1964 – Present

The Rolling Stones

Track analysis for “Sympathy For The Devil

In general, The Rolling Stones were the antithesis to The Beatles. Where The Beatles avoided controversy and any reference to class distinctions, the Rolling Stones reveled in them. Where The Beatles’ group name was inspired by the rock’n roll of Buddy Holly and the Crickets, The Rolling Stones took their name from a blues song by Muddy Waters. (In terms of musical influences, their point of intersection was Chuck Berry.) Where The Beatles sang “Let It Be,” The Rolling Stones sang “Let It Bleed.”

The Stones often played the role of the bad boys in rock. They were willing to sing about subjects otherwise considered taboo: drugs, sex, dominance/submission in sexual relationships, and violence, to name a few. Yet one must be careful in interpreting their work, for they often played this role with differing (and sometimes overlapping) intentions. At times, they simply wanted to honestly explore a subject not otherwise discussed. In other songs, they wanted to draw attention to society’s confusion between evil imagined and real, between arbitrary social conventions and real ethical principles. In many cases, they wanted to use the energy of such subjects to inspire their music. And in some cases, they simply seemed to be living up (or down) to people’s expectations of them.

At their best, the role of the Stones was to test the boundaries of the liberation so freely promised by rock. Were drugs OK? They not only sang about drug use but paid the price for such use very publicly with the loss of Brian Jones, and the near-loss of Keith Richards. Was flirting with violence OK? They sang about it until a public killing took place right in front of the stage where they were singing, at the Altamont Speedway in California.

Musically, the best material from the early Stones resulted from the sweet and sour combination of Brian Jones’ eclectic musical touches and the raw blues of Mick Jagger and Keith Richards. A cut like “Under My Thumb” is a perfect example, with Brian Jones playing marimbas and acting as a perfect foil for Jagger’s vocals and Richards’ guitar.

After Jones’ untimely death, the role he once played more or less single-handedly, adding color and variety to the group’s musical palette, was filled by a variety of session musicians. The group’s search for another guitarist led them to use young player Mick Taylor on a few albums. When Taylor decided to leave, the group replaced him with Ron Wood, a seasoned British guitarist more of the same vintage and musical disposition as the rest of the band.

Recommended CDs

Album Title: Big Hits: High Tides and Green Grass

Original Release Date: 1966

Rating: 5 Stars (Essential)

This is only a single CD, only goes through ‘66, and is not a lot of music by today’s standards — these are the same songs released on the original LP — but they are all great tracks, and this might be a reasonable alternative for someone who wants to purchase some of the great middle period Stones albums in their entirety.


Album Title: Hot Rocks, 1964 - 1971

Original Release Date: 1972

Rating: 5 Stars (Essential)

If you are looking for a single purchase to introduce you to the Rolling Stones, then this is probably the best value. This two-CD set has a good selection of tracks from all the albums they released during their most creative years.


Album Title: Singles Collection: The London Years

Original Release Date: 1989

Rating: 5 Stars (Essential)

This three-CD boxed set contains A and B sides from all the Stones singles up through the Sticky Fingers album. It has many of the same tracks featured on the Hot Rocks collection, plus some tracks that might otherwise be hard to find on CD.


Album Title: Aftermath

Original Release Date: 1966

Rating: 4 Stars (Recommended)

This is the best album from the Brian Jones era, with his eclectic musical touches all over the best songs on the album. Includes “Paint It Black,” “Stupid Girl,” “Under My Thumb” and “Lady Jane.” Some of these songs have often been called misogynistic, but inappropriately so, I think. “Stupid Girl” and “Under My Thumb” both talk about very particular characters, and make no statements about women in general. Jagger and the Stones were simply willing to be more honest than most, as was often the case.


Album Title: Beggar's Banquet

Original Release Date: 1968

Rating: 5 Stars (Essential)

One of the greatest rock albums ever made. Every song on here reveals intelligence and depth. An extended meditation on the nature of reality and perception. Varied arrangements, from bare-bone blues to a much fuller sound. Nicky Hopkins adds piano to many of the songs. Great production by Jimmy Miller, with all the vocal and instrumental lines standing out like individual beads of water on a leaf after a spring rain. Includes “Sympathy For The Devil” and “Street Fighting Man.”


Album Title: Let It Bleed

Original Release Date: 1969

Rating: 5 Stars (Essential)

An essential companion piece to Beggar’s Banquet. The title was a take-off from the Beatles song title, “Let It Be.” Whereas Beggar’s Banquet was about the Stones looking out at the world, Let It Bleed was more about the world’s perception of the Stones. Again produced by Jimmy Miller and again featuring Nicky Hopkins, as well as other guest instrumentalists and vocalists. Includes “You Can’t Always Get What You Want,” “Midnight Rambler,” “Gimme Shelter” and “Let It Bleed.”


Album Title: Sticky Fingers

Original Release Date: 1971

Rating: 4 Stars (Recommended)

Sticky Fingers is one of the great albums by The Rolling Stones.


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