ven though they never truly went away, the Rolling Stones are experiencing a well deserved renaissance, fittingly, a couple years behind that of their reverse compatriots, the Beatles. And thankfully, it is not the result of any spree of collegiate Stones clones; it’s the result of their insurmountable music. I guess the whole multi-million dollar comeback tour could play into it too, but I digress...
Forty Licks is a long time coming. For a band that released a greatest hits compilation roughly every three or four years during the course of their three-decade plus career, the Stones don’t have much for a comprehensive collection. This is obviously of no importance to the innumerable legions of hardcore fans, but in these post- “20th Century Masters” times of ours, it’s almost unheard of for a band of their stature to have no all-inclusive set for the uninitiated masses. Their 1972 Hot Rocks set seemed to be the norm for surface-scanning classic rock enthusiasts, but it neglected the canonically brilliant Exile On Main Street and (obviously) was devoid of their sporadically exceptional seventies work. (A passing gripe: the old Abkco double-disc sets were also just too fucking expensive).
So, hot on the heels of Abkco’s vast reissuing of the band’s 1960’s catalogue (in absolutely stunning Super Audio remastering technology), comes this reasonably priced, “all-inclusive” compendium of, at their height, one of the greatest bands of all time, replete with four new tracks. How does it measure up? Surprisingly well, actually.
Naturally, no one is going to walk away from this tracklisting totally satisfied, but that’s to be expected; nothing short of a three disc behemoth could satisfy everyone. Thankfully, the band’s less-than-flattering eighties and nineties work is briefly recapped, and a number of significant album tracks are present. Highly notable exclusions include bona fide classics like “Play With Fire”, “Time Is On My Side”, “Heartbreaker” and “Tell Me”. Less obvious (and more predictable) ones include the stark, raving, and utterly ravaged blur, “Rocks Off”; the pysch-pop left fielder “Dandelion”; and the winsome Harpsichord workout, “I Am Waiting”. But you win some, you lose some. Even with these tracks absent, you simply can’t miss.
These songs are so well ingrained into the rock n’ roll lexicon that simply naming them off can vouch for this collection’s worth. “Under My Thumb”. “Gimme Shelter”. “Paint It Black”. “Wild Horses”. “Tumbling Dice”. In and out, some of the greatest rock music ever laid to tape. Even today, it bristles with staunch force, reeling abandon, and jaw-dropping tenacity. Bands like the Rolling Stones form the origin of hyperbole in music writing. And why not? One of the best rhythm ensembles-- one whose unerring thud and diamond sharp precision is still palpable in most every lauded section since-- was framed by the co-author of Playing Rock Guitar and the singer that all but set the standard for frontmen to come. From their proto-Spinal Tap lows to their dizzying, historic highs, the Stones did it all, sometimes simultaneously (see Altamont). But there comes a point when all of this general nonsense is too much, and all you can do is listen, learn, and enjoy.
The bluesy Stones of yore are represented by “The Last Time”, “19th Nervous Breakdown”, “Not Fade Away”, and “Get Off Of My Cloud”, and acquit themselves wonderfully. However, I still hold the opinion that the group sounds authentic, yet strained and occasionally unsure in this era. Nevertheless, the singles are almost universally the cream of their outsetting crop, and never fail on most levels.
Their post-Delta, pre-Barroom days are arguably some of their best. The band no longer relied on learned licks and played-out shucks as the basis for their songs-- they integrated the essential spirit of the blues into their own unique vision. Songs like “Paint It, Black”, “Mother’s Little Helper”, “Ruby Tuesday”, “Under My Thumb”, and “Let’s Spend The Night Together” effectively straddle the line between pop gems and sinister rockers like few have since.
Following a brief flirtation with psychedelia that yielded the splendid “She’s A Rainbow”, the Stones morphed from the inventive, hooky, sinister rockers that they were into the raw, dangerous, and still hooky juggernauts that they would become (or pathetically fail trying to remain) forever. The best of this continual period is seen mostly on the first disc, but bleeds into the second. From the infallible swagger of “Tumbling Dice”, to the still stumbling “Brown Sugar”, to the busting-at-the-seems brusqueness of “Gimme Shelter”, these are the songs that live in the depths of rock mythology. At their best, they feel like the greatest music ever made. In reality, they’re not far off.
After the steam has died down, the lesser items begin to take center stage. Some material, like “Miss You”, “Beast of Burden” and “Angie”, stand in fine contrast to the heyday songs. Others, like the regrettably ubiquitous “Start Me Up”, “Undercover of the Night” and “Emotional Rescue” epitomize rock star excess and compromise.
For better or worse, Forty Licks is not mixed in total chronological order, allowing for a better overall flow that is rarely broken up by a bum track (most of which are clustered near the end of the second disc). The new songs are, as is expected, nothing to write home about. Unsurprisingly (as per Jagger’s recent solo effort), it’s Keith Richards whose new addition, “Losing My Touch” shines the brightest. It’s his increasingly typical lovelorn weeper, yet it resonates deeper than anything the group has done since Tatoo You, if not Some Girls.
This set my beg the question “should the Rolling Stones pack it up?” To me, it’s a question that seemed more relevant in the eighties. Since then, I’ve learned to live with the Stones’ never-ending career. Sure they don’t make good albums anymore, but as an institution, they’re still somewhat commendable. Plus, they’re just lucky enough to have the savvy to put something like Forty Licks out just when the need it most. Sure, no one will ever forget the Rolling Stones; it just helps to have something like this around to nudge you into submission.
Reviewed by: Colin McElligatt
Reviewed on: 2003-09-01