Entombed BBC live recordings released by the Rolling Stones

An awesome new live set, "On Air" reveals the fascinating musical evolution of the Rolling Stones

Published December 4, 2017 6:59PM (EST)

The Rolling Stones from left to right, Brian Jones (1942 - 1969), Mick Jagger, Keith Richards, Charlie Watts and Bill Wyman (Getty/Terry Disney)
The Rolling Stones from left to right, Brian Jones (1942 - 1969), Mick Jagger, Keith Richards, Charlie Watts and Bill Wyman (Getty/Terry Disney)

There is some major art for the ages in the BBC’s tape archives. I would suggest, for instance, that if you were to visit any one single set of recordings to know what the Beatles were most about, you would turn to what they recorded for Auntie Beeb, as the broadcasting giant was known. Only a fraction of this music has gained official release, but intrepid searchers have always been able to locate it, with minds being blown in following. Jimi Hendrix taped some of his best early live work at the radio studios, and we also have, scattered here and there, veritable troves from the Kinks, Yardbirds, Van Morrison and Them, Cream. But what we haven’t had until now—not, officially, that is—is something from the Rolling Stones.

Appearances on “The Ed Sullivan Show” aside, it has never been easy to hear what the Stones sounded like as a live act in their early years when Brian Jones and Keith Richards had their unique guitar set-up. I say unique in that neither really played lead guitar, and neither really played rhythm. They both did both, weirdly, often within the same song.

But to give you an idea of what we’ve been missing, Stones-wise: You can listen to the Beatles in their pre-fame era at the Star Club in Hamburg in late 1962, there are fantastic recordings from Sweden in October 1963, a winner of a homecoming gig from Christmastime of the same year, and scores of recordings from concerts throughout 1964, 1965, and 1966. Stage equipment wouldn’t really start to get up to snuff until 1967, which is why we have so few classic live albums from guitar-based bands before that time. Chances are, if you were a loud rock ensemble and you cut a killer live LP, it came from 1968 or after.

But at least we have those Beatles recordings. We’ve been caught up short when it comes to the Stones. They released a live album in late 1966 for the holiday market called "Got Live If You Want It!" This was recorded, in part, on their UK tour of that fall, with some numbers actually waxed in the studio and thrown into the soup with fake applause dubbed on. Yes, before there was fake news, there were (piecemeal) fake live albums.

Critics have never liked the record, but I dig it — it’s loud, manic, and if it were the LP version of someone’s pulse rate, we’d be at 200 BPM. You need some lager to calm down after listening to it. But like I said, it’s very soupy, ramshackle to the point of chaotic, more Sex Pistols gone amok than Bo Diddley tending to his business.

The eighteen songs on this new BBC comp “On Air” will prove invaluable to Stones people who never heard this stuff on bootleg. I’d still recommend the latter, because this set makes the grievous mistake of not sequencing the material chronologically. Of course, you can resequence it yourself, but the thinking, I suppose, was that in our immediate gratification culture, we must have a hit every so often when we are listening to something. A sodding hit. Like we’re all eleven-years-old at the church social waiting for a song we know all the words to so we can dance. You do a release like this properly — meaning, you keep the historical record intact.

The deal with the BBC sessions was that a band like the Stones would turn up in between concert or studio dates, cut a handful of songs live-in-the-studio, and in the near future they’d be broadcast so that the youth of Britain could hear either different versions of songs they already knew, or else versions of songs that a band like the Stones played for them nowhere else. This, frankly, was beyond cool.

The sound on the boots was always excellent, and it’s been cleaned up here. I prefer a little more crunch than cleanliness, but no one will quibble. What’s fascinating is how un-bluesy the Stones can sound even when tackling the blues. This will come off as heresy; after all, the Stones were so black, they were such blues purists, etc. That’s hogwash. They were always pretty white no matter what music they were playing, and more white, I’d argue, than the Beatles were when they covered songs by Arthur Alexander or the Shirelles. Part of that is because the Beatles had more range and were just a far better band. They could go to places, occupy spaces, other bands could not. What you will hear, though, is what a lean, springy beast the early Stones could be, which, in turn, powered the all-timer of a band that the Stones became by the end of the decade.

Their music is riff-heavy. But often, a band will use a riff to underpin a song. Listen to the Stones’ cover of Chuck Berry’s “Come On,” for instance, from October 1963. When it came to rhythmic motivic devices, Berry thought as the Stones did. He, and they, pitched their riffs higher up in the soundscape than is common. If we think of a song like a chariot, the riff is usually the wheels. That’s how it is with, say, AC/DC’s “Back in Black,” Deep Purple’s “Smoke on the Water,” or the Who’s “My Generation.” The chugging-ness, the forward momentum, comes from the bottom. That’s not the case with the Beatles’ “If I Needed Someone,” Berry’s “Memphis, Tennessee,” or the Stones’ own “Brown Sugar.” The riff is at the top, like it’s the bucket thing of the chariot that you ride around in.

Bassist Bill Wyman, as we hear on these airshots, keeps the mix from flying away. His job is to provide light ballast, rather than rhythmic bottom. Charlie Watts, on drums, plays a jazzer’s role of accentuation. The guts of the sound are higher up: those Jones and Richards guitars, the harmonica licks, and, naturally, Mick Jagger’s voice.

Their version of “High Heel Sneakers” is as good as the one Jerry Lee Lewis recorded during that same year of 1964 for one of his mighty live albums. The Stones are clearly having the gas that our man Jumpin’ Jack will treat himself to in five years’ time. There’s true buoyancy in this music, which can scarcely hold this band; alas, their songwriting had yet to catch up to their fluency and fluidity, though that would start to come in 1966.

If you enjoy comparing and contrasting, check out the Stones’ version of Berry’s “Carol” and measure it against the Beatles’ blast through the song from the same year of 1963, or the darker, more virtuosic rendering—courtesy of Mick Taylor’s lead guitar work — on 1970’s “Get Yer Ya-Ya’s Out!” This is the bike, that was the sports car — albeit one that Ghost Rider might tool around in — but they work up such speed that you’re invigorated. Total adrenaline rush.

Can the Stones hang with the blues musicians they worshipped? The cover of Muddy Waters “I Can’t Be Satisfied” is earnest and winsome. It’s not the musical version of an acolyte sitting at a master’s knee, because it’s rammed with too much brio. Brio makes for confidence, confidence makes for swagger, swagger makes for deep-hued, lived-in music that you feel you can deliver in a way no one else can because while an earlier version of it might have been someone else’s, this is yours.

It’s also a declension of the acoustic plantation blues the Stones loved so much, for something more attitudinal and, well, teeny. They’re finding themselves, you see. What they will find is that they were less a blues band, and more an ostinato-swagger band that brought high-end intellect to bear on people who feel, as we all do, that the world is less cloud-wispy blue and more dead-of-night indigo. But, the purpling begins here.

By Colin Fleming

Colin Fleming's work appears in Rolling Stone, the Atlantic Monthly and the New Yorker. He is completing a story collection and a novel, and can be found on the Web at colinfleminglit.com.

MORE FROM Colin Fleming

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Bbc Editor's Picks Music Rock N' Roll The Rolling Stones