OLD REVIEW DUMP #3: ELECTRIC BOOGALOO (6/6)
And with that, the old review dumps have come to a close. I would like to thank the academy.
Oh yeah, here’s the hitmaking…
Well I’m a king bee
Can buzz all night long
Well I’m a king bee, baby
Can buzz all night long
Yeah I can buzz better baby
When your man is gone
Yes, I’m adding another classic band to my repertoire. I need SOME variety on this blog. So…the Stones. Y’all know ‘em. “Sympathy for the Devil”, “Gimmie Shelter”, “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction”, Sticky Fingers, Beggar’s Banquet, the whole jangle. I don’t have anything strikingly insightful to say about them. I slaved for days over this introduction, flipping between the angle of “The Rolling Stones have lots of famous songs but not enough love for their albums!” and the angle of “Everyone seems to think the Rolling Stones are dated and lame!” until I realized how pointless it all was. The Stones speak for themselves, not just as an important rock band, but as THE Rock ‘N’ Roll band. They embodied the down-and-dirty ideals of the genre like no-one else in a diverse, accessible, witty, and surprisingly professional way. There were rock bands, and then there were the Stones.
Of course, none of this had happened yet in ‘64. The Beatles have just kick-started the era of album-driven rock with Please Please Me, and a vast landscape of possibilities stretches before musicians. But oh my, what is the angry, angsty, everyone-keeps-puttin-us-down teenage crowd supposed to listen to? The rebellion that fueled the rock of the 50s has melted into a fluffy, poppy, clean-cut, mop-top, Lennon-McCartney shaped puddle. Where’s the edge? Where’s the dissatisfaction? Where’s the risqué? Why do all the people that actually try to provide those things SUCK so much at playing, singing and writing? The horror! The horror!
Enter Mick Jagger, his band of merry man, and their attitudes, each demanding their own dressing room. England’s Newest Hitmakers was a shot of sex, drugs, and…RnB, for some reason, but also rock and roll, that the music scene was asking for. It’s raw, dangerous, and venomous…or rather, it WAS. England’s Newest Hitmakers is rather tame today, but it’s still worthwhile because of one of the Stones most gushed-over and enduring qualities: their tight and creative playing ability. There’s next to no filler in the songs themselves, and it’s all peppered with inspired musical textures, Jagger’s vicarious vocals and boundless energy from everyone involved. It’s only got a few originals, but the tone established is one of arrogance and youthful rebellion. Taboos change, but attitude doesn’t.
So let’s get hitmaking! Everything I just established is exemplified well in the first track, “Not Fade Away” by Buddy Holly. The energy flounders between toe-tapping and ferocious in the best possible way, and the desperate harmonica is fantastic. Jagger’s presumptuous, in-your-face, confident vocals set the tone for the rest of the album (and their whole catalogue, really).
Bobby Troup’s “Route 66” is already a blues classic, but the Stones use clapping, rough guitar and even rougher vocals to give it new life. It’s hardly blues anymore, this is ROCK. Primitive rock, but rock that shows the Stone’s invention.
But nah, that’s not over-the-top enough. Willie Dixon’s “I Just Want to Make Love to You” offers everything the two openers had and more, letting the instruments swoop and dip along with Jagger, creating a compelling rocker. The amount of tightness kept up through the high playing speed is truly something to be marveled at. The song is dynamic, robust, and just plain fun.
After that rush, Jimmy Reed’s “Honest I Do” is a minor letdown. It’s decent, but it doesn’t do anything inventive with the source material. It’s just a straight-up low-tempo blues cover. Not a criticism or anything, as it’s got a nice swinging melody (and I love the harmonica part near the end), but it’s lacking in personality, something the Stones normally had in spades.
Unfortunately, “Now I’ve Got a Witness” (written by the Stones themselves) is even worse. It’s a meandering instrumental with a few fun moments and a driving undercurrent, but once again lacks any kind of identity.
The next song, also an original (co-written with Phil Spector), is a welcome return to form. “Little By Little” has got a fantastic part in the middle where a fiddly guitar solo becomes a warbly harmonica, and I love it to death. Otherwise, the song isn’t that distinctive but it’s pleasant while it lasts. Decent closer for side one.
Side two opens with PURE AWESOME in the form of Slim Harpo’s “I’m a King Bee.” THIS. THIS is why the Stones were a great cover band. Jagger’s amusing vocals, the (ahem) buzzing guitar that (unconvincing cough) sharpens into a sting while still feeling (suicide) smooth and bluesy as honey. How often do you get to make MUSICAL puns like that? And check out those raunchy 1964 lyrics!
The next song is no slouch, either. Chuck Berry’s “Carol” isn’t the most dangerous or primal song, but the Stones decide to run with it anyway, making a song that just focuses on pure excitement. But this is no ordinary early 60s excitement, like the kind you would find on a Fab Four album, this is raw, spicy, visceral!
Some variety is achieved with the next song, the only fully original composition on the album, “Tell Me.” For guys marketing themselves as bad boys who mean bad business of the social upheaval flavor, this is actually a rather open and pleasant ballad (though it’s not any less tight). The lyrics are honest, the chorus is memorable, and THOSE VOCAL HARMONIES. Isn’t this song just…nice? Lovely, even? With like, gorgeous guitar work? Resonant in the traditional sense? It’s an oddball, but it’s a dang good one, and my favorite song on the album. I’m a softie, sue me.
Annnnd then we have Brian Holland, Lamont Dozier and Eddie Holland’s “Can I Get A Witness.” You know, I tend to go easy on covers, but this is just baaaad. First of all, the piano POUNDS. THE. MELODY. INTO. THE. GROUND. LIKE. A. STAKE. FOR. A. BLUES. CIRCUS. TENT. And what else is there? Like, one tambourine? Jagger is left to carry the entire song melodically by himself (with some admittedly fun backing vocals in the chorus), and he’s just not up to the task, with a really strained and sloppy performance. The overall sound is confused and messy, making it the worst song on the album. Blech.
Things only marginally improve with Ted Jarrett’s “You Can Make it if You Try”, if only because it’s actually allowed to have a melody, carried by…is that an organ? Oh, and some screeching vocals from Jagger, which aren’t great but at least play off the organ a bit. The overall sound is more blues then rock, and underwhelming for it.
Oh well, at least the album ends with Rufus Thomas’ “Walking the Dog.” We’re back in rock territory, complete with clapping (which I have a huge weakness for…no idea why), hammy vocals, a catchy melody, and an overall vibe that’s just…funny. Amusing. It pleases my humor receptacles. Good job, “most dangerous band of 1964.”
And that’s some bad boys, probably from England, presumably making hits there. It’s inconsistent, even more so then most Fab Four albums, but the strengths are present and well-developed. The best songs are colorful, professional and enthusiastic about breaking the rules. It’s not an earth-shattering album, but it’s well worth the time of any classic rock enthusiast.
Listenability: 4/5 It’s spotty, but the good stuff isn’t just fun, it’s sylin’!
Themes: 3/5 The “danger” element is pretty laughable today, but at least they’re sincere about it.
Lyricism: 3/5 The covers are pretty standard for the most part, but I’m really impressed by the original work on “Tell Me.”
Diversity: 3/5 Blues, rock, and RnB, with a variety of moods and styles, even if it all falls under an easily recognizable umbrella.
Resonance: 4/5 See “Themes.” One extra point for “Tell Me” and the infectious enthusiasm of the rockers.
FINAL RATING: 7/10 Forget “edge” and “danger”, it’s just dang good blues rock, even if you will have to wade through some underwhelming tracks.
Recommended Listening: Tell Me, I’m a King Bee, Carol, I Just Want To Make Love To You, Walking the Dog, Not Fade Away, Route 66