As a life-long partisan of both the Beatles and the Rolling Stones, it’s always intrigued me how Fab Four touts argue obsessively amongst themselves over how the various albums stack up, whereas Mick and Keef adherents seem to have a much more laissez-faire attitude. Part of this might have to do with the Stones spanning more eras, and the Beatles having just their half dozen or so years together as commercial artists, but the breakdown of the Stones’ best albums usually goes like this: Either Beggars Banquet ('68) or Let It Bleed ('69) takes the top spot, followed by '71's Sticky Fingers, then Exile on Main Street from the next year, then maybe Some Girls from '78. (And a hardcore fan will probably slot in '66's Aftermath somewhere.)
But what almost everyone fails to do is include The Rolling Stones, Now!, a mighty, meaty slab of blues rock released the day before Valentine’s Day, 50 years ago. Now! is the Stones’ third American album, released the same year as Out of Our Heads. The latter featured "Satisfaction," the tune that would turn rock’s preeminent blues renegades into a more populist act—social commentators, even.
But even “Satisfaction” wasn’t as audacious as Now!, which drags the deepest blues into a rocked-up environment, while also showing that five London white kids could hang with the hoariest of past masters. This was new territory for rock, never mind that the genre had been picking the blues clean since the mid-1950s. The leftovers were trotted out in new, pepped-up styles, so someone like Elvis was able to sing about being a one-eyed cat peeping in a seafood store as if he were some contented feline shopper rather than a champion rutter. But no white pop artists before the Stones had, well, the stones to stand acne-coated chin to wizened brow with America’s blues greats.
There's an old adage that sometimes you just don’t know what you don’t know, and that can free you up to do things a wiser person would tell you not to. But listening to Now! half a century later, there's the sense that the Stones knew exactly what they were doing, and just how capable they believed themselves to be in pulling it off. The record opens with a cover of Solomon Burke’s “Everybody Needs Someone to Love,” a mid-tempo shuffle piece with a bass line harkening back to the earliest spirituals, and onward to the Band of Gypsies funk of late-period Jimi Hendrix.
The groove is all swamp, but also all dance floor, and Mick Jagger sings like a man dispensing truths he’s known for ages, and which the listener must now start to mull. It’s the sound of belief, and it’s the sound of guys who have listened to a boatload of blues records. There’s no aping here, but rather a band taking their place in a continuum and offering the latest direction which, as they well knew, is the essence of the blues.
The record’s hero is Brian Jones. A better musician than his bandmates, Jones was later to turn into a liability, a haunting, mostly useless studio presence. But he was the slide-guitar savant and a more of a blues zealot than Jagger or Keith Richards were. Richards would soon be Lord of the Riff, thanks to “Satisfaction” and a glut of other ostinato offerings, but Jones’ slide work on “Little Red Rooster” is some of the most important guitar playing in the medium’s history.
The song itself, a Willie Dixon composition, is pure filth. I remember it came on the radio one time when I was a teenager, a rarity, as Now! rarely gets airtime anymore. I was in the car with my mom, and it would have felt almost more appropriate to just start watching porn in front of her. But it was the slide work that slayed me, and Jones’ fills work as blues-based annotations to what Jagger is singing about. "Little Red Rooster" has to be the most down-tempo, non-ballad number to have hit #1 in the British charts up until that time. These guys couldn’t just hang with the likes of Elmore James; they could light him up.
A mush-mouthed Jagger leads a commanding performance through Bo Diddley’s “Mona” in which the entire band—and Jagger’s vocals—coalesces into a total cohesion of sound, like a non-stop surge of rhythm that keeps coming like a force of nature. The Jagger/Richards original, “Heart of Stone,” slows down that surge and tosses in a series of boasts, delivered almost in sonic slow-motion, like some finger-wagging from on high. It’s one of the Stones’ more intense, scarier moments, and came years before something like “Sympathy for the Devil.”
But it’s on the more up-tempo tracks that it becomes clear how the band was marrying up the blues with a degree of melody the genre had never really had before. The original closer “Surprise, Surprise” is breathlessly in love with its own swing, the band and Jagger’s vocals racing ahead, as if the combined lot of them had come upon the key to the rest of their career. Blues it up like mad and do what no white band had ever done, and then supply some careening riffage. It’s really not that far from the close of Now! to the “we are your overlords” vibe of “Gimme Shelter.” Slightly different directions, is all.