Friday, 9 December 2016


The Circle Is Unbroken

That lascivious tongue has been part of popular culture for 45 years. Rolling Stones Records was launched in 1971 with the ‘Brown Sugar’ maxi-single whose B-side was backed with both ‘Bitch’ and a live version of Chuck Berry’s ‘Let It Rock’ recorded during the Stones’ 1970 European tour. That disc is rarer than a 21st century Stones studio release, but not by much.

There is a fundamental advertising rule: never, ever mess with your visual identity, your logo. That poor tongue has been through the wringer: nails have been pounded through it; baseball and football stitches have been added; it’s been blown to bits. Last Friday you could find it in record shops tinged an electric overdose blue. The justified and ancient brand didn’t even bother putting its name on the Blue & Lonesome album cover because we all know and recognize that lick.

Once I was seduced by the Rolling Stones, a little before puberty – likely not a coincidence, the natural question to ask was, what do they listen to? That was how I met and fell in love with the blues. It’s too facile to say that Blue & Lonesome could have been their 1963 debut although the 12 Chicago tracks chosen by the 2016 incarnation of the band could easily have comprised that first album.

The original sextet could not maintain its purist stance for a long, long while. There were too many personalities and outside influences, push-me-pull-you. The first big Stones hit was a casual gift from John Lennon and Paul McCartney. For every ‘Little Red Rooster’ there was the Bo Diddley beat, songs by Chuck Berry, Bobby Womack, Otis Redding and Solomon Burke, and ballads composed by Jagger and Richards. The band was too talented not to evolve and create its unique noise.

Worshipping the blues as teenagers and understanding them as senior citizens are two very different things. While the elevated lifestyle of a Rolling Stone is beyond my capacity of comprehension, I can relate to the universal human trials of financial and personal failure, divorce, death, suicide, cancer and addiction. We’re not that different. In his autobiography Keith Richards’ ghost wrote that the true essence of the other, mercurial Glimmer Twin was to be heard in his harmonica playing, and how Mick is one of the best there ever was. Blue & Lonesome is weathered and inspired, a document of experience and lives lived. It could never have sounded this authentic in 1963 even if the songs had been cut at 2120 South Michigan Avenue.

After the cut, pasted and overdubbed pastiche that was 1981’s Tattoo You, Stones albums became increasingly infrequent. Fans had grown used to two-year gaps but no more. While the group ineptly managed its petty internal dynamics rock music was relegated in status to a sub-genre of popular music. Meanwhile a complacent industry was blindsided by digital disruption; sad sacks like me recording mix tapes home alone on Friday nights were no longer a problem worthy of addressing.
The circus maximus that is the 21st century touring version of the Rolling Stones is always capable of churning out another Stonesy rocker for yet another compilation. The songs are good, if out of time, yet they don’t quite resonate like the crowd pleasing warhorses on Through the Past, Darkly. ‘Don’t Stop’ would have made a fine unheralded gem on the side two of Undercover. ‘One More Shot’ might have added a half star rating to the abysmal Dirty Work – the ad campaign was better than the music: Pure Hearts; Clean Minds; Dirty Work. I’ve long wished the corporation would cease purveying second rate takes on ‘Start Me Up’ and get back to their roots. I did not expect an album of Chicago blues covers. NOBODY EXPECTED AN ALBUM OF CHICAGO BLUES COVERS!

Cover albums by artists revered for their songwriting chops are alarming releases, possibly droopy white flags waving from dry wells. Ray Davies and John Fogerty have each released covers of themselves in concert with admiring acolytes. Nobel laureate Bob Dylan has recently mined Frank Sinatra standards twice over. My favourite record in the sub-sub-genre, until last Friday, was Lennon’s Rock ‘n’ Roll. Maybe it was just a placeholder from a lost weekend that stretched into years, but Rock ‘n’ Roll provided autobiography and context, a personally curated diary of Lennon’s formative years even if I was left to wonder how he managed the leap from Chuck Berry to ‘Strawberry Fields’ to ‘Working Class Hero.’

Blue & Lonesome is the true story of the Rolling Stones, that primordial sound that existed before graphic icons, stage fireworks and inflating penises, girls and dogs, before artifice, before rock ‘n’ roll Barnum and Bailey, before Lear jets and candy from strangers, crazy mama. A circle has closed. It only took a couple of generations.

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