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Friday, May 18, 2012

(20th in a series of) Stepping Stones "Portals of Discovery"

Song: She Smiled Sweetly
Album: Between the Buttons
Released: January, 1967

A few weeks back I made that deeper connection with the Rolling Stones all-time classic album, ‘Exile on Main Street’, which as I stated at the time was a goal when I started this series.  There is, however, another music-centric goal I want to accomplish with these Stepping Stones, and in general with this forum:  This would be to round out my general knowledge of the catalog of songs composed by the musicians/bands that have had the deepest effect on my psyche.  Each will present a unique challenge I am sure; even the Beatles, as I plan on including their solo stuff when I get around to them (can anyone help me with ‘Dark Horse’ for example?).

The biggest challenge with the Stones?  This would be their first five studio albums, namely ‘The Rolling Stones’, ‘The Rolling Stones No. 2’, ‘Out of Our Heads’, ‘Aftermath’ and ‘Between the Buttons’.   Unlike the Beatles, or even the Who and the Kinks, the Rolling Stones earliest albums are a hodge-podge of good and not-so-good music.  Several of these albums also include a large number of cover songs, which while superb at times (i.e. Not Fade Away and It’s All Over Now), are not in my cross hairs for this series:  Only songs penned by the artists are.  And also unlike the Beatles, few in my age bracket are familiar with these earliest of Stones albums.  In other words there is no one to toss recommendations my way.  The hit singles from these albums?  Sure, they survive and thrive…. all have been teased out and compiled onto various “Greatest” albums (i.e. ‘Hot Rocks’, ’40 Licks’, etc.).  These early hits were also reinforced on tour, mixed in with set lists that would include hits and deep cuts from the Stones more solid albums later on:  This band has never been lacking in material to select from when hitting the road. 

Alas, many of the deeper cuts from the Stones earliest albums have faded away, for the most part relegated to the historical bin of Rock n’ Roll minutiae.  There’s just too much other stuff to enjoy.  The Rolling Stones have contributed to this reality themselves, refusing to connect with large chunks of their earliest years.  Whether their emotions be tied to trying to disassociate from a more vulnerable and inferior sound (producer extraordinaire Jimmy Miller did not join the fray until ‘Beggars Banquet’ in 1968) or sheer embarrassment, or simply moving on, it’s hard to say. 

Ronnie Wood, a fan long before he was a band member, has tried to get Mick Jagger and Keith Richards to resurrect some of this older, deeper material on tour to no avail.  Yet, the fact remains, that if a song from this period did not make a compilation album at some point, it has been left in the dust.  And so, we have a better chance of seeing Albania lead the medal count at the London Olympics Games this summer than we do of Jagger singing any deep cut material from the Stones mid 60s albums while hosting Saturday Night Live this week ( I will hold out hope though).

Until recently, the question remained for me; are there any hidden chestnuts on these earliest albums?  I made my first sojourn this week to find out, picking up the album ‘Between the Buttons’ for a listen.  I figured I would start at the tail end of the 5-album list and work my way backwards, likely giving the others a go as well (off and on) over the upcoming months.

Stepping Stone material was indeed in the mix.

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This process of trying to find diamonds in the rough reminded me of my days collecting coins.  Growing up near downtown Franklin in the mid-70s was an amazing adventure.  The range of activities for a young teen, including hobbies, was all over the map. Numismatist was one of the better ones; a hobby that had us taking advantage of our close proximity with the downtown area, as I’ll explain below.  Several of us were avid collectors for a good stretch of time, including Brother Joe, and good friend Bruce.  We were mostly focused on pennies, nickels and dimes, and our coin books of these denominations were prized possessions.  I still poke through them when the urge to rekindle those memories stirs back up.  Mine is not a priceless collection by any means, but priceless in other non-monetary ways there is no question.

We acquired our coins in a variety of ways.  Metal detectors unveiled a handful of treasures.  There was also Dad, who connected with our fascination and found many ways to supplement our collections, including the occasional stocking stuffer.  Dad’s biggest interest in our collections was the Indian Head Penny, which simply put, was an amazing coin to us at the time. This was after all a coin from another century.  We were already blown away with ‘wheat’ pennies, particularly any that were pre-WWII (Lincoln looked different on those 1920s and 1930s versions; smaller, but somehow more impressive).  So when those Indian Heads started rolling in from Dad-related sources, well this was something to really savor and appreciate.

Any coin with an “S” stamp for the San Francisco mint was a keeper, as were the silver nickels, minted to preserve true nickel in those war days of the mid-40s.  Then there were the pre-1964 silver of the dimes, quarters, half dollars and silver dollars, which are so much nicer than what followed them.  I can still make out the distinct sound of a silver coin when I flick it onto a counter; high pitched, bright.  The modern coins have a much duller thud about them.  And we were always aware of the rarity of any individual coin, assisted by the coin books, which listed the quantity for each date and mint.  1909 S VDB was never found.  But others were.  1950 D Nickel: Check.  1918 S Penny: Check.  1916 Mercury Dime: Check. 1855 Flying Eagle Penny (large and small letters): Check again.

Metal detectors and Dad were the greatest of assets, but these were not our only methods for acquiring coins.  We had another very innovative method, which was to roll coins we had already thumbed through and bring them downtown for a trade in.  Most of the time we would trade our rolls with bank rolls at Ben Franklin or Dean Co-op.  But we also went to the local businesses:  Pharmacies, department stores, liquor stores, furniture stores, grocery stores, restaurants.  You name it, we tried it.  Occasionally we would hit pay dirt.  I recall walking into Pisani Shoe Store and asking if we could exchange rolls.  The cashier reached into the darker reaches of a very old cash register, dusted off several old rolls, and handed them to us.  Our eyes lit up.  We could hardly contain ourselves, running down the tracks toward home to check out our trade-in value.  We were not disappointed.

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‘Between the Buttons’ contains two very big hits: Let’s Spend the Night Together, and Ruby Tuesday (see Stepping Stone # 11).  But there are a few chestnuts as well, including Something Happened to Me Yesterday, which is a rare lead vocal interchange between Jagger and Richards (Memory Motel is the most well-known).  This week’s Stepping Stone, She Smiles Sweetly (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xKNSm8_CTOY) is another chestnut, moved along nicely by Ian Stewart’s piano playing.  It’s a creative song, where an at-peace female protagonist is trying to sooth the singer/song writer from a variety of maladies:

“Where does she hide it inside of her?
That keeps her peace most every day,
And won’t disappear my hairs turning gray”

The bridge is her response:

“There’s nothing in why or when
There’s no use trying, you’re here
Begin again, and o’er again”

‘Between the Buttons’ catches some of the feel of Swinging London, which was at its height at the time of the album’s release.  Andrew Loog Oldham, their manager at the time, has recently stated that it is the Stones most English of albums.  There’s a bit of copycat mixed in throughout though, as there is no mistaking the effect that Dylan, the Beatles, and especially the Kinks, were having on the Stones at the time.  Coupled with their early Blues influences, it’s apparent the Rolling Stones were still searching a bit for their own identity.

The transition from Blues dominated music to mainstream was not easy for the Rolling Stones, but they persevered, which eventually paid off.  If you are willing to dig into their early music, you can struggle through this process with them and get a better feel for what was to come:  Slow and steady can win a race, and soon enough (1968) this would prove to be the Stones winning formula.  A nice side-effect for me is that I’ve been able to better isolate the hits from this time into distinct periods:  Let’s Spend the Night Together and Ruby Tuesday now settle into the early ’67 era.  Other early hits will be tied with earlier periods as I explore a bit more later on.

The collector/hobbyist came back out in me this week.  What really lies behind a collector, though, is the fascination with discovery.  I guess I have ‘Between the Buttons’ to thank for bringing those old feelings back.

-          Pete

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