Musically the Stones express themselves through three basic elements: rhythm, tension, and energy. "Street Fighting Man" is prototypical of the approach. Drummer Charlie Watts lays down an elementary drum pattern, the same one he has been using since "Route 66." He strikes the high-hat with a near compulsive regularity and hits the snare drum with such a wallop it's hard to believe the sound is coming out of only one drum. The rhythm guitar is layed over the drum and is characterized by a violent attack which emphasizes the "on" beat. The bass pattern is simple and restrained. Like the guitar it serves to magnify the impact of the beat. The collective effect of the instrumental track is of fantastic thrust forward.
The beat is constantly being pushed, the guitars constantly re-emphasizing the basic movement of the song, the bass providing the perfect floor to the arrangement. And then the voice: Jagger is the source of the tension. At his best (definitely on this track) he sounds like he's fighting for control, fighting to be heard over the din of the instruments. For all its simplicity it is an amazingly complex style of arranging and a perfect vehicle for expressing the lyrics.
The words are beautiful. Notice how Jagger emphasizes them: "Ev-ry where I hear the sound of charg-ing, march-ing peo-ple." The Stones obviously revel in the images of charging people: they've sure seen enough of them at their concerts. But they are too mature and too realistic to fall into the trap of slogans and easy answers. All they can really do is sing in a rock and roll band.
"Salt of the Earth" continues in the same vein and serves as Jagger's tribute to the "other half." Lyrically, the song's point of view is again ambiguous. Jagger obviously wants to empasize with the "common foot soldier," the working man, the man who is forced to throw his life away on "back-breaking work" without ever achieving satisfaction. On the other hand, when he looks into their "faceless crowds," they look "strange." He has gotten to a point where he can't really come to terms with their way of thinking. Nonetheless, the tribute goes on and begins to sound a bit like a drinking song. At one point I expect them to all be standing around the bar toasting the veterans of the Spanish Civil War. The double time at the end pushes the song past that stage and helps it regain its movement and vitality. It is typical of Jagger's honesty that he was unafraid to use a soldier as symbol of "The Salt of the Earth." They are as much victims as anyone else.
"Sympathy for the Devil" rounds out the group of ambiguous, socially aware songs. To me, it is the most distinguished song and performance of the year. Lyrically, it is a striking picture of a world gone mad. Cops are criminals. Saints are sinners. God is the devil. Whoever is on top makes whoever is beneath him the enemy; actually, it is always the men on top who are the enemy. Those who claim righteousness for themselves are only interested in perpetuating their own power. Those they vilify are really the righteous ones, until they achieve power for themselves. Then they imitate their predecessors and the process repeats itself through history. The narrator, Lucifer, was there when "Jesus Christ had his moment of doubt, of pain." He was there when "the blitzkreig raged and the bodies stank." And he lays "traps for troubadors who get killed before they reach Bombay." And who is telling us all this? A man of wealth and taste. Sounds like what a lot of people would like to become.
The music is brilliant. The cut opens with just the percussion—a sort of syncopated Bo Diddley, precisely the kind of thing Watts excells at. Then they add Nicky Hopkins' rhythm piano, perfectly understated. Wyman's simple bass line matches Watts syncopation perfectly. Throughout the cut he adds color to the basic rhythm pattern by throwing in some very pretty, loopy bass lines. After two verses of Jagger's singing, the background voices add that ultra simple "oo-oo" accompaniment which continues to grow for the duration of the cut. By the time they reach the end, they sound like a plane taking off, accelerating at an inexorable pace until it finally reaches its normal flight speed, at which point it levels itself off.
Jagger sings with tension and control, constantly pushing himself as far as he can go, but never crossing over that line between power and excess. The guitar solo by Richard is among the finest rock solos I have heard recently. He only uses about five of the simplest rock lines around but he plays them with such finesse they seem to be oozing out of the guitar. His style is pure eroticism and he seems to linger over each note, making sure it comes out exactly like it's supposed to.
Watts, with Jagger, provides the energy. He keeps his little riff going like a computer. Towards the end he expands his part by a bit: he starts throwing out cymbal smashes on the first beat of each measure. It provides just that extra bit of rhythm and drive.
The rest of the album is made up of largely conventional Stones styled songs. There are some mediocre ones among them, but then that's part of the Stones. Consistency is not their bag. Among the really fine cuts are "Doctor, Doctor," "No Expectations," "Factory Girl" and "Stray Cat Blues." "No Expectations" is noteworthy for its sentimental melancholy. It has a lovely country feel to it, without actually being an attempt at country music. "Factory Girl" is more of the Stones interest in the working class (remember "Backstreet Girl") and has a New Lost City Ramblers-type accompaniment, complete with old-timey styled fiddle.
"Stray Cat Blues" is easily the best of the lot and is pure Stones. It deals with their favorite subject: naughty boys and girls. The lyrics are about a groupie and Jagger comes up with some very tough lines: "I've heard you're fifteen years old/But I don't want your ID" and signs off with "I'll bet your mother don't know you can bite like that."
Musically, it is one of the songs that make use of the rhythm, tension, energy pattern mentioned earlier. The verse is in the form of one of those great Between the Buttons cuts, "All Sold Out." That is followed by a simple chorus. Later, a second chorus is added on top of that, ("Oh yeah, you're a stray, stray cat . . . ") Each element of the structure adds to the tension of the body of the arrangement. But at the end of each chorus the energy level drops back down to that of the more restrained verse part of the song. It provides the listener with a perfect release. Instrumentally, Keith Richards' performance is again brilliant.
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