Stones Studies, Part II: Character portraits, best practices

In which I dip into the cult of personality

Welcome back. Or, if you’re new here, welcome (and go get up to speed).

As I’ve mentioned, in paring down a fifty-plus-year career to what resonates with me, I arrived at the material spanning 1968-72, give or take a bit on each side; okay, let’s say 1967-73. That’s the gold mine. If you ask me, they’ve never done better.

My evidence relies heavily, though absolutely not wholly, on the character vignettes which dominated the period. These songs leave an enduring impression by functioning as short stories propelled by specific situations, problems, or personalities. What’s more, they often do double duty as analyses of contemporary social ills, and there were a lot of those. Now, any band that was paying attention would have done that: commentary has been a major purpose of art in every age and society. But the Stones made it stick in a special way–and this I attribute to them, to the blend of talent and ambition and chaos that defined them at the time.

Take the year they had in ’67, which more or less clarified the need for what followed. It was inconsistent but not necessarily unsuccessful. The first album, Between the Buttons, altered its track listings for the UK and US releases; both sound very English, because they were doing very English things (and doing them well), but the UK one explores idiosyncratically English themes. “Back Street Girl.” for example, is a portrait of an aristocrat who goes to great lengths to ensure the secrecy of his affair with a lower-class woman. People call it a put-down, and I guess they’ve got a point, but it’s always just struck me as heartbreaking. It’s in waltz time, it’s accentuated by a vibraphone which sounds like a Wurlitzer organ (courtesy, naturally, of Brian Jones); the cumulative effect resembles a music box of broken dreams. Hardly a put-down in the vein of some preceding songs. (I like to construe “Part of Your World” from The Little Mermaid as a kind of response to this song.) For what it’s worth, it was the only song on the album that Mick Jagger liked. As I say, experimentation was crucial to things coming together in earnest.

Also on this album (both versions) is “Miss Amanda Jones,” an upbeat portrait of a girl who rejects the strictures of the upper-class debutante world in favor of a carefree lifestyle. One of my favorites, I might add. It features its share of criticism–“Hey girl, don’t you realize / the money invested in you?”–but it describes a sexist world without being sexist. I’m pretty sure that was just Mick the adventurous lyricist learning to approach a situation from multiple angles simultaneously.

Songs like these already demonstrate a shift away from the reportage of “Mother’s Little Helper” the previous year–an excellent song in its own right, but only in its wake do we hear a pivot toward first-person narration and the unreliable vantage points it invites. Put another way, had the song appeared two years later, we might have heard it from the perspective of the mother herself (though more likely we would not have heard it at all, because drug busts).

The rest of that year was rather marred by the failure of Their Satanic Majesties Request, which was basically their attempt at a Sgt. Pepper (John Lennon was like “seriously?”). They got desperate to fit a mold that they weren’t going to fit, that they had in fact spent their career thus far casting themselves in opposition to, and they were suppressing their natural selves. Hell, their songwriting duo lacked the time and energy to operate on all cylinders between dealing with said drug busts and accompanying prison time.

Speaking of which, it was actually lucky they hadn’t learned their lesson by the next year, because Mick and then-girlfriend Marianne Faithfull’s arrest for cannabis possession on 24 May 1968 was great publicity for the concurrent release of their newest single and best song, “Jumpin’ Jack Flash.”

Did you read that right? Yes: their best song, ever.* A three-minute-forty-two-second encapsulation of their finest qualities. A musical Bildungsroman. A thesis. There are enough proclamations of personal history (beginning at the beginning with “I was born”) to support that reading; the chorus is an even more fundamental statement of identity, augmented by the curious idiom “it’s a gas.” I have always been intrigued by this choice of catchphrase; it sounds like something from the ’40s or ’50s (I had to look up its origin). So it lends the character an anachronistic air, existing out of time, free to travel at will. He’s already a quirky variation on Keith Richards’s gardener, whom Keith had nicknamed “jumping Jack”–the abstract word-painting in the verses, including the quasi-Christlike image of being “crowned with a spike right through [his] head,” only adds to the quirk. Much of the imagery is quite violent, in fact, but we steadily return to the jarring conclusion that “it’s all right.” It occurred to me that part of the appeal of this lyric is the absence of women. No misogyny to get prematurely indignant over; the object is missing. A lot to think about here.

Except it’s tough to think when you’re caught up in that dynamite sound. Keith had finally discovered open tuning (a technique Joni Mitchell had made sexy years ago, but whatever), giving the guitar its glorious timbre, leaning into the root and fifth of the central triad. Unlike the glassy, smooth effect Joni went for, this effect is rough and crackling–in conjunction with Charlie’s hollow drums (sounding not unlike the toy kit he would play on “Street Fighting Man”), which he chugs on like the engine he is; and Mick’s maracas, which he keeps at like his life depends on them for the entire second half of the song. Meanwhile, Keith also takes up the bass (another foreshadowing of “Street Fighting Man”), freeing Bill Wyman to add the Hammond organ, which brings out the triad nicely at the end. And it was the last recording to boast a significant contribution from Brian Jones, this time on rhythm guitar.

Astonishingly, though, the most important thing about this track is that it signified to the world that the Stones were back. It served as a grand reintroduction (a resurrection, if we run with the Christ theme). They had tried their hand at several styles and genres and got a bit lost competing with their peers. Now they were funneling that energy into being themselves. And it shows. They identify closely with it–they’ve performed it over 1,100 times, the most of any song. Makes perfect sense. I like to call “Jumpin’ Jack Flash” the granola of songs: it’s crunchy and it energizes you.

Once the world was riding that high, the group were on the ascent. That fall’s LP, Beggars Banquet, upped its portrait game singlehandedly with “Sympathy for the Devil.” Its lyric, I told a friend recently, is airtight, the height of dramatic monologue. Robert Browning is green with envy in his grave. It’s a self-contained course in global conflict from the Crucifixion to the Protestant Reformation to the Russian Revolution–all out of order, though, as its narrator isn’t bound to any chronological rule. Everything is intentional: of all the monikers this figure goes by, Lucifer denotes the fallen angel, God’s former right-hand man, who has some good in him despite having been maligned over millennia, counterbalancing the overarching message that humanity fancies itself “good” when it is actually responsible for many of the listed atrocities. See what they did there?

On the heels of the hardworking text, this track ushers in a new personality for the band to inhabit: the jam band. It ends after a couple solid minutes of Mick doing his thing and everyone else maintaining the background “whoo-whoo” (they are flagging; he is not). Later, “Stray Cat Blues,” whose lyric you could not pay me to discuss, goes on for a minute and forty-five seconds until Keith’s guitar sounds to me like a chair scraping backwards against the floor…in a cool way. They would stretch this personality onto Let It Bleed with “Let It Bleed,” “Monkey Man,” and “You Can’t Always Get What You Want” (bonus points for being choral); and even more so onto Sticky Fingers with “Sway,” “Sister Morphine,” “Bitch,” “Moonlight Mile,” and the aforementioned “Can’t You Hear Me Knocking” (bonus points for being jazz). This period demonstrates the peak of both their synchronized musicianship and their power to surprise.

Fun fact: “Sympathy” began life as a slow Dylanesque pilgrimage through its lyric. Can you imagine? The narrative wound up a bit too linear and the theme too united for that to work. Another track, “Jigsaw Puzzle,” adheres more recognizably to the Dylan model; each verse meditates on a different subject, including the band members themselves, and we never really find out what the jigsaw puzzle is, although we can take a guess.

Beggars Banquet, it should be noted, not only sustained but expanded the social-commentary trend with “Street Fighting Man,” an expression of perennial relevance. If you’re looking for a portrait there, look no further than the straight-up personification of ideas: “…my name is called disturbance / I shout and scream / I kill the king / I rail at all his servants.” Mick’s lyrical catalogue was becoming a damn portrait gallery.

One year and one member replacement later (hi there, Taylor) came Let It Bleed, my favorite of their albums. It accomplishes a tremendous amount in nine tracks: each track is unique (hell, Charlie’s drum parts alone are unique to each track!); there’s no filler whatsoever (I appreciate their continued allegiance to covering old blues tunes, in this case Robert Johnson’s “Love in Vain”); and enough band mythology has accumulated at this point to lend the recording process some contour and history. Not all of it pleasant: a twenty-one-year-old Merry Clayton *might* have miscarried due to the physical exertion of hollering her head off on the “Gimme Shelter” solo, and Brian Jones departed the band and this plane before the record hit shelves–more on him next week. But you can hardly call it boring.

The opener and closer, respectively “Gimme Shelter” and “You Can’t Always Get What You Want,” are twin giants of the pop canon. In between, the group bend genres–like the countrified (and I believe original…?) take on “Honky Tonk Women”**–and carry on with the portraits–like “Midnight Rambler,” which presumes to be about the Boston Strangler with nary a reference to strangling (only shooting, stabbing, and raping). Clearly that character tradition had been trending darker since “Sympathy.” Elsewhere, Keith gets his first lead vocal on the tender ballad he wrote for his hard-won muse Anita Pallenberg, “You Got the Silver.” Speaking of surprise, we’re pretty quick to forget their ability to write a heartstring-tugger, but several songs from this period pick up where “As Tears Go By” left off (see also: “Wild Horses” and “Angie”). Then there’s “Monkey Man,” Mick’s ironic retort to the public assumption that the group were strung out (heroin = the monkey on your back), an observation that people who purposefully see you as the bad guy will soon enough turn you into the bad guy. I love this track. It trips and blusters and is still somehow graceful. Everyone is in top form. The four-and that Charlie pounds out when your guard is down; Keith’s slinking harmonized riff; Nicky Hopkins’ deft piano flourishes…and I must admit, at the risk of exposing myself for a basic bitch, there is a seductive thrall about a singer who can screech “I’m a monkey” and make you believe it.

The Let It Bleed track I haven’t yet mentioned is “Live with Me.” I will do so now in tandem with possibly my single favorite Stones track, the opener of 1972’s Exile on Main St., “Rocks Off.” These are two prime examples of the final point I’ll make about this period: for all the lyrical conventions the band supposedly cemented, they buck those conventions regularly. The former is a classic stomp–I had it in mind when I wrote about Charlie–full of all their endearingly obnoxious isms, except it’s an offer of domesticity. It uses some trademark coercive language, but with the end of…commitment. What? Mick singing about settling down? That’s not a thing! Or is it? The latter–rendering “Monkey Man” a self-fulfilling prophecy, as by now a few of them were on the hard stuff–refers to doing so much heroin that you can’t get it up. A Stones song about being unable to perform sexually. Who’d have believed it?

Both tracks are a ton of fun besides. To shout out Nicky Hopkins again, he really makes them, particularly “Rocks Off,” which has a piano riff to rival any (and those horns). If nothing else, the track would be brilliant simply for the line “The sunshine bores the daylights out of me.” I think it’s a contender for all-time best album opener. But I digress, which I really can’t afford to do at this late hour.

Another, sadder, component of the history they were collectively accruing was the need for closure in regards to the trials they had survived while others had not. Three years after Brian drowned, “Shine a Light” appeared as Exile‘s penultimate track. It was a tribute to him and to his bandmates’ affection for him despite how difficult and distant he could sometimes be. It reduces me to sobs every time; it’s laced with haunting imagery, and if the dam hasn’t burst by the verse about the angels, the line “Thought I heard one sigh for you” finishes me off without fail. Certain vocal effects even mimic submersion in water. I’m reminded of a friend who drowned when we were teenagers, the first peer of mine to die, how his body looked at the wake. I’m reminded of a host of people who aren’t physically dead but who have been estranged from me over time, whom I still wish the best. And I’m reminded of Brian himself, for reasons I’ll delve into next time. Heavy themes.

In the ill-advised hope of summing all this up, let me reiterate that this roughly five-year run had many moments which illuminated the past, present, and future of popular music. It’s a source of far-reaching inspiration, not only in the work itself but in the philosophy behind the work. I hope to be learning from it still when I am very old.

For now, unless your name is Keith Richards, you are susceptible. Wear a mask.

*To those who would call me crazy for thinking any song tops “Satisfaction,” I would reply that context is everything. Rousing fuzz-box anti-capitalist anthem that it is, “Satisfaction” is a very British Invasion song, representative of its era; it made them an entity to look out for, but it gives a sort of in medias res impression, like a snapshot of a group still on the way to becoming themselves. “Flash” feels timeless, like an arrival at the sonic persona that would carry them a long way forward. And can you say it didn’t work?

**If you’ve heard “Give Your Best” from the Bee Gees’ Odessa, released the same year, they sound almost identical. It’s that fiddle.

Check out the playlist!

Image: somewhere, sometime in 1970. Mick Taylor on the far right. He didn’t last long, through no fault of his own; I’m guessing merely because one Mick was plenty.

Published by Cecilia Gigliotti

Cecilia Gigliotti is a New Englander living in Berlin, Germany, with a beloved ukulele named Uke Skywalker. She writes and reads for a living; the rest of her time goes toward singing, dancing, drawing cartoons, trying to finish her Netflix queue, and devoting far too much thought to the foibles of her artist-heroes. Follow her on Twitter (@CeciliaGelato), Instagram (@c_m_giglio), and YouTube (Lia Lio),

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