50 TRACKS THAT TELL
THE STORY OF
THE ROLLING STONES
By Bill Janovitz. St. Martin’s Press; 413 pages; hardcover.
Review by Francis DiMenno
Boston-area musician Bill Janovitz is the author of the 33 1/3 series book Exile on Main Street (Continuum 2005), in which he discussed—some might even say dissected—every track on the album.
Janovitz’s latest book tells the story of “the world’s greatest rock ’n’ roll band” but with a novel twist: their history is explored through a chronological commentary about fifty of the band’s most significant songs.
Even rock ’n’ roll fans who are detractors of The Rolling Stones (can there be many?) would have to concede that the band delivered up a trifecta of well-nigh perfect albums—not a commonplace event—with, respectively, Beggars Banquet (1968), Let It Bleed (1969) and Sticky Fingers (1971). Dylan, The Beach Boys, The Kinks, and The Beatles all scored with similar feats. But in some camps it would be argued—quite passionately—that in terms of sheer rock ’n’ roll prowess, the Stones surpassed them all, then followed up their trifecta with Exile on Main Street (1972), an album so good, albeit patchy, that they were mining it for out-takes some ten and even thirty years later. Janovitz is particularly astute when discussing the songs of this era.
Janovitz spends little time playing the compare and contrast game. For instance, he refrains from pointing out the enervated and perfunctory nature of songs such as “Dance Little Sister” and “She’s So Cold.” (He does, however, compare “Get Off of My Cloud” to the markedly superior but somewhat obscure “I’m Free” and he wittily characterizes “Coming Down Again” as “the anti-Happy.”) Instead, he makes a point of showcasing the surpassing merits of acknowledged classics like “Gimme Shelter,” “You Can’t Always Get What You Want,” and “Moonlight Mile.” What I presume to be some of the author’s own underrated favorites also make the cut: his discussion of the satiric b-side, “The Under Assistant West Coast Promotion Man,” is insightful and revealing, as are his dissections of songs such as the paranoiac Aftermath track, “I Am Waiting,” and the last-gasp album track, “All About You,” from the “perfectly fine” but “haphazard” LP, Emotional Rescue.
This book is also entertaining because Janovitz fills the narrative with knowing detail, which will satisfy even the most die-hard Stones fan. We learn that “Wild Horses” came together with the help of country-rock progenitor Gram Parsons—and recording engineer Jim Dickinson’s tack piano. We discover that Keith Richards regarded one of his musical rivals as “a freaky acid-head flute player.” Janovitz also peppers his account with keen insights: “Tumbling Dice” is a “real New Orleans style funeral instead of [Don] McLean’s uptight ‘oration’ for the death of an era.”
Janovitz admits that not all of these songs are his personal favorites; half the fun, I suppose, for an ardent fan is comparing his selection with one’s own putative picks. I don’t disagree with most of his selections, though I would have also liked to have read what he had to say about tracks like “High and Dry” “Back Street Girl,” “She Smiled Sweetly,” “Who’s Been Sleeping Here,” “Dandelion,” “Prodigal Son,” “Factory Girl,” “No Use in Crying,” and “Continental Drift.”
But examining more songs would have made the book too long. As it is, the sheer diversity and detailed length of the commentary sometimes threatens to make reading the entire book seem like a painful duty, but the beginning of the book—let’s call it the “Brian Jones section”—is actually quite strong, and, better than nearly any other book has done, it will add to the ardent fan’s understanding of how The Stones developed from just another blues cover band to becoming the powerhouse combo and veritable force of nature they later matured into.
In fact, if any section seems perfunctory, it’s the final third—when The Stones were in a critical decline and one had to scratch hard to uncover gems amid the comparative dross. The 1981 stopgap album, Tattoo You is one which Janovitz (rightly) dismisses as “outtakes from their golden period,” and “[their] last gasp of artistic relevancy.”
But even when discussing the Stones in their decline, Janovitz is careful to hew to his original plan—to show the ongoing development of the band through the prism of their material. This, he accomplishes, in an entertaining and intelligent series of linked essays. Yet, the fact that the first 43 songs discussed here were from the band’s first twenty years, and six of the last seven songs were from the band’s last twenty years, is as a qualitative a statement of the Stones’ decline as one could wish. (#50, “Plundered My Soul,” was an outtake from Exile.)
In the opening salvo of his previous book, Exile on Main Street, Janovitz refers to that album as “The single greatest rock ’n’ roll record of all time, okay?” It is safe to assume that he is passionate about The Rolling Stones and their music. Part of the charm of his latest book is that he manages to make us nearly as enthusiastic as he is about these fifty songs, which span the arc of the band’s four-decade career.