I know, I know...
She's So Cold... Let Me Go... The Emotional Rescue album was the only Stones album ever named after the single worst track on the record. That remarked, these two uptempo rock songs hit me first listen and have stayed with me. Dance Party! Once again, in each of these tunes, you can hear how Jagger attacks his chosen scenario or metaphor and just wrings it dry with one killer-diller rhyming couplet after another.
Indian Girl... I never see or hear anyone mentioning this song. This is Jagger at his most political, most angry. The air of mournful wistfulness, along the lines of the beautiful "Back Street Girl", gives his bitter lyrics an even more effective platform. A shockingly underrated Mick 'n' Keith song.
Rough Justice... As you can see, if you're paying attention, there is a large chunk of Stones albums not represented by a single song here... Yeah, oh well... we all have our off decades. But, if there's such a thing as the most under-appreciated, everlovin' Rolling Stones album ever, it has to be 2005's Bigger Bang, hands down. I will admit, I was given my copy free. Frankly, I might not've ever heard it otherwise. Been quite some years since I'd plunked down cash for a Stones album. Bigger Bang belongs in the same league with Let It Bleed and Sticky Fingers and Some Girls. It is a Rolling Stones album like the ones they made when they were tiny tots. Eight or nine killer tracks with maybe two duds. "Rough Justice", the album opener, is as strong a Stones basher as at least 50 percent of The Rolling Stones Greatest Hits.
Let Me Down Slow... You are allowed to steal from yourself. Mick and Keith came up with a masterpiece here, basing the hook on their own excellent and underplayed "Out Of Time". The leisurely groove they set up here is a thing of awe. Effortless... like Mose Allison's singing, for you smartypantses. This song has, for me, one of Mick's top ten best set of lyrics in his entire catalog. I write songs. I have about 120 in the Library of Congress. This song's lyrics make me feel wonderfully small and talentless. Mick makes movies with mere syllables.
You Saw Me Comin...' As good as "Midnight Rambler" or "Can You Hear Me Knockin'" or... Just a monstrous Keef lick and Charlie groove. One of their great great tracks!
Sympathy For Devil... Street Fighting Man... It's Only Rock 'n' Roll... Start Me Up... You Cant Always Get What You Want... Yeah, yeah, I know... Amazing! incredible! So good! So great! But, my God... I'm sick of 'em.