‘Blue & Lonesome’
Put a guitar in my hands and you’ll get the “Smokestack Lightnin'” riff until you rip the instrument away from me and smash it over my head. That’s part of having been a teenager in the early ’60s, and equipped with a certain set of instincts. It doesn’t leave you.
That’s what the Rolling Stones demonstrate, rather more expertly, on Blue & Lonesome, their 23rd studio album, recorded in three days at Mark Knopfler’s British Grove studio at the end of an alley in Hammersmith. It’s the best thing they could have done — in fact probably the only thing they could have done to rekindle my interest.
I’ve been reading an old Record Mirror piece by Norman Jopling, dated May 11, 1963. The intrepid reporter had been to see the Rolling Stones at the Station Hotel in Richmond-upon-Thames, and had talked to them afterwards about their repertoire, which was based largely on the recorded works of Chuck Berry and Bo Diddley. They told him they had no interest in using original material. “After all,” an unidentified Stone told him, “can you imagine a British-composed R&B number? It just wouldn’t make it.” The sounds like Brian Jones to me. And within a year, of course, he would be eating his words as Andrew Oldham coaxed Mick Jagger and Keith Richard into producing “Tell Me”, “Good Times, Bad Times”, “Satisfaction” and the rest.
Of course they wrote some great songs. But that well dried up many years ago, and it was an intelligent decision to go back to where they came from and make an album of blues covers. I admire the fact that they chose comparatively obscure songs; how simple would it have been to make an album out of the likes of “Smokestack Lightnin'”, “Boom Boom” and “Big Boss Man”? Instead they’ve gone for Jimmy Reed’s “Little Rain”, Howlin’ Wolf’s “Commit a Crime” and Lightnin’ Slim’s “Hoo Doo Blues”, songs known only to the cognoscenti.
And, like the bluesmen they worshipped, they’ve got better with age. Play these tracks next to recordings from their early years like “Honest I Do”, “I’m a King Bee” and “Little Red Rooster”, and you can’t miss the improvement the years have brought. Production quality has something to do with it, of course. Don Was and the engineer Krish Sharma are a cut above whoever recorded the first Stones tracks at Regent Sound on Denmark Street. In partnership with the musicians, they know exactly how to distress the sound, dirtying up the guitars and providing a great sonic perspective that evokes the 1950s Chess recordings of the Muddy Waters Blues Band. This is rough music, and that’s how it comes across here.
I’m sorry that they don’t credit the individual guitar solos (Hubert Sumlin would have given a pat on the back to whoever gets the starring role on Little Johnny Taylor’s “Everybody Knows About My Good Thing”). But Jagger gets an extra star for some excellent harmonica-playing — which he needed to do, given that three of songs are plucked from the repertoire of Little Walter Jacobs, a gob-iron immortal.
My only complaint about an otherwise thoroughly worthwhile album concerns the sleeve. How difficult could it be to design a fantastic cover for a blues album by the Stones? If you don’t have any ideas of your own, Mr Art Director, just go back to their first LP, with its moody chiaroscuro group photograph by Nicholas Wright, or its very similar successor, for which David Bailey did the honours. Instead we get a piece of artwork based on the tired old “tongue” logo — so crass as to be actively repulsive. And I’d have liked an Andrew Loog Oldham sleeve note, too.
* The photograph of Mick Jagger and Ron Wood is from the inside of the album sleeve, and is uncredited.
I’d been planning to pick this up for the pleasure of hearing Charlie. Richard, who plays bass?
Darryl Jones, who gets a credit but not a place in the group photo, and who I guess is still a salaried employee. Which seems a bit of a shame, given the number of years he’s been doing it. (A letter in the Guardian pointed this out the other day.) Charlie sounds great, as you’d expect.
Thanks very much. Yeah, some of us have been discussing the Darryl thing on FB lately. I suppose the best face one can put on it is that the “core” members don’t do much else, while all of the others like Jones, Leavell et al who’re listed as “Collaborators” on the Stones website have rich individual musical lives outside of the band. It is weird, especially after all of this time, though.
Is there a mono version on 200gm vinyl or do we have wait until 2070 or thereabouts before it is released?
Hello Richard, as per normal an incisive and informative revue. Personally I haven’t been impressed with this album or in fact any of the modern rehashing of old blues masters. I live in the USA where “The Blues” has become the preserve of middle aged white men and played by youngsters who probably haven’t heard of WC Handy or Tutwiler railway station. Perhaps I wanted more from the Stones but after having spent a couple of days in the studio with them back in 1978, I realised that they were not interested in pushing musical boundaries. In fact they were sloppy and didn’t really care about the recordings that were taking place. Their recent shows have also been sloppy and underrehearsed but then maybe that’s what people want…not me. How cool,would it be if they had continued along the path that Brian Jones blazed in their early days…Paint It Black etc. Brian was the musician of the band and was constantly experimenting however, he was obviously disruptive and a complex character but IMHO once he was gone the band descended in to performing crowd pleasing rock that continued through the stadium pomp of recent years. It’s a personal thing with me and I understand that I’m in a minority. BTW I whole heartily agree with you on the cover…..it would have been so cool to have got Gered Mankowitz to do a modern version of The Caged Stones.
Not in a minority: I dont like it either. And I agree 100% about B. Jones . . . he was all about the music not all about the money.
I’m in total agreement as well . Why listen to the Stones rehash [ and mangle a bit in my opinion ] a bunch of iconic blues classics when I can listen to the originals ? Or if not the originals … then by one of the many truly great modern blues interpreters amiable here in the States . No reason what so ever as far as I’m concerned . If I may though … song and performance wise the Mick Taylor era was the pinnacle of the Stones career in my hardly ever humble opinion . Seriously . ” Exiles on Main Street ” is still beyond comparison or reproach .
May 12, 1963 (Sunday) they played an afternoon “R&B” session at The 51 Club (Ken Colyers old place). We were in London, up from Wales for the opening concert that night of Ray Charles’s hugely anticipated first British visitation, so wandering through Soho just to kill time, we drifted in.
Yes, they cranked through the “Chess best of” anthology rather well, loud and tight, and with embryo attitude! I do remember they also did “I’m moving on” with a two chorus break, the second with the bass lifting up an octave. We stole that!
The Stones at a pivotal, enthusiastic point and Ray & THAT Band on one London Sunday……to be alive etc…
Lovely story. What a great memory to own.
Like freshly laid gravel it crunches nicely.
I’m sticking to the John McLaughlin quote: ‘They’ve been playing the same stuff since the ’60s. Out of tune and out of time.’
Or as I’ve been known to put it ; ‘ They’re crawling up their own ( censored )holes in the desperate attempt to revive their relevancy as well as record sales “
The album was launched at Sounds of the Universe – the record shop and home to the Soul Jazz label on the site of the old violin factory on the corner of Broadwick Street & Duck Lane in London’s Soho. Before the violinists moved in this was the Bricklayers Arms, the pub where the first Rolling Stones rehearsal took place. That horrible blue artwork covered all the windows of the shop on launch day – strange really – I associate SOTU with a hipper aesthetic. Good record tho…
It’s more than “weird” that Jones et al go uncredited. Stones are a DHL-sponsored corporate giant for which lies and racism are part of the mix.
I should temper my previous comment that the treatment of employees is not wholly racist given the lack of credit Bobby Keys got over the years for example.
But why would a session player, who has played on a fraction of their recordings since 1994 be made a full member?
Also why are people making a fuss over Daryl Jones and not Chuck Leavell, who has played with the Stones since the 80s.
There are some strange double standards going on here I think.
Actually as a former session/ghost player both in the studio as well as on stage the reality is the Stones are doing Daryl a favor by not making him a member of the group . Sure he doesn’t share in the credits .. but then again he doesn’t share in the massive debts than band has accumulated over the decades either . Trust me … most times its better to be the hired gun .. rather than a full fledged member of the ‘ gang ‘
This is a very interesting and helpful review, especially about the production and sleeve comments.
It was a little harsh to suggest that their songwriting well dried up years ago. I think after 1967-72, they lost their consistency, but they subsequently did produce some wonderful songs;
‘Hand of Fate’, ‘Memory Motel’, ‘Heaven’,’Waiting On A Friend’, ‘Winning Ugly’, ‘Had It With You’ ,”Blinded By Love’ , ‘Saint of Me’ . There are quite a few more.
They probably do try hard to make good records, but how could they surpass landmarks like Beggars Banquet, Let It Bleed etc?
They should perform half a dozen shows at Hammersmith Odeon in support of this record, and sell the tickets from the box office to ensure the fans get them rather than the landed gentry.
Happy Christmas to you