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One of the things I always use when doing an ice breaker at group events as an "unusual fact" about me is that I went to the same school as Mick Jagger. Although he wasn't much heralded during my time at the school, the old school hall and gym have since been converted into a Performing Arts Centre and local venue called The Mick Jagger Centre, which Jagger himself contributed towards. But even before I ended up at that school, I had been a Rolling Stones fan thanks to my parents' record collection and have retained an enjoyment of their music to this day.
"GRRR!" has been released to mark 50 years since the formation of the band and their first gig in the July of that year, although their debut single wouldn't be released until nearly a year later in June 1963 and the full band line-up as it would be for the early years of the Rolling Stones recording career wasn't in place until January 1963. But it was in June 1962 that this group of youngsters got their name from a Muddy Waters record and five decades later, that event is celebrated with a 3 disc CD collection containing, appropriately, 50 tracks.
Helpfully presented in chronological order, the opening track is the Rolling Stones first single, a cover of Chuck Berry's "Come On". This is a quick blast through a 60s rock and roll number, with the production sounding very stripped down by today's standards. With second single "I Wanna Be Your Man" missing from this collection, the next track is the Stones' cover of Buddy Holly's "Not Fade Away", which is another very quick 60s rock and roll song which sounds quite rough and ready by today's standards, but is a fun listen.
Next up is what would become the band's first UK chart topper in "It's All Over Now", which was a cover of a Womacks' song. Although retaining the rock and roll feel, this is a slower tempo and longer running track, with elements of the rhythm and blues edge that the band would retain throughout their career. Indeed, the next track, a cover of Willie Dixon's "Little Red Rooster", which is straight up down-tempo classic 12 bar blues and which suits Jagger's voice surprisingly well.
The first song written by the band on this compilation is the fifth track, "The Last Time" and it's the first where the traditional Rolling Stones sound is obvious. It opens with a rhythm and blues guitar riff and carries on this sound all the way through, led by the guitar, which buries Jagger's vocal in the mix a little. This is followed by the fantastic bass line to "(I Can't Get No) Satisfaction" which drives another rhythm and blues track through at a higher tempo than the previous track and is still, nearly fifty years on, a great fun song.
The album's first ballad number "Time Is On My Side" is next up. This is a very 60s sounding ballad which, apart from the blues influenced guitar solo, could have been recorded by any singing group of that era. Unfortunately, it does show the limitations of the Stones' singing voices a little more than the faster tracks do. Fortunately, next up is "Get Off My Cloud", which returns to the rhythm and blues influence and the faster tempo and contains a great call and response style chorus which adds a lot of fun to the song and the guitar riff gives it quite a jaunty beat.
"Heart of Stone" is another ballad which this time contains a country sounding guitar, which is very unusual for the band. Again, the vocals are limited, making the song memorable only for the unusual sound of the guitar, which could have been played by Duane Eddy. Again, this is thankfully followed by a more impressive track, this time the simple rhythm and blues sounding blast of "19th Nervous Breakdown", which is a track that rips past very quickly and, whereas the previous track seemed to last longer than its 3 minute running time, this one seems shorter despite running a minute longer, such is the relative difference in the tempo.
"As Tears Go By" is another slightly unusual sound for the Rolling Stones, having touches of 60s psychedelia, which wouldn't have sounded out of place performed by many other bands of the era. Again the vocals seem a little strange, but the string section - again very unusual for the Stones at this point - breaks the song up quite nicely. The sitar that opens "Paint It Black" is another strange instrument, perhaps influenced by what The Beatles were doing with Eastern sounds at the time, but this is helped along with the driving drum beat and this is largely a fun rock and roll number.
There is a decent beat to "Under My Thumb" which, much like the previous track, as an underlying assist from an unusual instrument, this time the marimbas. Again, the rhythm and blues influence is more strongly heard over the top and it's another song that grooves past wonderfully well after all these years. Next, the brass opening to "Have You Seen Your Mother, Baby, Standing in the Shadow?" ushers in another very quick blast with perhaps a little more of a straight rock influence. Sadly, for some reason, this track seems to go back to the earlier production values and it sounds a little rough and ready and a lot of the vocal and music seem fuzzy and buried in the mix.
"Ruby Tuesday" returns to the slightly psychedelic influence for this slower tempo song, which is an interesting one until the harmonies in the vocal again show the Stones' limitations as singers, if not as musicians. As seems traditional on this collection, this is followed by another blasting rock song with a heavy blues influence in "Let's Spend the Night Together". The band were supposedly asked to change the vocal to "Let's spend some time together" when they performed the song on American television, but either way this would have been a fun, up-tempo rock and roll song.
The first CD in this collection ends with the funky piano backing of "We Love You", which was recorded whilst various members of the band were either on or awaiting trial for various drugs offences. This is a bit of a mish mash of a song, having a strong rhythm and blues backing on the instruments, but a more psychedelic influence to the vocal. The combination doesn't quite work and gives the song a rather unbalanced feel.
The first CD reflects how much faster bands produced new music in the 1960s, with the 17 tracks so far only covering a five year span from 1962 to 1967. The second CD opens in 1968 with "Jumping Jack Flash", a song that inspired a Whoopi Goldberg film and whose opening lyric "I was born in a crossfire hurricane" was used as the title for the documentary made to celebrate their fifty years. This is understandable, as the song has a great rock and blues influenced guitar riff and the song as a whole is, as the lyric says "a gas, gas, gas".
"Honky Tonk Women" is another slower track, but the blues guitar riff drives it along happily and Jagger's vocal seems to be improving as time goes by as it doesn't stand out as much as it has done on the slower songs thus far, perhaps helped by there being a stronger rock influence here. "Sympathy for the Devil" is another track that was used in a film, and again marks a slightly unusual twist in sound for the band, with a blues piano being quite influential in the early part of the song, although there is the more traditional blues guitar solo later in the track, which runs to a healthy 6 ½ minutes in all.
By the release of the next track, "You Can't Always Get What You Want", Brian Jones had passed away and been replaced by Mick Taylor. Whether intentional or not, the song makes a fitting epitaph, as too much of what Jones wanted led to his death. The down-tempo song comes with a wistful sounding vocal that fits perfectly and the gospel choir that comes in later is allied with a rhythm and blues sound. "Gimme Shelter" also had this rock and rhythm and blues sound and, although I prefer the cover that Thunder did of the song as Danny Bowes is a far more accomplished vocalist than Mick Jagger, it's still a great rock and blues number.
"Street Fighting Man" is slightly out of sequence here, as it was on the 1968 album "Beggar's Banquet", but was released as a single in 1969, marking the end of the band's time with the Decca record label, hence its inclusion at this point. In terms of sound, it's much the same as it was during the late 60s, with an up-tempo rock song with some blues touches.
The album moves into the 1970s with "Wild Horses" and it's a gentle introduction to the decade, with a slower tempo ballad song with some blues touches and a song on which Jagger's vocal and the band's backing again doesn't stick out as badly as it has on previous tracks, although the vocal mix in the chorus is slightly buried under the music a little, which helps. This is another long song and it does feel like it drags in some parts.
"She's A Rainbow" has the same psychedelic sound as has appeared on previous tracks and it's a gentle and more pop-influenced song than is usual with a piano line that sounds like it could have come from a music box. This is followed by "Brown Sugar", which takes the sound back to the one we're more used to from the Rolling Stones; rock with a hint of blues and a driving guitar riff. It's another upbeat and up-tempo song that passes by quite happily.
"Happy" is the first song presented here from the "Exile on Main St." Album, which many critics view as the best the Rolling Stones ever produced. From this track, it's easy to see why, as it's an upbeat and up-tempo rhythm and blues number and whilst the combination of brass section and blues guitar feels a little chaotic in the mix, it's a very strong number. As is "Tumbling Dice", which has a far stronger old-style blues influence in the music, but the inclusion of female backing singers add a little soul into the mix and it's a song with a wonderful groove to it.
Sadly, the tracks from that album are interrupted by "Angie", which is a bit of a letdown. It's a fairly straight up pop ballad and Jagger's seemingly strained, nasal vocal make it one I don't enjoy all that much, despite it getting better later on in the track when there is a slightly strong blues influence and the strings add something to the mix. Fortunately, this is redeemed by "Rocks Off", which has a lovely dirty blues guitar riff and a really fun feel, although a psychedelic break late on takes the edge off things a little bit.
There's another lovely dirty blues riff to "Doo Doo Doo Doo Doo (Heartbreaker)", which comes with a hard hitting lyric belied by a seemingly banal title. Despite the darkness in the lyrics, which relate to a young boy who was shot by police in New York, once the brass section comes in, this is a surprisingly upbeat rhythm and blues track over the choruses and is more atmospheric in the verses.
The second CD nears the end at the same time as Mick Taylor's period with the band, but it finishes with a bang with the rough blues of "It's Only Rock 'N' Roll" ripping past quite happily and perfectly demonstrating the sound of the band in the early 1970s. The second CD comes to end with "Fool To Cry", which has a lovely blues piano and a slight funk feel that epitomises the mid 1970s, but again this track shows the weaknesses that were Rolling Stones ballads.
By the time of 1978's "Miss You", which opens the final CD in this collection, ex-Faces guitar Ronnie Wood had been added to the line up to replace Mick Taylor. You can tell the influence on the sound, which sounds like a track Rod Stewart could have recorded, with the blues influence of the guitar overlaid with a disco sounding beat. "Respectable", however, is a return to an earlier sound, being a more or less straight up rhythm and blues number with a driving beat.
"Beast of Burden" is another slower track, but fortunately without the straining of the vocals that marked "Angie". There is a slight blues hint to the guitar, but this is a more pop-influenced song than many here, which is perhaps a nod towards the sound the Rolling Stones would have in the 1980s. Although it's perhaps not a great song, it's a more effective ballad than most in the Stones repertoire.
The 1980s start for the band with "Emotional Rescue", which has a very disco-pop feel to it and the funky backing and the synth -pop feel to the keyboards means that someone like Billy Ocean could easily have recorded it several years later. The falsetto vocal, which sounds a little strained, does sound a jarring note, however. There's a strange backwards step to "Start Me Up", with the blues sound coming back in, but the song was originally started in 1975 when that was the band's defining sound and so it feels a little out of place musically, it's still a great blues-rock song. "Waiting on a Friend" has the same pop sound, although mixed up a little with a slight blues influence to the music, but the vocals, much like with "Emotional Rescue" take whatever edge there might have been from the song. That said, it's rather tepid both musically and lyrically and a better vocal wouldn't have greatly improved it.
"Undercover of the Night", however, shows that the band had embraced the synth-pop sound of the 1980s perfectly, with a funky backing riff driving the song along very nicely and whilst the vocals and lyrics are in no way as much fun as the music, it's still quite a fun song to listen to. At the time, Jagger wanted to experiment more with the music, whilst Keith Richards was keener to keep to the traditional Stones sound. The latter's influence is clear on "She Was Hot", which has a great blues guitar riff and although the chorus is a little weak in comparison and the chorus has an 80s pop feel, but the guitar riffs and the boogie-woogie piano make this a fun song, at least musically.
Another weak ballad follows with "Streets Of Love", with the stripped down musical opening showcasing that Jagger's vocal has never been ideally suited to ballads. Fortunately, when the music comes in, it does help cover this up a little, but this is a weak song, even allowing for the 80s stadium rock ballad feel to it. "Harlem Shuffle" is a far more entertaining song, returning to the strong blues influences, although this may have been helped by it not being a Stones original. During this period, Jagger was working on solo material and if that had been better received, this may have been the end of the band and the end of this album.
However, after a long break, the Stones recorded new material in 1989 and "Mixed Emotions" is a great track. It's got a lot of the blues influence of earlier albums, but this is allied to the better production values of the time. The chorus has the 80s pop-rock influence, but the Stones old blues sound is evident in the guitar work. "Highwire" continues this sound on, with a lovely pop-rock-blues combination to the song, which seems to suit Jagger's vocal perfectly and the band seem like they're all together and pointing in the same direction.
After a five year break, the mid-90s bring us "Love Is Strong", which unfortunately doesn't hold quite the same fun value as the previous tracks. The blues sound is still there, but there is a deeper, darker vocal that isn't as effective and it's a plodding song rather than a driving riff. "Anybody Seen My Baby" has a lovely funky bass line, possibly helped along by the influence of the Dust Brothers, who had worked with Beck on his "Odelay" album, but the song itself isn't a good one, with an almost boy band harmony in the vocals which shows the band's limitations with such things in stark realism once more and an appalling rap towards the end.
For some reason, there are no songs from the band's last studio album "A Bigger Bang", but this album continues with "Don't Stop", from the "Forty Licks" compilation album which shows that they were still up to their old rhythm and blues tricks, albeit with a smoother production sound, later into their career. The two brand new tracks on the album are also nods to their past, with "Doom and Gloom" having a Southern blues sound all the way through that wouldn't have been out of place on a Stones album three decades earlier, as is "One More Shot", which whilst it has a slightly slower tempo and more of a stadium rock influence, is still a decent song.
"GRRR!" helps to highlight a couple of things from the Rolling Stones repertoire. Firstly, although they have adjusted their sound slightly through the decades, they found a groove that suited them and largely stuck to it; their blues based rock works as well now as it ever has done and the last two or three tracks show that five decades in the industry has done little to diminish their sound or their quality. But the ballads also prove the old adage that when they were good, they were very, very good and when they were bad, they were really awful.
There is an awful lot of music here and far more of it falls into the very good category than the very bad, but as you would expect on an album that contains 50 songs and roughly 3 hours of music, there are a fair few duds here. If you own nothing or little from the Rolling Stones already, at £11.97 from Asda or £11.99 from Amazon, this is a superb introduction to their sound, but for those who are already fans, the new songs tread virtually no new ground at all and it certainly isn't worth paying that sort of money for them. Whether or not this is an album that will win them a new generation of fans is doubtful, especially as the cover art, whilst providing an interesting incorporation of their logo, is weak and somehow slightly disturbing.
For the music, this is an album that deserves recognition, as there is some great material here. But the presentation, with poor cover art and no information besides track listings and some pictures, missing even simple liner notes to introduce new listeners to the band, is entirely pointless and the package as a whole loses marks for that. If you're a newcomer to the band, this is probably a better release than "Forty Licks" just for the extra ten songs, but for existing fans, just download the two new tracks and save the rest of your money.