Friday, June 9, 2017

Rolling Stones – "Play With Fire" (1965)

But don't play with me
’Cause you're playing with fire

The previous 2 or 3 lines discussed David Marchese’s ranking (on of 374 Rolling Stones songs.  Click here to see Marchese’s picks.

One thing that struck me after I pondered Marchese’s list is just how many forgettable songs the Rolling Stones recorded.  

I think the Stones are the crème de la crème of all rock groups.  But out of the 374 songs on Marchese’s list, only two or three dozen could be called masterpieces.

Of course, the same is true for the other great classic sixties bands – the Who, the Kinks, the Beach Boys, and even the Beatles.

Yes, you heard me right.  The Beatles recorded many enjoyable pop songs in their early years.  But most of those songs are too lightweight to be thought of as “great” by anyone who wasn’t a 14-year-old girl when the Beatles first toured the United States.  

And the Beatles recorded a fair number of absolute stinkers.  “Maxwell’s Silver Hammer,” “Octopus’s Garden,” and “When I’m Sixty-Four” are just a few of their truly terrible songs.  And while Sgt. Pepper and the “White Album” are considered by many to be the Beatles’ two best albums, both are full of songs that are mediocre at best and godawful at worst.  

But the Stones’ best album, Let It Bleed, doesn’t contain a single stinker.

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With the benefit of 20-20 hindsight, it’s clear that the smartest thing the Beatles ever did was break up when they did – which was clearly after they had peaked, but not by long.  The Stones’ post-Exile on Main St. albums have some good songs, but the dross on those records overwhelms the gold by a wide margin.  (Be honest.  If you had a chance to see the Stones perform live tomorrow, would you be the least bit upset if they said they weren’t playing any of the songs they recorded after 1972?)

The Beatles recorded a lot of crap as individuals, but the group’s reputation didn’t suffer as a result because the albums those songs were released on weren’t Beatles albums – they were John Lennon albums, or Paul McCartney albums, or George Harrison albums, or Ringo Starr albums.  

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The Beatles as a group released 17 studio albums in the U.S.  (Fourteen of them went to #1 on the Billboard album charts, while the other three peaked at #2.)  

The Beatles as individuals released almost four times as many studio albums than the Beatles released  as a group.

John Lennon released eleven studio albums before he was murdered in 1980, while George Harrison released twelve before his 2001 death.  

Would you believe that Ringo Starr has released 18 studio albums?  (Only two made it to the top ten.)

And Paul McCartney has released a whopping 29 studio albums in the U.S.  (That includes five “classical” albums.)

I think that one CD would easily hold all the individual John, Paul, George, and Ringo songs that I’d ever want to listen to.  

The same is true for the dozen studio albums the Rolling Stones released subsequent to Exile on Main Street.

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Marchese ranks three post-Exile songs in his top 25: “Start Me Up” (#18), “Miss You” (#11), and “Beast of Burden” (#3).

None of the three would be in my top 100.  (“Beast of Burden” at #3?  Are you kidding me?)

There are seven early Stones songs – that is, songs that were released when I was in junior high – in Marchese’s top 25: “19th Nervous Breakdown” (#25), “She’s a Rainbow” (#23), “Let’s Spend the Night Together” (#20), “Ruby Tuesday (#14), “Have You Seen Your Mother, Baby, Standing in the Shadow?” (#9), “Satisfaction” (#8),  and “Paint It Black” (#6). 

That’s not bad.  “Paint It Black” and “Satisfaction” definitely belong in the top ten.  (Sure, we’ve all heard “Satisfaction” a zillion times, but it’s a one-of-a-kind song.  And it has as much attitude as any song before or since.  It has held up very well.)

Then . . .
I’d move “Let’s Spend the Night Together” and “19th Nervous Breakdown” down in the rankings a bit.  (They have “Satisfaction”-ish attitude, but rely a little too much on Sturm und Drang – “Satisfaction” is a much smarter song.)  I think Marchese ranks “Ruby Tuesday” too high as well – it’s an interesting song, but it’s really more of a Beatles song than a Stones song.

Marchese doesn’t include a single pre-“Satisfaction” song in his top 25.  He does rank “She Said Yeah” at #27, which is about right.  (It’s a stick of dynamite – the best of the Stones’ early R&B covers.)  But “It’s All Over Now” (#75), “The Last Time” (#90), and especially “Play With Fire” (#125) deserve to be  much higher in the rankings.

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The remaining 15 songs in Marchese’s top 25 come from the Stones’ peak years – 1968 to 1972 – when they released Beggars Banquet, Let It Bleed, Sticky Fingers, and Exile on Main St.

Marchese is correct to say that the golden age of the Stones began with the release of “Jumpin’ Jack Flash” in 1968.  (It was recorded at the same time as the songs that ended up on Beggars Banquet, but was not included on that album.)  Marchese ranks it #4, and I can’t argue with him.  It’s an iconic Stones record – perhaps only “Satisfaction” is more iconic.

“Honky Tonk Women” is another iconic Stones song that wasn’t included in a studio album.  (A country-western version titled “Country Honk” was released on Let It Bleed.)  Marchese ranks it at #7, which I think is way too high.  I was never a huge fan of this song – Jagger works hard to sell it, but I’m buying it.  And I don’t think it has aged particularly well.

“Sympathy for the Devil” and “Street Fighting Man” are the obvious Beggars Banquet to put near the top of the rankings, but I think you have to include “Stray Cat Blues” in the top 25 as well.  It’s a song you rarely heard on the radio, probably because of concerns that the FCC would come down hard on any station that dared to play such an unapologetically sleazy song.

Which is exactly why “Stray Cat Blues” would be in my top 25.  It’s a very unsettling song – especially to parents of teenaged girls.

 . . . and now
Only one Exile on Main St. song – “Tumbling Dice” – makes Marchese’s top 25.  I agree with him that Exile doesn’t have a lot of first-rank songs, but “Soul Survivor,” “Torn and Frayed,” and several other tracks from that album are clearly better than “Tumbling Dice.”  (“Soul Survivor” is a very underrated song – it’s definitely top-25 material.)

Marchese has high regard for Sticky Fingers, ranking no fewer than six songs from that album in his top 25.  I wouldn’t put “Brown Sugar” at #10 – it’s a quintessential Stones song, but I don’t think it’s one of their very best.  And I’d move “Wild Horses” – which is not a quintessential Stones song – down from #12.  (Ditto for “Moonlight Mile,” which Marchese puts at #16.)

“Can’t You Hear Me Knocking” and “Dead Flowers” (#15 and #21, respectively) are also atypical Stones tracks, but I like both of them.  (I think “Dead Flowers” is the best of all the Stones’ country-style songs by far.)

That leaves “Sway” at #22, which I might put ahead of all the other Sticky Fingers songs instead of bringing up the rear.

Let It Bleed is the consensus choice for the best Stones album of all time, and Marchese ranks four songs from that album in his top 25.  

I’m not sure that “Let It Bleed” deserves the #24 spot, but that’s close enough for government work.

“Monkey Man” is an excellent choice.  I might even move it up a few spots from #19, which is where Marchese placed it.  

“Live With Me” is just as good as “Monkey Man,” and should be ranked much higher than #74.

Marchese ranks “You Can’t Always Get What You Want” as the best Stones songs of all time.

If you ask me, “You Can’t Always Get What You Want” tries to do a little too much.  It’s seven-plus minutes long, and contains “at least four ecstatic peaks,” according to Marchese – the Stones pull out all the stops and throw in everything but the kitchen sink (including the 200-odd voices of the world-renowned London Bach Choir). 

What’s my choice for the #1 spot?  “Gimme Shelter” – no ifs, ands or buts about it.

The Stones’ bark was often worse than their bite, but there’s nothing phony about “Gimme Shelter” – it’s as menacing as all get-out.

There’s a reason that the Maysles brothers named their famous documentary about the deadly Altamonte concert Gimme Shelter:

Here’s what Marchese has to say about the song:

As they were in 1969, as they are now, rape, war, and murder are just a shot away, and the band plays to that evil truth with savage intensity.  Mick’s distorted blues harp and vengeful singing and Keith’s serrated lead guitar burn, eternally, with prophetic heat.  And Merry Clayton’s astonishingly intense vocals represent backup singing at its height.  Ominous and forever dead-on, “Gimme Shelter” isn’t just apex Stones . . . it’s as apocalyptic as rock music gets.

Marchese knows that “Gimme Shelter” deserves the numero uno spot, but he wimps out and ranks it #2:

Look, maybe “Gimme Shelter” was the band’s true peak, and that song lives in the darkness the Stones knew so well, knew better than any other band, but I’m putting [“You Can’t Always Get What You Want”] at the top.  It lets a little light in.
Light, schmight.  2 or 3 lines isn’t afraid to give itself to the dark side.  It can handle the truth.

And the truth is that “Gimme Shelter” is the #1 Stones song of all time.  

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2 or 3 lines featured “Gimme Shelter” some time ago.  (You can click here to read what I had to say about it.)  So today’s featured song is “Play With Fire,” which was released in 1965.  

David Marchese ranks it as the Stones’ 125th-best song, but it deserves to be ranked much higher than that.

Jagger and Richards are the only Rolling Stones to appear on “Play With Fire,” which was recorded in Los Angeles the day before the group left to tour Australia.  Phil Spector played bass – actually, he played a tuned-down electric guitar – and frequent Stones collaborator Jack Nitzsche played harpsichord and the Chinese gong known as a tam-tam.

“Play With Fire” is about a rich London girl who is slumming around with a guy from the wrong side of the tracks.  She’s playing with fire, and she’s going to get burned.

Do you remember when the Stones – especially Mick Jagger – seemed menacing and dangerous?  I think a lot of us really felt that way fifty years ago, although it seems almost laughable today.

Here’s “Play With Fire”:

Click below to buy the song from Amazon:

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