Chuck Berry 1926-2017: ‘Tell the folks back home this is the promised land callin’ and the poor boy’s on the line.’

Chuck Berry 1926-2017: ‘Tell the folks back home this is the promised land callin’ and the poor boy’s on the line.’

Sometimes one person’s death brings memories flooding back of a whole era. If you came of age musically in the fifties or sixties, it was if Chuck Berry’s songs held up a mirror in which you saw your generation reflected and given mythic stature. Particularly if you were British, the insouciant swagger of his lyrics, the guitar just like a ringing bell, cruisin’ in your car and playin’ the radio, the lure of the juke joint after the school bell has rung, the cats who want to dance with sweet little sixteen – all of it sounded highly desirable and pretty mythic.

Same thing every day – gettin’ up, goin’ to school.
No need for me to complain – my objection’s overruled, ahh!

John Lennon got it right: ‘If you were going to give rock & roll another name, you might call it ‘Chuck Berry’.’ Continue reading “Chuck Berry 1926-2017: ‘Tell the folks back home this is the promised land callin’ and the poor boy’s on the line.’”

Keith Richards and the Decade That Exploded

Keith Richards and the Decade That Exploded

A few nights ago we watched Julien Temple’s super film, Keith Richards: The Origin of the Species, covering the guitarist’s early years, from birth to 18, following it with Jon Savage’s film, 1966: The Year the Decade Exploded, based on his expansive book which I’ve just finished reading.

Who would have thought it? The reprobate Keith Richards re-imagined as an avuncular national treasure? Temple’s film was a delight; I don’t think I stopped grinning once. Cleverly weaving Keith reminiscing about his childhood and family connections into an intricate montage of archive newsreel, TV commercials, old public information films and dramatic reconstructions in monochrome, Origin of the Species successfully evoked what it felt like to be part of the generation born in the 40s who grew up in the still grey and hidebound 50s. Continue reading “Keith Richards and the Decade That Exploded”

The Atlantic Records Story: the music in my head for sixty years

The Atlantic Records Story: the music in my head for sixty years

I’ve been listening to The Atlantic Records Story, a BBC Radio 6 documentary series narrated by Johnnie Walker that tells the story of the Atlantic Records label (just one example of the gems you can discover via the updated iPlayer Radio app which now allows you to download programmes to your phone, where they remain until they self-destruct, usually after 28 days). Continue reading “The Atlantic Records Story: the music in my head for sixty years”

The Stones’ Crossfire Hurricane: It’s a Gas! Gas! Gas!

The Stones’ Crossfire Hurricane: It’s a Gas! Gas! Gas!

Last night I attended the red-carpet premiere of the new Rolling Stones documentary Crossfire Hurricane, at the Odeon Leicester Square. Well, no: I was there in spirit only, actually attending one of these increasingly common events where we sit in a cinema in our home town and experience a live event going on somewhere else.  In this case, the Odeon in Liverpool One screened the London Film Festival premiere of Brett Morgen’s Stones 50th anniversary film to a three-quarters empty cinema.

Preceded by red-carpet interviews with each of the Stones and various other luminaries smooching the crowds on their way into the premiere, Crossfire Hurricane proved to be a brilliantly-edited, visceral documentary that was great fun to watch, but ended up being a bit strange.

These days documentaries are as slick and as finely edited as feature films (I first noticed this watching Charles Ferguson’s fine expose of the banking crash, Inside Job).  Crossfire Hurricane features historical footage, much of it never seen before, skilfully edited without any narration or present-day talking heads interviews (so you need to be pretty familiar with the Stones’ story to keep up).  Continuity is provided by period interviews and recent interviews conducted by Morgen with the Rolling Stones.  A caption at the start informs us that no cameras were allowed during these sessions, so we only hear the Stones recalling their past, sometimes to a black screen.

The director and his team of editors have put together a spellbinding collage of the Stones’ rise to global megastardom, with only the best moments making their way into the two hour film. There have been other documentaries that have explored particular tours or shows (notably the Maysles brothers’ Gimme Shelter, based around the terrifying Altamont festival), but only the BBC film, 25×5: The Continuing Adventures of the Rolling Stones (which marked the 25th anniversary of the band’s formation), has previously attempted an overview of their career.

Crossfire Hurricane plunges us straight into the early years, with powerful, visceral footage that follows the band from their dressing room in some local Odeon circa 1963, along corridors and out on stage to a barrage of screaming teenage girls.  Everything is chaos.  The uniformed commissioners are out of their depth, and teenagers hurl themselves on stage, dragging Jagger to the floor before the concert is abandoned.  Jagger recalls that the band used to bet how long they’d be able to play for before having to abandon the stage.  Often it was all over in less than 15 minutes.

The film adds nothing new to our knowledge of the band or of their music: Jagger was the executive producer, so how could we expect anything other than a recapitulation of the Stones’ myth: how four blues-obsessed young men became the embodiment of counter-culture darkness and depravity.  This is not to say that the film glosses over the drug busts or the licentious swirl of their lives back then: but this has long been in the public domain.

In fact, speaking today, Jagger recalls how their manager, Andrew Loog Oldham, deliberately and provocatively positioned the band as the antithesis of the Beatles’ suited, lads next door niceness. He and Keith Richards note how being bad became a self-fulfilling prophecy, leading to the arrest in 1967 of Jagger and Richards on drug charges. Jagger sees how that ‘cemented our relationship with the public’, while Richards, with his usual swagger, reckons: ‘They gave me a licence … That was when we really put the black hat on. Before that it was off-grey’.

The audio-only interviews reinforce the public personas of each band member. Richards, as always, is the bandit and romantic of the group, who says, ‘I didn’t have a problem with drugs…I had a problem with cops’, and talks about fleeing England for fear of the law in the early 1970s.  Jagger’s voice follows immediately: ‘Keith always says he was chased out of England by the cops. He may believe that but it’s not actually true. The band left because of money’.  This was when the band fled to the south of France to escape huge tax bills.  Perhaps mindful of sensibilities in 2012, Jagger adds that they were doing it just to make enough money to pay off the Inland Revenue.

One disappointment of the film is that it barely mentions life before the Stones: their backgrounds or early years on the London jazz club circuit.  Keith Richards drawls how he was simply a ‘blues player’ until this fame thing’ kicked in, while Jagger talks about how he modelled his early stage routine on Little Richard, challenging and goading the audience.

Crossfire Hurricane is most compelling tracing the Rolling Stones’ classic period, from the mid-60s to the mid-70s. This is where the film editing is at its most rivetting, even though the wider political and cultural context is hardly mentioned.  Footage from earlier documentaries (such as Robert Frank’s Cocksucker Blues, The Rolling Stones Rock and Roll Circus and Gimme Shelter) is used effectively.  So just a few clips from Gimme Shelter paint a terrifying picture of Altamont, where a young man was murdered by Hells Angels hired to provide security.  Charlie Watts memorably compares their recruitment as ‘like asking the Nazi party to sort out the front of the auditorium’.

Attention is given to Brian Jones’ contribution to the band – the man who founded the Stiones by recruiting the others, and who had ‘the best bottleneck guitar style in London’ (which we hear in ‘No Expectations’ on the soundtrack as accompaniment to an emotional account of his death.

The music throughout is tremendous, opening with a raw account of ‘Street Fighting Man’, along with remarkable  performances of ‘Sympathy For The Devil’ and ‘Midnight Rambler’.  Fired up after their brief period imprisonment following the 1967 drugs bust when Sussex police, tipped off by the News of the World, raided a party at Keith Richards’ home, they record ‘Jumpin’ Jack Flash’:

I was born in a cross-fire hurricane 
And I howled at my ma in the driving rain, 
But it’s all right now, in fact, it’s a gas! 
But it’s all right.  I’m Jumpin’ Jack Flash, 
It’s a Gas!  Gas!  Gas!

Stones aficionados will gape, though, at the total omission of any reference, musical or otherwise to one of their greatest albums, Exile on Main Street.

Oddly, for a film released to mark 50 years of the group, Crossfire Hurricane treats the Stones’ career as having to all intents and purposes ended at the beginning of the 1980s. Keith Richards’ 1977 arrest for heroin possession in Toronto is the last significant event discussed, and the band members note how this was the period in which they went from being the group everyone hated to the one everyone loved. The last thing we see before the closing credits is footage of the 1981 Still Life tour. In a way, this makes sense: from that point, the Stones became little more than a brand, making huge amounts of money from world tours that promoted increasingly uninspiring albums.

A mesmeric ode to a collection of chain-smoking, substance-abusing rapscallions that took on the law, the establishment and the fragility of their own bodies and minds, whilst living long enough to tell the tale. What better way to celebrate The Stones’ 50th anniversary.
–  Cine Vue review

See also

Rolling Stones at fifty: Not Fade Away

Rolling Stones at fifty: Not Fade Away

Great photo on the front page of The Guardian this morning: the Stones, grizzled and weatherbeaten like ancient trees still standing.  They’re pictured outside a mock-up of the Marquee Club in a shot by photographer Rankin.  It was there, on 12 July 1962, that ‘Mick Jagger and the Rollin’ Stones’ played their first gig –  Jagger, Keith Richards, and Brian Jones, with Dick Taylor on bass, Mick Avory on drums, and Ian Stewart playing piano.  There’s more about the historic night in this article from The Guardian.

A year later, their first single, a cover of Chuck Berry’s ‘Come On’ was released, to be followed by the Lennon–McCartney number ‘I Wanna Be Your Man’ and Buddy Holly’s ‘Not Fade Away’.

Stones in Exile

Back from Wales, we managed to catch up with Stones in Exile, a new documentary about the making of Exile on Main St in 1971, on the iPlayer.  The film had been premiered at the Cannes Film Festival, then broadcast in the BBC 1 Imagine slot.

It’s an enjoyable film, particularly because you get to hear snatches of the recording sessions at Keith Richard’s Villa Nellcôte and see some of Dominique Tarlé’s evocative still photographs shot there, and Robert Frank’s images and super-8 film shot when the recording moved to LA.  Because the film was produced by Mick Jagger (along with Keith Richards and Charlie Watts), it glosses over much of the debauchery reported from Villa Nellcôte. Nevertheless,  director Stephen Kijak has pieced together an evocative and emotional portrait of  ‘the greatest rock’n’roll band in the world’, at what many regard as their peak.

The Stones had fled England for the South of France to record Exile on Main St to avoid paying UK tax, but we’ll gloss over that, too. The film gives us glimpses of the difficulties that Charlie Watts and Bill Wyman faced in adjusting to life in a strange country.  Wyman loathed the entire South of France experience, and recalls his horror at having to import items he couldn’t live without, like PG Tips, Branston pickle and Bird’s Custard. He also hated French milk, “which wasn’t the same.”

There is a great moment in the film when Keith Richards defines the essential difference in temperament between Jagger and himself. “Mick needs to know what he’s going to do tomorrow,” he says, laughing. “Me, I’m just happy to wake up and see who’s hanging around. Mick’s rock, I’m roll.”

The film reminds us how Robert Frank came to provide the images that adorned the cover of Exile. Jagger and Richards were great admirers of Frank’s masterpiece photobook, The Americans, and were keen to include images from the book.  In early 1972, Exile‘s cover designer John Van Hamersveld met with Robert Frank, Mick Jagger and Marshall Chess, and decided to create an LP cover based on Frank’s photographic archive and shots he’d taken of the Stones.

The image used in the American poster for Exile on Main St (above) is from a photo by Robert Frank, Tattoo Parlor, 8th Avenue, New York City, 1951.  The original photo (below) was used for the front cover of the album.  John Van Hamersveld, the album designer, said: “why don’t we take the guy with the balls in his mouth. That is the most amazing photograph I’ve ever seen. And doesn’t it look like Charlie!”

Dominique Tarlé was  a young French rock photographer living in London.  In summer 1971 he was told by the UK immigration authorities that he had to leave the country. So he joined the Rolling Stones in their exile from England at the Villa Nellcôte inVillefranche where he took thousands of photographs, covering possibly the most decadent house party in rock and roll history. His images are perhaps the most personal shots ever taken of the Stones and capture them in various states of consciousness.

Since the release of the remastered Exile in May I’ve been listening to it a lot.  The remastering really overcomes the great deficiency of the original album – the muddy and slightly distorted sound, particularly affecting the vocals.  But what a magnificent album this was – and remains, the culmination of that run of classic albums that began with Beggar’s Banquet and continued through Gimme Shelter and Sticky Fingers to Exile.  In fact, the critical stock of  Exile on Main St has risen steadily with the passing decades. It was greeted with decidedly mixed reviews when first released, but is now generally regarded as the Rolling Stones’ finest album, and one of the greatest of all rock albums. It’s a sprawling masterpiece that encompasses rock & roll, blues, soul, and country. The songs, such as ‘Rocks Off’, ‘Tumbling Dice’, ‘Happy’, ‘Sweet Virginia’ and “Shine a Light’, are all terrific.

Here’s a review by Rob Mitchum in Pitchfork:

Despite an absence of the band’s best-known songs, the sweaty, grimy Exile on Main St. has grown into the Rolling Stones’ most universally acclaimed record. Despite dozens of hits, putting together a cohesive album often seemed to be beyond the Stones, tripped up by either manager Allen Klein’s publishing-rights parasitism or the band’s 1970s hubris. That leaves a catalog in which only Exile is built not on hits but on vibe and: the album’s singularly sleazy sound and making-of legend.

To create Exile, the band escaped Britain as tax exiles, decamping to a French villa. Paradoxically, the posh surroundings created the band’s rawest effort. They were a heroin-ragged band, jamming late into the night with calloused fingers and vocal cords in a stale basement with sweaty walls. So the best thing a remastered reissue of the record can do is not give the production a bath, a shave, and a haircut. Happily, this new cleanup job doesn’t Photoshop out the flaws and flubs, with the band’s loose performances still presented in all its debauched glory.

Of course, like most treasured nuggets of rock history, that story is undermined by pesky facts. In Stones in Exile, the documentary released with this 38th anniversary reissue, producer Jimmy Miller talks about isolating each band member in a different room of the villa to make the impromptu studio work. That’s a fitting image for the Rolling Stones at the time– while the band was musically at its peak, it was in practice at its most fractured, with singer Mick Jagger and bassist Bill Wyman barely involved for the bulk of the recording. The Exile we know and love is actually the hybrid product of two sessions, two bands really: the Keith Richards-led material from Nellcôte shotgun-wed to the Los Angeles gospel dabbling of Jagger and co-conspirator, keyboardist and former Beatles collaborator Billy Preston.

In a way though, Jagger’s lack of involvement may have been the key to Exile’s success (and probably explains his oft-voiced dislike of the record). With Richards at the helm, the record sounds closest to the American roots music the band relentlessly name-dropped. Vocally, Richards’ nasal whine fights for space with Jagger more than anywhere else in their history, adding thrillingly imperfect harmonies. The rest of the supporting cast also gets more of the spotlight: the brilliant barrelhouse piano of Nicky Hopkins singlehandedly defines “Loving Cup” and “Torn and Frayed”, Mick Taylor adds counterpoint leads and the toodling bassline of “Tumbling Dice”, Al Perkins’ pedal steel and Bobby Key’s sax contributes soul and country cred.

But despite his relative absence, Jagger’s contributions on the back half of the record give Exile its dramatic arc. Though the album’s concept record status has always been somewhat oversold, the plot does chart a rough path from drunken late-night revelry to next-day regret: The last third of the record looks back on the first two-thirds with a wince and a headache. “I Just Want to See His Face”, “Let It Loose”, “Shine a Light”– there’s a profound need for redemption here unique to the Stones, an odd moment of guilt for a band known for consequence-free sexual bluster. As the last complete sentence of the album says, “you’re going to be the death of me.”

Stones in Exile trailer

Rocks Off

Edited to music by Videodrums 2009. Super 8 footage shot by Robert Frank of The Rolling Stones in LA and NY, 1971

My favourite track – Sweet Virginia