I decided to begin my exploration of the Rolling Stones by skipping their first three albums, which consisted largely of cover songs and Jagger-Richards/Nanker Phelge compositions that sounded like cover songs of cover songs.
That’s not to imply they weren’t good from the get-go, because The Stones were a great cover band. They made a few unfortunate choices over the years (“My Girl” is one they should have left in the can, and “Good Times” on this album really doesn’t hit their sweet spot or mine), but they usually picked great songs from the Chess and Atlantic catalogs that played to Jagger’s vocal strengths and the R&B foundation of the band. Later, they would do one of the few covers of Robert Johnson that I actually like (“Love in Vain” on Let It Bleed). Still, they really didn’t become The Stones until the Jagger-Richards and Nanker Phelge originals started appearing with more frequency and originality.
The Jagger-Richards songwriting team rarely gets the kudos they deserve, especially in comparison to contemporaries such as Lennon-McCartney and Ray Davies. I find that strange, because their great songs about the absurdity of modern life are every bit as good as Ray Davies’ work in that field. Songs like “Get Off My Cloud, “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction,” “Mother’s Little Helper” and “19th Nervous Breakdown” dealt what people experienced every day as they swam in and out of the unconsciousness of the rat race of the “corporate man” period and the disintegration of human relations into sales pitches. They showed us that things had become so absurd that people were coping with their neuroses by starring in their own personal dramas, a topic Ray Davies would have fun with in Soap Opera. While others protested war, modernization, poverty and civil rights, The Stones problematized daily existence, with incisive observations and snarky humor. Two of my favorite opening lines of all time are pungent and powerful Jagger-Richards lines: “What a drag it is getting old,” and the all time classic, “You’re the kind of person you meet at certain dismal, dull affairs.” Jagger and Richards called attention to the absurdity of the system and the irony that people were beginning to deal with the system by becoming absurd themselves.
Of course, they also wrote some of the greatest rock ‘n’ roll songs ever created, no small achievement in itself.
Out of Our Heads marks the beginning of the transition from cover band to something more. Interestingly, they open with two covers, the first being Don Covay’s “Mercy, Mercy.” The Stones’ version features a heavier, boozier background than the more laid-back support in the original. Covay’s vocal tends to fluctuate and sometimes crosses the line into overdoing it; Jagger’s vocal is steady, soulful and in command. You tap your feet to the original; you move to The Stones’ version. Marvin Gaye’s “Hitch Hike” comes next, a rather pedestrian performance at best. On “Mercy, Mercy,” they feel it; here they’re going through the motions.
Finally we get to an original . . . sort of. Based on a Staples Singers song, “The Last Time” features the first of many killer opening riffs that characterized Stones hits throughout their career, a relentless beat, a bluesy garage lead solo and solid harmonies on the chorus. Jagger’s performance is brilliant, starting out in an almost grimly serious, scolding tone that builds up to the “I’ve had it with your bullshit” vocal in the last verse. The Stones’ demonstrate they’ve already mastered the dramatic aspects of music with that slow, steady build leading to that scorching final verse and the sudden disappearance of everyone but Charlie Watts following the final chorus. Every time I hear that passage, I get the chills. I also love the fade out, where Jagger really, really lets it go.
We go back to covers with Roosevelt Jamison’s “That’s How Strong My Love Is,” most famously covered by Otis Redding. Mick doesn’t quite get to the level of Otis’ performance, but that would be a pretty high bar for anyone. Still, it’s a solid performance that’s light years better than The Hollies’ version, a rendition that tells you only that The Hollies had absolutely no business recording this song. On the flip side, The Stones had no business recording Sam Cooke’s “Good Times,” which comes next. The song is simply too light for them, and Jagger lacks the genuine sense of joy and hope that Sam Cooke imparted to some of his greatest songs. At this juncture, the live performance of Bo Diddley’s “I’m Alright” appears; not the greatest live performance I’ve ever heard but a good reminder that The Stones were (and miraculously still are) a working band that knows how to stimulate a crowd.
At this point, the ratio of covers to originals has been overwhelming; from here on the ratio flips, beginning with the iconic, “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction.” I had to laugh when I saw the following in the Wikipedia article on this song:
The title line is an example of a negative concord when the article of the noun (no) becomes negative under the influence of the standard negation (-n’t), a common usage in colloquial English and not to confuse with double negation (which would be “I can’t get not satisfaction”).
Talk about sucking the life out of the music! I’d never fuck the person who wrote that! Who the hell doesn’t intuitively understand that the double negative in this song = dissatisfaction squared?
Later in the article, the author makes a very good point that is lost to us when we listen to the song in the 21st Century: “In its day the song was perceived as disturbing because of both its sexual connotations and the negative view of commercialism and other aspects of modern culture; critic Paul Gambaccini stated: ‘The lyrics to this were truly threatening to an older audience. This song was perceived as an attack on the status quo.’” While I think that opinion is dead on, what must have been equally shocking to the average person tuned into the AM radio back in 1965 was that glorious fuzz tone coming through their tinny little speakers. Our ears desensitized to years of distorted rock guitar, it’s hard to appreciate that there was a time when the average listener had never heard anything like that before! It’s interesting that Keith Richards used the fuzz tone only as a filler to be replaced later by horns, a decision that would have ranked as the second worst decision in musical history (the first being the detachment of “Strawberry Fields Forever” and “Penny Lane” from Sgt. Pepper).
Recently I had the good fortune of hearing the backing track of “Satisfaction,” (thank you, M. C.) and realized that I’d really never heard Brian Jones’ acoustic guitar backing and how much it fills the space, making the sound so full and rich. Even more amazing is that Jagger and Richards, at a relatively early stage in their songwriting efforts, were able to produce a song that not only combined exceptional cultural insight with a kick-ass rock performance but resonated so strongly with the satisfaction-starved public. The song is only very indirectly influenced by Muddy Waters’ “I Can’t Be Satisfied,” an influence limited entirely to the concept of sensual and relational dissatisfaction, so Mick and Keith deserve some serious kudos for crafting this timeless classic.
“Cry to Me,” originally recorded by gospel-soul stylist Solomon Burke, is one of my favorite Stones covers. You can tell from Jagger’s delivery, Keith’s lovely riffs and Bill Wyman’s attack that The Stones didn’t just adopt R&B as a convenient source of cover material. They really loved this stuff! “Cry to Me” is a challenging song, because its structure and emotional content provide the singer with opportunities and pitfalls; finding the right level of passion is difficult. Personally, I think Mick does a better job than either Solomon Burke or Betty Harris, both of whom tended to jump too far, too fast between the gentle parts and the explosive parts. Jagger sings the song as if he’s shepherding the passion carefully and with great discipline, making the buildup much more impactful.
I love The Stones when they get snarky about pompous asses, and “The Under Assistant West Coast Promotion Man” is a shining example. They have a great time poking fun at this self-styled “necessary talent behind every rock ‘n’ roll band” who spends his time “thinkin’ just how sharp I am.” As always, rhythm is tight and Brian Jones does a great job with the harmonica backing, giving Jagger the opportunity to do this thing. The opening lines of the fadeout, “I sure do earn my pay/Sittin’ on the beach every day,” are emphasized with Jagger’s intensive “Yeah” that follows the lines, proving that a single word beautifully delivered at the right time can say it all.
“Play with Fire” is in many ways the important song on the album from a development perspective. They’d already given the exquisite “As Tears Go By” to Marianne Faithfull (though it would appear on their next American album), so “Play with Fire,” the B-side for “The Last Time,” gave them the opportunity to show the listening public that they were more than R&B/Rock band. The relatively simple structure allows for the creation of a haunting and compelling background to Jagger’s no-frills vocal; you can imagine him saying these words in a dark corner of a cafe as he looks with sad wonderment at the society girl trying to impress him with her family’s riches. The harpsichord helps create a dark environment that reflects the depth of the social divide, and Keith Richards’ gentle acoustic guitar demonstrates style flexibility beyond anything they’d done before.
“The Spider and the Fly” is a clean roots number about boredom and the search for sexual stimulation on the road. The singer isn’t looking for love; shit, he isn’t even looking for a good time. He’s just looking for a way to fill the hours, and the “rinsed out blonde on my left” will do as well as anything else, even if “she was common, flirty, she looked about thirty.” The interwoven leads from Richards and Jones are a highlight, as is Jagger’s appropriately bored vocal. The album ends with the often overlooked “One More Try,” an unusually bouncy and upbeat number for The Stones but still grounded in R&B and enhanced by solid harmonica.
As an album, Out of Our Heads is often ranked too high on the Best Album lists, but it is still an important album. Perhaps we need a new list of “Best Examples of a Band Finding Themselves,” or “Best Albums to Establish Artistic Direction.” Out of Our Heads proved beyond a shadow of doubt that Mick Jagger and Keith Richards had serious songwriting gifts, and more than anything else, that’s what would move the band to even greater heights.