Q. When people say that you’re too old to tour, how do you feel?
A. You say, “I don’t think so.” The band still sounds very good, and it doesn’t sound much different from before, and you all liked me before, so you’re going to like this, probably.
—Mick Jagger, from a Rolling Stone interview, 14 December 1995
There must be thousands of Rolling Stones fans who are either unable or unwilling to drop $350 for a nosebleed seat at their concerts—fans whose only concept of the Stones as a touring band is through their (generally disposable) live albums. I am one of these fans. When I hear a song from, say, 1977’s Love You Live, or 1991’s Flashpoint, I don’t hear the World’s Greatest Rock and Roll Band. I hear a group that just doesn’t care. Worse yet, I hear a group that doesn’t need to care.
It’s unfortunate that this is the case—I treasure my copies of Let It Bleed and Exile on Main Street as much as any self-respecting rock fan should. And if pressed to draw up a list of the 10 greatest albums of all time, Sticky Fingers would undoubtedly be on it. But I can’t reconcile the group that probably did hold the crown as kings of the rock world immediately following the Beatles’ demise with the group that’s become synonymous with commercialism.
Perhaps the most shameless (or shrewd, as the case may be) example of the Stones emphasizing product over integrity is their decades-old tradition of releasing a live album after every tour. For a band that isn’t big on improvising or changing songs up, this seems superfluous at best and insulting at worst. Further, the Stones generally offer fans the facsimile of a genuine live experience, artificially beefing songs up with overdubs (even the so-called Holy Grail of Stones live recordings, Get Your Ya-Ya’s Out, is littered with them).
So now we have Live Licks, the obligatory document of the mega-successful Forty Licks tour of 2002-2003. During their jaunt around the world, the Stones played combinations of clubs, arenas, and stadiums, which ostensibly injected them with a newfound sense of vitality. But since the group no longer consists of just Mick Jagger, Keith Richards, Ron Wood, and Charlie Watts, but is a 13-member behemoth, the approach doesn’t change much—the Stones Model ‘02-‘03 is a well-oiled machine that plays note-perfect recreations of what were once down-and-dirty songs; nothing more, nothing less.
In other words, Live Licks is a perfectly enjoyable live recording, and by Rolling Stones standards, that’s the name of the game.
The gambit this time around is that Live Licks will appeal to every kind of fan, casual or diehard—the first disc is a veritable jukebox of Stones standards, the second disc offers rarities and intriguing (they hope) cover choices. It’s an admirable strategy, one that nearly justifies yet another inclusion of “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction”.
But it also manages to render every live album since Get Your Ya-Ya’s Out totally redundant. A cursory glance at this collection’s set list reveals exactly one original song written after 1981’s Tattoo You, the inessential “You Don’t Have to Mean It”. The rest of the set mines the exhausted Rolling Stones playbook for the umpteenth time, mixing warhorses such as “Street Fighting Man” and “Start Me Up” with diamonds-in-the-rough “Happy” and “Beast of Burden”.
All of which is well and good, but it begs the question: Why couldn’t this set have been released 20 years ago? Certainly the performances here supplant the lifeless ones captured on past recordings.
The Stones have become victims of their own catalog, likely beyond repair, and this fact bleeds through everything they release. Take “Brown Sugar”, which you’d think should translate ideally to the stage. By virtue of its inclusion on the “greatest hits” side of Live Licks, however, it only serves to further dilute the impact of the original, which they’ve never surpassed in all their years of trying.
Still, there’s enough worthwhile stuff here to keep the album from a life in used bins. “Monkey Man” sounds as gloriously sinister here as it did on Let It Bleed. Solomon Burke’s rousing cameo on the set closer, “Everybody Needs Somebody to Love”, easily outdoes Sheryl Crow’s rigid turn on “Honky Tonk Women”, despite his hollow proselytizing of the Stones as “the true kings of rock and roll.” And as it was on Sticky Fingers, “Can’t You Hear Me Knocking” is this album’s piece de resistance, a moment where the entire band’s carefully measured soloing jells perfectly. These songs offer the most flattering snapshot of what a Rolling Stones show must have been like.
But it’s not a perfect snapshot: “Rocks Off”, for one, grinds along nicely before the entire third verse is eliminated, and its omission is both obvious and curious: What was so bad that it needed to be edited out? Did Mick flub some vocals? Charlie miss a drum beat? Whatever happened, it’s yet another reason the Stones don’t quite understand the appeal of the live album beyond a contractual obligation—spontaneous mistakes, and how the band recovers from them, can transform a live recording from perfunctory to invigorating.
Some might argue that I’ve focused too much on the technical aspects of Live Licks instead of its admittedly strong entertainment value; after all, it’s only rock and roll. And if the Stones had released this years ago, I might be inclined to agree. But since we’ve had to sift through a couple of decades’ worth of mediocrity to get to this point, it just doesn’t seem like an argument worth pursuing.