Metamorphosis is both interesting and embarrassing, a curio and an outrage. Its 14 tracks consist of jams, outtakes, alternate takes and primitive versions of songs the Rolling Stones later revised into more polished numbers, all recorded (roughly) during their first six years. But one can’t really call it a Rolling Stones album.
The hideous artwork is the first indication that this album is the product of the Stones’ former management, which won the rights to much of the music recorded by the Stones between 1964 and 1970. The musicians reviewed old tapes and made a selection of unreleased music, presenting this to their former management as their choices for the LP. The Stones were vetoed in favor of the tracks on Metamorphosis. Since most of this music was never meant for the public, the Stones should be given the benefit of the doubt regarding whatever failures their fans find with Metamorphosis.
Despite the ill will, it isn’t a complete disaster. Many of the cuts are silly and weak, but anyone who has been following the real metamorphosis of the Rolling Stones over the last decade can look at these tracks as experiments, jokes, curious artifacts and at worst, nice tries, all infused with the mysterious energy of that elemental Stones consciousness.
Metamorphosis‘s first failure is its title, which is a lie. The songs aren’t presented in order, nor are any dates or session data provided. No line of artistic development is followed, although the first side’s seven songs all seem to be from the 1964-67 period, when Andrew Loog Oldham (trotted out once more here with his droog liner notes) was producing.
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An alternate take of “Out of Time” leads off with a strikeout. The cold fury of the Flowers version is obscured by an incongruous female chorus and a kitschy string section. “Don’t Lie to Me” is a pretty ordinary early Stones imitation of a Chuck Berry line, noteworthy more for the band’s simple tightness than the young Mick Jagger’s herculean attempt at sounding black. “Each and Everyday of the Year” is a hopelessly jive, archetypal early Stones ballad, intact with its Renaissance brass flourishes. It occasionally sounds like “Lady Jane” which it definitely precedes. It’s obviously too arch and patently false in tone for the public Stones of 1964-65. A lazy version of “Heart of Stone” is the album’s first success. Jagger’s vocal seems identical to the track on The Rolling Stones, Now!, but on steel guitar here, it could be Brian Jones, in his role as subtle colorist, and the big chorus has a nice bit here and there.
What follows is a true relic, the misanthropic and hilariously hostile “I’d Much Rather Be with the Boys.” Perhaps it’s old management’s knife in the ribs with a twist. The incredible lyric — “I’d much rather be with the boys/Than girls like you” — and lame surf harmonies readily explain why the tune was never unleashed on the innocent fans. Oldham takes a songwriting credit here, which could explain this callow lapse of professional standards. One must pity the artists for this minor humiliation while remembering that they chose to record it in the first place. The crude song seems pathetic and funny now; had it been released it might have badly altered their careers.
The last two cuts on the side are “Sleepy City,” perhaps an outtake from Aftermath, whose songs it closely resembles, and “Try a Little Harder,” little more than a riff, circa 1965, but with drive and clarity that make it worthwhile.
The material on the second side eclipses that on the first. “I Don’t Know Why,” from the Let It Bleed era, meanders aimlessly. (As a further instance of the album’s sloppiness, the song is mistakenly credited to the Stones but was in fact written by Stevie Wonder and two others.) “If You Let Me” sounds like Between the Buttons and is stylistically related to all of Buttons’ tragicomic intensity. “Jiving Sister Fanny” is again little more than a riff and a couple of words that go nowhere, proving that even the Rolling Stones can be mediocre when they’re off or think nobody’s looking.
Bill Wyman’s “Downtown Suzie” is the first four-star track. Basically a jam from the Beggar’s Banquet sessions, it is wonderfully loose, scatological and boozy with a sublime and very funny vocal performance by Jagger, here seen maturing into an excellent actor. Keith’s acoustic guitar and the raunchy chorus perfectly convey the tension of Beggar’s Banquet. “Family” seems to come from the same sessions and is extremely bleak in tone, a household of cripples and whores painted black. As a lyricist, Jagger was never particularly keen on the concept of the family, to say the least.
The side ends with an alternate take (perhaps the demo) of “Memo from Turner,” one of the smartest and grimmest of all the Jagger/Richard songs. The charm of this take is its bluntness and lack of polish compared to the final version that was so influenced by Ry Cooder. I like this unreleased version better: What it lacks in theatrical menace is made up for by its visceral, almost frightening rawness. A Banquet-era hard shuffle, “I’m Going Down,” completes the set. Again, Jagger is somehow spellbinding as he volleys with the music.
The Rolling Stones undoubtedly felt they had to do something about the bastard album hogging all that money during their current tour. The result is Made in the Shade, a virtual program of the band’s current repertoire in order of performance. (The only exception is “Bitch,” that great appetite song which can’t be given justice without its almost Moroccan horn lines.)
Shade‘s selection is familiar enough. One re-exults in Keith’s trenchant autobiography, “Happy,” and rediscovers “Heartbreaker” as an anarchist masterpiece. Although the selections are obvious, this official greatest-hits collection of their Seventies material reaffirms the Rolling Stones’ role as rock’s best and most consistent band.