It's Only Rock'n Roll
These pages are dedicated to the 2020 rerelease of the legendary Rolling Stones album "Goats Head Soup".
For talks and details of the rerelease please see the following links:
Ya know, the summer of 2020 turned out to be a surprise season if you’re a Rolling Stones fan. Firstly, out of the blue, late this Spring the band dropped a new composition on us entitled, “Living in a Ghost Town.” It falls into the rare category of topicality, in that it directly addresses the mood of the times. “Street Fighting Man” is the best example of this type of track, one that became a summer anthem in its day. “Highwire” not so much, though I really can’t fault it for lack of trying. Anyway, the Stones don’t really make top charting singles anymore, but “Ghost” did pierce the top ten in the US (and made it to number one in Germany, if you care).
The other surprise was the remastering and pending rerelease of the masterpiece “Goats Head Soup,” including a number of new, previously unreleased finished tracks, as the band did with “Exile of Main Street” and “Some Girls.” On reading some of the fan comments, I came across one from some wag suggesting that GHS was one of the band’s “lesser releases.”
If I ever have to read such dreck again, I tell ya, I’m gonna blow a fifty-amp fuse.
There are three great reasons why Goats Head Soup rightfully takes its place in the Stones’ pantheon of all-time great albums. And I think I know why this album is dissed more than it deserves.
And if, after reading those three reasons, you still aren’t persuaded, I will lay out three (or five depending on your accountant) more why “Goats Head Soup” is worthy of an upgrade. If you still don’t agree, God knows I tried and I really can’t help you. Maybe you could follow Springsteen or AC/DC; I hear they’re looking for fans to replace those lost to attrition or time.
Reason Number One has to do with the song “100 Years Ago.” Whereas another English band by the name of the Beatles – you’ve heard of them, right? – cut their teeth musically by producing complicated compositions, featuring multiple change-ups within the same song (at the risk of some becoming children’s anthems), an emphasis on harmony and vocals (while the lyrics tended to be puerile), our boys much preferred to riff on three chords in an open g tuning, and embellish them with solos consisting of driving licks. The tuning was the key; therein they produced a resonance that us fans thrive on, a chugga-chugga that tickled out souls and drove our own imaginations. Literally. With lyrics that reflected the complicated, mixed-up world we live in. We never wanted to just hold her hand, we wanted to rip her top off (with her consent, of course).
“100 Years Ago” is the most stunning exception to this rule, and in my humble opinion, is the one Stones composition that most resembles the Beatles. It’s their most creative musical score with three distinct change-ups. Uncharacteristic for the Stones, the lyrics even discuss ageing, which Jagger really hasn’t touched since “Time Waits For No One” in the next album). Years ago. And just when lazy bones suggests that he’s gonna hide away, the band breaks into the coda, an incredible funk jam with Mick Taylor at his most energetic, wah-wah blaring, soaring up and down, while Jagger sings “C’mon” and “I warn you out,” although to me it sounds like “I want it out,” and what the “it” is should be obvious (a constant theme for the Stones, see “Sex Drive” if you don’t know what I am talking about).
That brings me to Reason Number Two: Mick Taylor. We only got five studio albums with Taylor, and this here is one of the best of them. I’m not going to get into the Wood vs Taylor debate as I’m completely agnostic. I love them both. If you think Woody can’t cut it, just listen to Live at the LA Forum in 1975; Woody plays his heart out. They’re both virtuosos; they just hit with a different emphasis, to be sure. They also know each other from before their involvement with the band and love to play together. I caught their show at The Cutting Room in NYC in 2013 – it was magical!
Even if Woody got lazy later on in live shows with that horrible guitar lick he kept tossing into “Jumping Jack Flash’s” musical refrain endlessly, so much so that the band had to tell him to knock it off, I still love the guy. I wish they would incorporate more of his input into albums and shows, but that’s a different discussion.
Anyway, Taylor did five studio albums in five years and how many did Wood do in forty-five? That’s the point – anyway you cut it, Taylor is the rarer Stones guitarist. Basics economics: supply down, price UP.
Mick Taylor’s contribution to “100 Years Ago” should be proof enough of GHS’s standing.
Let’s turn to Reason Number Three: “Winter.” In my opinion, this is the best ballad they ever wrote. I don’t think there’s another track where Jagger sings with such feeling about love, intimacy, and sharing the magical moment in either a long hot summer or when the lights in the Christmas tree went out. Jagger’s lyricism is matched by what Taylor does best, soaring chords up and down, dancing all around to enhance the romantic interlude that this soft song lays at our feet. There are layers to it, like Exile, and this was probably the first song on the album that jumped out at me after a few years that called attention to itself that, hey! look! there’s something really deep here. Winter is one of the Stones’ strongest sleeper tracks and is emblematic of the album as a whole.
Voilà three reasons. And there’s more, of course. But before continuing, let me review what happened in 1973 when this album was dropped and why it tended to get lost like Exile in its day.
Back in 1971, the band developed a reputation for hard rock with “Sticky Fingers.” Their touring to support it (listen to Live at Leeds) amplified this message. I was 13 at the time Sticky came out, and it caused me to throw my Alice Cooper records away. After Sticky, everyone expected another Hard Rock album to surface following the infamous summer of love at the “Hôtel de Débauche” in the South of France.
What we got instead was “Blues in Exile” featuring multiple muddy murmurs from a dank basement. There was a good single on it, but the album got panned initially because, again, like I said, people were expecting a classic Hard Rock record, not lessons in Americana by the Stones recording under foreign palm trees using their warped (due to numerous reasons) musical camera obscura. They mixed and finished the album under similar trees in Los Angeles, but it was never completely scrubbed clean; there was dirt under the fingernails, sand in the Vaseline, and the album cover was replete with moody images from photographer/artiste Robert Frank. Exile was way more Art than Pop, which was probably why Jagger didn’t like it much. And this confused people. Exile wasn’t reconsidered for the masterpiece it was and is until 1978 or so. It just took time to sift through the layering and sophistication. Like a fine wine in the cellar cave, it aged and when it popped, every Stones fan heard “Casino Boogie” as an endless, swinging jam.
Like “Sticky Fingers,” Exile was followed by a Hard Rock tour.
So GHS was the follow-up to all this, and again the fans were expecting the Stones to return to Hard Rock. Myself, I was 15 at the time and I was so ready for an album with songs like “Summer Romance,” “She’s So Cold,” and “Let Me Go.” I really think we were all expecting an album like “Emotional Rescue” in 1973. The Stones didn’t deliver that. Again. Instead they dropped GHS.
What we got was a first track and Reason Number Four “Dancing With Mr. D,” that picked up exactly where Exile left off. A somewhat discordant, monotonic, repetitive riff that even borrowed a left-over scream from “Ventilator Blues.” A reviewer at the time dismissed the song as one that wouldn’t “even scare a 14 year old.” Having just turned 15, no, Dancing never scared me, but the layers and Taylor’s treatments deep in the mix had a swing to it regardless. Hard Rock it wasn’t really, it was more like Art or Glam or Goth rock.
Dancing just so happens to be a number that the band trotted out in their 2017 European tour and that live version (with Woody covering the solos) surpassed the studio version. After 30+ shows, I’ve still never heard it live and it’s a solid on my wish list. (The band unfortunately has only played “100 Years Ago” once in concert and “Winter” exactly zero times so I know well enough not to waste my time with those. They really should be playing them anyway but don’t get me started. And it’s not going to happen, so there).
After listening to Dancing live, I did an internet look-up in 2017 for the lyrics to this song and found the following nugget:
“The bite of a snake,
the sting of a spider,
A drink of Belladonna on a Toussaint night.”
Belladonna? What the HELL is belladonna? Did the Beatles ever sing “I wanna hold your belladonna baby?” I admit I had to look that one up. Or how about the line about “the poison in my glass, will it be slow or fast?” Sounds like a mysterious malady presently afoot in the land. Dancing has legs, you see?
In any event, I’d like to invite critics of GHS to a shot of belladonna. On me. I’ll pay the bartender on a Toussaint night, or any other. At the lobby bar in that big hotel in Kubrick’s The Shining. Or anywhere else. Goth, indeed! (Just kidding, of course – you may not like GHS because of an honest disagreement in taste, please see the end of this essay).
OK, so we didn’t get a Hard Rock album but for one exception: Reason Number Five “Starfucker.” Just as “Winter” is, in my humble opinion, their best sleeper ballad ever, “Starfucker” is their stereotypical, eponymous, definitional rocker directly tied to their Chick Berry roots. I was all in for the chugga chugga when I first heard it in 1973 and I’m still all in for it today in 2020. The song rips in a live show; I always enjoy hearing it, even if Keef sometimes confuses the opening with “It’s Only Rock ‘n Roll.”
Speaking of topical, this song was an interesting commentary on their rock superstardom at the time, both for all of their hangers-on backstage like Lee Radziwill as well as, I would argue, themselves, for hanging out with the aforementioned Lee, and Truman, Ally McGraw, Steve McQueen and all the rest of them. Call this track both Hard and Art Rock in a signature classic open g tuning. I wish I knew exactly what Mick Taylor was doing on this track. Somebody tell me, it’s an unresolved mystery.
Well, I gave you five reasons why this is a masterpiece. I’ll give you one more and then wrap this up.
Reason Number Six: Mick Taylor and what I call the “Sonorous Trio: “Hide Your Love,” “Coming Down Again,” and “Can’t You Hear the Music.” Think of it as Taylor colluding with Jagger, Richards, and Jones, in that order.
“Hide Your Love” is a beautiful Jagger composition, one that shows off his talents like the piano riff (with lyrics) “Fragile” he casually drops in Frank’s “Cocksucker Blues” film (I’m surprised that the band did not choose to polish that one and include it in the Exile remaster. Check it out from the film; Frank uses the basic chord of “Fragile” over and over again to frame his doleful cinema verité masterpiece). Taylor moves in and out of Jagger’s piano chords with authority, hitting twangy boogie woogie notes on top of the piano, in line with all the layering we have come to admire from Exile.
“Coming Down Again” is Richard’s topical ode. Keef knew much of what he is singing about; his tone is sincere and forlorn. This song, like “Can’t You Hear Me Knocking” and “100 years Ago” has a beautiful sweet jam towards the end (it doesn’t quite qualify as a coda) with delicate piano touches, and Bobby scores on a puffy solo. Did I say layering?
Oh, and the lyrics:
Slipped my tongue in someone else's pie
Tasting better ev'ry time
He turned green and tried to make me cry
Being hungry, it ain't no crime
Ah, memories of Brian and Morocco!
Taylor is on bass here, laying down a gentle foundation. You can quibble with me in that this is not Taylor on his primary instrument. Fine. In any event, I think this is Keef’s best vocal performance on any track with this band or his own. Can you think of a better one?
Speaking of Brian, “Can You Hear The Music” is a flaming obvious reference to those pipes of Joujouka. It’s the band’s best Moroccan inspired track; it blows “Continental Drift” out of the water in terms of originality and verve. In the chorus, this ode to Brian changes tempo into something more of a pop treatment with the following lyrics:
Love is a mystery I can't demystify, oh, no
And sometimes I wonder why we're here
But I don't care, I don't care
As yet another artful composition, Taylor can be heard soaring in the background, guiding and prodding the mystery onwards.
All three of my “Sonorous Trio” tracks are dreamy and ethereal, laying down markers for the album as a whole. As timeless songs, all of them popped up in my consciousness many years later on their own merits. That is a sign of deep quality. What else can I say? Any track that does that demonstrates inherent gravitas. Most folks don’t comment at length on these three tracks. I do.
I say that they are the heart and soul of what was and is, overall, a sensitive, artful, and soft work of very serious music. These are cuts from the inspiration that drove “Sympathy for the Devil” and “You Can’t Always Get What You Want” outta their minds and onto the platters of our turntables. Jagger may not have loved Exile for all its disorganization; but he surely compensated by pouring it on when working on GHS. Everyone pulled together on this – listen to Charlie pounding the drums on “100 Years Ago.” Keef and Taylor and Bill were right there with him. Even the ghost of Brian made an appearance on at least one track.
There are other reasons to love this album, of course. I won’t spend that much time on these because they’re obvious. The smash worldwide hit single from the record is consistent with the heartfelt sound of the disk as a whole; it’s a wistful song of unrequited love straight from the same place “Wild Horses” was drafted, maybe even more somber.
Then there was another single from the record called “Heartbreaker.” It seems many bands want to record a track with this name. I even wrote a blog post using this as a title (it has nothing to do with the Stones). This track got lots of air and concert play; you all know it well. Did I mention Taylor yet? It features yet another great solo by one of your favorite guitarists.
And you can’t forget Silver Train, which Johnny Winter saw fit to cover and release a few months before the album even dropped (just like Gram Parsons did with “Wild Horses” a few years earlier). Chugga chugga Stones classic. Ding dong! It’s just so damn listenable with the warbly hook “and I did not know her name.”
And if that’s not enough, now we have a few more tracks coming down the tracks again like Criss Cross (which we have all heard before), Scarlet (with Pagey), and All the Rage (the last two we haven’t yet and I can’t wait). Criss Cross, the track that sounds like “Brown Sugar” infused with “All Down the Line.” Bartender, I’ll take a double! Neat!
Let me consider for a moment the best criticism levied against GHS. If it’s true that the inspiration driving all these soft melodies derives from SFTD and YCAGWYW, then isn’t also true that this collection of tunes is just derivative? Put another way, this is just a bunch of retreads, isn’t it James? There’s nothing new here. If you like ballads, just go listen to “Beggars’ Banquet” and “Let It Bleed.”
Not so fast! First of all, at the end of the day, there’s no arguing taste. Your boeuf bourguignon is my Chef Boy-Ar-Dee, and vice versa. Everybody’s gonna like different stuff. So if you really prefer bringing a can opener to the dinner table, I ain’t gonna stop you but occasionally, I might choose to sit at a different banquette. I understand that YCAGWYW resonated with you back in 1969, and then when you woke up in a shitty mood in 1973 and all you could hear was “Angie” on the radio – OK. I. Get. It. Everybody’s got to respect an honest argument in taste; I hate stuff that others think is truly a musical orgasmatron (reference also from 1973). Fair enough.
Leaving aside taste, I would argue that GHS is not derivative that way (Keef argues that everything is and that there is nothing original but I don’t want to go that far for an essay here on It’s Only Rock ‘n Roll). As concerns SFTD and YCAGWYW, look, Taylor doesn’t play on them – they’re before his time. Therefore, Taylor’s presence and soaring sustains are a subsequent and substantial add-on contribution. The band couldn’t have done any of these tracks the same excellent way (except for Starfucker) without him. My argument is that this is gold from the Taylor era. Including stand-out compositions, one more so than others. And their best ballad. Keef’s best vocal performance. Chugga chugga, maybe?
Finally, not that it may matter to you, but I am not the only one who thinks highly of GHS. It was certified 3x platinum in the US and peaked at #1 on both the US Billboard and UK album charts back in 1973.
Ok, enough for now. I, for one, am glad this is being rereleased à la “Exile” and “Some Girls.” Like most of you, I groan that this is being packaged with Brussels Affair – can’t they find another show from 1973, which many consider to be their peak tour? Then there are the mysterious Tracks 11 and 12 to contemplate. Will they be instrumentals like “Title 9” from Exile? Did they pull Taylor back into the studio to finish the three new tracks? It will take a long hot summer to find out.
In the meantime, as Keef says, “Say stafe!”
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