Rolling Stones, ‘It’s Only Rock ‘n’ Roll’ (11/27/74)

Its Only Rock ‘n’ Roll—not all that different from the records the Stones were making ten years ago. 12 x 5, December’s Children, that sort of stuff. There’s a hard gloss on the music now, but it’s the same rough combination of good times, bad times, a fast wit, anger, resentment, frustration, guilt and tall tales. Held together by the brittle toughness that redeems it all: I may be falling, baby, but I know you can’t save me. Too bad, too sad.

They may not be the “Greatest Rock ‘n’ Roll Band In the World,” but there never was a rock ‘n’ roll band worth half as much. What can you say about a band that’s been wrestling with its audience for ten years and still hasn’t been pinned? Ten years at the top, mind you? You can catch a revival of The T.A.M.I. Show, the ’65 rock extrava­ganza that showcased third-rate Beatle imitators, Chuck Berry, Motown groups, Leslie Gore, Jan & Dean, James Brown, and five kids who called themselves the Rolling Stones. Whose performance stands up across those years, still jumping off the screen full of shock and surprise, no excuses, THIS IS IT, TAKE IT OR LEAVE IT? James Brown and the Stones. It’s not easy to believe they were that good.

Ten years gone, a new album. Every cut matters. I detested the single on the radio but here it just sings off “Ain’t Too Proud To Beg” and makes it home. There are no grand statements these days—no “Sympa­thy for the Devil,” no “You Can’t Always Get What You Want”—the meaning of the music is as simple as a song title—“Time waits for no one… and it won’t wait for me”—and as complex as the sense you get from the record that “the Rolling Stones” might be the richest image we’ve got. A pose, of course, that image—some­times startling and dangerous, and sometimes merely fey, but a pose that drops away as soon as you’re ready to accept and dismiss it—leaving you with a little drama of struggle for what you want that you recognize instantly—and deeply.

Take their number “Luxury,” for one. It comes on as if the Stones are trying to cash in on reggae—the pose—but by the time it’s halfway done what it really sounds like is a reggae band playing like Stones. The chords that seemed copped in the first minute are magical by the third—there isn’t a group in the world that can play like this.

The fake accent Mick begins with dissolves, and you hear a man singing. His outrage and resentment (he’s a poor Jamaican working seven days a week in an oil refinery), so contrived in the first verse, is completely real by the time he’s through with you (he’s a hard-working rock star but his wife is bleeding him dry). “All the rum I want to drink it,” he yells—“I’ve got responsibilities!” And how could you argue with that?

Quick, punchy, straight-ahead and twisted, lyrical and utterly honest in the shrug-of-a-shoulder manner the Stones nailed down so long ago, the Stones have made the best album of 1974. One more time, they offer just a grin and a mystery; one step ahead of the devil, they beat it on down the line again.

City, November 27, 1974

3 thoughts on “Rolling Stones, ‘It’s Only Rock ‘n’ Roll’ (11/27/74)

  1. Spot on review. A wonderful recording that is tremendously underrated. My litmus test for any recording is how much do I go back to it after the initial burst of listening. I play It’s Only…more that Beggar’s, Bleed, Sticky and Exile. All of these are fine recordings, but the cliched critical consensus that these were classics and Goat’s Head and It’s Only… are not is baloney. Everything released during the Mick Taylor years is wonderful and I wish it had lasted longer.

    • I found the sound quality poor-murky-on first release, and I never got past that. I guessed Jimmy Miller brought something that Jagger/Richards couldn’t get to on their own. But I wonder if you’ve heard the 1994 and 2009 remasterings. Are much different from the original?

  2. Greil actually liked the album a lot less as time went on, and I don’t blame him. There’s nothing I’d call a truly great Stones cut on this album. I do like the opener “If You Can’t Rock Me,” the hit title track and the underrated “Luxury” (Greil’s assessment above is spot-on), but not the rest, not even the overrated “Time Waits for No One” which aside from Mick Taylor’s extended solo and some nice piano fills is pretty awful.

    Less than four years later for Greil’s review of SOME GIRLS, he’d write that:

    “Lies” would have leapt off IT’S ONLY ROCK N’ ROLL; on SOME GIRLS it sounds second-rate next to “Shattered,” “Miss You,” “Beast of Bur­den” or “Before They Make Me Run”…

    and added:

    “Ain’t Too Proud To Beg,” another Stones/Temptations cover was technically impeccable, but dead.

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