The Rolling Stones' Between the Buttons turns 45 today
"Nineteen sixty-seven was a watershed year," Keith Richards writes in his recently released autobiography, Life. "It was the year the seams gave way. There was a tension in the air. There was that feeling that trouble was coming -- which it did."
By the time the Rolling Stones released their fifth studio album, "Between the Buttons," in early 1967, they were falling apart in the most beautiful way. They were riding the crest of a four-year wave, recording hit after hit, touring the world, downright changing the world with their haircuts, music and irreverent attitude toward post-war Western conservatism.
Aside from being another group of shaggy Brits shaking up the establishment, the Stones were the most sought-after icons in this new generation of pubescent pop. From the outside, it looked amazing -- a mod carnival of hormones and rock music that millions were desperate to claw their way into. But from the inside, it was a different story.
"In all that time, the first four years of the band, I don't think we ever had more than two days' rest between playing, traveling and recording. We were always on the road," writes Richards.
Something was happening. Whether it was the then-legal status of LSD, or the end of WWII and a soaring economy, a cultural shift was occurring, and lines were being drawn. Children were becoming alienated from their parents and looking toward other horizons of influence.
Whatever caused the explosive revolution of the '60s, the Stones were certainly at the center of it. They definitely weren't the first twentieth-century act to make girls cry, scream, urinate or drag fingernails down their cheeks (that title belongs to Frank Sinatra), but they were the first to do it without a tie. It's hard to imagine now, but there were legions of mothers in the U.S. gathering signatures to ban the Stones from TV, simply because they refused to brush their hair and put on a suit.
Instead of issuing apologies in response to the backlash (like Lennon did for his "bigger than Jesus" comment), the boys pushed back harder, mocking housewives in songs like "Mother's Little Helper" and "Have You Seen Your Mother, Baby, Standing in the Shadow?" (For the cover sleeve of the latter, the group dressed in drag as 1940s American military women.)
"I hate America," Mick Jagger told Melody Maker in '66, "It's a great country, but the people are so bloody awful."
But America loved him. And his band.
Albums like Out of Our Heads and Aftermath went top five in the States. Original numbers like "Get Off of My Cloud," "Paint It Black" and "19th Nervous Breakdown" were expanding the musical landscapes of the time. Suddenly, songwriting was becoming an essential element of the package, which had never been a factor in the days of Elvis and Frank Sinatra.
"There are just no good composers who can write for the Stones now," said 22-year-old wunderkind producer/manager of the Stones, Andrew Oldham. "Even good composers like Mitch Murray can't seem to hit our style."
Oldham was too young for an agent's license when he first signed the Stones three years earlier, but he wasn't too young to understand how to sell them. The clothes, the sex, the raw recording techniques, the controversy: Oldham deliberately framed the Stones as the anti-Beatles, the ones your mother definitely wouldn't allow you to go out with.
And it worked.
Reports of girls caught masturbating in the audience circulated. After every show, the Stones would have to run from stage to car, speeding away before anyone had the chance to leave the audience. In Life, Richards recounts a hilarious existential crisis of a mob of girls who, after cornering him in an alley, didn't exactly know what to do with him.
Recording for Between the Buttons would begin and end on the road. In the summer of '66, the Stones were touring the U.S., supporting their album Aftermath. "Lets Spend the Night Together" was recorded during a quick stint in L.A., then it was back across the Atlantic for their seventh tour of England. While in London, the group recorded "Ruby Tuesday," a Keith Richards song about ex-girlfriend Linda Keith, who had recently left him for Jimi Hendrix.
The songs were coming together, but the band was in flux.
Most notably was the absence of group founder Brian Jones, who had slowly been slipping away from the Stones and into German actress Anita Pallenberg. The two of them would stay high on speedballs for days, buying clothes and traveling the world. Jones had a notorious inferiority complex and would start petty squabbles with the band when he felt left out. "What really stuck in Brian's craw was when Mick and I started writing songs," Richards says. "He lost status and then lost interest."
Two years later, they kicked Jones out of the band.
A year after that, he was found face-down in his swimming pool.
The final session for the album commenced at Olympic Studios in London. Everyone was exhausted, staying up late on speed and marijuana, laying down the same tracks again and again.
"Do you know what the album is going to be called?" drummer Charlie Watts asked Andrew Oldham. Watts had been assigned the task of drawing a comic for the back cover.
"It's between the buttons," Oldham snapped.
The phrase is a common British colloquialism, basically meaning "It's up in the air." Watts thought it sounded good and wrote it into the comic, executively declaring it to be the name of the album.
Oldham was taking more speed than anyone. While negotiating the publishing rights to the Beach Boys catalogue and managing the number-two band in the world, he had also been mixing a live album from the Stones U.K. tour, producing their current studio release, negotiating the release of a greatest-hits package, and discovering icons like Nico and Marianne Faithful. All before the age of 23.
Oldham, though, was starting to crack -- shooting off guns in the studio and making increasingly troubling demands of the band. Between the Buttons would be his final project with the Stones.
Mick would end up trashing the production of the album, pointing to the endless amount of overdubs, all on a four-track recorder, giving the songs a distant, overpolished feeling. In the future, the band would evolve away from the clean, dandified sound of Oldham and embrace a more primal, sinful nature of song recording.
Tensions ran high in the studio that final night.
Mick had just crashed his Aston Martin.
A California radio station spread rumors of his death.
Brian was physically present in the studio, but either his broken hand (an accident in Tangiers) or the fact that he was so profoundly fucked up kept him from contributing to any of the recordings.
Richards had learned to play both his and Jones parts, and while he would admit that it made him a better guitar player, he resented Jones's irresponsibility. In the end, he would return the favor by stealing Anita Pallenberg away from him and whisking her off to a decade-long heroin binge.
"Anita, sexy fucking bitch," as Richards puts it.
The group worked through the night and into the morning. As soon as they put the final touches on the quixotic "Back Street Girl," the album was finished. But there would be no rest for the wicked that night.
Photographer Gerard Mankowitz had been waiting in the studio all night, ready to shoot the band for the album cover. Mankowitz had shot the cover of Out of Our Heads and had chosen 5 a.m. for this shoot because he "wanted to capture the ethereal, druggy feel of the time," he said. "That feeling at the end of the night when dawn was breaking and they'd been up all night making music, stoned."
Mankowitz achieved his ethereal, druggy feel using a homemade filter of glass, Vaseline and a black card. The image captures the band's state of pain, beauty and chaos perfectly. Jagger's hair is sweaty and matted, Richards is heavily intoxicated yet heavily focused, unlike the hollow-eyed Jones, retreating inside the collar of his coat like a drunken turtle. Charlie Watts is stoic in the center, holding the band together, and Bill Wyman...ah, nobody cares about Bill Wyman.
Between the Buttons dropped in the U.K. on January 20, 1967. The album skyrocketed to number three on the album charts, despite the fact that "Ruby Tuesday" and "Lets Spend the Night Together" were released as a separate double A-side single. British custom at the time rarely saw songs from a single also on the album. When the LP hit stores in the U.S. a month later, it reached number one, largely with the support of the two hits that were absent on the British release.
In support of Buttons, the Stones appeared on The Ed Sullivan Show -- though just before airtime, Sullivan pulled Jagger aside, insisting he not play the song "Let's Spend The Night Together" because of its suggestive language. Jagger was just as stubborn, but eventually the two compromised on changing the lyric to "Let's spend some time together."
Jagger received the last laugh, mockingly rolling his eyes every time he sang the new lyric, basically saying to the audience and the viewers at home, "Look, we all know how this song goes; you know it and I know it, but there's some jackass behind the curtain who won't allow it. But aren't I still sexy?"
The Summer of Love wouldn't be as golden for the Stones as it would for most bands of the time. Their sixth album, Their Satanic Majesties Request would be their least-respected of the time, and between drug busts, heavy tax debt and a scandalous rumor involving a Mars bar and an acid-fueled orgy (google that yourself), it became clear that if the band were to survive, they would have to reinvent themselves.
No more psychedelia.
No more Carnaby Street fashion.
The end of Mod and the birth of the dirty hippie.
No more dandy in a fur coat demanding more drugs.
The drugs would stay, but the band's sound and look would become more organic. Less urban. Keith Richards would quickly morph from a shiny-eyed youth in awe of the world into a dark-eyed troll with bad teeth and speech patterns like a mumbling badger with a mouthful of marbles.
Between the Buttons marks the death of the Stones in their first incarnation (leaving behind a number of historically neglected gems like "Yesterday's Papers" and "She Smiled Sweetly") and points the way toward a new chapter. Releasing monumental albums like Beggars Banquet, Let It Bleed and Sticky Fingers would lead the Rolling Stones to be crowned the Greatest Rock and Roll Band In the World by 1970. All they had to do was wait out the death of another English rock band that always seemed a step ahead of them.
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