The weird thing is that when that first record came out, we were still basically a club band. I don’t think we had played anything bigger than the Marquee. The record wormed its way into the top twenty, and suddenly, within a matter of weeks or so, we’d been transformed into pop stars. ~ Keith Richards, Life
We laugh now, don’t we, when we think of Decca executive Dick Rowe. History will almost certainly record him as ‘The Man Who Turned Down The Beatles’ and who sent them packing with a (probably apocryphal) quip about “guitar bands” being “on the way out, Mr. Epstein”. He will go down, that is to say, as the man who made the single worst decision in music industry history. This is almost wholly unfair.
Firstly because the Beatles had been turned down by all the major labels, not just by Decca and Dick Rowe, who at least let them through the door for an audition. Secondly because they had been urged by Brian Epstein that day to showcase, variety stylee, the full diversity of the songbook they could draw on as a club act, meaning their talents were thinly spread among an odd collection of rockers, ballads and novelty songs which together betrayed little of the irrepressible charm teenagers would soon succumb to in such hysterical fashion. Thirdly because Epstein’s boys were tired and dead nervous that day and by all accounts they just weren’t that good. Had they entered Decca Studios match-fit and with songs as strong as ‘Love Me Do’ or ‘She Loves You’, I’ve no doubt Rowe would’ve bitten Epstein’s hand off. As it was, half-hearted runs through songs like ‘Bésame Mucho’ and ‘September in the Rain’ just weren’t, from Decca’s perspective, gonna cut it with the kids. Lastly, and most importantly, because it was easy – all too easy – for Rowe to believe, on that cold new year’s morning in 1962, that rock ‘n’ roll really was a passing fad. After all, everybody else in the industry thought the same thing.
Anyone who knew anything about music in Britain in the early 1960s knew that the new youth movement had already arrived anyway, in the shape of…drum roll…the trad jazz revival! We laugh at this too, now – who listens to Acker Bilk nowadays? – but that was how it seemed back then to the aficionados of the latest musical trends. “The prediction that trad jazz would be the soundtrack to the 1960s might look supremely ill-judged,” the historian Dominic Sandbrook says, “but at the time it seemed both sensible and plausible”. Serious people sincerely believed thirty year old men in bowler hats and braces who played a form of music from the 1920s was where it was at.
All of which is a way of saying the Beatles’ success was not only unpredicted by the likes of Derek Rowe; it was, in a very real sense, unpredictable – a classic ‘black swan’ event. It hardly seems fair therefore to blame Rowe for failing to see the potential in a phenomenon that was literally inconceivable to the sleepy pop landscape of the time, especially so given the paltry evidence upon which he had to base such critical judgements. It is only in retrospect that history looks so obvious. Locked into their present, contemporary actors in historical sagas seldom know what’s happening until it’s happening.
Besides, the much maligned Rowe went some way to redeem himself to history, when in 1963 he signed for Decca (at George Harrison’s recommendation, no less) a promising young R&B combo then tearing it up in the clubs in and around London. For trad had an ugly brother, the blues, which snuck in on its coattails, in the nexus of musicians formed around Alexis Korner, who had the chops and who had the club and who bought Charlie Watts and Brian Jones and, soon enough, Mick Jagger and Keith Richards into his orbit from the provinces.
A few days before Dick Rowe made his fateful trip to the Crawdaddy Club to see them play, the Stones had signed a management deal with a thrusting young Svengali-come-Barnum character called Andrew Loog Oldham. Oldham, who had worked as a publicist for Brian Epstein, understood one thing above all else: the desires unleashed by Beatlemania were so great they could hardly be sated by one group alone. Demand for Beatles and Beatles-like product so outstripped supply that a slew of new ‘beat music’ groups were happily rushing in to plug the gap in this exploding market, transforming the look and feel of popular music in Britain (and, soon enough, America) in the process. Most of these groups – Gerry and The Pacemakers, Manfred Mann, The Dave Clark Five, The Hollies – were, for all their individual brilliance, recognisably in the Beatles mould. What Oldham foresaw was the need for a kind of ‘anti-Beatles’ who could act as the aural and visual antithesis to the Fab Four’s relentlessly sunny optimism, and in these five surly, cocksure blues purists, felt sure he’d found them. Oldham set to work dreaming up schemes for courting notoriety before the ink on their contact was dry.
As the critic Greil Marcus has argued, the Beatles’ success had fundamentally expanded the parameters of youthful rebellion: “it was The Beatles who opened up the turf the Stones took as their own – there was no possibility of a left until The Beatles created the centre”. Oldham, sensing this, assiduously cultivated a rebellious and lascivious image for his new charges, emphasising at every turn their moodiness, their ugliness, their bad manners, their scruffy, unkempt demeanour. Famously, when the group baulked at the matching suits Oldham had forced them into for their first couple of TV appearances, he merely folded that act of rebellion into their emerging self-mythology: here was a band apparently so contemptuous of showbiz niceties they performed in their own clothes. Laughably tame though such controversies may seem to us today, in the moment they were read as meant: both a direct challenge to established convention, and an indirect snub to wider bourgeois mores.
What strikes one as remarkable today is how dreamily easy it all seemed; how willingly, that is, each side of this burgeoning culture war played out their various parts. The tabloids, with their screaming front pages about LONG-HAIRED MONSTERS; the music papers, with their Oldham-planted headlines like the notorious WOULD YOU LET YOUR DAUGHTER GO WITH A ROLLING STONE?; the proverbial ‘outraged-of-Tunbridge-Wells’, who were sure to follow the Stones’ every appearance with floods of angry letters to broadcasters declaiming these five scruffy oiks harbingers of civilisational collapse into barbarism; and the kids, who, in scenes not seen since the ripped up cinema seats of the rock ‘n’ roll mid-50s, turned Stones’ gigs into a locus for generational mayhem. It worked like a charm.
As a musical act the Stones took time to grow into the ‘bad boy’ roles Oldham assigned them. Initial recordings showed fitful promise in the studio. Despite the obviously commercial move of releasing a song given to them by the Beatles as their second single (meaning they were all but guaranteed a hit), the band still saw themselves as hardcore blues boys with a penchant for down-home R&B. Their eponymously-titled début long-player was a chance to record the kind of music that had seen them garner such a devoted following in the clubs.
Released in April 1964, The Rolling Stones did its job, by knocking With The Beatles from the number one spot. (Released a month later in the US, with a slightly different tracklisting and given the corny subtitle England’s Newest Hit Makers, it peaked at a more modest number eleven.) For the striking jacket, the band were photographed by Nicholas Wright in profile, heads turned, glowering into the camera with barely repressed menace. In the UK, this cover took the moodiness of the groundbreaking sleeve for With The Beatles one step further, by forgoing any other visual information bar the Decca logo. Even the Beatles, then the most famous young men on the planet, had their name and album title on the front. “The Rolling Stones are more than just a group,” Oldham wrote on his typically purple-prosed sleeve note, “they are a way of life”.
If the results can’t, as yet, live up to that level of hype, they are nonetheless still thrilling half a century later. Judge it against its sources, and The Rolling Stones inevitably falls short. To hear, for example, the Stones’ recordings of ‘I Just Want To Make Love To You’ and ‘I’m a King Bee’ next to Muddy Waters’ priapic originals is to hear the difference between boys and men. Judged by the standards of British pop in 1964, however, this is fantastically raw and vital stuff. As always, context is everything.
Phil Spector, who (along with Gene Pitney) contributed to these sessions, once gave Oldham a word of advice: if you ever manage a group, make sure to do the recordings yourself, independent of the record company. That way you can lease the tapes to the label while maintaining control of the music. It’s a sign of Decca’s desperation to find the ‘new Beatles’ that they accepted such a potentially disadvantageous deal from an untried proposition like the Rolling Stones and their cocky little manager.
Oldham’s naiveté in the studio environment was quickly exposed, however, when it emerged he didn’t understand a song had to be mixed after recording. Thus he ended up ‘producing’ those early singles, EPs and The Rolling Stones only in the sense of watching the clock and letting the studio engineers do all the actual fiddly stuff. The results were delightfully furious when compared to the more polished beat groups of the moment. If they had recorded The Rolling Stones at Decca, under the tutelage of Decca’s impeccable engineers, instead of at the small Regent Sound Studios in London’s Denmark Street, the album wouldn’t, one feels, possess anything like the rough-around-the-edges, garageband quality from which much of its sonic excitement derives.
This album, that is to say, cooks: their eschewal of the standard lead/rhythm dichotomy means guitars dominate the space with aggressive stabs and distorted slashes; the rhythm section is slightly ramshackle, yet explosive; when they lock into step – as in their swaggering, nasty ‘Mona (I Need You Baby)’ – they sound as hungry as they look on the cover. Keith Richards peppers the album with some of his best Chuck Berry riffs, and gets a few cracking little solos, while Brian Jones adds his Elmore James slide guitar and atmospheric wails on the harmonica. Even in this relatively embryonic state the band have a raucous, dirty energy that few, if any, of their ‘better produced’ peers could match. (The most dated element of the recording being those crap handclaps.)
If The Rolling Stones has a weak link, it lies in their doll-like, blubber-lipped singer, who at this stage projects little of the personality he would soon come to develop on record. The closest he gets to that classic Jagger sneer are a few thin squawks and yelps here and there. He sounds, at moments, out of his depth; the band, at all times, sound like they’re leading him rather than vice versa. (The distortion helps a bit here, too, in lending Jagger an aura of savageness he has yet to fully deserve.)
I have an original Decca mono pressing of this album (minus the cover), given to me some twenty years ago by an uncle to whom it belonged as a boy, and the sound on this new pressing compares quite favourably. It’s slightly brighter, but the fidelity and level of detail are most impressive, which (I hope) bodes well for the rest of the set.