I want to talk about the first Rolling Stones album, the first album Oldham produced—The Rolling Stones in England in April 1964, subtitled England’s Newest Hit Makers in the U.S. a month later. It’s a thing in itself: a set of songs that exists on its own terms, that clears its own ground, a piece of work that says what it says in its own voice far more clearly, far more completely, than any discussion you might come up with about where the music came from or where it went—the usual critical approach employed to avoid talking about what you’re supposedly talking about, as in, the first Rolling Stones album is made up mostly of covers of blues and rhythm and blues songs; it demonstrates the profound influence of such music on the Rolling Stones and, by implication, the pop music of the 1960s as such. In such clumsy prototypes as “Tell Me” and “Walking the Dog,” one can discern the seeds of such later classics as “Out of Time” or, indeed, all of Exile on Main St.—and so what? Who cares? That name, Andrew Loog Oldham, was right there on the back of the first Rolling Stones album, under a block of type that passed for liner notes, necessary in those days, and the second word seemed to tell the whole story in 1964, and to hint at a story that couldn’t be told out loud. What kind of name is “Loog”? What kind of parents would name their kid that? What kind of person would name himself that? The music inside the sleeve lived up to the name, but how?
“Andrew learnt record producing at the same time we did,” Keith Richard once said. “The only reason he’s sitting there is because we were on the other side playing the stuff. I mean, Andrew knew nothing about recording except what he thought he wanted to hear, which may be the purest way of producing… Andrew could hear the beat and he could hear the electricity and the enthusiasm come off it—and if that makes a good producer, he was a great one. Maybe he’s not a producer in terms of a Quincy Jones, but then Quincy Jones never produced the Rolling Stones.”The British version of the album began with a headlong leap into Bobby Troup’s “Route 66.” The American album began with Buddy Holly’s “Not Fade Away,” a single in the UK—you couldn’t put a single on an album in England, people would think you were trying to sell them something twice. But it was a better beginning.
Mick Jagger had gone to see Buddy Holly and the Crickets at the Woolwich Granada Theatre in March 1958—just ten months before Bob Dylan went to see Buddy Holly, at the Duluth Armory on January 1st, 1959, Holly’s third to last show. Supposedly, the Crickets played “Not Fade Away”—but if they did, it sounded nothing like what the Rolling Stones would make of it.
You can’t date Holly’s recording by its sound, its style, the apparent studio technology. The records Holly’s producer Norman Petty cut in his studio in Clovis were clean and crisp, with a quickening in the beat, but for this one song, the feeling is closer to a Clarence Ashley 78 from 1929. The music seems to come from far away; the rhythm is all stops, forcing the song to start over with every line. The lyrics are pidgin, dropping verbs: “My love bigger than a Cadillac.” The record is a mystical statement. In its primitive way, it sounds more like flying saucer rock ’n’ roll than Billy Lee Riley’s “Flying Saucers Rock ’n’ Roll.”
The Rolling Stones start with take-it-or-leave-it: an acoustic guitar strumming a pattern twice, hard, then a split second of silence, then a single, isolated, tiny bass note, tipping the music into the air. And then it’s a road race, with Brian Jones’s harmonica pulling ahead of the Bo Diddley beat that is pulling the music back, Bill Wyman’s bass and Charlie Watts’s drums watching the road while Keith Richard’s guitar drives blind and Mick Jagger’s voice says he’s seen it all before. You go back to that first moment, that double pattern, that step off of a cliff, trying to make the rest of the song match it.
In one of the only interesting sentences written about the first Rolling Stones album, Robert Christgau caught the second song on the British version, the third song on the American release: “Mick Jagger doesn’t so much sing Muddy Waters’ ‘I Just Want to Make Love to You’ as get it over with.” That’s what Jagger does. But the performance as a whole is a scene of confusion—of hurry, bravado, noise and possibility, a place you’ve heard about, where you have to know who to know to get in, where you’ll never get in, but now you are in. You can’t keep up; you can’t believe the people in the band are keeping up with themselves. The song kicks off faster than you can credit, electric guitar and harmonica as a single instrument, the notes dropping down on the bass and drums like the wind blowing ice in your face. The momentum is too strong, and for one moment, as Jagger gets it over with, a high, thick note rises out of Jones’s harmonica, a real stairway to heaven, except that it’s no stairway, it’s a chute from one dimension to another. The note disappears, gone into the ether, into another mode of being; the song stays in this one, but with a sense that that strange moment has left it incomplete. As with “Not Fade Away,” you go back to that rising note, trying to find it, to prove that you heard what you think you heard, to make the rest of the music follow it, and you never can. All you know is that in the overwhelming immediacy of this performance, there is somewhere else.“We were blues purists who liked ever so commercial things but never did them on stage because we were so horrible and aware of being blues purists,” Jagger told Jonathan Cott and Sue Cox in 1968, looking back over rivers deep and mountains high to 1963 and 1964—at that time, time moved so fast that four years in a pop career, in lived history, was an eternity. “You could say that we did blues to turn people on,” Jagger said, “but why they should be turned on by us is unbelievably stupid. I mean, what’s the point in listening to us doing ‘I’m a King Bee’ when you can listen to Slim Harpo doing it?”
Slim Harpo took it slow, as if he understood everything the song might ever say, as if its knowledge—in the languor of its chords, the honeydrip of its words—was knowledge he was born with. As he sings, leading off the second side of The Rolling Stones, Jagger seems to go even more slowly, as if he’s singing to himself, trying to turn himself into the sort of man who could tell someone he’s a king bee. “Buzz awhile,” he drawls, sounding completely phoney. “Sting it, then,” he says, sounding slightly less phoney—and in its instant, the sting that comes off of Keith Richard’s guitar validates every word Jagger has sucked out of the song and into his own mouth. By the end, you have forgotten who’s playing, and you believe everything. Slim Harpo told a story, a story that could only have one ending. This is a different story, a drama—and so again you come out of it not sure you heard what you think you heard.The next song, “Tell Me” is a ballad, an original, with a little of “Baby It’s You” and a lot of “Be My Baby.” It was more than four minutes long on the English album, in 1964 on a pop album a violation, more than a minute longer than any song was supposed to be—but as the song disappeared into Keith Richard’s guitar solo, climbing the spine of the song like the plink-plink solo in “Don’t Worry Baby,” the simplest notes capable of telling the most difficult story, you got the sense that the literal length of the song was a kind of sign, allowing you to understand that what the open spirit of Richard’s solo signified was that the story the he was telling would not end at all.
Photos of Andrew Oldham taken in 1963 and 1964 show a thin blond—in some pictures, with all the self-possession of cool, in others all the What-Me-Worry? of Alfred E. Neuman. Standing next to Nico, he looks like he’s wandered into the room by accident.
But there’s a picture of Oldham from thirty years later that shows you the man hiding inside the boy—the man the boy was going to become no matter who or what was standing in the way.
It’s 1993. Oldham looks a few degrees down at the camera, a smile over the bags under his eyes. His forehead is high, his hair loose, his beard rough, his double-breasted plaid suit, his striped shirt, his silk tie covering a huge stomach. He doesn’t appear to be trying to prove anything. He doesn’t have to try to look like someone who’s had a dozen people killed. You see this man coming, you cross the street.
That’s the image Oldham got for the first Rolling Stones album—an image of such force that it gave every visual detail on the album, front and back, the typography, the design, each photograph, each word, an incipient, indecipherable, glowing meaning, that turned every visual detail into a fetish signifying that every detail represented a choice, that every detail was part of a greater story: a story that, if you somehow caught each detail for what it was, you might actually grasp.Such a sensation didn’t really come off the cover of the American version of The Rolling Stones. There was that “England’s Newest Hit Makers” running along the top—latest trend, don’t miss it—and “The Rolling Stones” in inch-high white letters. Under that, five guys looking out. It didn’t look that different from any other long-haired pop group album cover. Oldham’s liner notes were strange—“The Rolling Stones are more than a group—they are a way of life,” he wrote so famously in his first sentence—but you couldn’t read those words back into the picture on the other side of the sleeve. The sleeve was dull cardboard; there was no reflection. The type was smudgy. Oldham was trying to practice a certain magic, but as an object, as an artifact, the album had no aura.
In England the album was all aura—and it was only when American fans got their hands on the British version of The Rolling Stones that they realized just how brazen, how extreme, this band might be. It was Oldham’s biggest fight with Decca, the band’s UK label: not one word on the cover, nothing. He gave in on “Decca,” in a small white box in the upper right-hand corner; that was it. No name of the band, no name of the album.
The idea came right out of Robert Freeman’s portraits for With the Beatles, their second album, the album The Rolling Stones would replace at the top of the UK charts: four black and white Beatle faces coming out of a black background, looking right at you, just the label name and the album title in black letters running on a white strip above the pictures. Firing the first shot in the coming war of pop artists willing to do anything to top each other, Oldham took the next step: Nothing. We will tell you nothing. If you have to ask, you don’t deserve to know—but you didn’t have to ask.
For the slick reflecting cover of the British album, Nicholas Wright shot the five together, standing in a line, looking out over their shoulders. The figures were much smaller than on the American cover, the background much higher, more complete—like the bottomless, threatening blackness in David’s Marat, an absolute looming over the dead man in his tub. There is no Swinging London in the picture; look at the picture today, and it doesn’t carry a hint of nostalgia.
With sharp features and hooded eyes, Brian Jones looked like a thief. Bill Wyman and Charlie Watts looked older than the rest, less like musicians than enforcers for the Kray Twins, and Keith Richard like the kid who followed them around. Mick Jagger was the student, in his wool jacket with its big buttons and his turtleneck, someone from the folk clubs—someone who wasn’t going back.
The picture showed you a secret society, but all you had to do to join it, to get into this after-hours club with no name on the door, was take the record home, play it, and understand—or learn the language.
Andrew Loog Oldham was given to oracular pronouncements. This was his moment; he had made it. The sound the band made was the sound he himself had wanted to hear, and that sound was powerful not because it represented a turning point in the evolution of rock ’n’ roll, because it was a sign of things to come, because it summed up all that had come before. It was powerful because it was a version of rock ’n’ roll, made on the fly, by people trusting each other and themselves, a version of rock ’n’ roll that was complete in itself. “The real title [of the album] was embedded in my sleeve notes on the back of the cover,” Oldham wrote four years ago in his autobiography, Stoned. The real title, he said, was “‘The Rolling Stones Are More Than Just A Group, They Are A Way of Life.’” Then he spoke of standing “with 18,000 Americans in Madison Square Gardens in January of 1998—all trying to recover a moment to which they were not entitled in the first place, a moment the Stones lent them.”
He was trying to recover that secret society, that secret club. But he of all people had lost the code—that clumsy, stumbling “Just” now bleeding the punch out of “The Rolling Stones are more than a group”—and it was too late to close the door.
Talk delivered at the Experience Music Project (EMP) Conference, 2004
Jagger asks why should anyone listen to us do King Bee when they can listen to Slim Harpo do it ?- Most great songs create their own tradition of interpretation, of homage, and most importantly the joy of performing a great work is the reason for doing another version which allows listeners to turn or return to the original. In extreme cases the purist who only listens to (or reads ,or watches) only the “best” of everything fails to understand why the “best” version is the “best” because there’s no basis of comparison.
All true, certainly. But I’ve always read that quote as a secure and successful Jagger giving deserved praise to Slim Harpo. Nothing wrong with a bit of proselytizing.
The Stones turned so many people onto great Chicago Blues…
Your analysis of that quote is a lot more objective ,and rational than mine -because I’m still thinking of the way some of the purists took great pleasure in being unnecessarily dismissive of the efforts of so many young blues enthusiasts-including ironically, in light of this quote , the Stones themselves.
When GM delivered this, he opened: ” ‘The First Rolling Stones Album’–no preface, no subtitle.”