My Favorite Stones Songs

17May13

Often times, when I’m thinking a lot about something, I let my mind wander in search of patterns, rankings and categories of that thing. I’ll start creating lists like, “What was the best Batman utility belt?” and “Which Robin had the best hair?” Since I’ve been on a major Stones kick, my focus has been on them, so my brain has been working over time to justify my obsession, coming up with weird categories which simply allow me to listen to the music I’ve got memorized down to the measure over and over again.

So here’s the first of what may be many lists: My 16 Favorite Rolling Stones Songs (listed chronologically).

  •  Play With Fire
  •  19th Nervous Breakdown
  •  Ruby Tuesday
  •  She’s a Rainbow
  •  19th Nervous Breakdown
  •  Jumpin’ Jack Flash
  •  Gimme Shelter
  •  Midnight Rambler (live, almost any of them)
  •  Monkey Man
  •  You Can’t Always Get What You Want (live, “The Brussels Affair”)
  •  Honky Tonk Women
  •  Bitch
  •  Dead Flowers
  •  Happy
  •  Winter
  •  Beast of Burden
  •  Plundered My Soul

While playing these songs again in this proximity, I noticed a few things: 

1.) Default Favorite Album. It would seem that “Let It Bleed” is my favorite album of theirs, even though I don’t think that’s true. As I recently wrote, I’d put “Exile” and “Beggar’s Banquet” above “Let It Bleed,” and on certain days even “Sticky Fingers.” But here, out of 16 songs, FOUR have a claim on that album, more than any other (“Sticky Fingers” is represented with two, “Exile” with only 1.5 since “Plundered My Soul” was a demo that only recently got a re-mix and release). However, “Bleed” doesn’t have as tight a grip on that crown as one might think, considering that I prefer live versions of two of those four songs. But doesn’t that mean, you might think if you were me, that you still love the album tracks, and therefore shouldn’t THAT mean that you love “Let It Bleed” above all others? Not necessarily. I think “Let It Bleed” is one of those albums composed of many great songs that are just that, while “Exile” and “Beggars” are great albums with songs that cohese into a whole. Like the band producing the music, the albums become greater than the sum of their parts BECAUSE of their parts. Long story short: I can listen to chunks of “Let It Bleed,” and not feel let down, but one must listen to “Exile on Main St.” as a whole to feel the full affect.

2.) Singles Lover. 12 of the 16 were released as singles. This does not bode well for my street cred, as I feel it’s a common belief that in order to be considered a fan of something, one must only list less popular titles. Such logic doesn’t work when you’re dealing with a band like the Stones or the Beatles, because back in their day, there wasn’t such a thing as “too successful.” The whole point of producing music in the 1960’s was to make it amazingly popular, so the band put all their creative energy into doing just that. So most times, the best songs were the most popular songs. I tried to be a cool guy, really. My expanded list has a bunch of deep cuts, and “Satisfaction” isn’t on the final list, but when it came down to it, if you’re going to love a super popular band, then you have to love the super popular songs.

3.) Favorite Era: Hot Rocks. My first Stones purchase was the “Hot Rocks” greatest hits on cassette, and it would seem that those roots go deep. 9 of these 16 all have a place on “Hot Rocks” (even the live version of “Midnight Rambler”). There are also only two from the Wood Era, and one of those (“Plundered My Soul”) has origins pre-dating his, and has Mick Taylor on as a guest.

4.) Surprise, Surprise? This wasn’t some scientific, mathematic poll I took. I just went with my gut, so I can only claim so much shock at myself, if that’s even possible. Still… what is “She’s a Rainbow” doing on there? Maybe it’s pure nostalgia. After the May 3 concert, I got to talk to people about the previous shows I’d seen, and I got to tell the story about seeing them play “She’s a Rainbow” as part of the “Audience-chooses-via-the-internet” votes (when the title came up, we swore we saw the band shrug their shoulders like, “Oh, boy… how are we gonna do this?”). But in listening to it again, it is indeed a great song, if also a bit goofy. As far as goofy psychedelia goes, you can do much worse.

5.) Cinematic Power. Five or six of these songs have a cinematic quality to them, and that’s something for which the Stones never received enough credit. Sure, the lyrics of “Monkey Man” are kind of easy and silly. I have no idea what that song’s supposed to literally mean, but I sure as hell know what it feels like. Songs like that and “Gimme Shelter” feel like a musical thunderstorm, ominous and building. The “Brussels Affair” version of “You Can’t Always Get What You Want” builds so intensely that I have always felt that particular version of that very song symbolizes the band’s entire history*. Images are not only composed by this music, they are supported. So, yeah, “Monkey Man” might not be one of the best, but it’s definitely one of the greatest.

…and what’s more about “Monkey Man” is that it sets mood through piano and sparse instrumentation at the top. Later, the Taylor guitar would fill out the landscapes with tunes like “Winter,” “Moonlight Mile” and the like, but they could do it before him.

6.) Live Versions. I’ve seen many of these songs played live, and not always super well. Here’s a rundown on that:

  •  19th Nervous Breakdown (Chicago, 1997. A good one. One of the best of the night)
  •  She’s a Rainbow (Chicago, 1997. A delight and saved by the piano player)
  •  Jumpin’ Jack Flash (Chicago, 1997 — so-so; Chicago 1998 — super great**; Los Angeles 2013 — pretty good)
  •  Gimme Shelter (Chicago 1998 — good; Los Angeles 2013 — also good)
  •  Midnight Rambler (Chicago 1998 — good; Los Angeles 2013 — one of the best of the night)
  •  You Can’t Always Get What You Want (Chicago 1997 — so-so; Los Angeles 2013 — really great, mostly because they had the full choir)
  •  Honky Tonk Women (Chicago 1997 — I can’t remember; Los Angeles 2013 — really great).
  •  Bitch (Chicago 1997 — really great; Chicago 1998 — also really great)
  •  Happy (Los Angeles 2013 — damn good.

7.) The Absolute Tops. When asked what my favorite Stones song was, I’ve almost always answered “Jumpin’ Jack Flash,” if for no other reason than I wanted a simple, non-qualified answer. It is true, though. I’d put it on the shortest list for the top contender, always hovering around the top 3 or 2 at least. But in listening to these songs again, it seems that “Gimme Shelter” deserves a spot on that short list, too. Popular answers? Sure. But the right answers.

 

*This is an undertaking of mine that I’m a little scared to do. I feel like it’s true, but I cannot put my finger on it concretely to prove it to others. I could actually say that the saxophone solo in the middle of this song is representative of the band’s life, but I’ll let myself get only so crazy here. OK, here I go: It’s a pop song with blues roots. It’s got a singsongy chorus, but the song builds on the power of the group, not just of one person (or one person’s star power). The song also goes on a bit longer than it needs to, much like people say the band has, with many possible stopping points available for a graceful finish. Then there’s that saxophone solo by Trevor Lawrence. First off, along with the keys of Billy Preston, this solo symbolizes how the band has relied on many “Sixth and Seventh Stones” over the years, as well as its canny ability to follow trends and stand on the shoulders of giants to aid their own success. But the solo also represents the band’s ambition to reach farther than anyone has or should in popular music. Much of the subtext of the Stones has been rooted in “How far can this really go?” And many times, the band has tried to follow a trend and do “That Big Great Thing” only to fail (the Altamont concert, for example). That point in the sax solo where the reed almost breaks and Lawrence hits a false note and has to stop playing is all of those moments in a nutshell. I can feel it. So he reached too far and blew it. Where the Beatles (the band’s natural counterpart) have always achieved a kind of perfection with their music, doing everything right, the Stones have continually put their foot in it. They are human, and proved so again and again. That’s not to say that the Beatles weren’t human, or that the Stones weren’t seen as super-human, but the chinks in the Beatle armor are rarely as publicized as those of the Stones. Too old, too much, don’t care enough, too ambitious, not ambitious enough. This somehow makes the most popular band in the world relatable to someone like me, who can barely play an instrument and has never done heroin.

What’s even more powerful and representative of the band’s legacy is that after this solo falls to pieces, the band plays on. And they play on with gusto. The Stones will themselves into something great, as they’ve done many times before (again, just like at the Altamont concert). Jagger sings the final verse with more conviction and feeling than previously given, and we’re presented with professionalism. Professional heathens. That’s where we are with them in 2013. I hope that all makes sense.

 

**I think part of the reason why I loved this version of “JJ Flash” over the others is that it was the concert opener. Something about that song works best as a starting point for a show rather than a closer, and it was a closer for the other two shows. This holds true historically, as some of my favorite live versions of “JJ Flash” (from “Ya-Ya’s” to “Rock n’ Roll Circus” and even to “Shine a Light”) came from the top of the show, whereas my less-loved versions (every other one) came at the end. Interestingly***, “Satisfaction” has an inverse ratio, serving as a better closer (the original “Ya-Ya’s” concert and my 2013 show) than it does show opener (Chicago 1997).

 

***By which I mean “Interesting to me.”

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