Monday, August 30, 2010

Rocks Off by The Rolling Stones

What is the greatest opening song on an album?

My long-standing answer was “Second Hand News” by Fleetwood Mac from their masterpiece Rumours.

Even though it’s not my favorite song on the albums, “Second Hand News” perfectly introduces the musical landscape as well as complex emotional themes of the whole album. It’s the perfect opening chapter.  However, now my answer has changed. I got to give this one to “Rocks Off” the opening song of the Rolling Stones’ album, Exile on Main St..

Exile On Main St. is a double album the Stones released in 1972. Avoding paying taxes they owed the British government the Stones rented a villa in France near Nice and recording in legendary sessions what many consider the Stones’ masterpiece.

“Rocks Off” from a technical standpoint is a mess. The balance of instruments shifts unintentionally, Jagger’s singing is makes the lyrics even harder to understand than usual. However like my favorite Stone’s song “Tumblin’ Dice” (which I discussed on this earlier post) which is also from this album, what you need to do is focus on the single transcendent factor that makes this song rock SO hard: the feel.

It's in Keith Richard’s drunk sounding laid back guitar playing that seems to barely fit in the beat working against Bill Wyman’s steady bass line and Charlie Watts driving beat. It’s the nasty sounding horns that add colors of harmony in loud brash colors and of course it’s Jagger’s bluesy delivery of a man who still can’t find satisfaction.

At the end of the chorus (1:15, 3:07) my favorite parts of this song, we hear the most beautiful mess. Overdubs of back-up singers and Jagger make an incomprehensible mix covered up by brassy interjections, random sounding piano fills and the rest of the band playing with abandons seeming to be completely unaware of whatever else is going on in the band. For a moment it feels like that the band will actually fall apart during this but they don't.  It’s awesome, it’s musically astounding and one of the finest examples of what is Rock ‘n’ Roll.

The rest of Exile On Main St. follows a similar vein, diving deep into blues adding rock attitude and sensibility. What the Stones’ remind us that this idea of the Rock musician’s lifestyle including drugs and debauchery is about freedom and what makes this meaningful is not the fact that the Stones’ lived this lifestyle. Rather, it’s the fact that the created music that captured this feeling of youth, depravity but most of all freedom that makes it so feel good to be alive.

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