'Prodigal Son' and the rebirth of the Rolling Stones

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By NICK TAVARES
STATIC and FEEDBACK Editor

It’s that sound of the string bouncing up above and over the hole cut out of an acoustic guitar. The fingers are light over the heavy-gauge strings, and the entire racket sounds like it was recorded in the back of a truck on a farm by Alan Lomax.

But it’s not. It was recorded in the late 1960s in London, and it’s “Prodigal Son” and the sound of the Rolling Stones getting back to their roots and putting their stamp on the blues genre for the second time in a decade.

I have a playlist on my iPod that gets plenty of time in my headphones, and it centers on the earthier, soulful songs the Rolling Stones recorded from Beggar’s Banquet through Exile on Main St. There are lots of tunes with Keith Richards driving the band on an acoustic guitar, lots of harmonica from Mick Jagger and plenty of moments where it’s possible to imagine the band in overalls kicking the shit on the back porch with Charlie Watts playing a washboard. It's about an hour and 25 minutes of blues and soul from a band who, when they were honest, were better at that than nearly all their peers.

It’s labelled in my library as “Prodigal Stones,” and it’s centered on “Prodigal Son,” the traditional blues that serves as one of the many highlights on 1968’s Beggar’s Banquet.

Their early records were nearly exclusively workouts of already classic R&B songs, a group of teenagers walking the line between emulating their heroes and putting their stamp on the material. Their third American release The Rolling Stones, Now! starts with “Everybody Needs Somebody to Love.” Their first big hit was a cover of Bobby Womack’s “It’s All Over Now.” They were a blues band, and their first written hits, like “Satisfaction” still hinted at that blues-cemented education.

They got away from that a bit in the mid-1960s. Admirable as it was as their sounded expanded, incorporating the marimba on “Under My Thumb” or the sitar on “Paint It, Black,” it took the band farther and farther away from their roots and closer to chasing fads and trends, to the point that they were dressed in sorcerer’s robes and singing through mellotrons on 1967’s Their Satanic Majesties Request. And that is, in retrospect, an extremely cool record. But it wasn’t as much a representation of the band as it was an experimental diversion.

But “Prodigal Son” was a step even further back into the world of the blues, on an album where the band purposely pulled back from their efforts into psychedelic avenues. Beggar’s Banquet was much ballyhooed return to their roots, but instead of just jumping back into Solomon Burke and Sam Cooke songs, they travelled right down into the fields of Mississippi.

The song dates to the Rev. Robert Wilkins, whose “That’s No Way to Get Along” morphed into “Prodigal Son” over the years and was finally properly recorded in the early 1960s (Led Zeppelin probably used that as the basis for their own “Poor Tom,” according to our Wikipedia overlords).

It represented a step away from following fads and back to what the band did best, which was to play these songs better than most bands were capable of doing. Richards, in his autobiography Life, talked about this period where they stepped away from overblown productions and back to playing as a band in service of a song, rather than the reverse:

“There was a lot of country and blues on Beggar’s Banquet … they’re all either blues or folk music. By then we were thinking, hey, give us a good song, we can do it. We’ve got the sound and we know we can find it one way or another if we’ve got the song — we’ll chase the damn thing all around the room, up to the ceiling. We know we’ve got it and we’ll lock on to it and find it.”

There’s definitely a groove the band locks into on that song, with is uptempo shuffle sounding somewhere between a boogie and a slower Southern drawl. It sounds naturally edgy and dangerous, even before its subject matter of the sinner returning from up the road sets in, and perhaps the coolest thing about all of it is how acoustically propelled it is; that song is Jagger, Richards on acoustic guitar, Brian Jones on harmonica, Charlie Watts lightly keeping the beat and little else. It’s the heart of what the Stones did best, stripped down to nothing but.

Richards, in Life and elsewhere, has discussed how important the acoustic guitar is to him as a songwriter and musician. He rarely picks up an electric guitar before he winds up in a studio or on stage, and nearly all of his creative process is filtered through a wooden instrument. And so it is on “Prodigal Son,” an acoustic outing in an open E blues tuning with Jagger, in a southern affectation that plays more as an homage than the parody he was prone to, singing this traditional with its roots in the biblical tale of the wayward son returned home.

And fittingly, so it was with the Stones. After traveling the world of pop following their strict blues beginnings, they’d wound up in a bizarre Strawberry Alarm Clock-esque world of music where they were suddenly chasing the trail rather than blazing it. On Beggar’s Banquet, they started to find their way back and subsequently kicked off a stunning display of creativity and triumph that saw them making some of the best rock music ever into the early 1970s.

With the roots as well as the sound and message, it started with “Prodigal Son,” which turned the band towards a full-blown revival — in sound, direction and creativity. By the time it started to wind down, they had burned a trail of incredible records behind them, and in those great moments, they all sounded closer to the source of it all.

June 29, 2013

E-mail Nick Tavares at nick@staticandfeedback.com