I find the Rolling Stones, the Rolling Stones find me
When Philip Kiszely discovered Let it Bleed.
Casting a bleary eye back over the last couple of weeks or so, it’s difficult to see any trace of Jesus in the modern festive process. Goes without saying really, I suppose. So where the hell’s he keeping himself these days? Prison, most probably ââ it’s always been the best place to find Jesus. You’d have thought he’d have learned by now that there are more salubrious places to hang out and better company to keep. But, rather like my good self on Twitter, you take your followers where you find them, and you learn not to be too sniffy about who they are (and if @AberbeenPublicLibraries is reading this, don’t just automatically assume I mean you).
The point is we tend make the best of things, no matter how bleak. Chasing this train of thought over a cup of coffee the other day, I let my mind drift way back to the mid-\’80s and the nearest thing I’ve ever had to an epiphany. I remember it like it was yesterday: I was 15, it was 1986, and I was seeing in a particularly grim New Year in my home town of Bury, Lancashire. As I sat in our front room, with Andy Stewart relegated to mute on the television, something amazing happened.
I only went and discovered the Rolling Stones, didn’t I!
Now don’t get me wrong ââ I’m the first to admit that someone had discovered them before me. More than one person, in fact. But niggling details like that have never really diminished in my mind the magnitude of the event. And while we’re getting things straight, let me also say this: I had, of course, heard of them before, and heard their music innumerable times. I even knew that Jagger had a diamond set in a tooth, ala Buddy Guy; I could also tell you that Bill Wyman was fond of table tennis, for God’s sake. What was a revelation to me at the time, though, what really made me see them in a completely new light, was Let it Bleed. I stumbled across this LP, the Stones’ musical gateway into the 1970s, in my brother’s record collection while searching for, of all things, the Meteors’ album of the moment, Monkey’s Breath.
If the Stones transformed in front of my very ears, as it were, then something also happened to me. What can I tell you? Let it Bleed changed my life.
These days, the Stones are a national treasure. Jagger plays the English Gentleman with considerable charm and panache, and Keith is… well, Keef. Exile on Main St. has recently topped the charts, helped in no small measure by a beautifully crafted film documenting the recording of the album. There’s Keith’s well-received biography, too, not to mention its attendant Culture Show Special. On the flip side are Ronnie Wood’s daft shenanigans, of course, but let’s forget him.
Back in \’86, it was a very different story: the Rolling Stones were Messiahs on the skids, beleaguered, unfashionable, out of touch, anachronistic. (I’m tempted to get back to Jesus here, but I’ll spare you.) Nut-shelling it, they were a bit of a joke. They were \’wrinkly rockers’, according to the tabloids, and that was how I perceived them. Imagine my surprise, then, when I heard \’Midnight Rambler’. The simple truth is that it was looser and sexier than anything else I’d ever heard in my life.
What you’ve got to remember is that most of the quality pop music at that time wasn’t really doing \’sexy’ in that way, and for good reason. The first AIDS awareness campaign ââ \’Don’t Die of Ignorance’ and a gravestone ââ still cast a deathly shadow over the kind of promiscuity the primetime Stones represented. Most cool or serious music had become de-sexualised. You don’t believe me, listen to C86. Sex had become difficult in music because it was problematic in life. (I can almost hear my randy 15 year-old self now, indignant through the years and having none of it: \’Problem? What problem? It’s sex! Where’s the problem with that?’)
Enough about that, though. Let’s cut to the chase. If you mention Let it Bleed to rock \’n’ roll aficionados, most will tell you they’re hooked from \’Gimme Shelter’. Yes, the Keith guitar shimmers, Jagger’s apocalyptic lyrics mesmerise, and Mary Clayton does the business. But for me it’s only a taster, somehow. \’Love in Vain’, too, if I’m being honest. Curiously enough, it was \’Country Honk’ that really made me sit up and listen. I latched onto Byron Berline’s country fiddle straight way. It was played outside the studio for a better sound ââ with an incidental car horn beep interrupting the proceedings. They kept beep in the mix. Well, why not? It sounds great. The song stood in such contrast to slick \’80s production, and, for that matter, to the rather uptight political correctness of the then popular alternative country of \’cow punk’, that it seemed like it was from another world. Which is exactly what it was, of course ââ populated by the surviving Stones themselves, with Brian Jones, Gram Parsons, Jim Morrison, John Lennon, and a whole host of other exotic names thrown in for good measure. It was the 60s and it was cool, and seemed a whole lot better place to be than Bury in the 80s, I can tell you.
If \’Country Honk’ caught my attention, then \’Monkey Man’ took my breath away. Thee most catchy song. Filthy too. And there was a throwaway ease and expertise about the lyrics which was new to me: \’I’m a flea-bit peanut monkey/All my friends are junkies/Well, that’s not really true’. That last line. Nonchalant. Perfect.
For me, though, the meat of the meal comes right after the uproarious \’Live with Me’, and it’s the glorious triumvirate that is \’Let it Bleed’, \’Midnight Rambler’ and \’You Got the Silver’. I remember it attacking me, carving rock \’n’ roll into my adolescent being, making me want to be something I hadn’t wanted to be half an hour before. Right there on New Year’s Eve in Bury, by Gum! It immediately told me where I had to go, too ââ out of there, and pronto! Trouble is, at 15 you have to wait two or three years to act on the impulse.
There’s alternative version of \’You Got the Silver’, incidentally, with Jagger on vocal instead of Keith. It’s much rawer, but it’s just as good. There’s also demo version of \’Gimme Shelter’ available on bootleg, with Jagger and Keith improvising a half-written vocal together. I prefer it to the finished version. For some other outtakes and curios, get hold of the Metamorphosis album.
When the magisterial \’You Can’t Always Get What You Want’ has played the album out, what have you got? Well, I can only really speak for myself. For me it was an uncontrollable urge to go out and buy Beggar’s Banquet and Sticky Fingers. That and finding a like-minded fanatic to form a rock \’n’ roll band. I did a find my Keith Richards approximation soon afterwards ââ there was no question that I was always going to be the Jagger ââ and we did form a rock \’n’ roll band. But that’s a story for another day.