The Rolling Stones – It’s Only Rock ‘n Roll

IORR2“Sated In Leisure”

As I get old, the Rolling Stones are more fascinating than The Beatles. They’re survivors. But what do they know? Hang tough, and be with your friends, but don’t let the world you pirate get your best. Electric and cold, theirs is a white blues, an open marriage to the Chuck Berry stomp — a blues of not being able to sing and play like a black man. Mick Jagger sings the gorged end of the rhythm & blues spectrum, pining for an emotional rescue from the riches and bitches he has. He longs for the kind of grief only the most down and out can afford. In this way, the band is shrewd. Each tale of kicks is a tale of woe.

For me, the Stones came into their own during the 70s. They’re more intriguing as burnt-out troubadours (jaded rock stars swathed in decadence, rewriting their own music) than as loutish youths. Drawing on life in the fast lane, they never stopped exploring their musical obsessions.

They were tax exiles. Keith Richards was a junkie. Mick married a debutante, whom Keith hated. And so, due to their ever-excessive lifestyles, the band became estranged. Too many session men put their hands in the pie, and everyone (except for Mick) tired of competing with the “scene.” Yet for these reasons, they peaked. The Stones were always about the end of the line, and now they were living proof: Debauched English guts — cocks rockin’ the plank.

The studio offered a greater reproduction of their live act1. Keith’s riffs got scratchier and funkier. By turns animalistic and full of phlegm, then soft and cooing, Mick became a versatile showman and character actor.

It’s Only Rock ‘n Roll sounds expensive. The glam-wear clinks; the clavinet farts. And hey, rock & roll should sound neat. The band’s records from the 60s are invariably too thin, and the more current records sound clean and overproduced. However, the f*ck-and-run approach of the 70s tastes just right. The vocals are buried in the mix and the guitars crack with heat. Technology was such that the power of the band was there, but at times they almost threaten to overwhelm the mics, which keeps the grunge intact. (Mick hates these mixes. He says they’re cluttered and rushed — but how do you make the Stones too raw? It’s all tied to the Congo anyway. Besides, they only ever made stray masterpieces.) So the band never forgot the simplicity of the music that inspired them in the first place. Thus the albums from 1971-1974 (Sticky Fingers, Exile On Main Street, Goats Head Soup, I.O.R.R. — the Mick Taylor period) form an unintended coup — well-sequenced singles that, based on our knowledge of the band, cohere and flow in an almost conceptual way.

Having said that, It’s Only Rock ‘n Roll is less totemic than Exile, but the facile edge of pathos makes it fun. It deals honestly with a faded nostalgia, a satiric sense of self that, given a ritzy production, carries more weight than meets the ear. Slick tints should be taken lightly. They help to invest so-called filler with a degree of knowing it might not have had. Everything on the album, then, from the Guy Peelleart sleeve to the slow boiled groove, is about a carnival dying.

The album is schizophrenic. Each song counters the sentiments of the last; when not in self-mourning, they’re dancing the night away, sometimes within the same song (e.g., the twitchy “Fingerprint File,” or the title track). So you get all the usual sex-play, but a restlessness too: a keen sense of just how fast the music (and the lives inherent) become both product and artifact, and how our fascination with the fun fast frolic tops out and becomes a drain — the speed at which torpor takes its toll.

All this is crystallized on the song that closes the first side: “Time Waits For No One.” Jagger sounds parched, the lyrics cliché. But the music is solemn — ornate. Mick Taylor’s guitar weaves around a metronomic beat amid drops of timpani. Nicky Hopkins scales the piano like Debussy. It’s Only Rock ‘n Roll is a record of fills and form, dynamism over song-craft. Historically and musically, “Time” is key to the album. The Stones never made a biz of solos (the band is characterized more by synergy than spotlights), but here they go with the flow. Hip to rhythm, worn in spirit, the music takes off like a blasted prayer. It leaves you kind of breathless.

1No official live doc. represents this era, so I went online. Bootlegs were scoured and devoured. Anything here was picked for the following reasons: 1) It sounds good; 2) I don’t want the set-list for Get Yer Ya-Yas Out! (1970), the only official live tape that is great (and some of those readings pale next to their studio counterparts); and 3) I want a particular kind of band (the ragged one of coke and mirrors; the loose, scrappy, terse kind). For your pleasure, then:

“The World’s Greatest Rock & Roll Band”*


  • Brown Sugar (Brussels, 1973)
  • Rocks Off (New York, 1972)
  • Rip This Joint (New York, 1972)
  • Happy (New York, 1972)
  • Sweet Virginia (New York, 1972)
  • Midnight Rambler (New York, 1972)
  • Uptight/Satisfaction (1972)
  • Band Intro (Fort Worth, 1978)
  • Angie (Brussels, 1973)
  • Bitch (New York, 1972)
  • When The Whip Comes Down (Sucking In The Seventies, 1981)
  • Let It Rock (Leeds, 1971)
  • Star Star (Love You Live, 1977)
  • Tumbling Dice (Memphis, 1978)


*I’ll burn a copy for you. Write me.
Rating: A-

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