Pop music’s coming of age
1966 had opened with echoes of the new sounds suggested by the Beatles' Rubber Soul, which had appeared in December of the previous year. Pop was coming of age and the oriental echoes of George Harrison's sitar mingled with jazzy compositions like Michelle or the baroque piano that appeared on In My Life. The Rolling Stones noted it and took advantage of the fact that their songwriting duo was also reaching the peak of their career to deliver their first full album with songs written solely by Mick Jagger and Keith Richards.
The result was their first masterpiece, an album that inaugurated their pop phase, which would be completed with Between The Buttons, but which did not lack their beloved blues, nor their swagger, nor a great collection of songs, dressed in the best clothes by the third in discord, a Brian Jones who revealed himself as a multi-instrumentalist magician capable of learning to play the sitar or the dulcimer with the same ease with which he had become one of the first British slide guitarists.
The Stones’ album opened with Mother's Little Helper, which shows that Aftermath not only bears the imprint of the Beatles but also of another group that the Stones looked to a lot in this period, The Kinks, both in its sarcastic lyrics and in that kind of pop update of folk music. Even so, thanks to the charisma of the band; with Richards and Jones perfect on the riff, with their 12-string guitars played with slide, and their unbeatable rhythm section, an imperial Charlie Watts and one of the best contributions from Bill Wyman with his fuzz bass; in the end the song sounded, like the whole album, their own.
Stupid Girl was pure Stone cockiness, a cruel, if not misogynistic, attack on an ‘unbearable’ girl, but Aftermath also has another such attack in what may be the best song on the album, Under My Thumb, with Jagger talking about turning the tables on his relationship with another girl. As with the album's finest moments, it combines a winning melody from the songwriting pair, Jagger/Richards, and a Brian Jones in a state of grace delivering the song's riff on a marimba. A song with Stone DNA all over it.
The Victorian echoes of Lady Jane again show a band flirting with the baroque pop of the era, with Richards providing the arpeggios on guitar and Jagger the accent, while the most interesting instrumental part is once again done by a very inspired Jones on the dulcimer, which reappeared on another of the album's hidden gems, I Am Waiting.
And yes, this may be a pop album, but these were still the Stones, and Doncha Bother Me made it clear that their love of the blues was eternal, as did the song that closed the first side, Goin' Home; another blues number with which they threw out the three-minute song rule, setting a record time of more than 11 minutes with an extended finale in which Jagger returns to the harmonica. However, it is one of the least interesting songs on the album.
The second side had eight songs, one more than the whole of 1976's Black And Blue, and opened excellently with a 100% Stone song, Flight 505, a fast-paced blues track with the band in perfect form, carried along by Watts' drums and Richards' fuzz bass. High And Dry was another example of the bluesiest Stones, with an imperial Jones on harmonica, looking to the past and, at the same time, to the future of the band in their period of splendour, between 1968 and 1972. Out Of Time is one of the best pop songs they ever wrote, with an irresistible chorus, again with Jones colouring the song with marimba and vibraphone, and Richards doing the same with an acoustic. It clocks in at over five minutes but there's not a second to spare. Before long Jagger would produce a great version of it, with a lavish string arrangement (and Jimmy Page as session guitarist) for Chris Farlowe who turned it into a big hit. Still, I'll stick with the Aftermath version.
It's Not Easy had Richards back on fuzz bass, cranking up the revs, and the band sounding unstoppable. I Am Waiting was an acoustic beauty that seemed so light it would evaporate at any moment, until the much louder chorus appeared, allowing Jagger to vent his frustration. It was one of those moments when you realised the band's enormous versatility. Then came Take It Or Leave It, a song where they flirted with the folk rock sound of the time and which they also gave to the Searchers to release as a single. Then came another great pop song, Think, another song that they had given to Chris Farlowe to release as a single; but in the Stone’s version the most remarkable thing is the fuzz on Richards' guitar. The album closed with What To Do, a song in which, as in Mother's Little Helper, they again commented on the unhappiness of modern society, while, musically, there was a doo wop harmony for another great pop tune.
The album was released on 15 April 1966 in the UK, where it quickly rose to the top of the charts, while in the US they had to wait until June for its release and replaced Mother's Little Helper, Out of Time, Take It or Leave It and What to Do with one of the best singles of their career, Paint It Black, recorded at the same sessions, with Keith Richards debuting his black Les Paul Custom and Brian Jones hitting his best-known notes on sitar.
The Rolling Stones delivered their poppiest and most Swingin London album in an essential year for pop music that also saw the release of the Beatles' Revolver, Bob Dylan's Blonde On Blonde and the Beach Boys' Pet Sounds. Pop had come of age and the most famous rock band of all time was there to prove it.