Stones were reportedly surprised by the global success
of their December 2016 covers album Blue & Lonesome -
replete with ‘Chicago blues’ -, and so in its wake have decided to follow it up
with the release of On Air, which
collects together their live performances on BBC radio shows from October 1963
to September 1965.
It is clear that while Chuck Berry may have left us, with the Rolling Stones interest in the blues and R&B is as strong as ever.
The collection mixes original Stones songs (like The Spider and the Fly) with covers of songs made famous by other artists, such as Bo Diddley (Cops and Robbers) and Chuck Berry Roll Over Beethoven – never previously officially released by the Stones.
The album contains 18 recordings, but a ‘deluxe version’ has also been made available with another 14 songs. Many of these tracks have only ever been heard before on poor quality bootleg albums; whereas here they have undergone a process of ‘audio source separation’ by the wizards at Abbey Road Studios, which has removed the hiss and other flaws while retaining the atmosphere and, in some cases, the screaming girls (on the big blues number Hi Heel Sneakers for example). Eight of the songs have never been previously released commercially.
The quaint titles of some of the BBC shows (such as Saturday Club, The Joe Loss Pop Show, and Yeah Yeah) now in some ways reflect the naive - but refreshingly raw and energetic - band in its early years. This album captures an essential historical moment because in these recordings you can hear the band grow and develop their trademark sound and style.
In some ways sadly, therefore, this compilation is not in chronological order, so it will only be possible to hear that development smoothly if you create your own playlist from the songs; something which I suspect many will do.
Instead the album toploads the hits, by kicking off with an unpolished version of the Stones’ debut single Come On from September 1963 (this version is 25 seconds longer than the single version as it contains, according to Uncut magazine, ‘a thrilling nine-note guitar riff solo at the 50 second mark’). This is immediately followed by (I can’t get no) Satisfaction, which was released in its final version in the US in June 1965 and contains a great vocal performance by Mick Jagger. On this version, again quoting Uncut, “There is an enhanced physicality to Richards’ demonic fuzztone riff, [reportedly from his ’59 Burst Les Paul through a Gibson Maestro fuzz-tone] while the sustained control behind the thrust and chop of the chords adds a different but equally impressive texture”.
Critics are divided whether ‘the ancient art of weaving’ (the trademark Rolling Stones sound of two guitarists playing off of one another), is fully in evidence here but certainly it is great to hear Brian Jones and Keith Richards bounce off each other on tracks like It’s All Over Now; as it is to hear Bill Wyman join the guitar-fest on tracks like I Wanna Be Your Man.
However, the standout ‘new’ track for me was the instrumental 2120 South Michigan Avenue, which provides a hugely pleasurable listen. The address in the song title is the seat of Chess studios, where coincidentally Chuck Berry recorded his first major hit, Maybellene, in 1955.
Back to the future indeed.