Graded on a Curve:
The Rolling Stones, Stripped

If, like me, you wrote off the Rolling Stones a long, long time ago—hell, I didn’t even like Some Girls, which in effect means I think the last great Stones LP was 1972’s Exile on Main Street—you most likely consider Mick and Company as little more than a longstanding joke. You know, The Steel Wheelchairs tour and all. And you’ve probably asked yourself when they intend to finally hang it up and retire to their respective tax shelters, to spend their time getting total transfusions of young blood so they can live to be 147.

Because they’re old, goddamn it, and you’d have to be some kind of fanatic to buy any of their recent product, which leaves us with the question: The Stones—what are they good for? Absolutely nothin’, I would have said as recently as last week. Then I accidentally happened upon their 1995 live LP, Stripped, and I was shocked. Flabbergasted. Because the damn LP is good. They play the songs well and sound like they’re actually putting in an effort, and they don’t come across as a mediocre cover band playing their own material, which is what I would have predicted of any live Rolling Stones LP recorded after, say, 1985 at absolute latest.

A word of caution: when I say this is a live LP, it comes with one huge caveat. To wit, 8 of the album’s 14 songs weren’t played in front of an audience, but were recorded live in studios in Lisbon and Tokyo. To the Stones’ credit, it’s hard to tell the tracks apart, although there’s no mistaking the opening track, “Street Fighting Man,” for a studio endeavor. It’s raw and admirably raucous, with lots of great guitar and piano, and Mick’s voice is still as strong as in days of yore. No Dylan-like voice death for Jagger; he still slurs and preens and knows his way around a wry sexual innuendo, and the band is better for it.

Speaking of Dylan, they follow “Street Fighting Man” with “Like a Rolling Stone,” recorded at a London concert, and I’ll be damned if they don’t pull it off. The organ is perfect, Jagger sounds great on the verses, and the choruses are shout-alongs of the type first introduced by Dylan and the Band when they performed the tune during their live tour of 1974. The only false step is Jagger’s harmonica solo, which staggers along like Mike the Headless Chicken, who if you’re not familiar with his work I advice you to immediately look him up on Wikipedia.

“Not Fade Away” takes us way back to 1964, when it was the A-side of the Stones’ first U.S. single. Recorded in a studio in Lisbon, it features some excellent percussion by Charlie Watts, a harmonica riff that does work, and everybody knows the goddamn tune so what is there to say except that the Lisbon version is as slinky and vital as the version they recorded 31 years before. As for the great “Shine a Light,” it was recorded at a Paris show and works wonderfully thanks to former Allman Brother Chuck Leavell’s piano and Don Was’ Hammond B-3 organ, to say nothing of a couple of great guitar solos by Ronnie (“I was a member of the Faces once, then went down in the world”) Wood.

1965’s “The Spider and the Fly” is a lackadaisical country-blues number of humorous import, with Jagger singing about catching a girl in his web only to end up in the web of an older woman of guile. Recorded live in the studio in Tokyo—despite the impression you get that it’s live due to the applause that precedes it—the tune features some nice harmonica, Watts’ usual uncanny drum work, and some fine keyboards by Leavell. As for the band’s 1965 track “I’m Free,” it’s given the acoustic treatment, although Leavell’s keyboards play a prominent and Dylanesque role. “I’m Free” is a laid-back as they come, with Wood playing a beguiling solo and Watts once again performing his usual hoodoo on drums. Of special note is Leavell’s solo, which is as funky as they come.

“Wild Horses” was recorded live in the studio in Tokyo, and features some very fine acoustic guitar. Jagger is in great vocal form, and Leavell plays an understated but plaintive piano. It’s the great guitar work by Wood and Richards that make this one, and if it’s not quite as good as the Sticky Fingers original, it’s certainly close. As for the live from Paris “Let It Bleed,” it’s a revelation. Slightly more up-tempo than the original, it kicks along in its lascivious country honk way, with everybody playing at their best. Piano: great. Vocals: great. Guitars: Great. Woods’ lap slide solo is wonderful, and I’ll be damned if this version isn’t as good, or even better, than the original. “Dead Flowers” (recorded live in London) is great, too. Like on “Let It Bleed” the band ups the tempo, but it works, and the band is working on all cylinders. My only caveat involves Jagger’s vocals, which aren’t as countrified as they are on the Sticky Fingers version. But the piano is straight-up honky tonk, the guitars are excellent, and I love the way Mick says in closing, “I felt like a hillbilly for a minute there. Just a minute, though.”

Keith Richards takes a turn on vocals on the ballad “Slipping Away.” It’s the LP’s weakest link despite the horn section and female vocalists, and I don’t think it’s a coincidence that it’s the only post-1973 track on the entire album, coming as it does from 1989’s Steel Wheels. Don’t get me wrong; it’s not a disaster. I simply find it lackluster, and it goes on way too long. The band follows it with a version of “Angie” recorded in concert in Paris, and both the piano and the guitars are lovely, while Jagger’s vocals are remarkable for a dude of his age. There’s a cool guitar solo that reminds me of the Eagles’ “Hotel California,” and I love the way Jagger can pull apart the name Angie like it’s Turkish taffy. Next up is Robert Johnson’s “Love in Vain,” which alone blows the illusion that the whole LP is live with its inclusion of a start and stop, followed by a debate over how to start the damn song. Honestly, I’ve never liked the song; I didn’t like it on 1969’s Let It Bleed and I don’t like it here, although the guitar playing in particular is excellent. But that takes us back to my dislike of the blues, which I like best when painted another color, any color. So yeah, Woods’ lap slide and Jagger’s harmonica work together well, but I’m still not sorry to see the train leave the station.

Fortunately (for me at least) it’s followed by the wonderful “Sweet Virginia” off Exile on Main Street. Recorded live in the studio in Lisbon, the Stones kick it out like it’s still 1972, throwing out some great vocals, a killer sax solo by the legendary Bobby Keys, and some fine piano by Leavell, all of it nailed to the studio floor by the drums of the inimitable Charlie Watts. The Stones close out the LP with a cover of Willie Dixon’s “Little Baby” recorded live in the studio in Tokyo. It shuffles along irresistibly, with lots of great guitar and piano and Jagger sounding at his best. The guitar solo kicks ass, while Mick promises to accompany his little baby everywhere. Best of all is the guitar and piano work that takes the song out.

Stripped is a revelation to this guy, but as I’ve mentioned previously all but one of its tunes are oldies, which tells me that nobody understands better than the Stones that their best work is behind them. But the LP also tells me the Stones remain a formidable live act, although it is 10 years old and whether they still have what it takes is a question worth pondering. One thing is for sure: this doesn’t sound to me like a band merely punching the clock to pick up a paycheck, and I admire that. As an overview of their career it’s worth a listen, and it offers solid proof that a band I wrote off as good as dead several decades ago still has a pulse.

One listen to “Not Fade Away” is conclusive evidence that the Rolling Stones, if no longer the world’s greatest rock’n’roll band, can still deliver the goods. Why, I might even consider going to see them, if only to hear such songs as “Shine a Light,” “Sweet Virginia,” and “Let It Bleed,” although I’ll likely give them a pass because they charge like what for a ticket–$650? In any event, they may no longer be the young bad boys who brought us the immortal Exile on Main Street, but neither is it time to put roses, or more appropriately dead flowers, on their grave.


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