Counterbalance No. 125: The Rolling Stones' 'Aftermath'
"Albums just aren't the same today", I hear every mother say. Mother needs something today to calm her down. The 125th most acclaimed album of all time ought to do it. What a drag it is getting old.
Mendelsohn: I just realized that after the Rolling Stones' Aftermath, we won't be talking about another Rolling Stones record for the next several years. I'm a little saddened by that, Klinger. The Stones have been such a fixture on the Great List that you can't spit at the Top 100 without nearly hitting one of their records. Plus, as rockers go, the Mick and Co. don't shy away from the nitty gritty and I like that. Aftermath, however, is a bit tamer than, say, Sticky Fingers, but I guess for a record released in 1966 it was probably as shocking as they come. Right off the bat though, I notice that the first four songs deal strictly with the fairer sex. "Mother's Little Helper" is an indictment of housewife drug abuse (talk about the pot calling the kettle black), "Stupid Girl" is a derisive sendoff to women with "Under My Thumb" coming in a close second, while "Lady Jane" is probably the sappiest love ballad the Stones have ever recorded. I'm sensing a little sexual frustration. So I guess I can see where they album would speak to the socially inept music nerd.
Klinger: Not to mention how they came to draw the ire of feminists everywhere as the women's movement started picking up speed. But I'm sure we'll unpack a little bit more of that as we go along. I will say that the Ray Davies-esque "Mother's Little Helper" is a good bit more self-aware (and clever) than you seem to be giving them credit for.
Mendelsohn: No, it is a clever role-reversal. "Mother's Little Helper" skewers the notion that only junkies (or rock stars) need a little chemical kick to get them through the day. In pointing out the hypocrisy of a culture that tut-tuts rockers for recreational drug use while actively endorsing and prescribing mind-altering drugs to housewives, the Rolling Stones effectively cemented their reputation as a subversive cultural force. They kind of lost their way sometime around 1970 but for a couple of years, their social commentary was top-notch. Other than that, Aftermath seems to be nothing more than run-of-the-mill blues. You get some great experimental instrumentation from Brian Jones and this record marks the first full album of Jagger/Richard compositions, but none of it really stacks up to the run from Beggars Banquet to Exile on Main St. Is this album on the Great List simply because it's a Rolling Stones record and a precursor to that fabled run they put on from 1968 to 1972?
Klinger: OK, I have no idea how to respond to this. You have stymied me by calling this "run-of-the-mill blues". Stymied, Mendelsohn! Of course it doesn't stand up to that incredible batch of albums—few things really could. But Aftermath does show how the Rolling Stones had absorbed the heady forward motion of the times and repurposed their own sound to meet it. You can think of the Stones' career as existing in five acts: 1963-1965 (the early R&B years), 1966-1968 (the transitional years), 1969-1972 (the golden years), 1973-1981 (the rock star years), and 1982-present (the optional years). Aftermath is the sound of the band kicking down the door that leads them into a new era, using distinctive instrumentation (so much marimba!) to bolster their emerging songwriting. OK, so lyrically they're not quite there yet, but that's part of the process.
Mendelsohn: Well that's my fault for trying to compare the Rolling Stones' output against itself instead in viewing Aftermath within the context of the Great List. I find myself falling into that trap more as we move farther down the list, especially as we start to encounter several albums from the same artist. It's hard to remove Aftermath from the Rolling Stones' repertoire, and place it in a historical time line where the band hadn't reached their golden years and were struggling to find the footing that would lead them to arguably one of the greatest set of albums ever put on wax. Viewing the Rolling Stones as some up and coming band, trading on their subversive nature and rock star swagger (as opposed to actually, honest-to-goodness songwriting) is tough to do 50 years after the fact.
So, yeah, I suppose you are right. Lyrics aside and if I ignore everything I know about the Rolling Stones from 1967 to the present, then Aftermath might sound like something out of left-field, especially in comparison to the other albums that had been released in 1966 -- like the Beach Boys' Pet Sounds or the Beatles' Revolver. Can I compare Aftermath to those albums?
Klinger: You can, but you might have overshot again. The Stones are still a pretty traditionalist band, regardless of how many dulcimers and whatnot that Brian figured out how to squeeze a tune out of. They experimented with different sounds, but it was still in service to the Rolling Stones sound. A couple of songs on Aftermath—"Out of Time", "Take It or Leave It"—are essentially their take on Atlantic Records circa 1962, while the acoustic knees-up that is "High and Dry" suggests that their return-to-roots LP Beggars Banquet didn't happen in a vacuum.
Of course, that traditionalism also extends to their lyrical approach, which is a little more problematic. Jagger and Richards came from a very "lads only" scene, which clearly shaped their view of women. "Stupid Girl" might have been about a very specific stupid girl, but I could see where the song would be off-putting to female listeners. Couple that with their medieval "pledge my troth" "Lady Jane" jibber-jabber and your Women's Studies term paper is halfway written for you. Of course, it would all be easier to write off as sexist malarkey if songs like "Under My Thumb" (and "Stupid Girl"—I could listen to Mick pronounce the "stupid" all day long) weren't such great songs. Curse you Watts and Wyman, with your sweet sweet grooves!
Mendelsohn: If there is ever one redeeming factor to the Stones it can always be found in the rhythm section. And while I might not have the same enthusiasm for Aftermath that I do for the releases from the golden years, it's hard to argue with the grooves on the backend. I am especially fond of the dirty fuzz bass on "It's Not Easy", which can also be found on "Under My Thumb", though not nearly as dirty or fuzzy.
Klinger: You know, I've really been struck by how all five Stones have this incredible approach to rhythm throughout the album. "Under My Thumb" is a perfect example. Charlie Watts' drumming has an understated, almost jazzy quality, while Richards' (or Richard's, as he was still known) guitar chops in there like Steve Cropper. Jagger punches his lyrics at just the right time to deliver a touch of menace ("a Siamese... cat of a girl"—perfect). Then there's "Going Home", which over the course of its 11 minutes explores rhythmic possibilities rather than just jamming around solos (I sense a strong Van Morrison/Them influence here).
Mendelsohn: After a quick run through the Rolling Stones' golden years catalog, I have a better idea of why I can't click with this record. Aftermath is the Rolling Stones trying to find their footing, testing out different sounds (and instruments), while exploring their musical influences, and as a result the album is uneven. All of the things that the Rolling Stones needed to be the Rolling Stones were there in the mix, they just were a little unsure about how everything would come together, and as a result you have a mish-mash of sounds that run the gamut from blues to soul to '60s pop without ever really meshing properly. Fast-forward to Beggars Banquet and you get a much more cohesive, albeit rootsier, sound.
And that's not to say the young songwriting duo of Jagger/Richards weren't already showing off some great chops as we noted with "Mother's Little Helper", "Under My Thumb", and the non-album single "Paint It Black".
Klinger: Or lead-off track "Paint It Black" if you bought the US release (and longtime Stones fans might well ask why we're discussing songs that are on Flowers, but there you go). At any rate, you are correct that the Stones really came into their own just a couple years later, but it took this time in a state of flux to achieve that. Like I said, this period was highly transitional for the group, and over the course of the next couple LPs they would head deeper into whimsy (on Between the Buttons) and straight-up psychedelia (the still-controversial Their Satanic Majesties Request).
It didn't take long to realize that neither approach really suited them, and they quickly opted to strip away those elements, leaving them with the approach that became the Stones signature sound for decades to come. Of course, Brian Jones' sad decline couldn't have helped matters. I've long had the sense that he served as a third-party spoiler between Jagger and Richards, given that he began as a blues purist but also pushed the sonic envelope considerably (especially once it became clear that he wasn't going to upset the system through songwriting). Losing him led to the two-party system that has been a hallmark of the Stones' empire, with all of the occasional triumphant bipartisanship and increasingly more occasional gridlock that that entails. But for this brief shining moment there was this Camelot that is Aftermath.