Round and Round: The Sound of The Rolling Stones Part 1

Do you want to unravel the mess that is The Rolling Stones' discography? It's a dirty job and someone has to do it, but it won't be me. I figure someone in Goldmine already has. And despite that person's meticulous work, inevitablysome completest dweeb probably wrote in to complain that the multi-page listing of LPs, EPs, singles and CDs left out a few choice items like a little known Peruvian release of Mick Jagger's telephone answering machine tapes or some such nonsense. And they call audiophiles nerdy?

What hasn't been done to my knowledge, is a survey of the sound quality of Stones albums on vinyl and CD, and since that is an important part of The Tracking Angle's purpose in life, that's what we're going to do, without ignoring the tortured path the recordings have taken over the years. While I am fortunate to own a wide range of Stones pressings, I don't have them all, so while this is a thorough survey, it is by no means complete.

Signed to British Decca in 1963, The Stones' first single, "Come On"/"I Want To Be Love" (Decca F11675) was released in June of that year, as Beatlemania was exploding in England. The somewhat obscure Chuck Berry song finally saw American vinyl in 1972 as part of the twofer More Hot Rocks (big hits and fazed cookies) (London 2 PS 626/7). It appeared on the early seventies German budget LP Bravo Rolling Stones ( Hor Zu-Teldec SHZT 531- fake stereo, also in mono) and on the group's first British EP, The Rolling Stones (Decca DFE 8560), along with another Chuck Berry cover "Bye Bye Johnny", which is not on this German disc.

"Stoned", a silly instrumental ditty but for the word "Stoned" which Mick repeats at regular intervals is also on Bravo, but to my knowledge has never been on vinyl stateside. The song is credited to the mysterious "Nanker Phelge"- a fictitious character invented by the Stones who pops up sporadically in the credits on early Stones LPs. It originally appeared on the flipside of "I Wanna Be Your Man" (Decca F11764) the second single, released November of 1963.
Bravo, a compilation totally devoid of musical logic, also contains "Satisfaction", "Time Is On My Side", "Get Off My Cloud" and other Stones songs appearing on other LPs on both sides of the Atlantic.

Another German LP, Around And Around (Decca SLK 16315-P) featuring a famous color group cover photo with Mick's eyes closed, contains "I Wanna Be Your Man" which The Beatles gave to the Stones in 1963 in the hopes that the up and coming band would generate royalty income for them- which it did. The song hit the top twenty in Britain. Ringo, of course, covered the tune on Meet The Beatles . The Stones' version of "I Wanna Be Your Man" never made it to American vinyl to my knowledge.

Around and Around also contains Arthur Alexander's "You Better Move On", Leiber and Stoller's "Poison Ivy", Buddy Holly's "Not Fade Away" ,the Stones' third British single (F 11845), and other tunes, some of which made it to assorted American London LPs, and some of which didn't. Shadoobie shattered! And we haven't even gotten to the first Stones LP.

In any case, in those early days with non-producer Andrew Loog Oldham producing, the sound went from bad to worse mono despite the Decca pedigree, beginning with The Rolling Stones released on British Decca (LK 4605) April of 1964. The striking, graphics free cover, with its blue, black and flesh motif would set the style for all of the early Stones covers.

Speaking of covers, that's most of what's on the first LP. Aside from the haunting Jagger/Richards "Tell Me" and the Phelge credited "Little By Little" (on which Phil Spector plays maracas and Gene Pitney adds some pretty bad piano) the Stones cover some of the rhythm and blues and soul hits which fueled them to form the band in the first place ie: Berry's "Carol", Willie Dixon's"I Just Want To Make Love To You", Jimmy Reed's "Honest I Do", Holland Dozier and Holland's "Can I Get a Witness" and Bo Diddley's "I Need You Baby".

Most interesting in retrospect was the cover of Bobby Troup's "Route 66" which few of us teens at the time would ever have suspected of being a Nat King Cole standard from the (gasp!) 1940's. Most embarrassing was "Can I Get A Witness" which falls flat on its face. While Mick and the boys had a surprisingly good grasp on Chicago blues, and Brian Jones' tremelo-drenched guitar sound and Bo Diddley beat hit the target on ".....Witness", the Stones lacked Marvin Gaye's pop/gospel emotional fervor. Particularly embarrassing on the track were the background vocals.

"Tell Me", with its straightforward fifties rock chord progression was simple, but the performance demonstrated that the group had the potential to use its love of raw blues to fashion accessible, commercial pop music.

In May of 1964, the Decca debut was released in America as England's Newest Hit Makers The Rolling Stones (London LL 3375/PS 375), its large white letters marring the bold, graphics-free cover art of the British original. While it was the fashion at the time in Britain to not put singles on albums, it most certainly was in America, so the stateside release begins with Buddy Holly's Diddley beat "Not Fade Away" while leaving off "I Need You Baby". The record company adds a Diddley and taketh away a Diddley. Otherwise the track selection is not diddled with.

I have never seen, no less heard an original Decca pressing of the first Stones album, but rest assured the pressing quality is superb, far better than the American version which I've owned since it was released. The closest I've come to the original Decca is the Japanese pressed half-speed mastered reissue, part of The Rolling Stones box set Mobile Fidelity released during the eighties (MFSL 1-161-71), which offers smoother, more detailed sound than the London original. Neither one, however, is audiophile quality or anything close. This is rough stuff, primitively recorded, with the meters frequently pinned, and the compressor cranked, or so it sounds.

In fact, until you get to 1966's Aftermath ( British Decca SKL 4786), the first real full stereo Stones album, the sound is basically awful. So awful it's great! Yes, I've decided the best way to listen to the early albums is mono of course, on semi- chewed up garage sale pressings. If you find 'em chewed up looking for a buck, buy 'em anyway. I've found that with a good cleaning, these cast offs can sound great! As long as the grooves themselves haven't been pulverized, the scratches hardly play-especially if you have a mono switch on your pre-amp.

Forget the blue label "stereo" pressings which have been mucked up with reverb, and stick with the red label monos. But even here things are confusing. The second American Stones album 12X5 (London LL 3402 mono /PS 402 stereo) was never released in Britain, but there is an album on Decca called The Rolling Stones No. 2 (Decca LK4661) which I have never heard, nor do I have a track listing.

"What about the Mo-Fi box"? you say. Well, for some reason Mo-Fi didn't issue The Rolling Stones No. 2, going instead for the American 12X5 , nor does the company offer an explanation as to why it omitted the second British Stones release. On 12X5 Jagger/Richards jell as a songwriting team, offering up the moving Chicago style "Good Times, Bad Times", the moody, wistful "Congradulations"(sic) and the angular, aggressive "Grown Up Wrong". Add two great "Nanker Phelge" tunes, the chewy "Empty Heart", and the churning instrumental "2120 South Michigan Avenue" (home of Chess Records studios), plus Bobby Womack's "It's All Over Now" (recorded at Chess studios) turbocharged by Keith's stiletto guitar chording and Wyman's thundering bass, plus some other classics like "Time Is On My Side", and you have one great record.

Yes, the Mo-Fi box version is "cleaner" especially compared to a garage sale record, but it lacks balls and mid-bass warmth. It's too clinical and cold for my taste. Meanwhile if you want to hear the original "Time Is On My Side" by Irma Thomas, scout down a copy of A History Of New Orleans Rhythm & Blues Volume 3 (Rhino RNLP 70078). You'll discover where Mick and Keith got every lick, plus the track is a sonic stereo spectacular and Thomas' performance backed by a large gospel choir will give you the heebie-jeebies. And while you're at it, also get Volumes 1 and 2 (RNLP 70076, and 70077). You won't regret it.

While 12X5 wasn't issued in Britain, first pressings with "London/ffrr " labels were manufactured by Decca in England for London, according to "Goldmine's Price Guide To Collectible Record Albums (Fourth Edition)" by Neal Umphred, with mint copies today valued at $200.00. Mint maroon American pressings with a silver "London" logo go for $60.00. Second red label pressings with "London" in a silver box are listed at $40.00.

The 12X5 I have is a first American pressing. Sound is variable with the cuts recorded at Chess in Chicago being the biggest, with the deepest bass. Still these are raw, monophonic recordings. Makes you wonder how Muddy Waters Folk Singer came out of the same place at nearly the same time-and in stereo.

An aside: In the fall of 1964 the Stones embarked on their second American tour and through the influence of some alumnus, they were routed to Cornell University for a post football game afternoon concert in the Barton Hall gymnasium before the "official" opening date that night in Buffalo, I believe. It was quite a scene: back then some kids got dressed up in ties and jackets to go to football games and the rest dressed down in a manner which would be considering dressing up by today's collegiate standards.

Mick and company gave it their all trying to generate some heat from the crowd that afternoon, but all they got from the clean cut collegiates was polite applause after each song. Even when they did "Satisfaction" the sedate group sat on their hands. A few individuals stood up and screamed and writhed. Can you guess who one was?

And can you guess how long it took for some big blond haired Aryan upper class Nazi to put his big hairy blond hand on my shoulder and scream "sit down and behave frosh"! Ah, those were the days!

Here's what makes the Mo-fi Stones box confusing: the next American Stones album, Now ! (LL 3420/PS 420) released in February of 1965, is missing. This stateside collection includes covers: "Everybody Needs Somebody To Love", Chuck Berry's "Down Home Girl", "I Need You Baby" (cut from the first album) and an indespensible rendition of Willie Dixon's classic "Little Red Rooster" (a number one hit single in Britain, but never released here as a single, featuring a slashing Brian Jones slide and some of the best sound on the set) among them, and a few Jagger/Richards originals including the hit single "Heart Of Stone", "What A Shame", the Chuck Berry-ish "Off The Hook", and the raucous finale, "Surprise, Surprise". "Little Red Rooster" is nowhere to be found on the Mo-Fi box.

marko1's picture

Nice concert story!

FYI - The second British LP is most similar to Rolling Stones Now US release -

There's an Australian pressing called The Unstoppable Stones that has some of the '64 Chess tracks in true stereo - I've only heard digital copies but they sounded great.  Looks like there were some other releases of those tracks per the SH forum. 

12 x 5 was partially based on the UK 5x5 EP.  With both, the usual US vs. UK track shuffling applied.

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