“Jumpin’ Jack Flash” Examined (the song, not the movie)

17Apr12

The song, not the movie.

First off, I wanted to say how I just realized that Facebook is just a blog with more accessible, less intimidating interface. I was thinking about writing something Star Wars/Batman/Rolling Stones in a status update, then thought, “Oh, I should probably write that as a blog instead,” and then it hit me: if I can update my FB status once a day, surely I can update this blog more than once a week.  I have the passwords and everything.

Of course, the blog readers are a more demanding audience who demand a longer story, more thought-out thoughts and more poetry.  It’s longer and therefore more intimidating. Or it was.

Anyway…

If you judge things purely by numbers, “Jumpin’ Jack Flash” is my favorite Rolling Stones song simply because I own the more versions of it than any other song.  Which is a good thing because it actually is my favorite Stones song, ever since high school when I played “Hot Rocks” over and over again. As a matter of fact, that’s the one version I don’t still have, and it’s probably my favorite version, not simply for the nostalgia of still being in high school. It was Track One of Side Two, and for some reason my car stereo (on a 1988 Pontiac Grand Prix, thank you), played the first track of any tape just a little faster than the songs deeper into the cassette.  It’s almost like with no weight on one of the reels, the tape player could really go as fast as it could. Picture a horse pulling an empty wagon.  The horse bolts, loving the sprint. Then as it runs along it picks up its cargo and eventually the horse has to take a slower, more methodical pace to make it to the final destination.  This is how “JJF” played on my car stereo. It was just a little faster than I’ve ever heard the song played in my life, and I loved it.

Anyway again…

Here’s the list of my versions of the song and what I think of them. In chronological order in terms of release:

1.) From “The Singles Collection.” This is the classic studio version, and might be my absolute favorite version of this song.  Maybe my favorite version of “music.” Better men than I have spouted on and on about this version of this song, so I won’t bother trying to one-up them except to point out how this is the only — ONLY — version of this song I’ve ever heard with the pre-riff intro. To my knowledge the Stones have never played the song live with that opening nine bars before the “Watch it!” What’s even more interesting (to me) is that the opening riff has become just as iconic as the later riff. All subsequent versions of “JJF” are not quite as fast and are played in a slightly different key (starting with B-flat instead of B). I’ve always assumed that studio tinkering was the cause, that the song was sped up for the single, and that the live Stones have never been able to quite muster the same punch on stage. No matter. We have the single.

2.) From “Get Yer Ya-Ya’s Out.” Another great version, and probably 1.A in real terms.  I’ve played the studio version more, but this one never fails to get me up.

3.) From “Gimme Shelter.” Not exactly fair to count the visual element on this, but it doesn’t hurt. It’s very similar to the “Ya-Ya’s” version, with that gut-punch opening riff. The only knock to these two versions in comparison with the studio one comes in the return after the bridge. In the studio version, things pick up again with renewed vigor. In these two versions, they kind of settle into things.  Not a big deal, but sometimes it makes all the difference to me.  These are championships we’re talking, folks.

4.) From “Love You Live.” Nearly awful. I have a theory that “JJF” should only happen at the begging of things and not the end.  For whatever reason, it is a start-off and not a finisher. Coming third to last on this double live album, I should love this version on principle of being the fastest of my collection. Yet the especially coked-up Stones aren’t playing it faster because they have lots of energy.  Instead it feels like they’re just trying to hustle through it so they can finish the concert. As terrible as a great song could be.

5.) From “Rock ‘n’ Roll Circus.” And this is as “Well… it’s okay” as a great song could be. Technically titled “JumpinG Jack Flash,” with the missing “G.,” I swear Brian Jones doesn’t contribute a single noise to this ’68 concert, as you can clearly hear nothing but Keith’s heavy riff on this track. Maybe he was turned way down or something, but the sound just feels more hollow than the others. It’s a little slow, too, by comparison with the others, though still works as a nice opener, and coupled with the rest of the songs here, it’s just fine.  Like I said… it’s okay.

6.) From “Shine A Light.” Proving the rule that this song belongs at the top of a show/album, even the 60-year-old Stones can rock it hard.  I’ve personally seen the Rolling Stones twice, once where “JJF” was the next to last song of the night, and once where it was the opener.  I couldn’t tell you much about the next-to-last version, but the show opener was a knock-out.  Same thing here. That opening riff works like a knife cutting through everyone’s ears, and the kick-off of what would turn out to be a great concert film. True, this might be helped by the direction of Martin Scorsese*, but you can’t fault the song for that. Watch the video how Jagger makes his entrance.  You’d think the best way to show it would be to use that head-on shot, but I love how the focus morphs from Richards rocking the guitar to catch Jagger hauling to the front of the stage, grabbing everyone’s attention.

That’s a nice way to think about the song in general: it’s all Keith’s song until someone can manage to grab focus. Mathematically, this version shouldn’t trump a ’68, but it does by a lot.

*I still find it hilarious and ridiculous that at the beginning of “Shine A Light,” Scorsese makes a big deal about not knowing what song the Stones will play first.  They make a big deal about not having a finalized set-list, and I can see that as a hard pill to swallow, but if you can’t guess within three songs what the Stones will lead off with, then you haven’t been around them for the last four years.

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