By 1973, the Rolling Stones had nothing left to prove. They were just coming off the greatest four-album run in rock ‘n’ roll: Beggar’s Banquet, Let It Bleed, Sticky Fingers, and Exile on Main St. (with the live Get Your Ya-Ya’s Out nestled in between). They were also in uncharted territory for a rock band; they found themselves settled into a long-term career. The Beatles had called it quits at the dawn of the decade, leaving the Stones alone in their class. None of their contemporaries that had gotten close to their level of success and stardom were still around, much less still vital.
New sub-genres had branched out around them recently, some they had directly or indirectly influenced: glam, prog, and heavy metal in particular. For the first time (but definitely not the last), with Jagger and Richards just hitting their 30s, the Rolling Stones found themselves as elder statesmen, making it up as they went along, paving the road on which rock bands would travel, for better or worse, for generations to come.
Originally released in August of 1973, Goats Head Soup could be called the first self-aware Rolling Stones album. It’s where their ascension was finally leveling off, and the excess and decadence was starting to get more attention and focus — from the band as well as the press and some fans — than the music. It’s when the idea of the Rolling Stones became just as important as the band itself.
Nowhere is this more apparent than with the opening track, “Dancing With Mr D”. Although there are are only five years between them, it’s as far removed from “Sympathy for the Devil” as one can get. Where “Sympathy” is set in an atmosphere that projects horrifying evil and violence through a nihilistic sneer, lyrically, the campy “Mr D” could sound right at home on a spooky songs for Halloween compilation alongside Screamin’ Jay Hawkins and “Jumpin'” Gene Simmons. Although the ominous riff and sweaty, nocturnal groove save it from complete novelty status.
Goats Head Soup wallows delightfully in its excess: Keith Richards’ continuing descent into addiction, Mick Taylor’s fall from the virginal, fresh-faced Bluebreaker that joined them less than four years earlier, Mick Jagger’s new life as a jet-setting celebrity. Even the auxiliary players weren’t spared, with sax man Bobby Keys keeping up with Richards’ escapades line-for-line. The album reaches its climax, so to speak, on “Star Star”; the X-rated Chuck Berry send-up still manages to raise eyebrows (among other parts) almost 50 years on.
However, standing alongside its decadence, you’ll find some of the Stones’ most poignant, contemplative, and richly textured music of the 1970s. The melancholy chill of the longing in “Angie” still captivates, as does the all-too-still-relevant commentary in the menacing, merciless “Doo Doo Doo Doo Doo (Heartbreaker)”. Keith’s turn on the bad-boy ballad “Coming Down Again” exposes the vulnerability underneath his storied devil-may-care exterior, revealing the secret to his eternal sex appeal. “Winter” and “Can’t You Hear the Music” sound even more aching and spaced-out now that they can be heard through the perspective of a post-Black Crowes world. One sees even clearer the long shadow even the Stones’ (arguably) lesser material casts.
Now, Goats Head Soup is receiving the same deluxe, multi-disc, remastered treatment that universally accepted classics such as Exile and Some Girls have been given. Released in a variety of formats, including a “2020 mix” of the original ten-track album on single CD and vinyl and a deluxe two-CD and double-vinyl that pairs the original album with ten additional alternate mixes, demos, instrumental versions, and — the big news — three previously unreleased tracks.
The first single, “Criss Cross” is one of those riff-tastic grooves the Stones deliver so easily that it’s easy to take for granted, yet it still manages to get the blood and fists pumping upon first listen. It could’ve easily been a highlight of the album had it been originally included. “All the Rage” is all 1970s reckless cowbell glory, a distant cousin to “Let It Bleed”. The biggest surprise is “Scarlet”, a skittering off-beat rocker featuring Jimmy Page on guitar and Rick Grech, of Blind Faith fame, all over the bass. Hearing Page’s lead lines, especially on the fade-out (reminiscent of the solo on “Over the Hills and Far Away”), on top of the Stones unmistakable rhythm section of Richards, Wyman, and Watts, it’s the sound of the two greatest rock powerhouses of the early 1970s joining forces against the impending new fads approaching just over the hills.
Goats Head Soup also comes in a super-deluxe, four-CD and LP format that includes the legendary 15-song “Brussels Affair” concert (recorded at a stop in Belgium in 1973) that was previously released in 2012 as part of the Stones’ “official bootleg” live series. Longtime fans will most likely have it already, but neophytes will be astonished how the “Brussels” versions of “Midnight Rambler” and “You Can’t Always Get What You Want” — both exceeding way past the ten-minute mark — virtually blow away any other officially live released versions.
The essays by Ian McCann, Nick Kent, and Daryl Easlea included in the accompanying book are illuminating and well-written, the alternate takes. Glyn Johns mixes are interesting if not entirely necessary except for completists (for whom these sets are designed anyway). The 5.1 Surround Sound, Dolby Atmos and Hi-Res mixes are all full and vibrant, and the packaging is exacting down to the goat head poster card and concert poster replicas.
Whether it deserves all the expanded pomp that Exile received is debatable. But what this new box set treatment does best is remind that Goats Head Soup deserves a proper reassessment as a very good album that introduced us to the mid-career Rolling Stones. They were a band that by 1973 had fully embraced their collective rock star persona and continue to live and relish it to this day.