Wednesday, January 22, 2014

The Rolling Stones: Metamorphosis (1975)

Beyond the obvious inspiration from Kafka, this album cover is unique in that it is only one of two Rolling Stones albums that depict both Mick Taylor (bottom left) and Brian Jones (bottom right), though they were not in the band at the same time. The other is Rolled Gold: The Very Best of The Rolling Stones, released that same year.
Even with the most accomplished and beloved of bands, outtakes can be very tricky turf. Witness The Beatles Anthology, six discs of rare and previously unreleased material from one of the greatest bands of all time. Taken as a whole, it is awfully uneven. The first installment features segments of dialog, presumably to make the collection feel like some sort of audio documentary, complete with obnoxious cross-fades where Paul is still talking about recording "My Bonnie" with Tony Sheridan while the song's intro plays. Someone somewhere realized this was a bad idea, as these snippets are only heard on Anthology One. All this without even really talking about the content.

On the one hand, the Anthology boasts the first official - and digitally remastered - releases of some historically significant tracks: John, Paul, and George's first recordings as a trio; selections from the Decca audition; the rendition of "All My Loving" from The Ed Sullivan Show that got the 1960's off to a start, four years too late; and the acoustic demos for The White Album recorded at Kinfauns. This makes up roughly a quarter of what can be found on the Anthology. Nearly half of the series is presentations of those familiar tunes as works-in-progress. Sometimes the differences are only of interest to the obsessed, other times we get the boys' attempt at "I'll Be Back" from A Hard Day's Night in waltz time, an even more psychedelic "Tomorrow Never Knows," and "Fool On The Hill" in a noticeably different key.

The remaining quarter, though, is what made Anthology ripe for parody, even right after its initial release in the mid-90's: an early version of "And Your Bird Can Sing" that is littered with stoned giggling, studio banter that makes the spliced-and-diced filler on Let It Be seem interesting by comparison, and the instrumental backing tracks to "Eleanor Rigby" and "Within You, Without You." Great songs, don't get me wrong, but for the casual listener, hearing those tunes without their melodies transforms two masterpieces into a melancholy British string quartet and a trip through India in 5/4 time, respectively.

Beginning with the advent of CD's and boxed sets in the early 1990's, unreleased material has gone from the stuff of legends to the expected. Retailers have adopted this into their business model, getting exclusive "Deluxe Editions" of new albums where, for a few dollars more, you can treat yourself to alternate takes, radio edits (since people LOVE censored versions of their favorite songs!), maybe a B-side, and, depending on the artist, a remix of the album's single. Boxed sets started off as collector's items, meant to be enjoyed with a glass of wine while you read the extensive liner notes on a plush sofa placed fifteen feet in front of the hi-fi system, the speakers themselves roughly twenty feet apart. The Beatles Anthology opened the floodgate, and now there is nary a contemporary release that doesn't boast a special edition in some form or another.

Funny enough, The Rolling Stones did all this first, predating The Beatles Anthology by twenty years. Granted, the Stones themselves had nothing to do with Metamorphosis, a collection of outtakes and demos, but credit is still due. A lot of these songs come from a period where Mick Jagger and Keith Richard (he dropped the 's' until 1977 - it probably made much more sense at the time) were not just competing with John and Paul in terms of who had the bigger fan-base, they were also hoping to make a name for themselves as pop songwriters. Recording information for these songs is scarce, but it is safe to say there are several tracks where you aren't even hearing The Rolling Stones at all - score one for us Monkees fans - and are instead hearing some of London's finest session players.

Somewhere along the way, manager Andrew Loog Oldham must have told Mick & Keith to diversify their interests, because there is not a lot of the Stones' early bluesy flavor on this album. Is that a good thing? Well, that depends. As both a fan of The Rolling Stones and British pop from this era, there is a lot of potential in these songs. In a way, this album presents an alternate history of The Rolling Stones. Several of these songs are so unabashedly pop - this coming from the band whose press release warned the British public to lock up their daughters - that it is not too far of a stretch to think that in some parallel universe, Metamorphosis doubles as Britpop pioneers The Rolling Stones' greatest hits.

Perhaps I am over-hyping a little too much, but I've always been a champion of the underdog. This is not an album that will blow your mind or alter your worldview. It is, however, one of the first times a popular band's vaults were opened up for public listening, and that is truly something. At its worst, the weaker tracks can be waved away with a "well, at least you tried." At its best are some fine songs to put on your own best-of mix to surprise your friends, mostly accompanied by the phrase, "Yep, that is The Rolling Stones."

On with the show.

Anyone reading this who hasn't read my album reviews before: I have a very unscientific method of rating albums where the songs are scored on a 1 to 10 scale, reserving 11 for the best track on the album, finding the average, adding a few extra points (see below after the subtotal) before racking up my final letter grade.

The songs on this album were all recorded between 1964 and 1969. For extra information about these tunes, when they were recorded, who went on to record them, all that fun stuff, check out the Wikipedia page for the album.

01. Out Of Time [10]
Imagine dropping the needle on your record player, excited to hear this new Stones album, only to be greeted with sprightly - and very British-sounding - strings. Again, I can't hate, I think this song is a brilliant pop gem. It's catchy, well-produced, and has a good beat. What more could the Ready, Steady, Go! crowd have asked for? This is one gem that should be polished off the next time a Stones compilation is being assembled.

A disappointingly inferior re-recording of this song can be heard on Aftermath and (in abridged form) on Flowers.

02. Don't Lie To Me [6]
Discovering the Stones' earliest work, after first hearing the likes of "Paint It Black," "Brown Sugar," and "Star, Star," was like hearing an entirely different band. It's like listening to The Piper At The Gates Of Dawn after hearing Animals - both great albums, but so incredibly different. That said, I love early Stones. It has a very palpable sense of danger and excitement to it that truly does explain why they were the bad-boy alternative to The Beatles.

This is not the best example of that era. The band turns in a solid performance, delivering the same menacing blues that marks so much of their early career. Ian Stewart, the sixth Stone, plays a lively piano part, while Keith turns in a solid solo, but for the song's first half, Mick sounds half asleep. It is only in the last run-through of the verse that he delivers any of his signature bravado, but it's too little, too late.

03. Some Things Just Stick In Your Mind [8]
From the "well, at least you tried" file, this marks the band's first foray into country music. The lyrics are insipid - a syndrome not unknown among Stones tunes circa 1964 - and the vocal delivery is a bit too exaggerated, but beneath it all is a sweet melody, some great slide guitar, and a subtle percussion arrangement.

04. Each And Every Day Of The Year [4]
This one is a straight-up clunker, and a waste of a trumpet overdub. The song never quite finds its footing, let alone its genre - and what was with the harp flourish at the end? Bringing the worst elements of the previous track without any of its redeeming qualities, I was reminded why the last time I heard this song was in 2003...when I took the newly-bought CD out of its cellophane.

05. Heart Of Stone [9.5]
This is a different version of an early Stones classic, an anti-love song about the joys of being a moody little womanizer. While the version released as a single in 1965 is a downbeat soul number, this outtake does an interesting bit of genre-bending. There is a countrified slide guitar solo, followed immediately by an almost note-for-note rendition of Keith's solo from the released version. For a song that sat in the can for ten years, this shows the first few baby steps towards the innovation that would dominate The Rolling Stones' career for the back half of the 1960's.

Apparently Clem Cattini, a highly valued session drummer in the 60's and 70's, is sitting in for Charlie on this one. He had played on "Tel-Star" by The Tornadoes, "Shakin' All Over" by Johnny Kidd & The Pirates, and guested on a few tracks from The Kinks' Misfits album in 1978. Some session guy named Jimmy Page plays guitar here, not entirely sure what became of him...

06. I'd Much Rather Be With The Boys [8.5]
From the "yep, that is The Rolling Stones" file, this song could have been a Beach Boys outtake from around the same era. If anyone takes offense to the blatant misogyny of the lyrics, one fun thing to do is give it a queer reading. Suddenly the line "I'd much rather be with the boys than be with you" takes on an entirely different meaning. Gender studies 101 aside, hearing the Stones do surf music is a unique experience.

07. (Walkin' Thru The) Sleepy City [10]
A wistful melody, dulcet harmonies, lyrics about being out late at night, visiting a cafe, and a yearning for companionship - this all sounds like the making for a classic Kinks song circa Something Else or Village Green Preservation Society. The resemblance to one of my favorite bands - to the point that it rivals Weird Al's style parodies in terms of authentic aping - made this a favorite from first listen. What makes the song truly special, however, is when it was recorded: September 1964. "You Really Got Me" had been released the previous month. In other words, at the time "Sleepy City" was recorded, The Kinks didn't even sound like The Kinks...or at least not the version of The Kinks I had long thought The Rolling Stones were borrowing from.

Which leaves two gaping mysteries: where the Hell did this song come from, and why didn't the Stones ever try anything like this again? Oh, wait...they did, and it was amazing.

08. We're Wastin' Time [5]
Meandering, unmemorable, and with a clumsily busy production, this one lives up to its name. The only thing saving this song from a rating of 3 (or worse) is its fluid and somewhat out of place guitar solo. Also, The Rolling Stones, God bless 'em, couldn't waltz their way out of a wet paper bag.

09. Try A Little Harder [5.5]
Another one that had stayed in the vault for a reason, though it boasts a beefy brass section. Sounding hesitant and limp, I can picture this song taking on a new life when performed live, with a little more oomph. Alas, it never saw official release, so it never had the chance.

10. I Don't Know Why [11]
Covering a Stevie Wonder song, the recently initiated Mick Taylor proves himself with an achingly beautiful solo, while Jagger sings as soulfully as ever. If one song from this collection deserved legitimate release, it was this one. Imagine this track kicking off side B of Let It Bleed, just before "Midnight Rambler." Oh, well, that's why the good Lord gave us the wherewithal to make iTunes playlists.

I'm limiting my rambling asides from entries past (seriously, those things got obnoxiously LONG!), but here's some Stones lore for you: this song was recorded the day Brian Jones died. As to whether the fellas laid this track down before or after they heard the news, it is up for debate. Part of me thinks the song's raw emotion comes from a very real place, but my pal Keno claims the telephone call delivering the bad news brought the session to an end.

11. If You Let Me [10]
A very sweet outtake from Between The Buttons, with a gentle arrangement and some surprisingly vulnerable lyrics. People don't typically associate the Stones with these things, and while that may add to the novelty of hearing the Stones do sweet and vulnerable, it is a great song on its own merits.

12. Jiving Sister Fanny [9]
Whoever compiled this track listing did a nice job, because I have always liked the shift from Kinks-inspired balladry on "If You Let Me" to the coked-out basement blues of "Jiving Sister Fanny," recorded only two years later. Another outtake from what would become Let It Bleed, this has all the elements of classic Stones: a driving riff, distant and incoherent vocals, and a beat you can screw to. Somehow those ingredients never get stale.

13. Downtown Suzie [8.5]
The Rolling Stones had some nasty habits - they even admitted to it on "Live With Me" off Let It Bleed - but one of their worst was frequently crediting other people's work as their own. (Don't worry, Led Zeppelin did it, too, and their manor-dwelling asses got taken to court over it.) Similarly, Mick & Keith let bassist Bill Wyman contribute an original song only once on an official release, the song being "In Another Land" from Their Satanic Majesties Request, itself a fairly divisive episode in the Stones saga.

It truly was their loss, because Bill Wyman is talented songwriter with a knack for melodies and often witty lyrics. "Downtown Suzie" is much more in the vein of classic Stones than "In Another Land," with bluesy verses and a shit-kickin' country chorus. The band sound like they're having a lot of fun on this one, which further presses the issue of why this didn't make its way to an official release.

14. Family [10]
This is the album's only outtake from the Stones' gloomy return to roots, Beggar's Banquet, a fact given away by its sparse and eerie arrangement. Lots of cymbal sizzles from Charlie Watts on the verses before kicking into a double-time rhythm on the pre-chorus. The lyrics' description of a damaged family matches its unsettling musical tone. Another one that should have made it onto the final album.

15. Memo From Turner [9]
Just like "Out Of Time" and "Heart Of Stone," this is an alternate version of a song that was given official release. I enjoy this version a lot, it's pissed-off and urgent, but it has nothing on the released version, which can be heard (and seen, in a modern precursor to the music video) in the 1970 film Performance, Jagger's acting debut. The movie comes highly recommended.

16. I'm Going Down [10]
Rounding out the album is another leftover from Mick Taylor's first few months in the band, predicting the choppy riffs that would define the band's sound for the rest of their career. Yet another masterpiece that didn't quite make the cut for Let It Bleed. Come on, guys, did "You Can't Always Get What You Want" really need that stupid choral intro? Some people...

Subtotal: 83.75% B

Replay Factor: 0.5
I have maybe listened to this album from start to finish five times, one of those instances being while I wrote this. Considering I have owned Metamorphosis for over ten years, that should tell you something. The songs are good, but there is not much of a flow to it.

Consistency Factor: 0
I'm being harsh with my factors this time around, which typically give an album extra points, but this collection of tracks ranks down low with Satanic Majesties as far as being consistent with the rest of the Stones' output.

External Factors: 2
As a warts-and-all compilation of outtakes, this was pretty ahead of its time. It also showcases the most unique examples of The Rolling Stones trying on a number of different musical hats.

TOTAL: 86.25% B

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