REVIEW: BETWEEN THE BUTTONS, THE ROLLING STONES

August 9, 2019

The Jagger-Richards partnership’s emergence as a songwriting duo capable of rivalling even Lennon and McCartney sent the Rolling Stones’ first full album of exclusively original material, Aftermath, to the top of UK charts, where it sat securely for eight consecutive weeks, firmly fortifying the Rolling Stones place in the esteemed echelons of approbation.

Having just lit the fuse on their creative songwriting spark, Jagger and Richards, with the sensation and wonder of a child in a candy store, sought to explore their newfound abilities, and unearth new musical troves. It was with this in mind that the Stones began sessions on their next studio album, Between the Buttons, and its accompanying singles: “Let’s Spend the Night Together” and “Ruby Tuesday”.

Let’s Spend the Night Together/Ruby Tuesday (January 14, 1967)

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Let’s Spend the Night Together/Ruby Tuesday

In the ’70s, the Rolling Stones were infamous for courting controversy. The coda to Goat’s Head Soup, “Star Star”, featured more f-bombs than Joe Pesci in Goodfellas; on their 1975 American tour, Mick Jagger was meandering the stage while riding a giant inflatable penis; and there was the drug bust where they had so much dope on them, they were charged with trafficking like some coterie of Colombian drug lords. This affinity for agitating the authorities began back in 1967 when the Stones were recording their new, poppy single, “Let’s Spend the Night Together.” Although the song’s suggestively seductive lyrics may seem innocuous by today’s standards, they were anything but in 1967.

While the Beatles were weaving love ballads onto the grooves of Revolver, with songs like “Here, There and Everywhere”, the Stones took a different route, jettisoning subtly, for straightforward sexual advance.

“Don’t hang me up and don’t let me down
We could have fun just groovin’ around, around and around
Oh my, my
Let’s spend the night together
Now I need you more than ever “

The hook was deemed so brazenly taboo for 60’s airwaves, the Ed Sullivan Show insisted Mick Jagger change the chorus to, “let’s spend some time together”. As the story goes, after the disgruntled Stones performed the modified, milquetoast lyrics, they returned to the set in Nazi uniforms in protest of the draconian diminution of their lyrical freedoms.

As for the song itself, “Let’s Spend Some Time The Night Together” is the Stones’ first foray into pop music, after several subdued attempts on Aftermath. It opens with a great stereo mix: Jack Nitzsche, on the right channel, starts rocking away on the piano, as Keith Richards is romping the bass on the left. Shortly after, Jagger joins Richards, crooning the iconic backing track, “ba-ba da-da ba ba da-da-da”. Complementing Nitzche is Brian Jones on the electric organ. It’s a great, upbeat pop song, written to ride the waves emanating from the Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds and the Kinks’ Face to Face, both released just months prior.

Like on most of Aftermath, Jones embraces his true talent as a jack-of-all-trades musician, adding an eclectic gamut of frills to these recordings, raising them from merely catchy tunes, to hauntingly memorable masterpieces. Which brings us to the flip side of this 45: “Ruby Tuesday.”

According to his autobiography, Life, Richards wrote the dulcet love song for his girlfriend, Linda Keith (I jokingly imagine Keith first asked Mick to write his girlfriend a song, and he came up with “Yesterday’s Papers. But more on that song in a bit.”)

Up until now, while succeeding marvelously at rock n’ roll numbers like “Satisfaction” or “19th Nervous Breakdown”, the Stones’ had shockingly little to show for when it came to slow, melodic ballads. Their earlier efforts like “Lady Jane” paled in comparison to what the Beatles or Dylan were writing at the time.

With “Ruby Tuesday” the Stones finally hit their mark. It opens with Jagger’s vocals laid over Bill Wyman’s double bass, and Nitzsche’s melancholy piano playing. The arrangement is elevated to a whole new level as Brian Jones enters the mix on a recorder: an instrument more often seen played by children than rocks stars. But he blends its signature tone to the ensemble seamlessly. As the piano gets louder, Charlie Watts provides a perfectly timed fill, leading the band into the chorus. “Ruby Tuesday” to this day stands out as one of the Stones’ finest achievements.

Between The Buttons (UK) (January 20, 1967)

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Between the Buttons (UK)

Tracklist (UK Version):

1A. Yesterday’s Papers
2A. My Obsession
3A. Back Street Girl
4A. Connection
5A. She Smiled Sweetly
6A. Cool, Calm & Collected
1B. All Sold Out
2B. Please Go Home
3B. Who’s Been Sleeping Here?
4B. Complicated
5B. Miss Amanda Jones
6B. Something Happened To Me Yesterday

(Note: for the US release of this album, London Records decided to swap out “Back Street Girl” and “Please Go Home” for the singles, “Let’s Spend the Night Together”, and “Ruby Tuesday”)

Emerging from the shadow cast by Aftermath — imbued with dark themes in songs like “Mother’s Little Helper”, and “Out of Time” — the Rolling Stones release their most upbeat, and pop-infused album to date.

Aftermath was the album where the Stones proved they were far more than a Chuck Berry cover band, capable of writing an album flushed full of original material, contending with the likes of The Beatles. But being an ambitious bunch, they weren’t ready to rest on their laurels just yet. The Stones wanted to prove they couldn’t just write material to fill LPs, but they could also craft cohesive albums in succession where each took a different turn and charted new musical territory. It was 1966 when sessions on the new Stones album began, and by now, the Beatles had already gone from pop (Please Please Me), to rock (Hard Day’s Night), to psychedelic (Revolver); and Dylan had gone from folk (The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan), to electric folk (Bringing it All Back Home), to rock and roll (Highway 61 Revisited). Where would the Stones go?

They went to an album called Between the Buttons, recorded amid on-and-off touring. Firing up recording sessions in Hollywood’s RCA Studios in August of 1967 for a week during their American Aftermath tour*.* Recording wrapped up three months later, in November, back home in London, at the newly opened Olympic Sound Studios.

What came out of these sessions, was a fusion of the Stones’ signature sound with the Kinks’ pop hooks and Beach Boys harmonies, spiced with Bob Dylan pastiches. But it wasn’t just external influences that sculpted the sound on Between the Buttons. The internal dynamics of the Stones were the real impetus for innovation. Brian Jones, having recognized Richards’ guitar playing prowess, grew disaffected and stultified with the instrument. Offloading his rhythm and lead guitar parts to Richards – Jones is credited with playing guitar on only one song on this entire album – Jones took up virtually every obscure instrument in existence. Using these new knickknacks, he pushed the band to its creative peaks. As a result, Between the Buttons sounds like nothing the Stones have ever recorded before it.

The opening track, “Yesterday’s Papers”, is one of the most alluring melodic compositions of the Stones’ entire career. I emphasize the melody because the lyrics aren’t nearly as interesting — another one of Jagger’s misogynist rants, rehashing grievances with ex-girlfriend Chrissie Shrimpton. But back to the melody: Imbued with multiple layers of rich musicality, it takes a few listens to appreciate it for what it is. The song is driven by phenomenal bass playing from Bill Wyman, over-top Watts’ gentle beat on the tom-toms, with Jagger following on the tambourine. The entire arrangement is animated by the colorful resonances of the vibraphone and harpsichord, played by Brian Jones and Jack Nitzsche respectively. Taking things to yet another level, Jones, Richards, and Wyman adjoin Beach Boys style backing harmonies to Mick Jagger’s lead.

On “Back Street Girl” the Rolling Stones waltz (literally, the song is a 3/4 tempo waltz) into social commentary, with some of Jagger’s most sardonic lyrics yet, lambasting the unfaithful fancies of upper and middle-class Englishmen in the 1960s.

Don’t want you out in my world
Just you be my backstreet girl

Please don’t be part of my life
Please keep yourself to yourself
Please don’t you bother my wife
That way you won’t get no help

Keith Richards’ gentle acoustic guitar playing, coupled with Watts’ gentle rhythm on the claves and tambourine gives the song a serenading, folksy ambiance. But like a Pollock painting, the Stones had no intentions of leaving any part of their canvass unpainted. Everything is accompanied with the dreamy, Parisian daze of accordion (played by Nick de Caro), and Brian Jones’ vibraphone.

Whether by intention or sheer happenstance, “Connection” is where the Kinks influences stand out. Though Richard’s opening riff with its generous use of slides is very Chuck Berry, the song itself is incredibly reminiscent of “Party Line”, the first track on the Kinks’ 1966 LP, Face to Face. While similar, it’s also far superior. The rhythm on this track is amongst the Stones’ finest, with Nitzsche’s piano tightly accompanying Watts on the drums, and the usual bells and whistles from Brian Jones, this time in the shape of organ pedals. This is Richards’ first time sharing lead vocals with Jagger, a position he fills amicably, tearing through the harsh depiction of air travel.

The Stones were no strangers to the music of Bob Dylan. “Who’s Been Sleeping Here?” is as good a testament to that, as anything on this record. Drawing from Highway 61 Revisited and Blonde on Blonde, in classic Dylan-esque style, the lyrics animate an array of characters that serve as the song’s subjects. On lead vocals, Jagger narrates the account of a traveler who returns home and starts questioning his lover’s fidelity:

What you say, girl? Who’d you see that night?
I, I was doing
Doing something right
Oh the soldier, the sailor
And then there’s the three musketeers
Yes, they’ll tell me now
Who’s been sleeping here”

The musical arrangement beautifully blends Nicky Hopkins’ resplendent piano work with one of Brian Jones’ best harmonica performances to date. Finally, Richards’ bluesy guitar solo comes roaring out both channels at the 2:30 mark, tying the knot on this marriage between Stones-ey blues and Dylan-folk that permeates this record.

The Rolling Stones’ fifth UK studio album, Between the Buttons, was a profound statement. The Stones loudly proclaimed that they weren’t a one-trick pony that exclusively basked in the blues. They were rife with imagination, and more than willing to experiment. While Jagger and Richards cemented themselves as the songwriting force behind the band, Brian Jones firmly planted himself at the Stones’ creative helm — holding a giant box filled with sitars, marimbas, vibraphone, and a recorder. Jones became a driving force in developing the Stones’ disposition to experiment and venture out into new, unexplored musical territory. His contributions to the Rolling Stones musical output through this era are immeasurable and worthy of recognition.