Rolling Stones! What the heck are the Rolling Stones doing in Green Man Review!?!? Having tapped virtually every other place in the world for source material, have they finally created the album of Elizabethan folk music that “Lady Jane” hinted at, so very long ago? Well … no. In fact Forty Licks is a two disc best-of set that was probably designed around a board room table by cigar smoking lawyers seeking to make a quick few million bucks on a Christmas release, the same way The Beatles 1 had done the previous year. The thing is, they got it right for a change! These Forty Licks are essential slices of the big pie that Mick’n’Keef, Charlie (he was good tonight, wasn’t’e), Bill, Brian, Ronnie, Mick Taylor and their associates have been baking since 1964! 1964! (That’s FORTY @#$%in’ years ago mate!)
Forty years ago, I was browsing the record bins at the Hamilton Shopping Centre and came across the first Rolling Stones album. The front cover had no words, just five of the ugliest looking street punks my mother had ever seen on a record sleeve. Aah, vinyl, 12 inch jackets, a poster inside, and a dozen or so whacks at the rawest English rockin’ blues fusion I had ever heard. To this day that first Stones’ album remains one of my absolute favourite records. Not a bad track. And it’s basic. Anglification of American musical genres. Blues and rock. The Rolling Stones played Americana! They owned Chuck Berry. Jimmy Reed. Slim Harpo. And yet, it’s not so much that they sounded like the source, they adapted it and twisted it, and made everything they touched sound “Stones-y.” They weren’t in matching suits, clean and well-mannered like the Beatles – this was a gang. Their full-tilt attack on Buddy Holly’s bouncy “Not Fade Away” is the only representative of that album to appear on Forty Licks but it tells the story. With no regard for politesse they just rip into the song. Extraordinary.
The first disc covers 1963-1971, while 1971-present appear on disc two. The geniuses who compiled Forty Licks did not organize it chronologically, they took the songs and made them flow. Both discs are potent. The first one starts off with “Street Fighting Man” from the also essential album Beggar’s Banquet. Recalling the arrival of this album in 1968 (just in time for Christmas) I remember the sound of the acoustic guitars. The Stones were one of the first bands to utilize the warmth and intimacy of acoustic guitars within the electric rock format. And the sound that Jimmy Miller drew from those acoustics laid a stunning foundation for the “marching, charging feet, boy!” Beggar’s Banquet was released amid a flurry of controversy, both for the political nature of the songs, and the original cover, a graffitti covered toilet wall. “Sympathy For the Devil” also appears on the first disc.
Let It Bleed (another must own album) followed in 1969 and took the concepts and sound from Beggar’s Banquet up another notch. The incredible “Gimme Shelter,” the full version of “You Can’t Always Get What You Want,” and the country sound of “Wild Horses” (which comes off Sticky Fingers) show the extreme variety of influences the Stones were never afraid to include. Between the samples from these two brilliant albums Forty Licks drops in as many of their hit singles as fit! “Under My Thumb,” “19th Nervous Breakdown,” “The Last Time,” “Paint It Black,” and the definitive Stones song, “I Can’t Get No Satisfaction” are all presented in crystalline re-mastered glory. The Stones, in this first decade, earned the title “the Greatest Rock’n’Roll Band on Earth” by being just that.
Disc Two, is where it becomes a little more problematic, and yet there is no denying that when Jagger and Richards get together something is going to happen. From ’63-’68 the members of the band were the founders Mick Jagger (lips), Keith Richards (guitar), Bill Wyman (bass), Charlie Watts (drums) and multi-instrumentalist Brian Jones. Pianist and school-chum Ian Stewart was deemed too un-photogenic to be officially part of the band, so he became road manager, pal, on-stage (and in the studio) keyboardist. Pictures of Stu show a regular bloke, big and tough-looking; obviously he didn’t fit in with the fey prancing Michael Jagger. But musically he was perfect. Jones allowed chemical experimentation to distract him and he was replaced in 1969 with the young blond lead guitarist Mick Taylor. Jones said, “I no longer see eye to eye with the other over the discs we are cutting.” Within a couple of months he was dead. Taylor (ex-John Mayall Band) brought an edge to the band, which allowed them to focus on the riff-oriented rock that the ’70s albums showcase.
“Brown Sugar” is the prime example of the kind of sound Taylor brought with him. If Jones had been in the band for this song, he might have added a Morrocan horn or a sitar. Instead it is guitar-based rock. And incredible. Exile On Main Street, 1972’s double album (an essential purchase) yielded two hit singles “Tumbling Dice” and “Happy” which both appear on Forty Licks. They were influenced by R&B, reggae, New Orleans funk, and all these influences show up in one way or another. Some saxophone jazz? You bet. Bring in Sonny Rollins to play tenor! The Stones are not afraid to add any ingredient to their gumbo! And still Keef comes up with the most memorable guitar riffs, melodic yet raunchy. After Mick Taylor left the band, Keith Richards lookalike Ron Wood joined up. He had been basically playing the Keith role with Rod Stewart and the Faces for years, and slid into place like fingers in a glove. The guitar interplay became instinctive. Bill Wyman left the band in 1992, and was not replaced. A variety of bassists would substitute over the years.
Ballads, blues, reggae, soul, rockers and even disco…the Rolling Stones have done it all in the last 40 years. They left behind them a trail of absolutely crucial albums. I’ve tried to highlight the most important ones. But for the beginner, or for someone who just wants to listen to a streamlined history, this double-disc set is perfect. There are four new tracks for the collector. Maybe the new songs aren’t classics, but they fit in, they sound like the Stones, and they rock. Elizabethan folk music? Only if QE2 is the Elizabeth you’re talking about!
(Rolling Stones Records/ABKCO/Virgin/Decca, 2002)