With all the brouhaha over the Beatles’ arrival in America 50 years ago, the golden Jubilee of the first Rolling Stones album has been underplayed — just as it was when the group was first introduced to the American public. We may think of them as the yang to the Beatles’ yin, but at that moment in crucial pop history, they were hardly tipped for the top. In the wake of the Beatles, the Dave Clark Five were regarded as next in line to the throne, and the early months of the Invasion seemed to center on more family-friendly Anglophilic imports such as Herman’s Hermits, Gerry and the Pacemakers, Freddie and the Dreamers, and Peter and Gordon, whose “World Without Love” topped the U.S. singles chart as the Rolling Stones arrived for their introductory American tour in June of 1964, set to coincide with the release of their first, self-titled long-player.
Much of the group’s ascendance and notoriety in their native country had been stoked by their manager, Andrew Loog Oldham. He was all of 19 years old and an embodiment of Swinging London when he took over a band of blues enthusiasts and made them rock ‘n’ roll’s premier bad boys. He had found them at the Crawdaddy Club in April of 1963, and began updating their image to anticipate the youth revolution that was changing the face of Britain’s pop music. Oldham had briefly done public relations for the Beatles as they began their UK rise, but he recognized that the explosion of Beat groups needed a darker alter ego, not to mention id. Where Brian Epstein had cleaned up the once-scruffy Beatles, Oldham encouraged the group to become, in his words, “dangerous, dirty and degenerate.” “Would you let your sister go with a Rolling Stone?” read a famous headline he devised for Melody Maker, and by early 1964, their version of “Not Fade Away,” twice removed from Buddy Holly’s reinterpretation of Bo Diddley’s “hambone” beat, had cracked the British charts.
What’s intriguing, in retrospect, is what the Stones’ debut is not. It is not an exemplar of pop songwriting; it only contains one Jagger-Richard composition (Keith was yet to restore his birth “s” to his surname), the ghostly “Tell Me,” nor does it hew to a traditionalist template of revivalist blues and early American rock ‘n’ roll. Even as they covered Muddy Waters (“I Just Want To Make Love to You”), Jimmy Reed (“Honest I Do”), Slim Harpo (a slithery “”I’m A King Bee”), Rufus Thomas (“Walkin’ The Dog”) and the classic “Route 66″ (Nat King Cole looking on in puzzlement), the effect is less tribute than infectious hip-shake. The group may have wanted to salute their forebears and influences — Chuck Berry licks abound, as well as a Chuck composition itself: “Oh Carol,” picking a less obvious track from the Berry canon and raising it to classic status — but they would undergo as much criticism from the trad R&B audience as they would the outrage of a sensationalist and complicitous press.
The album was recorded in February at Regent Sound Studio on Denmark Street, then (and still somewhat today) a jumble of musical instrument shops and rehearsal rooms, a short walk across Charing Cross Road pointing to the underworld attractions of London’s Soho district. Phil Spector, intrigued by the new sound, came by and played maracas, along with Gene Pitney, who had met the Stones on a recent package tour, adding piano on “Little By Little.” When released in England, the front of the album contained no identification, either the band’s name or title. By then, they were causing so much controversy that they didn’t need to proclaim who they were. Oldham, in his liner notes, put it another way: “The ROLLING STONES are more than just a group — they are a way of life.” His prescience would only become more manifest as the group progressed into their next year, when “Satisfaction” would capture the rebellious imagination of a generation.
But for now the Stones were on the verge of seeing what the America of their dreams was like. They arrived in New York on the first day of June filled with hope, but the trip proved a sobering experience. Where the Beatles had three successive nights on Ed Sullivan, the Stones had to endure Dean Martin’s jibes on Hollywood Palace. With only 15 dates, beginning in San Bernadino, California, heading south to San Antonio, up through the Midwest with a memorable stop at Chicago’s Chess studios, where Keith was astonished to find Muddy Waters painting the ceiling, and then heading east through Pittsburgh to finale at Carnegie Hall in New York, the tour was a qualified success.
England’s Newest Hit Makers eventually rose to No. 11 on the Billboard charts, and one of those sales went to a New Jersey teenager named Lenny, who just thinking about forming a band. He had been inspired to switch to an electric guitar after seeing the Beatles on Ed Sullivan, but the purity of their harmonies and the intricacy of the pristine hooks and songwriting seemed a grasp or two away from attainment. But in this debut Rolling Stones album, with its clattering tambourine and handclaps and howling harmonica and thumping bass and whoops and hollers and alluring come-on, he could hear the future.
As the Stones were hearing theirs. The first chordings on the opening “Not Fade Away” is akin to the acoustic guitar flourish of “Street Fighting Man.” They push at the beat, tense and wound-up, and Mick enunciates so hard that the microphone distorts, just like the scratchy blues records they’re been listening to and emulating, his voice American accented, just as the Americans will soon be trying on their Anglo inflections.
“Can I Get a Witness” and “Now I’ve Got a Witness,” one on each side. I never noticed that before, the Stones answering their own question, 50 years later.