It was the best of albums, it was the worst of albums . . .
The primary argument supporting the theory that Aftermath was the worst thing The Stones ever did comes from the charge that the record is a misogynstic orgy, a women-bashing extravaganza, a pussy-loathing diatribe. These accusations come primarily from the feminist camp, and I have to admit that prior to engaging in the study of Aftermath in preparation for this review, I shared the feminist perspective to some extent.
Being the irritatingly thorough bitch I am, I decided to challenge that assumption and research the argument further. In the process, I came across a fascinating article on the topic on The F Word website (“F” in this case stands for Feminism) that inspired me to take a fresh look at the perception that Mick Jagger and Keith Richards had formed an anti-female cabal engaged in disseminating disparaging propaganda against the vaginal population. Here’s my analysis of the alleged offensive material on Aftermath:
“Mother’s Little Helper.” The charge here is that The Stones are advancing the argument that a woman’s place is in the kitchen. How dare she buy an instant cake and frozen steak for her hard-working hungry husband! I think the feminists are missing the point of the song. The theme is the dissatisfaction of a woman with her lot in modern society, and what Jagger and Richards argue is that rather than dealing with the source of that dissatisfaction, a woman is more likely to turn to prescription drugs to “help her on her way, get her through her busy day.” That’s not misogyny; it was the social reality of the pre-liberation 1960’s. Verdict: Not Guilty.
“Stupid Girl.” I’m sorry, but for women to deny that the presence of airheads in the female population is absurd. I know many women who spend a good deal of their waking lives engaging in what is commonly referred to as “bitching,” so when The Stones sing, “She bitches ’bout things that she’s never seen,” they’re describing an everyday occurrence. Men bullshit, women bitch. As the result of twisted forms of culturalization, many women play dumb because a.) it’s an effective manipulative strategy or b.) they’re hopelessly dumb in the first place. Yes, guys can be equally dumb, but I think the point here is that the narrator is trying to establish a relationship with a member of the opposite sex (“I’ve tried and tried/But it never really works out”) and is bemoaning the lack of intelligence in this dumb broad. This implies that The Stones actually admire intelligence in a woman. Verdict: Not Guilty.
“Under My Thumb.” This is allegedly the best evidence for convicting Jagger and Richards on all counts. Referring to the woman in the song as “the squirmin’ dog who’s just had her day,” the song goes on to describe that now “she does just what she’s told” and that she has been transformed into a trained pet who speaks only when spoken to. As a woman who knows something about sexual power dynamics in relationships, having whipped many a male ass and occasionally having allowed a male to whip mine, I think that what we’re dealing with here is not misogyny but two people who have a naive and self-destructive view of power. Feminists conveniently ignore the key line in the opening verse, “The girl who once pushed me around.” She started it! If that sounds childish, it is; both the woman in the song and Mr. Jagger are guilty of engaging in silly, superficial power games based on a desire to control instead of attempting to establish an authentic relationship that validates the power of both parties (and I would remind the jury that dominance and submission are both forms of power). Verdict: Not Guilty.
Enough sociology! Let’s get on with the music.
The UK version of Aftermath opens with “Mother’s Little Helper.” The U. S. version opens with “Paint It, Black,” a song that does not even appear on the UK version. There’s no way to lose here; both songs are great ways to open an album. “What a drag it is getting old,” sung in splendid isolation with no connection to the first verse, is a provocative and engaging introduction. “Paint It, Black” opens with the once mysterious sound of the sitar establishing the memorable melodic line, giving way to Charlie Watts pounding the baseline rhythm to support the more unusual rhythmic accents that drive the rest of the song. There’s no question that “Paint It, Black” is the superior song; shit, it’s one of the most exciting singles ever released! That said, “Mother’s Little Helper” is also a great song with fabulous lyrics and an equally strong bass line, and makes good use of the sitar as well. The Stones being The Stones, it’s no surprise that they made use of the sitar in two upbeat, driving rock ‘n’ roll songs as opposed to the typical pop-rock use of the sitar in more contemplative tunes.
Sticking with the UK version for the rest of this review, “Stupid Girl” is the next track. Jagger has admitted his edginess on this song was driven by a series of bad relationships, so his tone is a bit harsher than it needs to be. I think Ian Stewart’s organ accompaniment really makes this song work, balancing Jagger’s roughness with melodic and rhythmic enthusiasm. The exquisite pairing of Brian Jones on dulcimer and Keith Richards on acoustic guitar announces “Lady Jane,” one of the more atypical songs in The Stones’ catalogue. The interplay between dulcimer, guitar and harpsichord (also contributed by Brian Jones) provides a beautiful backdrop to the song, so much so that I wish they’d left Jagger out of the mix and released it as an instrumental. Jagger’s vocal sounds too stilted and contrived; perhaps he felt awkward in the role of Elizabethan gigolo in search of a sugar mommy; perhaps the range is simply too limiting for him.
That’s certainly not the case with “Under My Thumb,” where Mick is on top of his game. The sporadic and unreliable brilliance of Brian Jones delivers the very seductive marimba hook that drives one of The Stones’ best musical efforts. Every single part, from Charlie’s drums to Bill Wyman’s fuzz bass to Keith’s electric guitar to Brian’s acoustic guitar fill is played and arranged with perfection. Screw the feminists, this is a great fucking song! I know that in saying that I run the risk of feminist vilification, but my research showed me I shall not be alone! Here’s what happened to dissident feminist Camille Paglia when she tried to defend The Stones:
“By the time the women’s movement broke forth in 1969, it was practically impossible for me to be reconciled with my `sisters,’ ” explains Paglia in her book, “Sex, Art and American Culture.” “And there were, like screaming fights. The big one was about the Rolling Stones. This was where I realized–this was 1969–boy, I was bounced fast, right out of the movement. And I had this huge argument. Because I said you cannot apply a political agenda to art. When it comes to art, we have to make other distinctions. We had this huge fight about the song `Under My Thumb.’ I said it was a great song, not only a great song but I said it was a work of art.
“And these feminists of the New Haven Women’s Liberation Rock Band went into a rage, surrounded me, practically spat in my face, literally my back was to the wall. They’re screaming in my face: `Art? Art? Nothing that demeans women can be art!’ There it is! There it is! Right from the start. The fascism of the contemporary women’s movement.” (Source: Chicago Tribune)
The Stones follow this controversial work of art with a roots song, “Doncha Bother Me,” a lively and well-arranged song that is overlooked not only because of what came before but also because of what comes next: “Goin’ Home,” an 11-minute-plus performance that many have criticized as shamelessly indulgent and unnecessarily long.
Obviously, those critics don’t know what it feels like to suffer from what I will term “focused horniness syndrome.”
Picture the scene. You’re on a long, long business trip, far from home. At the time of the trip, you’re in the midst of an exclusive sexual obsession with a particular person. As you move from city to city, from one sterile hotel room to another, the longing becomes almost unbearable. You throw yourself on the hotel bed and drift off into a half-sleep fantasizing about that person, calling up images of the way she or he looks when on the verge of orgasm, their delicious scent, the sweet, intoxicating feeling you get when you feel his or her skin against yours . . . and you toss, turn, cry out, go nuts, try to get yourself off . . . but nothing, nothing, nothing in the world can relieve your tension except to have that particular person in your arms, to hear that voice, to drown yourself in that person’s body and soul. That’s what “Goin’ Home” is all about, especially during that long post-verse riff where Jagger plants himself on the knife edge between human and animal instinct, occasionally coherent, occasionally communicating in broken syllables, word fragments and breaths. The chord never changes during that riff; it’s symbolic of the single-minded nature of obsession. The backing perfectly supports Jagger’s mood changes, which brings up a key feature that marks Aftermath as a different direction for The Stones: they’ve combined their natural talents for the feel of the music with a more disciplined attack.
The saloon-piano opening of “Flight 505” is a nice shift from the heaviness of “Goin’ Home.” The song takes the opposite approach from “Goin’ Home,” for here the narrator is sick to death of hanging out at home and on impulse jumps on a flight chosen at random. When the flight crashes into the sea, the message of the value of staying put is ironically reaffirmed with the wicked sense of humor typical of Jagger and Richards. It’s followed by the hoedown sounds of “High and Dry,” a fun little tune about a guy left high and dry by a woman who’s figured him out.
Remarkably absent from the U. S. version but blessedly present on the U. K. version, The Stones get an opportunity to rescue the song “Out of Time” from the horribly overwrought rendition by Chris Farlowe, which somehow experienced minor chart success. Comparing the two versions will clearly demonstrate my earlier point that The Stones had become quite disciplined in their approach to an arrangement. Brian Jones’ marimba sounds wonderful, but little touches like Keith Richards’ acoustic guitar counterpoint on the verses and the bop-bop background vocals just knock me out with how right they sound. In addition to the overdone vocal, Farlowe’s version is cluttered with strings and loses the rhythm; The Stones version flows naturally and dynamically. The build is so solid that you can hardly wait for the chorus so you can belt out those lines right along with Mick.
The sassy, sexy rocker “It’s Not Easy” follows, marked by very interesting vocal delays, background and great harmonies on the closing line of the chorus. It’s followed by the fascinating dulcimer-driven track “I Am Waiting,” a melodic song that somehow reminds of me of something that might have appeared on The Kinks Are The Village Green Preservation Society. “Take It Or Leave It” reminds me of something between Gene Pitney and Roy Orbison, a style more in sync with the period of “Out of Our Heads” in structure, but with a more thoughtful arrangement highlighted by Brian Jones on the koto (a Japanese instrument similar to a dulcimer). “Think” is classic Stones with a tight feel and a memorable hook; Charlie Watts really does some fine work on this piece. The UK version closes with the light and breezy country-ish feel of “What to Do,” a genre they would continue to explore with greater success in Between the Buttons and Beggars Banquet.
As the first album consisting entirely of Jaggers-Richards compositions, Aftermath is a signature expression of The Stones at their peak. The possibilities inherent in new instruments and styles would be further explored with similar success in Between the Buttons, then sadly taken to the extreme in the colossal mess of Their Satanic Majesties Request, where their hard-won discipline deserted them for a relatively brief moment in their long history. We’ll leave that discussion for another day, and close the review where we began.
It was one of the best of albums, and fuck feminist fascism.