If you are a certain age and grew up in New York the name Pete Fornatale means Rock n Roll on FM radio. Fornatale passed away last year but he wasn’t just a legendary DJ, he was a writer, too. His final book is on the Stones, an entertaining oral history, combining original interviews with previously published material.
Here’s an excerpt, concerning a pivotal moment in the group’s evolution.
Check it out, enjoy, and then go pick up the book.
From 50 Licks
By Pete Fornatale
At the start of 1968, the Stones were a group in turmoil, coming off what was mostly a lost year. The rift between Brian and the rest of the band was deepening. Brian had been abusive to his girlfriend of two years, Anita Pallenberg, and she ended up leaving him for Keith. Did Keith feel guilty about this?
KEITH RICHARDS: Brian, in many ways, was a right cunt. He was a bastard. Up to a point, you could put up with it. In the last year or so, when Brian was almost totally incapacitated all of the time, he became a joke to the band. It was the only way we could deal with it without getting mad at him. So then it became that very cruel, piss-taking thing behind his back all the time . . .
Things only got worse after Jones’s second bust for marijuana possession in May. Now, not only was Brian in danger of no-showing gigs in the UK, but his legal problems might prevent him from joining the band if and when they decided to return to America.
Keith Richards: There was no immediate necessity to go through the drama of replacing Brian because no gigs were lined up. We first had to recognize the fact that we needed to make a really good album. After Satanic Majesties we wanted to make a STONES album.
And that’s where Jimmy Miller came in.
GLYN JOHNS: Jagger came to me after Satanic Majesties and said, “We’re going to get a new producer, an American.” I thought, “Oh my God, that’s all I need. I don’t think my ego can stand having some bloody Yankee coming in here and start telling me what sort of sound to get with the Rolling Stones.” So I said, “I know somebody! I know there’s one in England already and he’s fantastic,” and he’d just done the Traffic album: Jimmy Miller. And it was a remarkably good record he made, the first record he made with Traffic. I said, “He’s a really nice guy.” I’d met him, he’d been in the next studio room and I said, “I’m sure he’d be fantastic.” Anything but some strange lunatic drug addict from Los Angeles. So . . . Jagger actually took the bait and off he went, met Jimmy Miller and gave him the job. And the first thing Jimmy Miller did (laughs) was fire ME. ’Cause he’d been using Eddie Kramer as an engineer. And so, naturally, quite obviously, he wanted to use his own engineer, the guy he knew.
Miller was exactly what they needed at that time. His roots-based approach allowed the Stones to do what they did best.
ANDY JOHNS: Jimmy Miller made the Stones into the band they should have always been, and tried to be in the beginning.
BILLY ALTMAN: He was a tremendous producer. Mick especially was very impressed with the last Spencer Davis album and that first Traffic album that he had done. He was able to get them a very big sound that they had never really managed to have prior to that. I don’t know how much of that was attributable to Andy Oldham nominally being their producer up until then, but I think on a sonic basis, Miller really got to the heart of what they sounded like as a band, really honing in on Keith’s guitar and Charlie Watts’s drumming.
EDDIE KRAMER: I think they’d had enough at that point. Thank God they found Jimmy Miller. Certainly Mick and Keith and the boys had heard what we’d done with Traffic. And it was amazing. When you put Dear Mr. Fantasy up against Satanic Majesties it completely blows that away. So the Stones probably think, “Who is this guy Jimmy Miller?”
If not for him, I don’t think the Stones would be in the place they are today. Because what he did is that he went to the heart and soul of where they came from. And he was so adept at milking the inner psyche of the band. And he was so clever at production. And he’s the guy I’ve always modeled myself after in terms of how to get a session going, how to make the artists really get excited about what they’re playing. Even to the point where Charlie couldn’t play the drum part the way he was hearing it, he would go and sit in on the drums.
ANDY JOHNS: Jimmy was an extremely talented man. His main gift I think was his ability to get grooves. Which for a band like the Stones is very important. Look at the difference between Beggars Banquet and Satanic Majesties. He put them right back on the rail. So he was quite influential then and came up with all sorts of lovely ideas for them. In fact that’s him playing the cowbell at the beginning of “Honky Tonk Women.” He sets it up.
ROBERT GREENFIELD: Jimmy Miller was a lovely guy. He had this great disposition. And if you want to talk about his greatness as a producer, look at his Traffic albums. What Jimmy brought to the Stones was groove. Jimmy gave them a soul groove, a rhythm groove that they never had before.
JIMMY MILLER: Musically they were just coming out of their psychedelic period, which hadn’t been too successful for them, and I think that was lucky for me, because I didn’t insist that they change direction but they were ready to do so, as was evident from the new songs that they played me. What they had written was rock ’n’ roll, yet I subsequently received a lot of credit for getting them back on course, so I benefited a lot from being in the right place at the right time. There again, I think it’s fair to say that being American also helped, because—as was the case with many successful British bands during that era—they had been raised on American records. As things turned out, it was not always easy—they could take a long time over certain things—but it was always a pleasure, especially when they’d eventually hit those magic moments as they inevitably seemed to do. The first of those just happened to be on the very first track that I produced for them, “Jumpin’ Jack Flash.”
KEITH TALKS “JUMPIN JACK FLASH”
“Jumpin’ Jack Flash” was released as a single in 1968 and remains one of the Stones’ most identifiable songs. It’s also significant in that it essentially kicks off the next period in the band’s existence, Rolling Stones “Mach Two,” as Keith has called it. In Life, Keith tells the story of how the tune got its name:
KEITH RICHARDS: Mick and I had been up all night, it was raining outside and there was the sound of these heavy stomping rubber boots near the window, belonging to my gardener, Jack Dyer, a real country man from Sussex. It woke Mick up. He said, “What’s that?” I said, “Oh, that’s Jack. That’s jumping Jack.” I started to work around the phrase on the guitar, which was in open tuning, singing the phrase “Jumping Jack.” Mick said, “Flash,” and suddenly we had this phrase with a great rhythm and ring to it. So we got to work on it and wrote it.
Keith gives himself some of the credit for the reinvention of the Stones’ sound as well.
KEITH RICHARDS: “Jumpin’ Jack Flash” and “Street Fighting Man” came about because I had become fascinated by the possibilities of playing an acoustic guitar through a cassette recorder, using it as a pick up, really, so that I could still get the crispness of an acoustic—which you can never get off an electric guitar—but overloading this tiny little machine so the effect was that it sounded both acoustic and electric. Technology was starting to increase in sophistication, but I just wanted to reduce it back to basics. I bought one of the first cassette machines—a must for a budding songwriter—and then day in, day out recorded on it. Then I began to get interested in the actual sound of the machine, how close you could put the microphone to the guitar and what effect you could get out of it . . . When we were in the studio I would bring in that little Philips cassette recorder, get a wooden extension speaker, plug that into the back of the recorder, shove a microphone in front of the speaker in the middle of the studio and record it. We would all sit back and watch this little microphone record the cassette machine in the middle of the studio at Olympic, which was the size of Sadler’s Wells. Then we’d go back, listen to it, play over it, mash it up, and there was the track.
EDDIE KRAMER: We used Jimmy Miller’s Wollensak—a cassette machine with a microphone in it. We put it on the floor of the studio and we recorded Keith’s guitar, and I believe Charlie was just using a brush or a stick on the snare for the backbeat. After we cut the track on the cassette machine, we played it back on a little speaker, then rerecorded that on one track of a four-track machine. That was the guide track, then everybody overdubbed to that. When you hear the beginning of the song, you can hear the amount of wow—on a cassette machine when you play the straight chord you hear “bo-wow wowwow” because the movement of the tape against the pinch wheel was never very steady. It wasn’t a professional machine . . . You hear the movement of the pitch, which is the reason that it has this funky sound which everyone dug at that time.
The resulting album would go on to be one of the Stones’ collective favorites. Its back-to-basics approach was natural for them.
BILL WYMAN: It’s probably because we listened to and played so much early blues material. Musically, it was very simple, so you had to put a lot of feeling into it to make it work. Whenever we rehearse and learn new numbers, every other thing we play is a jam on an old Elmore James or Muddy Waters or Chuck Berry thing. I know a lot of people say, “What are you playing that old stuff for?” But we’re not doing it for sentimental reasons, we’re doing it to retain the feeling of those blues and R&B things.
You can’t have everybody flying off everywhere and showing off your chops. Besides, our chops aren’t always that good! I think the great thing about the Stones is the simplicity of it—that slightly ragged rhythm that sounds like it might fall apart by the next bar but never does. We always have scrappy endings; we play with kind of a pulse that fluctuates between being slightly behind and slightly in front of the beat but it swings like that. And it works for us. I hate bands that play on eighths or sixteenths, there’s no feel there, nothing seems to be coming from inside them.
On the contrary, the bluesy feel of Beggars Banquet still resonates. One album track that stands out is “No Expectations.”
BILLY ALTMAN: “No Expectations” to me is one of the great Stones songs in their entire body of work. And it really stands out to me because it’s one of the last things of substance that Brian Jones was able to contribute to the band, his slide playing on there. It’s Robert Johnson, it’s Delta blues, it’s everything about their connection to the American blues. For me, that remains one of the high points of the album.
MICK JAGGER: That’s Brian playing [slide guitar]. We were sitting around in a circle on the floor, singing and playing, recording with open mics. That was the last time I remember Brian really being totally involved in something that was really worth doing. He was there with everyone else. It’s funny how you remember—but that was the last moment I remember him doing that, because he had just lost interest in everything.
BILLY ALTMAN: Even though Brian was already out the door, there’s more of him on there than he’s usually given credit for. His spots are few, but they are significant. In addition to his work on “No Expectations,” his sitar on “Street Fighting Man” and his harmonica on “Prodigal Son” give him a real presence.
With Brian fading toward the background, other musicians stepped up as well.
BILLY ALTMAN: Nicky Hopkins added a tremendous amount to Beggars Banquet. I’m not sure how much of this was Jimmy Miller, but it seems like someone realized that they need some other voice instrumentally besides Keith’s guitar, and Nicky Hopkins is the secret weapon of Beggars Banquet and then again on Let It Bleed. He is really one of the great unsung heroes of British rock during that period. And the combination of Nicky Hopkins and Ian Stewart during that period works wonderfully and adds dimension because Stewart is such a good boogie-woogie blues pianist.
ANDY JOHNS: Nicky is on everything. He was the best and the greatest. God bless Nicky Hopkins. He added so much to that band. Sometimes you wouldn’t really notice it. But if you take the piano out then the house of cards collapses a bit. He was always coming up with gorgeous little melodies. Earlier, “She’s a Rainbow.” That’s Nicky. Of course he was doing a lot of things like that. Plus he was extremely rhythmic. People don’t remember him for being rhythmic. But he was.
When people think of Nicky Hopkins they think of his right hand. But he would make the groove happen sometimes. If you took him out, it’s “Oh, what happened here?” Which is normal. If they are listening to him they are gonna play around him. Or with him. And if you take one of those elements out: “What happened here?” It’s music. See. That’s how it works.
The album’s focal point became one of the Stones’ most famous songs, “Sympathy for the Devil.”
CHARLIE WATTS: “Sympathy for the Devil” was tried six different ways. I don’t mean at once. It was all night doing it one way, then another full night trying it another way, and we just could not get it right. It would never fit a regular rhythm. I first heard Mick play that one on the steps of my house on an acoustic guitar. The first time I heard it, it was really light and had a kind of Brazilian sound. Then when we got in the studio we poured things on it, and it was something different. I could never get a rhythm for it, except one, which is like a samba on the snare drum. It was always a bit like a dance band until we got Rocky Dijon in, playing the congas. By messing about with that, we got the thing done.
Beggars Banquet also featured another new, rootsy element for the Stones: country music.
KEITH RICHARDS: It is the other side of rock ’n’ roll. Rock ’n’ roll, basically, is blues, and then put in a little bit of white hillbilly melody. It’s that lovely coming together of one culture hitting another which is what music’s always about. What I’ve always loved about rock ’n’ roll is that it’s a beautiful synthesis of white music and black music. It’s a beautiful cauldron to mix things up in.
Keith’s budding friendship with Gram Parsons was the inspiration.
KEITH RICHARDS: I first met Gram in 1968, when the Byrds were appearing in London . . . I knew the Byrds from Mr. Tambourine Man on . . . But when I saw them with Gram, I could see this was a radical turn. I went backstage, and we hooked up. Then the Byrds came through London again, on their way to South Africa. I was like, “Man, we don’t go there.” The sanctions and the embargo were on. So he quit the Byrds, right there and then. Of course, he’s got nowhere to stay, so he moved in with me.
Others, notably Chris Hillman of the Byrds, have doubted that apartheid had anything to do with Parsons’s decision to leave the band. Hillman went so far as to suggest that Parsons was a Rolling Stones groupie. A friend of Parsons and employee of the Stones from that time refutes this idea:
PHIL KAUFMAN: Nothing could be further from the truth. Gram was one of the only guys in the world who hung out with famous people like the Stones and who carried his own weight. If anything, Keith was the “groupie” of Gram. Gram was teaching the Rolling Stones country music. Quite often we’d just sit around the house—Gram, Mick, Keith, and I. They had been to Ace Records and bought every country album they could find: George Jones, Merle Haggard, Dave Dudley, Ernest Tubb—you name it. Gram would say, “Here is an example of this,” and he’d tell me which record he wanted and I’d play the record. They’d listen to it, tap their toes to it, listen to the chords, and then Gram had me play George Jones, . . . That was what Gram was doing. I recorded Gram and Keith singing together, but sadly those tapes are long gone.
Here’s Mick’s take on the Stones first foray into country:
MICK JAGGER: As far as country music was concerned, we used to play country songs, but we’d never record them—or we recorded them but never released them. Keith and I had been playing Johnny Cash records and listening to the Everly Brothers—who were SO country—since we were kids. I used to love country music even before I met Keith. I loved George Jones and really fast, shit-kicking country music, though I didn’t really like the maudlin songs too much . . . The country songs, like “Factory Girl” or “Dear Doctor,” on Beggars Banquet were really pastiche. There’s a sense of humor in country music anyway, a way of looking at life in a humorous kind of way— and I think we were just acknowledging that element of the music.
BILLY ALTMAN: There is a lot of humor in the country songs on Beggars Banquet. At the time, I’m not sure how much of it any of us got. Back then, with everything that was going on with the tensions of 1968, they just seemed kind of weird. But listening now, “Dear Doctor” and “Factory Girl” are a lot of fun. And I think that’s one of the nice things about the album. They provide a balance against things like “Sympathy for the Devil” and “Street Fighting Man.”
One critic correctly identified a source of inspiration for “Sympathy for the Devil —the Stones’ own blues roots.
MICK FARREN: One of the major devices used by the Stones (and a lot of blues singers—Howlin’ Wolf, Robert Johnson, Lightnin’ Hopkins) to accentuate the shock of their music is consistent use of first person involvement in their lyrics. Jagger doesn’t sing about the Devil, he sings about being the Devil.
KEITH RICHARDS: “Sympathy” is quite an uplifting song. It’s just a matter of looking [the Devil] in the face. He’s there all the time. I’ve had very close contact with Lucifer—I’ve met him several times. Evil people tend to bury it and hope it sorts itself out and doesn’t rear its ugly head. “Sympathy for the Devil” is just as appropriate now, with 9/11. There it is again, big time. When that song was written, it was a time of turmoil. It was the first sort of international chaos since World War II. And confusion is not the ally of peace and love. You want to think the world is perfect. Everybody gets sucked into that. And as America has found out to its dismay, you can’t hide. You might as well accept the fact that evil is there and deal with it any way you can. “Sympathy for the Devil” is a song that says, “Don’t forget him.” If you confront him, then he’s out of a job.
UNDERCOVER OF THE NIGHT
Both Decca in the UK and London Records in the US rejected the planned album cover for Beggars Banquet.
CHARLIE WATTS: The toilet one. The graffiti one around the toilet, which they used in an ad later. That was the first one and they refused to put it out.
MICK JAGGER: We really have tried to keep the album within the bounds of good taste. I mean we haven’t shown the whole lavatory. That would have been rude. We’ve only shown the top half! Two people at the record company have told us that the sleeve is “terribly offensive.” Apart from them we have been unable to find anyone else who it offends. I asked one person to pick out something that offended him and he quite seriously picked out “Bob Dylan.” Apparently “Bob Dylan’s Dream” on the wall offends him . . . We’ve gone as far as we can in terms of concessions over the release of this sleeve. I even suggested that they put it in a brown paper bag with “Unfit for Children” and the title of the album on the outside. But no, they wouldn’t have it. They stuck to their guns . . . It was simply an idea that had not been done before and we chose to put the writing on a lavatory wall because that’s where you see most writings on walls. There’s really nothing obscene there except in people’s own minds . . . We’ll get this album distributed somehow even if I have to go down the end of Greek Street and Carlisle Street at two o’clock on Saturday morning and sell them myself.
In the end, Mick’s guerrilla marketing strategy wasn’t necessary. After several months of delay, the record was released with an album that looked like a wedding invite, complete with the letters RSVP.
[Photo Credit: Tim Kelley Collection; Photofest; Ira Korman Collection; poster by David Edward Byrd]