Sunday, February 4, 2007


40 years ago: Feb. 1967

The Rolling Stones' Between the Buttons was a kind of coming-of-age for the world's ugliest band. When I was eight I got to know the song "Ruby Tuesday," the first Stones song I ever heard and which has remained one of my favorite songs to this day. Even then the song seemed much older, like it had been around forever -- that quality sometimes referred to as "timeless." And yet, in retrospect, the song -- which is about the changes time brings -- is very much of its time. What I associate with 1967 is an opening of the available musical palette for rock bands. In the typical history, Rubber Soul (1965) begat Pet Sounds (1966) which begat Sgt. Pepper (1967) (and then Brian Wilson's brain french-fried trying to top that with Smile), or something like that. The Stones, of course, were left out of that trajectory because they were the copycats, not the ringleaders, following wherever the Fab Four led.

Maybe so, but Between the Buttons takes chances that lend it an odd double vision of both innocence (maybe because I was only in grade school at the time) and a knowing weariness. Take the lead-off hit, "Let's Spend the Night Together" (the "B side" of "Ruby Tuesday," as I saw it, but actually the A side); I didn't even know why the song was kinda scandalous. Sure, The Beach Boys had already imagined being older "so we could say tonight and stay together" (but didn't say sleep together!). "Spend the night together" is not a euphemism, it's actual parlance not for sleeping together but for having sex! "I will satisfy your every need/ And now I know that you will satisfy me." Outrageous! Surely these must be the Bad Boys of rock!

Many songs on the album (which I didn't hear in its entirety till many years later and which I didn't own until the enhanced CD of the British version of the album came out a few years ago) visit areas not generally broached. If The Beatles' "Dr. Robert" (left off the U.S. version of Revolver) was a coy reference to the man who supplies the drugs (or to Robert Zimmerman), BTB's "Something Happened to Me Yesterday" is an even more coy reference to "something" the singer has been getting into ("something oh so trippy") -- is it drugs, is it sexual kink of some kind, is it "true love," is it all of the above? And if The Beatles had already given us a portrait of the upper-class girl who wants to be a star (in "Drive My Car"), The Stones' acid "Miss Amanda Jones" paints the little high-born minx in even gaudier colors. The Stones had already shown themselves masters of the put-down song ("Under My Thumb," "Get Off My Cloud," "19th Nervous Breakdown," "Stupid Girl") in which the singer rags on some chick who's playing him or on some clown who doesn't quite get what's what. On BTB, the put-downs have more charm -- "Who's Been Sleeping Here," "Yesterday's Papers," "All Sold Out," "Cool, Calm, Collected" -- and, the odd thing about them, the surliness seems almost beside the point.

Why? Something to do with the musical arrangements. I always assume that any significant improvement in the sound or dynamics of Stones' songs in this period is the work of Brian Jones. It seems to be the case that Brian was the man with an itch to experiment with different instrumentation -- "something" very much in the air at the time. The sound of pre-Sgt. Pepper albums is not quite psychedelic, but it's on its way. And there is something "timeless" about that too -- it's a kind of head music ("my bags they get a very close inspection") before the heads were everywhere and before there was such a thing as "acid rock." Hell, the first "Human Be-In" in SF (with Grateful Dead and Jefferson Airplane performing) was in Jan. '67 and Monterey Pop didn't happen till June. Hendrix is charting in the UK, but unknown in the US. The Stones aren't in the vanguard (in fact the album seems to be responding to Revolver, more than pointing to what's to come), but the album gains a lot of its staying power from the way it registers the moment "between" Revolver (August '66) and Sgt. Pepper (June '67) when the Brits were all about doing something interesting to rock'n'roll. And the cover's heavy coats and blurry photography recall Blonde on Blonde (May '66) the way its probably meant to ("everybody must get stoned!").

The Stones, with "Ruby Tuesday," showed that "Paint It, Black" wasn't just a flash in the pan. "Ruby Tuesday" had something of the stately melancholy I associate with "Eleanor Rigby" and so adds greater maturity to the kind of lyrical Stones song that I would later get to know with the release of Hot Rocks in 1972: "Play With Fire," "Heart of Stone," and "As Tears Go By." But I heard "Ruby Tuesday" first and this is the album it's on. And "She Smiled Sweetly" (used effectively in The Royal Tenenbaums when Margot is in the tent after Richie's suicide attempt) is another nice gem -- "I understood for once in my life."

I remember an older friend telling me that the title "between the buttons" was really dirty. It took me a long time to get it. Oh, those Bad Boys!

You need teaching, you're a girl.
There are things in this world
That need teaching with discretion, my profession

--Jagger/Richard, "My Obsession" (1967)


Andrew Shields said...

I'm struck by the fact that "Aftermath" came out before "Between the Buttons"; I had always thought they were the other way around! This crossed my mind because I just listened to "Going Home": how surprising that the Stones did an eleven-minute blues jam-rap in 1966!

Donald Brown said...

I don't have "Aftermath," I'm sorry to say. Still need to get that one.

The way to remember which comes first is that "Buttons" is the first Stones LP where Jagger/Richard are credited with all the songs. Actually the blues jam-rap seemed to be the way they were headed. What's surprising is that they went 'psychedelic' in 1967!

In any case, I like them best from '68 to '72.

Andrew Shields said...

68 to 72: Yes, Beggar's Banquet to Exile. An utterly stunning set of albums.

Donald Brown said...

My friend Rick comments:

"I too have always liked 'Something Happened To Me
Yesterday' though it really owes a lot to Ray Davies work of the previous year. As a matter of fact Mick's delivery on 'Mother's Little Helper' owes more than a
little to Ray's delivery of 'Well Respected Man' and 'Dedicated Follower Of Fashion.'

Interestingly enough in a past interview in "Rolling Stone" Mick had said that he thought that Lennon and McCartney were pushed by the subject matter and lyrics that Davies and himself were writing and having hits with.

In any case, if you're out tonight, on your bike, wear white."


to which I comment: I think Jagger's most Davies-like delivery is on "2000 Man" on The Stones next album.