photo & text by nacrowe
back in the 1980s there was a distinct cultural moment were everyone got excited over bloated charity singles that often featured a chorus of god-knows-how-many notable artists singing in unison. two that come immediately to mind was the MICHAEL JACKSON/LIONEL RITCHIE-penned "WE ARE THE WORLD" (COLUMBIA, 1985) for USA FOR AFRICA (over 45 POP musicians) and the RONNIE JAMES DIO-penned "STARS" (POLYGRAM, 1986) for HEAR 'N AID (made up of over 40 prominent METAL musicians), both of which raised funds for famine relief in ETHIOPIA. buying these singles was less about musical enjoyment, since the songs were objectively horrendous, and more a form of altruism. although it begs one to wonder why the artists just didnt advocate for direct funds as there is no doubt corporate record companies made a pillaging off these recordings.
enter STEVEN VAN ZANDT.
during this period he had recently departed BRUCE SPRINGSTEEN's infamous E-STREET BAND right at the cusp of the release of what would become their commercial breakthrough BORN IN THE U.S.A. (COLUMBIA, 1984) record. at the time a journalist friend that had reported on the horrors of APARTHEID in SOUTH AFRICA suggested he write a protest song as a charity-style single. at the time it was still deemed acceptable for prominent musicians to perform at the SUN CITY resort/casino in SOUTH AFRICA. in fact prominent acts at the time such as QUEEN, FRANK SINATRA, ELTON JOHN, LIZA MINELLI, ROD STEWART and LINDA RONSTADT had done just that to their own shame in retrospect. the "SUN CITY" (EMI, 1985) single took aim at the resort specifically and the regime and its racist power structure politically at a time that the UNITED STATES still supported it. even in retrospect its a pretty bold and impressive statement, even if the song is a little bland. participating artists in the ARTISTS UNITED AGAINST APARTHEID activist protest group (who similarly took a vow not play in SOUTH AFRICA until the abolishment of APARTHEID) included the likes of BOB DYLAN, GEORGE CLINTON (PARLIAMENT FUNKADELIC), BOBBY WOMACK, LOU REED (THE VELVET UNDERGROUND), RAY BARETTO, RUN-DMC, KEITH RICHARDS (THE ROLLING STONES), JIMMY CLIFF, BONO (U2), HERBIE HANCOCK, GIL SCOTT-HERON, PETER GABRIEL, HALL & OATES, KURTIS BLOW, STIV BATORS (THE DEAD BOYS), AFRIKA BAMBAATAA, RINGO STARR (THE BEATLES), BRUCE SPRINGSTEEN and JOEY RAMONE (THE RAMONES) among many other JAZZ, R&B, ROCK N ROLL and early HIP HOP luminaries. PAUL SIMON was offered and declined participation due to his friendship with LINDA RONSTADT and the fact that he was then working on his GRACELAND (WARNER BROS, 1986) album at the time with SOUTH AFRICAN musicians, of which he has received (well-founded) criticism ever since for cultural appropriation. that recording was also in violation of UNITED NATIONS cultural boycott against APARTHEID. so there is that.
in this digital era we are all too comfortable with the idea of charity telethons and hashtag activism getting the word out on efforts to encourage fundraising for disaster relief efforts or the victims of the latest international tragedy. its part of the fabric of how our capitalist society functions at this point. but an activist single that take aim at altering AMERICAN foreign policy stances with regards to one of its allies. that i cannot find another example to compare. its a complete anomaly. and a singular achievement for all those involved, especially VAN ZANDT.
fuck PAUL SIMON.
photo & text by nacrowe
its been almost ten years ago now i was with my godmother, who is a music supervisor by profession, at an NPR radio program being recorded in some long hallway at LINCOLN CENTER watching the surviving members of MUSCLE SHOALS being interviewed as part of a promotional effort for an upcoming documentary. famously the house band / studio musicians at MUSCLE SHOALS known as THE SWAMPERS played on legendary tracks by ARETHA FRANKLIN, WILSON PICKETT, ETTA JAMES, PERCY SLEDGE and even THE ROLLING STONES. now MICK JAGGER, KEITH RICHARDS and company namely recorded three tracks off of STICKY FINGERS (ROLLING STONES, 1971) at MUSCLE SHOALS SOUND STUDIO in ALABAMA with THE SWAMPERS including perennial crowd pleasers "BROWN SUGAR" and "WILD HORSES." during this NPR interview one of the participants was asked about which ROLLING STONES songs he was a part of and could only remember "BROWN SUGAR" and "YOU GOTTA MOVE." my godmother turned to me and asked me which one he forgot, to which i muttered sheepishly "i think 'WILD HORSES' is the other song." without hesitation she blurted out "WILD HORSES" in from our position in the back of the audience, heads turned around and then back to the dude on stage who nodded and said something to effect of, "yeah, 'WILD HORSES,' thats right." my godmother then told me that she knew there was a reason she asked me to join her. at that moment i was stunned and petrified.
STICKY FINGERS is a legendary ROLLING STONES album that was part of a string of massively influential generation-defining albums in the late 1960s and early 1970s that also includes the likes of BEGGARS BANQUET (DECCA, 1968), LET IT BLEED (DECCA, 1969) and EXILE ON MAIN ST (ROLLING STONES, 1972). the band, being part of the BRITISH INVASION cohort of ENGLISH musicians (including but not limited to THE BEATLES, THE KINKS, THE WHO, THE YARDBIRDS, THE ANIMALS and so on), were all obsessed with the AMERICAN BLUES traditions of the deep south. recording at MUSCLE SHOALS during a break on tour provided such an opportunity at a facility and team known for churning out the best BLUES and SOUL MUSIC of the era. this record is also notable as it marks the introduction of MICK TAYLOR on a ROLLING STONES studio recording and the first since the death of founding member BRIAN JONES.
"BROWN SUGAR" is one of those CELEBRATED yet MISUNDERSTOOD songs. it very much should be regarded as more PROBLEMATIC and CONTROVERSIAL than it currently is. originally entitled "BLACK PUSSY," its lyrics pretty explicitly talk about the middle passage from AFRICA of a women that was sold into slavery and then raped by her white master. i mean end stop right there. but somehow given the mood and feel of the song, many listeners dont consider the lyrics other than it being vaguely about female black sexuality, which is still PROBLEMATIC. call me crazy, but i always assumed the song may have been about heroin, as there is a later long storied tradition of BRITISH songs that may possibly be about love or heroin, such as THE BEATLES' "EVERYONE'S GOT SOMETHING TO HIDE EXCEPT ME AND MY MONKEY," BLUR's "BEETLEBUM," SUEDE's "SO YOUNG" and THE STRANGLERS' "GOLDEN BROWN" among many others. despite its immense popularity the song has been retired in recent years due to JAGGER's unease with its subject matter as society has evolved over the past half decade.
"WILD HORSES" is similarly considered another classic first-tier ROLLING STONES song on par with "SATISFACTION," "GIMME SHELTER," "TUMBLING DICE" "RUBY TUESDAY" or "PAINT IT BLACK." its a PLAINTIVE ballad originally written by RICHARDS that was born out of his TREPIDATION for going out on the road after his son was born. there is some speculation that JAGGER channeled his relationship with MARIANNE FAITHFUL into the track, but at its core the song seems to speak to the sorry inevitability of the longing and HEARTACHE that comes with physical distance. its not a road song but it kind of is. i remember reading that this song had a big impact on the next generation of songwriters, especially with poetic upstarts like PATTI SMITH. the ROLLING STONES did ballads from time to time but this one still stands out amongst their catalogue and is a crowd favorite.
my personal favorite song on the record is "BITCH." like all the best ROLLING STONES songs, its just all GROOVE with just a hint of MENACE. my understanding is that the song is all about JAGGER's LIBIDO. the idea that love is a bit of an unnecessary trouble when he is interested in is getting down. you cant say that the dude is not HONEST, i mean that is what JAGGER is known for. and god bless him for that!
so yeah, dont let me be the first one to encourage you to check out STICKY FINGERS. like the other much-heralded ROLLING STONES records from this period, STICKY FINGERS is pretty much an institution unto itself. it is most definitely worth checking out.
photo manipulation by nacrowe
this perfectly competent yet entirely pedestrian documentary concerning the creation of EXILE ON MAIN ST. (ROLLING STONES RECORDS, 1972) suffers from a lack of inspiration. little connection is made in STONES IN EXILE (PASSION PICTURES, 2010) between the songs created and the disjointed process they sprung out from. at best this documentary seemed like a wasted opportunity and at worst a cash grab by the band, management or even EAGLE ROCK, who distributed it.
book-ended by trite, uninformed musings by the likes of WILL.I.AM, JACK WHITE SHERYL CROW, LIZ PHAIR, BENICIO DEL TORO and some random dude from KINGS OF LEON. i get that they were trying to present this classic record to a new generation, but the fact that these participants were unaware of basic facts surrounding the record only makes their inclusion that much more confounding. was PATTI SMITH, BRUCE SPRINGSTEEN, TOM PETTY, JOHN FOGERTY, PAUL MCCARTNEY or anyone else that may have had some actual cultural insight into the group not available that day? makes no sense to me. this is a documentary after all.
what did work well were the interview contributions by the likes of KEITH RICHARDS, his ex-wife ANITA PALLENBERG and session saxophone player BOBBY KEYS. you got the sense from them that evading the punitive BRITISH tax code and leaving abroad along the southern coast of FRANCE suited RICHARDS just fine. his laid-back bohemian, vagabond lifestyle was well-suited for an unconventional recording setup in which inspiration happened while the band was doing other things. if anything i feel like this documentary helped provide context to his excellent memoir LIFE (linked HERE).
MICK JAGGER comes off guarded and bored with the topic. if not for RICHARDS this documentary, as expressed earlier, would have been entirely redundant and necessary. i wouldn't recommend watching this, but i would highly suggest you check out RICHARDS' memoir, which is one of the most compelling and insightful i have come across in recent years. that book is well-worth your time if you have any interest in THE ROLLING STONES, THE BRITISH INVASION or the evolution of 20th century popular music in western culture.