Classic Music Review: Between the Buttons by The Rolling Stones (UK Version)

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In many ways, Between the Buttons is my favorite Stones album . . . but it isn’t really a Stones album, is it?

Up to this point in their history, The Stones had established their reputation on R&B-based rock. Aftermath featured a few diversions, but for the most part, the all-original works on Aftermath continued that tradition, with more discipline and sophistication. The diversions on that record added a little spice and range to their offerings, but at heart, they were still The Stones, always ready to kick ass at a moment’s notice.

In that sense, Between the Buttons is a departure. Only “Miss Amanda Jones,” “All Sold Out,” and “Please Go Home” are in any way reminiscent of the classic Stones sound. Between the Buttons is an eclectic mix of pop, country, folk and various sonic experiments with basic rock undertones. The reason I find the album so enjoyable is because it sounds like The Stones are having fun playing around with new toys and different forms of expression. While they would take that impulse way, way too far on Their Satanic Majesties Request, Between the Buttons is a witty, sophisticated and playful production that just makes me feel good inside.

In keeping with the norm, The U. K. version is missing the single from that period, in this case “Let’s Spend the Night Together” and “Ruby Tuesday.” I am half-grateful for that, because I think “Let’s Spend the Night Together” is one of the worst singles they ever released. Lamely disguising the basic riff of “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction” behind the sound of a music hall piano, this song about a proposed sexual encounter uses such boring, bourgeois language that it manages to make legendary stud Mick Jagger sound sterile and wimpy. This song is about making love, whereas the underlying energy of The Stones had always been about fucking. There’s a big difference there, people! On the flip side, I love “Ruby Tuesday,” a beautifully arranged and moving piece whose presence would have given the U. K. version a touch more richness.

Instead, the album we’re reviewing opens up with “Yesterday’s Papers,” yet another song in The Stones’ catalog subject to feminist-bashing for the comparison of a woman to the old paper you throw out with the trash (they didn’t have recycling in those dark times). “Ho-hum,” I yawn to my feminist sisters. Jagger can be faulted for continuing to vent his frustration with Chrissie Shrimpton in public, but the lyrics are far less incendiary than “Under My Thumb.” The more important aspect of the song is the music, driven by the hyper-bass picking of Bill Wyman and magically enhanced by Brian Jones on vibraphone and harpsichord with Keith, Brian and Bill doing the high-register background vocals. The layering of all these diverse tracks is masterfully executed, surrounding the listener in an enchanting swirl of cascading sound. “Yesterday’s Papers” is perfectly situated as the opener to a record where play and exploration take center stage.

Within that theme of exploration, “My Obsession” has to rank as one of the most unusual songs The Stones ever put to disk. Opening with a drum pattern that makes you think you’ll be hearing “Get Off of My Cloud” in a second, the bass and piano take over to create a mix that sounds like you’ve descended a dark set of stairs off a back alley to enter the late night experimental music hotspot in hell. The arrival of what appears to be standard verse and vocals gives you enough of a sense of familiarity to sit down and order a drink instead of getting the fuck out of this weird place. But just like the Haunted House in Disneyland, the music makes several sharp turns and The Stones stun you with a series of harmonic combinations that slip in and out of scale, filled with notes that occasionally elude the dull lines of the staff in Western musical notation. Indian music was at the height of its influence, but The Stones placed it in the context of R&B-based rock filtered through a fun house mirror. I’ve heard this song hundreds of times and I still can’t say if I like it or not, but it is a fascinating three minutes of sound.

But there’s no doubt in my mind about “Back Street Girl,” one of the most beautiful songs The Stones ever recorded. Against a backdrop of accordion, organ, harpsichord, glockenspiel and rustic guitar, Jagger takes the role of upper class boor chastising his lower-class lover. Yes, dear feminists, he’s playing a role. Ever hear of that? And he plays the role marvelously, applying one of his most sensitive and nuanced vocals to the challenge. A perfect waltz in ¾ time, I always have the urge to float over the dance floor when I hear this number. Criminally left off the American version and saved for inclusion in the choppy U. S. compilation Flowers, “Back Street Girl” is one of the most under-appreciated Rolling Stones songs of all time.

The fabulous “Connection” follows, in a style best-described as country with a kick. The “connection” in the song has multiple meanings: catching a flight, human contact, “connecting-the-dots.” More popularly, it deals with the cloud of suspicion that The Stones were under regarding their use and transport of illegal drugs:

My bags they get a very close inspection.
I wonder why it is that they suspect ‘em
They’re dying to add me to their collection
And I don’t know if they’ll let me go

A clever verse, but to relate this song entirely to The Stones’ substance troubles is overkill. Ramblin’ Jack Elliott recorded his rollicking country version only a year after Between the Buttons, pairing it in a combination track with Dylan’s “Don’t Think Twice, It’s Alright,” emphasizing the human connection subtext. The song still works today not because people are thinking about trials that took place over forty years ago but because Jagger and Richards have once again expressed something deeply at the core of modern existence: the frustration of disconnection. There have been some great covers of this song, but I still prefer The Stones’ version, with Jagger and Richards harmonizing so well, the outstanding rhythm guitar bursts and lead guitar fills, Charlie’s varied and insistent drumming and the overall hand-clapping feel of the piece.

A sudden shift to church organ introduces the lush, dark melody of “She Smiles Sweetly,” which moves forward in 12/8 time courtesy of Bill Wyman’s insistent bass pattern. Here a troubled Mick Jagger is comforted by a woman of extreme wisdom, a dynamic conveniently ignored by the bra-burners. This lovely and also underrated tune is followed by another trip to the fantasy factory, “Cool, Calm, Collected.” A combination of beer-house and Indian raga, this witty little tune about a woman bathing in perceived perfection ends in riotous acceleration of piano, kazoo, harmonica and electric dulcimer.

After that burst of exuberance, “All Sold Out” sounds positively archaic. It sounds like The Stones didn’t know what to do with this baseline R&B number, so they buried it in too many layers and overdubs. They do a bit better with the “Not Fade Away” sidekick “Please Go Home,” but added so many bizarre vocal echo delays that you lose touch with the rhythm that should be driving this song. I think The Stones would have been better off leaving classic R&B-Rock songs for another day when they were in a less adventurous mood. This is also true for the next song, “Who’s Been Sleeping Here?” which also suffers from overkill and would have been much better had they recorded it with the simplicity of the later “No Expectations” from Beggars Banquet.

The balance and taste return with “Complicated,” a solid mover with great background vocals and fabulous work by Charlie Watts on the toms. The song also features some surprising chord changes that flow naturally with this story about a less-intelligent male in awe of his reasonably intelligent girlfriend. There isn’t any messing about with “Miss Amanda Jones,” a classic rock number dominated by gloriously rough guitar interplay and a fast dance beat. The thing that strikes me about this song is the sheer enthusiasm The Stones bring to this number; even with all the experimentation, they still had fun being themselves.

The unusual “Something Happened to Me Yesterday” appropriately closes this very unique album. With Brian Jones serving as the brass band and slipping in a few whistles here and there, this is the most fun fucking song The Stones ever did. Whether it’s about an LSD experience (likely) or a secret fetish (perhaps) doesn’t really matter. The shared lead vocals of Mick Jagger and Keith Richards are a rare treat and the spoken word passages during and at the end of the song are not only a perfect fit, but enhance the listener’s curiosity. The nature of the song gives Jagger a chance to use mock accents that are a hoot, and the boozy feel of the middle instrumental passage wins over any tight-ass grumblers in the audience. Recorded with relative clarity and simplicity, “Something Happened to Me Yesterday” would definitely make my list of “Best Ten Songs to Close an Album,” because it’s such a perfect fit for the mood, feel and tone of this most playful record from The Rolling Stones.

Ah, that they would have retained some sense of clarity and simplicity during their next trip to the recording studio!

3 responses

  1. […] is without a doubt my favorite album by The Rolling Stones, for unlike the delightfully eclectic Between the Buttons, this is a real Stones album. One of the great guitar riff collections of all time, it also […]

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  2. Hey, since you had written to me a few days ago that you thought “Backstreet Girl” was one of the most beautiful songs, I decided to read your review of Between the Buttons and share my experience with it. I, too, have always loved this album, but when I was young I only had access to the American version, so when I was thirteen I bought Flowers as a way to compliment the album — well, actually, my father bought if for me when I was in the hospital. One of my most bittersweet memories is when I was thirteen. I was in the hospital for a long time with cancer (I miraculously recovered, by the way, obviously, and am fine). Anyhow, in the pediatrics ward they had dreadful “activities hour” type stuff (making puppets and crap like that) and one activity was dance therapy. I insisted that we use Flowers, because I wanted to dance so badly with this really cute girl, Eliza, also on the ward and who loved the old Stones. We waltzed together to “Backstreet Girl,” which sent me on waves of adolescent pleasure. For days after that we hung out in the hospital solarium listening to and reveling in British invasion music – my dad brought me all my albums – and talked about how much life was wonderful and how much life sucked and all that. A week later she died. Sorry for the bummer of an ending to a story–but, along with an early immersion into Vonnegut and Shakespeare via dad, it contributed to my dedication to a life of interpretation and examination of cultural products. And my life went through several more years of pit of hell horror I won’t go into, and finally I went to graduate school for English and decided to dedicate my life to interpreting literature, teaching, and trying to salvage the little of greatness left in this increasingly cultural wasteland world. (Yes, I adore Eliot, despite the detractors and his own often hideous life.)

    A couple things about the Between the Buttons era of Stones music–1966-67–that won’t repeat your interpretations. Is there not between Aftermath and this album, along with the singles, a distinct influence of the Kinks? I’m not talking just about the social observation miniatures, but the coy, whimsical, and music-hallish sound.

    I had read once years ago that Jagger was infuriated by the recording quality that he felt killed Between the Buttons. A friend of mine played a version of Yesterday’s Papers the Stones recorded before adding the vocals, and its astounding–the nuance and density of the instrumentation seems to me lost on the album version.

    One more thing – I read somewhere a while ago that Brian Wilson thought “My Obsession” was the greatest rock song ever recorded. As for the ass over teakettle psychedelia that followed, the “Dandelion” “We Love You” single always makes me smile, as does “She’s a Rainbow,” which I guess was their response to Love’s song She Comes in Colors, or something like that. Satanic Majesty is good for cutting up into little pieces to make improvisational guitar picks.

    It is nice to write to you — I’m putting into words feelings about music that I usually only chat about with people. Despite my immersion in literature, I think music is the most wonderful form of expression. I play piano and guitar and write my own ditties for relaxation. Having discovered your Kink’s Village Green review by accident, I do not really know much about you or your blog, so I hope I am not treading on someone who has better or more important things to do than listen to a professor holed up in his house and escaping from the often deadening world of the university. The only thing I hope is that you have a large audience and can help to shape a better discourse about music with your very keen intellect, since most interpretations of this particular period of music are either thin or ridiculously overblown in the wrong places. Keep writing your reviews! And consider writing a book someday. Or maybe you have.

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