The Rolling Stones’ output in the last decade has celebrated and expanded upon the heyday of their (now) early career in the 1960s and early 1970s. Reissued and deluxe editions of classic albums like Sticky Fingers have coupled with newly recorded albums like Blue & Lonesome to document the influences upon, the history of, and the continuing legacy of the Stones.
In 2017, the band has existed for 55 years, and On Air continues that trend – releasing tracks recorded for the BBC between 1963 and 1965 that captured the raw performance energy of the Rolling Stones. Unlike recent catalog and archival documents that capture classic albums or legendary concerts, On Air instead transcends their quick growth in the mid-’60s, when they were fresh, their popularity grew exponentially, and they rivaled contemporaries like the Beatles within the British Invasion. With that context in mind, On Air additionally follows countless other British groups that have compiled albums from recordings for the BBC, from the Beatles to the Yardbirds, Cream, David Bowie, and Led Zeppelin.
Of the many gems included in this set, now legendary originals like “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction” and covers like “Hi-Heel Sneakers” sound absolutely explosively ’60s in ways only previously imaginable. The twang of a guitar solo and brief harmonica add in the latter are accompanied by lowered screams, indicating how fervently audiences enjoyed the band, while the former demonstrates the band’s pop power in 1965 as a raw counterpoint to over 50 years of concert performances.
A large contingent of Chuck Berry covers represent the late musician’s immense influence over the Stones and coincidentally offers an honorable tribute to his historical legacy before and beside the Rolling Stones. The band’s first single, “Come On”, kicks this album off, while “Roll Over Beethoven” is an early electric inclusion on the album. The band’s 1963 hit “I Wanna Be Your Man” (written by John Lennon and Paul McCartney and given to the Stones) is an extremely loose and rough affair. Other covers like Hank Snow’s 1950 country ballad “I’m Moving On” highlight the Stones feverish appetite and adaptation skills.
As a compilation of recordings for the BBC, the album carries the momentum of the Rolling Stones over three years effectively, documenting their growth as performers as well as the songwriting of Mick Jagger and Keith Richards. But, while that energy is present in the recordings, the sequencing and lack of radio-style distribution remove the real joy there must have been to hear this music in the mid-’60s. These aspects are true of many live compilations, though audience squeals and screams, and announcer introductions, are weaved into the album sporadically and often conveniently – as if to remind you that this was recorded live for the BBC, including in concerts between 1963 and 1965. This is a minor criticism overall, for the recordings themselves are crisp, preserved well, and remastered beautifully: demonstrative of the work of Abbey Road Studios in bringing the most out of half-century recordings.
Two versions of this album were released, with the deluxe edition containing an equivalent second disc that brings the total tracks to 32 recordings for the BBC. The deluxe edition is more inclusive and a fully immersive set that documents the historical value of the recordings. (An additional companion book and series of “official” Rolling Stones podcasts were released to accompany the On Air album, providing a comprehensive and extensive exploration of the historical context and legacy of the recordings and the Rolling Stones in 1963-1965.) On Air provides a variety of style in tracks that span 1963, 1964, and 1965, and brings in numerous different performance venues and session qualities to demonstrate just what recording for the BBC sounded like.
From radio sets to television and concert performances, On Air ultimately goes beyond similar albums by more effectively taking the songs out of the radio environment where it can. This has the effect of focusing entirely on the performance as it was captured, but draws from the excitement that must have been presented by the band on the radio program, in the television camera, and most important by the fan and listener anxiously waiting for the Rolling Stones appearance on the BBC. Even so, On Air deserves a listen in hopes of experiencing that mid-’60s excitement while preserving a half-century set of both mono and stereo recordings never intended for extensive replay.