- 31 Aug 23
On this day half-a-century ago, the Rolling Stones returned after 1972's Exile on Main St with Goats Head Soup. Often unfairly dismissed as the band's first step down from their pedestal, we're revisiting Pat Carty's reflections on why the 1973 album "demands reappraisal..."
Originally published in 2020, following the release of the Deluxe Edition of Goats Head Soup
Arriving at the end of the greatest artistic purple patch in the history of rock n’ roll – and pretty much history in general – The Rolling Stones’ Goats Head Soup has long been considered, by some at least, as a bit of a come-down after the Mount Olympus, look on my works, ye mighty, and despair heights of Exile On Main St. and the records that came before it. This is a bit like people throwing cabbages at Shakespeare following a performance of Twelfth Night because it wasn’t as good as Hamlet. Of course it’s not as good, nothing is, but judged on its own merits, as we can with this rejigged and augmented anniversary deluxe edition – it was first released in August, 1973, so it’s the, uh, 47th anniversary, but The Stones can do what they like, because they are The Rolling Stones and you’re not – it’s up there.
Success brings its own problems. Despite and because of their massive cash-generating sixties triumphs – and some dodgy management didn’t help either - The Stones found themselves the recipients of an eye-watering tax bill – England’s wealthier citizens had to pay 83% back in the good old days, and there was an additional 15% super tax, which doesn’t leave you with a lot of Kaftan money – so they quite wisely fled the country that birthed them, in order that they might earn enough to pay back what they already owed. As Bill Wyman put it in the rather good Stones In Exile documentary, “if you earned a million quid, which we didn’t, you’d end up with 70 grand. So it was impossible to earn enough money to pay back the Inland Revenue and stay here, in England.”
Tax exiles, exiled off Main Street, down the South of France. Keith Richards, apparently, transported by the staff, with all his gypsy accoutrements, from Cheyne Walk directly to Villa Nellcôte, and it was in this former Gestapo Headquarters that The Stones created their masterpiece, a blue print for so many bands that would sail, and flounder, in its wake, a perfect gumbo of the soul, gospel, blues, and rock n’ roll that they had been absorbing all their lives, never bettered, by anyone. Exile On Main St. is, however, another day’s work.
The debauchery of everyday life in Nellcôte has become the stuff of legend. Gram Parsons, Bobby Keys, Anita Pallenberg, the chef bringing the drugs in through the kitchen, and, at the centre of it all, Keith Richards descending into dependency while making the most vital rock n’ roll music of his life. The sessions finished up, the work would be completed in Los Angeles, the French authorities closed in, The Stones moved on. The record is released, to lukewarm reviews and big sales, the band hit the road.
Slipped My Tongue In Someone Else's Pie...
When the time came to record a follow-up, the band were split across the world, with Richards in Switzerland of all places, taking the cure, and not for the last time either. The decision to record in Jamaica was taken because, as Richards likes to say, there wasn’t a lot of other countries that would have them. Although he had visited the island before, it was during these sessions that Richards fell in love with Jamaica, and would later buy a house there. Two records came out in 72/73 – Bob Marley & The Wailers’ Island records debut Catch A Fire, and the soundtrack to the Jimmy Cliff starring The Harder They Come – which helped to usher in a golden age for reggae music and Richards took to it like a baby to a teat. Odd then that there’s no hint of reggae on Goats Head Soup, that would come later for the band, from the rough as a badger’s arse cover of Eric Donaldson’s ‘Cherry Oh Baby’ on Black and Blue to the smooth as silk ‘You Don’t Have To Mean It’ on Bridges To Babylon.
Despite opening with a classic, if lesser known, Richards riff in the graveyard/voodoo boogie of ‘Dancing With Mr D’, Goats Head Soup is a different record from what had come before. Joining the band in Dynamic Sound Studios on Bell Road in Kingston 11 – the home of the great Byron Lee, the real star of Dr No, the man who worked the desk on several early Toots and The Maytals classics, and whose singles with the Dragonaires are highly recommended - were regular sidemen Nicky Hopkins and Billy Preston, and Preston’s clavichord permeates the album. The instrument calls to mind the miraculous work Stevie Wonder was doing at the time, of which The Stones were obviously fans, given that they asked him to open for them on the Exile tour. The other major ingredient in this soup is the lyrical and fluid guitar of Mick Taylor, who was let off the leash during these sessions like never before. He clicks on the wah-wah pedal and fires off a solo in the opener and then truly lets fly in ‘100 Years Ago’ as the song’s second half is kicked into gear by Charlie Watts - after Jagger does his best Jagger impression during the “lazy bones” middle section - transmuting proceedings into a dark funk groove.
‘Coming Down Again’ is the first of the Keith Richards-sung ballads that would become such a beloved feature of later Stones records. Here he bemoans the scattering of friends as things fall in on top of him, a junkie’s lament. While Richards may have broke cover for a trip to the cinema to see The Harder They Come, his mate Jagger must have been eating the popcorn watching the likes of Shaft and Superfly, if ‘Doo Doo Doo Doo Doo (Heartbreaker)’ is anything to go by. While the backing vocals might recall the goings-on in ‘Sympathy For The Devil’, it’s Taylor’s crying guitar and the brass section of Keys, Jim Horn, and Chuck Finley that gritify the hard times in New York City lyrics.
The bones of ‘Angie’ came to Richards in Switzerland as he was crawling the clinic walls with little else to distract him apart from his guitar. The ever-canny Jagger knew a good thing when he heard it while visiting his partner and, despite record company reticence because it wasn’t ‘Brown Sugar’ Part II, this was the single the preceded the album. It hit the top of the US charts, proving Jagger right, and has remained a live staple ever since. Nicky Hopkins piano and Nicky Harrison’s string arrangement keep it on the right side of saccharine.
Tricks With Fruit Is Kinda Cute...
Turn the record over on this new 2020 stereo mix - provided by Giles son-of-George Martin and sounding at least slightly clearer than the original vinyl (catalogue number COC 59101, the cards!) that’s over there on the shelf - and things take a slight step backwards for ‘Silver Train’, a song that was first attempted during the Sticky Fingers sessions. There’s more than a hint of Exile songs like ‘All Down The Line’ and ‘Stop Breaking Down’ in its combination of slide guitar and harmonica. Speaking of ‘Breaking Down’, ‘Hide Your Love’ starts at a similar pace to that great Robert Johnson cover and was apparently prompted by engineer Andy Johns encouraging Jagger to record some casual piano playing he was working on. It probably took less time to write than it does to listen to it, but it is no poorer for that, as the magic combination that only The Stones have ever really had locks in behind the front man, and the subtle horn lines – brought forward slightly in this new mix - aim at the back of your head.
‘Winter’ is an oddity, even on this record. It’s the only song not to feature Keith Richards on the original album, and shares at least something with Sticky Fingers’ great closer ‘Moonlight Mile’, the product of another session from which Richards excused himself. The fact that Mick Taylor’s name is absent from the writing credits on both those songs, and the subsequent ‘Time Waits For No One’ is pure larceny, and surely a contributing factor to his eventual decision to jump ship. I’m as much a Ronnie Wood fan as the next man, but The Stones lost something they never got back the day Taylor left. You can hear it when his guitar combines with another lovely Harrison score near this song’s finish. It remains the album’s high-water mark, and a great Jagger vocal, something he doesn’t get nearly enough credit for.
After ‘Can You Hear The Music’ emerges from some seriously brown rice bells and whistles into a mid-paced paean to the power of the music, with another great Jagger melody, ‘Star Star’ finishes things out, reminding you just who you’ve been listening to. Originally titled ‘Star Fucker’ – the suits were never going to have that – the lyrics contain lawyer-baiting references to John Wayne and Steve McQueen over the kind of Chuck Berry knock-off that Richards could deliver from a deep sleep, and, who knows, perhaps he did. Nobody has ever done it better.
Before we move away from the original album, one further fallen hero must be saluted. The Stones probably first heard of American record producer Jimmy Miller through his work on the first two Traffic albums. Just as an aside, he was, like Bob Marley & The Wailers, first brought to the UK by Island Records head honcho Chris Blackwell. It’s no exaggeration to state that Miller’s helming of the Stones studio sessions following the relative failure of 1967’s Their Satanic Majesties Request saved their arses. Starting with ‘Jumpin’ Jack Flash’ in '68, Miller’s name is on every record from their golden period, and that’s him playing the cowbell that opens ‘Honky Tonk Woman’, enough in itself to guarantee a place on the honour roll. Goats Head Soup was his final outing – close proximity to Keith Richards is not recommended for those prone to addiction – and the judicious and crucial use of percussion on the album – Miller was a drummer – is, in part at least, down to him. Miller would go onto work with Motörhead, Johnny Thunders, Primal Scream, and even Shane O’Neill’s Blue In Heaven offshoot, The Blue Angels – Stones acolytes to a man - and he passed away from liver failure at the shamefully young age of 52 in 1994.
Now It Seems About One Hundred Years Ago...
Just as with the previous re-issues of Exile, Sticky Fingers and Some Girls, which all contained unearthed tracks that more than paid their fare, Universal have again at least partially opened the vaults this time around. Stones admirers will already be aware of the likes of ‘Tops’ and ‘Waiting On A Friend’, songs which began life at these sessions and would be included on the great Tattoo You in 1981, and ‘Through The Lonely Nights’ which would shortly show up as a B-side but, outside of dodgy bootlegs, the music that makes up most of disc two here is seeing the light of day for the first time. ‘Scarlet’, featuring the guitar of Led Zep spell-chucker Jimmy Page, technically doesn’t belong, coming as it does from a 1974 session in either Island Studios or Ronnie Wood’s basement, depending on who you believe. Details are sketchy, but it doesn’t seem to have been a Stones session at all, given that only Richards and “sixth Stone” Ian Stewart are on the original tape, and Jagger ‘s vocal was perhaps added later, perhaps much later. None of that matters though, Richard’s raggedy man riffing wins the day, as does the sound of the Glimmer Twins taking the chorus together. You can tell it’s Page, but he’s not doing anything Taylor couldn’t have done, and perhaps done better. That’s not to denigrate Page – the man was touched by genius – but Taylor was that good.
‘All The Rage’ was originally titled ‘Have You Seen Her Ass?’ but can you imagine anyone releasing a song under that name in 2020? Half the world would faint away in shocked offence. This may be another new vocal, but no harm done, and it’s a standard Stones boogie-woogie with a nice descending guitar line. I say standard, but it’s the sound that every garage band thinks they have, although so few if any ever do. Jagger claims he doesn’t want your bad cocaine, he just wants the latest duds, and you can almost see him strutting about like a particularly conceited rooster when you hear it. They surely do not make them like that anymore.
‘Criss Cross’ quickly locates the pocket, gets into it, and stays there, the keyboards and Keef’s slashing Open G trick bag driven along by the positively miraculous Charlie Watts. If this had shown up on side 4 of Exile, nothing would have been amiss, and absolutely no one can say fairer than that. The piano demo of ‘100 Years Ago’ shines new light on the song’s structure, exposing a gentle, almost wistful ballad that could have successfully taken on the then-prevalent phalanx of singer-songwriters at their own game, and roundly trashed them. An instrumental run through of ‘Dancing With Mr D’ reminds anyone paying attention of what a colossal dance band The Stones were at their height, the slight of hand of Watts apparently-but-never-really simple drum technique gets the hips going as Taylor’s slide crackles and the horns, which were all but dropped from the finished cut, move back and forth in waves. ‘Heartbreaker’ – again, before vocals have been added – is more mournful than the completed version, and an alternate mix of ‘Hide Your Love’ is, if anything, better than the more familiar cut, Jagger doing some proper yelping in between calling out the chords, and if Mick Taylor has ever done a bad take of anything, there’s no evidence of it here. The disc is filled out with a couple of Glyn Johns mixes from back in the day. Close attention reveals some slight differences – the piano is a bit louder there, the drums here – but nothing earth shattering. Stones nutters – like myself – were probably hoping for more unheard gold, but this disk is certainly worth the extra few quid.
The Band's On Stage, And It's One Of Those Nights...
Talking about an “extra few quid”, there is the Super Deluxe Edition, which, in reliable Stones style, is generously over-priced, but, on this occasion at least, it may warrant the additional outlay. As all bands must do, The Stones hit the boards again once the album was originally released. One could quite rightly argue for Get Your Ya-Ya’s Out! - their document of the 1969 tour of America that ended with the chaos of Altamont, which is actually celebrating a real anniversary this week, having been first released on September 4th, fifty years ago – as the greatest Stones live document, but you would have to also give serious consideration to their most legendary bootleg, The Brussels Affair. You might remember, back at the start of this article, how we referred to the authorities closing in after the bacchanalian blow out that was the recording of Exile. Drug cases were awaiting Richards, his missus Anita Pallenberg, and sax hero Bobby Keys in Le pays des droits de l’Homme so touring there was out. Instead, they organised shows at the Forest National Arena near Brussels for October 17th, 1973, with a French radio station hiring a train to take fans to and from the show. Those who bought a billet must have been very glad they did because the tapes are positively incendiary.
Released officially before as download, and then on vinyl as part of a ridiculously expensive – even for the Stones – super-duper version of Sticky Fingers, this is the first time The Brussels Affair has been made widely available in physical form, although your wallet shall still certainly groan. You can tell from the opening blast of ‘Brown Sugar’ that something special is going on - Richards and Watts burst out of the traps like particularly hungry hounds chasing a particularly plump and juicy hare, the horns parp, Taylor dazzles, and Jagger – the front man who invented the front man – leads the charge with a howled “woo!” ‘Gimme Shelter’ doesn’t always work live, its intricate studio construction being hard to replicate, but here the organ and horns take it somewhere different, and Taylor can do no wrong. Keith croaks and hollers his way through ‘Happy’ while Jagger helps out on the backing vocals, even quoting Otis Redding at one point, because they were a real band back then. They are on fire.
“Motherfuckers, come on!” Jagger’s enjoying himself in ‘Tumbling Dice’ - “Okay, Charlie!” – and the horn fanfare is indeed “sweeter than candy”. “Deux, trois nouveau chansons pour vous!” ‘Star Star’ is funky as all get out, ‘Dancing With Mr D’ shimmers – only a few years back I stood open-mouthed in Hamburg as they pulled it out of the bag for the first time in decades – and ‘Heartbreaker’ sears. If they’d gone off the boil with the new album, as critics as usually reliable as Lester Bangs had claimed, who responded to the album with a “so what?”, no one had bothered to inform this band. They were far too busy burning the Arena to the ground to give a monkey’s about what some typewriter jockey thought.
Lengthy runs at both ‘You Can’t Always Get What You Want’ and ‘Midnight Rambler’ have never sounded better, there’s a marvellous sax solo in the former, and the later pushes and pulls with proper malevolence, a palpable prowling perturbing presence. After that, they really get serious as the pace picks up, almost as if someone had shouted last orders back stage and the band were particularly thirsty. ‘Honky Tonk Woman’ is slinky, but ‘All Down The Line’ and ‘Rip This Joint’ sound like a band gleefully careening off a cliff after they’d cut their own brakes, and the closing combination of ‘Jumpin’ Jack Flash’ and ‘Street Fighting Man’ invite all and sundry outside for a dust-up and they’re not taking no for an answer.
The lord knows that I have bored many, many people in bars and clubs over the last thirty years with my insistence that the Stones are, by some considerable distance, the greatest, but had I The Brussels Affair to slap down on table or counter, those arguments would have ended a lot sooner. If they’re ever brought to court for false advertising, one blast of this will have the case dismissed, for this really is the sound of The Greatest Rock N’ Roll Band In The World.
What happened next is another story. Even I can’t deny that there was a dip in quality on It’s Only Rock N’ Roll and, especially, Black And Blue, although they most assuredly relocated their mojo by the time of Some Girls. I’ll give you all that, but this marvellous release does categorically prove what those in the know already knew: Goats Head Soup demands reappraisal. The Stones may have been flying on fumes, but they were still flying.