The Rolling Stones – It’s Only Rock ‘n’ Roll
I’ve never been comfortable with the notion that The Rolling Stones are the greatest rock and roll band in the world. It comes off as nothing but hype, the kind of thing dreamed up to get some press. There is a very good argument to be made that in 1969, when this tag was first given to them by the announcer at the outset of one of their shows (and not immediately disavowed by the band), they weren’t even the best band on their home island: The Beatles were still very much a thing, and The Who and Led Zeppelin were staking their claims to greatness. The arrogance of that moniker, especially in view of the diminishing returns of their 1970s records, contributed to the rise of punk in mid decade. And “It’s Only Rock ‘n’ Roll” seems to have played a big part in this.
As I have readily acknowledged previously, I am by no means an authority on The Rolling Stones (or anything, really), so I could be completely off base here, but this feels like the most rock album that I’ve encountered from them so far. It still has bluesy rhythms and the other genre-hopping markers that the band liked to play around with. But there is also a real commitment to pre-power ballads and excessively long songs for no apparent purpose other than to include extended guitar solos. You know – a rock record, as opposed to a more free-wheeling and uncloistered rock ‘n’ roll record.
And that excess and some weird experimentation, it seems, may have been the problem for the folks who were in the vanguard of punk. For them, the Stones weren’t a rock and roll band anymore. They were a rock band, and that signified a bunch of unattractive elements that just called out to be rebelled against. Rock was corporate, and took itself far too seriously: rock and roll was dirtier, and way more fun. And a lot of this album just isn’t much fun.
It sure starts out great, though. “You Can’t Rock Me” explodes out of the gate. It’s a real toe-tapper, with great work from Charlie Watts on the drums, and its failure to be released as a single further convinces me I would have just killed had I been making such decisions in the early ‘70s. The title track is justifiably legendary, even if the guitar sound feels like the shy cousin of Marc Bolan’s chug on “Get It On”. Keith Richard does some fantastic playing heading to the three-minute mark, and the song is a true anthem, with an amped-up country-blues feel. “Dance Little Sister” is another good one, a rollicking stomp with a heavy backbeat, honkytonk piano and a blistering guitar solo.
The forays into non-rock elements show up early, with a funky break 1:30 into the opening track. The sounds of Black artists seem particularly attractive to the lads. They include a cover of “Ain’t Too Proud to Bed” that offers nothing new but scuzz on the guitars and a bit of volume: Mick Jagger is great, but he can’t equal David Ruffin on the original. There’s a bizarre attempt by Mick to sound Jamaican on “Luxury”, they brought in Blue Magic to provide backing vocals on “If You Really Want To Be My Friend”, and “Fingerprint File”, which feels like it belongs on a different record, has a Sly Stone electro-funk vibe with the edges sanded down.
The peaks though are those ballads, highlighted by some all-world piano from Nicky Hopkins. “Til the Next Goodbye” has great cinematic images (“snow swirl around your hair”), pairing delicate beauty with an air of heartbreaking desperation. But it pales next to “Time Waits for No One”, a tale of loss and regret (“hours are like diamonds, don’t let them waste”) which goes on way too long initially then feels like it ends too soon. Hopkins again, subtle until he starts slamming on the keys over the last minute. A consistent, unobtrusive back beat from Watts. Deliciously melancholy guitar from Keith that deepens around 3:00 and becomes virtuosic after 4:00, and our reward for sticking around is Keith playing us out.
It’s a (mostly) good record, but, no, it’s not a fun one. There’s just way too much melancholy, too much self-important seriousness and experimentation for experimentation’s sake to be purely enjoyable. The peaks are marred by some overly long tracks and a few cringe moments (“Short and Curlies” is both), and, again, WTAF is Mick up to on “Luxury”. It feels a bit like a band trying to figure out its future, and relying on trickery to sustain it. That future had one last great record in it, but that was four years away, and the mid ‘70s found the Stones flailing a bit. No wonder the punks felt the crown was theirs for the taking if this was the best the world had to offer.