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DANCE ON WAVES
by Don Snowden
"No Elvis, Beatles, or The Rolling Stones in 1977"
- The Clash
Sit back and try to imagine, the world of rock and roll over the past ten or I5 years without thinking of the Rolling Stones. Just try and be sure to slip a version of "The Impossible Dream" on the turntable as appropriate background music for your musings. Elvis may have been the catalyst, the Beatles may have brought rock into the cultural mainstream, the Who may have more realistically expressed the hopes and fears of their generations in song, Led Zeppelin may release reams of financial statistics to prove they sell more records and concert tickets; but face it, the Stones remain the essential image of rock and roll. Ian Hunter once said that a picture of Keith Richard at his most wasted was what rock and roll was about, and that's been a difficult proposition to argue with for a long time.
Most importantly, the Stones popularized on a wide scale the idea of the rocker as outlaw, the rebel answering to his own set of rules outside of the confining regulations governing conventional society. While the Beatles were basking in the limelight as the acceptably clean-cut, nice-guy side of rock and accepted their MBEs (or whatever that award they got from the Queen was), the Stones were the scoundrels, the ruffian fringe getting busted for everything from drugs to pissing on a gas station wall and providing the rock world with one of the first drug casualties--martyrs in Brian Jones' swimming pool death by misadventure, With their overt sexuality, undeniable charisma and pure rock and roll power opposed to the Fab Four's emphasis on romantic love and pop craftsmanship, the Stones were the main inspiration behind launching of hundreds of lesser imitators.
And the title of "the world's greatest rock and roll band" which was bestowed on them was well earned by the succession of albums starting with "Beggars Banquet" and concluding with "Exile On Main Street". Only the Who--with "Tommy, Live At Leeds" and "Who's Next"-- were even remotely in the same class during that run. By that time, the Stones had melded their roots influences-- Chuck Berry, Chicago blues and soul-- into a definitive rock style with a menacing, often apocalyptic vision that stood in stark contrast to the acid-drenched idealism and optimism of the times. The list of classic songs that came out of that period is too long and well known to bear repeating and to boot they came up with probably the best ever live rock and roll album in "Get Your Ya-Ya's Out".
But as a glance at the calendar or a listen to the Clash will inform you, it is 1977 and times have changed. The Stones' track record over the past five years hasn't come close to sustaining the creative peaks they attained up to "Exile." Both "Goats's Head Soup" and "Its Only Rock 'N' Roll," the latter Mick Taylor's swansong with the band, boasted only a few noteworthy songs and "Black and Blue " No. I album chart-wise if memory serves--was a forgettable affair that found the Stones following disco and reggae trends rather than initiating new ones. Likewise, their stage presentation featured more and more elaborate theatrical props--unfolding stages and 15 foot inflatable phalluses were a far cry from the backroom bars where they began their career.
Meanwhile, rock had been transformed from being the bastard son of the entertainment world to a multi-billion dollar industry concerned with churning out product, and the life-style that Stones had pioneered had become an established part of the scene. And a whole new generation of kids had grown up in love with rock and roll and felt increasingly alienated from the show-biz trappings and jet-set socializing of big name rock stars. Suddenly, last year, they took matters into their own hands and formed a succession of bands dedicated to returning rock and roll to its basic components of energy, commitment and having a good time. Like the original members of the British invasion who rebelled against the stagnant pop music of that era, the new wave bands have set themselves up as an alternative to the existing rock hierarchy. As the most visible symbols of the old order, the Stones were particularly subject to criticism and found themselves outflanked on the outlaw front as well. Where Jagger as Lucifer had introduced himself as a man of wealth and taste in "Sympathy For The Devil" ten year ago, now it was Johnny Rotten singing "I am the Anti-Christ" in "Anarchy In The U.K." and Joe Strummer of the Clash claiming "I don't want to know about what the rich are doing" in "Garageland." And while the Stones were welcomed with open arms at concert halls in England, the new wave bands were encountering official repression that made the Stones' escapades with authorities seem like child's play.
So, in the face of the most serious challenge to their credibility they've faced in their career, the Stones return to the fray with "Love You Live". The most intriguing thing surrounding the release of the album to date is the speed with which the mainstream rock journals have rushed to salute it as a confirmation of the Stones' prowess on their natural turf, the concert stage. I can only speculate that the expression of those sentiments represent a desire on the part of the writers involved to justify the music that helped shape their lives because the fact of the matter is that "Love You Live " simply isn't a very good record to these ears and certainly not in the class of "Ya- Ya's."
And the primary areas where it falls short of the mark are precisely those where the new wavers make their stand--energy and commitment. The danger signals rise ominously on the opening "Honky Tonk Woman," one of the Stones' all-time classics but here given a very perfunctory and surprisingly subdued treatment. Whether due to a bad mix or a less than spectacular night, the band seems to be composed of six or seven individual parts in search of a central core to latch on to rather than the fully integrated powerhouse "Ya-Ya's". They hit their stride more frequently on up-tempo numbers--"Happy," "Star, Star," "Round And Round" and most of the fourth side-- but the other tunes often seem to be on the verge of falling apart and not in the positive sense of being on the brink that often produces the best rock and roll.
The main culprit throughout the proceedings is Jagger, who sounds like he's merely going through the motions on the three sides recorded in Paris last year. He virtually throws away the lyrics to "Jumping Jack Flash," and "Sympathy" only takes off when Keith kicks into his solo. In contrast, "Happy" succeeds despite a horrendously off-key vocal from Keith simply because he sings like the song matters to him. Mick is in better form in the intimate confines of the El Mocambo side--the Stones' first club gig in close to 15 years--interesting more for historical reasons than musical, save for the always excellent boogie piano work of Ian Stewart. The reggae treatment of Bo Diddley's "Crackin' Up" is one of the best tracks on the album, but the two vintage blues covers sound pretty dated.
The uninspiring blues material points to another crucial factor relating to the current condition of the Stones--ironically enough, Mick Taylor is looming larger and larger as an integral element of their later success. Though image-wise the least likely Stone ever, his fluid soloing was a perfect foil for Richard's driving rhythm work. When I caught the Stones' `72 tour in New York, they struggled through the opening two songs and were in the process of butchering "Gimme Shelter" when Taylor ripped out a superb solo and the entire band caught fire and just burned from that point on. Ron Wood's happy-go-lucky personality may fit perfectly into the band, but his stint with the Faces showed him to be a fine rhythm player but no great shakes as a lead guitarist as his extended solo on "You Can't Always Get What You Want" here demonstrates. He definitely doesn't have the blues chops Talyor developed during his Bluesbreakers days and a song like "You Got To Move" is boring whereas Taylor and Richard might have turned it into something exciting and vital.
At any rate "Love You Live" isn't the sheer triumph many hoped for and simply can't stand on its musical merits like "Ya-Ya's" did. Presently their future as a band hinges largely on the outcome of Keith's trial for heron trafficking in Toronto. Jagger may cop the headlines and make the high society gossip columns but Keith is the musical core of the band. When he's on, the Stones are a hot band. They've recently made some noises about touring without him if he's convicted, but it's doubtful they would pack the same impact and I would hate being the guitarist who would try to fill Richard's rock and roll shoes.
With Keith, their future is pretty well assured for as long as they want to carry on. The best comparison, and one that's already been made, is the Stones as the Muhammad Ali of rock and roll--the reigning champs not at the peak of their power recently but still capable of mustering enough of the old flash to retain their crown. As certified rock and roll legends, they can release whatever they like these days and be confident it will sell on the strength of their name alone. But they haven't made a truly satisfying album in five years now and it's usually proven to be very difficult for a band to regain their musical momentum once they've lost it.
Yet there are indications that the Stones are becoming irritated by the new wavers' constant criticism of them as boring old farts and perhaps that challenge will provide the impetus for them to regain their intensity and begin creating memorable music again. The alternative is a situation that can only fill the hearts of those who've lived and died with the band with fear and loathing--the fact that, in 1977 and beyond, the Rolling Stones just might not matter any more.
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