The progress made by The Rolling Stones in just four years time was astounding. In 1962, Mick Jagger and Keith Richards were still pedalling around the Ealing Jazz Club hoping to find some fellow blues fanatics to start a band with. By 1966, the group had a number one hit, six albums, and a legitimate rivalry with The Beatles as Britain’s biggest band.
Through this relatively short amount of time, the group were constantly expanding their scope, trying to find a unique sound beyond the covers of their early days. 1966’s Aftermath represented their first forays into the eclectic styles of raga, folk, and art-rock. The swinging ’60s were well underway, and the Stones were ready to be the leaders of a cultural movement.
In many ways, Between the Buttons was the line of demarcation between The Rolling Stones’ career as a mainstream pop act and the evolution as rock and roll pioneers. The album represented the final LP produced by manager Andrew Loog Oldham, the logical endpoint for the exotic instrumentation championed by Brian Jones, and the final time when the band’s experimental approach benefitted their material. At the time, it was their most contemporary release, but it was also one of their final releases before they began making truly timeless music.
Not that the music on Between the Buttons hasn’t held up. Quite the contrary actually: songs like ‘She Smiled Sweetly’, ‘Complicated’, and ‘All Sold Out’ are fascinating to hear five decades later. But if you were going to show someone who has never heard of The Rolling Stones a few songs to ease them in, none of the material would come from Between the Buttons. Especially not the UK version, which is fascinating in its construction but completely devoid of definitive material.
Leading off with the baroque sounds of ‘Yesterday’s Papers’, Between the Buttons is alternately twee and surprisingly raw. Richards and Bill Wyman favoured fuzz during the recordings, which stand in stark contrast with the harpsichord of session man Jack Nitzsche and the plonked vibraphone that Jones was playing. Jones was a one man orchestra, playing all kinds of horn parts on the jaunty ‘Something Happened to Me Yesterday’ and dulcimer on the music hall-inspired ‘Cool, Calm, and Collected’.
‘Who’s Been Sleeping Here’ foreshadows the group’s embrace of folk and roots rock on the following year’s Beggars Banquet, while ‘Miss Amanda Jones’ is the only track that truly reflects the Stones’ origins as a blues band. Hard-edged rock and roll, the kind that became the Stones’ bread and butter by the end of the ’60s, is almost completely absent from Between the Buttons. In its place are orchestral flourishes, ballads, and a strong sense of psychedelia.
On its original release, Between the Buttons positioned The Rolling Stones as forward-looking pioneers, using the same elements that acts like The Beatles, Love, and Jefferson Airplane would bring to their own groundbreaking albums in the coming months. But 55 years later, it’s clear that the Stones were never all that comfortable in this mode. Richards’ prickly fuzz guitar is longing to let loose, and Charlie Watts only gets to find a groove every once in a while. Five decades later, Between the Buttons sounds more self-conscious and of its time than most Stones albums.
During the recording of the LP, psychedelic drugs became a regular part of the band’s day-to-day lives and was having an ever-increasing influence on their music. Only a month after the release of Between the Buttons, Jagger and Richards would be arrested in a drug bust that landed them both in jail. A month after that, a trip to Morocco saw Richards begin his courtship of Anita Pallenberg, Jones’ girlfriend at the time. Even though they were at the height of their fame, The Rolling Stones were falling apart.
It became painfully obvious on their next LP, Their Satanic Majesties Request. Barely a functioning unit and too obsessed with staying on top of psychedelic trends, the Stones went so far into experimental recording that a hard reset was necessary. When they examined who they truly wanted to be as a band, Richards and Jagger decided that the art-pop sound of Between the Buttons was not the direction they wanted to continue in. It was connecting with their blues roots and adapting it to a more modern rock and roll style, that led The Rolling Stones to find their signature sound.
So where does that leave Between the Buttons now? When paired up against their entire discography, it sits in a grey area: highly entertaining but somewhat alien and strange. If your vision of The Rolling Stones is as the world’s greatest rock and roll band, then Between the Buttons throws a wrench in your argument. But it’s a great palate cleanser if you think you’ve heard everything from the band, and Between the Buttons is the last time that psychedelic eclecticism really fit the group well.