Monday 6 July 2009


(#45: 30 April 1966, 8 weeks)

Track listing: Mother’s Little Helper/Stupid Girl/Lady Jane/Under My Thumb/Doncha Bother Me/Goin’ Home/Flight 505/High And Dry/Out Of Time/It’s Not Easy/I Am Waiting/Take It Or Leave It/Think/What To Do

A lifetime or two after the event, the wonder is how the Beatles and the Stones were ever set up as “rivals” when they were clearly on such different paths. Admittedly, the development of Jagger and Richards as songwriters wouldn’t have happened, or at the very least would have slowed down immensely, without Oldham buttonholing them, and all three were inspired by the example that Lennon and McCartney had set, but the Stones’ first album to consist entirely of original Jagger/Richards compositions shows little sign of any particular awareness of the Beatles, let alone any direct competition with them.

Except, perhaps, that the Stones were always keen to come off as a little darker than the Fabs. The cover of Aftermath sees them (and the Decca logo) drenched in radioactive purple, miraculously preserved; Wyman deadpan (and resembling a young Graham Gouldman), Watts cautiously grinning, Jones looking askance in terror at the impassive faces of the two men who had taken the group he had formed and named and led them somewhere else, nearly out of his reach.

I am mindful that Patti Smith, along with innumerable others, begins here but also that the version of Aftermath that she got was the American one with the single “Paint It, Black” substituting for “Mother’s Little Helper” as opener and “Goin’ Home” left until the end. Still, the Stones weren’t about album track sequencing alone and wouldn’t have been worth anyone’s bother if they had been; what mattered was that unweddable Mick n’ Keith purple, the remnant residuals of threat and menace, the hitherto unspeakable sensuality that sometimes overrides what to many observers still reads like unrepentant misogyny. But then again, as Smith perceptively notes, Jagger spends the records talking women down, pretending that he can dominate them, thereby revealing a subliminal will to be dominated, such that his Other finally becomes his “queen.” And sometimes, in certain Americas of certain 1965s, it was refreshing to the point of orgasm to see and hear someone unambiguously howling the reverse of anything Anita Bryant or Pat Boone could throw at their coweringly obedient subjects.

For this reason it’s a pity that “Mother’s Little Helper” wasn’t retained as the album’s opening track in the States – possibly its vaudevillian graveyard strut and innate Britishness were untranslatable, but substitute the word “graveyard” and those qualities would sum up Herman’s Hermits’ two US chart toppers from this period – since the song directly attacks what one might term the Stones’ anti-constituency; those who didn’t swing into line with the coming of the New Sixties Thing, who clung onto fifties or even forties behavioural notions of community, who were still paralysed by fear of falling, or poverty, or institutionalised sexism; the helpless housewives slowly killing themselves with tranquilisers as Housewives’ Choice competed with the Hoover for volumatic brain occupation. Richards’ opening guitar drone recedes into the foreground of the song’s intro in reverse as Jagger hisses, not entirely unhappily, “What a drag it is getting old.” Clearly inspired by Ray Davies’ character studies and song structures (“A Well Respected Man” in particular), “Helper” has little of the succour of the redeeming love that Davies has for his characters, however reprehensible they may be; Jagger seems to be revelling in the woman’s slow and steady decline as an ugly tongue of Leslie cabinet guitar sticks, Cossack red, out into the song’s fibres. The song itself appears to be played inwardly with elastic bands for guitar strings and a general, troublesome, lo-fi, skitty, skiffly rattle which reminded Lena of the Fall’s “Rowche Rumble” (a song not unrelated in terms of subject matter and the songwriter’s attitude towards his main character). And note that climactic “Oi!” directly after Jagger relishes the suicide’s demise. This was clearly not going to be a friendly, face-licking album.

The defence for the likes of “Stupid Girl” and “Under My Thumb” has tended to be that the Stones, faced with the spectres of the Who, the Animals and the reverse of their own coin, the Pretty Things, were forced to toughen up their act in order to keep their core (mainly teenage male) following and that the primary purpose of songs like these was to undermine and (with any luck) demolish the tired Denmark Street tropes of moon, June, cooing and inevitable/irreversible happy endings in the popular song rather than to have a go at women as such. My own feeling on re-hearing both “Stupid” and “Thumb” is that either could have been retitled “You Don’t Fancy Me, Then?” and that this is, as several intervening decades have since proved, simply a case of Jagger being Jagger. Still, both songs are musically inventive enough; Ian Stewart’s Booker T tribute of an organ pumps satisfyingly throughout “Stupid” and with Jagger’s increasingly hysterical putdowns – “She’s the worst thing in this world…yeah” (that “yeah” so languid you could place a teabag in it and drink it), “She pushes (or did I just hear “pusses”?) back,” “She’s the SICKEST thing in this world” – we are reminded not only of Iggy but also, a dozen years early, of the Elvis Costello of This Year’s Model. Their “Thumb” must be one of the few unfriendly songs to feature marimbas, though its slightly too dragging post-Motown undertow made it an unsurprising candidate (via Wayne Gibson’s cover, eventually a UK Top 20 hit single in 1974) for the Northern Soul treatment; still, I prefer and relish Tina Turner’s rendition of the same song onstage, directed fiercely and firmly at Ike and all others who would have sought to crush her.

In between these two songs we are faced with the ghostly – as in starved-sounding - “Lady Jane,” a dowdy Dowland derivé which would have been comical had it not been for Jagger’s deadly seriousness of delivery and Jones’ deathlike harpsichord to render it into ice. Unthinkable from the Stones even 12 months previously, the song – an ode to, and lament on behalf of, marijuana – indicates with sweet starkness the general (virtually daily) raising of musical standards which 1966 appeared to demand from its leading practitioners; one can easily visualise their peers listening to the first four tracks of Aftermath, jaws irrevocably agape, for whatever varying reasons. Much more subtly and deeply than the easy shocks of “Helper,” “Lady Jane” already appears to see the car crash towards which it knows its decade to be heading.

As if slightly taken aback themselves, the group then retreat into R&B. “Doncha Bother Me” would be a routine workout except for Jagger’s self-accusatory cries of “Tryin’ to get high! Oh! NO!!” and especially Watts’ drumming work; he alternates between knitting needle stick inserts and violent cymbal and tom tom assaults, and the closing extended hiss of cymbals which seem to be drawing all of the oxygen out of Jagger is genuinely terrifying.

I will return to “Goin’ Home” later as it is the record’s clear, if initially unpromising, centrepiece (and major setpiece). Suffice it to say here, however, that the general standard of side one of Aftermath is so dramatically high – at least, musically – that the Stones may have been baffled about how to equal it on side two. Although there was no film to accompany Aftermath, its second side has the distinct flavour of “and other songs” and these songs’ main interest lies in observing how the Stones were developing as musicians rather than any intrinsic worth.

“Flight 505” is a semi-absurd shaggy dog story about a bored man who decides for no good reason to board a ‘plane. Yet its intro – distant piano jangling out the “Satisfaction” riff – gives the impression of “not quite here,” in a parallel but different world (as do the intros to several of the other tracks); so many echoes, too many living ghosts? Thereafter, however, the band quickly settle into a tough Motown groove, though the song itself is a straightforward post-Berry rocker; the performance itself is superb, clearing the ground for the great Stones rockers of their ’68-’72 purple patch, and Jagger is demonstrably having fun singing it. There are disturbing, infrequent blasts of fuzzed bass from Wyman – indicating trouble ahead – and a fabulous web of interweaving Jones/Richard guitar lines before the inevitable comedown of the flight into the sea. Jagger greets his own imminent demise with amused resignation; Wyman and Watts bring the song down to land with an ironic aquamarine bump.

“High And Dry” too looks forward to the goofball slacking of Exile (and is the ancestor of things like “Faraway Eyes”); a jaunty Surrey jug band stomp with gravelly harmonica, Watts’ subtly backward cymbals and Jagger mewling about nothing much. Their “Out Of Time,” however, is overlong – five and a quarter minutes – and rather pedestrian. Quieter than Chris Farlowe’s hit version and with marimbas replacing Mike Leander’s parodic baroque string arrangement, the song stretches out a little more (Jagger’s hapless baby now also being “discarded” as well as “obsolete” and “old fashioned”) but simply plods on for too long, Richards’ crisp guitar accents give the track a reggae feeling (and the acoustic guitar strokes irritate in the manner of impatient daggers), although the song’s structure owes much more to the Brill Building. “Sing the song!” squeaks a mirthless Jagger halfway through, and it’s clear how much Farlowe made the song pop; Andy White’s exuberant drumming, Joe Moretti’s lovely little Spanish guitar improvisation under the second verse, Leander’s bells, bass trombone and baritone sax, and above all Farlowe’s passionate, Springsteen-anticipating vocal – all of these combined to make it the perfect number one for World Cup week, a desperately triumphant V-sign to the past, to the war, a gasping embrace of the future and above all nowness.

“It’s Not Easy” is initially hilarious on account of Jagger’s attitude; his offhand “…living on your own,” his Dylan (“Hard Rain”) parody in his limp carrot of a “and it’s…haaaaaard,” and another swipe at his ex’s “stately home.” But the track steadily increases in intensity and by its end Jagger is raging and hissing his “haaaaaard”s. “I Am Waiting” is a slightly wan exercise in quiet/loud alternation, its folky ballad template, dominated by Jones’ deadpan dulcimer, and its hushed meditations (“Waiting for someone to come out of somewhere”) alternating with harsh rock attack, driven by the echoing footsteps of Watts’ floor toms.

“Take It Or Leave It” provides the only reasonably obvious sign of Beatles (in particular, Lennon) influence, though is far more markedly influenced by the ballad style of Roy Orbison, even if the Big O would have avoided the adolescent trapdoor of melting butter that is Jagger’s “it’s just my li-ii-yi-i-ife.” Once again Jones provides a subtle dulcimer (or possibly sitar) undertow, although the song’s overly casual construction is betrayed by the sloppy backing vocals which drown it out at fadeout. “Think” is a makeshift R&B thud, distinguished only by Richards’ snarling guitar refrain and more desperation on Jagger’s part; towards the fadeout he furtively cries “What about last year?” “What To Do,” meanwhile, takes the album out with its C&W lope, and here we find the boys still attempting to get out of Richmond; Jagger’s “nothing to do”s and “nowhere to go”s reminded Lena of the Ramones’ “I Wanna Be Sedated,” and even if the track didn’t feature on the US edition of Aftermath its sentiments would have immediately been understood by the thousands of garage bands who sprung up as a result of the Stones’ existence. Even so, it’s curious to hear Jagger taking out a song of desired escape with the lament “no way home” (accompanying his “sick and tired”) – again, seeing the signpost to 1969 ahead of anyone else.

The subject matter, however, inevitably leads me back to “Goin’ Home” (and not quite “back to Richmond”). The track starts off as an entirely generic 12-bar workout and indeed would have stayed that way had Oldham not persuaded engineer and sleevenote author Dave Hassinger to keep the tapes running. Even in its initial form piano and harmonica echo at each other like winding ghosts in the most forlorn corners of an abandoned mansion house, but once the song itself has been dealt with, Wyman switches to a one-note bassline and the real interest starts. Jagger starts to examine his little ad lib slurps and hiccups and mould them into an alien sculpture whose shape grows increasingly ominous. Watts’ drums do a sidestep before he and Wyman double the tempo. Gradually this Animals-ish blues number metamorphoses into a raga; even if Jagger’s “AL-right! AL-right! AL-right!,” together with the subsequent passage of foot stomping, directly predicate Noddy Holder and Slade (see “Gudbuy T’Jane” for proof), the embryos being created here seem to involve the Velvets’ “Sister Ray” and, of course, Patti Smith, as is inescapably evident in Jagger’s barks, hisses and whoops, all underlined by a curious but logical patience in the face of immolating fury. Both Richards and Jones harass Jagger, increase in volume and comment depth, hit back. On occasion Wyman switches to strobe bass, a humming throb predating Pink Floyd and Acid House. In amongst all this there are strange throwbacks to Stax in Jagger’s asides – “Sweet, sweet love,” “Sha la la.” The track eventually crouches down to meet Richards’ reverberating triple stroke chords before Jagger whips everyone back up with his “COME ON!” Wyman’s bass now begins to rove freely. “I’m gettin’ OUT!” howls Jagger with no small glee. Finally, and with welcome inevitability, the track drifts out of tonality, even as Jagger roars “MAKE SO SWEET!” Richards signs off with a crocodile rasp of a guitar kiss. At a shade over 11½ minutes “Goin’ Home” is the first of the great extended Stones setpieces and sees them finally cutting loose from the Beat Boom dummy into something they hadn’t even imagined before. It is arguable that the source of the real Stones innovations in 1966 lies in the extraordinary triptych of singles they released that year – “19th Nervous Breakdown,” “Paint It, Black” and “Have You Seen Your Mother Baby, Standing In The Shadow?,” possibly the most extreme run of singles to be released by any artist in that year of extremes; and, though still a huge advancement for the group, Aftermath ultimately remains a curate’s egg of an album – the cake is still not quite fully baked, but, as will be expressly demonstrated by the Stones’ next entry in this tale, the cake will eventually emerge, fully formed and glorious.