Sizing up the Rolling Stones' epic 'Singles Collection'
By NICK TAVARES
STATIC and FEEDBACK Editor
In my earliest album-buying days, every purchase and decision seemed like life or death. Which Stone Temple Pilots album did I want? Who or what are the Butthole Surfers? Is this band worth the $7.99 a cassette usually cost in 1996?
The entire effort was compounded by the time I got my first CD player. CDs were shiny, magnificent creations that eliminated the necessity to rewind and fast-forward through songs. They were also more expensive, and for the music interest to grow into obsession, creativity in buying was a must.
There was some confusion after jumping headfirst into the CD world in the mid-90s, at least five years after the rest of the developed world and perhaps 10 after most music fans. After building up a library of 20-or-so CDs that I’d wanted, I started to dive into replacing the best of my tapes that I’d collected. Pearl Jam was the first, followed by the Beatles and Nirvana.
The Rolling Stones seemed a little trickier. I’d gotten Sticky Fingers and Goats Head Soup for Christmas in 1997, but my favorite was still, for obvious reasons, the Hot Rocks 1964-1971 collection I had on tape. Not looking to completely emulate that, and afraid, for reasons now forgotten, of diving into any of the 1960s albums, like Beggar’s Banquet or Let It Bleed, I wanted a CD recreation of Hot Rocks without actually buying the same album again.
Singles Collection: The London Years certainly seemed like an attractive, albeit daunting, option. I wasn’t quite savvy enough to understand the concept (“Where’s ‘Gimme Shelter?’”), but the overall bang for the buck was simple enough to grasp. Here were every Rolling Stones single and their respective B-sides (sometimes more than one if the U.S. and U.K. singles varied), jammed onto three CDs for my listening enjoyment. I eyeballed the collection in the store for a few weeks before saving up the required $30, then took it home and broke it down on my bed, the discs spinning in my boombox behind me while I read and re-read the liner notes constantly.
I was initially a little anxious about what I’d just purchased. Not only had I not heard a number of these songs, but there were plenty I’d never heard of, period. “Good Times, Bad Times?” “Dandelion?” “2000 Light Years From Home?” “What a Shame?” What were these songs?
As for the package itself, there wasn’t much to rival what’s being done with box sets today, such as woven-bound books, hard covers, photo spreads, vinyl singles and other ephemera pertinent to the era its representing. The three discs were housed in a bulky double jewel box, and the liner notes were spread over a flimsy booklet. No photos, just a shrunk-down version of the cover art. I learned later that there was originally a more lavish box made for the set when it was released in 1989, but by 1997 or ’98, this was what remained.
Still, the notes themselves were revelatory for a young fan looking to get a better grasp on this band and its seemingly endless history. All I needed was the date, where the song was recorded, and any other trivia that may have seemed useful, such as the fact that “The Under Assistant West Coast Promotion Man” was written to take a little jab at their manager, Andrew Loog Oldham.
And, of course, nearly to the minute, the music was incredible. There was more than a little surprise on my part realizing that the Stones could rattle off a song in less than two minutes, as was common on their early efforts. Even greater was the shock of the third song, “I Wanna Be Your Man.” Hearing the Stones cover a Beatles song was bizarre enough, but even stranger was realizing that John Lennon and Paul McCartney wrote the song for the band, and that the Stones’ version came out well before the Ringo-sung Beatles recording. In a way, the ongoing history lessons were nearly as thrilling as hearing most of the new tracks for the first time. Of course, the music always wins out, and it’s the music that makes this as indispensable a collection as any in the rock and roll cannon.
There were a few hits, too, that I hadn’t had the benefit of hearing yet, like “The Last Time,” “Have You Heard Your Mother, Baby” and “2000 Light Years From Home” that took the already obvious (to me) strengths of the group and pushed them further. But there was more going on here, and the format of the compilation allowed for a greater display of the band’s abilities.
“Little Red Rooster” was my first real look into the mysterious world of the blues. The Stones were responsible for a lot of listeners going back and discovering the likes of Muddy Waters and Elmore James in the ‘60s, and in the mid-90s, I was no different. Soon after I was off chasing the catalogs of Led Zeppelin and Cream, and from there it was on to the original masters of this format that my heroes all seemed to admire.
Beyond the hits I had discovered or already loved — “Satisfaction,” “Get Off of My Cloud,” “Paint it, Black” and so on — a few of the B-sides really jumped into my consciousness. “Who’s Driving Your Plane” quickly became a mix-tape favorite, and it’s a song I’ll turn to when I need that Wes Anderson-esque deviation on a playlist. “The Spider and the Fly” is a sleepy little tune that addresses the perils and temptations of the road a little more subtly than “Star Fucker.” And “Off the Hook” is an earworm that I still find myself humming for no particular reason.
After sitting with the set for a while, “No Expectations” revealed itself as a true bit of brilliance. An acoustic blues with an earnest Jagger moving on to life’s next stop, the simplicity of the song, with Brian Jones’ slide guitar twanging in to accent the lyrics, was incredibly moving. Before long, popping disc three in and jumping right to the song’s track-two position became something of a late-night ritual, a song to wind down the day and anticipate the next.
It’s not all gold on Singles Collection, though. There are a few songs that never grabbed me — “Congratulations” and “Tell Me” just sort of sit there — and Bill Wyman’s turn at the mic, “In Another Land,” is an oddity that still leaves me scratching my head. Given it was his only shot at appearing on a Stones album (never mind a single), it seems safe to think the band felt the same.
But even the relative duds served to better tell the story of the band. Having all the singles laid bare and in chronological order creates a timeline of creativity, revealing the peaks and valleys the band hit as they roared through their first decade. It also made one of the more daunting catalogs in rock and roll slightly less daunting. Among both the highlights and their guests, the Rolling Stones displayed senses of humor and adventure along with their obvious, landscape-changing gifts. And despite having since acquired the rest of the catalog, this summation of the band’s early days remains a well-worn classic.
Taking the gamble on this set paid off tremendously. Jumping into a CD purchase never seemed quite so scary again.
E-mail Nick Tavares at email@example.com