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Faux 45s
Two boxes full of the real Rolling Stones
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A tale of two bands: The Rolling Stones and Coldplay on DVD. By Matt Ashare.

I was disappointed with the Rolling Stones action figures that came out a while back. Keith Richards had a little Telecaster but no Jack Daniels bottle. And though mini Mick had all the right age lines, I’d been hoping for the version with sleeve protectors and a felt visor counting greenbacks in a room with a mirrored ceiling. So it goes for Rolling Stones fans. We’ve learned to expect small but almost constant disappointments since 1981’s Tattoo You (Virgin).

Occasionally, something exciting, usually plucked from the band’s past, still comes out of the Stones camp. The latest reissues are the new The Rolling Stones — Singles boxes being released by ABKCO Records, which hardcore fans and collectors will flip over while the unimpressed may feel that 23 CDs are excessive for a number of songs that could fit on two. But hasn’t rock and roll always been about excess?

The first two volumes, which are already available, cover ’63 to ’65 and ’65 to ’67, respectively, with a third box scheduled for the fall. Maybe these sets are just a gimmick designed to lure completists into buying a catalogue of songs — "Tell Me," "(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction," "Get Off of My Cloud" — they’ve already been sold in myriad earlier collections. Maybe ABKCO is cashing in on the budding faux vinyl collectors’ market that was set in motion by the copies of Revenant Records’ Charley Patton box that all of you bought. Whatever ABKCO’s intent, these releases are damn cool. Each volume is full of CDs designed to represent the Stones’ original 45s. Every disc is colored black and labeled like a vinyl single and packed in a reproduction of the original release’s sleeve. The first box has a dozen discs, from the Stones’ debut recording, "Come On" backed with "I Want To Be Loved," to the Five by Five and Got Live If You Want It EPs. The second set runs from "Satisfaction" to psychedelic gems like "Ruby Tuesday" and "2000 Light Years from Home"; it culminates in one of their few 45 stiffs, "In Another Land" backed by "The Lantern."

Beyond the packaging, which is full of colorful graphics of the band that — save for their five-inch-by-five-inch size — recapture the brightness and the visual excitement of the days of vinyl, there’s the sound. There are no fake stereo remixes, no audible modernist concessions made to update the original punch of the master tapes. So we get "Not Fade Away" and "Time Is on My Side" in glorious mono, the ultimate garage-rock mix of what was arguably the ultimate garage-rock band, at least in the ’60s and early ’70s. Nothing could better serve Brian Jones’s dirty slide guitar on "I Wanna Be Your Man" or more perfectly capture the gritty, testosterone-charged voice of Mick Jagger singing "I Just Want To Make Love to You" so hard and so close to the microphone that you can hear its trembling diaphragm shaking like a gravel sifter. In short, everything sounds and looks good, and with liner notes by music journalist Nigel Williamson (c’mon, Keith and Mick both hated "Satisfaction" and "Get Off of My Cloud?" Dolts!), there’s something to read, too.

What’s interesting for those of us who weren’t spending our allowances on 45s at Woolworth’s before the Rolling Stones became darlings of the album-rock era is the chance to hear the band as they arrived: as artists whose careers lived and died by each new song they got on AM radio. Listeners who heard only the A-side of their first seven-inch platter on the radio, a version of Chuck Berry’s "Come On" diluted to pop-radio-’63 standards, got a different impression of the group from that of buyers who could turn over the plastic slab to hear a sassy take on Willie Dixon’s "I Want To Be Loved." The earliest singles play out like two sides of a personality disorder. Even "I Wanna Be Your Man" seems in conflict with its blues soul. For the Stones, this was a deliberate tactic. According to bassist Bill Wyman, who’s quoted in the liner notes, the band would never have been signed if they hadn’t tricked Decca Records into believing they wanted to make pop hits.

They did want to be stars, of course, but on their own terms. And those were categorically stated on 1964’s Five by Five, an all-blues collection cut at the Chicago Studios of Chess Records that included their instrumental ode to the modest recording space’s address, "2120 South Michigan Avenue." It helped that the Stones had accumulated some clout with their hit covers of Buddy Holly’s "Not Fade Away" and Bobby and Shirley Womack’s "It’s All Over Now" earlier that year. After their next single, "Tell Me," the first A-side penned by Jagger and Richards, also broke through, there was very little looking back.

These ’63-’67 recordings also afford the legacy of Brian Jones, now nearly forgotten by many of the youngest Stones fans, another hearing. In these early years, it was Jones, not Richards, who was the band’s guiding musical force. Yeah, Richards wrote the "Satisfaction" riff and came up with the changes on "Paint It, Black," but it was Jones who played the early slide tracks and laid down many of the group’s most distinctive guitar flourishes, like the electric sitar tones and heavily reverbed parts of "Paint It, Black." Richards and Jagger may have met because of the American blues albums Jagger held under his arm as he waited on a train platform, but it was Jones who early on knew the music most intimately and understood how to adapt its sound to the pop recording world. It was Jones who could duplicate the avant-blues licks of the great Howlin’ Wolf sideman Hubert Sumlin on his guitar and who did so on the Rolling Stones’ first recording of "Little Red Rooster" in ’64, a #1 hit in England for the band, while Jagger and Richards penned the pop sugarbite "Off the Hook" for its B-side. Jones also grew more rapidly as a musician, taking the band into the psychedelic realm of "She’s a Rainbow" and "2000 Light Years from Home" before he unraveled and became the butt of tragic jokes after his life ended at the bottom of his swimming pool in 1969 at age 27.

Although the early Stones dutifully battled for their spot in the ’60s pop marketplace with tunes like "We Love You" and their redo of the doo-wop hit "Poison Ivy," what’s obvious from hearing these faux 45s — and from Wyman’s remark — is that they were always a blues and R&B band first and remained exactly that at their core until they seemed to lose a grip on their identity with the flawed series of albums they’ve released beginning in the early ’80s. Listen to Jagger howl his way through the Irma Thomas hit "Time Is on My Side" and work with the Motown-derived vocal support of "Let’s Spend the Night Together," or to the blues guitar lines that weave and hesitate in "Heart of Stone" and percolate under "19th Nervous Breakdown." That’s the sound of a torch being passed between races and generations, and of a style, hardcore blues, growing into something greater, more contemporary, and universal. It’s the sound of rock coming of age — evolving into music for what was then rapidly becoming the first truly worldly generation of teenagers and for young adults who understood the dilemmas of grown-up relationships and were savvy about corporate manipulation and the emotional dead ends of banal middle-class life. "As Tears Go By," "19th Nervous Breakdown," "Satisfaction," "Let’s Spend the Night Together," and "Mother’s Little Helper" — all caught here in their original form and look — couldn’t have been written earlier, and if they had been, they probably wouldn’t ever have made it to Woolworth’s, never mind AM radio. The discs and the artwork that make up The Rolling Stones — Singles 1963–1965 and The Rolling Stones — Singles 1965–1967 are classy little handbills from a time that changed the world we live in, and a band who helped make that change.

Issue Date: August 27 - September 2, 2004
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