NOTE - This week, Adam creates another Wine, Women and a Song or Two original album just for your enjoyment.Now the title of this article may take some readers by surprise. The Rolling Stones didn’t get to be one of the biggest bands on the planet by their cover songs, and I’m sure the first 5 Stones songs you can think of (probably: Satisfaction, Brown Sugar, You Can’t Always Get What You Want, Paint It Black, Wild Horses?) aren’t covers. To a learned fan, you might think ah, he’s referring to their early albums, where about three quarters of the songs were old blues/ R&B covers by the likes of Howlin’ Wolf, Muddy Waters and Chuck Berry. But I’ve listened to these albums, and I find most of these covers to be fairly boring, uninspired remakes that add very little to the original. Of course there are exceptions, but generally I find their early covers interesting, but weak.
After about their second album, the band began using covers less and less and relying on material written by the band themselves; a transition that was not uncommon and was taken by The Beatles, The Kinks, Bob Dylan etc. However, unlike the aforementioned, The Rolling Stones continued to throw in the odd cover version into many of their albums, right up to Dirty Work in 1986. This is where they get interesting. Rather than plod their way through familiar material in a familiar way, the band opted for a more adventurous approach with many of the songs to freshen them up. The results of some of these covers are absolutely astounding, and I’m going to work through my personal favourites in chronological order.
Not Fade Away – Single, 1964
One of the few early covers by The Stones that I like and the single that sent them crashing into the mainstream. A faster, more riveting version of the song than the Buddy Holly original, defined by their typical early bluesy harmonica and guitar. A fantastic cover and it shows that the band were already very confident in playing these R&B songs that were to be their early trademark.
Prodigal Son – from Beggars Banquet, 1968
Onwards we jump – 4 years, in fact. After the critically lambasted Their Satanic Majesties Request, the band returned to their roots and delivered what I consider their best album; Beggars Banquet. It boasted some of their strongest ever songwriting and was host to a brilliant fusion of old and new; traditionalism and experimentalism. Much of the album is acoustic and very bluesy, and despite being all new songs, many of them sound as though they had been travelling around for decades, passed on from one blues master to an eager student and so on. Prodigal Son, the only cover on the album, doesn’t sound out of place despite being written some 40 years before the album came out. Keith Richards’ superb acoustic dominates with its rich, full sound and intense strumming. At times it even sounds like he’s trying to bend the strings right off. Charlie Watt’s minimalist drumming adds a disturbed, somewhat feverish quality to the song; Brian Jones harmonica dwells in the background like a thief in the night. And of course, good ol’ Mick, with his customary faux southern states accent presents to us the familiar lyrics from the Biblical passage of the Prodigal Son in a sort of slurred drawl.
What makes this cover a triumph isn’t just because of what I’ve described. It’s how the band manages to feel their way through the song and make it fit on the album alongside their compositions. The Stones were doing some terrific things on this album with their own material, playing it with a blues revivalist edge despite the fact that it was all new. In this context, Prodigal Son is updated with some drums and a faster tempo, but still feels traditional. By respecting the song in its original form and taking inspiration from it, the Stones managed to craft it neatly into one of their best albums.
Love In Vain – From Let It Bleed, 1969
Another bluesy cover from an old blues master; this time Robert Johnson. However, while Prodigal Son was less of a remake than an update of an old song, Love in Vain is a song that the band flips, twists and distorts into a mournful country dirge. Robert Johnson’s original is striking and stark, but without much poignancy despite the stirring lyrics. Not so here. Mick Jagger’s pained vocals emphasize the heartbreak of the singer that “all [his] love’s in vain,” and this is matched by the updated melodies. Musically it retains the slow tempo of the original but adds some slide guitar and a wonderful, bittersweet mandolin in an appearance by a young Ry Cooder. This is the band at their most naked.
You Gotta Move – From Sticky Fingers, 1971
A really striking song. Mick Jagger sounds like the ghost of some African American preacher, come back to deliver his final warning to non-believers. Mick Taylor provides some very eerie backing up vocals as well as some absolutely intense electric guitar playing over Richards’ acoustic. The song is rooted in Gospel music (written by a minister, Reverend Gary Davis) and is delivered with the same fiery intensity as we would associate with the far-right, evangelical preachers with their message of fire and brimstone etc. Another example of how excellently the Stones adapted old material.
Sister Morphine – From Sticky Fingers, 1971
One of the band’s most epic songs; I was surprised to learn that it was a cover a few years ago. The stark lyrics describe a struggling drug addict lying in a hospital, and I’d be lying if I said I’d ever heard a song where the music and the lyrics go so well together. From the bleak opening acoustic guitar and sinister vocals, the song builds in intensity with the addition of a menacing slide guitar. The vocals become more pained, more desperate. “Tell me, Sister Morphine, how long have I been lying here? What am I doing in this place? Why does the doctor have no face?” A piano appears, playing a few eerie rolls before the drums kick in and the song goes up and down like a schizophrenic; fading to the acoustic guitar after the line: “Oh can’t you see I’m fading fast, and that this shot will be my last?” An instrumental break ends the song on a fade out. With this fade out, we feel the singer embarking on one final trip before the drugs ruin their system, causing multiple organ failure and sapping what’s left of their life from them. An amazing trip, venturing into a realm so bleak that the Stones never really went there again. Remember it’s a cover, too – and what’s more distressing is that it was written by Marianne Faithfull, who was notorious for her drug abuses. It’s very likely that this song was inspired by a real-life occurrence.
Shake Your Hips – From Exile On Main St., 1972
The opening guitar lick sounds familiar, I’m sure, to anybody who’s played Guitar Hero III. ZZ Top “borrowed” the riff for their hit La Grange. However, while they used the bluesy riff to make a hard rock anthem, the Stones keep in tune with the original bluesy, almost boogie-woogie sound of the original. The pulsating sound of the riff drifts in and out of the foreground, sometimes dominated by Mick Taylor’s separate electric guitar, sometimes not. A seamless weaving of sounds. Once again, this cover fits in perfectly on the album, where the band were playing in a very roots-y, gospel-y, bluesy style.
Just My Imagination (Running Away With Me)– From Some Girls, 1978
Onwards we jump again to the final of my favourite covers. The original, a tender soul ballad by The Temptations, is a fantastic song in itself, with its dreamy sound achieved by a lazy guitar and a sweet orchestral accompaniment. The Stones version is TOTALLY different. It’s more up-tempo, with two guitars dominating the sound. They’re loud, but they lose none of their despair. Like The Temptations version, there are some marvelous harmonies in the chorus and the vocals express the singers’ longing throughout. Only I feel in this version that Mick Jagger gets it spot on. His voice has never been more emotional or desperate in retelling the tale of the singer’s heartbreak at his fantasies about an unrequited love. It’s a triumph of a song, and one I’ve found myself listening to many times and felt able to relate to.
Words - Adam