Alternative Version, demo, Get This!, Gone but not forgotten

Rollin’ and Tumblin’

What’s in a name? They may have been The Rolling Stones to plummy BBC announcers and chummy American TV hosts, but by the ’70s, they’d fallen mononymously into just the Stones; a name that suited the music that would come to define them.

The Rolling Stones was all about frantically scrubbed Bo Diddley rhythms and snake-hipped shaken maracas, three minutes of pop r’n’b that when played with a pout made the front row wet their knickers. As the principal players slowed down the gear changes in inverse proportion to the length of their songs and the length of their already-collar bothering hair, they became The Stones; dangerous, devious and undeniably dynamite.

Would you let your daughter marry a Rolling Stone? asked Andrew Loog Oldham in the ’60s? No chance, mister. And there was absolutely no chance you’d want her anywhere near a skinny, sexed-up and strung-out Stone a short handful of years later. No chance at all.

There’s a guitar alchemy in the Stones that you’ll find in no other band since or ever. It’s all over Sticky Fingers and Exile On Main Street like A-class-enhanced quicksilver; a fluid melding together of Mick Taylor’s straightforward yet beautifully executed 6 string bluesisms and the loose riffing of Micawber, Keith Richards’ mangled Telecaster, bastardised to just 5 strings and tuned to open G.

Mick’s guitar sounded like this, Keith’s guitar sounded like that…and when they played together, they created an unattainable third sound; a new, harmonious chord full of air and promise, a new feel, a new something; magical, otherworldly and impossible to replicate. Sure, anyone can have the tools, but only Mick and Keith had the talent, the telepathy and the feel. (Well, later on, Ronnie would come to disprove that theory, but let’s not let that get in the way of things for now). And it’s only Mick and Keef (that’s the other Mick, the more famous Stone) who have the know-how to turn the rough stuff into polished diamonds.

The StonesTumbling Dice

My favourite Stones track will always be Tumbling Dice. It’s got everything; telepathic guitars, horns, soul, swagger, groove. That slinky, double-stringed opening riff is suitably louche and rakish, a setting out of the stall like no other.

As Keith is wont to do, he had been toying with the riff and feel of the track for a year, leaving it aside, allowing it to stew and marinade in the swill of Stones’ rehearsals, coming back to it time and again until the Stones found themselves avoiding tax in the south of France when, by this point, it was a tune ripe for recording. Initial versions were faster, less-focused and featured a hackneyed Jagger vocal that he’d be quick to abandon.

The StonesGood Time Woman (Tumbling Dice early version)

The whole of Exile On Main Street is a masterclass in studied looseness and the session track above plus the finished Tumbling Dice is the epitome of this. It might appear ragged and funky, but that sure takes a lot of practise. And alcohol. And drugs. And beautiful women wherever you turn. To have been a Stone in ’72…

Keith plays it initially with a gentle touch, feeling his way in with the opening riff until his band arrives – a decidely unusual version of the Stones for once. There was no Bill Wyman for starters. He’d gone AWOL somewhere in the south of France, fed up while the others worked all night and slept all day. He’d be back, just not in time to add his signature to what would become the lead single from Exile On Main Street. Bass duties were taken instead by Mick Taylor. To compensate for lack of rhythm guitar, Jagger himself was encouraged to get on board. Once they’re locked in and zoned out, Keith plays harder. Charlie follows, swinging the groove with understated power. And Keith plays harder again. Chugga-chugga-chugga. It’s rock’s most famous (some might say cliched) riff, played exactly the way you’ve been trying to master it since it first kissed your ears. Five strings, open G, remember.

The Stones worked up the slack rhythm track in NellcĂ´te, their rented French villa, but it wouldn’t be until Jagger had a random conversation with his housekeeper in L.A. about gambling that he’d have a lyric he was happy with. Dropping the ‘good time woman‘ lyric of the initial version, Jagger instead compares the sins of gambling to the sins of cheating and creates a lyric in simpatico to the music.

By the time Exile… was released, the Stones had overdubbed Atlantic soul brass courtesy of honourable Stone, Bobby Keys and piano, courtesy of the ubiquitous Nicky Hopkins. The ace in the pack was the three-girl choir, sashaying in on a riot of “ooooh-yeahs” and harmonised “bay-bees”. They duet with Jagger throughout, he rubbery, with a mouthful of mid Atlantic Cockney vowels – “yeo caaahn be mah paaaa-tnah ein cra-ah-aha-ahm” – and they stately and majestic, just on the right side of controlled.

Factor in the dueling guitars, the breath-gathering drop-out, the slide part that I’m not even sure is there but sounds like it is and you have one of the very best – the very best, if y’ask me – Stones’ tracks. Not Rolling Stones. Stones.

 

 

 

Alternative Version, Get This!, Gone but not forgotten, Live!, Peel Sessions

The Stuff I Got Gonna Bust Your Brains Out

robert johnson

That’s the haunted figure of Robert Johnson, womanisin’, gamblin’, soul-sellin’ deep South bluesman with a hell hound on his tail. Robert had the uncanny knack of channeling all sorts of bad voodoo via his unnaturally long fingers into his music and into the ether forever. To this day, the dusty grooves on his old 1930’s 78s spark with the crackle and pop of a life gone wrong.

Robert JohnsonStop Breaking Down:

His songs, all rudimentary strumming and picking, have been picked up and picked apart by all manner of blues-influenced groups, not least the Rolling Stones.

stones 72

No strangers to a stolen blues riff and a Robert Johnson tune (their version of Love In Vain is the definitive country/blues weeper), the Stones really out-did themselves when they came to tackle Stop Breaking Down. It’s a completely different song to the original.

Rolling StonesStop Breaking Down:

A total groove with Charlie playing just behind the beat, it’s a beautiful soup of chugging, riffing rhythm guitar and an asthmatic wheezing lead hanging on for dear life like the ash at the end of Keith’s ubiquitous cigarette. Between Jagger’s verses, the band swagger in that tight but loose way that no band has ever since equalled. Listening to it you can almost see Jagger prancing around some massive American stage or other, wiggling his 26″ snakehips to those lucky enough to be able to see them from the back of whatever enormodome they happen to have found themselves in.

stones 72 3

Totally telepathically in synch with one another, the Stones in ’72 would be my time machine moment. Actually, they wouldn’t. Given the chance I’d be going back to 1965 to watch my team win the Scottish league for the last time, hang around a year and catch Dylan go electric then hope for some malfunction or other that would allow me to wait around for 6 years until it was fixed. To be Keith for a day while recording Exile On Main Street. What a time of it. Great hair. Great clothes. Great guitars. Great women. And everything else that goes with it. Like your own plane…

keith plane

…or drinks cabinet on stage…

stones 72 2

The Rolling Stones version of Stop Breaking Down comes towards the end of Side 4 on Exile On Main Street, the loosest, funkiest, grooviest Stones LP of the lot. But you knew that already. That they chose to sequence it where they did (although sandwiched between the blues rock of All Down The Line and southern soul gospel of Shine A Light makes for a strong ending) suggests the Stones had no particular fondness for it, that they considered it an album track at best, perhaps even (gasp) album filler. It certainly never gets a mention in the same breath as the big tracks from the LP (Tumbling Dice, Happy, Rocks Off, Loving Cup…I could go on and on) but to me, as something of a hidden Stones gem, that’s kinda what makes Stop Breaking Down so special.

white stripes

Evoking the spirit of the early, earthy Stones with a punk/blues ferocity not heard since, ooh I dunno, Pussy Galore or someone were whipping up a frenzy at the end of the 80s, the White Stripes version of Stop Breaking Down appeared on their first, self-titled LP. If you’ve not heard it before, it’s just as you might imagine it to sound.

White StripesStop Breaking Down;

Thump. Crash. Thump. Crash. Thump. Crash. “Whooo!”. Screeee. Thump. Thump. “Whoooo!”. Screeeeeeeeeeee!

Two folk standing in a room with a handful of basic instruments between them has never sounded so feral and primal. Nowadays, it’s all the rage. Isn’t it, Black Keys? I know Jack White splits opinion, but for what it’s worth I love the White Stripes.

Later on, they tackled the same track for a BBC session, extending it to twice its length and playing it as a walkin’, talkin’ slow blues.

Thump. Crash. Thump. Crash. Thump. Crash. “Whooo!”. Screeee. Thump. Thump. “Whoooo!”. Screeeeeeeeeeee! At half the speed.

White StripesStop Breaking Down (BBC Session);

*Bonus Track!

Whatever happened to The Bees? I had them pegged as the equal of the Beta Band. Terrific players with a slightly psychedelic take on things. Not so much under the radar as off it completely, they deserved better. Their take on Stop Breaking Down is clearly modelled on the Stones’ version, but with a dual vocal and a nice, understated Hammond holding the whole thing together.

stones exile