Song of the Week: (I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction, The Rolling Stones

Scroll down to listen to “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction,” by the Rolling Stones (Plays in Spotify)

It’s 2001. I am nine years old and sitting in the car with my father. It’s summer, and we’re in the parking lot across from Congress Park. The windows are down and the interior of the car exhales a hot, stale breath. The radio is on.

A song starts playing that I’ve heard on the station before—I recognize the fuzzy guitar and the singer’s distinct voice. I like it, especially the rubbery, echo-y parts after the singer is done with each line. So I decide to ask a question.

“Dad, who sings this song?” I ask.

“That’s the Rolling Stones.”

For the first time, I try hard to remember the answer.

Five years later, I am standing in the middle school library in front of a quarter of the eighth grade. Beside me are four friends, equipped with guitar, drums, bass, and microphones. We have never ever played in front of people before. The drummer counts us in as we touch pick to string and hit that riff.

“Satisfaction” is no longer my favorite Rolling Stones song, and I don’t care much anymore about the lyrics or the riff. It remains, however, my first and most important aural madeleine. This song contains so much—it’s a song of beginnings, of milestones, of childhood and middle school and my old guitar amp and the brown carpet in the library and my dad’s 1998 Volkswagen Jetta. It belongs to the Rolling Stones, and it belongs to the 1960s, but it also belongs to me. It is embedded in my very being.

So please, just play it. One time. For me.

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Album of the Week: Let it Bleed, The Rolling Stones (Side 2)

Aaaand we’re back. Let’s delve into side 2 of the Rolling Stones’ 1969 album Let It Bleed, their finest moment as a band and one of my favorite records ever. If you’re (Brian) jonesing for more Stones, check out Matt Fogelson’s review of Exile on Main St. here.

Side Two

6. Funk and soul drummers will occasionally talk about a groove that they “can’t turn loose.” What they mean by that is that the rhythm has a momentum of its own, and the player seems to lose control. They zone out and the physical act of producing those sounds takes over. I’m pretty sure that’s what happens on “Midnight Rambler.” It is a blues locomotive. It’s not as clever as the Beatles’ “Maxwell’s Silver Hammer,” but it’s not meant to be. While the Beatles got more cerebral over the course of their career, the Stones, if anything, got even less. Like a crocodile, that de-evolution has allowed them to survive.

7. “You Got the Silver” was the first time Keith Richards had ever been given a full lead vocal on a Rolling Stones album. That in and of itself is fairly remarkable. By 1969, Mick Jagger was certainly established as the only lead singer of the Rolling Stones, and to give Keith his own lead vocal almost seems against the rules. Which, luckily, is also very rock & roll. And it’s a good thing they chose to break the rules, because this is perhaps one of the most empathetic vocals on the album. Keith doesn’t have a good voice, but he has one that is true and full of pathos. The Stones are not generally a great band for lyrics, but these are some of the most well-wrought on the album: “Hey baby/What’s in your eyes/I see them shining/Like airplane lights.” Or a lyric as simple as “You got my heart/You got my soul/You got the silver/You got the gold.” It’s a sensitive, perfectly pitched performance, which builds up into a rocking coda.

8. “Monkey Man” begins with nebulous piano/guitar interplay which vaguely echoes “Gimme Shelter” before Keith Richards and Charlie Watts push it aside with a literal one-two punch at 00:21. Guitar and drums are in the driver’s seat until the bridge at 2:35, which sounds huge and orchestral, despite the fact that no new instruments are introduced. Mick Jagger cuts the bridge short at 3:13, with a re-entrance so pained you can hear the spit on the microphone. Playing around with the sonic space of this track—really dry, close mic’d guitars vs. the lush, expansive piano sounds—creates a great give and take, almost like the track is expanding and contracting as it goes along. It’s not anything new, but it is thoughtful and well done.

9. Finally, inevitably, we get to “You Can’t Always Get What You Want.” It is the loudest, most decadent, most complex song of the lot. The use of the choir is sublime and subversive—turning the Man’s institutions against him—the French horn is beautiful, and the rest of the band in fine form. The little details never fail to impress me in this tune, like the way Mick over-enunciates his “t’s” in the first verse, mocking the choir, or how the choir fades out as the organ fades in on the final vamp. I think it’s some of producer Jimmy Miller’s finest work, hands down. “Get What You Want” has been called the Stones’ response to “Hey Jude,” and that’s certainly evident. But, again, while the Beatles get more complex throughout the song, the Stones again get more elemental, stripping the song to its barest elements before building it back up.   Most importantly, it contrasts with Let It Bleed‘s opening message. The album begins on a dark, uncertain note, and over the course of the next half-hour goes through jilted love and serial killers. But its final message is one of dogged hope and practical optimism. I can’t think of a better way to end the album—and the decade—than that.

Let it Bleed is a guide to rock & roll in all the forms it was and ever will be: the symphonic, the gutbucket, the poignant and the sexy. I come back to this album again and again because to me, this is what the music is supposed to sound like. Please bury me with a copy.

Album of the Week: Let it Bleed, The Rolling Stones (Side 1)


I wanted to start a little dialogue on what makes the Rolling Stones so great, so I challenged Matt Fogelson of Fine Tuning to talk about his favorite album, Exile on Main St, while I talked about Let it Bleed. Matt writes a hell of a blog, and you should check out his thoughts here.

Why are the Rolling Stones the Greatest Rock & Roll Band in the World? Is it because they’re all old as dirt and still touring 50 years after they first got together? No. Is it because Mick Jagger and Keith Richards have transcended their human forms and become archetypes in their own lives? No.

It is simply because they play rock & roll better than any other band. They are not the fastest, they are not the most talented, and they are not the flashiest. But as a band, they have the best handle on what rock & roll music is supposed to sound like: organic, slightly sloppy. Rollicking, a touch boozy, hopped up on sex and cigarettes. They are the Greatest Rock & Roll Band in the World because they may actually be the Only Rock & Roll Band in the World.

The Beatles played rock & roll, but not much after Rubber Soul. Led Zeppelin played rock—rock & roll’s heavier, angrier cousin. But the Rolling Stones have always just done rock & roll, and on this one album, 1969’s Let it Bleed, they not only played rock & roll, but played it with all its possible shadings: melancholy country, speed-freak blues, symphonic excess.

It is my favorite Rolling Stones album, and maybe even my favorite album ever.

And when I say it’s my favorite album, I mean that both a set of songs and as a physical object: the disc, the cover art. The cover is weird, to say the least. Cake toppers in the shape of the band, a clock, pizza. Hmm. Then flip to the back. The whole arrangement is wrecked. Record broken, tape pulled out, cake toppers scattered all to hell. One slice pizza, one slice cake removed. The message is clear: take your twee, ordered existence and shove it. Oh, and give me a slice of that damn pizza.

Then, the inside sleeve, black ink printed on lavender paper, a color so delicate that it can’t help but seem decadent. And what does it say, after the credits and right under the “boys in the back room?” All caps, bold type: THIS RECORD SHOULD BE PLAYED LOUD.

Before we even get to the music, the Stones have just done a master class in rock & roll aesthetics. It is a both a sneering, over-the-top, caveman product coupled with a self-consciousness, chummy and informal.

Side One

1. “Gimme Shelter,” the album’s opener, has rightly been pegged as one of the 60’s definitive songs. It captures the zeitgeist at the end of an era, where innocence and optimism were starting to give way to darker impulses and excesses—rape, murder, as background vocalist Merry Clayton screams. What I think is a little under-celebrated about this track, though, is the intro. It actually seems to fade in, which is an unusual choice even today, and gives the listener the impression that they have opened a door and interrupted an elemental something that has always been in progress.

My favorite moment, though, comes at 3:03. Right after Merry Clayton’s famous voice crack at about 3:01-3:02, you can hear Mick Jagger in the background go “Whoo!” (Listen on headphones and turn it up—might take you a couple passes, but I promise it’s there.) That’s the kind of organic, slightly sloppy detail that makes this album such a winner.

Right around the time of Let It Bleed’s release. Brian Jones, second from left, would die soon after the album’s completion. Conspiracy theories galore abound.

2. The next song cuts a beautiful contrast to the scope and power of “Gimme Shelter.” That’s another part of this record’s appeal, at least for me: each track presents something a little different from its predecessor, and that contrast heightens the appeal of each new song. “Love in Vain” is one of the most sensitive, intimate performances the Stones ever laid down. It’s not so much a rock & roll song as pure country blues, a tribute to rock & roll’s roots and just one of the ways that the Stones manage to keep touch with those elements on the record. The Beatles put out Abbey Road just days before Let it Bleed was released, and from this microcosm, it’s hard to imagine two more different records—“Love in Vain” is resolutely traditional rather than modern.

3. The case of “Country Honk” is a curious one. It would appear to be a re-working of “Honky Tonk Women,” which was released in July 1969, but in reality, this country-rock version was recorded first, back in March. After “Honky Tonk Women” was released as a single, this prototype version found its way onto Let it Bleed. Why?

The simple answer is that it was probably intended as album filler. But its inclusion offers a great window onto the band’s creative process, and plays around with the notion of an “unplugged” version a good twenty years before MTV started using the term. It’s an atmospheric track that almost convinces you that it was recorded on a Mississippi street corner, an illusion helped by another great off-the-cuff Mick Jagger performance in the introduction.

4. When I first deciphered the lyrics to “Live With Me” in my tender pre-teenage years, I knew without a doubt that this was not one I should play in the car with my parents. This song is unrepentantly dirty, with a nasty, strutting groove. The bass intro alone is enough to loosen your belt, and you expect to discover a hickey on your neck by the time the song explodes in a fearsome Bobby Keys saxophone solo. Like some much of this album, it’s a lesson on another part of rock & roll’s DNA: sex is ingrained in the music (just look up the origins of the term “rock & roll,” why dontcha?), and the Stones provide a potent reminder here.

5. If I have to admit that there’s a weak song on this album, I’ll throw “Let it Bleed” to the lions. Like “Country Honk,” it was probably intended as filler. It’s fine, but not exceptional, and seems like it was written just so the album could have a title track. There is, though, one redeeming moment. The lyric “I was dreaming of a steel guitar engagement/when you drunk my health in scented jasmine tea” has always struck me as a weird and beautiful piece of imagery. I think it’s something about the contrast of metal and tea—inorganic and organic. Make of it what you will.

Phew! That’s it for side one–tune back in next week, and I’ll flip the album over and discuss side two…serial killers, monkeys, and a boy’s choir await!

Song of the Week: “Can’t You Hear Me Knocking,” The Rolling Stones

 Click Here to Listen to “Can’t You Hear Me Knocking,” by The Rolling Stones

If you knew me in high school, you would have known that for years I was a middling saxophone player in the school band. I was actually first chair of my section for a while—but only because I was the only tenor sax player in the band.

I picked up saxophone in fourth grade because I thought it was undisputedly the coolest of the band instruments. That was due, in large part, to the fact that I heard it on the oldies station much more than any other instrument available to me at the time. When I was still learning the instrument, I looked up to big names like John Coltrane and Charlie Parker, who dazzled me with their chromatic runs and effortless command of their horns. As I got older and realized that level of playing was beyond me, I found myself a little discouraged. Did I have to be able to play like those guys to be good?

I found my answer by listening to different players in different sub-genres of jazz (Stan Getz, of course), but also by remembering the type of saxophone that got me interested in the first place. And given my growing infatuation with The Rolling Stones, that increasingly meant I was listening to one player: Bobby Keys.

He was a fixture on the Stones’ best albums, providing a sound that kept the band rooted in the jump blues that birthed rock & roll. While other groups moved towards increasingly longer guitar solos, the Stones realized that letting Bobby blat to his heart’s content was a hip move.

His best work was arguably on 1971’s Sticky Fingers. The solo on “Brown Sugar” would have been enough to cement his place on the rock & roll saxophone podium, but I never thought it was his best. That honor goes to “Can’t You Hear Me Knocking,” which may provide the longest Bobby Keys solo in the Stones catalogue—approximately 1:40 in length.

It’s here that a listener gets a clear idea of what kind of player Keys really was. This solo marks Keys as a true musician and integral member of the band rather than a sideman brought it for bits of sonic texture. He doesn’t play anything over-the-moon in terms of technique, but he plays with a great feel (the opening trills at 2:59-3:07), and makes some good harmonic choices to add tension, rather than the relatively straightforward licks in “Brown Sugar.”

For what it’s worth, he also once threw a TV out of a hotel window with Keith. The video’s on Youtube.

No matter what he plays, Keys always retains that signature raunchy tone. That’s what I thought saxophone was supposed to sound like as a kid—and it took me years to figure out that mine didn’t sound that way partly because I wasn’t using the right mouthpiece.

That ragged tone is so important to the composition because it ties the overdriven, distorted first half of the song to the much mellower jam in the song’s jazz-tinged second half. I don’t think anyone realized it at the time, but it’s because the saxophone had a foot in both worlds, the rock and the jazz, that allowed it to bridge that sonic gap. The second half of the song, you see, was never supposed to be kept or even recorded—it was a spontaneous studio jam (or so legend has it). It might be a bit much to say that Bobby Keys’ sax solo is what made the second half of “Can’t You Hear Me Knocking” work, but I don’t think it’s far off.

Ultimately, I haven’t played much sax in the last five years—guitar is a much more economical instrument and a more enjoyable one to play by yourself—but news of Keys’ death was still a bit of a blow. For me, he represented the same thing that punk-pop bands meant to me when I started playing guitar: that you didn’t have to be the best to sound the best.

Song of the Week: Shattered, The Rolling Stones

Click Here to listen to “Shattered,” by the Rolling Stones

It was Mick Jagger’s birthday on Saturday, and that’s enough of an excuse for me to spotlight a Rolling Stones song this week. This tune, the closing track off of 1978’s Some Girls, features one of my favorite vocals in the Stones’ catalogue.

No one is going to argue that Mick is the most technically proficient vocalist of all time, but the great thing about rock & roll is that no one cares how you sound as long as you mean it. There’s nothing technically complex about “Shattered”—no tricky interval jumps, no impressive vibrato. In fact, it’s basically rap. Like I talked about last week with Van Morrison, though, Mick’s strength is in his inflection and rhythmic sense. Like the way he intones insouciantly at 0:32 that “life is just a cocktail party,” or his surprise at 1:03 when he discovers “I can’t give it away on 7th avenue” (love the way he bends the last syllable of “avenue”).

These little inflections balance the sections where he screams and repeats himself almost like a tic, creating counter-rhythms and building musical tension. The words that get this treatment: sex, success, up, tough, and flatter, respectively, unlock a deeper tension in the tune.

“Life is just a cocktail party,” and the other lines are sung with this glassy-eyed, oblivious delivery, coked-out and blasé, while the words that he screams all relate to New York City’s image—sexy, successful, tough. The constant ping-ponging back and forth between the two styles gives a pretty good idea of New York in the late ‘70s and early 80’s—for some, a spaced-out substance fueled pleasure center (hi, Studio 54!), and for others a dangerous, dirty metropolis. Maybe Mick didn’t intend that, but he just turned 71,  so let’s cut him some slack and just say he did, shall we?

Top 5: Songs for Leaving

In the spirit of High Fidelity, I like to compile top 5 lists every now and again. Since I’ll be a college graduate in 48 hours, I figured now might be the time to put a top 5 list up on here. Leaving a place filled with people I’ve come to know and love over the past four years has provoked a slurry of emotions that I can’t separate out into neat categories. So these songs embrace the complexity and the contradictions of leaving a place and the people in it.

 

1. Langhorne Slim and the Law, Salvation

One of the very best concerts I’ve been to in my time at college was Langhorne Slim and the Law—an incredible amount of energy, spirit, and great music. This is one of their quieter tracks, and hits all the harder because of it. The quiet, subdued instrumentation, including a gentle banjo line, lets the lyrics breathe. The lyrics are plain but not inelegant, and Langhorne Slim’s voice emotes beautifully. Halfway between a bleat and a scream, it sounds raw and unguarded. When he sings “I hate to leave but I know/it’s time to go,” he manages to encompass both resignation and regret.

 

2. Tom Petty, Into the Great Wide Open

Ok, granted, Eddie’s just finishing high school in this song, but on the cusp of finishing college, I can certainly identify with “Into the Great Wide Open.” I think this song captures the really knotty feeling of moving on to something else—so much possibility, but also a real fear of getting swallowed up. Musically, this is Tom at his most Byrds-influenced—big, clean Rickenbacker guitars with plenty of shimmer. This man has got songwriting down, and I’m consistently amazed at this ability to work the same six chords as everyone else in new ways. I’ve linked to the actual music video, because it’s kind of 90s kitschy (featuring Tom doing his best Dickens impersonation) but actually has a pretty sophisticated narrative—and a very young Johnny Depp.

 

3. Frank Turner, Polaroid Picture

If I got to design a graduation ceremony, I’d play this song. Like Langhorne Slim, Frank Turner has a voice where you believe everything he says. Here, he sings about the importance of trying to keep a moment, to remove it from the flow of time in order to save it. The lyrics are simultaneously about being very present (“let go of the little distractions/hold close to the ones that you love”) and very forward looking (“cause we won’t be here this time next year/so while you can take a picture of us”), the strange paradox that leaving a place always provokes.

 

4. Nickel Creek, Rest of My Life

“The battle is over/Here we all lie/In a dry sea of Solo cups/With the sun in our eyes.” I love this whole album, of course, but the first verse of the first track, with lyrics by Chris Thile, cuts right to the heart of the moment. The lyrics start sardonic—definitely a glass-half-empty perspective on starting anew, but during the bridge at 2:00, with some orchestral chops that build tension, things begin to shift. As Thile stretches out the lines “I’m coming to, I’m turning myself into something a little less promising/A little more useful,” the harmonies move under him and resolve into a major tonality at 2:38, as Sean and Sara Watkins’ beautiful backing vocals kick in. Cynicism interspersed with brief moments of clarity and light.

 

5. The Rolling Stones, Shine a Light

This song, hidden in the depths of 1972’s Exile On Main Street, was written about deceased band member Brian Jones, who died in 1969. Musically, it has a lot in common with “You Can’t Always Get What You Want”—slow piano intro that kicks into a gospel strut after about 3 seconds of reggae organ (00:58-1:01). It’s an almost uncharacteristically layered sound for the Stones, and the choir backing at 2:00 right before Mick Taylor’s guitar solo gives the whole thing a luxurious sonic feel. Lyrically, it contains what I think is the best blessing you can give someone. I use it for anyone who I don’t think I’ll see for a while, no matter what the circumstance. “May the good Lord shine a light on you/make every song your favorite tune.”

 

Song of the Week: Factory Girl, The Rolling Stones

Click Here to Listen to “Factory Girl,” by The Rolling Stones

Sometime around the mid-1800s, a school of rouge artists in France decided to stop painting overwrought, fanciful pictures in favor of depicting real subjects truthfully and without artifice. In the ensuing years, this new movement, dubbed realism, swept European art.

What, pray tell, does this have to do with the World’s Greatest Rock & Roll Band?

Well, “Factory Girl,” off of 1968’s Beggar’s Banquet, is the musical equivalent of a realist painting. It depicts love in its unvarnished state—its imperfections, its struggles, and ultimately its beauty. The woman Mick Jagger sings about is no Venus: she prefers scarves to hats, her clothes need mending, and her knee is “much too fat.” Make of that what you will, but its delivered with genuine sentiment and an implicit acknowledgement that for most, this is what love is. It’s no accident, in my opinion, that this song comes right before “Salt of the Earth” on the album.

The music certainly helps the beauty. Keith Richards’ flat picked guitar arpeggios, as well as the mandolin and fiddle, manage to create a pan-Atlantic folk sound that is humble and unassuming. It sounds equally indebted to traditional English dance tunes as well as American bluegrass—perhaps not such a stretch, given the close relationship between the two genres. It’s a song that you could easily re-create in the living room with a few friends.

There are other love songs by the Stones that get more attention—“Ruby Tuesday,” “Angie,” even “Let’s Spend the Night Together”—but for my money, this is one of their most honest, and one of their best.