Blue & Lonesome - Rolling Stones (Polydor)

StonesBlueandLonesomeFour bottles? No, five. I s'pose.

In conversation with one of Sydney’s veteran rock’n’rollers, Doc Ellard of Chickenstones made the point that, to some extent, the early Stones were “trying to get away from being English, because of what America and Americana represented: freedom, freedom of expression, expansion, wealth and exotica”.

And of course it wasn’t just the Stones, it was the entire underground long before the ‘60s revolution, dating back way past the ‘50s to the ‘40s when the USAAF and the US Army infiltrated the country with more money than most plebs had ever seen in a weekly wage packet, and an entirely new and exciting culture. Hell, come to think of it, the moneyed classes had been excited by the promise of the New World since the late 19th century…

Fifty-odd years on, in 2016, the Stones have played it clever. For the last forty years or so, this kind of record from the Stones would’ve stiffed like Boris (the band) in Arkansaw (the state). If my memory serves me - and it might not - once upon a time, in the eighties, an English journo asked Keith (I think) why the Stones didn’t just ‘go back to the garage’.

The response was (and this is, effectively, hearsay, ‘cause I’m damned if I can find the magazine); ‘Because, my dear, the record company wouldn’t put it out.’

Quite right.

After all, you remember the '80s. Cocaine, shoulder-pads, far too much chorus, bad synths and big frizzy blonde hair. (Yes, there are alternative scenarios, all equally deluded, but we’ll stay with the weird and the money.) Thank god, all that happened to Other People. Mick Jagger and David Bowie Danced in the Streets and … by god, that was a horrible decade for the mainstream.

Roots or dirty garage rock, then as now, has always been beloved of a certain low-level crowd, some of whom "grow up" and become fans of the Eurogliders. Or some band that sounds worse than the Eurogliders. The Venetians. Who remembers them? The others just lurk in the undergrowth, a scrofulous place at the best of times.

I mean to say, some of us prefer the likes of the Chickenstones (who I have heard described as Sydney’s real Stones, much to the band’s amusement).

Anyway, these days, with chart hits a thing of the past, bands make either a stack or a bare living also selling their back catalogue: Einsturzende Neubauten market a memory stick with ALL of their live gigs; Wire sell early live gigs on their site and, finally, the old fogeys have emerged from the '90s and today they’re releasing what appears to be an endless succession of box sets for each lp (much needed in the case of The Monkees and The Velvet Underground) and innumerable eye and wallet-opening live packages from Bob Dylan, Merzbow and … The Rolling Stones (you’ll have seen the recent issues of live DVDs and so on).

In the case of the Stones, they really do seem to be an older rock’n’roller’s blind spot (and for some, one of many blind spots: think AC/DC, Cold Chisel, Led Zeppelin, Radio Birdman, Nick Cave, Red Hot Chilli Peppers, John Farnham, and the list drears on). Bands whose best work - and their most influential - is long, long behind them.

Such bands can still put on a stadium gig and make it work for the masses, but unlike The Troggs or The Sonics, there’s little in the way of intimacy or meaningful communication with the audience. I do know Bono manages to pull this off (despite widespread mockery, the man is a fine communicator). Why Sting isn’t more roundly mocked I’ll never know, he’s certainly more of a bumhole in my view. Perhaps because, secretly, we’d rather have Sting’s life than Bono’s.

From what I’ve seen, a significant percentage of people filling those stadiums aren’t especial fans of The Featured Band in the Big Arena, but who figure it should be pretty good because of all the attention the media are giving it, and duly roll up. (One bloke I know does this consistently, and every time he’s asked about whether he enjoyed the gig, he reluctantly concedes that it ‘was alright’, in such a tone that makes you wonder why on earth he’s chucking his money down the bog and not going out to smaller places where he can mingle more freely. Odd fellow)

Right, so, given the choice between saying that I paid a big sum to stand on a cricket pitch full of plastic chairs chained together to see the Stones (if not THE STONES omg omg), and forking out the same amount to travel to Sydney to see Chris Masuak, the Four Stooges and the SC-5, I know which I’d rather do.

So by now you know all about "Blue & Lonesome". It’s hard to get away from the thing now. It’s a spirited rhythm’n’blues album. And … that’s it.

No, really. I mean, it’s not as if spirited rhythm’n’blues LPs haven’t been made before, or won’t be again, for god’s sake. This isn’t The Promised Album.

But, get away from The Stones OMG OMG hype and yes, "Blue & Lonesome" is worth having in your home or car stereo. If you’re not already a music fan with a raft of blues on your shelves, this might make you go out and find some stuff you missed. I know there’s holes in my collection. And this, to my mind, is the potential suffused with ‘Blue and Lonesome’.

Because it’s The Stones there will be a small percentage of young folk who will hear this, enjoy it (instead of screwing up their face in disgust at the new lp from people who should’ve died years ago), but who might just discover the wonder of a hidden world, and the purpose for making music in the first place - the intensity of pure expression … and they might just develop a bit of a musical movement …

Well, alright, that is a bit fantastical. But if something similar were to happen, "Blue & Lonesome" may prove to be the Stones’ final, most lasting legacy.

Returning to that "back to the garage" interview which I can’t find, I recall Keith mentioning that they had hundreds of tapes of the band doing just that. I’ve read descriptions of Ronnie’s place which describe handfuls of cassettes of jams, with details scantily scribbled on. So hell, the Stones have been playing this kind of stuff in private for the best part of 50 years, so they’d have to be pretty good by now…

So if the Stones ever get around to releasing these dank old cassettes, well, sure, there will be a small undertow of sales… probably more than Ed Kuepper makes per annum with his official bootleg recordings I dare say, but Ed has to make a quid and the Stones… well, no. They don’t.

Ever see the Bell-Rays? Like the Stones used to, they take their influences and, with a competent twist and a compelling singer, they make new, vital songs; live, they dominate and involve their audience. Given the choice of seeing the Stones OR the Bell-Rays once in five years and I’ll go with the BellRays. I’d rather see the Bell-Rays play our town twelve times a year, minimum, than the Stones … well. Ever, is the honest answer. Even if they’re on the same size stage, too (and don’t think I don’t know that’s a parallel universe comparison).

And you know, that’s not the half of it. Many musicians have been going down the ‘reinterpreting the old inspirational artists’ route over the last few years. Sydney has the SC-5 and the Four Stooges while Melbourne is also fond of nosing about in its roots; Johnny Cash, Lee Hazelwood, Leonard Cohen, Iggy and the Stooges and Murder Ballads events and so on. All of which is great, because it serves as a reminder, often about ‘where we came from to get here’, sometimes taking the songs further along the road to greatness.

One performer has done this with great consistency, interspersing his interpretations alongside innumerable original lps. Similarly, I’d rather see Hugo Race once a year rather than see the Stones. Ever. Dammit, even if the Stones were doing their "Blue & Lonesome" set in the same club with Hugo were supporting, I reckon I know whose music I’d probably enjoy more (alright, I know, I know, another parallel universe situation. Where’s your imagination?). Hell, Hugo Race has an LP of John Lee Hooker interpretations coming out soon - I saw him do some a few months back. And he did a wonderful lp of other people’s love songs a couple of years ago, too.

And that’s the thing with covers. You can either reinterpret the hell out of them (a road fraught with peril), do them exactly right (ho-hum), do them so badly that your version will always be remembered by those who witnessed it (People With Chairs Up Their Noses’ version of ‘Nutbush City Limits’ will stay with me until my dying day), or just do them like most people do them: fairly well, I suppose, maybe a bit clunky, while the crowd disperse outside for a drink, a snort and a chuff.

Come to think of it, there’s a hell of a lot of bands I’d put before going to see the Stones. Hydrocephallus, C-Bombs, Chickenstones, Rat Catcher… you with me yet?

As to "Blue & Lonesome", well. It’s a fine record (their first in decades in my opinion), gleefully flying in the face of the endlessly shit modern music paralysing almost everyone under 40 (and many, many over that age).

Frankly, the Stones have done these old songs well. With power and attitude. They’ve worked hard to present … almost hyper-blues: the recording is far superior to those one-mike recordings from eighty years ago or whenever it was.

On "Blue & Lonesome", the Stones have, in fact, tried to capture what it was about the blues which drew them in in the first place; you could almost say that the Stones inhabit the songs. All of which they - especially Mick - are to be admired for. Because, in some senses, they don’t need to do this. What would you make of, say, Aerosmith or Kiss doing a record about their roots? Hell, it’d be a bit like a terrible New York Dolls lp, wouldn’t it?

I’m sure we can assume that a substantial chunk of the gross income for all these songs, as with, say, the recent Johnny Cash tributes, will go to the estates of the songwriters.

Like I say, the Stones don’t have to make a quid. They may think they do, that their lifestyle must be upheld… but no, it doesn’t. This record is probably their smartest publicity move in quite a while, a perfect attention-grabber to provide justification for their announcement of another world tour.

I wonder if they’re considering sending some of that profit to, say, a New Orleans charity…?

Sorry? Do I think the Stones are greedy well beyond their relevance..?

Well, yes. I suppose I do. I shouldn’t, perhaps, but I do.

Here’s the songs as listed on the album’s Wikipedia page (presumably monitored by the Stones) with the original songwriters credited.

“1. "Just Your Fool" - Buddy Johnson 2:16
2. "Commit a Crime" - Howlin' Wolf 3:38
3. "Blue and Lonesome" - Memphis Slim 3:07
4. "All of Your Love" - Magic Sam 4:46
5. "I Gotta Go" - Little Walter 3:26
6. "Everybody Knows About My Good Thing" - Miles Grayson/Lermon Horton 4:30
7. "Ride 'Em On Down" - Eddie Taylor 2:48
8. "Hate to See You Go" - Little Walter 3:20
9. "Hoo Doo Blues" - Otis Hicks/Jerry West 2:36
10. "Little Rain" - Ewart G.Abner Jr/Jimmy Reed 3:32
11. "Just Like I Treat You" - Willie Dixon 3:24
12. "I Can't Quit You Baby" - Willie Dixon 5:13

In his Best Classic Bands review, Jeff Tamarkin points out that “Just Your Fool” was “written and recorded by Buddy Johnson for the Mercury label in 1953, [but] later cut by Little Walter (who gets the writing credit) for Chess in 1959”.

The US edition has a US-only download of two tracks, and the Japanese one (the Japanese always expect an extra track, it proves they’re special) will have a different take or something. I’m sure more will be forthcoming.

Now. You probably already have the record. And love it. Which is just fine. Check out the originals, if you haven’t already. I can’t imagine someone hasn’t done a collection of the original tracks (just for comparison’s sake) and thrown it up on YouTube or something. (ED: They have Robert - go here.)

But.

Check out the Bell-Rays, Hugo Race, Ed Kuepper, Wire, Lee Hazelwood, Michael Plater, Henry Hugo, The Chickenstones … hell, check out People With Chairs Up Their Noses and demand an LP.

Like that odd fellow I know who never really seems to see a band he actually enjoys despite the vast publicity and hoo-hah surrounding The Band in the Vast Arena, for fuck’s sake spread your horizons a tad. - Robert Brokenmouth

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Some of you think the Stones lost all relevance 30 years ago. I don’t buy it. No band does consistently brilliant work for more than three or four consecutive albums. These days, most of the current crop can’t even string together that many passable songs.

All that happened to the Stones is that they came back to the pack… and grew very rich. Which brings us to “Blue & Lonesome”, the much-hyped Stones’ return to their roots.

The Rolling Stones don’t need reviews on underground music e-zines. I know that’s what you’re saying. They don’t even need people to buy another album – a collection of songs by other people, for fuck’s sake – because they’re already rolling in money that they can’t spend it. And you’d be right on both counts. 

But they’re The Stones. They built the biggest and most enduring bridge between blues and its bastard offspring, rock and roll, and have had an impact on more contemporary music than any other still extant band.

That they’ve been a long-running soap opera for more time that anyone can remember, and have squeezed money out of obliging fans like toothpaste from a tube with an endless string of Best Ofs and poorly recorded live records is immaterial. Take my word for it: “A Bigger Bang” was pretty good- even if it sounded too tightly wound, in parts, and none of you even bothered to listen to it.

It’s a certain bet that most of the people who will buy a copy of, download or listen to “Blue & Lonesome” will not have heard the original songs. They’ll think Little Walter is a pseudonym for Will.I.Am, Buddy Johnston is this week’s Instragram star and Willie Dixon was on Idol. Is that a bad thing? Maybe an admittedly small proportion will have their ears opened, realise they’ve been listening to abject excreta on their car radios and chase down the source material. We can dream.

Execuse the cynicism, but that’s not why the Rolling Stones made this record. It was put to tape (they record every little thing they do in a studio) as a warm-up for their first studio album in 11 years. Now, that one may yet suck; we don’t know. We can already assume it will sound very different to “Blue & Lonesome” - unless the band departed from its time-honoured process of playing take after take until THAT one winner, or stitching together parts of previous woodshedded sessions. That’s the way they like to work but it’s also why lots of their contemporary stuff (“Voodoo Lounge”) sounds forced or over-produced.

Nobody can level that accusation at Don Was, who managed this session. It took three days to record and there’s plenty of limber looseness, studio chatter and tape hiss left in. You can feel the analogue (I’m listening to a download – and I did say “almost”) but the spontaneity is irrefutable.

Mick Jagger blows a mean harp and it’s easy to forget he hasn’t bothered to do so on a Stones recording since the ‘60s.He loses the mannered preening on his vocal and just sings the shit out of the songs.

Needless to say, Charlie Watts is Most Valuable Player. Keith and Ronnie are Keith and Ronnie. While it’s hard to believe Eric Clapton just happened to be in the neighbourhood and casually dropped in for a jam, he does sound alive on the couple of songs on which he plays. That’s something that’s evaded him since he started wearing designer shirts and un-plugging.

It’s tempting to say that this is the beginning of a new era for the Stones, like “Time Out Of Mind” was for Dylan. Dunno if a bunch of 70-year-olds have a trilogy of studio albums in them – especially at the pace that the Stones have been known to work. And Bob has since turned his back on original material in favour of fairly dire covers, (Yes, I know he earned the right to be as self-indulgent as he wants but can someone tell him to give up crooning those horrible Sinatra B-sides?).

At the very least, “Blue & Lonesome” will make people sit up and take notice before they disappear back into the cocoon of their smart phones. - The Barman

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Tags: rolling stones, ronnie wood, blue & lonesome, mick jagger, keith richards, charlie watts, eric clapton

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