Whether or not you agree the Rolling Stones are the greatest rock ‘n roll band of all time, it is universally acknowledge they are one of the most important bands in the history of rock. Responsible for writing the bulk of some of the greatest, most memorable songs ever recorded The Rolling Stones today have no musical equal whatsoever. From the bluesy rock guitar riffs and soulful melodies on “Brown Sugar,” to the Eastern Indian medleys and dark, philosophical, satirical lyrics about Lucifer on “Sympathy For The Devil,” to the best known opening guitar riff in all of music care of “Satisfaction,” Rocks Off: 50 Tracks That Tell the Story of the Rolling Stones is your guide to how 50 of the Stones’ most well known songs came about. The writing and recording process, the inspiration behind those songs, what the band was going through during good times and bad, the conflicts, relationships, everything you ever wanted to know is well researched by Bill Janovitz, the author who keenly analyzes every track, every note, composition, but also describes how some of the songs were directly inspired by the era the Stones were living in at the time.
Divided in three sections, cleverly divided by rhythm guitarist the Stones had throughout the band’s history — The Brian Jones Years, The Mick Taylor Years, The Ron Wood Years — you’ll not only read about the band’s fate would have it bluesy beginnings but how what was going on in the world would affect many of their greatest early songs. Besides Mick Jagger and Keith Richards (The Rolling Stones principal songwriters) not believing “Satisfaction” was good enough to be a single, Janovitz also writes that “Satisfaction” was more than just a slap in the face towards advertisers and sexual mores of the time. He writes, “The angst was generalized enough to be interpreted as reflecting a new generation’s growing discontent with a sense of rigid conformity that had carried over from the 1950’s.”
The Stones also wrote about misogyny during the time of the feminist movement with “Under My Thumb,” and bad love affairs Mick was reflecting on during this period. “There was nothing about love, peace, and flowers in ‘Jumping Jack Flash,’” as Mick would say in a previous interview. Instead, the Stones come out punching, simply a reflection of the Vietnam War era. But while others spoke about peace in their songs, the main character gets off on violence.
In “Sympathy For The Devil” Mick, who was inspired to write the song by reading books on philosophy, poetry, biographies and satire, points out that the song wasn’t about the devil but seeing how many of the important leaders of the time (The Kennedys, Martin Luther King) were being assassinated at alarming rates. Whatever hope there was for peace were just being met with violence. Violence being met with more violence, so it seemed. With that, “You Can’t Always Get What You Want” singled an end to the party, the 60’s and hello to the 70’s.
But the band didn’t always see things in doom and gloom. “Brown Sugar” (this writer’s favorite Stones track) was originally titled “Black Pussy” and a song the older, wiser Mick Jagger would never write now. But Mick admits he had a lot of audacity writing a song that was about the slave trade, forbidden master/slave sex, cunnilingus, and heroin. “It’s Only Rock ‘n Roll (But I Like It) was released during a period when fans, critics, and even the Stones admit was a period of them coasting by. But, it is still a favorite among Stones fans, a good time record accompanied by a silly but beloved video of the band in sailor outfits being swallowed by bubbles by the end. And surprisingly, “Start Me Up” was originally written as a reggae song but when the band just couldn’t make it work (although outtakes of the reggae version exists on the Internet) Janovitz writes that the sweet opening rock riff was actually just Keith throwing it out there between takes of the band rehearsing the reggae version, and drummer Charlie Watts instinctively pounding a snare beat to compliment it.
Rocks Off is the definite guide for fans and scholars of the Rolling Stones. It traces the history of the band through their songs, how they were always seen as the bad boys of rock compared to the much more good-hearted lads The Beatles, charting their rise from their most creative period to being, in this writer’s opinion, the greatest rock ‘n roll band of all time. Rocks Off is worth the read. Whether you’re a fan of the Stones or a fan of music in general, you’ll never listen to the Stones’ songs exactly the same way!