July 12 – Maybe They Are A Rock & Roll Outfit, After All

Funny thing about history is how often no one’s aware when they’re seeing it being made. Case in point – the hundred or perhaps 200 people who hung out at the Marquee Club on Oxford Street in London this night in 1962. Some of them might have been disappointed in fact, that their usual Thursday night entertainment – a jazz/blues combo called Alex Korner’s Blues Inc. – wasn’t there. They’d been invited to play live on the BBC that night, and had recommended a fill-in for them. They were friends with a new group that played covers of American blues, led by Brian Jones at the time. A promo in Jazz Times said that Long John Baldry would be there, but headlining “Mick Jagger, R&B vocalist is taking an R&B group into the Marquee (they’re) called the Rollin’ Stones.” Thus was born rock’s most enduring, and probably most famous band – the Rolling Stones as they’d soon become.

The Stones were brand new back then, and had to borrow money from Mick’s dad to rent equipment that night. Although Jagger and his childhood friend Keith Richards were in the band, Jones was the de facto leader of them in 1962 and would remain so until Andrew Oldham became their manager the following year and changed the look and dynamic of the group. They were joined by Ian Stewart, a pianist fired by Oldham who’d later go on to be a fairly successful session musician, and drummer Tony Chapman. Or maybe Mick Avory, soon-to-be Kinks drummer. No one seems to really remember who was behind the kit that night; the ads listed Avory but Chapman was the normal drummer they rehearsed with then. Longtime regular Charlie Watts would join soon, but no one seems to know exactly when. “None of us can really remember when Charlie’s first gig was,” Jagger would later lament, adding that the ’62 show to him was the conception of the band, not the birth. “It’s not the same band,” he remarked in the last decade. “Only Keith and myself are the same.”

So from that haphazard and inauspicious beginning they were rolling, Or “rollin’”. They didn’t have a set name only days before the gig, so Jones, when asked happened to look at an old Muddy Waters record and see a song called “Rollin’ Stone” and dubbed them that. Stewart hated the name. “It sounds like the name of an Irish show band,” he’d sneer, not a rock band. Not that they were that yet. “I hope they don’t think we’re a rock & roll outfit,” he allegedly told the club owners before the first show.

They powered through an 18-song set of covers they term “Chicago Blues” – songs by Muddy Waters and ones like “Got My Mojo Workin’”, “Kansas City” the song made popular by Fats Domino and covered later by the Beatles, Jimmy Reed’s “Big Boss Man”, and “Happy Home” as a finale. Needless to say there was no “Satisfaction” or “Brown Sugar”; they were still a year or two away from writing their own material.

The Marquee Club would move to Soho in 1964. The Rolling Stones played it again and recorded a live album at it in 1971; the Marquee closed by 1996 but the Stones keep on rolling. Seems some people think Mick’s group is in fact a rock & roll outfit… and a pretty good one at that!

June 6 – Mick Was Satisfied At Least

Someone once suggested that you can’t always get what you want, but sometimes you get what you need. Oh…that was the Rolling Stones and they proved their case this day in 1965. It was this day 56 years back that they released a single they thought was OK, but not what they really wanted. Of course, “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction” went to horrify grammar teachers for generations and become, as Newsweek put it “the five notes that shook the world.” Not only is it likely the best-loved Stones song, it’s one of the truly iconic rock songs of all-time…despite guitarist Keith Richards thinking it wasn’t ready to release yet.

The success was something rock stars normally only dream of. What’s more, it apparently began in a dream. Keith Richards says he got the idea for the music in a dream. He got up, picked up an acoustic guitar and a portable tape recorder and played the riff. He says when he played back the tape there was about a two minute song followed by “me snoring for 40 minutes.” They knew the music was catchy and Mick Jagger quickly put together the lyrics, which he said was “an attack on the status quo” – sexual frustration mixed with the frustration of living in an overly materialistic, commercial world.

At the time they were touring the States, and they quickly went to Chess Studios in Chicago to record it – or a version thereof. It was a little different than the “Satisfaction” we know, and Brian Jones played harmonica on it. Viewers of the show Shindig heard it first. They played that version on the show with them lip-synching to it before it was released. However, a few days later they went to a studio in California and re-recorded it, resulting in the smash hit we all know. Keith used a Gibson Fuzzbox to get the familiar buzzy guitar sound…which he ironically planned to have taken off the record! He heard it in his head being played by a horn section and used the effect to simulate the sustain he thought the horns would have. Mick and producer Andrew Oldham disagreed though and rushed the single out, guitar and all. Which was probably a great veto!

For the mid-’60s it was a bit of a shocking song. It rocked harder than most of its contemporaries on hit radio and it was comparatively blatant about “trying to get some girl” . And it complained about advertising, from the Marlsboro man to soap commercials, which didn’t thrill a lot of radio people. Consequently, some stations wouldn’t play it over here, and the BBC initially wouldn’t play it because they considred it too controversial. They’d later reverse that decision not long after it was officially released in Britain, a few months later.

It quickly became “the song that really made the Rolling Stones; changed us from just another band into a huge monster band,” as Mick Jagger put it. The song would eventually become their fourth #1 hit at home, but more significantly it was their first American #1. It would spend four weeks at the top (before being knocked off by Herman’s Hermits “I’m Henry the 8th, I Am” believe it or not) and finish up the year-end as the third biggest hit. It’s import seemingly has only grown since then. BMI list it among the 100 most-played records of the century and in 2000, VH1 viewers voted it the “greatest rock song,” period. Rolling Stone, the magazine, would go on to list the Rolling Stones, the band, song as the second greatest song of all-time and “the sound of a generation impatient to inherit the world!”

Keith for his part says “I’m not going to complain…although I never consider it the finished product.” Which I guess is true of his band itself, revving up to mark their 60th anniversary together next year.

May 24 – Jack Kept Flowers & Hits Blooming For Stones

The Rolling Stones looked backwards to bridge the gap going forward. They released one of their classics, “Jumpin’ Jack Flash” on this day in 1968. At the time it was a standalone single to tide the fans over between the albums Their Satanic Majesties Request and Beggar’s Banquet. Although Mick Jagger says some of the song came about from “all the acid” they’d done during the previous album’s recording, the sound was a definite return to basic bluesy rock and roll the band had put out in their early days after a string of more psychedelic records like “Ruby Tuesday.”. Brian Jones said it showed them “getting back to…the funky, essential essence.” While it’s credited to Jagger & Richards, as are most of their hits, and Mick and Keith wrote the lyrics, Bill Wyman isn’t exactly pleased. He’s said the rest of the band – himself, Brian Jones and Charlie Watts actually came up with the basic tune while playing around on piano and guitars in the studio before the “glimmer twins” arrived at the studio.

The song quickly became a favorite of the band and their fans. It became their seventh #1 hit in the UK and charted to #3 in the U.S. Oddly enough, it’s referenced in another #1 song – Don McLean’s “American Pie”, which of course is about the death of Ritchie Valens and Buddy Holly years before the Stones’ put out this one. Keith Richards particularly likes “Jumpin’ Jack Flash” and has said of it “it’s a weird mixture of actual rock and roll and…this weird echo of very, very ancient music.” It’s been the song the Stones’ have played most live – over 1100 performances so far, ending up on at least six of their live albums!

So who was Jumpin’ Jack? Apparently, although most of the song is made up, there was a “Jumpin’ Jack”- Jack Dyer, a gardener Richards hired at his home. Richards says “Mick and I had been up all night, it was raining outside and there was the sound of these boots near the window. It woke up Mick. He said ‘what’s that?’ and I said oh that’s just Jack – jumpin’ Jack’” Mick liked that name and added the “flash” and began writing. One of the rare incidents in rock where a groundskeeper kept his boss’ property looking pretty and also kept the boss pretty much on top of the charts.

May 10 – Rowe Got Stones Rolling

Everyone makes mistakes. The thing that separates the winners from losers is often the ability to learn from those mistakes. In that, Dick Rowe is definitely a winner, and he proved it on this day in 1963. That was the day he signed the Rolling Stones to Decca Records…not long after turning down a chance to do the same with a band called The Beatles!

Rowe was the head of A&R for Decca in Britain. It was one of the better established record companies, dating back to 1929. By the WWII era, they were home to many of the most popular musicians of the day from Louis Armstrong to the Andrews Sisters. They also had a way of being ahead of their time. In 1954, they put out what would by most accounts be the first hit “rock and roll” record – Bill Haley’s “Rock Around the Clock.” No surprise then that when the Beatles got back home to the UK, Decca would have an interest in adding them to the roster. Rowe listened to them and allegedly told their manager, “guitar groups are on their way out, Mr. Epstein” , although he later denied saying that. Whether he did or not, what is fact is that Decca didn’t sign the Beatles and by spring ’63, it was already becoming clear to all that that had been a huge mistake – Beatlemania was taking the world by storm. So when a Beatle suggested a new band to him, Rowe wasn’t going to mess up again.

The Stones had been rolling for about a year, but spring ’63 was very eventful as they’d just signed on with a young manager named Andrew Oldham… being a teenager, Oldham actually needed parents help to legally sign some contracts! But he had a good idea of how to make a hit. Bill Wyman remembers a day or two after signing him as manager, Oldham took the band shopping and bought them matching “tight black jeans, black rollneck sweaters and highly fashionable Anello and Davide black Spanish boots” to wear on stage. He soon changed his opinion and let them wear their own street clothes and grow their hair longer to provide a visual contrast to the Beatles who were seen as “wholesome” or “clean cut” for rockers. Oldham also recognized musical talent and urged Mick Jagger and Keith Richards to write more of their own material. for the first few months, all they played were essentially old Blues numbers and Chuck Berry covers.

Although he didn’t sign the Beatles, one might guess the London rock scene was quite small and close in the first half of the ’60s, so George Harrison kept in touch with Rowe. He told the Decca man that the Rolling Stones were the real deal and needed to have a deal. Rowe caught them in a show in early May at the Crawdaddy Club in London and signed them days later. Within a month, Decca issued the first Rolling Stones single – a Chuck Berry cover as it were, “Come On,” which got to #21 at home. Within a year they’d have their first album out and hit the top 10 on the domestic singles chart with “Not Fade Away.”

At the time, Disc magazine suggested “The Beatles who recommended the Stones to Decca may live to rule the day. This group could be challenging them for top place in the immediate future.” And although they did, few would think the Beatles cared much about it. Most biographies suggest the two bands were friends and enjoyed the rivalry for chart dominance and in effect pushed each other to greater heights of creativity. It seemed guitar groups were on their way in, actually!

May 6 – Black Gold From The Stones

They were on top of the world – of music at least – but they weren’t happy. At least if you believed their lyrics. The Rolling Stones still couldn’t get no satisfaction it seemed and on this day in 1966 put out their slightly nihilistic classic “Paint it Black.”

The song about wanting to blot the sun from the sky and paint red doors black perhaps showed the depth of their rivalry with the Beatles. The Fab Four had just put out “Norwegian Wood” with its sitar; Brian Jones of the Stones decided to pick up a sitar too. And he used it to good effect – the song has a decidedly Eastern or Middle Eastern tint to it previously unheard in their catalog. In fact it’s said that it was he who came up with the basic melody and arrangement while playing around on the sitar. Mick Jagger joked it “sounded like a song for Jewish weddings.” He and Keith Richards came up with the lyrics, which Mick says were typical of what they were doing at the time. Rock and roll party animal or not, Mick’s a bright man and says that this song was partly influenced by his reading the novel Ulysses. Otherwise it was exploring the “darkness of the psyche,” an undercurrent through the Aftermath album which contained the single in North America (but not the UK where it was initially a standalone single.) It followed “Mother’s Little Helper”, a different theme but probably equally bleak in outlook. The band’s manager Andrew Oldham produced the record and gave the songwriting credits to the usual duo of Jagger & Richards, something that left Bill Wyman feeling “ripped off.” He felt that the entire group collaborated on creating the hit.

And hit it was. They soon played it on Ed Sullivan and the song rocketed up the charts, becoming their sixth #1 hit at home and third such chart-topper in the U.S. It also hit #1 in Canada and several other countries, winning praise from the likes of Melody Maker, which called it “glorious raga-rock that will send the Stones back to number 1.” And its popularity has endured. Of late, Rolling Stone magazine has listed the Rolling Stones song among the 200 greatest ever and the NME one-upped that, ranking it as the 65th best of all-time. Fans have ranged from Soft Cell’s Marc Almond who called it “the lyrics that sent me over to the dark side” to U2, who cut a version of it for a b-side. Seems like the Stones found a way to make gold out of black paint!

March 4 – Northern Pikes & Music In The Age Of Covid

<< A SOUNDDAY EXCLUSIVE >>

THIRD AND FINAL PART OF OUR INTERVIEW WITH JAY SEMKO OF THE NORTHERN PIKES.

Yesterday we looked at the Northern Pikes glory days in the early-’90s but also noted they broke up in 1993. Bassist/singer Jay Semko told us that was one of his regrets, especially walking away from the contract the band had with Virgin Records.

Semko went on from the Pikes to do the music for the TV show Due South, which was shown on both American and Canadian networks, writing and performing the Pike-esque theme song and scoring episodes through the series four seasons. All the while it seemed like there was unfinished business with the band though. He told one interviewer that at the time “we didn’t really hate each other. I think that’s the reason we did break up. We would have ended up hating each other.”

However, around the end of the decade Virgin Records decided to put out a Greatest Hits album, and that got the band interested in being back together for a show or two and bit of promotion. Soon they were working together again, recording a new studio album, Truest Inspiration, which they put out themselves. Although not a major success in terms of sales, it could be Semko’s personal favorite of their discography.

Since then they’d toured at times and put out another album in 2003…around when Merl Bryck quit the band. “Merl stopped playing with us around 2005,” Semko told us. “We did a New Year’s Eve show in Manitoba. We had the offer and Merl just wasn’t keen on playing anymore. You know, he had – still has – a good job with the City of Saskatoon” and they realized there was little sense in keeping a guitarist in the band who didn’t want to be in the band anymore. They went along as a trio until a few years back when they brought in new blood in the form of Kevin Kane, formerly from the neo-psychedelic Grapes of Wrath.

The infusion of new talent led them back to the studio for their first new work in 16 years, Forest of Love.

“I really like it,” he says. “It was recorded at the National Music Centre in Calgary. It’s amazing. If you ever get out to Calgary, it’s well worth checking out. It’s like a rock & roll hall of fame, and it’s country music too – it’s kind of a museum. They have great recording studios in there too, vintage equipment. Recording there it was a really good setup. They had movable sound booths with plexiglass so you could see everybody when you’re recording. I really like (Forest of Love). I feel we made a really good record and there are good memories of making it. We cut it live, we all played in the same room at once. In my experience, a lot of studios don’t have the size. You couldn’t set up realistically,” resulting in recording individual players separately, lots of overdubs and a less organic-sounding product. So the large studios were the coolest thing about the Centre? Well, maybe second coolest.

Continue reading “March 4 – Northern Pikes & Music In The Age Of Covid”

March 3 – The Bittersweet Story Of A Number 1 Smash

A song with a “bittersweet” backstory involving lawsuits. The Verve release their biggest single by far, “Bittersweet Symphony” in North America (a few months after it was out in the UK) this day in 1998. In Britain, where they were already popular, it was massive. In North America, where they’d been unknown, the song hit top 5 in charts, helped the Urban Hymns album it came off be certified platinum in the U.S. while it went on to be huge in their homeland. In fact the album topped the Brit charts for twelve weeks in total and is among the 20 biggest-sellers of all-time.

However, the lush strings that open the single cost the band – big time! They sampled them from a version of a Rolling Stones song played by the Andrew Oldham Orchestra. Oldman had been a manager of the Rolling Stones and even though The Verve thought they’d legally bought the rights to the song for use in “Bittersweet Symphony”, Oldham’s successor with the Stones, Allen Klein sued. Courts agreed and credited the Rolling Stones as a co-writer and unbelievably, gave Klein all the royalties for the song save for $1000 to the band for playing it! Oldham quipped “if the Verve can write a bigger song, they can keep the money.” Keith Richards joked it was his biggest hit since “Brown Sugar” and went out of his way to note it wasn’t him or Mick suing the much-less-wealthy band. Something singer Richard Ashcroft of the Verve acknowledged. “I never had a personal beef with the Stones. They’ve always been the greatest rock & roll band in the world.”

But as for Klein, he sniped “someone stole God knows how many million dollars from me in 1997, and they’ve still got it.” Like the band says in the song “It’s a bittersweet symphony, this life/try to make ends meet/ you’re a slave to the money then you die!”  However, there is a bit of a happy postscript to the story. In 2019, when Ashcroft picked up an Ivor Novello Award for Lifetime Achievement in Britain he announced “Mick Jagger and Keith Richards signed over all their publishing rights to ‘Bittersweet Symphony’ which was a truly kind and magnanimous thing for them to do.” So it would seem the estate of the late Allen Klein won’t continue to get richer courtesy of The Verve. It isn’t clear however if the band will be able to collect any of the royalties they lost over the past twenty years. Bittersweet indeed.

December 18 – Start Him Up – Keith Is Rarin’ To Go Still

One of the legends of modern music was born… a long time ago. So happy 77th birthday to Keith Richards who’s surprised many people by being like the Energizer Bunny of the rock world – he just keeps on going!

There’s books to be written about the Rolling Stones guitarist and not much to be added that people don’t already know but one thing that might surprise many is that he probably doesn’t live that much wilder a life than many other seniors these days. He lamented back in the ’90s that “even though (heroin addiction) was nearly 20 years ago, you cannot convince some people I’m not a mad drug addict.” He says he kicked the heroin habit in ’78, while awaiting sentencing in Canada. Police had raided his hotel room in Toronto the year before and found heroin; he ended up being given a suspended sentence and , curiously enough, being ordered to perform a charity concert with the band in a small hockey arena in the Toronto suburb of Oshawa (which they did to the great delight of the suburbanites.) Nowadays, he tells the BBC, he likes eating Shepherd’s Pie.

When not playing, we presume. The Stones are still rolling, with a fairly new song, “Living in a Ghost Town” out earlier this year and an impatient waiting for another tour. They ended the “No Filter” one last year, after 60 shows in front of 2.3 million fans, but had planned to kick it back into gear for another American tour this summer, until Covid got in the way.. Richards says “I’ve always loved playing the States. It’s a great crowd.” His counterpart Mick Jagger adds “I’m thinking about what the next tour is. I’m not thinking about retiring.”

The Rolling Stones have to date put out some 30 studio albums, earned themselves 25 platinum albums in the U.S. and many more elsewhere and of course are enshrined in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. The magazine that bears the name of the band rank Richards as the fourth best guitarist of all-time. They say of him, “Keith wrote two and three note themes that were more powerful than any great guitar solo.” Nils Lofgren of Springsteen’s E Street Band added he saw Keith at a practice, playing Chuck Berry tunes. “I love Chuck Berry. But this was better.” When you one-up “the Father of Rock & Roll”, you have done something! Enjoy your day, Grandfather Keith!

August 5 – Stones Didn’t Miss With Disco Foray

Maybe you can’t teach an old dog new tricks but you can at least get them to put a new spin on the old ones. Or at least you could the Rolling Stones as they forged on well into their second decade. They hit #1 in the U.S. on this day in 1978 with “Miss You.”

It was the first single off their Some Girls album, the first to have Ronnie Wood onboard as a full-time member and guitarist. Despite Keith Richards’ deepening drug problems in that time period, it was seen as one of their most creative albums of the decade and a return to form after a few less-than-brilliant records.

Considering that by then they used Richards and Wood as guitarists and Mick Jagger played some guitar on the single as well, it wasn’t as much a blow-the-walls down rocker as one might have expected. The Stones were taking note of what was going on in the music world and didn’t want to get left behind. It was the height of the disco revolution and old-style rock and roll wasn’t in vogue. So the Stones set out to get with the times… but do so in their own style.

Miss You” was heavily influenced by going out to the discos,” drummer Charlie Watts confirms. “you can hear it on the four-to-the floor and the Philadelphia-style drumming.” Keith Richards says it “was a damn good disco record.” To whit, the band took the song which is just under five minutes on the LP, under four on the single and put in a bit more dance beat and extended it to eight-and-a-half minutes in their first 12” single.

If you could dance to it, the song about the dude pining for his lost love and his buddies just wanting him to stop his moping didn’t exactly scream “Studio 54” like some other rockers disco hits of that era (think Rod Stewart’s “Do Ya Think I’m Sexy” or Kiss’ “I Was Made For Loving You.”) Part of that probably is owing to the fine, and prominent bluesy harmonica played by Sugar Blue, a New York bluesman Mick found busking in Paris! Ian McLagan, formerly of Faces joined in the fun adding some electric piano to the song Mick apparently wrote with a bit of help from Billy Preston when they were jamming in Toronto the year before. (Unfortunately for Preston, he wasn’t credited for writing while Keith Richards was, per the Stones’ norm.)

Miss You” spent a week on top in the States before being deposed by the Commodores, and also made #1 in Canada. It was their seventh U.S. #1 single, but only the second of the ’70s. It got to #3 in the homeland which wasn’t very much home to them at that point, the UK.

Beast of Burden” was the next single off Some Girls and was also a North American top 10 making the album the last of theirs to produce two major hit songs.

July 26 – Mick Still Has Those Moves Like Jagger

Happy birthday, Sir Mick! The Rolling Stones famous face and voice, Mick Jagger turns 77 today.

Jagger grew up in a decent, middle-class household in Kent, England with both parents being teachers. He wasn’t a bad student (in fact he even went to the London School of Economics right before starting the Stones) but he recalls “I always sang as a child. I was one of those kids who just liked to sing.” Good thing he did, and that he grew up near Keith Richards and they became school chums by age 7. The pair have had their share of laughs and dust-ups through the years but when all is said and done, have managed to put together one of rock’s all-time most-popular bands and a canon of songs that Rolling Stone suggest “defined a rock song’s essential components…established a blueprint for future rockers” and call the pair the sixth greatest songwriter(s) ever. Fitting then the publication took its name from the band!

Remarkably, even outside the Stones, Jagger’s done quite well, with four solo albums , two of which hit the U.S. and UK top 20 and he’s collaborated with The Jacksons, David Bowie and Jennifer Lopez on hit singles. And of course, his famous dance moves were the inspiration for Maroon 5’s hit “Moves Like Jagger” which he calls “Very flattering!”. Of course that pales compared to what he’s done in the Stones; to date he’s collected 29 platinum and 14 more gold albums in the U.S. alone with the boys. Despite his bad boy image, he was Knighted by the Queen for his contribution to music.

Something you might not know about Jagger though- according to AXS-TV and Britain’s The Telegraph, he nearly didn’t make it to 75… or even 35! And not because of the usual trappings of rock star life – drugs, drinking, accidents getting to concerts and so on. They report that the Hell’s Angels’ set out to kill Mick in 1975 after he criticized them for the job of security they’d done (or not done) in the past at some concerts. Some of the gang set out in a boat to where Jagger was staying on Long Island, planning to get to his summer getaway and murder him without being detected on the roads or at the gates. However, a storm blew up, their boat began to sink and apparently calmer heads prevailed within the bike gang after that!

That seems fitting, because no matter what, Mick seems to be a rock & roll constant. Although he became a great-grandfather six years back, he had a son with dancer Melanie Hamrick in 2016. And after a brief postponement of a Stones tour last year for him to undergo heart surgery, they were back on the stage last fall. As Bon Jovi’s said, “I don’t know how the hell (he) does it…he runs around the stage as much or more than I do and he’s got almost 20 years on me.” Just one of the many mysteries that make Mick, Mick and one of rock’s all-time kings. 

While their output has slowed of late, the Stones did put out a brand-new song this spring, “Living in a Ghost Town” and are slated to put out an expanded and re-mastered version of their ’70s smash Goat’s Head Soup with previously-unheard songs added, this fall.