Some artists or groups have a fairly regular and consistent career path, with occasional peaks and troughs along the way. However, I struggle to think of an act whose time of greatest creativity and zest is so clearly defined as the Rolling Stones are by their output in the period 1968-1972.
During this four or five year span, the Stones fashioned their most consistent and coherent creations, and their records immediately preceding and succeeding it sound anaemic and uninspired by comparison. The band released four studio albums, with a stellar live set (Get Yer Ya-Yas Out) neatly sandwiched in between. Each of those albums has a distinct character, reflecting not just developments within the Rolling Stones, but also in the wider world.
So what was the background to this vibrant phase?
From the start of their recording career, the Stones had leavened their gutsier, bluesier persona with more pop-orientated material. The psychedelic experimentation immediately prior to 1968 may have met with ambivalence and even incredulity, but it did see the consolidation of the Jagger/Richards axis, and the diminishing role and influence of Brian Jones. The Stones were being re-shaped, but for what future purpose was not yet totally clear.
As 1968 dawned, however, it became clear that "flower power" was losing much of its urgency and lustre. As it turned out, this shift worked in the Stones' favour. Rock music was preparing to move in a more rootsy direction (Bob Dylan, The Byrds, The Band), and other artists looked to embrace this to some degree or other. The Stones were no exception.
In this climate of social and political ferment, the stage was ideally suited to the Stones' edgier, rebellious, anti-establishment take. The vogue for stripped-down and less elaborate sounds in a time of upheaval was not entirely coincidental. Many were disenchanted with the naivete of 1967, and were looking to alternative methods and agendas. The artifice of much psychedelic music seemed incongruous against this backdrop.
Above all, the Stones must have felt liberated from the need to conform and compromise, as they had done for much of the previous two years. They could be "themselves" once more....
The first fruits of this rebirth came with the single "Jumping Jack Flash". Even from the scuzzy opening guitar chords, and the sinewy riff which follows, once can feel that this is a new, more purposeful Rolling Stones. The recruitment of producer Jimmy Miller helped to sculpt this new sound.
The same groups of recording sessions spawned the Beggars Banquet album. Few albums before or since have defined their times as pertinently as this one did. The edginess, uncertainty, menace, belligerence even, are palpable. The idealism and optimism of 1967 had given way to realism and cynicism.
It is open to debate whether Beggars Banquet should be regarded as the soundtrack to a year, as it was released in December of 1968, but the Stones slotted seamlessly into their role. Country blues sounds are prominent on the album, and the earthiness and sincerity are perfectly in tune with the mood.
The widespread use of acoustic guitars on the album adds to the authenticity, grit and immediacy. They seem more "proletarian" than vulgar electric ones! And no attempt is made to conceal finger noises and other imperfections. This "warts and all" approach is one of the secrets to the power of Beggars Banquet.
"Sympathy For The Devil", epic and sinister, sets the tone as the opening track. Engagingly and defiantly different and percussive, this song and its message seem symbolic of the shift in the Western mindset around that time. A shrewd choice with which to commence proceedings.
Another linchpin of the album is "Street Fighting Man", which has been the focus of heated debate down the years. More acoustic guitars, and what seems an ambivalent, sardonic and slightly mocking view of the year's events. Whichever interpretation we place on this song, it remains a powerful piece, lyrically and musically.
Two of the numbers on the album, "Parachute Woman" and "Jigsaw Puzzle", with its sub-Bob Dylan words, would normally be filed under "filler", but here they blend into the whole, so their mediocrity is less conspicuous. "Stray Cat Blues" is a nod to traditional Stones territory, and fits in musically, even if its lyrics are out of place.
Beggars Banquet closes with two paeans to blue-collar values, "Factory Girl" and "Salt of The Earth".
By the time the Stones commenced recording Let It Bleed, Brian Jones was a peripheral figure at best, and appears on only two tracks.
In places, Let It Bleed is indeed apocalyptic and incendiary, but to these ears is nowhere near as uniformly strong or cohesive as Beggars Banquet. This may have been partly intentional, and the traumas being undergone by the Stones also played a role, but I would say that Let It Bleed's reputation is ever so slightly out of proportion to its aesthetic merit.
In spite of my mild misgivings, I still rate some of the songs on Let It Bleed. "Gimme Shelter" , as well as being au courant for the end of the 1960s, is one of the outstanding slabs in the Stones catalogue, and indeed the whole of rock music, and "Love In Vain" is one of their most effective covers, but the rest is uneven and patchy.
There is something vaguely tired and listless about much of Let It Bleed, and I am still not fully convinced by the efforts of some critics to talk these things up as if they represent virtues. It might have sounded relevant and important in 1969, but to more dispassionate modern ears it is by far the weakest of the four studio albums released during the period which we are looking at.
Many changes had occurred by the time of the 1971 release of Sticky Fingers. The world was a different place, much of the revolutionary fervour having evaporated. Mick Taylor was now fully integrated into the set-up, rather than being a hired hand.
Sticky Fingers is civilised, well-structured and shrewdly produced. It lacks the rambling, informal quality of Exile on Main Street, but the material is strong and memorable. The lyrical spotlight is firmly on the hedonistic, reflecting perhaps the jaded resignation characteristic of the young decade.
When listening, it is immediately noticeable how much Mick Taylor's guitar flourishes add to the palette, complementing the de facto rhythm section of Keith Richards and Charlie Watts. There is more texture and depth than before, and the addition of Taylor also facilitates more instrumental virtuosity and experimentation, as evidenced by the closing section of "Can't You Hear Me Knocking?". The sound on Sticky Fingers is accessible and clear, but the trademark Stones grittiness is not sacrificed.
There is a sensible balance between rockers and ballads. The album, though, is almost entirely devoid of social commentary, and therefore verges on the one-dimensional lyrics-wise. This may be where Sticky Fingers acquired its reputation as the one which most embodies the fabled Stonesy "swagger". "Brown Sugar" is an absolute gem, but could also be termed "Rolling Stones by Numbers".
Exile On Main Street is often cited as the culmination of everything that the Stones had been working towards, but I'm not altogether sure about this. The 1972 release should be seen as a unique entity, or a tangential work, because of the conditions under which it was recorded, and its groove. If you're looking for the "quintessential" Stones album, you might be better stopping off at Sticky Fingers.
No, I tend to regard "Exile" as a project all by itself, differing in vibe and sound from those which came before, less concise and less concerned with structure and form. It could almost qualify as a compendium of American "roots" music (blues,country, R&B,soul,gospel), but that was unlikely to have been the intention.
I know that some people, on their initial listen, can find "Exile" a touch alienating, because of its slapdash nature and the "foggy" sound. Persevere, though, and these are the things which you will find most endearing about the project.
Exile on Main Street begins and ends with some of its most recognisable tracks ("Rocks Off", "Rip This Joint","Soul Survivor"), but in between is an eclectic blend of offerings, some of them on the surface sounding like lightweight afterthoughts, but forming an appetising whole.
In comparison to the more considered sheen of Sticky Fingers, "Exile" almost feels like a series of "demo" versions of new songs, but it is to the Stones' credit that they resisted the temptation to go for the easy option in 1972, and come up with more of the same. Above all, it sounds like the Stones and their entourage had a swell time putting these songs together, and this exuberance oozes from every chord.
We have mentioned the raw and loose playing on the album, and this is all held together with a glorious soulfulness, most clearly found on such songs as "Let It Loose", "Shine A Light" and "Loving Cup". Hard to define, but very much there.
The Stones made great records before 1968-1972, and some great ones since, but never again did they recapture that "sweet spot", that intangible spirit which informed their music during their halcyon period.
Rather than lament the relative lack of inspiration in the post-1972 catalogue, I think that we should just enjoy and savour these four albums......