In the dismal history of Rolling Stones ’60s catalogue reissues, this is a first of sorts. This time, ABKCO… Universal… whoever… haven’t got it completely wrong. Collected here, in their original European/US sleeves, are the thrashing, screaming baby Stones’ first dozen 45s, including the three classic British EPs. Welcome as this is and despite the pretty sleeves, the ’60s singles are far more conveniently housed in the long available Singles Collection. Still, this is music that transcends format, whose impact couldn’t be contained.
Throughout the rock decade 1 (’63-’73), the most diversely creative era in pop history, “Greatest Rock’n’Roll Band In The World” was an unchallengeable title. The Rolling Stones were the master sculptors at the monstrous edifice that became ‘rock’. Remember, Frankenstein had good intentions: that the form is now such a lumbering, weary beast can never diminish the revolutionary blast of those explosive early records. ‘Essential’ Stones is oft quoted as the Beggars Banquet to Exile On Main Street era (1968-72), but despite the debauched glory of these later records, they’re missing one vital element. There were only ever five real Stones. The original Brian Jones line-up not only recorded the best rock ‘n’ roll singles ever made, but they spoke, looked and moved like nothing before or since. That today’s rock musicians still attempt to replicate the exact language, non-deportment and chucked-on sartorial perfection of the Stones 40 years ago speaks volumes about their initial impact. Modern ‘cool’ defined.
Of course, Miles and Bird and a host of others had been ‘cool’ since the bebop ’40s, but in white rock’n’roll terms, this jazz slang wasn’t applicable until the Stones slouched their way to pop domination circa 1964. Elvis ’56 had looked the part but he said “Sir” and “Momma” far too much. The Beatles might have kick-started the rock revolution but they were too cuddly and provincial. And too showbiz. A composite classless beast, The Rolling Stones never scored any showbiz points. If John and Paul blurred their middle-class grammar school backgrounds by acting the fashionably proletarian scousers, Brian Jones’ unapologetic public school voice was more in tune with the let-it-all-hang-out, libertarian zeitgeist. Wyman and Watts supplied the honest worker quotient while teacher’s son Jagger’s lapses into mockney came across like a camp university graduate roughing it. (Art-school drop-out Keith Richards was always more than a classless bohemian; he was actually a Caribbean pirate, but it would take decades of scientifically impossible internal toxic fusion for this to be revealed.) What was abundantly clear from the off was the sex.
The best sex: the twin threat of androgyny and brutality. Keith, in his fearsome Cuban-heeled Chelsea-boots, was always ready to pile in to protect the fop contingent. Forget Bolan or Bowie; it was Jones and Jagger who first, unaffectedly, refused to toe pop’s gender line. In 1964, they might have been the most beautiful creatures alive. Pouting in frilly shirts, they may have scared the hell out of some of the men, but the little girls and boys understood. This was the future. 2000 light years ahead of Cliff’s ‘asexuality’ or James Brown’s ‘heterosexuality’. Ten years later, still ahead of Bowie’s ‘bisexuality’ and ten more of Boy George’s ‘homosexuality’. Just sex.
What bonded such disparate individuals so closely was an obsession with black American R&B and, during 1963-65, the Stones turned the form on its head. Their first record, Chuck Berry’s “Come On”, is most memorable for introducing the extremity of Jagger’s singing accent. The first great blue-eyed soul shout, there were no Cliff transatlanticisms here. This was the voice of Shitsville, Deep South, USA, but performed with the devious blow-dried flounce of Leonard of Knightsbridge. Next, it seemed as though The Beatles were bent on sabotaging their rivals by donating the pathetic “I Wanna Be Your Man”. No problem. The Stones sabotaged the song to such brilliant effect that they invented punk in the process, The same to-hell-with-the-faders mayhem permeated “The Rolling Stones EP”, while third single “Not Fade Away” saw them closer to the rhythmic African hoodoo at the heart of rock’n’roll than any band before. Black or white.
The first No 1, Bobby Womack’s “It’s All Over Now”, warrants more Beatles vs Stones fatuity. On The Beatles’ concurrent ’45, Macca sounded like he believed his own moral hoodwink, “Money can’t buy me love”. Meanwhile, the Stones conveyed Womack’s relief at being rid of a slut and her “half-assed game” with a swagger that touched on a more recognisable reality. From the same Chess studio sessions came both the “Five By Five EP”?the best rock’n’roll performance ever (of Berry’s “Around And Around”) and their most daring single. The slow blues of Willie Dixon’s “Little Red Rooster”, with its undanceable beat and spooky Jones slide guitar, was considered commercial suicide. That it became their second No 1 was proof of the masses’ total bewitchment at the start of their unending affair with the Stones.
With such a vast wealth of material to plunder, it’s no wonder that the exacting process of songwriting was something Jagger and Richards had to be bullied into by manager Andrew Oldham. When they emerged, after a couple of middling to good efforts, with the first perfect rock song of the decade, the world fell at their feet. If the Stones hadn’t written anything, they would still have been the most important pop-art statement of the ’60s. “The Last Time”, with its prototype metal guitar riff and contemptuous lyric, propelled them so far into the stratosphere that only a circus-ringmaster’s bellowed sobriquet could serve to describe them.