Despite a recording career that has lasted about seven times longer than that of the Beatles, their greatest rivals, the Rolling Stones have never been afforded the kind of scholarly exegesis so familiar to Fab Four fans.
The lads from Liverpool, with their epic albums, seraphic harmonies, and penchant for experimentation, fare especially well when it comes to talking about what happened on a given day in the studio, a setting that doubled as a sort of sonic laboratory if you were a vanguard 1960s band. That is, unless you were the Stones, who have always been hard to set in a studio context, probably because of just how feral they’ve always — or mostly, anyway — been.
But with each band marking its 50th anniversary as a recording act, a certain rejiggering of old precepts proves useful, and, as any nostalgia merchant knows, is perhaps inevitable. Hence, the gala reissue of “The Rolling Stones Complete Recording Sessions,’’ which debuted in 1990 and was updated in 2002, has now been brought up to date for anyone wishing to trek around the back corridors of the first decade of the new century with the legendary group.
If you’re a Stones nut, you’ll be pleased to have what’s tantamount to a session catalog back on your shelf, and maybe — just maybe — there will be less need this time to try and spread the word about a book that is so laden with information that there are times you wonder, in reading it, if it’s going to wear out your back trying to lift it up again.
Martin Elliot must have invested an age in researching everything here, and the natural risk in the endeavor is that scholars and historians will find much to drink in, while the more casual reader — even one with a complete set of Stones CDs — will be lost amongst the minutiae. But fear not, music aficionados, for we have a surplus of narrative on hand, and a story emerges — one that’s impressively novelistic — as you make your way from session to session, across the years, across the decades, and across one of the more remarkable careers in the history of popular culture.
For starters, there is the pace that this group — one that was derided in the press as a conglomerate of layabouts ripe for making off with your daughter — went at. Elliot takes the diaristic approach, with each recording session getting its own entry, so that we can see how one date bled into another. At the same time, there’s this bewitching autonomy at work, even if the Stones are in the studio on back-to-back midweek days, with, on occasion, the direction of their music — and their careers — changing in the hours between.
Elliot also knows his dirt, but this isn’t a book for the gossip mongers. Anyone loving a good, wry anecdote won’t be disappointed though. “Keith Richards reckoned that he could restore some of the tonal qualities after a long session by using Jack Daniels,” Elliot deadpans about a late 1971 session. The Stones never did use the recording studio like the Beatles, but what emerges here is the idea that it was, in essence, their garage, in the classic rock ’n’ roll sense of teenagers honing their sound once dad had pulled the MG out of the way.
And where does a garage band go but on the road, with Elliot being cagey enough to supply info on just what songs were performed live in what years. As any Stones fan knows, best of luck on keeping track of that on your own. Ditto to the intrepid rock ’n’ roll chronicler hoping to provide anything more thorough than this formidable slab of a book.Colin Fleming’s “Between Cloud and Horizon: A Relationship Casebook in Stories” is forthcoming from Texas Review Press.
He can be reached at fleming