King Sunny Ade – The Best Of The Classic Years (recorded 1967 – 1974, released 2003)

I’d read much about this compilation of tracks King Sunny laid down for a Nigerian label between 1967 and 1973 when
a) he was in his prime (so they say)
b) before Island records started messing with his sound (so they say) in order to make an international star of him

It’s hard to get here in South Africa, though that specialist African music store I saw in Cape Town might help out there. It can’t be got from the local version of iTunes (presumably because of distribution deals for various territories) and so I had to import a hard copy from Amazon UK.

Certainly, and whilst an initiate would instantly recognise it as King Sunny, there are noticeable differences between this and the other King Sunny albums I’ve reviewed here: The tracks here are little rawer, have more of an edge to them, and there’s no keyboards and, more noticeably, no pedal steel guitar.

With no competition for the solo space and different production (or just plain less production) the guitars come to the fore early in the opening medley, reminding us that King Sunny has a reputation as a guitar hero in his own country. There’s no detailed liner notes, so we don’t know who plays what and it’s possible that King Sunny is sharing guitar duties here. After a brief verse we get two guitars (one each side of the stereo spectrum) playing off of and against each other and swapping between lead and rhythm roles.

The guitar sound is essentially a clean one, not a lot of overdrive, and the tone has real bite and attack to it. I find this to often be a more exciting, more interesting, more ELECTRIC sound (there, I said it) than a compressed, sustained and be-pedalled sound. The notes ring in a more pleasing way, and both guitarists (if it’s two of them and not a double-tracked King Sunny) know how to let notes ring. Either of them would deserve the nickname Johnny B Goode.

The opening medley (less satisfying on MP3 because of the annoying gaps that disrupt the flow) is over fifteen minutes long, and the guitars dominate. But they don’t get boring, It’s a remarkable piece of guitar jamming, though the underlying shifting sand of rhythm (this music has a great groove but is light on beat) help to keep things interesting.

After the fifteen plus minute medley we get eighteen (!) minutes of “Synchro System” a track that King Sunny cut, in abbreviated form, on one of the Island discs. The formula is familiar – hip swaying poly rhythms overlaid by rhythm guitars, often kept a little back in the mix and insinuating more than driving the point home. But this time it’s a slow burn with the listener kept in suspense waiting for the guitar fireworks. When they come the licks are marked by a sliding technique which suggests the pedal steel that was later to become such a feature of the King Sunny sound. At other times the track reduces to just vocals over the percussion. The band display a great dynamic touch and the groove is constantly beguiling.

The rest of the tracks are shorter, but this is relative: Nothing weighs in under the five-and-a-half minute mark. There is lots of interesting conjecture to be head here around the nature (and we can only speculate) of the Nigerian market and radio formats because although this was some of the most commercial and commercially successful music in West Africa at that time it is not three-ish minute pop singles – even the tracks from the 60s.

The guitar parts are not outlandish to Western ears, but they are also not rock. Sticking almost exclusively to that clean, ringing sound and using modes and licks that are not typical of rock music. You can get a taste of the King Sunny guitar MO on Paul Simon’s Rhythm of The Saints album which featured a lot of West and Central african musicians, but remember please that King Sunny (or one of his contemporaries) got there first – Simon was not the innovator.

The closing tracks are, I presume, those recorded in the late sixties: They have a more primitive, less clear sound to them, though the guitar solo on “Afai Bowon” cuts like a knife. And there are tuning problems and odd balances which speak of limited studio time and which remind us that this is archival material and perhaps best viewed through an academic lens. But the energy is undeniable, the band settles into one great groove after another and there is some terrific guitar work.

So it’s raw in places, though not crude and not unsophisticated, and the trade off is on the side of edge and excitement and a very immediate feel to the music, even on the longer tracks (which, as with the King Sunny albums I have , is where King Sunny and his band are often the most interesting).

How much of the difference is down to western production is hard to say. The latest tracks here predate Juju Music by nearly a decade. King Sunny would certainly have introduced the pedal steel guitar and increased the side of his band without any intervention from Island records and might have developed along more mellow lines anyway. Without tracking down more of his records and putting them into chronological sequence one can’t say, though it is widely alleged that there was a stand off between King Sunny and Island over production decisions.

Possibly it’s not the best place for those with an ear for hi-fi and smooth sophistication to start with King Sunny, but if his musical territory appeals to the discoverer within you then you should really consider this for the greater urgency and thrill.

Advertisements

Rolling Stones – Exile on Main Street (1972)

By now it should be obvious that a good chunk of my recent listening has been an examination of the Stones’ classic period (late 60s to early 70s).

Conventional wisdom is that Exile On Main Street is the final album in a very hot streak, that thereafter (IE starting with Goat’s Head Soup) the wheels fell off and the Stones were never again consistently on top form.

One problem with this period of the Stones is that it’s been analysed endlessly – and so there’s very little left to say. The history too is well documented. By the time they recorded Exile they were in financial trouble again (this time it was major tax problems that forced them out of Britain) and having got rid of their big drug liability Brian Jones they found themselves with another in Keith Richards who started mainlining during the making of this album and would soon end up in even hotter water than Jones. Some pundits assert that the reason that the Stones went into decline after Exile is that Keith’s addiction reduced his work ethic and dulled his creativity. That explanation is certainly a plausible one.

Many critics have labelled Exile as the Stones greatest work, but it is a far less obvious success than Sticky Fingers was,  lacking that album’s slickness. Even allowing for the recording practices on the immediately preceding albums, Exile  is a sonic surprise with a murky mix, that, amongst other things, often sees Jaggers vocals down in the mix, not up front but fighting to be heard. I think it’s calculated – not just an oversight or poor decision by the also mainlining producer Jimmy Miller – and whilst it’s striking it’s not inappropriate.  I found I had to listen harder to this one, that I often had to go to the music because it wasn’t going to reach out and grab me as, say, Let It Bleed did.

But once I did go to the music things got quite interesting. For a start there is some really terrific playing from Mick Taylor. Not just his solos, but the way he meshes his guitar part with Keith’s. I was quite struck by this because it’s what the old guitar pairing of Richards and Brian Jones used to aim for – two guitars working together to create a whole greater than the two parts – and Richards and Taylor, nominally rhythm and lead guitarists do it so well here. Towards the end of the record Taylor gets some prominent slide parts and really makes the most of them with a meaty tone and authoritative  playing, no more so than on the inevitable Robert Johnson cover “Stop Breaking Down”.

The rhythm section is very good too – though if the liner notes are accurate then Bill Wyman was absent a lot of the time with Richards (no surprises there), Taylor and even a session player (Bill Plummer) taking a share of the bass duties. Keith is missing on a couple of tracks – which means that Mick gets his guitar out again – and even Charlie Watts gets replaced on occasion and so maybe we should use the term “rhythm section” loosely or in the plural. The only omni-present Stones here are Jagger and Taylor, and it seems a lot of the time Jagger laid his vocals down after the rest of the track had been recorded.

But he’s not phoning in (despite the alleged stand-off with Keith). Mick’s vocals are full value here. And generally the band rock tightly and perhaps with more energy (despite all the drugs) than anywhere else, right from the opening “Rocks Off” (with one of my favourite Stones lyrical lines: “The sunshine bores the daylights out of me”) which is quickly followed by the flat out rockabilly of “Rip This Joint”. There’s more auxiliary players than usual and they’re all excellent – notably the backing vocalists and the Price/Keys horn pairing.

Again I was given to musings over the Stones as an early example of what is now called Americana because this album has none of the cod-English experiments they once tried (“Lady Jane”, say) and is a tasty stew of American styles. The one political number here – “Sweet Black Angel” (though in the lyric Jagger couldn’t help having Angela Davis as a pin up on his wall) is couched in the pidgin English of the rural south. Mick and Keith’s affection for the blues still shines through, and they go more country than ever before on some tracks, even giving guest pedal steel player Al Perkins the solo on “Torn and Frayed”.  Frequently there is a gospel feel to the backing vocals and even occasionally the lyrics (Jagger had been in a baptist church, which is almost as fantastic – but true – a story as Keith turning up early for a recording session).

Keith is in great form again driving the up tempo numbers (“All Down The Line” kicks off with a Keith rhythm part and he never lets up) and adding assorted other bits of Keithery EG the ear-catching intro to “Tumbling Dice”).

For me this is perhaps the most sincere and unguarded album (and one of the most rocking) the Stones ever made. More than anywhere else they sound like a bunch of young English white boys paying homage to old American black men. As I observed earlier there’s this strange quality to the album where you have to go to it rather than have it reach out and grab you, but if you make that first move then the rewards will come.

Sid Griffin – The Trick Is To Breathe (2014)

In 2009 I was at the Beverley Festival in Beverley, East Yorkshire. I had tickets for what was billed as an “Americana Night”. The principle attraction for me was the New York fiddler Bruce Molsky. I had little idea about the rest of the evening’s performers.

The headline act were the Coal Porters, a very fine acoustic band with the classic bluegrass instrumentation (one each of fiddle, mandolin, guitar, banjo and bass) but a more rock-ish repertoire.

Now that festival – and this is not uncommon in the UK – was operating to a time limit after which all the amplification would have to be turned off. And the Coal Porters were running out of time. Undeterred they carried their instruments off the stage and set up for some unplugged performances right in front of the first row of seats. The singer/mandolinist actually stood on the vacant chair next to my wife’s in order to better project his voice to the back of the tent.

And that was my introduction to Sid Griffin.

He turns out to be an interesting guy, one of the people credited with the birth of what we now know as “Americana” with his then band the Long Ryders that played a sort of country-punk fusion. He also has long simultaneous careers as a journalist, writer of books, player and producer.

For this album he decided to not use the Coal Porters but allowed his producer to chose the backing players. They are uniformly excellent. This is a thing to not be surprised about really. Bluegrass (for they are all bluegrass player) places a high premium on musical skill, and that genre and that scene is rich with fine players.

Griffin sent demo tapes ahead of him. By the time he got there the band knew the material well and they cut a record in just four days. Most tracks didn’t require more than two takes.

At first listen it’s an interesting album. The opening track, “Ode To Bobby Gentry”, sounds a lot like Gentry’s most famous hit, but the narrative voice is hers – or hers imagined. Gentry walked away from it all in 1978 and has stayed out of the public eye ever since. Griffin imagines the background to that deliberate ending of a career, and then cleverly links into the conversational, implicative style of the track whose name I am trying to not mention.

“Blue Yodel No. 12 and 35” seems to have something to do with Dylan, judging by that title, but the joke escapes me. It’s a witty song though, in a classic  sarcastic, punning country style:

“The first thing I’ll do, for the last time this morning
Is fall out of love with you.
….
The first thing I’ll do, in the second that I’m free
Will be my third attempt at leaving too”

The second that you notice I will blossom like a lotus
While you wither like an I.O.U”

and there’s more where that came from.

Mostly it’s unassuming and very well played in a bluegrass-ish style. And it’s a lovely SOUNDING record, the sort of production that always strikes me as being very UNproduced – just roll the tape (metaphorically these days, of course) and let the players play. There’s a lovely detail in the way in the acoustic instruments are recorded, but also a warmth. A very natural sound.

“Between the General and the Grave” is a bleak song about a soldier in WW1. It’s strength as a song derives from being personal and conversational and matter of fact rather than from strident preaching.

“Elvis Presley Calls His Mother After The Ed Sullivan Show” reuses the trick of an imagined voice of a famous person. This time it’s Elvis, famously an adoring son, calling his mother right after he’s been on the TV Show that changed his life.

“Everywhere” is another song set in wartime – this time dealing with the friendship between two Americans, one of them of Japanese ancestry, in the aftermath of Pearl Harbour.

But there are false notes. The spoken word “Punk Rock Club” quickly becomes wearisome after a couple of listens. And the one cover on the record, that old burst of sixties love and optimism “Get Together” (you know it: “Come on you people now / Smile on your brother / Everybody get together / Try to love one another right now”) is embarrassingly naive these days (even more so than Nick Lowe’s “Peace, Love and Understanding”). The short “Front Porch Fandango” sounds like a fragment of an interesting but unfinished song.

Ultimately, then, it’s a pretty good album that could have been a great one but for a shortage of good material. Maybe Griffin didn’t have enough to go around.

It’s a pity, because the best is so good and the lyrics are often engaging and very well crafted and the laid back bluegrass groove is seductive in it’s own way. This is OK in a way because it doesn’t seem that Griffin has set out his stall to make a big classic record (probably that’s never going to happen for him now) and he’s clearly not chasing radio play (though I understand that in the end he got quite a lot in Germany). So a mixed report card with good marks but also a note of “could try harder” or “if only…” in the margin.

Hey! At iTunes prices it’s a no brainer. You won’t regret the spend.

The Rolling Stones – Sticky Fingers (1971)

Having both revived and redirected their career with their previous two studio albums, the Stones continued their hot streak with an acclaimed live album and then this, their first on their own label. It’s easy to look at them now and see a bunch of caricatures, living off a reputation for rebellion and going on way past the sell by date and overlook that once, when your parents were young, they were a really exciting, high quality rock ‘n roll band.

The most famous track here is the opening “Brown Sugar” in which Jagger seems out to horrify the establishment by addressing as many scandalous topics as possible: rape, slavery, cunnilingus, hard drugs and miscegenation to start with. This may be the most politically incorrect song of all time.

The other classic is the memorable and convincing acoustic ballad “Wild Horses”.

The good news is that these, as good as they are, aren’t even the best moments on the album.

They advance the sound they introduced on “Let It Bleed” into something bigger, frequently fleshing out the tracks with keyboard players (mostly Nicky Hopkins and Billy Preston) and making good use of the fine horn pairing of Bobby Keys and Jim Price. Indeed Keys gets put in the soloing spotlight on occasion and would become a key member (sorry) of the Stones touring ensemble.

It’s slicker, more calculated, and it totally kicks ass when the band rock out. The Stones rhythm section completely justifies their reputation on this album, and at last Mick Taylor is completely integrated into the recording process and adds silky skills and the sort of big guitar solos that were essential in the arena rock MO of which the Stones had been notable pioneers and which confirmed their transition from a band you could dance to and scream at to a band you could sit and listen to.

“Can’t You Hear Me Knockin’” rides an unstoppable Keith Richards groove (underpinned by a fine Charlie Watts drum part) before morphing into a latin-tinged platform for fine extended solos by Keys and Taylor. “Bitch” (referring to love rather than any particular lover) is the relentless off-spring of hard rock and soul underpinned by the Keys/Price horns and with Keith soloing.

Bill Wyman gets to play all the bass parts this time around, and he gets to show that whatever Keith’s habit of picking up the bass is about, it’s not about a lack of ability on the part of the band’s designated bass player.

Actually it is Keith who is occasionally absent on this album, and so Mick Jagger gets to play guitar on two numbers and he’s actually more than competent – though perhaps owing quite a lot stylistically to the other Glimmer Twin.

There’s a superb guest spot, recorded some years earlier, by Ry Cooder on “Sister Morphine”. That they could afford to leave that track off of Let It Bleed hints at the quality of material they were amassing.

There’s still a raw, acoustic homage to Jagger and Richard’s blues roots with a cover of Fred McDowell’s “You Gotta Move”, the sort of thing that marks them as serious blues scholars and aficionados rather than superficial dilettantes.

“Moonlight Mile”, one of the Keith-less tracks, with an engaging acoustic guitar part by Jagger, builds to a great climax courtesy of a Paul Buckmaster string arrangement and a great electric guitar part by Taylor and brings the album to a very satisfactory conclusion.

Most of all it’s a BAND record. A very well oiled band at the top of their game. Their recording method at the time (a great sounding room for a great overall sound rather than hi-fidelic individual instruments) and Jimmy Miller’s production give it an exciting live in the studio feel.

If you don’t understand what all the fuss was about, or have forgotten, then Sticky Fingers is the record to correct any misperceptions you may have.

Richard Thompson – Still (2015).

Still at it?

A teenage Thompson, then an up and coming guitar hotshot with Fairport Convention, was in the studio for the first time in 1967 and, apart from a brief spell in the mid seventies, has been at it ever since: Touring, writing, recording, putting out new albums. Old enough to have a bus pass (if such a thing is available in Los Angeles which has been his base, but, you feel, not his home town, for decades now), his energy seems undimmed, his work ethic considerable, his creative juices still flow and there seems to be no end in sight.

“Consistency” is the word. He’s never had big hits, but he keeps on generating new material. Since he’s never had hits as most people count them he doesn’t do nostalgia rich live shows that take us back to his and our own best days. He just keeps on at it, seemingly in a state of grace where he has no expectations to fulfil. Since the turn of the millenium he’s put out eight albums of new material, a movie soundtrack, four DVDs, five live albums (more if you count the archive material he’s released), made an album with the various musical members of his extended family, and toured in all sorts of configurations from solo acoustic to his current electric power trio.

He always likes to get new material into his show even at the expense of crowd favourites. When I saw him Wolverhampton in 2007 he played a show of over two hours without getting any of the likely crowd pleasers. In fact you sensed he was a little bit chuffed to NOT play “1952 Vincent Black Lightning” or “Shoot Out The Lights”. A large chunk of the show was given over to material from his then new album Sweet Warrior. There’s not a lot of laurels to rest on, and what are there he usually finds a way around.

Recent set lists show over half the show coming from the last four new albums.

The most recent of these was recorded in just nine days earlier this year, in Jeff Tweedy’s loft studio cum rehearsal space in Chicago. Tweedy produced and, according to Thompson, had a lot of input that mostly won’t be discernible to the listener. There’s the occasional obvious piece of production – like the delay effect on the vocals on the opening track, but the way you notice it most is the players he bought to the session, and especially Jim Elkington who proves to be a capable and simpatico guitar foil for Thompson. I honestly think it’s time to expand the power trio, Elkington adds that much.

Thompson’s playing is, unsurprisingly, at a high standard throughout and he remains inimitable as a soloist. And vital. The last thing you’d say about Thompson is that he’s phoning it in. Again his form shows little sign of waning. Another case of “Still”.

This is the most stripped down album he’s delivered in years. He’s not hidden his guitar playing under a bushel, but on the last few albums his has not been the only instrumental voice in the spotlight. On Still there’s no fiddle, little mandolin, Elkington gets no solos and any keyboards are just there for background texture. So it’s very much the sound of Thompson’s guitar. Despite emerging from 60s England Thompson is rooted in something other than the blues.

Indeed he gives us an insight into those roots on the closing song “Guitar Heroes”. It’s an odd choice, possibly an unworthy choice for a Richard Thompson song. It’s almost completely artless and some of the lyrics are not… amongst his finest (and Thompson the songwriter has shone as brightly as Thompson the guitarist and so his finest is pretty fine indeed). The song takes us back to Thompson the teenage guitar nerd, cloistered in his bedroom practising the licks he’s heard on records and trying to figure out what makes his idols tick as players. The idols he presents here are Django Reinhardt, Les Paul, Chuck Berry, James Burton and Hank Marvin. He reproduces a signature piece by each player. These sound very accurate and they convince and display not inconsiderable skill (including the skill of mimicry) but it’s an odd thing for a songwriter of Thompson’s renown to tackle and it seems out of place. The run up to this song is the terrific, flat out “No Peace, No End” and then the controlled fury of “Dungeons For Eyes”. Then we get a stop start song that comes across as a sort of nerd’s answer to “Guitar Jamboree”.

The other false song writing note is “Beatnik Walking”, a memoir of a pleasant time that Thompson spent in Amsterdam. It’s completely and accurately autobiographical and quite by the way. I’m glad he enjoyed Amsterdam, but so what?

This is a bit harsh, but he has so many great songs in his catalogue one is entitled to be fussy. It is, as David Byrne once said of Thompson, what he deserves for being so good.

The other songs are more typically Thompson in terms of content and form, and he still has surprises up his sleeve. The opening “She Never Could Resist A Winding Road” is somehow typically Thompson and yet novel. It has the sort of stirring and easily memorable and singable melody of a great folk song, yet it is entirely his. The guitar solos actually owe little to any of the guitar heroes he later enumerates and is full of licks from the world of piping. “Long John Silver” is about a pirate who doesn’t operate from sea. The song’s stronger for not not getting too specific, a device which allows the listener to identify, to say “yes, I know who he’s talking about” even though we probably don’t. Typically for Thompson the mayhem and skulduggery in the lyric is set against a light hearted, up tempo melody.

“No Peace, No End” is the most unambiguously angry song he’s recorded since he stuck the boot into Maggie Thatcher on “Mother Knows Best”. The band tears through this and Thompson’s solo takes no prisoners. “Dungeons For Eyes” tells of his feelings on being introduced to a politician with blood on his hands. Again (and possibly out of fear of a law suit) he doesn’t get too specific about the object of his revulsion, but the revulsion is clear.

Often the songs, like his guitar playing, are peppered with references to rather non-rock ‘n roll forms – mostly English. You may spot them (I think I got a few) but more importantly you will notice the effect, the details and harmonic ideas that present themselves as unusual and engaging colour in a rock context. His skill (or one of his skills) is to present these elements in a non jarring way. Despite the two clunkers I’ve detailed his form is still strong (there’s that word again).

Thompson has been getting rave reviews for at least the last dozen or so years since he parted ways with a major label and went independent, and his chart performance have improved, especially in the UK. This may be less to do with increased sales and more to do with his fans still buying actual CDs. It almost doesn’t matter. He’s never had a big hit, it’s nearly two decades since he even came close (with the Grammy nominated Rumor and Sigh) and nothing is likely to change now. The advantage that he has is that the relative lack of signature tunes and the lack of the burden of expectations has left him in a state of grace, able to make the records he wants to and able to pursue a unique musical vision.

Thompson is no quick snack, but he’s built one of the strongest, most consistent bodies of work in popular music and one of the longest running. Others have written songs as good or played guitar solos as thrilling, but few have done both at high level and for as long as Thompson. Still doesn’t feel like a footnote, more like another strong chapter in a story that’s going to run for some time yet.

The Rolling Stones See Out the Sixties And Start Their Hot Streak – Beggars Banquet (1968), Let It Bleed (1969)

Heading for the tail end of the 60s the Stones, despite their success and fame, were in trouble. Their attempt at pyschedelia – Their Satanic Majesties Request – had been a critical and financial flop. Manager Allen Klein was beginning to embed himself in their financial affairs in ways that went beyond taking the usual manager’s commission. There had been a string of high profile busts that given Mick Jagger and Keith Richards a brief taste of jail. Brian Jones (two busts) was increasingly erratic as his drug use deepened. And with Jones so reduced they were unable to tour.

But you can’t keep a good band down! The Stones would emerge triumphant again, would commence one of the hottest streaks in rock ‘n roll history and by the end of the decade would emphatically be “the greatest rock ‘n roll band in the world”.

The first ray of the new dawning was their 1968 single “Jumping Jack Flash”. Instantly they were dangerous again – and famous as the song topped charts on both sides of the Atlantic. That late into the 60s singles and albums were still being kept apart and so “Jack” never made it onto the album that followed.

Beggars Banquet was a telling regrouping with the Stones eschewing 60s fripperies and making a tough, rootsy album that was a critical and commercial success and a return to top form.

Jones still made it onto the final disc, but his role is reduced here with Keith playing the lion’s share of the guitar parts and even taking over Bill Wyman’s bass chair on occasions (as he had done on “Jumping Jack Flash”). This is the beginning of the legend of Keith Richards the human riff, the engine room of the Stones. And he did work hard on this album and the one that followed.

What’s surprising looking back and if, like me, you mostly knew the Stones via their singles, is how rootsy much of it is. The Stones, like many a 60s British Band had originally been motivated by their love of American blues music. On “Banquet” they refocussed on those roots, and a good chunk of this album is fairly categorised as acoustic country blues.

The most notable deviations from that sound are the two hit tracks from the album: “Sympathy For The Devil” marries Mick’s daringly distasteful lyric to a voodoo-spattered samba beat and a terrific bass part from Keith. “Street Fighting Man” kicks off with a seducing acoustic guitar part and Charlie Watt’s massive sounding drums and is one of the hardest rocking tracks the Stones ever laid down. Keith is on bass again. Just as your favourite George Harrison solo might turn out to be played by Paul McCartney, there’s a good chance that your favourite Bill part might actually be a Keith part.

It is Bill on “Stray Cat Blues”, a celebration of jail bait and a further warning to parents to keep their daughters safe at home and away from a band who would want to do a bit more than just hold her hand. This is, I think, a very good example of the Stones late 60s studio sound with Mick’s vocals fighting for dominance over the guitars and the drums well up in the mix.

I wonder how influential this album has been in the long run – in ways that certainly weren’t obvious at the time. Apart from Jimmy Miller’s production tactic of letting the instruments and especially the vocals fight for space in the mix, there is the trick that Keith was making increasing use of – recording an acoustic guitar through a cheap cassette recorder deliberately turned all the way up so that it would distort and which resulted in a guitar sound that was somewhere between acoustic and electric and which packed a punch.

I’ve heard several more recent albums where artificial layers of grunge have been added during production or where acoustic guitars are plugged into electric guitar amps to get a dirtier sound. Clearly it’s an attempt at a retro sound, but are the late sixties Stones albums the model for all of this?

And then there’s the American roots music influence which is substantial here. “Americana” is a popular style these days (certainly in my house). The Americana Music Association defines Americana as “contemporary music that incorporates elements of various American roots music styles, including country, roots-rock, folk, bluegrass, R&B and blues, resulting in a distinctive roots-oriented sound that lives in a world apart from the pure forms of the genres upon which it may draw. While acoustic instruments are often present and vital, Americana also often uses a full electric band”. That’s a pretty good description of Beggar’s Banquet which, to drive the point home, was recorded decades before anybody dreamed up the term “Americana”.

Despite the success of this back to basics album the Stones still had troubles, mostly around Jones. He was the founder of the band and had assembled the original line up, but now he was a liability. The much publicised drug busts mean difficulties in getting work permits, especially in the USA where they could earn big money. Even without the red tape he was too erratic to consider touring with and was pretty much a passenger in the studio. Engineers learned to forget to turn on his amplifier or to stick him in a booth with whatever instrument he felt like playing and then discard his track.

He was present for the sessions of their next big single “Honky Tonk Women” but whatever he played never made it onto the record that was released. He was fired shortly thereafter – which would remove a significant impediment to the band’s plans to tour the USA – and replaced by the young hotshot Mick Taylor, another graduate from the John Mayall school of blues guitar. Taylor overdubbed his parts on “Honky Tonk Women” and he and Jones are largely absent on the next new album Let It Bleed.

Keith runs the show again, and is in tremendous form from the very first notes of the album – his menace-laden intro to “Gimme Shelter” This time the fab, rumbling bass part actually is Bill Wyman.

Again there’s a long streak of rootsiness running through the album, and Jagger and Richards pay homage to one of the founding fathers of the blues with a cover of Robert Johnson’s “Love In Vain”. They rework “Honky Tonk Women” into the acoustic “Country Honk” (with fiddle part by Byron Berline).

But there’s more rockers too – and they still stand up well. “Monkey Man” is built around a terrific Keith guitar part, and “Live With Me” seems like a prototype for the Stones’ near future.

To finish this story neatly we now need to back track a little. Jones was sacked. The Stones arranged to play at a free show in Hyde Park, which would mark their return to live work and also serve to introduce their new guitarist. Jones died the day before that show, and Jagger read an eulogy to him.

Later that year, and just before Let It Bleed was released they hit the road in the USA. They sold out everywhere they played. They booked strong supporting acts in BB King and Ike and Tina Turner. They fired Allen Klein and pioneered a new financial model for touring bands, making financial demands that were then viewed as something beyond excessive. Set lists show that they played very little that pre-dated “Jumping Jack Flash”. And every night tour manager Sam Cutler would introduce them as “the greatest rock ‘n roll band in the world.”

I knew the Stones primarily from their hits and their reputation and the “best of” albums. I don’t think I’m alone in that. But there’s a lot more to the Stones, as an examination of the records they cut during their hot streak from ’68 to ’72 will show. A really potent, creative band who made satisfying and substantial long players.