Sunday, November 13, 2016

One Last Pick Through the Bins, Volume 4: The Rolling Stones, Less Hot Rocks

What is that...has a really strong fiber note...

The greatest hits album, the Cliff Notes of a musical act’s career, the gateway drug to said act’s oeuvre. It takes some amount of relevance plus time in the cultural spotlight to merit a “Greatest Hits” album. Only bands of a certain stature and longevity receive the pop music world’s commercial equivalent of a Lifetime Achievement Award: multiple greatest hits Albums.

When it reaches the rarefied air of the retrospective, a musical act achieves godhead, presumably, but that’s neither here nor there. Here.

For this volume, I want to talk less about The Rolling Stones – because I’ll do that later – than to talk about what I’ve always regarded as one of the greatest, greatest hits collections of all-time, Hot Rocks. But even that’s just a path to that collection’s famous sequel – and I mean sequel in every meaning of the word – More Hot Rocks. Just like any actor who picks up a life time achievement award, a band that’s lingered long enough to be worthy of serial releases of greatest hits albums has, frankly, squeezed out some amount of shit while pushing out the good stuff (graphic; sorry; it’s what came to me). Like the sawdust that pads your cat’s food, it has a purpose; it’s just that your cat isn’t eating that and thinking, “I taste the pork, but, oh my god…is that sawdust? C’est magnifique”!

The Greatest Hits Album falls into some neither-here-nor-there category between shortcut and advertising. By that I mean a lot of people buy a band’s greatest hits album and stop there, maybe even more people than most. Honestly, I have no idea; but that’s the “shortcut” iteration – i.e., a long introduction that leaves everyone with good memories, but not deep attachment. On a commercial level, though, I have to believe that at least one mission of the greatest hits album tracks the same logic as Discover Weekly does for Spotify, only it’s a much more specific pitch. Either way, the idea is the same: here are a bunch of songs; if you like that, why not roll over here and buy “Band X’s” other albums/get more eyeballs on our app.

Hot Rocks, the Firste, did both. I first heard Hot Rocks in high school (pretty sure) and, if you name a song by The Rolling Stones, it’s probably on there. I mean more than more than likely (intentional), and that’s why I never really dug into The Stones; Hot Rocks gives one enough knowledge of their songs to keep up with party chatter, so one keeps going, why? It worked on that other, commercial level too, only it didn’t happen right away. What Hot Rocks did was plant the impression in my mind that The Rolling Stones are a really good band, and, yeah, I really should check dig into them a lot more one day. And then one day you do. 20 years later.

While I can’t say this with authority, as I understand it, when naming The Rolling Stones' best albums, most people (among them, Buffalo Tom’s Bill Janovitz, who wrote the EXCELLENT Rocks Off) go with Sticky Fingers, Beggars Banquet, Exile on Main Street and Let It Bleed. The conditions under which The Stones recorded those albums make them epic all on their own (google “The Rolling Stones and tax troubles”), but I have three of them (may never collect Let It Bleed; so, thank you and fuck you, Spotify (it’s complicated)), and, yes, that’s a good shout for a top four.

But here’s a wrinkle: those albums didn’t contribute the balance of songs to Hot Rocks. I mean, there are legendary Stones songs from those albums on Hot Rocks – e.g. “Sympathy for the Devil” (Beggars), “Wild Horses” (Sticky Fingers), and “You Can’t Always Get What You Want” (Let It Bleed) – but there are just as many legendary songs that came (mostly) before – e.g. “Ruby Tuesday” (Between the Buttons), “Paint It Black” (don’t wanna look it up), “19th Nervous Breakdown” (see previous), “Mothers Little Helper” (again).

This brings the discussion to More Hot Rocks, aka, a second attempt at your wallet/shop window for the rest of The Stones’ ouevre. Like Hot Rocks, the Firste, it blends old songs and new – at least new as of 1972 (Hot Rocks came out in 1971) – but, everything between the songs chosen and the timing of its release puts the scent of a rushed cash-grab onto the collection.

I posted a lightly-read question on twitter about The Beatles/Rolling Stones rivalry, and that provides a good angle at which to hit More Hot Rocks. Shortly after The Beatles put out Sgt. Peppers Lonely Hearts Club Band, which, regardless of how much you like it, did stuff to music, the Stones put out Their Satanic Majesties Request to show the world that they can “trip balls” just as hard. Their Satani…look, it’s not a good album, so I’m not going to type it out again (even the cover screams "knock-off"; think even The Stones saw it for what it was), but one of the most insufferable songs from that album, “2000 Light Years from Home” made it onto More Hot Rocks. And that’s a good shorthand for More Hot Rocks: they put out the song, people noticed and, OK.

Because it’s just a bunch random, good shit thrown together, it’s hard to call any song on More Hot Rocks “the best,” or to argue, as I’ll do when I get to The Pixies, that “song x” best captures the essence of an album. More Hot Rocks spans 8 years of the Stones’ work, and follows a trajectory that, as with most 60s bands that lasted long enough, started in suit-clad, bubble-gum rock (say, “Have You Seen Your Mother, Baby, Standing in the Shadows?” though I’m guessing that’s later) and ended in a refined musical/artistic expression (even one that addressed the world and the times, like “Let It Bleed,” a song that sounds incredibly relevant to the Donald Trump presidency; sorta cool video in that link).

To put that another way, given the source material, it’s sort of inevitable that my favorite song from More Hot Rocks, “No Expectations,” comes from my favorite Stones album (Beggars Banquet). And that goes double when you stack that beauty against a frilly turd like “Sweet Lady Jane.” No, uh, offense if you’re a fan of that last one. Taste is personal, etc. The usual disclaimers…

The point of all the above is to highlight the eternal tension in the making and selling of American pop – e.g. the artistic versus the commercial. I like The Stones well enough that I can sit through More Hot Rocks a couple times over, and with only a couple skips. It is, however, still a lesser product, something of a fire sale on The Rolling Stones’ music, a collection pushed out the door before the customers moved on to the next thing...

…which is something The Stones themselves have yet to do. And I have opinions on that too, but that’s for another time/post.

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