Friday, January 6, 2012

(1st in a series of) Stepping Stones: "The Stone Age"

Song: Street Fighting Man
Album: Beggars Banquet
Released: December, 1968

Osmosis:  This is the best word I can come up with to describe the way Rolling Stones music has permeated my playlist over the years.  It’s is a bit different from my experience with other musicians.  There's been no defining moment with the Stones.  Nope. No master stroke by the Glimmer Twins for me.  It's been mostly a gradual progression, a series of Stepping Stones, which may make it all rather interesting to write about. 

Since I don't expect the thoughts to come in chronological order, though, I will likely be bouncing around quite a bit from week to week.

So, here’s a Stepping Stone somewhere along the path…..

I recall a weekend off-campus party my sophomore year up in North Adams, Massachusetts back in the winter of 1982.  The rental options off campus left much to be desired, and this place was no exception:  Dark, dingy rooms with crumbling drywall exposing wire and planks.  But what did I care?  A full house, a keg in the corner and fantastic music blasting on the powerful stereo system:  What more could you ask for on a Saturday nite? 

One of the hosts of the party, a guy named Craig, was a wealth of knowledge when it came to music.  Over the prior year or so that I knew him, he had made several album suggestions to me that already had lasting impact (even to this day).  

There were a number of intriguing posters on the living room wall, mostly of musicians and bands, but one poster stood out.   It was a graphic art poster which showcased five figures huddled around a cliff-edge campfire on a moonlit nite.  In terms of a time period, it had a Neanderthal look to it.  I made a comment to Craig about the poster.  He suggested I take a closer look at the faces of those five figures. 

It took a few moments, but the reality finally hit me.  This was an exceptional poster depicting the Rolling Stones:  Keith, Mick, Bill, Charlie and Ronnie, in another time. 

I’ve never seen that poster before or since, so why has it stayed with me?   I think it’s because when the Stones are at their best, they sound primitive.  The poster made that connection.

Of all the primitive sounding music the Stones have made over the years, they really only put it all together once from beginning to end:  That would be their 7th studio album, Beggars Banquet. 

Beggars Banquet was released at a very tumultuous time in the history of western culture.  Paris, Chicago, Baltimore and other cities were all burning and rioting in the summer of 1968, and the Stones were not immune from the chaos.  In fact, one may argue they were reluctant players near the core of it all.  Note Altamont just one year later.

Perhaps with all this action/reaction in the streets, it was fitting then that the Stones relied on basic primal instinct in the studio.  Despite the simplicity, however, the album proved to be a breakthrough for them in terms of consistent quality:  Over the next 5 years the band would release, arguably their best music.  And it all started with Beggars Banquet.

Street Fighting Man is a very nice sample of the Stones sound during this period ( and it’s the signature time-period piece on the Beggars Banquet album.  The Stones have always been defined as an apolitical band, yet, as I hear it, the key phrase “what can a poor boy do, except to sing for a rock and roll band” is an anti-violence statement.  In a more subjugated society, violence may be unavoidable, but the Stones seem to be saying that in “sleepy London town” or any other modern society, there is no place for it.  Hear hear.
What I like most about this song are the moments where the air seems to get sucked out of the room.  The best of these moments comes at the 1 min 47 seconds point in the song (the time can be tracked in the YouTube video link above), just after Mick demands “get down”.  This is where I picture that campfire scene best. 

I also love the variety of instruments used in the song, including the sitar (Brian Jones), tamboura (also Brian Jones) and shehani (session man Dave Mason).  It’s all acoustic.  The only thing that sounds remotely electric in the entire song is the bass guitar.

Finally, there’s a great line in the song that captures the imagination: 

“Hey! said my name is called disturbance
I’ll shout and scream, I'll kill the king, I'll rail at all his servants”

A flashback perhaps to medieval times when violence may have been much less avoidable?  Not bad boys.  Not bad at all.

All this talk of caveman posters and early music would not be complete without the attached scene from Ringo Starr’s infamous movie “Caveman”, which hypothesizes how cavemen discovered music.  It’s hilarious, and the best part is near the end, and how they get an older caveman to blurt out a few primal screams (Mick Jagger style):

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