(With The Rolling Stones about to kick off their 2013 “50 & Counting” tour, I thought it would be appropriate to revisit one of my favorite Stones pieces that I’ve written. I was just a kid when I made my folks’ little house shake, playing Get Yer Ya-Ya’s Out! up in my room. I had to wait pretty near 40 years to have the opportunity to write about it for real – when the Stones released a Deluxe Reissue of the Ya-Ya’s album in fall of 2009. Now, in the interest of complete disclosure, I have to tell you that I’d just had my tonsils removed and my septum whacked to pieces [yep – at the age of 51] a couple of days before I sat down to write this album review, so what you are about to read was pretty much brought to you by codeine syrup, I’m afraid. But, hey … I’m sure Keith would approve.)Here’s the deal, folks: if you’re just checking in to see if I liked this album and think you should get it, I’m not going to wait ‘til the end to tell you: yes. By all means, yes. Whoever you are; whatever your age; wherever your musical tastes tend to wander – if you care at all about rock ‘n’ roll, this is an album you should own. It’s that simple.
Now that we have that out of the way, I’m going to tell you how to listen to it. Rather, this is how I listen to it … you tackle it as you see fit.
What we have here are three CDs and a single DVD, released on the 40th anniversary of the Rolling Stones’ stand at Madison Square Garden in November 1969. The original Get Yer Ya-Ya’s Out album is one of the three discs, remastered and powerful. Along with that, we have a second CD of previously unreleased Stones tunes from the same shows, featuring a pair of acoustic duo numbers from Mick Jagger and Keith Richards. The DVD includes live footage of this same lineup of songs, along with backstage footage of the band; Keith and Jimi Hendrix mumble about guitars at one point, while elsewhere we watch drummer Charlie Watts be a really good sport about having his picture taken with a donkey in a sleet storm. (The best moment is actually at the end of the DVD, where two worlds collide: the Grateful Dead and the Stones must’ve been staying at the same hotel prior to the dreaded Altamont concert in December of that year. Standing on what would appear to be the roof of the hotel, awaiting a helicopter to take them to the concert site, a noticeably uptight and businesslike Jagger is horrified when a laughing Jerry Garcia tells him, “Oh yeah, man … we’ve been up here for two hours already, man …”)
Ever wondered who the openers were for the Stones on those nights? Funny you should ask: the third CD offers us choice cuts from B.B. King and a blistering performance by Ike & Tina Turner. Lord, have mercy!
Even though the disc of five unreleased Stones tracks from the MSG shows were performed live in front of the same crowds as the original Ya-Ya’s album, they have a different feel to them; the power and rawness of the main disc is yet to come. Me, if I’m going for the full effect, I play this disc first, pretending it’s a live soundcheck that the boys opened the doors up for. (That’s just me, you understand.) Things kick off with just Jagger and Richards center stage for “Prodigal Son” and “You Gotta Move,” Mick laying on his best po’ boy drawl while Keith thumps and wails on a resonator guitar (with what sounds like Charlie Watts’ bass drum pedal in the background for the first number). Boiled down to the simplest of elements – fingers, strings, flatpick, bottleneck, and throat – the music is primitive and perfect; a good reminder that, in the end, Keith Richards has always been as happy holding an acoustic as anything else he’s ever played. From there we have a full-band “Under My Thumb” segueing into “I’m Free”. Bill Wyman’s bass defines things with hooks galore while, in a true “where’d that come from?” moment, Mick Taylor ventures off into a flash of raga-like other-worldliness during the jam’s home stretch. Wrapping up the disc is a run-through of “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction,” one of those Stones tunes that everyone wants to hear, but will never, ever, be as good live as the original. That’s okay, though – this version is as reckless and punk as any other that’s been captured and it’s a keeper. Okay – “soundcheck” is over – now we move on to the openers: B.B. King and the Ike & Tina Turner Revue.
B.B. King’s set is much like his guitar playing; stripped down and to the point, with little flash and tons of heart. Leading things right off with a couple of his standards (“Everyday I Have The Blues” and “How Blue Can You Get”), King doles out big, fat, clean notes from his beloved Gibson. (You won’t find any B.B. King effects pedals at the local guitar shop, boys and girls: this is a matter of a man playing his guitar through an amp with nothing in between … it’s all in the touch.) Called back after a four-song set for an encore, King dedicates his final song to “the stars of the show, the Stones – because if had not been for them, you wouldn’t have heard B.B.King.” The man was and is a class act.
Ike and Tina were all about the energy: they blaze their way through seven songs in what seems like no time, jamming from “Gimme Some Loving” into “Sweet Soul Music,” chugging through “Proud Mary”, and baring heart and soul on “I’ve Been Loving You Too Long”. By the time they charge their way through “Land of A Thousand Dances,” there couldn’t have been a whole lot left of any of them.
And then we have the main show – the original Ya-Ya’s album, remastered and brutal. Don’t tell anyone at ABKCO, my friends, but this alone would’ve been worth having; the extra tunes and the DVD are super, but if you give a shit about the Stones at all, this is their finest live moment on record. I’m sorry, but I can’t come up with a better phrase than the opening montage of MC intros from the ’69 tour – what you have here is “The Greatest Rock ‘n’ Roll Band in the World.”
How much of that was due to Mick Taylor’s presence on guitar? You tell me; when Ya-Ya’s was first released, Taylor was the new kid on the block (his onstage debut with the Stones was July 5th of 1969; Ya-Ya’s was recorded in November) and no one was thinking that it might be the only official document of a live Taylor-powered Stones show. Now, 40 years on, it seems that it is. Does there deserve to be more? Does there need to be more? The argument could be made that Taylor’s greatest moments during his tenure with the Stones happened in the studio (including the totally spontaneous jam at the end of “Can’t You Hear Me Knockin’?” that nobody – not even the Stones themselves – should ever try to replicate). At least for now, Ya-Ya’s is all we have for live Mick Taylor-era Stones. When Ron Wood replaced Taylor in 1975, he supposedly brought a guitar style to the band that meshed easier with Keith Richards’. Maybe so; doesn’t matter. Forget who’s a better this or that … Get Yer Ya-Ya’s Out is simply a great live rock ‘n’ roll record.
Speaking of Keith Richards, it took another 20 years or so (and another band) before there was any live Keef that came close to the power and drive of this album. That’s right: Richards and his X-Pensive Winos’ own Live from the Hollywood Palladium (recorded in ’88; released in ’91) is the next best thing to Ya-Ya’s available in terms of capturing the man live without taming him. Why? I don’t know – could it be that Taylor’s presence pushed him harder? It sure wasn’t because he was healthier at the time: his off-stage persona during that tour was often just one step above absolute drool toast. Whatever – Richards is pure rock and roll once the music starts on Ya-Ya’s, providing everything from gutsy rhythm guitar foundations and fierce Chuck-Berry-meets-Hubert-Sumlin leads to the only background vocals that have ever stood their ground with Mick’s drawling field hollers. (No small feat – who could blame anyone for feeling plowed under by Jagger when sharing a mikestand?) Richards has proven himself a master over the years at the almost-bluegrassy style of oftentimes emphasizing key syllables rather than words, or phrases rather than whole lines. He may not have a great voice, but it’s a great rock ‘n’ roll voice. And again, Ya-Ya’s is a perfect time capsule of his style.
Right out of the hole, “Jumpin’ Jack Flash” hits you with all the power, raunch, and drama of the original single (most live versions of this song since are played at a faster tempo, the energy seeming to turn the lights up too bright and dissipating the vibe). Bill Wyman’s bass is finally up in the mix where it deserves to be; Charlie Watts is dead-nuts-on (listen to his foot pedal; just listen); and Mick is, well … don’t you ever worry about ol’ Mick.
“Ah think ah busted a button on mah trousers … ah hope they don’ fawl down,” Jagger drawls into the mike half-distractedly between songs. “Ya don’t want mah trousers ta fall down now, do yah?” The crowd, of course, goes apeshit. Think about it: Jagger was – what? – 26 at the time? When’s the last time you heard anybody use the word “trousers” except for your half-drunk Uncle Ned at Thanksgiving when he’s dumped most of the gravy boat on his? No matter – it’s the Stones. And it’s cool.
Roots are offered up by the fistfuls: father Chuck Berry is paid homage to with blistering versions of “Carol” and “Little Queenie” while Robert Johnson’s “Love In Vain” may very well feature Taylor’s best slide guitar work of all time with the Stones (at least a tie with his “All Down The Line” solo from Exile on Main Street). There’s the required raunch right out of the Stones’ own songbook (“Live With Me”, “Honky Tonk Women”, and “Stray Cat Blues”). And then there are the two masterpieces of the album: “Midnight Rambler” and “Sympathy For The Devil”.
As a studio cut on Let It Bleed, “Midnight Rambler” didn’t pack half the wallop it does on Get Yer Ya-Ya’s Out. You can feel Jagger’s energy as he lays down a little blues harp honk and a snatch of lyric, pacing like a meat-starved jungle cat. The crowd knows what’s coming; they try to start the rhythm before the band cranks up, but are soon buried under a big wall of guitar crunch and bass/drum stomp. Jagger swaggers through a couple verses and then the nastiness begins: there’s a subtle rhythm shift and the guitars begin to drive the beast with fierce chords and fills, letting the harp blow wild. Watts and Wyman pile on a relentless pounding, thrusting rhythm – and in case there’s any question about what’s meant to be going on, you hear Jagger moaning through his harp. This is sex, ladies and gentlemen, this is what this is; this is the blues; this is sweat; this is need and want and desire; this is rock ‘n’ roll … this is sex. In this case, there’s unfortunately evil afoot here as well – after all, this Midnight Rambler is a bad cat, remember? The drums ease up, the harp fades back a few steps from the mike, the guitars take a big, deep, stretch … we’re just dallying in the clover now following that raucus boxspring-collapsing pounding … Taylor and Richards fire off little flutters, the notes bent into ticklish shapes, winding their way about as Jagger savors the moment: “Well, awl right …” You just know everybody in Madison Square Garden is either getting their breath or holding it, knowing that something good/evil/good is about to happen … and then it does. Over just the barest of chords, Jagger slurs, “Well, you heard about the Boston …”
Every ounce of energy on the stage is concentrated on one big, savagely deep thrust. A breath, and then: “Honey, it’s not one a’ those …”
Another pubic-bone bruising slam … and you know that everybody in the Garden at that moment feels it, unashamedly feels it and can’t do anything about it. “Talkin’ ‘bout the Midnight …”
Jesus. “Did you see me jump the bedroom door …”
WHAM!I bet – 40 years later – that you could talk to people who were there that night and they’ll remember the feeling that slammed through their bodies every time the Stones dropped one of those bombs on them. Iggy and the Stooges offered up sex and violence, but theirs was more like going to the freak show; with the Stones, it was cooler than that … and everybody wanted some. At that moment, the Rolling Stones were laying the whole crowd at MSG.
The pace picks up slowly and Jagger testifies like a good bluesman should, strutting and preening. Suddenly, we’re rolling and a’ tumbling into the home stretch, the guitars all crunchy and Charlie Watts punctuating everything with cymbal crashes … and when everything finally collapses into a sweaty, quivering, breathless heap, you know you’ve been somewhere.
One might expect that things would ease up for a moment – grab a cigarette, washcloth, something – but these are the Stones we’re talking about. On Beggar’s Banquet, “Sympathy For The Devil” was driven by hand percussion and was actually a piano-based song; the guitar doesn’t really play a role until Keith Richards lays down his solo, sounding like he was using a razor blade rather than a pick. Make no mistake about it, though: on Ya-Ya’s, “Sympathy” is a guitar song, from chunky intro chords to the jam at the end. Let it be known throughout the land – this was a jamming version of the Stones, with arrangements loose enough to play in the moment and let the groove flow. When Jagger steps back to let the guitars take over, Richards grabs the lead first with an angular attack that hints at the original version, but then goes off on its own, doubling back with flurries of notes just when you think he’s about to let go of it. Eventually he does, sliding into doublestops and fills as Taylor picks it up, taking a more liquidy, melodic yet meaty approach that seems right on the edge of feedback. Taylor reins it in, wondering if they’re ready to take it home … but no: Richards is still wailing away at the rhythm, so Taylor digs in and blasts off a concentrated stream of sound that is bluesy and mean and sweet – all at the same time. You say “Guitar Hero” to somebody now and they think “video game”; this was back when the phrase really meant something, boys and girls.
In the end, “Street Fighting Man” is the only logical way to end everything: big swooping bass lines by Bill Wyman, and Watts as loose on the drums as he’s been all night. Mick Taylor basically plays lead throughout the song, verses and all, while Richards blasts away at the rhythm, hammering those suspended chords on and off and making every one of them fit. Jagger gets to be Jagger for one more time and then they run the monster right into the center of the earth with the throttle wide open, the whole works crashing to a halt with the angry howls of hot tube amps and a drum roll that doesn’t want to end.
Maybe you’ve had a copy of this album in one format or another ever since it first came out. Doesn’t matter; you need to hear this one – it’s everything you’ve loved plus another notch. (And that’s without taking all the extra perks into consideration.) And if you’ve never owned this album, then that’s an absolute no-brainer: get it.
After all, it is the greatest rock and roll band in the world.
This review was first published on Jambands.com in November of 2009.