And now, some of you might be thinking, we get back to the real thing; the real and sometimes awkward thing known as rock ‘n’ roll. Certainly The Rolling Stones have discovered, since last I wrote about them, that the 60s are definitively over (the death of Brian Jones in July ’69 was their own sad part in that scene) and the early 70s are busy wiping out whatever else was left. This was a group at its peak; this was also a group so notorious that they weren’t allowed to record in any Los Angeles studios, a bunch of young men who simply ran with bohemianism after their first manager had hyped them as bad boys. Sex, dope, freedom; well, probably yes to the first two, but absolute freedom, no. Sure, they got their own mobile studio so they didn’t have to worry about unions or organizations, but the success of Sticky Fingers (where the first two songs here begin each side, respectively) meant exile, estrangement and exhaustion. Sometimes being modest, keeping things small and hidden, is the best strategy; live a bourgeois life and then make shocking music, to paraphrase Flaubert. But, due to circumstances and personality, that wasn’t an option. If you’re going to be the baddest bunch of badasses around, to really be bohemian artists, movement and some measure of desperation are crucial.
Time is also of the essence; “Brown Sugar” was recorded very quickly at Muscle Shoals, in Alabama, where almost no one knew who they were. It’s Jagger’s song, lyrics and music (Richards cleaned up the music a little, he says) and while Marsha Hunt says it’s in part about her, it is a straight-out-of-the-unconscious song about the roots of rock, about young girls and house boys, about slavery and money, about Africa and America. Jagger is still (at this stage!) saying “I’m no school boy but I know what I like” (hmm) as if he really needs to tell us he’s down for whatever; the sugar may be a girl, a drug, music, or the whole thing altogether. His question is rhetorical; or is it? Certainly the music is a rave-up, the guitar and horns and Jagger’s “whoo”s making it sound like some kind of houseparty, and everyone in the song seems to be having fun, save for the poor women being whipped at the beginning (and in the murk of this song, you can only imagine what the hell’s happening afterward, or how much fun the man in question is having at any given time). It’s always the midnight hour in this song, the culmination one day and start of the next; a time when anything is possible. So much of this noisy song points towards sounds that aren’t there – the whipcracks, the grunts and groans, the chains, the oohs and aahs, wading into that deep water where rock and roll isn’t just a metaphor anymore, but real. Jagger is audibly strutting here and the band is eagerly jumping in, licking and savouring the whole thing with relish, as if to say, well, yeah, the roots of rock ‘n’ roll are kinda umm, unpleasant, but hey, look what we got now! We’re in Alabama, dammit, right down here in a damn shack across the street from (somehow appropriately) a cemetery. Ghosts abound, unnerving ones, and this is one big whistle to say, we aren’t afraid, we can look at pain and degradation and find sex and exultation even in that.
Is this an ugly song, at its heart? Is Jagger’s wondering just where all this pleasure is coming from kind of obvious? Or is there something just so raw here that even he can only really allude to it? The oomph of the song sweeps a lot of these questions away, and certainly most who bought it in the US and UK wouldn’t care too much about them. It rocks, it’s the Stones, it sounds rough and sexy, and so of course it’s a hit. The group isn’t so much testing its audience here as more or less slapping them in the face, the violence of the song somehow seeping out to an audience willing to share it. That they played this song for the first time at Altamont is eerie, to say the least.
“Bitch” is a simpler affair; love is blue, as Paul Mariat has it, but for Jagger and Richards it’s just a bitch, making you weak, insatiable, sloppy, destroying any and all willpower. I can’t say I remember these songs when they came out (I was only four at the time) but I remember hearing this only too well in a used bookstore in Washington D.C. in the hot summer of ’99. I had gone down there to stay with my godmother while I was visiting/hanging out with a guy I’d gotten to know very well indeed online (emails every day, that sort of thing); he had dumped me asap (the day after I’d arrived) and in hearing this I could certainly sympathize with Jagger’s complaints. I couldn’t sleep or think straight on the way down, I felt possessed; even after the dumping, there was only one thing on my mind, besides the incredible heat and humidity, and that was the possibility of hearing from him in some way. I had gone into the thing wholeheartedly and had to reach out to anything and anyone who could help me through my empty days. Even though he’s in a relationship, it’s a drain; the “yeah yeah yeah”s here are affirmations, high-fives from him to me, that excitement is confounding and frustrating, that even if the relationship is good, it still can have you at its mercy, that love is unapologetic and nothing can replace it – everything else, sleep, food, everything else is secondary. The horns stab at him like prongs here, the guitar winks, the whole song is a huge agitation, swishing this way and that, relentless, just as love is. The big bass drum pounds along with his heart, and I remember getting some solace from this, that love possesses and takes over, and the poor physical body just has to put up with it, in the hopes that something more peaceful might develop out of it all. Sometimes it does, and sometimes it doesn’t.
And now, finally, welcome everyone, to the man who started it all. The only rock ‘n’ roller my father could abide; the one who will likely outlive all others, God willing. Chuck Berry. Rock ‘n’ roll is his thing and everyone else is more or less just winging it from there. To say the Stones owe a lot to him is a massive understatement; even after having a rough time of it playing with him, Richards had to forgive Berry, because he is the fount of all of this, this mixture of country and r&b, sounding so natural at this time but so radical in the 50s. Berry's “Let It Rock*” (the title’s never mentioned in the song) is about railroad workers in Alabama finishing up building some track, waiting to be paid for the week, resting, playing games or just hanging out, when the foreman rushes to them, nearly breathless, telling them there’s an unscheduled train coming this way, so clear out, get off the tracks. They do, moving bodies and teepees and equipment, the song ending with them safe and a train about to appear; whether it stops in time (after all, there’s no more track for it) is hard to say, but the propulsive rhythm suggests that the train can’t stop now, it’s too late, and whatever happens next is anyone’s guess. The Stones play it faithfully enough, and again metaphors abound; the South and the heat; the unstoppable thing that is rock; the longing for freedom from strife and search for pleasure; the sudden chaos and unpredictability of life itself. One minute you’re throwing dice and the next you’re running around like crazy, trying to avoid injury or even death. Like so many Berry songs it says so much while being so simple, so elemental, both musically and lyrically. The future is here, the train is coming; the men who are helping it to happen live in danger, but pioneers always do.
The Stones were familiar with hairy situations, but like these workers they too would have to scatter fast, be resourceful and somehow still retain those bohemian roots, as well. (“Bitch” was recorded in London, “Let It Rock” live in Leeds; is this the only triple-a-side where recorded in three different places? I think so.) All this running around takes its toll, as they would find out; the complaints of “Bitch” could just as equally apply to a love affair or with (to a certain extent) the love of music itself, a love that equally cannot be faked.
The roughness and honesty of these songs – the fountains and the source, if you like – are admirable, disturbing, itchy. The rave-up is about sex and slavery; the rocker is about the pains, not pleasures, of love; but here at the end is a wake-up call to live, to prize life above everything else, to lose your blues in brand new shoes. The Stones tried to do this, but after a while they settled for the bourgeois life without that much rawness seeping out; there are only so many ways to be bad, genuinely bad, before it begins to pall. (The always elegant and ever-slightly-sarcastic drumming of Charlie Watts is like a constant rejoinder here that rock ‘n’ roll may be all well and good, but jazz came before it and hovers above it like an open umbrella.) Chuck Berry is the winner here, if there’s to be a contest, and really, there is no contest; it’s his world and the Stones roll around in it, now and then reflecting on where it all started, on where rock ‘n’ roll got its name in the first place. Rock is coming of age**, just teetering on being respectable, whether it wants to be or not. That this was stopped from going to #1 by a song that is genuinely more creepy (“Knock Three Times”) shows that pop is somehow always able to smuggle the most dreadful things and have no one notice, whereas rock has to try harder and harder to do what it once did: shock.
Next up: what if freedom is sacrificed for something greater?
*In a few months a fashion boutique/hangout in Chelsea’s World’s End area will also be named Let It Rock; it will reach back to the 50s at first, but then will turn into a place where the future will be shaped. Its proprietors: Malcolm McLaren and Vivienne Westwood.
**If it started in ’55, it’s now in its own “sweet sixteen” phase.