Happy birthday, Mick. An excerpt from my Rocks Off book about favorite vocal of his performances.
Let It Loose
July and October-November 1971 Villa Nellcôte, Villefranche-sur-mer, France (Keith Richard’s rented house
December 1971 Sunset Sound Studio, LA
LP Exile on Main Street May 1972
The Gospel of the Rolling Stones.
Soon after Brian Jones died, everything about the Stones seemed to reset. 1969 saw the addition of the fluid lead-guitar master, Taylor, and by 1970-71, the band was fleshed out to include an ever-present horn section and keyboardist, effectively turning the Rolling Stones into an R&B road band like James Brown’s or Ray Charles’ bands or the Stax/Volt soul revue.
Along with the musical growth came a tipping point in the visual aspects of the Stones. Though the band’s collective sense of style had been gradually becoming more flamboyant, it had previously been Brian leading the way. The first public appearance of the group, just days after Brian’s drowning death, at Hyde Park, there is Mick onstage in a dress-like top. And in Performance, his character is made-up to look as androgynous as possible. Both Mick and Keith had started to wear more make-up as the band turned the corner into the 1970s, Keith’s hair got more and more choppy-rooster looking, and he started wearing Anita’s fashionable tops, a blousy look that became very influential in the 1970s. Steven Tyler still can’t let go of the look. Charlie, Bill, and even shy and cherubic Mick Taylor got into the act at times. “It wasn’t that weird when they started dressing up because it came about slowly,” said Charlie. “…Actually, they led all that. They took it upon themselves, and afterward people copied.”
Jack Nitzsche was put off by the change, not only in looks, but in personality. Mick was taking him to the ballet in London with Anita and Keith. Keith and Mick both had make-up on, but Keith acted his familiar self. Mick, though, seemed to have transformed. “Mick said, ‘Look pretty ‘cause you’re going with me, Nitzsche recounted. “I wondered what the fuck was going on. So we all walked into Covent Garden and Mick acted like he didn’t know any of us. That was new. I don’t think he’d ever been like that before.”
Bobby Keys noted, “I’d look at Keith, and he’d be dipping a brush into a jar, puttin’ stuff on, and I’d think, Goddamn, son, what are you, the prince of darkness? I thought it was unusual at the time, but hey, these guys obviously knew shit I didn’t know. I’d better not laugh too quick.”
But it was the women in their lives who were influencing the band’s fashion sense more than anything. Anita, of course, but also Bianca, who was a model and fashionista. Mick’s flight as a social butterfly continued upward after he married Bianca, which Keith commented on caustically in public interviews. “Since she married Mick, Bianca is enormous. Everyone knows Bianca,” he said. “She’s in Vogue, the newspapers, but it’s not something you do, it’s not a job, it’s not an art to get yourself in the papers. What have you created?”
Mick, who considered the gossip and hob-nobbing with the upper strata of society good publicity for the band, nevertheless was fully aware of his mate’s disapproval. “I don’t think Keith particularly liked any of it,” he reflected in the late 1970s. “He didn’t think it was good for me.” Keith elucidated, though, with pointing to a more specific problem with Mick marrying Bianca, who simply was not compatible with Keith and Anita: Suddenly, Mick and Keith were not spending as much time together and, as a result, not writing as steadily. “Mick marrying Bianca stopped certain possibilities of us writing together because it happened in bursts; it’s not a steady thing,” said Keith. “It certainly made it a lot more difficult to write together and a lot more difficult to just hang out.”
“At first I thought Bianca was just some bimbo,” Keith writes in Life. “She was also quite aloof for a while, which didn’t endear her to anybody around us. But as I got to know her, I discovered that she’s bright and, what really impressed me later on, a strong lady.”
This was a common problem in other bands, notably the Beatles, as the young men who grew up in these musical posses together from adolescence now reaching their late-20s and finding that, “wedding bells are breaking up that old gang of mine,” as the old song goes.
“Who’s that woman on your arm?/All dressed up to do you harm/And I’m hip to what she’ll do/I give her just another month or two,” begins “Let It Loose,” perhaps the most gut-wrenchingly honest and emotional song that the Stones have recorded. “I think Keith wrote that, actually,” recalled Mick, referring to the opening lines. “That’s a very weird, difficult song. I had a whole other set of lyrics to it, but they got lost by the wayside. I don’t think that song has any semblance of meaning. It’s one of those rambling songs. I didn’t really understand what it was about, after the event.”
It makes complete sense that Keith wrote those opening lines. Like much of Exile, “Let It Loose” is almost certainly Keith and Mick writing about themselves and each other, like the opening lines of another stellar gospel song on the album, “Shine a Light,” for example, where Mick is singing to Keith, “Saw you stretched out in room ten-oh-nine with a smile your face and a tear right in your eye … Berber jewelry jangling down the street … Just seen too many flies on you/I just can’t brush ‘em off.” While the Glimmer Twins of Let It Bleed seemed to be brothers-in-arms in leading the hedonistic lifestyle of “Live With Me” and “Monkey Man,” Mick and Keith on Exile send messages back and forth to each other through the songs, something they would continue throughout the rest of their career. At this point, who was more fascinating than the Rolling Stones for subject matter, and who better to write about them than themselves?
Much of the lyrical matter on Exile reflects that increasingly insular world that the members retreated to, mentally walling themselves off as the exterior world and outsiders spilled in physically. That’s who the seedy “flies” are. Keith might see a woman taking advantage of Mick, but Mick sees some more insidious characters around Keith. Exile is the Stones’ Great Gatsby. There’s a constant party going on upstairs at this decadent waterfront mansion all summer, with hangers-on and people of dubious reputation coming and going seemingly at will, while down in the catacomb-like basement, like the darkened lonely rooms in which Gatsby took refuge in his own mansion, the band tried to get to work in following their muse, their Daisy Buchanan — if you’ll continue to indulge my metaphor. But each of Mick and Keith see themselves as Nick Caraway-like observers, “hip to what she’ll do,” to their dream-world Jay Gatsby.
If Keith only wrote the opening lines of “Let It Loose,” worrying about some woman taking advantage of his friend, than the next few lines seem to be Mick answering, admitting: “Bit off more than I can chew/And I knew, I knew what it was leading to/But some things I can’t refuse/One of them, one of them’s the bedroom blues.” So if Mick didn’t cop to consciously understanding what the song was about, or figured it out only later, then he either tapped into the same subconscious wavelength that Keith was on, or Keith wrote the whole thing as a dialogue between two friends, characters that bore an awfully close resemblance to Mick and Keith circa-1971-72.
The whole drama is played out in the most stirring gospel production that the Stones ever produced. The fact that it comes out of the revival-tent voodoo chant of “Just Want to See His Face” is somehow appropriate; Jesus is not mentioned anywhere, but by the end of “Let It Loose,” I feel like I have seen the face of God. After 35 years of listening to the song, it still reduces me to rubble. It opens with a guitar arpeggio played through a fast Leslie organ speaker, giving it that church feel right off the bat. Then Mick comes in with those lines. The vocal sound raw, like it was done live at the basement sessions, but this is unlikely, and you can hear also the original ghost vocal of Mick singing with the band leaking into the open mikes in the background. There are other extra noises, whistling, off-mike hollers, distant sounding, adding to that swampy layered feel of the album. In my earlier book on Exile, I had apparently come across some errant bit of research that place the recording at Olympic Studios. But everything else I have found has it as being recorded at Keith’s house.
The arrangement builds and rests at various points, with Charlie laying down those dramatic entrances and exits on the drums. When he comes in for the first time on the second verse, its like a punch to the sternum. The guitars have been augmented by little breaths of strings via Nicky’s Mellotron, and his piano parts that weave around Keith’s lattice of fast-vibrato-Leslie guitar. When Mick sings, “I give her just about a month or two,” he gets a textbook call-and-response of a six-person gospel vocal ensemble who answer him as he hits the last word of his phrase. They come in at least as loudly as Mick himself. The session singers were assembled in part by Dr. John, who is singing with them, and include Joe Green, Vanetta Fields, Tamiya Lynn, Clydie King, and Shirley Goodman. Some had worked variously with Billy Preston, Quincy Jones, Dr. John, and/or had hits of their own. Goodman had been part of a New Orleans duo in the 1950s called Shirley & Lee, and later had a 1974 hit with “Shame, Shame, Shame,” as Shirley & Co. Tamiya Lynn (misspelled “Tammi” on the record credits) said that Mick wanted a “funk feeling, this real honest church feel … He had an appreciation for black music, and he said it openly, so that was out of the way. We knew he had this affinity for the blues and where it came from … Mick came out of a respect for black experience, or black music. The greatness comes from the spirit.”
After the song builds to one of it’s peaks, the band drops and Mick remains silent for a full minute, as the mini-choir sings a soothing, lush, sacred-feeling vamp, “oooh,” repeated like a mantra, against only Keith’s guitar figure, like the song is being reintroduced. It is the sort of gospel part you might hear on Stevie Wonder’s 1976 Songs in the Key of Life. The voices are richly layered, warm, and well-recorded, like Wonder’s “Have a Talk With God.” Nicky starts to play them out of the break with some country-gospel-like trills. Charlie lashes out an elongated fill that brings us to the song’s climax, as the majestic horns coming in.
I didn’t know what to ask Keys about this part. I just wanted to tell him what his part in the recording means to me. I told him that when the horns come in at that vamp at the end of ‘Let It Loose,’ it’s just one of the most emotional moments in recording. “The horns just elevate the song to this holy level, it’s like sacred,” I added. He laughed a little, as if surprised. Then he replied, with that country warmth he exudes, “Well that’s a very nice thing to say!”
I offered him my opinion that this is what I think people that love Exile are talking about. This is what went missing from a lot of later Stones records. I am not saying that the Stones should have remained some bastardized gospel band and I am under no illusions that any artists should repeat themselves. Having recorded a dozen records over a 25-year career in a band and as a solo musician, I understand this as well as anyone. But Exile is about a depth of feeling and less about any intellectualizing that came before or after. Pretense is not present on the album. And nothing speaks to this emotional power than the influence of gospel as represented on Exile. I miss the gospel and true soul elements from this period more than any other component, more than even Mick Taylor’s fabulous guitar playing or the bass of Bill Wyman.
Keys and Price were a big part of this, having come over from the Delaney & Bonnie scene. “Right,” replied Bobby. “And Billy Preston brought a lot of that influence too.” Preston played on “Shine a Light” from Exile and “I Got the Blues” from Sticky Fingers, as well as other mid-1970s Stones recordings. Preston took Mick down to a gospel-heavy church or two in LA to see authentic music in the proper setting.
“When you think about it,” Chuck Leavell told me, “rock ‘n’ roll piano comes in large part from the church and gospel. Little Richard, Jerry Lee Lewis, Ray Charles, Billy Preston, and more owe a lion’s share of their styles to gospel. That goes for myself as well.”
Bobby was happy to be part of this era of the Stones return to rootsy music. “The parts that appealed to me have always come from the very beginnings of rock ‘n’ roll, you know the Muddy Waters, Bo Diddley, Holly, Presley….” he said. “All of those elements were present in the Stones’ music. Maybe not sounding exactly the same, but the feeling was the same. That’s what rock ‘n’ roll has always been, as far as I’m concerned, it’s a feeling.”
That feeling, and the spirit that Tamiya Lynn pointed to, is what we hear after those horns kick in and Mick is inspired enough to give the performance of a lifetime. I can not point to another vocal performance of his that I prefer. Granted, it may just be too raw and emotional for some listeners. He returns to the arrangement at about the 3:00 mark and, over one particular drum break, in a call-and-response with the chorus, he draws out a deeply arresting line: “Mayyyyyyyyy-be your friends think I’m just a stranger/Your face I’ll never see no more.” This increasing distance between two people that he is wailing about is so obviously personal and heartfelt, it sounds like he has broken down, and he turns it over to the backing singers, who ad lib their own inspired parts. You can Keith reintroduce the guitar riff on the penultimate repeat, which signals the final retarding end of the song, with the backing singers drawing the song to a close as the music fades, as if they are laying hands over poor old Mick’s slumped and sweaty shoulders, like his heroes, James Brown and Solomon Burke, all drained out