Between the Buttons is often overlooked in discussions of the relative merits of the Stones 'oeuvre, falling as it does between the psychic breakthroughs of Aftermath and the 'delica mirror-ball that is Their Satanic Majesties Request. Its timing, released early in the watershed year of 1967, when all of pop music was undergoing seismic convolutions, seemed to call for a bolder statement. Indeed, their greatest rivals were morphing into Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band; Pink Floyd, Jimi Hendrix, Cream and the Velvet Underground were all waiting in the wings; and the San Francisco acid-ballroom scene was heralding the Summer of Love.
The modesty of Buttons, then, with its twelve pop-tart cuts, finds the Stones slightly behind their onrushing times, reflecting in hindsight the album's title, not quite ready to push their own butt-on and move into that period when they represented their times like no other, when they literally became the voice of the Altamont generation (see the classic Beggar's Banquet and Let It Bleed). If anything, they were too busy: in this Rock 'n Roll Circus era, establishment outrage and sex 'n 'drugs scandals would put them in the tabloid headlines far more than their music.
On a song-by-song basis, Between the Buttons holds up quite listeningly. Just the inclusion of "Let's Spend the Night Together," probing the barriers of seduction on AM radio and the Ed Sullivan Show (in retrospect, how innocent does Jagger's "I know you will satisfy me" resonate given the shaken booty on display at 2008's Grammy Awards?) and the courtly "Ruby Tuesday" couple the Stones at their most bi-sensual (paired on a single to make a number one hit). But "Complicated" and "Connection" and "Cool, Calm and Collected" are worthy of their cutting C's, and another mnemonic like "She Smiled Sweetly" with its eerie organ and sense of comfort amidst haunting is, well, sublime.
Jagger was aware of the temporal nature of pop — "Who wants Yesterday's Papers?" he sings, aware that the Stones are going to have to make their move soon if they intend to stay ahead of those who would dethrone them as the World's Greatest. They still have to outlast the Beatles. But the Stones begin moving toward their predestination with Between the Buttons. They had been making records in Los Angeles; in the midst of Buttons they returned to Olympic Studios in London, and this would be the last album Andrew Loog Oldham produced for them. As a savvy businessman, Mick knew well the other side of the coin, and you have to keep flipping. Despite the black paint the Stones gleefully splashed over their generation, "When you're on your bike at night," he advises in "Something Happened to Me Yesterday," with its past tense title and oom-pah horns, "wear white."