The Rolling Stones may not be among the first bands that spring to mind when discussion turns to pioneers of avant-garde musical experiment, but for a while, the band now synonymous with rootsy, blues-derived, combo rock’n’roll, were more than passingly familiar with music’s technological cutting edge. Indeed, the Stones were, briefly, more about Moog-ie than boogie, Mark Brend explains.
Imagine this. It’s December 1969. The Rolling Stones call a press conference two days after the dark, fatal low point that was the Altamont Festival. Keith Richards, Charlie Watts, Bill Wyman and Mick Taylor slouch, dead-eyed and sullen. Mick Jagger stands to announce that the band is splitting up. The dream is over; the Stones are over; the ’60s are over.
Of course it didn’t happen. At that point, the band was still freshly into the swaggering, ramshackle, rifling blues and country-rock unveiled in May of the previous year with ‘Jumpin’ Jack Flash’. It was restated that year with the song ‘Street Fighting Man’ and the album Beggars Banquet, and then again in 1969 with the hit ‘Honky Tonk Women’. Let It Bleed, released the day before Altamont, sealed a new orthodoxy. Improbably – notwithstanding mid-’70s dalliances with disco and reggae, and occasional flirtations with contemporary production techniques – it survives to this day. When you think of the Stones, you tend to think of that sound.
However, had the band actually split at the end of the decade, this rootsy, rock’n’roll signature would be remembered very differently as merely a stylistic phase, one chapter in a story of many. Before it had come several other distinct chapters. First there was eager yet derivative juvenilia (roughly from the June 1963 debut single ‘Come On’ to November 1964’s ‘Little Red Rooster’), followed by the emergence of the Jagger/ Richards songwriting hegemony (from February 1965’s ‘The Last Time’ to the following year’s ‘19th Nervous Breakdown’) and then a period of psychedelic exploration, starting with May 1966’s ‘Paint it Black’. It’s that third period that concerns us here. It was almost obligatory. The times demanded it. Not only the Stones but also The Beatles and The Pretty Things followed a similar trajectory. It led to a point, somewhere in 1966 when, with the top button of culture undone and its tie loosened, the imperative in cutting-edge British pop became the soundtrack to a new age of sexual freedom, mind expansion and primary colour fashion.
Whereas conventional wisdom has The Beatles (Sgt. Pepper) and The Pretty Things (SF Sorrow) doing their best work in this period, in The Rolling Stones’ story the music is generally eclipsed by drug busts, Brian Jones’ decline and the huge shadow of fame cast by the following decades. But subtract the weight of subsequent history and it looks different, a time of enquiry and experiment, not entirely unfruitful.
In the beginning, The Rolling Stones belonged to Brian Jones as much as anyone else. He formed and named the band, he was lead guitarist, and he and Jagger were its joint spokespeople and visual focus. But, as versatile a musician as he was, it seems that Jones could not write lyrics. Once Jagger and Richards broke into their compositional stride there was a shift in the hierarchy, and Jones was unseated. Initially he responded by falling back on his considerable instrumental aptitude. His credits on the albums Aftermath (1966), Between The Buttons (1967) and Their Satanic Majesties Request (1967), plus non-album singles from the same period, include not just guitar but also dulcimer, flute, harmonica, harpsichord, koto, marimba, Mellotron, oboe, organ, oscillator, recorder, saxophone, sitar and vibraphone. Subtract these contributions and those records would sound very different.
Take ‘Please Go Home’ from Between The Buttons. The song itself is standard early Jagger/Richards fare: dismissive posturing over a crunching Bo Diddley beat. Yet it is elevated into something intriguing by the palpable sense of a band in transition chancing upon possibilities. Episodic tape echo surges over the tremolo rhythm guitar, whilst Jones’ serpentine test oscillator sine wave evokes the work of US psych-electronic pioneers Silver Apples (with some symmetry, as the latter band were first inspired by improvising with test oscillators to Stones records).
Around the same time as the Between The Buttons sessions, Jones was moonlighting from the Stones, creating a soundtrack for the West German film Mord und Totschlag (A Degree Of Murder). He played most of the instruments himself, adding autoharp, banjo, cello, clarinet and concert harp to the selection he was already using with the Stones. The opening theme alone juxtaposes harmonica, rollicking honky-tonk piano and abruptly jarring electronic interruptions. Running through a range of period folk y-pop styles and compositionally adequate if ultimately unremarkable, the soundtrack gave Jones an outlet for his multi-instrumental prowess and suggests what might have been. It wasn’t released in album form at the time and has languished in contractual purgatory ever since, although the film is available on DVD.
The latter Degree of Murder recordings probably overlapped with the first sessions for Their Satanic Majesties Request, which began in February 1967. Continuing thereafter until October of that year, they were, atypically for the Stones at the time, drawn out and chaotic, interrupted by legal complications and other lifestyle-induced absences. Along with regular session collaborators like keyboardist Nicky Hopkins, guests including Paul McCartney and some of The Small Faces also chipped in. Consequently, identifying exactly who did what isn’t always possible. But it is clear that by this stage it wasn’t just Brian Jones who was experimenting on what is the band’s most experimental album. Often dismissed as a shabby Sgt. Pepper imitation, the record’s best moments pose an intriguing question about what the Stones could have become if that experimentation had continued.
‘She’s A Rainbow’ retained something of two of the band’s earlier styles, the quasi-medieval folk of ‘Lady Jane’ and the chamber pop of ‘Ruby Tuesday’. Jones’ Mellotron augments a string quartet arrangement by John Paul Jones and Nicky Hopkins’ piano and celesta – these baroque details offset by tub-thumping drums and strummed acoustic guitar. The instrumental section finds the quartet breaking down into dissonance before regrouping for a final chorus of faux children’s voices, and a fade of crashing, distorted guitar. It’s an oddly rousing mix that has proved enduring. Apple and Sony have used it in adverts, and when the Stones went out on the road in early 2016 it won an online poll as the rarely played Stones song fans most wanted in the set.
‘She’s a Rainbow’ was paired with ‘2000 Light Years From Home’ for single release in some markets. Balefully odd, the latter song drifts in ominously with backwards tapes and abstract piano flourishes. Brian Jones’ Mellotron glides over the arrangement, while oscillator squiggles and electronic squalls add detail to an effect closer to Syd Barrett’s Pink Floyd than the Dartford delta.
Hidden right in the middle of Their Satanic Majesties Request is an untitled, uncredited track as bold in intent as it is modest in extent. On the original vinyl pressing it closed Side One. On subsequent CD issues it segues into a field recording of street speech, which then bleeds into ‘She’s A Rainbow’.
This voiceless, 40-second electronic fragment blends double-tracked oscillator, tolling bell-like chimes and white noise tape manipulation. Heard without foreknowledge it might be the BBC Radiophonic Workshop’s incidental music for Dr Who, or some little-known avant-garde composer in thrall to Stockhausen.
The Stones never did anything like this again. ‘She’s A Rainbow’ and ‘2000 Light Years From Home’ transcend the period from which they emerged, partly on account of their inventiveness as songs and arrangements; partly, too, by dint of the band’s habitual aggression, at odds with the feyness that afflicts so many other recordings of the time. As for the short, nameless instrumental, some might judge it indulgent fiddling, but in other contexts music like this was being hailed as the future.
Their Satanic Majesties Request appeared just before Christmas 1967. Although it was only six months before the release of ‘Jumpin’ Jack Flash’, it didn’t quite mark the end of The Rolling Stones’ brief season of musical adventure. Indeed, that era overlapped with the beginning of what we now see as the band’s ‘classic’ period. The next single, ‘Street Fighting Man’, embodied this transition.
Though on one hand it is classic Stones, all strut and braggadocio (albeit with an unusually categorical political message), it retains elements of the psychedelic and experimental. Famously, Keith Richards over-recorded the acoustic guitar on a mono cassette recorder, Charlie Watts played a toy drum kit and Jones played sitar and tamboura.
And that wasn’t the end. Shortly after ‘Street Fighting Man’ was released, Mick Jagger took delivery of a Moog modular synthesizer. It was the second to arrive in the UK, a few weeks after the first had gone to the University of Manchester. With it came Moog employee Jon Weiss, dispatched to teach Jagger how to extract sounds from the formidably complex, inscrutable device just emerging into rock’s consciousness via recordings by American Bands including The Byrds, The Monkees and The Doors.
At the time, Jagger was working on the Nic Roeg/Donald Cammell movie Performance, not released until 1970. Although Mick’s Moog never made it onto any Stones recordings it did feature in the movie.
The cloudy plot drifts around the stories of East End gangster Chas (James Fox) and washed-up rock-star recluse Turner (Jagger). As events progress, Chas takes refuge in Turner’s Notting Hill retreat and the two men’s identities begin to melt together. The Moog appears as a focal point in a recording studio in the basement of Turner’s refuge, the three module cabinets arrayed like a triptych altarpiece, the keyboard on the floor in front of them. Before it, Turner sits cross-legged on an Eastern rug, patching leads as the Moog exhales over Merry Clayton singing ‘Poor White Hound Dog’. The scene culminates with Turner feinting with a fluorescent tube against a rising surge of distorted Moog noise.
It was Bernie Krause, not Jagger, who made the Moog music on the Performance soundtrack. Jagger’s one confirmed Moog composition is the soundtrack to another film, Kenneth Anger’s 1969 short Invocation of My Demon Brother. Anger cuts archive footage of the Stones into an occult/erotic montage over which Jagger layers proto-industrial Moog minimalism, which suggests his grasp of the instrument’s capabilities might have been fragile. He tired of it some time after and sold it to Hansa studios in Berlin, which in turn sold it to Christopher Franke of Tangerine Dream.
As the decade drew to a close and the Stones unwittingly close in on their Altamont nadir, any residual experimental inclinations petered out. Brian Jones formally left the band in June 1969, departing this life less than a month later. He had been a marginal figure for more than a year before, anyway, and as any residual influence he retained finally withered, Keith Richards became the band’s dominant musical force. This is documented painfully in Jean-Luc Godard’s film Sympathy for the Devil (originally titled One Plus One), which documents the recording of the titular song, during which a disintegrating Jones strums an irrelevant guitar while Richards tells everyone what to do.
Some time in 1969, Italian pop artist Matio Schifano involved Jagger and Richards in another film, Umano non Umano (Human no Human). Jagger mimes unconvincingly to ‘Street Fighting Man’ while later on Richards appears noodling on a Moog. He and Jagger are credited with the film’s music, but whether that includes the synthesizer piece accompanying Richard’s scene isn’t clear. Vintage synth aficionados claim that the droning electronic pulse bears no resemblance to Richard’s plugging and unplugging of patch leads. Whether it does or not, it looks and sounds like an aimless exercise with which Keith is barely engaged. Perhaps that was the moment when the pioneering Stones stopped speculating. The film wasn’t released until 1972. That same year the band reached its apogee with the release of Exile on Main Street. At once an embrace of its earliest roots and fullest expression of its mature style it bypassed entirely the brief years of curious wandering. Then it was on with the show. As Mick Jagger once said: “It’s all right letting yourself go, as long as you can get yourself back.”