Saturday 13 September 2014

Key To The Highway - The Rolling Stones at Chess Studios 1964 and 1965

Key To The Highway
We are now 50 years on from the first Rolling Stones' Chess sessions in Chicago and also just over half a century on from the band's rise to fame so it's a pity that the Stones' vintage back catalog has become such a neglected thing. Unlike their contemporaries, the Beatles, Who, Byrds or Beach Boys, there are no box sets or anthologies of unreleased gems, alternate takes or killer live material. Stones' compilations tend to feature the same already well-known songs recompiled and repackaged as greatest hits CDs released every 5 years or so to coincide with the latest world tour.

And it's not like they are putting out any great new stuff either - their last album, the instantly forgettable A Bigger Bang, came out as long ago as 2005. So for a band that seems to have retired from doing anything new - never mind creative - it seems a shame that such a stunning back catalog - and one that helps define the rock era - should be so neglected. This dereliction has arguably led to their importance as the UK's foremost rhythm 'n' blues pioneers being undervalued. The Stones brought rhythm 'n' blues to a mass white audience - not only in the US but in the world. No mean achievement.

Fortunately, as is so often the case in the internet age, fans have taken care of any lack of interest the band or record company may have and "liberated" rare recordings previously hoarded or only available on expensive and shoddy bootlegs. As a result we have some pretty nifty compilations and playlists which in a more sensible world would have already seen official record company release but also serve to re-emphasize the importance of the band's legacy.

The Chess Sessions
One such is the "2120 South Michigan Avenue" compilation (see youtube clip below) of all the sessions the band recorded at Chess studios in Chicago in 1964 and 1965. In the early 60s many blues fans, and the Stones themselves, considered the Chess studios as the home of the blues. Muddy Waters (who according to legend helped the band unpack when they arrived), Howlin' Wolf, Chuck Berry and a whole host of blues musicians and singers recorded for the label. On their first US tour the Stones were keen to visit and record there and, although Chess didn't let out their studios to non label artists in those days, manager Andrew Loog Oldham managed to blag a session for the band in the summer of 1964. For the full story go to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame page here

The Stones at Chess studios 1964

This may not be the best music the band ever recorded but it is key to what came later. Herein are the seeds of some of the best rock music recorded in the 60s and 70s. Let us not forget that, arguably more than the Beatles, the Rolling Stones set the template for what a rock and roll band in the 60s and 70s should look like, sound like and be like. And in 1964, the band arrived in the USA with the self appointed task of re-educating the American teenage public about the blues - an American music which white America had either forgotten about or was simply unaware of - and placing it firmly in the mainstream culture of US and western music where, 50 years on from these sessions, it still remains.

Many of these tracks were originally released on the albums "Rolling Stones No. 2" and "Out Of Our Heads". The songs It's all Over Now and Little Red Rooster were released as singles and the remainder surfaced on British EPs, American LPs - which often had different track-listing to their British versions - or single B sides. To my knowledge, Key To The Highway, a version of Mercy, Mercy different to the one on Out Of Our Heads, and a Bill Wyman song, Goodbye Girl, are all still officially unreleased. But the great thing about this compilation is that it arranges the songs chronologically thus leading the listener to re-evaluate the Rolling Stones as a blues band.

Ian Stewart (seen behind) played piano on the sessions

Confessin' The Blues
Remember this is the Stones as blues purists. Before the the mania and excess that was still to come but also before they'd started to write their own songs. In fact at the time of these sessions, the band were still relatively unknown in the US and, although they followed in the wake of the Beatles and the other British invasion bands, they would not achieve real success in the US until the release of their own (I can't get no) Satisfaction in early 1965 - written around the time of the last session here.

These sessions are not just an apprenticeship though. The thing that stands out when you listen to all of them together is how superior, as blues players, they were compared to contemporaries like the Yardbirds, Pretty Things, Them or the Animals. Those bands tended to play the blues with a stomping heavy rock'n'roll beat. Listen to the Stones on these sessions, especially on Down The Road Apiece or Around and Around, and you hear a band that really knows how to swing.

And the man who put the swing in the band was, of course, drummer Charlie Watts. Charlie was at heart a jazz drummer and he had an instinctive feel for playing just behind the beat emphasizing what Keith Richards maintained was the "roll" in rock 'n' roll - in other words making it swing. Charlie is really the star of the show here. Add Keith's great sense of timing and Chuck Berry riffing to the mix (check Keith's outstanding solo on It's All Over Now - one of his best) and you have band that has much more of an innate grasp of the blues essentials than their rivals.

That's not to say that they have all it down just yet. Jagger's vocals on the blues numbers occasionally verge on mimicry and pastiche  ("Oh dee clap o' mah hands"). It is only on the later soul numbers like Don Covay's Mercy, Mercy, Otis Redding's That's How Strong My Love Is and especially Bobby Womack's It's All Over Now that he starts to sound assertive and comfortable with what he's singing.

British EP "5 by 5" featured 5 songs recorded at Chess

Exile on Main Street
By the end of these sessions Keith Richards and Mick Jagger had started writing their own material and Keith had come up with the Satisfaction riff - he actually woke up in the middle of the night with it in his head and, before he forgot it, quickly got it down on tape. With that now iconic song the band broke through to the American mainstream. They would go on to become the so called bad boys of pop beloved of the tabloid press and then, after the Beatles split, reinvent themselves as "the greatest rock'n'roll band in the world". Although the blues remained an important influence in their music, they never recorded again in the Chess studios after 1965.

However the spirit of these recordings does resurface rather spectacularly on 1972's Exile On Main Street, arguably their finest LP. With tracks like Rip This Joint, Shake Your Hips, Stop Breaking Down and Ventilator Blues, it is a classic rock album soaked in the sound and the spirit of Chicago blues. And these sessions act as handy curtain raiser to that album.

So, 50 years on, it's worth listening to these sessions again and remembering that without the Stones the blues would not be as central in mainstream culture as it is today. These sessions are a vital part of the band's legacy. And also some great music. Take a listen (tracklisting below).

Recorded At Chess Studio Chicago, USA, 2120 South Michigan Avenue, 10/11 June 1964:
1 - It's All Over Now     3:24   
2 - I Can't Be Satisfied     3:25   
3 - Stewed And Keefed     4:07   
4 - Around And Around     3:02   
5 - Confessin' The Blues     2:46   
6 - Down In The Bottom     2:42   
7 - Empty Heart     2:36   
8 - Hi- Heel Sneakers     2:57   
9 - Down The Road Apiece     2:54   
10 - If You Need Me     2:02   
11 - Look What You've Done     2:18   
12 - Tell Me Baby     1:53   
13 - Time Is On My Side (Version 1)     2:52   
14 - Reelin' And Rockin'     3:36   
15 - Don't You Lie To Me     1:59   
16 - 2120 South Michigan Avenue     3:40   

Recorded At Chess Studio, 8 November 1964:
17 - What A Shame     3:04   
18 - Fanny Mae     2:12   
19 - Little Red Rooster     3:06   
20 - Time Is On My Side (Version 2)     3:00   
21 - Goodbye Girl     2:08   
22 - Key To The Highway     3:18   
23 - Mercy, Mercy (Version 1)     2:43

Recorded At Chess Studio, 10 May 1965:
24 - Mercy, Mercy (Version 2)     2:45   
25 - That's How Strong My Love Is     2:24   
26 - The Under-Assistant West Coast Promotion Man     3:22

Bonus track
27 - (I Can't Get No) Satisfaction     2:44   

More stranger than known
The Rolling Stones' finest hour - "Get Yer Leeds Lungs Out"...

The Faces BBC Sessions - 5 Guys Walk Into The BBC...

Ry Cooder and Little Feat live - Rampant Slide Zone Syncopation

Peter Green - "A Mind To Give Up Living" - The Blues of despair and salvation

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