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It’s Only Rock’n’Roll Revisited

January 3, 2013

Track By Track: It’s Only Rock’n’Roll  by the Rolling Stones

Side One

1. If You Can’t Rock Me

On November 13 1973 the Stones entered Musicland Studios in Munich to start work on their new album. They finished on November 24, broke for Christmas then returned on January 14 1974 for another 2 weeks. If You Can’t Rock Me was the second track recorded and it gets It’s Only Rock ‘n’Roll off to an uncertain start, trying a bit too hard to rock out. “The band’s onstage and it’s one of those nights…the drummer thinks he’s dynamite”. Certainly the latter is true of Charlie Watts throughout, despite the slightly muddy mix. Regular producer Jimmy Miller had been sacked: Jagger and Richards produced the LP under The Glimmer Twins soubriquet. They would do better on subsequent records. Keith Richards played bass and treated himself to a rare solo during the breakdown in the middle of the song. In live performance the song segued into Get Off My Cloud, a medley performed at London Earls Court on May 27 1976 and released on the double LP Love You Live.

2. Ain’t Too Proud To Beg

The Stones have always been adept at covers but this version may just be their best. Originally recorded by the Temptations the Stones’ version relied upon Billy Prestons electric piano and clavinet and the taut guitars of Richards and Taylor. The track also featured Elton John’s percussionist Ray Cooper on bongos and Eddie Leach on cowbell. Nick Kent compared it to the first “gangbusting” J.Geils band LP, and when it comes to supercharged rhythm and blues retreads there is no higher praise. The end result was so successful that it was released as a single in Europe and in the US. In August 1974 Michael Lindsay Hogg made a promotional film using the recorded backing track and a live vocal. The abrupt ending of the track creates a dramatic space before the entry of…

3. It’s Only Rock ‘n’ Roll (But I like it)

The title track had a complicated birth, having been started by Ronnie Wood and David Bowie in the former’s home studio. Keith Richards takes over the story. “That’s where I first heard Only Rock’n’Roll, in Ronnie’s studio. It’s Mick’s song and he’d cut it with Bowie as a dub. Mick had gotten this idea and they started to rock on it. It was damn good. Shit, Mick what are you doing it with Bowie for? Come on, we’ve got to steal that motherfucker back. And we did, without too much difficulty. Just the title itself was so beautifully simple. “ Willie Weeks played bass, Kenny Jones played drums and Ronnie Woods acoustic guitar supplied the hook, with Keith subsequently overdubbing Ronnie’s electric guitar parts. On the sleeve Ronnie is merely credited with “inspiration” after he ill-advisedly dropped his claim for songwriting in exchange for a credit on the track Black Limousine, which would not be released until it appeared on the Tattoo You LP in 1981.

When released as a single It’s Only Rock’n’Roll only reached No 16 in the US and No 10 in the UK, making it the lowest charting Stones single since the 60s. This was despite an extensive “’teaser’ campaign that the saw the title spray-painted all over London (the Stones denied responsibility) . Lindsay Hogg produced a memorable promo film of the Stones in sailor suits performing the song in a perspex tent that filled up with foam. This meant that anyone sitting down was likely to be engulfed with foam: exit Charlie stage right looking Not Amused . The film also highlighted the appalling state of Keith’s teeth. Despite Mick Taylor’s description of the song as a pastiche of a Stones classic It’s Only Rock’n’Roll has gone onto become one of the Stones warhorses, trotted out at innumerable gigs.

In a welcome break from tradition the B-side of the single was the previously unreleased Through The Lonely Nights, a leisurely mid-paced ballad with country inflections left over from the Goats Head Soup sessions and rumoured to feature Jimmy Page on guitar.

4. Til The Next Goodbye

Mick Taylor was also becoming increasingly concerned with the Glimmer Twins notorious reluctance to give songwriting credit where it was due. He therefore decided that It’s Only Rock’n’Roll would be his last LP with the band prior to a (disappointing) solo career. Til The Next Goodbye was the final studio track he recorded and his restrained slide guitar effectively reinforced the mood of sadness, a mood reinforced by Nicky Hopkins’ piano which carries the track and ends on a tongue-in-cheek triplet. Jagger delivered  a sensitive vocal about starcrossed lovers which convinced until he started going on about “yer Louisiana recipes”. A track that was never attempted onstage.

5. Time Waits For No One

This track has always divided Stones fans. Those who favour Stones Mk 1 (Brian Jones era), or Stones Mk 3 (Ronnie Wood) will find this track elongated to little purpose. The relationship between Richards and Taylor was a more formal rhythm guitar / lead guitar divide than had been the case with Jones and would be the case with Wood. Freeing Taylor up to play lead guitar played dividends here, with the long, fluid solo Taylor takes at the end of this song representing the highspot of his studio work with the Stones. Taylor was also responsible for the admirably restrained synthesiser featured here, and contributed to the writing of the song. Nick Kent writing in the NME: ‘Mick Taylor was involved in the actual composition of Time Wairs For No One, even though the writing credits will go to Jagger and Richards as ever. It also turns out that Taylor has made creative inserts into other tracks such as Til The Next Time We Say Goodbye and If  You Really Want To Be My Friend. Still no credit.”

Jagger sings an arch lyric about the temporal nature of beauty with more compassion than might be expected from someone who has increasingly dated much younger women. An out-take exists that is described as an extended version: technically this is true, but the major difference is that you hear Charlie stop his metronome drumming at the end of the track rather than hear him faded out. This stellar track has never been played live, but now that the band have mastered the lengthy coda of Can’t You Hear Me Knocking this should be possible and it would make a lot of Stones Mk 2 fans very happy. The epitaph on Stones Mk 2 was delivered by the telegram that Keith sent Mick Taylor on hearing of his resignation: “really enjoyed playing with you for the last five years. Thanks for all the turn-ons. Best wishes and love”. According to his wife Rose, when he read this Mick Taylor burst into tears.

Side Two

6. Luxury

The opening track on Side Two shifts the instrumental focus from Taylor to Richards. The Stones have recorded some thoroughly dull reggae in their time with Cherry Oh Baby, the original Start Me Up and Too Rude particularly lame examples (although Keith’s solo The Harder They Come was good). Here the Stones respectfully interpreted the rhythm of reggae and transformed it into a neo-classic which would have made a great single. It seems ironic that they could record the entire Goats Head Soup LP in Jamaica with no discernible effect, but they come up with this rhythmic tour-de-force in Munich. Although Jagger’s lyric is about the oppression of the working man he managed a Jamaican patois without sounding too corny. When Virgin released a remastered It’s Only Rock’n’Roll on CD in 1994 Luxury was extended by 30 seconds. Should have been a great live track but in reality only played on the first seven dates on the Tour Of The America’s in August 1975.

7. Dance Little Sister

Dance Little Sister is the second Keith Richards-dominated rocker in a row with his raw guitar tone and prominent backing vocals driving this song. The Stones had been checking out the New York Dolls with a view to signing them to Rolling Stones Records, and this track replicated their appeal as a garage band deluxe. Relegated to the B-side of Ain’t Too Proud To Beg the single would more accurately be described as a Double A side. Ian Stewart provided some grungy piano low in the mix. Jagger sounds totally convincing in this tale of young lust. Rarely played live although an excellent version can be found on an acetate recorded at the El Mocambo  Club in March1977 but inexplicably excluded from Love You Live.

8. If You Really Want To Be My Friend

The versatility of the band in general and Jagger in particular was emphasised by this smooth and soulful recording. The sumptuous backing harmonies of Philadelphia soul group Blue Magic provided a backdrop against which Jagger could emote. Throughout this LP the Stones played in a wide variety of styles and it is a testament to their conviction that the tracks cohered to make a credible collection rather than a grab bag of odds and ends. Keith Richards said at the time “ Rock and roll can’t be planned or prepared. Goats Head Soup to me was a marking time album. I like it in many ways but I don’t think it has the freshness this one has.”

9. Short and Curlies

This track was a rejected outtake from the Goats Head Soup sessions and it is hard to see why it was thought worthy for inclusion on It’s Only Rock’n’Roll Ian Stewart’s boogie-woogie piano was great but the song itself was undistinguished (what can you expect from a song that is named after pubic hair?). There were better songs recorded in Munich such as Living In The Heart Of Love or the relaxed groove of Dobie Gray’s Drift Away. However the odd duff track did not reduce the enthusiasm shown by the music press. Allan Jones wrote in Melody Maker “quite simply this album is indispensible” whilst for NME Nick Kent wrote “Boy, do I love this album. I love it because it delivers exactly what all the other biggies we invest so much blind faith in only promise

10. Fingerprint File

The closing track exhibited further stylistic diversity. The longest song on the LP, Jagger’s vocal reeks of paranoia, emphasised by his incisive rhythm guitar. Mick Taylor played bass, Bill Wyman switched to synthesiser, Hopkins and Preston sparred on piano and clavinet and Keith Richards played Superfly-style wah-wah guitar throughout. Charlie Watts was supported by tabla player Jolly Kunjappu. This atmospheric track pointed the way forward  for the Stones, who would return to its themes in future songs such as Shattered and Undercover Of The Night. Despite its minimal structure the song featured throughout the Tour Of The Americas. A version recorded at the Maple Leaf Gardens in Toronto on June 17 1975 was included on Love You Live. Jaggers final lyric “good night…sleep tight” provided a succinct sign-off to It’s Only Rock’n’Roll. As veteran Stones watcher Roy Carr opined “more to this album than first meets the ear”.

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