In 2017, compelling infamy, legendary talent, and unrivaled glamour are just a few of the illustrious qualities that are associated with The Rolling Stones’ name. Given their continuously sold-out stadium shows and endless list of massively influential hit songs, it’s hard to imagine the band struggling to find their own sound on the London music scene of the early ’60s. On Air, the band’s latest release, turns back time and allows Stones fans to tune into the unfiltered radio show performances that catapulted the classic rock band to the forefront of the British Invasion.
The Dec. 1 release includes 32 tracks from various BBC radio shows, including Saturday Club, The Joe Loss Pop Show, Blues in Rhythm, Yeah Yeah, and Top Gear. The recordings were all done in the band’s formative years, between 1963 and 1965. Having formed in 1962 after a serendipitous encounter between childhood friends Mick Jagger and Keith Richards, the new band searches for original sound through covers of the likes of Chuck Berry, Muddy Waters, and The Beatles, as well as original songs including “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction” and “The Last Time.”
In a 1971 interview with Rolling Stone, Keith Richards, a founding member and legendary guitarist of The Rolling Stones, recalled how he and Mick Jagger, then a student at the London School of Economics, reconnected over Chuck Berry and Muddy Waters records Jagger happened to be carrying under his arm. It’s no surprise that their earliest recordings are overflowing with the sound of the founders of American rock and roll, a sound Richards wanted to bring to Britain upon entering the early ’60s music scene. Richards and The Stones make this fascination with American rock music obvious in On Air, both in the overwhelmingly prevalent replication of American artists’ work, and in overt references to the country across the pond in songs like “Route 66” and “Memphis, Tennessee.”
The album opens with “Come On,” a recording of a popular Chuck Berry song done for BBC’s Saturday Club in 1963. The Stones’ version of the song instantly differentiates itself from the American rock artist’s original recording with a screaming harmonica introduction, but Jagger sticks to Berry’s fast and choppy lyrical delivery for the track. Jagger finds his confidence while screaming “Oh Carol” throughout a grainy recording of “Carol,” yet another Chuck Berry hit. Perhaps the best cover of Berry featured in On Air is “Roll Over Beethoven,” a track which allows the formidable combined skills of Richards and Brian Jones, a guitarist for the band from 1962 until his death in 1969, to take center stage with a tell-tale Berry guitar solo. Further, Jagger’s voice takes on the raspy effortlessness that is prevalent throughout The Rolling Stones’ later work on the track.
On Air pays tribute to Muddy Waters through “I Can’t Be Satisfied” and “I Just Want to Make Love to You,” both of which debuted on Top Gear in 1964. The signature Muddy Waters slide guitar-driven “I Can’t Be Satisfied” allows Brian Jones to demonstrate his skillful slide guitar playing—a talent that serves as the foundation for the twangy sound of “No Expectations,” a track on Beggars Banquet and one of Jones’ last contributions to the band. What Jagger lacks in vocal range that would allow him to hit the low, soulful notes like the American blues artist, Jagger makes up for in stage presence. The standout quality of “I Just Want To Make Love To You” is the loud girlish screams that accompany the live recording, a tangible illustration of the charismatic front man’s magnetism on stage.
The Rolling Stones also cover “I Wanna Be Your Man,” a 1963 song written by John Lennon and Paul McCartney for With the Beatles. With strong guitar riffs and Jagger’s shouting vocal style, The Stones take a hard rock approach to the track, almost seeming to corrupt the sincere innocence of The Beatles’ style. When sang, the repeated lyrics “I wanna be your lover baby / I wanna be your man” sound very similar to The Beatles’ massive hit “I Wanna Hold Your Hand.” Thankfully, The Rolling Stones quickly differentiated their sound from that of The Beatles in following years and opted for more complex lyrics that better fit the band’s “rebel on the run” persona.
Early recordings of “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction” and “The Last Time,” both featured on The Rolling Stones’ 1965 album Out of Our Heads, are included in On Air. The Stones began to solidify their status as a top rock band in the mid-60s with original singles that catered to Jagger’s energetic performing style and invigorating lyricism as well as the musical skills of guitarists Richards and Jones, bassist Bill Wyman, and Charlie Watts, the long time drummer for the band. The Stones’ impressive songwriting skills also shine through on the tracks, combining choruses that are easy to sing along to, such as “I can’t get no satisfaction, I can’t get no satisfaction / ‘Cause I try and I try and I try and I try,” with the more intricate verse “He’s tellin’ me more and more about some useless information / Supposed to fire my imagination,” that can only be delivered by Jagger.
With On Air, The Rolling Stones pay tribute to those who inspired them during their formative years. While the today’s youth hardly tune into the radio due to the countless music streaming services that provide the power to skip songs as one pleases, The Stones return to the golden age of radio to dust off some of their earliest recordings—recordings that lamented a burgeoning genre and left their lick on the music world forever. In an era of safe but meaningless lyrics and overly synthetic beats with few or no traditional instruments, On Air reminds the music world of a period of intentional experimentation and exhilarating innovation.
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