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179) The Rolling Stones – “Ruby Tuesday”

A band as sarcastic, blues-obsessed and apparently unsentimental as The Rolling Stones seems unlikely to have produced some of the prettiest records of the British Invasion. Yet this dissonance between the Stones’ vulgar image and their occasional delicately-wrought single is precisely what makes the latter so effective. Gentle ballads may come easy to a Paul McCartney or a Donovan, but the boys behind “Satisfaction” and “Get Off of My Cloud” have to make an effort to rein in their baser impulses and break their perpetual stance of aloof cool. The result is more moving for its rarity and the exertion required (though, like problem schoolboys making an effusive show of behaving properly, their politeness sometimes seems suspiciously close to mockery). At the same time, the Stones’ inherent edge keeps folky ballads like “As Tears Go By” from skewing too precious, and anchors the decidedly un-rock-and-roll “Lady Jane” in the modern era.

The most successful of all these balancing acts is “Ruby Tuesday,” which delves deeper into the tension between beauty and rock by making it the subject of the song itself. The verses work from a limited palette of classical instruments (piano, recorder, double bass) to craft the audio equivalent of a sepia flashback, staging an idyllic tableau of the narrator’s time with the title character. Beneath its surface loveliness, however, creeps in evidence of the effort required to maintain this setting. Mick Jagger strains below his natural vocal range, flubbing a note in the opening line. The leaden bassline tramples muddy footprints on the delicate arrangement. This beauty requires unnatural restraint, and is therefore unsustainable. Only the recorder feels free, fluttering about with little concern as to what’s going on in the song below it.

When Ruby leaves, however, the band can loosen up and settle back into its familiar, comfortable self. The drums kick in; the bass, now electric, bounces around freely; Jagger’s back in his usual voice. The recorder fades away into a faint, far-away pulse – a modern, raga-esque drone, rather than the verses’ baroque frills. The Stones treat Ruby’s departure with a mixture of sorrow and empathy; they understand why she’s leaving because it’s what they’d do, too. There’s always some ironic distance in Jagger’s vocals, but this chorus is about as sincere as he gets. Likewise, the Stones sometimes catch flak for misogynous lyrics, but “Ruby Tuesday” is fairly equitable, accepting the title character’s decision to leave without any bitterness or cruelty. Ruby may be less a person than a symbol of freedom, but it’s because she herself chooses to be mysterious, rather than because the band has reduced her to such.

For all its depth and ambition, “Ruby Tuesday” was an accidental milestone for The Rolling Stones. It was originally released as the flip side of “Let’s Spend the Night Together,” but the latter’s racy title kept American radio programmers from playing it – never mind that was actually the Stones’ most endearing single to date, filled with nervous stammering and promises to “satisfy your every need.” When “Let’s Spend the Night Together” became the Stones’ first-ever US single to miss the Top 40 (eventually peaking at #55), “Ruby Tuesday” got upgraded to double A-side status. History repeated on the follow-up single, with the pretty, ornate B-side “Dandelion” (#14) besting the outré rocker “We Love You” (#50) as the de facto A-side in America. Their third US single of 1967 finally reversed the formula: “She’s a Rainbow” as the A-side, “2000 Light Years from Home” on the flip. For a year or so, America seemed to prefer the softer side of the nastiest band of the British Invasion. Not by much, though – “Ruby Tuesday” may have been a number-one single, but it would take almost a year and a half before the group would return to the Top 10 (with the defiantly undelicate “Jumpin’ Jack Flash”), and the Stones would seldom ever repeat their late 1964-early 1967 levels of consistent chart success. But if a song as good as “Ruby Tuesday” could be stuck on a B-side, and would-be hits of the era like “Under My Thumb,” “Sympathy for the Devil” and “Gimme Shelter” could be slotted as mere album tracks, it was because a singles-based mindset was becoming increasingly irrelevant  – for both The Rolling Stones as a band, and for rock as a genre. 8

Hit #1 on March 4, 1967; total of 1 week at #1
179 of 1032 #1’s reviewed; 17.34% through the Hot 100



Filed under 08, 1967

161) The Rolling Stones – “Paint It, Black”

The Beatles, ever the pop pioneers, introduced the sitar to rock and roll on the song “Norwegian Wood (This Bird Has Flown),” released at the end of 1965 on the album Rubber Soul.* The exoticism of George Harrison’s sitar complements John Lennon’s worldly-wise sketch of a casual affair, each in its own way signifying the expanding horizons of the 1960s. Harrison wouldn’t start studying with Ravi Shankar until the following year, but he had already begun to take the instrument seriously. Brian Jones, on the other hand, had no such pretensions to authenticity or mastery of the instrument. The sitar appealed to The Rolling Stones because it sounded foreign, and by extension sinister and unsettling. If the sitar in “Norwegian Wood” represented knocking down established boundaries, in “Paint It Black” it captures the feeling of being stranded in an alien culture, fearful for your life and unable to find your way home.

The hell that the song’s narrator finds himself trapped in is existential despair provoked by his girlfriend’s sudden death. The song marks the point where The Rolling Stones’ juvenile negation of the world in “Satisfaction” and “Get Off of My Cloud” withers into absolute nihilism, its pitch-blackness prefiguring the flirtation with the occult that would culminate in Their Satanic Majesties Request and “Sympathy for the Devil.” “Paint It Black” may not feint at satanism, but the classical Indian instrumentation and Jewish/Arabic/Persian-inspired vocal lines evoke a mysticism far beyond the borders of genteel Britain and its institutional Anglicanism.

Like several of the preceding number-ones, “Paint It Black” casts off the standard verse-chorus song structure, instead alternating between two rival sections. Part A is the Eastern half of the song, driven by sitar and invoking Southwest Asian percussion and melodic styles. Jagger looks inside himself and finds only blackness; outside himself, the only things he can see are hearses and dead flowers. His all-consuming despondency starts to spew out to the world around him. He wants to drain the color of everything – to paint the red door black – and make the rest of the world match his own darkness. Part B is the song’s Western half, driven by guitar and adhering to a more familiar rock format. This is the part of the song where the living dwell: newborn babies, girls in summer clothes, people who avert their eyes from the funeral procession. Here, Jagger can recognize that there’s light out of the blackness (summer, the sun), and that what feels to him like the earth shattering “just happens every day.” “Paint It Black” is driven by this tension between Jagger’s competing options, whether to rejoin the rest of the world or disappear inside himself. The band rage against the darkness, trying to outmenace the menace – note especially Charlie Watts’s cymbal-heavy thrash, the manic counteracting the depressive – but Jagger chooses to “fade away,” reneging on a promise from more innocent days. The only living thing left is an imaginary version of his love, a vision of whom he can almost make out in the vanishing sun. Soon he even wants to blot that out, and the song gives way to the abyss, fading out as he fades away. 9

*The Yardbirds had experimented with the instrument in the sessions for the 1965 single “Heart Full of Soul,” but the final version replaced the sitar with an electric guitar.

Hit #1 on June 11, 1966; total of 2 weeks at #1
161 of 1018 #1’s reviewed; 15.82% through the Hot 100


Filed under 09, 1966

147) The Rolling Stones – “Get Off of My Cloud”

When an artist scores a big hit, typically the aim is to try to replicate that success on some level. Often this replication is quite literal, with the follow-up expressly geared to trigger fond memories of its predecessor. One approach is to hew as closely to the previous hit as possible, changing just the minimum number of variables to qualify the new record as a separate song (see The Supremes). The other option follows the Hollywood sequel formula: everything you liked about the original but kicked up a notch, resulting in a record that is bigger and (theoretically) better. “Get Off of My Cloud,” then, is the big-budget redux of “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction,” with a busier arrangement and an even headier attitude.

The two songs adhere to the same basic template – Mick Jagger drawls out a few anecdotes about things that are pissing him off, interspersed with a refrain emphasizing how pissed off he is – but “Cloud” ups the stakes. Whereas the Jagger of “Satisfaction” was griping about his own inability to be satisfied (“I can’t get no”), in “Cloud” he’s directing his anger outward to encompass anyone daring to get in his way (“hey, you, get off of my cloud”). The detergent salesman from “Satisfaction” is no longer just on TV; now he appears in person (and loud clothes) at Jagger’s apartment. Jagger’s reference to the man’s “Union Jack” suit suggests his role as avatar of consumerism in the previous song has expanded to include governmental interference as well. The political references resurface in the third verse, where Jagger isn’t even free to sit in his car without getting swamped in parking tickets (described as “flags stuck on my windscreen”). As with “Satisfaction,” though, Jagger doesn’t really concern himself about the meaning behind what’s holding him down. He’s more interested in describing the feeling of being young and disaffected – and, in the case of “Cloud,” asserting himself in opposition to a world that seems set against him, even if he knows it’s ultimately useless.

The bigger-and-more mentality of the lyrics also turns up in Andrew Loog Oldham’s production, where each member of the group seems to be playing on their own cloud, oblivious to what their bandmates are doing. It sounds under-rehearsed and poorly mixed, especially in comparison with the previous hit, but the sloppiness actually works in its favor. The lean meanness and repetition of “Satisfaction” emphasized its single-minded frustration; the churning, overcrowded “Cloud” reflects the busyness of the world Jagger’s trying to escape. Only Charlie Watts’s drums have enough force to punch through the sonic murk. His intro, like Keith Richards’s “Satisfaction” riff, encapsulates the song’s exasperation, bouncing discontentedly in place before accelerating into a fury, like fists punching a wall in frustration.

Often the problem with sequels is that the surface extras are meant to mask a shortage of ideas. But while “Get Off of My Cloud” isn’t quite the bolt from the blue that its predecessor was, the Stones’ antisocial shtick and songwriting craft are still strong enough to delay the onset of diminishing returns. Nevertheless, the Stones recognized the danger of repeating themselves. The week “Cloud” went to #1, it shared the Top 10 with Bob Dylan’s even nastier “Positively 4th Street,” while a procession of vicious garage rock singles bubbled up below. For the follow-up, then, the band played against type by releasing the strings-laden “As Tears Go By,” a gentle, wistful ballad that couldn’t have been further from their two prior singles – a sign that their ambitions extended beyond endless reiterations of the same formula, no matter how good they were. 8

Hit #1 on November 6, 1965; total of 2 weeks at #1
147 of 1014 #1’s reviewed; 14.50% through the Hot 100


Filed under 08, 1965

140) The Rolling Stones – “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction”

The Rolling Stones arrived relatively late to the British Invasion. Most of the band’s compatriots scored major hits almost overnight after “I Want to Hold Your Hand,” often on their first or second US single. With the exception of “Time is on My Side” (#6, Dec ’64), though, the Stones’ blues and R&B covers that made up the bulk of their early material mostly failed to move US record buyers. The band’s luck improved stateside when they began focusing on their own poppier material: “Tell Me” (the first Jagger/Richards A-side and the group’s Top 40 debut, Aug 1964), “Heart of Stone” (Top 20, Feb ’65), “The Last Time” (Top 10, May ’65). By the time the band netted their first US chart-topper, though, they weren’t just contending with The Beatles and Herman’s Hermits. The Byrds’ success with “Mr. Tambourine Man” heralded the first real threat to the British Invasion: soft, sunny folk rock, pop that was supposed to have a message.

But while The Byrds were dressing Dylan’s ragged clown in a fringe vest and a vacant smile, The Rolling Stones were topping the charts with a more potent kind of protest music. The hero of “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction” rails against everything around him, from TV advertising and “useless information” on the radio to his inability to get off with a girl. But “Satisfaction” is too sharp-witted to be mistaken for a litany of grievances. A line like “he can’t be a man ’cause he does not smoke/ the same cigarettes as me” seems to parody the self-righteous folkie moralist, while the sneering vocals frame the complaints in quotation marks, as if to acknowledge the absurdity of a rock star whining about how hard he has it. The Rolling Stones didn’t just score a hit with an anti-establishment message; they mocked the self-indulgence of it, made it seem as solipsistic as moaning about not getting laid.

Of course, all suggestions of social critique and irony are secondary to the song’s shocking-for-1965 salaciousness (“tryin’ to make some girl”!), and all lyrics period are secondary to that guitar riff, as fuzzy and unshakeable as a hangover headache. It’s the first sound you hear on the single, and it’s pushed to the front of the mix, dominating the rest of the record. The riff cycles without changing, heavily syncopated as if scoffing at the confines of the beat. Even when it knocks off for a bit, the bass keeps circling in place, the snare drum snaps on every beat, the tambourine gets its three shakes in at the end of each measure. There barely needs to be a verse or a chorus, and there barely is; the song wants to be a 12-bar blues, but it never gets to resolve itself. There’s no middle eight or guitar solo to churn up the monotony — and at nearly four minutes long, it does get monotonous. You don’t need to hear the lyrics to tell you the song’s about being stuck in a rut without release or escape.

Nor do you need them to understand Mick Jagger’s chewy, drippy, overly-underenunciated drawl, simultaneously a frank come on and a caricature of our narrator’s sexual/societal frustration. The real Mick Jagger may want satisfaction, but he certainly doesn’t have trouble getting it; the real Mick Jagger will write a song bemoaning advertising, then spend the royalties on a Bentley. Perhaps it’s this duality that’s helped the song withstand decades of over-exposure. “Satisfaction” is pro-hedonism and anti-consumerism, social commentary and a mockery of social commentary, an ain’t-got-no blues for middle class white kids self-aware enough to know they don’t have real problems but are going to complain anyway. That, and it’s got a massive guitar riff. 9

Hit #1 on July 10, 1965; total of 4 weeks at #1
140 of 1010 #1’s reviewed; 13.86% through the Hot 100

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Filed under 09, 1965