It would be nice to be able to call it something like The Rolling Stones’ Golden Decade, for the Stones have been the most enduringly prolific highwire act of their time, both reflecting and surpassing the era with a deadly accuracy that can make them seem more dangerous than they really are. But somehow this album merely falls into that venerable Stones tradition of supra-throwaway albums, collections like December’s Children and Flowers that by their very slapdash cynicism validate themselves and charm us into feeling that they’re as sure a representation of the Stones ethos as brand-new and more unified efforts like Let It Bleed.
Hot Rocks (London 2PS 606-7) is even crasser than Flowers and Children, because it’s the first Stones album on which every track has been represented on albums previously released in this country. Some of them, in fact, like “Let’s Spend the Night Together,” are on their fourth go-round. So in part Hot Rocks is, however beautifully packaged, a purely mercenary item put together by the Stones’ former record company to cash in on the Christmas season and wring some more bucks out in the name of the Mod Princes they once owned.
As historical document of Greatest Hits culling, Hot Rocks takes almost no chances, and if the Stones or London sometimes display an unexpected sense of what may be the band’s most important statements (as in the inclusion of “You Can’t Always Get What You Want”), there is also much left out. The absence of “Lady Jane” makes sense in the light of its being on three albums already and not that good in the first place, and considerations of space make “Not Fade Away”‘s freezeout seem reasonable until you reflect on how severely the derivative but vital R&B (their best work, really, until Let It Bleed) of their first five albums has been under-represented here. Maybe it’s sensible to cut “The Last Time” in favor of its flip side “Play With Fire,” but the absence of “It’s All Over Now” fairly glares at you.
Either “She’s a Rainbow” or the great, roaring “Have You Seen Your Mother, Baby, Standing in the Shadow” would have been more fun than the always lame “As Tears Go By” and the socially incisive but musically slight “Mother’s Little Helper,” both of which were included. And “We Love You,” the brilliant “jail-single” of the summer of ’67 which may be the most musically adventurous thing the Stones have ever recorded, has never been on an album released in this country (There are also the great B sides like “Who’s Drivin’ My Plane,” “Child of the Moon” and “Sad Day,” but they deserve a different sort of album. Maybe someday they’ll get it.)
So when we look past the magnificent cover depicting the Stones in their numerous roles as ragtag rougues of Merrie Olde, Tangierian travellers, fashion plates, etc., what do we find? The evolution of a rock & roll band from superlative interpreters of mostly borrowed R&B in a style that was never far from pop, to being pop artists, philosophers and social commentators couching their vision and fantasies in a style that seldom gets all that far away from R&B.
The Stones have never been far from Chuck Berry stylistically, and in the beginning he was as predominant an influence as Ray Charles was for the early Eric Burdon and Joe Cocker. But the Berry-Diddley-Jimmy Reed phase of the Stones’ genesis is overlooked in favor of two songs deriving much more from the traditions of uptown soul and pop. Nevertheless, “Time is on My Side” and “Heart of Stone” are vintage Stones, with the arrogant persona that is largely the subject of the first half of their career and the first half of this album already emerging unmistakably, and cemented in “Play With Fire,” first entry in the Stones’ continuing sometime dalliance with the folk traditions of their native land. “As Tears Go By” derives from those traditions too, but in much more cornball fashion, and one imagines the Stones could have only recorded it to prove they could carry it off, Delsey tissue strings and all.
The crucial thread running through almost all of the Stones’ early work, and much of what has followed, is the tension in the alternation of themes of utter arrogance and disdain, and of the sense of ennui and frustration deriving from living, however highly, in these desperate times. “Get Off Of My Cloud” brought the former razzberry to a pinnacle of derisive noise that many, including Jagger himself, found excessive, while “I Can’t Get No Satisfaction” was, of course, the primal and perhaps still definitive statement of the latter condition. The balancing of these two senses is at once the strength and limitation of the Stones: strength, because nothing is more universal now than boredom and dissatisfaction and the Stones’ particular brand of charismatic swagger has been affected by more adolescents than any other posture of the generation: limitation, since yesterday’s outrageous strut is today’s cornball signal to get the hook, and keeping a sure grasp on the shifting modes in malaise o’ the day is one of the most difficult feats for any artist to maintain in this fast-mutating era.
The Stones have maintained, of course, radiating a semblance of constant change while mainly just reworking the most tried-and-true elements in their arsenal. Along the way, they’ve juiced up the process by turning now and then from their narcissistic role to cast a caustic eye at the society around them, as in “Mother’s Little Helper,” and borrowing whatever was handily trendy, from the sitar in “Paint It Black” to the Memphis horns in “Brown Sugar” and Sticky Fingers, to garnish their basic sound. And, in “Let’s Spend the Night Together” they brought the stud role to a double-entendre — whether the song is actually about sex or about being too wired to make it and knowing that nothing needs to be proved anyway — as brilliant as the utter sexist dominance of “Under My Thumb” is devastating. “Let’s Spend the Night Together” also represented the apotheosis of noise evolved into an arrangement of perfect clarity and unorthodox form, and effortlessly pushing, pulsating, almost mechanical sound that could go on forever.
It’s on the second record of Hot Rocks, however, that the big thematic shift in the Stones’ music becomes unmistakable. Almost all of the previous songs had been in a more or less tangible sense autobiographical, but now the ongoing persona ballooned into something at once stranger, more surrealistic and yet perhaps more universal. “Jumping Jack Flash” was unmistakably Mick Jagger, but also a creature of myth, a new mask to wear. “Sympathy For the Devil” cemented this process, of course, and helped give the Stones the “bad-vibes” patina which led so many to lay the blame for Altamont solely at their feet.
Always theatrical, the Stones had found a way of molding their basic profile into and out of various synonymous figures. We always sensed that they were basically lower-class street-punks who used to get out and mix it up on Friday nights, even if it may not have been entirely true, but not until “Street Fighting Man” did they take the trouble to play out the role in the most overt fashion possible, and what was even better was that the time was ripe for them to do it in the fashionable context of revolution. They can hardly be blamed for not following through politically, since, just like Dylan and most of the other giants in this business, they are basteally involved in finding roles, playing them out and projecting them, and then moving on to new ones. And at least they never pretended, as Lennon does today, to be doing more than that. Listening to “Midnight Rambler” still gives me chills today, but I hardly think Mick Jagger thinks of himself as “a proud Black Panther.”
So the Stones, beginning with Beggar’s Banquet, moved into a strong new phase where they are beginning to let their fantasies run free, and, if something like “Memo From Turner” from Performance is any indication, Jagger may have even darker dreams than “Midnight Rambler” in store. Unhealthy, perhaps, but undeniably pertinent.
The other, and even more important, recent phase is the Stones’ interest in songs, the kind of triumphs hinted at in “Satisfaction” and “Mother’s Little Helper,” that deal in searingly explicit terms not just with sexual conceits and power fantasies, but with the conditions under which all of us are living today. “Gimme Shelter” and “You Can’t Always Get What You Want” may be the two most crucial and enduring things ever laid on wax by this band; certainly they demonstrated an unprecedented maturity, a view of the world as it is and a promise that the Stones’ most vital work may well lie ahead of them. And even the much maligned “Brown Sugar” is an almost perfect crossbreed song in the new Stones vocabulary, combining a forceful picture of colonial racism with another Jagger fantasy which has offended some people but strikes with undeniable power.
The direction of the Stones’ future is clear, though perhaps less predictable than ever before. I doubt if they’ll ever stop writing songs like “Bitch” and “Live With Me” any more than they’ll ever stop copping licks from Chuck Berry. It doesn’t matter. They are the most creative and self-sustaining rock & roll band in history, and, despite what some observers say, not tired at all yet. “Gimme Shelter,” “You Can’t Always Get What You Want,” and “Brown Sugar” point the way, and if Jagger & Co. are perhaps the most decadent or even, in the words of some, evil of our heroes, they also have the surest grasp of who we are and where we are going. The Stones will not quail from reflecting it; it’s up to us to do something about it.