A hodgepodge. A mishmash. A product of artificial construction created by insensitive record company bean counters to maximize profit margins by surrounding the latest hit with whatever filler material happened to be available.
All true, but I still find December’s Children fascinating and exciting . . . and occasionally exasperating.
Several of the recordings are primitive in the extreme, including the two live cuts from the Got Live If You Want It EP released earlier in the UK. If great rock were all about recording quality, we still wouldn’t be listening to 1950’s Chuck Berry or the early Kinks singles and we wouldn’t have Punk. The combination of sexual energy, strong rhythm and the exquisite release of repressed emotion and energy that characterizes a great rock ‘n’ roll performance can overcome any technical limitations.
And that’s where The Stones have few peers.
The opening cut, “She Said Yeah,” demonstrates this most forcefully. What you hear sounds like The Stones have recorded the song while trapped inside a room no larger than 6×6 and the walls are groaning and shaking in a futile attempt to contain the power of the music. Mick Jagger’s vocal is the definition of no-holds-barred high intensity, Keith Richard’s guitar solo is right up there with Dave Davies’ solo on “You Really Got Me” in terms of manic energy and excitement, and Bill Wyman thumps the crap out of that bass. You can get a taste of the excitement The Stones generated back then by watching the video of the song, then multiply that intensity by 100 and you’ll begin to understand why The Stones could barely get out of a venue alive during those early days.
The first four songs on the album are all covers; next up is their rendition of Chuck Berry’s “Talkin’ About You” (they dropped the “I’m” from the original). The most striking thing about the original is the bass run, but Bill Wyman falls short here as The Stones slow the tempo and the song drags a bit in comparison. Next up is Arthur Alexander’s “You Better Move On,” where The Stones do their best Drifters imitation, but really, this song doesn’t play to their strengths. Much, much better is the sleazy, sexy, “Look What You’ve Done,” a Muddy Waters tune where Brian Jones gets to demonstrate the extent of his self-taught approach to the harp, which is pretty fucking impressive. All in all, my criticisms of the covers should be read as nitpicking, for nothing here damaged my previously stated opinion that The Stones were an outstanding cover band.
Someone forgot to tune up on the first Jagger-Richards contribution, “The Singer Not the Song,” the B-side to “Get Off of My Cloud,” a song as B as B can get. The acoustic guitars are so out of tune that it sounds like The Bonzo Dog Band slipped into the studio to record something for the upcoming Stones Roast. Since The Bonzos hadn’t made their first record yet, we can only fault The Stones.
Lucky for them, the people at London Records were smart enough to follow this turkey with the live version of “Route 66.” The Stones played this on their debut album, but that version seems pretty tame in comparison, even with the iffy quality of live recording in those days. The song’s been covered by a dozen artists (and Van Morrison’s Them version is my favorite) but “Route 66” feels like it belongs to The Stones. I love the part where the girls scream full blast when the guitar solo kicks in. (Note: There seems to be some debate as to who is playing the solo, Keith or Brian, so if anyone has definitive information on this mystery, please post it).
Side Two opens with what was their most recent hit, “Get Off of My Cloud,” which clearly exposes the grab-bag nature of this album by its improved recording quality. The pattern of the verse is pure “Louie, Louie”, so this will not go down as one of their greater contributions to the advancement of the musical arts. What makes the song great are Jagger’s vocal and the lyrics. Mick nails this sucker, and I don’t think he had to call on his limited acting skills to play the part of a person whose life is one absurd interruption after another. I had to laugh when my dad told me that when the song came out, some radio stations refused to play it because they thought it was about drugs. He tried to explain to me that the “detergent pack” could have meant “cocaine or heroin” and that the “cloud” referred to a high.
“What were people so afraid of back then that they could have been so silly?” I asked.
“The Bomb, I guess,” he replied.
I relate to this song because it describes everything that gets in the way of enjoying life today: excessive demands on our time, consumerism, uptight losers and laws against harmless acts (like sleeping in a car). “Get Off of My Cloud” is a great bookend for “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction,” continuing the theme of frustration with the emptiness of modern existence.
“I’m Free” comes next, a song that became a jingle for a credit card commercial forty years later on the strength of the line, “I’m free any old time to get what I want.” I don’t think that’s what The Stones had in mind back then, for the song truly deals with the right to self-expression and the desire to free oneself from expectations. I’ve always liked this song for the rhythmic shift in the chorus and the high falsetto tracking vocal. The Stones then offer their version of “As Tears Go By,” where Keith manages to keep his guitar in tune only to be overwhelmed by the string section. I like Mick Jagger’s vocal on this song better than Marianne Faithfull’s version, whose early-career, lighter-than-helium voice never appealed to me.
“Gotta Get Away” is another Jagger-Richards song dealing with freedom, in this case, freedom from a conventional relationship. It’s okay, but nothing special. More interesting is “Blue Turns to Grey,” where we hear Jagger and Richards trying to expand their use of the scale and make their melodies more interesting. The double tracking of Jagger’s vocal on the lower octave is very effective in amplifying the descent into a funk, and while the lyrics could be read and understood by any third-grader, it’s still a compelling piece of music.
The album ends (as it should) with another live performance, this time covering Hank Snow’s “I’m Movin’ On.” The only thing The Stones version has in common with the hillbilly original is twelve bars; this is a kick-ass rocker from Bill Wyman’s angry bass opening (reminiscent of Pink Floyd’s intro to “One of These Days”) to the driving end with back-and-forth vocals and the classic harmonica imitation of a rolling train. As a girl who has a tendency to jack off in the car when she hears something hot, I can’t imagine what I would have done had I seen The Stones live in one of those steamy, crowded fire traps in 1964 . . . but I’m sure it would have been glorious.
December’s Children may not be a great album, but it’s still capable of providing the listener with a good time. The combination of “She Said Yeah,” “Look What You’ve Done” and the two live performances make the investment worthwhile, and though it fails to come off as much in the way of progress from Out of Our Heads, that had to do with packaging, not The Stones.
Progress will come on their next album, the controversial Aftermath . . . stay tuned!