The Godfather: Peter Corris on the Rolling Stones
When I first heard the rasp of the Keith Richards riff kicking off ‘(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction’ (1965), it was like hearing ‘Heartbreak Hotel’ (1956) for the first time. I knew that something fundamental had happened to popular music. The songs were an attack on everything that had gone before. The voices and the instruments were saying, ‘Listen to this, listen good and think about what music means to you.’
Jean bought me the latest Stones album, Blue & Lonesome, for Christmas. I played it several times and admired it immensely. This was somewhat to my surprise because I hadn’t thought much of the group over the previous 20 years or so. ‘Uninspired’ I would’ve reluctantly said if asked about what I’d heard of efforts such as Dirty Work (1983) and Voodoo Lounge (1989).
In my vinyl and cassette days I had a large collection of Stones records – from early ones like Aftermath (1966) and Between the Buttons and Their Satanic Majesties Request (1967), Beggars Banquet (1968), Sticky Fingers (1971) and Some Girls (1978) – which I played over and over again until the cassette tapes stretched and the discs were scratched (or warped in Queensland’s heat).
I never shared the enthusiasm of some others for Exile on Main Street (1972) in which Keith Richards played a greater part in the production than Mick Jagger. Although there might have been more than a touch of Jagger’s spite behind it, I was inclined to agree with his verdict when he said that he’d like to re-mix the record because it was ‘muddy’, and he wasn’t referring to the iconic blues man. Two great tracks though – ‘Sweet Virginia’ and ‘Tumbling Dice’.
When I added Blue & Lonesome to my meagre CD collection I found it joining only nine other Stones albums – many more than any other artists except Bob Dylan, but way down on my old holdings. A couple of ‘best-ofs’ don’t compensate for the absence of Sticky Fingers and Goats Head Soup (1973) with their challenging songs and louche, eye-opening cover art back when record sleeves could make such statements.
In recent years the band’s output has been mainly in the form of live albums. No doubt there were highlights such as the 2009 live performance of ‘Far Away Eyes’ in which Jagger showed that he still had the charisma and all four showed that they still had the musicianship (when they were in the mood) that had taken them to the top. I play that track often on YouTube but I didn’t buy the records.
So, after a long time away, the new album was a revelation for me. A triumphant return to the roots. It contains some of the best electric blues I’ve ever heard and if it’s a sort of pastiche of Robert Johnson, B B King and Muddy Waters that’s no bad thing. Originality is over-valued. Jagger is in fine voice and, not content with dominating the record as the vocalist, he almost dominates it with the harmonica. In his characteristic style, Keith Richards said that Jagger was one of the best on the blues harmonica – ‘on his night’. He demonstrates that ability here on track after track, which must mean day after day.
It’s not surprising: when you’ve been as successful as Mick, been knighted and fathered a child at 73, I suppose anything is possible. A friend who has read Bruce Springsteen’s autobiography reports that Springsteen, who made a guest appearance with the Stones on a tour, was impressed by how seriously they took their rehearsals and gigs. Blue & Lonesome is a serious work.
At the beginning of the live album Get Yer Ya-Yas Out (1970) the MC announces the Stones as ‘the greatest rock and roll band in the world’. I’m inclined to add, EVER!