For me, the best Stones album by some distance is Beggars Banquet. Although Brian Jones played a more peripheral part than usual in its creation, it was the last and greatest LP to feature the original five. By the following year the band’s sound, as well as its understanding of itself, had altered irrevocably. After Beggars Banquet, while the highs were often ecstatic ones, much of their music became progressively more hackneyed over time, and while some of their records (particularly those made between 1969 and 1972) are amongst the best and most confident they would ever make, never again would they sound so natural nor exuberant as they did in ’68.
The two albums which preceded BB offer a glimpse into the Stones’ orbit before they became self-proclaimed ‘greatest rock and roll band in the world’. The dayglo psychedelic experiment Their Satanic Majesties Request has undergone something of a critical reappraisal in recent years, its excesses (of the sonically adventurous kind) perhaps easier to stomach than those (of the dead-eyed smacked out type) of the ‘70s, so candidly chronicled by Nick Kent in Apathy For The Devil.
But TSMR‘s predecessor Between The Buttons is better still, an effervescent pop potpourri which saw them step outside of their R&B roots to incorporate elements of country and western (‘Who’s Been Sleeping Here?’), baroque (‘Yesterday’s Papers’) and Kinks-ish music hall (‘Cool, Calm & Collected’,’ Something Happened To Me Yesterday’) alongside their first organically psychedelic inflections.
’67 was the strangest year for the Stones. They would make newspaper headlines for the wrong reasons (the famous drug bust at Redlands) and Between The Buttons – while it performed fairly well in the charts (although not as well as Aftermath) – was somewhat overshadowed by the subsequent court case. A shame, because it’s one of the very best albums they ever made.
On January 15th they ‘spent some time together’ performing their new AA-sided 45 on the Ed Sullivan Show. Sullivan censored the lyric while Jagger rolled his eyes and deliberately fluffed his lines. As was oft the case, the single cuts (‘Let’s Spend The Night Together’ / ‘Ruby Tuesday’) were included on the US version of the LP which would be released in February. The UK version, released on 20th January, omitted both. Curiously, when I began building my Stones collection, the US version was more widely available and therefore I didn’t hear the album in the form it was originally intended to be heard, for many years. And when I did, the album finally began to make perfect sense.
The first of the two tracks to make way for the hits on the US version of the LP, contains the kind of embellishments which would remain absent throughout their ’70s oeuvre. ‘Back Street Girl’ sees Jagger lampoon the hypocrisy of the aristocracy, it’s ‘lord of the manor and his mistress’ lyric stapled to one of the Stones’ gentlest melodies, a waltzing companion piece to ‘Lady Jane’, featuring Brian on vibes, Jack Nitzsche on harpsichord with Nick de Caro lending some Gallic charm on accordion. “I wrote this in some weird place which I can’t remember. It’s got the feeling of a French cafe about it” Jagger explained to Keith Altham of the NME. Years later, he suggested it was the only song on the album he was happy with. It’s an album he sorely underestimates.
Brian’s fingerprints meanwhile, are everywhere in evidence, pulling the strings and twiddling the knobs on the second of those tracks, the Bo Diddley on (a)steroids runout ‘Please Go Home’. Jones had big plans then, and his interviews always made good copy. “I believe we are moving toward a new age in ideas and events. Astrologically we are at the end of the age called the Pisces age…We are soon to begin the age of Aquarius. There is a young revolution in thought and manner about to take place”, he told Keith Altham shortly after the album’s release. Maybe one eye was already on the band’s next more explicitly psychedelic project, but those roots were sewn on BTB not only through Brian’s dilettantish peppering of the material with sitars, oscillators and flutes, but also with Keith’s heavily distorted reverb on ‘Yesterday’s Papers’ and the menacing ‘My Obsession’. Sessions were engineered by Dave Hassinger and the hovering dynamics here recall his similarly impressive synchronous work with The Electric Prunes.
On ‘Yesterday’s Papers’ the miraculous interplay between Nitzche’s harpsichord and Jones’ vibraphone hangs like draped finery over Keith’s pulsating generator. Jagger had envisaged the song entirely differently. “It was going to be very straight but it’s ended up donging about all over the place. All tinkling and weird. Charlie said he wanted to think up a weird drum rhythm for it and brought about two dozen different drums into the studio for it, then he asked me if I thought he was getting contrived?” he told the NME at the time. Contrived or not, it is a hugely undervalued gem and for many, the album’s defining moment.
The Stones hadn’t forgotten how to rip it up as evidenced by the delightfully rambunctious ‘Miss Amanda Jones’. ‘All Sold Out’ and ‘Connection’ are feisty little rockers too, the latter’s irresistible staccato guitar riff and prescient lyric anticipating the personal problems to come (“The bags, they get a very close inspection/I wonder why it is that they suspect ’em?”), while the former is ’embellished’ with more superb guitar work alongside Jones’ tone deaf recorder. The mid tempo ballad ‘She Smiled Sweetly’ is less successful, possibly the album’s weakest track, and despite Keith’s versatility his efforts to edify the thing with solemn church organ – Jagger claimed the track was “quasi-religious” – are in vain. Even his bass part is bewildering, as if he’s playing on one string, and a broken one at that. One might guess they ran out of time and everyone else had disappeared for the evening.
‘Who’s Been Sleeping Here?’, a kind of countrified Dylan pastiche, is a peculiar marriage of his mournfully melancholic ‘She Belongs To Me’ with the bawdy ‘Rainy Day Women # 12 & 35′, but against the odds it works splendidly well, with particular credit to Jones’ understated harp playing. It’s also interesting to note the progression from here to ‘No Expectations’ from the following year’s Beggars Banquet. As for the closer, ‘Something Happened To Me Yesterday’, it is one of the oddest songs in the Stones’ canon, and musically at least sounds like an out-take from The Kinks’ Face To Face. As for the subject matter, Jagger was somewhat cryptic: “I leave it to the individual imagination as to what happened. The ending is something I remember hearing on the BBC as the bombs dropped.” A red herring probably – it is more likely to be about his first encounter with LSD. And that experience would of course lead them to unexplored pastures.
It is often overlooked, but Between The Buttons is quirky and ingenious, and if at times a little too polite for some tastes, reassuringly devoid of the rawk posturing to come. It is the Stones’ brightest album, and also their most English – their very own Village Green. (JJ)