What a drag it is getting old. It’s not just that I date from 1965, like The Rolling Stones, Now! It’s also that my opinions, beliefs and knee-jerk reactions, which once were passably progressive, have become antiquated, even reactionary. I feel my age in the classroom when my students condemn the blinkered views of 17th- and 18th-century authors whom I revere, or when they make it clear that my own thinking about gender, race and sexuality belongs to another century. Kids are different today.
I also feel my age on Facebook, which is where I go to interact with folks to the left of me. Last summer, for instance, I got into a Facebook spat about the Rolling Stones. I was eavesdropping on a conversation between two strangers. One of them, a woke-seeming young man named Jason, declared the Rolling Stones “stone cold racists” and “classic racist cultural colonizers.”
The Stones, Clapton, etc. are not important artists. They are products for white people. As an artist I just had to get real about it. These types of bands started and are popular because they give racists a place to safely enjoy black art without having to appear subservient or even respectful of a black person. […] Richards and Clapton (Jimmy Page, etc.) pay lip service to black artists. But they strip mined what they created without a second thought. They probably don’t even acknowledge to themselves what they represent. They are classic racists.
His interlocutor surrendered at that point (“Thank you for that info. Now I’m glad i never paid a dime for their music. Lol”), but I took up the cause. I argued that the Stones had always acknowledged and honored their African American idols—most famously, getting Howlin’ Wolf on the TV show Shindig with them and sitting at his feet as he performed. Jason soon set me straight:
I don’t buy the photo ops and PR as genuine. It was all marketing slight [sic] of hand specifically designed to steal black music and re-market it being played by young white bands so the racist American audience would buy it. Elvis, Buddy Holly, Stones, right up to Beastie Boys (first number one hip hop album). It’s a standard marketing formula. I don’t consider the Stones artists on the same level as Wolf. They are not real.
I made one more effort to engage my adversary, proposing that there were many lazier, blander, and more cynical ways of stealing black music. “The Stones,” I proposed, “at least treated it as something to live up to rather than as something to water down.” I ended by asking, “Are there white singers/bands whose relation to black musical culture you can approve?” I got no reply. Jason was finished with me.
The Rolling Stones, Now! might seem to prove Jason’s point. It stems from the (brief) period in which the Stones were primarily re-marketing black music—strip-mining it, if you will. The album has twelve songs, and only four are Jagger-Richards originals (“Heart of Stone” being the best-known). The rest are renditions of songs written and first recorded by African American musicians. There are two versions of Chuck Berry recordings, two songs belonging to other Chess Studios recording artists (Howlin’ Wolf, Bo Diddley), two songs by fairly well-known soul singers (Otis Redding, Solomon Burke), and two songs from comparatively obscure R&B singers (Alvin Robinson, Barbara Lynn). In 1965, this selection would have struck few people as racist, of course. More likely it would have seemed the opposite: an eager embrace of African American culture, and a scrupulous desire to emulate it. The Stones were working hard to produce credible versions of these songs, and (pace Jason) their covers are if anything too respectful and subservient. They follow the originals closely, the changes mostly coming from the guitars of Brian Jones and Keith Richards having to compensate for a missing horn section. (Jones does this brilliantly with the fey slide lick that substitutes for the horn riff in “Down Home Girl.”) They show themselves to be sonic chameleons, mimicking the loose jalopy rattle of “You Can’t Catch Me,” the pulsating, reverberant throb of “Mona,” the jaunty groove of “Everybody Needs Somebody to Love,” the languid, swampy feel of “Down Home Girl.” One can detect amphetamines goosing the tempos a bit, but otherwise meticulous imitation is the order of the day.
That doesn’t free them from the charge of exploitation, however. A lovingly crafted forgery is still a crime when passed off as an original, right? The Stones were presumably paying songwriting royalties to the original artists, all of whom are properly credited here, but they were also profiting from these pale imitations. Moreover, they have been pretty dismissive of this apprentice work; Jagger, at least, seems to have agreed with Jason that they were not “real” in the way Howlin’ Wolf was. He famously asked in a 1968 interview, “What’s the point in listening to us doing ‘I’m a King Bee’ when you can hear Slim Harpo do it?” That question admits some plausible answers, however. Maybe you can’t hear Slim Harpo do it. It’s easy enough today to summon up the originals via the internet, but in 1965? And how would you, a teenager in Manchester or London, even know you wanted to hear this music without the intervention of local musicians? The radio, maybe, and those famous American sailors in Liverpool (“Cunard Yanks”) bringing vinyl treasures from the new world. But many of us, even in more enlightened times, have needed the Rolling Stones to get us interested in the blues. Jagger mused, in that same interview, “We did blues to turn people on, but why they should be turned on by us is unbelievably stupid.” Stupid, perhaps—but doesn’t the opposite situation, in which I never learn there is a Slim Harpo, reflect a more unfortunate stupidity?
So at least we can defend the album in 1965. But do we need The Rolling Stones, Now! now? Does it belong in our top 500? Is it really better than Natty Dread (#181) and almost as good as Abba’s Definitive Collection (#179)? Is it even a real album, this U.S.-only release cobbled together from stray singles, cuts left off the first two U.S releases, and a bit of new material? Do we need it for the moody David Bailey photographs, or for the faux-Clockwork Orange liner notes (“Cast deep in your pockets for loot to buy this disc of groovies and fancy words. If you don’t have bread, see that blind man knock him on the head, steal his wallet and low [sic] and behold you have the loot”)? Other than nostalgia and antiquarianism and vinyl fetishism, is there any justification for The Rolling Stones, Now!, when you can compile in minutes (I just did) a Spotify playlist of the originals and “enjoy black art” in its unadulterated and undiluted form?
The answer to all these questions should be “yes,” but I guess I’m not really sure. Maybe this album is just a relic. What I am certain of, is that you need to know “Mona,” and “You Can’t Catch Me” and “Down Home Girl” and “The Little Red Rooster” and “Pain in My Heart” and the rest. They will enrich your life; they will explain your existence to you. Whether you get familiar with the originals or with the Stones’ mostly plausible covers (only “Pain in My Heart” eludes them entirely) doesn’t really matter to me. If authenticity is your bag, go for the originals. If you are interested in the early works of the world’s greatest rock and roll band, get The Rolling Stones, Now! But if you plan to dismiss the Rolling Stones out of hand, well then you’d better pay your own damn homage to Howlin’ Wolf, Bo Diddley, and the rest.