Here’s something you don’t hear very often: “Yeah, the 1970s, now there’s a great decade.” The mental model doesn’t work.
Unlike its free-loving counterpart, the 1960s filled with groovy tunes and happy kids smoking weed in sunny California, or the boisterous 1980s blasting off with new technology, MTV, and Ronald Reagan’s kick-ass, American aggression, the 1970s are remembered for negatives. The list of events careens from Watergate and the awful end of the Vietnam debacle (those haunting images of helicopters lifting off from the American embassy in retreat) to skyrocketing inflation and gas lines stretching around the block in Jimmy Carter’s sad America.
When people create memories of these different eras, there’s extensive event overlap and nostalgia mixed in with heavy doses of pop culture-infused memories. For many, the real “picture” consists of the historical scraps from a lifetime of living in and then later recreating the mid-to-late decades of the 20th century. For example, one person’s ’60s centers on living through the psychedelic rock and Flower Power emanating from San Francisco, while another’s is seeing parts of Forrest Gump 52 times on cable TV. People constantly and subconsciously filter ideas and impulses through current lenses.
These interpretations bounce all over the place. The real and imagined fuse together to form something new, but not really “history”, more like a created or imagined picture of “the past”. The snapshot is basically the person’s adaptation or rendering rather than something concretely factual (if that could even exist, even eyewitnesses inject opinion, bias, and perspective on allegedly firsthand accounts). Historians and critics don’t even agree on when the eras of the 1960s and 1970s begin and end.
Yet, as the later decades of the 20th century slip by and historians and observers start to analyze and reassess the ’70s, what’s emerging is a portrait of a decade that tells us more about our contemporary times than earlier imagined. In other words, the more one digs into the ’70s, the more essential the decade becomes. The bonus (as with all studies of history and humanities) is that filtering these many data points creates the type of critical and contextual thinking skills that might lead people to become better community members and citizens.
The preceding is a longish way of setting up the exercise of reassessing Goats Head Soup, the 11th US album by the Rolling Stones (released 12 September 1973). Both the record and band provide a lens for examining the era and how the Stones reflected and embodied the rise of its many impulses across a range of pop culture topics and ideas. This reconsideration will provide a deeper investigation into the album, its era(s), and why we should give a damn today.
Goodbye Utopian ’60s, Hello Nightmare ’70s
Exaggeration is easy when it comes to rock music history. Yet, the facts speak: The end of the ’60s and the beginning of the ’70s were not great times for many rock and roll bands or musicians. The Beatles now seem lucky to have simply broken up in early 1970 – at least they got out alive.
The founding members of the infamous “27 club” succumbed to various vices, mainly flaming out in an onslaught of drugs and alcohol (including Rolling Stones co-founder Brian Jones, Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, and Jim Morrison). Countless others grew addicted to cocaine, heroin, and various pills that seemed to fuel the decadent rock and roll lifestyle. Others who survived were essentially incapacitated as they battled addictions and the consequences.
In the midst of the chaos and change, the Rolling Stones put out four albums from 1968 to 1972 now routinely considered by critics and fans as the foundation of their iconic status: Beggars Banquet (1968), Let It Bleed (1969), Sticky Fingers (1971), and Exile on Main St. (1972). Based in part on the quality of these records, the extensive (mythmaking) tours of America in 1969 and 1972, and the chaos the songs seemed to symbolize, the Stones emerge as the most popular and scandalous band to ever exist.
Part of the controversy was that Keith Richards lived on through chronic heroin addiction. The Rolling Stones kept rolling – through the possibility of his incarceration due to repeated drug arrests, despite the whole band jetting around the world to avoid British tax laws, and the existential terror of having a teenaged concertgoer brutally murdered by a vicious biker gang at the December 1969 Altamont music festival, no less in the middle of a song, only yards away from the stage. For many observers and critics, the murder at Altamont was the death knell of the utopian dreams of the ’60s and the hope that a better world might arise from the youth movement’s uprising against war, racism, and gender inequality.
In the debate about when “the ’60s” ended, many throw up Altamont as the marker. Countless commentators proclaimed that the killing – caught on film as part of a documentary being shot about the tour – marked the true collapse of the decade. Peace and love gave way to murder and mayhem.
The change at Altamont seemed to hinge on the idea that it was the peace and love generation turning in on itself, though there was hardly anything loving about how the Hell’s Angels motorcycle gang acted that night. This was in contrast to the battles across the 1960s between those holding institutional power and those rising up against them and other traditional authority centers.
The end of the 1960s and the beginning of the 1970s turned on the power and a battle for control. The young people in the streets realized they might collectively force change. The reaction by the authorities – sometimes moving at a glacier pace but eventually turning brutal – was also a show of power. For those wielding control, it was inconceivable that capitalism and democracy might fall at the hands of demonstrators, activists, and people from different racial and ethnic backgrounds. To repel this dissent, they used the power of institutions – FBI surveillance, police forces at every level, drug raids, informants, spying – to suppress dissidents and attempts at what they perceived as insurrection.
These institutions were particularly bedeviled by the power amassed by rock bands and musicians. Groups like the Grateful Dead, the Beatles, the Doors, and the Rolling Stones pushed the limit of what the system considered acceptable resistance to authority. Bob Dylan led the way for the bands that followed by helping people see that music could serve revolution. The Beatles took the power of music and its messages to a global audience. Mick Jagger and Jim Morrison gave darkness a central role. But, to enact real change, they needed a sharp edge that hinged on more than love and peace. How else could the next “Street Fighting Man” emerge as Mick sang, “Summer’s here and the time is right for fighting in the street, boy.”
What might be most difficult to believe today is that huge numbers of people genuinely felt that young people and their cultural influences were ripping America and other Western nations apart. They demanded retaliation. The “silent majority” elected Richard Nixon, in part, because it demanded a strong-armed sheriff who would employ the power of the office to clamp down on dissent. As the system deemed rock bands suspect, they had to be suppressed.
“You Shall Have No Other Gods Before Me” – “Dancing with Mr. D.”
Through the turmoil, the Rolling Stones came to symbolize the slide from bright-eyed ’60s hopes to ’70s dread. Unlike the Doors, Joplin, and others, however, they remained on the scene, like holding a mirror up to the times. Goats Head Soup, mainly recorded in Jamaica in November and December 1972, with additional tracks completed in London and Los Angeles, seemed to tell listeners: “The revolution is over. We must face a new reckoning of what the future holds.”
For contemporary readers and listeners, an important point in thinking about the place Goats Head Soup sits in the Rolling Stones catalog is that in late 1973 most people were living through an era that hadn’t been diced up by historians or critics. From their vantage, Goats Head Soup was just “the next” album by one of the kingpins of the global music scene. For most critics, the record’s value was in contrast to the day’s other popular rockers, but more importantly, how the album stacked up versus the Stones’ past work.
For example, nationally syndicated journalist Bruce Meyer compared Goats Head Soup to Exile, calling the latter “good despite its flaws” and a “seemingly uncoordinated mishmash”. In contrast, Goats Head Soup, the reviewer declared, is the “best thing the Stones have done since leaving London Records to form their own company.” Yet, he still saw it as inferior to the band’s past work, saying the “Rolling Stones of old it ain’t”. Meyer’s assessment of the album is typical – with a couple of notable exceptions – essentially deeming it mostly good but not as good as their best. Alternatively, In Melody Maker, Chris Welch countered, “Soup simmers with all the nourishing flavor of the new generation of Stones’ albums.”
Three points worth noting: first, all Rolling Stones music has been first and foremost graded versus its predecessors. They sit in rock music’s Mount Olympus and there are few groups viewed as in that rarified air, so the easiest critical route is to say whether or not they live up to their own reputation. Second, the contemporary reviews were probably a B+/A- range, basically that Goats Head Soup was as good or better than other bands and solo stars but not quite excellent. However, as time passed, the album’s initial grade seemed to drop, particularly in relation to Exile, which had been judged so-so in its day but has gradually taken on iconic status. Finally, the question now centers on whether Goats Head Soup was actually the fifth record in that vaunted four-album string of classics or the first LP in its transformation into something vastly different (and worse), post-Goats Head Soup.
“Dancing with Mr. D.” is an interesting song based on these points and in looking at how the Stones were identified generally. Looking at hundreds of newspaper and magazine articles from the early 1970s, the picture that emerges is how so many journalists and writers laid society’s problems at the band’s feet, especially heaping it on Jagger’s “frail” shoulders (an adjective often used to describe him as physically small, in contrast to his outsized celebrity). Perhaps his designation rested on him speaking from the devil’s perspective in 1968’s “Sympathy for the Devil”, which many listeners seemed to believe made him as sinister as Beelzebub himself. Jagger assumed the taunting cloak once again in “Dancing with Mr. D.”
Not as memorable as “Sympathy” with its sweeping historical arc (“Who killed the Kennedys?” and grand “woo-woo” chorus/chant), “Dancing” has immediacy more appropriate for the early 1970s. Most of Goats Head Soup was recorded in Jamaica in the months just after Nixon’s reelection. The cramped studio and island heat produced a devil’s intimacy that is more pronounced. The narrator is left wondering that in this dance with death, will the end come, “Hiding in a corner in New York City” or “Looking down a 44 in West Virginey”.
The foreboding riff and dark lyrics are softened by the repeated call out for “dancin'”. Rather than “Sympathy’s” grandeur, the song is perfectly in line with the post-1960s malaise as the baby boom generation settled in with its failures and doubts. Nick Kent in NME liked “Dancing” better, calling it “their best Satanic rocker to date. Better even than ‘Sympathy’, though he also found the “devil stuff is pretty passé anyway”.
The promo video for “Dancing” (a common Rolling Stones marketing tool prior to MTV) gives the viewer clues into the band and its internal turmoil as it lived out its own strife. The video begins with an extreme close-up of Mick’s face as he seductively licks his lips. He wears bright makeup and has painted fingernails, certain to draw the ire of that era’s authorities and instill shock in Middle America. When the camera pans back to the entire group, Mick is bare-chested in a skintight, gold jumpsuit that leaves little to the imagination. The video accentuated Jagger’s flagrant androgyny, a flame he stoked for publicity, particularly in the years before disco burst onto the scene and this look would become more mainstream. The criticism over how one looked and dressed was commonplace then – a form of rebuke by the establishment and others in power.
Interestingly, current megastar musician/actor Harry Styles was criticized by Jagger when he dresses in this fashion. Mick panned Styles, telling Variety, “I used to wear a lot more eye makeup than him. Come on, I was much more androgynous. And he doesn’t have a voice like mine or move on stage like me; he just has a superficial resemblance to my younger self, which is fine – he can’t help that.” What used to cause so much consternation in the ’70s is commonplace today, regardless of Jagger’s bluster.
The “Dancing” video also offers additional clues. The other Stones don’t appear until more than a minute into the song (the first is a close-up of Bill Wyman). An initial glimpse of Keith Richards proves more astonishing. In the midst of years of heroin addiction, Keith is ailing – and not in a dazed and confused fashion or the grandpa-pirate-smart aleck image he has cultivated over the last two decades. “Keef” is gaunt to the point of skeletal. From a few brief appearances on screen, one-half of the vaunted “Glimmer Twins” seems little more than a bit player.
The contrast in look and energy signaled more than a difference over drug use but revealed the growing schism between them creatively. Mick stepped into the forefront to run the band while Keith struggled to stay alive and out of prison. This fracture between the two icons is common knowledge now and has added to how fans and others interpret Goats Head Soup and the era. If you’re a Keith person, Mick was a usurper and took advantage, resulting in a wrongheaded turn away from what made the band great. If you’re a Mick fan, well, who knows what you’re thinking because there doesn’t seem to be many of those. Maybe you are just intrigued at how Mick saved the Stones by exerting his natural leadership and competitive streak.
The “Dancing” video reveals that the Rolling Stones had become Mick’s band.
Making Hit Records
Let’s speculate that at least a million young rock and roll hopefuls picked up a guitar in the 1960s and early 1970s dreaming of someday becoming the next Bob Dylan, Beatles, or Rolling Stones. Perhaps 1,000 of those dreamers actually advanced to the point of making a record. How many of them would have given every ounce of their ability and at minimum their right hand to score a number one single that would become a rock anthem celebrated for the next 50 years?
The Stones released the ballad “Angie” as the first single over the objections of new distribution partner Ahmet Ertegun of Atlantic Records, who wanted a rocker to lead the first album from their own label – Rolling Stones Records. Instead, “Angie” became (yet another) Stones anthem, one the world would lip-synch for the next five decades.
Mick Jagger could not have written a better script. He wanted hit singles on the charts. Keith seemed indifferent to radio play (or at least put out that vibe, instead portraying himself as an authentic blues player, not a pop star). Mick’s hope was that through sheer force of will (matched by his outlandish gyrations and preening), he would propel “Dancing” as the smash follow-up to “Angie”.
“Angie” was simply too meteoric, a megahit, speeding to the top of the American, Australian, French, and Canadian charts and to #5 in the UK While Exile on Main St. had received critical approval (and was considered primarily Keith’s influence), it didn’t produce a chart-topping single. From that perspective, Goats Head Soup put the Stones back on top and exactly where Mick wanted them. His currency was the pop charts.
Ironically, “Angie” was Keith’s song, not Mick’s as many people imagined. In fact, it was a product of their teamwork and collaborative power as a songwriting duo. Keith brought the melody and the title while his partner fine-tuned and built out the lyrics. So, while “Angie” shouted “sell out” to many fans and critics (blamed on Jagger, perhaps because of his gorgeous singing and vampy, campy, yet earnest video), their ire was misdirected.
Oddly, Mick and Keith also took sides on Goats Head Soup too. In comparing Soup to Exile, Jagger told Chris Welch (in a quote that music historians often selectively [incorrectly] cut, thus minimizing the singer’s disdain):
It was recorded all over the place over about two or three months. I think you’ll like the album [Goats Head Soup]. The tracks are much more varied than the last one [Exile] and all that crap. And there’s much more variety in the playing. I didn’t want it to be just a bunch of rock songs. We did 18 tracks altogether, and we got the basics done very quickly. It’s generally different from the last LP which kinda went on so long that I didn’t like some of the things, and the direction seemed to stand still. There’s more thought to this one. It’s kinda weird the way Keith and I work together. We both have songs we put to each other, but Keith tends to leave the lyrics to me. On his songs, he’ll tell me the part to come in, and that’s when I scream! I suppose I write most of the lyrics.”
Mick wasn’t alone in thinking Goats Head Soup was better than Exile. Critic Berl Schwartz of the Louisville Times agreed, noting its “sensuality” driven by Jagger’s lyrics and the group’s “move toward more natural blues.” As a result, he determines Goats Head Soup is the band’s “most sophisticated album”.
Others were equally enthusiastic, not just for the lead single but the rocking blues songs that powered the record. “Even after ten years of existence, every element essential to rock works for them – music, energy, charisma, showmanship,” said Loraine Alterman, reviewing the album in the New York Times. “No one has every really licked the Stones in the outrage department either.”
Goats Head Soup‘s primary rocking blues tune was “Doo Doo Doo Doo Doo (Heartbreaker)”, a song alarmingly prophetic for today’s listener since it speaks to police shooting and killing an unarmed Black boy in a “case of mistaken identity”. Not just one, but two young people die in the song. A little girl, just ten years old dies from a drug overdose “on the street corner”. Mick’s ode to a superhuman groupie, “Star Star” (originally titled “Starf#cker”) has a fun, hard-driving sound, despite problematic lyrics that got it banned by BBC, thereby drawing even more attention to the Rolling Stones’ bad boy image. Name-dropping Steve McQueen and John Wayne certainly added to the raunchy tale and ensuing controversy. Given the song’s pre-release, McQueen found it humorous and signed off on the use of his name. Allegedly, they never formally asked the Duke, instead opting to mask the line with a sloppy overdub.
Another argument in favor of Goats Head Soup as the fifth in that string of successes is Jimmy Miller’s role as producer. Battling drug addiction, he would later get dumped by Mick and Keith when he couldn’t get it under control. Yet, for Goats Head Soup, he pulled together the superior backing musicians to create the unique Stones sound, including saxophonist Bobby Keys, organist Billy Preston, and pianists Nicky Hopkins and Ian Stewart. With Keith ailing, Miller also turned over added responsibility to guitarist Mick Taylor on lead guitar. The young virtuoso added great energy and prowess, which filled out the sound in interesting ways.
The producer’s ability to reign in the band while also letting them explore new styles (soul, ballads, and funky blues-infused rock) kept Goats Head Soup on the rails even as his own life went south. Although mainly recorded in Jamaica and using an extensive number of musicians from outside America or Europe, the record has little reggae feel. Perhaps Miller’s greatest attribute is that Goats Head Soup does not sound like an English band trying to do a reggae cover album.
The heavyweight critic writing off Goats Head Soup was Lester Bangs, arguably the most influential rock critic ever. While there were some negatives, it was Bangs’ grumpy declaration that Goats Head Soup amounted to “nondescript fabulousness…an enormous So what?” Yet, despite his snarky jabs, the venerable critic took the easiest path – measuring a current album against their entire catalog. “The sadness comes when you measure not just one album, but the whole sense they’re putting across now against what they once meant.” Mick Farren echoed the sentiment in International Times, exclaiming, “What’s going on there… A fine album by anyone, literally anyone else’s standards, but the Stones?”
“Time will tell how well they have succeeded on Goats Head Soup,” soon to be super famous as Bruce Springsteen‘s creative partner, Jon Landau wrote back in 1973, “but the approach is right, and I have a feeling that there is more to this album than first meets the ear.”
As a critic, Landau nailed it. An interesting side note, though, is how other writers then and in the ensuing years manipulated the album’s reputation by selectively using parts of quotes and juicy sound bites that ran negative. What became “the standard” interpretation of Goats Head Soup solidified into consensus.
Goats Head Soup: A Sumptuous Stock or Sickly Stew
Over the decades, the final evaluation of Goats Head Soup seemed concrete as rock journalists and historians decreed it less than a minor work. Like the Stones themselves, though, no stone has been left unturned as technology has enabled them to recreate and repackage old material for new audiences.
The 2020 reissue of Goats Head Soup provided an opportunity for critics to revisit the supposedly mixed reviews it received in 1973 and then reassess where they believed the album stood in the twenty-first century. For Stuart Berman, the album was a letdown, “We hear The World’s Greatest Rock’n’Roll Band settling for just being a pretty good one, the menacing shit-kickers of old curdling into good-timey toe-tappers.” In PopMatters, Michael Elliott provides a more neutral assessment, determining, “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.”
The critical assessment of Soup is part of the calculation, but the meatier aspects center on what the record said about the band in that moment and the era it was produced. Internally, the band was still reeling from the tragic death of original guitarist and blues purist Brian Jones in 1969. The nonstop flow of albums (increasingly more difficult to produce) and catastrophe at Altamont was later compounded by the 1972 tour of nonstop debauchery and Keith’s deterioration into heroin.
A list of arrests, deaths, addictions, and controversies in and around the Rolling Stones from 1968-1973 would boggle the mind. What a rollercoaster decade for a group of musicians who would have been only around 30 years old in 1973. Later, Keith explained the fissure between him and Jagger in his typically wry terms that really summed up the entire era, “I started going my way – which was the downhill road to Dopesville – and Mick ascended to Jetland.”
Looking at the early 1970s from a macro vantage point and its place in Stones’ history, however, Goats Head Soup deserves better. Any other band that released this record alone would have solidified its place in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame on the strength of “Angie” and “Doo Doo Doo Doo Doo (Heartbreaker)”, the funkiness of “Dancing”, and the raunchiness of “Star Star”, which given its controversial subject matter and the media’s subsequent reaction would have certainly broken the Internet.
There is less controversy over Goats Head Soup among Stones and classic rock fans. Would it be possible to count the number of times “Angie” has been played since 1973 or how many love-sick teens belted out the lyrics at the destruction of an early relationship? Mick’s haunting vocals and the simple message feel like The Great Gatsby of rock ballads – so malleable and unformed that anyone can take the message and infuse their own meaning. Goats Head Soup is similar, like any B+/A- grade, not one you’ll frame over the mantle, but damn good nonetheless.
Bob Batchelor is the author of Roadhouse Blues: Morrison, the Doors, and the Death Days of the ’60s (Hamilcar) and Stan Lee: A Life (Rowman & Littlefield). He hosts “Deep Cuts” on the New Books Network podcast group. Batchelor has written 14 books on American culture, including The Bourbon King and Gatsby: The Cultural History of the Great American Novel. His next book is Dirty Stones: Mick, Keith, and the Sexy ’70s. Visit him at bobbatchelor.com for more information.
Alterman, Loraine. “The Stones in the Soup”, New York Times, 23 September 1973.
Bangs, Lester. “1973 Nervous Breakdown”, Cream, December 1973.
Berman, Stuart. “Goats Head Soup”, Pitchfork, 16 September 2020.
Kent, Nick. “The Rolling Stones: Goat’s Head Soup”, New Musical Express, 8 September 1973.
Meyer, Bruce. “No Sign of Moss Yet on the Rolling Stones”, Atlanta Constitution, 17 November 1973.
Schwartz, Berl. “The Rolling Stones After 10 Years on Top”, Louisville Times, 30 September 1973.
Welch, Chris. “The Rolling Stones: Goat’s Head Soup?”, Melody Maker, 18 August 1973.
Zack Sharf, “Mick Jagger on Harry Styles”, Variety, 22 May 2022.
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