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The forgotten beauty of The Rolling Stones’ debut album

The Rolling Stones - Debut

The Rolling Stones had a gradual rise to stardom after their formation in 1962. They established themselves in the London R&B scene with a passion for the blues-inspired rock and roll popularised in the 1950s by American acts like Muddy Waters, Bo Didley and Chuck Berry. Their first stable line-up consisted of frontman Mick Jagger, multi-instrumentalist Brian Jones, guitarist Keith Richards, bassist Bill Wyman, and drummer Charlie Watts. In the early days, the songwriting capabilities of Jagger and Richards hadn’t yet been fully established, so the band mainly opted for R&B covers. 

The Rolling Stones that became rock ‘n’ roll royalty in the late 1960s and beyond, right up to the modern-day, was helmed by Jagger and Richards as the creative directors. But in the early 1960s, Jones was the most dominant driving force in the group with his keen passion for the blues and his unparalleled talent as the groups’ multi-instrumentalist. It had been Jones who decided on naming the band after Muddy Waters’ 1950 song ‘Rollin’ Stone’. 

By 1963, The Stones had attracted the attention of aspiring producer and manager Andrew Loog Oldham. At the time, Oldham was only 19-years-old and was younger than the members of the band. As he was below the age of majority, he couldn’t obtain an agent’s license or sign any legal documents without his mother present to co-sign. After Oldham took over as the band’s manager, he decided to mimic the methods of The Beatles’ manager Brian Epstein and got the band to wear suits on stage and in press shots. 

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On April 16th, 1964, The Rolling Stones released their eponymous debut album. As they looked to enter the race against The Beatles, they appeared on the record sleeve in mop-top hairstyles and smart suits as directed by Oldham. But what the group lacked on The Beatles was original material. The Rolling Stones consisted of 12 songs in total, and only three were original compositions by the band. 

What the album lacks in originality, though, it makes up for in the quality of the covers. With Jones’ musicianship and Jagger’s unique vocal take on the R&B style, The Stones made an imperative formative contribution to the British invasion era. The album is packed with inspired renditions of classic rock songs from the previous decade. The album kicks off on a high note with a classy cover of Bobby Troup’s ‘Route 66’, which was originally recorded in 1946 by Nat King Cole but was more influenced by Chuck Berry’s 1962 version. Later, a cover of Bo Diddley’s ‘Mona (I Need You Baby)’ brings a new, refined vibrancy to the 1957 original. 

On side two, the album remains strong with a cover of Slim Harpo’s ‘I’m A King Bee’, a song in which Jagger truly debuts the sexual side of his vocal performance. Following the Harpo cover is the group’s first recorded cover of their hero Chuck Berry. For this cover, the Stones chose ‘Carol’, one of Berry’s many crowd-pleasing rock-outs. The cover maintains the pace and style that is so intrinsically associated with the 1950s R&B star while adding enough nuance to keep things fresh.

While much of the album consisted of covers, Jagger and Richards penned ‘Tell Me (You’re Coming Back)’. The other two original compositions feature at the close of side one and were credited to the Rolling Stones collectively under the pseudonym Nanker Phelge. Firstly, ‘Now I’ve Got A Witness’, and then ‘Little by Little’, which was written in collaboration with legendary producer Phil Spector.

The three original songs draw on the group’s keen interest in R&B while pointing in the direction the Rolling Stones would head moving into the thick of the 1960s as they typified the blues-rock genre. While the Stones went on to prove themselves as confident songwriters and unbridled hit-makers, thanks to Richards’ eye for a catchy riff, their debut album remains eternally vital as a formative rock classic and a touching homage to the American roots of the British invasion.

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