No Expectations: Brian Jones’s Pop Redemption

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Keith Richards, Brian Jones, and Ian Stewart in-studio, 1966

Although the Stones’ original keyboardist, Ian Stewart has been virtually forgotten by all but hardcore fans, Keith Richards goes so far as to say in his 2010 autobiography, Life, that the Stones were, and still are, Ian’s band. It is indeed true that the group never could’ve reached the astronomical heights that they did without “Stu’s” contributions, both before and after he was disallowed from performing onstage with the Stones by their manager Andrew Loog Oldham in 1963. According to Oldham, six members was too many for a pop group, and older, coarser Stu did not look the part. After his dismissal, Stu contributed keyboard lines to some of the Stones’ best-known material, appeared on every album between 1964 and 1986 with the exception of Beggars’ Banquet, and additionally played on the legendary London Howlin’ Wolf Sessions in 1966 and Led Zeppelin’s Physical Graffiti album in 1975. However, this Richards quip does more than just give the often-overlooked sixth Stone his due. Upon closer examination, Keith is not just honoring one former bandmate—he is backhanding another.

No matter how important Stu was, and yes, he was vastly important, he was not the Rolling Stones’ true founder. The man who really did start the group as we know it is one more difficult to comment on outright, one whose true character has been clouded not just by the almost half-century that has gone by since he died, but by the myriad of things that he appeared to be. But something about him is more memorable in the public eye than Stu’s much longer and more consistent stint in the band ever was.

In the oft-analyzed character of Brian Jones, one can trace three distinct sections.

Keith Richards, Mick Jagger, Charlie Watts, Brian Jones, and Bill Wyman

Keith Richards, Mick Jagger, Charlie Watts, Brian Jones, and Bill Wyman

The first is probably the most lauded of them. In a band where image is still everything even fifty years down the road, it is natural that the public is most aware of Brian Jones the Rolling Stone. In much of the world, people who may never have even been exposed to the group’s music outright could very well be aware of the tough, streetwise front that the group has cultivated since the very beginning.

The Stones and their camp had no chance of winning out over the grins and moptops of the Fab Four, so instead of competing with them, they decided to oppose them. Stones fans in the early days could of course love  the group’s violently-charged, liberatingly sloppy R&B, but they could just as easily be kids who balked at the Beatles, and sought an alternative. The Stones, unlike most other pop groups in England, made a show of their nastiness and wildness, hard partying and rough playing. Where others tried to steady the wobbling colt of rock and roll, The Rolling Stones made clear their alliance with American delta blues and boogie-woogie. But Brian Jones would go on to make the same mistake that Sid Vicious would a decade later: he did more than just live the image. Instead, he became it, and as he did, we see the second, more damaged section emerge.

Jones with girlfriend Anita Pallenberg, who would later spend twelve years with Keith Richards

Jones with girlfriend Anita Pallenberg, who would later spend twelve years with Keith Richards

Brian Jones could be abusive, manipulative, and had a mean streak that went back much farther than just the beginning of the Rolling Stones. The abuse that he is thought to have suffered in his youth at the hands of his own family left deep psychological scars, and as he reached adulthood, his self-destructive and misogynistic tendencies became clearer and clearer. While Brian left behind a number of alleged offspring in his short life, they are far outnumbered by jilted women. He was notoriously fickle in his relationships, and on more than one occasion he left a former flame, usually very young, pregnant and alone in a world where she would have little opportunity for recompense or any kind of formal recognition.

Brian Jones’ misogyny is most appalling in that no one and nothing was stopping it. During the early and mid-60s, when support for unmarried young mothers was still close to nonexistent, the young women left with Brian’s children were essentially swept under the rug, denied legal and financial support and even just the confirmation that Jones was actually the father. The machine of the smoothly-functioning 60s rock band—not only the Rolling Stones—ran in a manner such that minor scandals such as theirs were inconvenient, but easily quieted. In the name of the business, and in the name of the band, many were willing to practice blissful ignorance.

Brian as the 60s wore on

Brian as the 60s wore on

But even outside of his misogyny, another piece of Brian’s second side was his reliance on drugs. Part of the first wave of publicized English acid casualties along with Pink Floyd’s Syd Barrett and Fleetwood Mac’s Peter Green, it is disturbing how many late 60s groups lost founders and principle members to a blend of mental instability, drugs, and immense stress. By the time Brian was dismissed from the Stones in June 1969, he had lost the ability to play almost entirely, and aside from his increasingly erratic habits in his personal life was becoming unreliable both live and in the studio. Even in the months before his departure, the Stones had been noticeably slipping away from his control. As Jagger and Richards reaffirmed their stature as icons time and time again, Jones covered little new ground. His experimentation with new instruments, most notably the sitar, had mostly petered out as the Stones outgrew their flirtation with psychedelia, and as he continued to deteriorate both physically and mentally, Brian became more of a burden in the eyes of his band than he was an asset. By the time of his mysterious death at twenty-seven, around a month after he was unceremoniously let go by Mick Jagger and Charlie Watts, the group had already moved away from his influence.

But if this darker side were all that the public could see of Brian Jones, then the question of what brings him over the line from rock death to rock martyrdom remains unanswered.

Perhaps the third, final side of Brian, the one that makes us miss and perhaps even forgive him, is the thing that lay behind the guise of the Rolling Stone—the elusive foundation that forever lay beneath the tough, cool persona. Brian Jones was a natural musician, intelligent and ambitious. If not for that final set of qualities, it is unlikely that there would have ever been a London blues outfit called the Rolling Stones. And if there had been, they may have never left the little clubs where they first made their bones. Brian was a multi-instrumentalist, gifted in that he could play virtually anything given to him. Although he generated no original material for the band, early on, he was more musically versatile than the band’s chief songwriters, Jagger and Richards. While the blues remained close to Brian’s heart, his interest in The Master Musicians of Joujouka and other world music was brought the band from the R&B of its recent past into its psychedelic present.

closeupHowever, it is possible that Brian Jones’s pop redemption came about not even as a result of the music itself, but instead as a part of something much greater. His death was more than the death of one man or the lineup shift of one popular band. That isn’t to say, precisely, that it represented the end of an era—the notion that an isolated incident can perfectly encapsulate a cultural movement is impractical and overused outside of art and literature—but what Brian’s death did represent was a sprung leak in rock and roll hubris, a reminder of human vulnerability at a time and in a place where luck and stamina were freely confused for invincibility. Today, drug addiction and death are spattered across our homepages, morning papers and supermarket checkout lines constantly, especially where celebrity is concerned, but in 1969, rock was still young and unaware of its limits. There was no twenty-seven club when Brian Jones died, and rock and roll had not yet recognized its uncanny partnership with early death. “Hope I die before I get old” was a challenging sign of defiance, not a statement of reality. The death of Brian Jones was only the first brick to fall from a crumbling tower.

We don’t miss Brian because he was a good person; we miss him because he was a Rolling Stone in the most unadulterated sense. We are willing to forgive him for his startling decline and his blatant mistreatment of others because we understand in full the legend that came of it all. As of 2013, we have been inspired by the Rolling Stones’ eternal rebellion for over fifty years, and whatever notes he played and drugs he took, Brian Jones was as important a part of that rush as anyone can claim to be. Whether or not he qualifies as flawed antihero is anybody’s guess, but chances are, that designation couldn’t change the mind of a single fan or a single critic. Perhaps it isn’t ours to judge. It’s only rock and roll, and we like it no matter what.

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Crushed Butler

Every once in a while, when the School Machine has not given me enough to do, I will stroll one and a half hilly-but-pleasant suburban miles to the nearest public library, and seek to educate myself on something or other. More often than not, given my general state of mind, the “something or other” in question is at least tangentially related to the sort of nonsense that ends up on this blog. Yesterday, when I reached the library at approximately the same time as I finished the first disc of Zeppelin’s Physical Graffiti, I had put myself in a definite rock and roll mood, but as such moods often do, it lacked any specific direction.

Crushed Butler in 1970: Jesse Hector, Alan Butler, and Darryl Read

Blindly searching the rock and roll section, I happened to pick up what turned out to be an excellent book, Phil Strongman’s Pretty Vacant: A History of UK Punk, and proceded to discover yet another candidate for the endless “who started Punk?” debate: the explosive UK rockers, Crushed Butler.

Crushed Butler, it is important to note, were not of the brand of pure garage noise that one would expect to lead to the punk movement of groups like The Sex Pistols, X-Ray Spex, or The Buzzcocks. While yes, John Lydon was an Crushed Butler fan before he went Rotten, the group actually reminds me more of very early Black Sabbath, who released their first album while they were together– a fuzzy, messy guitar tone,  strong, riffy bass, drums that seem from the school of Ginger Baker or Mitch Mitchell, and prominent, gritty vocals. A full-on, reverb-heavy sound that pulls out all the stops. Indeed, in terms of both style and chronology, it appears that Crushed Butler is somewhat removed from the late-70s punk movement, definitely more akin to the heavy psychedelic and proto-metal of the late 60s that at least helped inspired  Punk with its sheer rawness, volume, and departure from the late-60s peace-and-love sensibility that many felt was rapidly turning to cliché.

Crushed Butler in 1969

The history of Crushed Butler is surprisingly difficult to find– the bio listed on the band’s own website leaves a lot to be desired, and further information tantalizingly sparse, apt to leave a researcher interested, but begging for more.

From what I can discern, the band was formed sometime around 1968. In the beginning, guitar and vocals were covered by Ray “Jesse” Hector, also a member of The Gorillas and of The Jesse Hector Sound. Hector was a constant member, remaining a part of Crushed Butler until their name change (to Tiger), personnel change (when Neil Christian of The Crusaders became their manager) and eventual disbandment in 1971. Bass was covered by Alan Butler at the beginning, but he had departed by 1971. A succession of  bassists after him included Stan Aldous, Arthur Anderson and Barry Wyles, who would later join Smile with future members of Queen. Actor-musician Darryl Read serves as drummer. In addition to a short stint later in Krayon Angels, he would go on to collaborate with Mickey Finn and Bill Legend of T. Rex, and record with Ray Manzarek, formerly of The Doors.

While Crushed Butler did not record any full-length albums in their short-but-influential existence, there are several recordings in existence from demo sessions throughout the band’s short life. They were eventually released as a collection, Uncrushed, in 1991. The best-known of their songs is probably the A-side of their 1969 single, the garagey  “It’s My Life,” a ferocious attack that sounds almost like an angrier, more distorted and less psychedelic Seeds, and heavily features Darryl Read’s steady barrage of drums, which propel the track relentlessly forward for its disappointingly short 2:16 running time.

Crushed Butler’s more heavy-psychedelic side is represented by the band’s extremely Black Sabbath-sounding “Love Is All Around Me,” recorded in 1970. Note, of course, that this similarity in sound might have something to do with the band’s involvement with Don Arden, who aside from managing The Small Faces and ELO was not only Black Sabbath’s manager, but also Ozzy Osbourne’s father-in-law. But no matter who influenced who, “Love Is All Around Me” is a great heavy psych song– driven by palpably aggressive unison riffing between guitar and bass and a song form complicated enough to be interesting, and simple enough to have an almost irresistible hook. In addition,  bluesy but inventive guitar lines provides a classic example of psychedelic guitar work.

All in all, with so few Crushed Butler songs available– all of seven, by my count (one of which I have not heard, as it is only available on the Uncrushed collection), I would recommend listening to every one. From the raspy psychedelic blues of “High School Dropout” to the terrifically primeval rock of “Factory Grime” and “Love Fighter,” the slow, crushing epic that makes its rather silly title seem like a mockery, Crushed Butler might have made even the staunchest of flower-power advocates wonder just how much raw aggression will be able to survive into the Age of Aquarius, and whether it will be enough to feed the utter intensity of this truly heavy music.

Blodwyn Pig

It seems like while my generation has remembered a lot of music of the 1960s and 70s, the largest genre that has not retained too great a base of young fans is prog rock. You see teenagers with Pink Floyd shirts and Who posters all the time, but when’s the last time you saw one with a King Crimson shirt and a Yes poster on the wall, passionately air-fluting to Jethro Tull?

Well, you probably haven’t. Or at least, I haven’t. Although I manage to associate with a whole bunch of old rock nerds of approximately my age, very few of them have the patience or the stomach for prog rock. I’m not saying I do– not entirely, anyway. But in the right mood, I can really enjoy good prog, especially some of the more obscure (and in my opinion, less pretentious) stuff, especially from the late 60s and very early 70s, before the genre had largely departed from its roots in blues and psychedelic rock.

Jethro Tull’s debut album, This Was, with guitarist Mick Abrahams.

So what exactly is prog rock? For a start, the name is abbreviated from “progressive,” which was supposedly the idea. By fusing the vast majority of possible musical genres, and incorporating jazz, world, and classical influences, it seems that prog rockers hoped to further the very notion of popular (or unpopular) music itself with legendary technical proficiency and infamously long songs. Prog rock was about vision– more specifically, achieving musical vision. It can be interpreted as rock’s most introverted, fanciful side. Even lyrics often dealt with whimsical, fantastical themes, and intricate, dense instrumental passages separated prog even further from mainstream music.

Blodwyn Pig in 1969

Ironically, it is not precisely a prog idol I give you today, but instead, a prog  castaway. Blodwyn Pig came to be when Mick Abrahams departed Jethro Tull in 1968 after playing lead guitar on their debut album, This Was. Apparently, the split was due to both personal and musical differences. Although according to rumor (propagated by Circus Magazine), Abrahams’ split from the group was due to his refusal to work seven days a week, it appears to have been more as result of vocalist/flutist Ian Anderson’s increasing control over the musical direction of the band.

So, after his departure from Tull, Abrahams founded Blodwyn Pig. Jack Lancaster, who often played two woodwind instruments at once, but was officially the band’s saxophonist and an additional vocalist, would also become incredibly influential in terms of the band’s creative and musical development. Andy Pyle, who would later play with Savoy Brown, Wishbone Ash, and The Kinks, was on bass; Ron Berg, who would end up in an incarnation of Juicy Lucy played drums. Famous for their live shows, Blodwyn Pig were in the long run more of a cult success than a mainstream one, and while the two albums they made before breaking up in 1970 charted in the US and UK, the band has unfortunately fallen through the cracks for young fans in recent years despite several reunions through the 90s, and a body of excellent material.

These two songs, “See My Way” and “Dear Jill” might be the two best-known Blodwyn Pig songs. You might recognize “Dear Jill” from where it is used as background music in Almost Famous— a movie I have no doubt I will soon post about.

However, my favorite Blodwyn Pig songs (at least so far) are lesser-known. “Same Old Story” is a great, energetic track  more psychedelically influenced than a lot of their stuff. Then “Up and Coming” shows their bluesier side balanced with the technical mastery and complexity that distinguished them as prog rockers, whether they liked it or not.

In short, no matter your opinion (or lack thereof) of prog rock, you will not regret checking out Blodwyn Pig. A great band with a very interesting history, and some fantastic material that shows outstanding range, especially considering their extremely limited output. Three cheers for prog rockers– the ultimate nerds of classic rock. Whenever you can find the patience, you should make their lifetime’s worth of practicing scales count– you won’t regret giving them a listen.

In Defense of The Ramones

They played the same six songs from 1974-1996 on over and over again using approximately four chords for each, and occasionally granted us more than ten lines in a lyric. Their idea of a guitar solo is the same note sixty-four times in a row. And that note is an open string.* Collectively, they have as many addictions and mental illnesses per capita than any cast of Celebrity Rehab. At least we like their leather jackets, and know they can count to four.

They are the Ramones, and especially from an outsider’s perspective, it is admittedly puzzling that so many people like them. I’ve been there– until I really thought about what they were doing, why they were doing it, and where they were coming from, it was hard for me to look past what tended to be rather uninteresting songs and uninspiring musicianship. It’s hard to point to any certain moment I began to understand what in hell they were trying to accomplish, but I came around.

Johnny, Tommy, Joey, Dee Dee (l-r) at CBGB in New York City, 1977

I suppose I must’ve realized that you have to have a lot of guts to onstage and do what the Ramones did– play simple songs. Especially by the late 70s, people had been so conditioned towards complex song form, technical virtuosity, and clean production that in a way, some of them had forgotten about where rock n’ roll started.

Rock n’ roll arguably began with an attempt to create simple music that reached people. It did not turn inward like the blues, but turned powerfully outward. Although the rock of the 1950s seems unbelievably tame compared to what was to come later, it was at the time the absolute most aggressive and most potent music you could find– loud, primeval, and danceable. As the years went on, the criteria for rock n’ roll became vaguer and vaguer, but this crude, simple backbone always remained.

Johnny, Marky, Joey, and Dee Dee (l-r)

Whether it was a conscious choice or not, the former Jeffry Hyman, Douglas Colvin, John Cummings, and Erdélyi Tomás decided to carry rock n’ roll’s primitive flame. On Doug’s suggestion, they all took the surname Ramon from Paul McCartney’s former alias (and somewhere along the line, added a final e) in a showing of unity. They changed their first names too– to Joey, Dee Dee, Johnny, and Tommy respectively. They wore their jeans, t-shirts and leather jackets onstage, scarcely ever took more than two minutes per song, and developed a reputation for arguing on and off-stage.  Their first audience outside of New York City in June, 1976 was to a grand total of around ten people in Youngstown, Ohio.

Let’s examine some of the traits in the paragraph above, one by one.

First, the name change. Ever since the earliest blues days of Black Ace, Pink Anderson, Barbecue Bob, and Leadbelly, the name change has always been important to rock n’ roll. It represents the adoption of a persona, the shedding of a former identity– it allows a personality of the musicians’ choosing. Although the Ramones repeatedly rejected analysis of virtually anything they ever did, the names they chose say a lot. Not only do they dig back into the roots of the music they loved, but there is something in the first names that is classic, defiant, and youthful.

Then, the short songs. Watch this:

Even if you are unfamiliar with the music of the Ramones, you can probably see the sheer power of this extremely basic song– a cover, by the way, of Bobby Freeman from 1958 (although the most famous version of the song is by Cliff Richards)– lies in its pure energy. And pure energy is something that even the staunchest Ramone-opposers must admit that this group had a whole lot of. You can look in depth at what the Ramones were doing musically and write it off for its simplicity, but it is very difficult to write them off in terms of their live performance. The Ramones’ shows were quick and intense. I’ve heard that some of their earlier live sets were seventeen songs and just a little over thirty minutes long. Maybe they weren’t soloing like The Dead, maybe they lacked the performance-art mentality of Pink Floyd or The Who, but the Ramones’ concerts were more relevant to their audience than anything else could be.

It is critical to understand where the Ramones were coming from– dull, middle-class Queens. All of the original members were outcasts as children and as teenagers for one reason or another. For them, as it has for so many, music became an escape. They were playing for people like them, bored kids who wanted something to do, and were fed up with the kind of canned culture they were so often being fed. The Ramones never really claimed to be anything more than they were: a rock band that was depressed by politics and was looking for a way out, looking for a good time, and looking to be loved by the people they were playing to. The Ramones never rejected their roots, from their oft-admitted love of older music to their essentially anti-glam stagewear.

Even the squabbles are typical– rock n’ roll is a very angry genre, and frankly, much of the time, the Ramones were very angry guys. They made a choice not to hide their fights from the fans or the press. Nor did they travel to the other end of the spectrum, as they felt as though bands like the Sex Pistols that were purposefully offensive and radical were phony. While some could say that the Ramones were just as (if not more) inauthentic, it is true that they never denied where they came from.

Lastly, the failed gig in Ohio.

Today, we think of the Ramones as rock stars, but that was not always the case. Especially within the United States, their success was frankly rather limited. In order to survive, the Ramones had to work very, very hard, touring and gigging almost constantly. For years, the group depended on their t-shirt sales for most of their income, as their airplay was relatively limited (especially early on) and their record sales were none too fantastic. The band’s 1979 It’s Alive concert recording got as high on the American charts as the Ramones would ever get– number thirty-eight.

For more than twenty years, the Ramones did what many were afraid to do– write and play music as raw and simple as that which decades earlier had spawned the very beginnings of rock n’ roll. No matter what we think of their music, the Ramones were a band that did their own thing for their own reasons– something we should really  admire. Anyone can speculate on the band’s technical capabilities, but the impact they had on the music after them was (and has continued to be) absolutely huge. From Punk, to pop, to alternative rock, you can probably find hundreds of acts that count The Ramones among their influences.

Four borderline delinquents from Queens turned absolute legends– a classic rock n’ roll story.

*That’s in “I Wanna Be Sedated.” I didn’t believe it, so I counted.