The building blocks of a rock collection

Rolling Stones' rereleased albums, giving lots of satisfaction, explain their 40 years of success

September 04, 2002|By Ben Wener | Ben Wener,KNIGHT RIDDER/TRIBUNE

There are things that were once cool. Steppenwolf, for instance, or Supertramp. Or Queensryche when it kinda sounded like Pink Floyd. Or all those faceless Britpop bands from the mid-'90s.

These things will never be cool again.

Then there are those rock comets that are cool no matter when they reappear. And the Rolling Stones, especially during their world-shaking first decade, are arguably the coolest of the cool.

Proof just arrived, in the form of ear-opening rereleases of the Hall of Famers' legendary ABKCO catalog, which spans 1964's eponymous debut (subtitle: "England's Newest Hitmakers") through to their best live album (1970's Get Your Ya-Ya's Out!) and more compilations than are required.

The timing couldn't be better - not because the Stones need something to stake their 40th-anniversary tour on, though this is as good a reason as any they devised in the '90s, but because the current musical climate owes its very existence to what Mick and Keith and Charlie and Bill and the late great burnout Brian Jones did to rock 'n' roll long ago.

Which, simply put, was thrust it screaming into the modern age. By taking the meat-and-potatoes basics of blues and R&B pioneers, recasting it with rakish and roguish energy - and a one-of-a-kind, endlessly imitated bad-boy image - they foreshadowed dozens of trends that would come in their wake: garage-rock, psychedelia, country-rock, punk, metal. The Beatles, like Hendrix and Radiohead and few others after them, may have taken music to places no one could have imagined. But the Stones were the heart of rock.

If you are a young White Stripes or Hives or Strokes or, well, any kind of music fan and think that the Stones are for your grandparents, you're dead wrong. Their best albums, consisting of pretty much anything they put out in the '60s, are raw and urgent and alive and exciting in ways that today's most-vital music can't touch. These were their formative 20s, always the most fascinating period in any rockers' lives. They would hit their groove in the '70s, and for a time it was magical alchemy. Then it became mere professionalism, and they've since been doing everything they can to keep their reputation intact.

These wonders are what built that reputation. To get them all - counting U.S. and U.K. versions and the half-dozen retrospectives, there are about 20 titles - it'll cost you upward of $200.

You can't always get what you want, indeed. But if you're a longtime Stones fan, you already know what you need - and, yes, your 1986 CDs need to be replaced. These new editions are to the shoddy first batch what Playstation 2 is to Atari. There is no comparison. The remastering is remarkable, the clarity is startling - and if you have a Super Audio CD player (I do not), I'm told the quality is even more jaw-dropping.

This guide, however, is intended for newcomers who'd be just as likely to play them on a boom box. Half of the titles arrive in stores this week; the rest show up Tuesday.

If you buy only one: First, you're kidding yourself. No respectable fan can get by with just one. Still, if that's all your budget allows, you can't go wrong with the two-disc Hot Rocks 1964-1971, which is incomplete as far as singles go but gives you the basics: "(I Can't Get No) Satisfaction," "Get Off of My Cloud," "Jumpin' Jack Flash," "Honky Tonk Women," and so on.

Pair it with More Hot Rocks (Big Hits and Fazed Cookies) to fill in some blanks - "The Last Time," "Dandelion," "She's a Rainbow," "Lady Jane" - and you've got a box-set primer. But that isn't enough, and it deprives you the joy of experiencing proper Stones albums, made when every song had to be strong enough for a single.

If you buy only a handful: Let's say you can afford a half-dozen. (Cost: roughly $85, if you find sale prices.)

My choices, chronologically: 12 X 5 (1964) and The Rolling Stones, Now! (1965), their second and third efforts, both a shade sharper than other early selections; Aftermath (1966), the turning point, when Jagger-Richards' songwriting comes into its own and Brian Jones' instrumental daring flourishes (I'd recommend the U.K. version, which lacks "Paint It, Black" but does have three more cuts than the U.S. edition); Between the Buttons (also the U.K. edition, 1967), their most overlooked masterpiece, a wiry but paisley beauty unlike anything in their canon; Beggars Banquet (1968), an alternately guttural and offhanded blues-rock wonder, which nonetheless has to work the hardest to convince me of its genius; and the devastatingly powerful Let It Bleed (1969), the first album to prominently feature Jones' replacement, Mick Taylor.

If you can buy one more, make it Flowers (1967), which will add "Ruby Tuesday" and "Let's Spend the Night Together" and a few other gems. Of course, you still won't have "Satisfaction" - you'll have to buy Out of Our Heads (1965) or a greatest-hits package for that.

What to think twice about: Their Satanic Majesties Request (1967), said to be the Stones' answer to Sgt. Pepper, is often maligned as an uncharacteristic failure. Certainly it isn't to the level of their greatest works, but in light of the trippiness that has transpired in the 3 1/2 decades since its release, it now sounds groundbreaking and revelatory. That said, it still isn't easy going.

None but the hardiest of collectors needs to bother with Metamorphosis (1975), an outtakes assortment that the band practically disowned, issued years after they'd moved to another label. As for the much-maligned Got Live If You Want It (1966), well, it's a matter of taste. I find it fascinating: Stonesmania to counter Beatlemania, incessant squealing and ramshackle performance and all. Others find it nearly unlistenable.

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