Forty Licks was initially released in September 2002 to celebrate the Stones’ 40th anniversary and to mark the beginning of their highly successful Licks tour. This global spectacle, mounted on the breathtaking scale that only the Stones could muster, crossed the globe over the next 14 months, playing 117 shows and became the second highest-grossing tour in history up to that time. Following its initial release, Licks would sell seven million copies around the world, and has since come to be seen as the definitive anthology of the band’s recording career. It was, uniquely, the first collection to bring together landmark recordings from all points in their unrivalled songbook, from their early days via Decca UK and London US (ABKCO Records) through to the establishment of their own Rolling Stones Records.
The compilation Forty Licks was my first serious introduction to the entire Rolling Stones back catalogue. On purchasing the double CD of Forty Licks in 2004 I was surprised by the scope of their early catalogue, as well as the vast musical palate the band had covered up to that point within their career. The Rolling Stones have always managed to find the special sauce of their sound that is now so distinctive and undeniably a Rolling Stones groove when you hear it. I quickly went on to purchase the entire Rolling Stones back catalogue on vinyl, and I have now happily joined the ranks of the Stones’ heads.
For this article I have chosen ten songs off Forty Licks and wanted to give some insight into why I love them so much! It is amazing to reflect that the Rolling Stones career is now in its 61st year! The idea of a band lasting six decades and one that is STILL touring to most musicians is just inconceivable, to those who have ever ventured into the world of band dynamics. Like most bands the Rolling Stones lineup has had its significant and obvious changes over the decades. These changes make for discernably easy segmentations in both their career and sound. Therefore, I have chosen to focus on the music they released in the later 1960’s and early 1970’s and in particular the period of the original line-up. All the songs are written by Mick Jagger and the legendary Keith Richards.
1. Gimme Shelter
‘Gimme Shelter’ is the opening track from The Rolling Stones’ 1969 album Let It Bleed. The song is undeniably a Stones’ sounding track from the opening bar with Richards on guitar. The real sonic power of this composition is how the song builds with Richards’ guitar intro and then sees Watts drop the beat, bringing in guest musician Jerry Miller playing the Güiro to add a Latin flavour.
‘Gimme Shelter’ was recorded in London at Olympic Sound Studios in February and March 1969. Moreover, the vocals were recorded in Los Angeles at Sunset Sound and Elektra Studios in October and November that same year with Jagger on lead vocals and also prominently features guest vocalist American singer Merry Clayton. As for the rest of the Stones we have the classy cat Charlie Watts on drums and the magical Bill Wyman on bass completing the rhythm section.
‘Gimme Shelter’ is recorded towards the end of multi-instrumentalist Brian Jones’s tenure with the band. He was present during the early sessions but did not contribute, therefore Richards is credited with both rhythm and lead guitars on the album sleeve. Richards told Ultimate Classic Rock in 2017 on the songs inception, “I had been sitting by the window of my friend Robert Fraser’s apartment on Mount Street in London with an acoustic guitar when suddenly the sky went completely black and an incredible monsoon came down. It was just people running about looking for shelter – that was the germ of the idea. We went further into it until it became, you know, rape and murder are ‘just a shot away.'” The morbid nature of the lyrics just add to the mystic and feel of this masterpiece. The cherry on top is Nicky Hopkins on honky tonk piano in the later part of the song, his playing is stunningly good.
2. You Can’t Always Get What You Want
‘You Can’t Always Get What You Want’ is also from Let It Bleed and in my opinion is one of the most perfect songs ever written. It is composed in the key of C Major and was the first song recorded for the Let It Bleed album. It exists in two versions, a 4 minute and 51 seconds single mix and a 7 minute and 28 seconds album mix. The song was recorded on 16 and 17 November 1968 at Olympic Studios in London. It features the London Bach Choir opening the song (the choir opening is only on the album version), highlighting it throughout, and bringing it to its conclusion.
As well as the Stones, Al Kooper plays piano and organ, as well as the French Horn intro, and Rocky Dijon plays congas, maracas and tambourine. In relation to the origin of the song, Jagger has been quoted as saying that the song started as a bedroom song on his acoustic. The three verses (and the varied theme of the fourth verse) address some of the major topics of the later 1960s; love, politics, and drugs. Each verse captures the essence of the initial optimism and evolves into eventual disillusion, followed by the resigned pragmatism of the chorus. The theme of the lyrics is the creative hook that holds the whole musical concept together. The choir was originally meant to be a gospel choir but none existed in London at the time, so they decided on the London Bach Choir. The mix of their incredible choral vocals and the down and dirty rock n’ roll groove is what makes this song so special. ‘You Can’t Always Get What You Want’, never fails to sound gloriously fresh on each listen, incredible.
3. 19th Nervous Breakdown
‘19th Nervous Breakdown’, is a song that I liked from the very first listen on their 1966 album Aftermath. Jagger came up with the title of the song first and then wrote the lyrics around it. The opening guitar figure is played by Richards, while in the verses Jones plays a bass-note figure that derives from “Diddley Daddy” by Bo Diddley, a major influence on the Rolling Stones musical style.
The song was written during the group’s October–December 1965 tour of the United States and recorded at the conclusion of their fourth North American tour during the Aftermath sessions. ‘19th Nervous Breakdown’ is also distinctive for Wyman’s so-called “dive-bombing” bass line at the end.
The stand out musician on this track is Charlie Watts on the drums. He starts the track off at a breakneck speed and never lets up! What makes Watts one of the greatest rock drummers of his era is his ability to swing the beat with jazz sensibility, not surprising given his love of Jazz music and his side projects outside the Stones. Watts really leans right into the swing with Wyman on this track creating an incredible rhythm section groove. The listener can also hear Watts technical Jazz sensibilities in his stick work on this track and the hypnotic use of the bell on ride cymbal and the precision of the fills on the snare drive the song.
‘19th Nervous Breakdown’ is one of those songs that gets under your skin in the best possible way.
4. Under My Thumb
‘Under My Thumb’ is also off the Stones’ 1966 album Aftermath, an album that inspired The Beatles during the writing and recording of their ground breaking album Revolver. The song’s subject matter is interpreted to be an examination of a sexual power struggle, in which Jagger’s lyrics celebrate the success of finally having controlled and gained leverage over a previously pushy, dominating woman.
The song’s sound is made unique by the more novel instrumentation featured on the record than on previous Stones’ records. Wyman brings a fresh sound with the use of a Fuzz Bass. However, it is the genius of Brian Jones and his playing the Marimba riffs that provide the song’s most prominent hook that makes the song really special. It evokes that lounge feel of the swinging sixties so well, you can almost feel the velvet wallpaper and the smell of cigarette smoke filled clubs in London. It is still considered by many to be one of the Stones’ greatest pop songs.
5. Paint It Black
Recorded in 1966, the incredible ‘Paint It Black’ sounds like a raga rock song with Indian, Middle Eastern and Eastern European influences, and the subject matter details grief and loss. It also continues to showcase the brilliance of Brian Jones, this time with the mysterious and engaging use of Sitar which finds a truly unique sonic pocket within the track. It is as though it was always meant to be there, framing the song.
The song originated from a series of improvisational melodies played by Jones on the sitar. Given his contribution, it is interesting to note that only Jagger and Richards were credited as songwriters. The song features all five members of the band contributing to the final arrangement with the Hammond organ and castanets as stand out additions sonically. In contrast to previous Rolling Stones singles with straightforward rock arrangements, ‘Paint It Black’, has unconventional instrumentation, including Jones’s sitar sound which is the defining element of the song.
6. She’s A Rainbow
‘She’s A Rainbow’, is currently my favourite Rolling Stones song. The song comes from one of the most underrated Rolling Stones albums, 1967’s Their Satanic Majesties Request. ‘She’s A Rainbow’ is a masterpiece of a record within the album, which includes rich lyricism, vibrant piano by Nicky Hopkins and Jones on the Mellotron.
The song begins with the piano playing an ascending run with a turnaround, which returns throughout the song as a recurring motif, developed by the Celesta and strings in the middle eight bars. The song develops with humorous and ambiguous devices used to enhance the psychodelia feel, such as when the strings play out-of-tune and off-key towards the end of the song, and when the other Stones sing their “La La’s” like little children. Led Zeppelin bassist John Paul Jones is even credited with arranging strings for the song during his session days as an engineer.
Interestingly all of the vocals on the record are mixed very softly, giving a background singing like effect with the music overshadowing them to the point of the lyrics being difficult to hear. The backing vocals were provided by the entire band except for Watts. The lyrics “she comes in colours” in the chorus shares the phrase with the song of that same title by the Los Angeles psychedelic band Love, released in December 1966. The song is a Stones’ classic and is joyously uplifting to listen to. It is the unexpectedly soaring flight of the keyboards and strings that brings the melodic brilliance to the record. Therefore, recognition needs to be given to John Paul Jones for his incredible orchestral composition and Nick Hopkins for his inspired performance on keyboards, as they are truly the undeniable glue to the success of this record.
7. Get Off Of My Cloud
The brilliant ‘Get Off Of My Cloud’ was written as a follow up single to the successful ‘(I can’t get no) Satisfaction’ release and was recorded in Hollywood, California, in early September 1965. The Stones stated at the time that the song was a reaction to their sudden greatly enhanced popularity and dealt with their aversion to people’s expectations of them after their success.
The song opens with a drum intro by Watts and twin guitars by Jones and Richards. This track is all about Watts and that snare drum, he plays the same 4/4-beat-fill pattern throughout the entire song and he is flawless. Just magic! Then the thumping 4 to the floor in the chorus is the signal for everybody in the pit to bounce like the pogo stick.
This record is Watts at his finest. In a 1995 interview with Rolling Stone, Jagger spoke to the origins of the song saying, “That was Keith’s melody and my lyrics … It’s a stop-bugging-me, post-teenage-alienation song. The grown-up world was a very ordered society in the early ’60s, and I was coming out of it. America was even more ordered than anywhere else. I found it was a very restrictive society in thought and behaviour and dress.” As far as follow up singles go, this is a cracker.
8. Mother’s Little Helper
The song ‘Mothers Little Helper’, with its imagery and subject matter, really tickles me. The story goes that a recording engineer during the recording of the 1966 album Aftermath asked his wife to bring some depressants to the studio, and she brought several small pills, likely Valium. Inspired by the event, Jagger immediately composed the song’s lyrics.
The song is a folk rock composition based around an Eastern-flavoured guitar riff and is written in the Aeolian mode, an early instance of modal experimentation in rock music that helps provide the song with an Eastern/Indian feel. ‘Mothers Little Helper’ is one of the few Rolling Stones songs written in a minor key, its underlying tonality is that of E minor, but ends on an unexpected G major chord, which Richards later suggested may have been contributed by bassist Bill Wyman. Jagger’s vocal style for the song irritated his bandmates, with them later describing it as sounding “near-cockney.”
The lyrics focus on a middle-aged woman with children who has become dependent upon pills, an interesting demographic choice that adds an unusual flavour to the narrative. The mother’s state of anxiety is reinforced by the song’s recurrent lyric of “What a drag it is getting old”, sung by Jagger from her point of view, with the bridge consisting of pleas from the mother for more pills before the final verse warns her of the threat of an overdose posed by the drugs. The song is made sonically unique by the unusual approach with the Aeolian mode enhancing it musically.
9. Sympathy For The Devil
Originally, ‘Sympathy For The Devil’ was called ‘The Devil Is My Name’, having even earlier been called ‘Fallen Angels’. In this sinister masterpiece, Jagger’s vocal are sung in first person narrative by the Devil, who boasts of his role in several historical atrocities and repeatedly asks the listener to “guess my name?” Jagger’s vocal delivery demands the listener’s courtesy towards him, whilst chastising the listeners for their collective culpability in the listed killings and crimes in the lyrics.
In a 1995 interview with Rolling Stone Magazine, Jagger said, “that was taken from an old idea of Baudelaire’s, I think, but I could be wrong. Sometimes when I look at my Baudelaire books, I can’t see it in there. But it was an idea I got from French writing. And I just took a couple of lines and expanded on it. I wrote it as sort of like a Bob Dylan song.” It was Richards who suggested changing the tempo and using additional percussion, turning the folk song into a samba as well as making it one of the most unique sounding Stones anthems. Jagger continued in Rolling Stone Magazine, “It has a very hypnotic groove, a samba, which has a tremendous hypnotic power, rather like good dance music. It doesn’t speed up or slow down. It keeps this constant groove.”
The recording of ‘Sympathy For The Devil’ began at London’s Olympic Sound Studios on 4 June 1968. Personnel included Hopkins on piano, Dijon on congas and Wyman on the Yoruba percussion instrument the Shekere. Jones, Richards, Watts, Wyman, Marianne Faithfull, Anita Pallenburg and producer Jimmy Miller perform backup vocals. Richards plays bass on the original recording, as well as electric guitar. Jones plays a mostly mixed out acoustic guitar, although in isolated tracks of the studio cut it is audible playing along with the piano. A few years after its release ‘Sympathy for the Devil’ featured in Hunter S. Thompson’s 1971 ground breaking novel Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. In the novel Thompson and his attorney Oscar Zeta Acosta kept replaying ‘Sympathy for the Devil’ hundreds of times during their drug-induced Chevy ride to Las Vegas to maintain focus whilst high on class A drugs. Thus, Gonzo journalism was conceived to a samba beat.
10. Wild Horses
The last song I wanted to shine a light on is ‘Wild Horses,’ from the 1971 album Sticky Fingers. This is the only song in my selection to not feature Brian Jones. It was originally recorded over a three-day period at Muscle Shoals Sound Studio in Alabama during December 1969 and wasn’t released until over a year later due to legal wranglings with the band’s former label.
The track features Richards on electric guitar and 12-string acoustic guitar, and the brilliant Mick Taylor on acoustic guitar. Taylor uses Nashville tuning, in which the EADG strings of the acoustic guitar are strung one octave higher than in standard tuning giving the song a dominate country feel.
The song had often been attributed in the past to have been a song about Jagger’s relationship with Marianne Faithful. In the liner notes to the 1993 Rolling Stones compilation album Jump Back, Jagger states, “I remember we sat around originally doing this with Gram Parsons, and I think his version came out slightly before ours. Everyone always says this was written about Marianne but I don’t think it was; that was all well over by then. But I was definitely very inside this piece emotionally.” The emotion in his vocal performance is evident from the first syllable. ‘Wild Horses’ is the song I would choose on the jukebox to slow dance to with a gorgeous woman. One of the most beautiful ballads ever written.
Now, for the first time ever, Forty Licks has been released digitally on July 26, coinciding with Mick Jagger’s 80th Birthday! In celebration, Stones’ fans will have an opportunity to stream new Dolby Atmos versions of all 40 tracks. On July 28, it will also be available, again for the very first time, in a lavish, limited edition four-disc, 180-gram black vinyl version, housed in a wide spined gatefold sleeve!
The collection, which times out at over 2 and half hours, includes no fewer than 20 (US) Top 10 singles of which 13 broke into the Top 5 , with 7 going all the way to #1 including “Satisfaction,” “Miss You,” “Brown Sugar,” “Paint It, Black,” “Honky Tonk Women,” “Get Off Of My Cloud” and “Angie.”
So, without further ado start downloading or ordering your vinyl now! You might just find the satisfaction you are looking for.