I go way back with The Rolling Stones. Not as far back as some people, but back to a time when the band’s slogan “The World’s Greatest Rock ‘n’ Roll Band” still had a ring of truth to it. As a kid, I stayed up late to see them perform a ragged version of “Shattered” on Saturday Night Live, and I was impressed not only by their flamboyant self-assurance, but also by those lived-in faces: Mick Jagger with his drooping eyes and lips, Keith Richards with his zoned-out cool, Charlie Watts with his look of bored indifference.
In the late ‘70s, The Stones were new to me, but as I grew up and entered my pre-teens, their importance to rock music became ever clearer. It seemed they represented everything that rock music was about. Learning their music would be like discovering the essence of rock ‘n’ roll.
Eventually, I owned most of their LPs, from that first one I heard, 1978’s raucous Some Girls, all the way back to their very first American album from 1964, the quaintly titled England’s Newest Hit Makers: The Rolling Stones (on the London record label, no less).
The cover of England’s Newest Hit Makers was striking. It featured the five members of The Rolling Stones dressed in hip threads and turned sideways, partly in shadow, looking out at the viewer unsmilingly. In England, the cover famously only featured Mick Jagger’s brooding image, with no title text, something of a first in album design. Over there, the album was simply called The Rolling Stones. In the U.S., the record company splashed “England’s Newest Hit Makers” across the top of the cover in white letters, but the coolness of the image remained. Even on their first album, The Rolling Stones’ confrontational attitude was in full evidence.
The music on England’s Newest Hit Makers couldn’t have been more different than the music on Some Girls, and at first I didn’t know what to make of it. It was packed with mostly cover versions of songs by blues artists. I’d read about how The Stones began as a “rhythm and blues” group in their native London, but I wasn’t really sure what that meant. To me, rhythm and blues was Marvin Gaye’s “Sexual Healing,” or the Pointer Sisters. Who were these strange people the group was inspired by, with names like Slim Harpo and Muddy Waters?
It soon became clear that The Rolling Stones were digging from a different cultural seam than the band that opened the doors for them in America, the Beatles. The Beatles loved Motown hits and early rock ‘n’ roll by the likes of Carl Perkins; it showed in the songs they covered as well as in their original material. The Stones, on the other hand, were interested in American music that was barely even popular in America, music made by middle-aged black men who had lived gritty lives in the agricultural South or in industrial northern cities like Chicago.
This music was earthier and more suggestive than the general music of the pop parade. The Beatles’ first big hit in America was a ditty they wrote called “I Want to Hold Your Hand,” while one of the key tracks on The Stones’ first LP was a turbocharged version of Muddy Waters’s “I Just Want to Make Love to You.” The die was cast as early as this, with The Rolling Stones offering a darker, more sexual yang to the Beatles’ sunnier yin.
After investigating the sources of The Stones’ music, I felt that England’s Newest Hit Makers began to seem like a stiff, juvenile version of the original material. In fact, when they attempted to cover Otis Redding or Howlin’ Wolf, the results could be almost pitiful.
No, what The Stones initially excelled at were the tougher, more rock ’n’ roll original songs that they began to write, songs that became big hits because the style was more suited to them: “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction,” “Get Off of My Cloud,” “19th Nervous Breakdown,” and so on. England’s Newest Hit Makers contains one of these signposts for the future in the form of the first Jagger/Richards composition to become a U.S. Top 40 single, “Tell Me (You’re Coming Back),” which made it up to 24 on the Billboard chart in 1964. This song, and those that would follow, earned them the title of “The World’s Greatest Rock ‘n’ Roll Band.” They were never the “The World’s Greatest R&B Band,” and never could be. It would take them years before they possessed the authority to perform a truly convincing blues cover.
Still, the importance of The Stones’ first album (as well as the first albums by other British R&B outfits like the Animals, the Pretty Things, and Them) is that it opened the world’s ears to a music it had largely ignored up to that time. The Stones were proselytizers for a music largely unknown to white America, and even if their interpretation of this music was hardly a match for the original, their enthusiasm for it was infectious and influential. It’s fair to say that without The Rolling Stones, the blues and R&B heritage so celebrated now as part of America’s gift to the world might still be neglected today.
England’s Newest Hit Makers also set a template for an attitude that would come to define rock ‘n’ roll as the music progressed through the ‘60s and into the '70s. Those brooding young men on the cover of that 1964 album would eventually become the cocky, self-possessed adults I witnessed on Saturday Night Live, and their attitude more or less created the template for the rock star.
I no longer own a copy of England’s Newest Hit Makers. I sold it a few years ago, when I realized that the only value it still had for me was nostalgic, not musical. These days, when I want to hear tough, soulful R&B, I’ll put on John Lee Hooker or Otis Rush. Or, I can listen to The Stones themselves perform better blues on albums like Beggars Banquet and Exile on Main Street (to hear the night-and-day difference, compare their version of Slim Harpo’s “Shake Your Hips” on Exile to “I’m a King Bee” from England’s Newest Hit Makers).
I’ll always be grateful to The Rolling Stones, though, for opening my ears to music I never would have heard otherwise. Old fogies now themselves, even older than some of their blues heroes were back then, The Rolling Stones can be proud of this aspect of their legacy to popular music.