A few days ago a friend of mine wrote on Facebook that he was driving to Llangollen for his daughter to participate in the Eisteddfod, and “Between the buttons” was the soundtrack to their journey. Of course I replied that I hoped her concert was “All sold out” and that she stayed “Cool calm and collected” during her performance. I then started thinking about “Between the buttons” itself – how it is my favourite Rolling Stones album, and why I feel this way about an album which is frequently forgotten or written off as substandard Kinks style vaudeville. As I continued to consider the album I realised that there were a small group of albums issued in the first six months of 1967 which were overshadowed by “Sgt Pepper” in June of that year and I thought these might be worth considering.
And then…this week my father-in-law took me to a wholesalers on the west side of Cardiff, so I could become a member and so I knew how to get there myself in the future. And as we travelled along Western Avenue past Llandaff and towards Ely the whole area became familiar to me. We turned left onto Cowbridge Road East and I knew exactly where we were. “That tyre place…that was a Comet…and that Mazda dealer was a Datsun garage..and…and…”. Although I hadn’t been in the Canton area for nearly 25 years I knew precisely where everything SHOULD be according to my memories. And I realised that I still dreamt about this place, where my father grew up and where my grandparents lived. And I felt oddly old, at how much the area had changed from my memory but was still essentially familiar. The shops may have changed names but the buildings were still the same. My father in law was slightly amazed – he didn’t realise that I knew this area of Cardiff so intimately and as he described the route to the wholesaler, in my head I worked out another route which would have taken me past even more familiar territories.
As I have said previously, both my parents were Cardiffians and even though I spent my first seven years in Leeds we still came down to Cardiff for holidays – my brother and I would alternate each summer, spending a week or fortnight with our grandparents in Halsbury Road, behind Victoria Park in Canton. It was a lovely old terraced house, a front room with a dining table and chairs, a back room with the TV and easy chairs, a bookshelf full of Reader’s Digests and AA Driving magazines and original James Bond paperbacks, then a small larder through a door at the back where Gran kept her “tuck box” of sweets, a long thin kitchen to the left of the back room with a spin washer, then a patio with coal bunker and long garden, with the garage at the back. There are photos of me sat on deck chairs on the patio from when I was around five. Upstairs a front bedroom with a double bed, bathroom with airing cupboard, and a small single bedroom to the side. At the end of Halsbury Road there was Victoria Park, a lovely area of greenery with a small lake and a children’s play area. It was created at the end of the 19th Century to celebrate Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee and was the first municipal park in Cardiff. There is a famous tale of Billy The Seal – a seal who lived in the area that is now a paddling pool – who according to legend floated into the city centre during a flood. I mean I could be wrong about that and I’m taking my knowledge there from Frank Hennessy’s song but I’m sure my father has talked about Billy, and there’s a statue of him in the park now.
But for me, passing by Victoria Park, albeit briefly brought it all back. How Gran and I would catch a bus from around the corner, go into the city centre then take open top bus tours of Cardiff landmarks, or Castell Coch, or even the Royal Mint building in Llantrisant. Back in Canton we would walk to the end of the park, there was one shop on the corner of the junction which is now a pancake emporium but I remember it as a small newsagents where I’d buy Matchbox cars and little trinkets to take back for my mother, and across the road what is now a restaurant was a sweet shop with intriguing sweets like Freshen Up chewing gum and sweets like Tic Tacs but in a longer box, and there was a cake shop next door which had a Dougal cake in the window. We’d walk into Canton for the shops, the Tescos on the corner, the Woolworths across the road, the toy shop which had all the Action Men on the second floor.
And then we’d walk back, sometimes stopping at John’s Fish Bar for a bag of chips or another sweet shop where we’d buy cans of Corona pop. This means nothing really, just memories of places but just…just being there reminded me of so much. Even seeing the Mazda garage, I can remember it being a Datsun showroom and being excited about the new Sunny and Cherry designs for 1978 and taking the brochures for them and pouring over the details. I loved car brochures – when my father took me to the 1978 Motor Show we came home weighed down by bags of brochures from Morgan to British Leyland and everything in between.
So how the hell does “Between the buttons” fit in? Well let’s go back to the summer of 1981. The first time I heard “Tainted love” was in Victoria Park that summer. I can remember sitting on the swings and hearing it playing from someone’s radio. I stopped swinging immediately and went to find the radio, I needed to hear what this record was. It sounded so different to everything else around, minimal and yet soulful too. I didn’t know the original, I just loved this version. The summer of 81 was a great time – lots of interesting songs in the charts for a start but most importantly for my brother was “Start me up” by The Rolling Stones. I don’t know where the singles from their previous album had reached in the charts but they didn’t exactly burn their way into our minds as “Start me up” did. It was as if a band from the deep dark past had reappeared and decided to make a primal rock single. It stood out in the charts like a sore thumb amongst the proto synth-pop and dance music around at the time. Andy and I both knew the Stones – we had a double tape of “Rolled Gold” which we shared by letting Andy have the first tape and I had the second tape – the ‘interesting’ stuff from 67 onwards. But the resurgence of the Stones in 81 coincided with the point where Andy started to buy records, just as “Doot doot” would do for me two years later. So over the next few months a few Rolling Stones LPs found their way into his collection. There was an opportunistic last gasp of a compilation from Decca called “Solid Rock” with a cartoon cover of the Stones as Mount Rushmore which Andy bought and I heard played a lot, and two songs on that stood out to me – “Connection” and “All sold out”. Andy also bought as many books as he could on the Stones, some rather good ones by David Dalton and Roy Carr which were as informative as they were opinionated. There didn’t seem to be many kind words for their 1967 output though which I found unusual. After all by this point I was a proclaimed “psychedelic rocker” so surely anything for 67 – the height of the psychedelic era – must be good? Right?
Christmas 1981 – oddly enough I can’t remember what I had, probably it wasn’t musical so has slipped my mind. On the other hand Andy had some Stones LPs, one of which was “Between the buttons”. We took our Christmas presents over to Gran’s in Halsbury Road and she looked at the sleeve of “BtB” and said “Is that blonde one a girl or a boy?”. A good question… Because I was convinced that on the LP cover Brian Jones looked like my English teacher, with whom I had a bit of a falling out at the time but otherwise she was one of the teachers who thought I was an untapped genius (and there were a few).
I’m not sure how much Andy liked “Between the buttons” – maybe I should ask him – but I knew I did. As his musical taste and record collection expanded there were less and less records of his I was interested in – there’s a TDK tape in the attic with one side of music which I found bearable from his collection – some songs from “BtB”, some from the third Velvet Underground album and some of “Village Green Preservation Society”. And beyond that I would go no further. As I’ve said elsewhere our tastes didn’t really coincide much. But once I had my own record player I would sneak “Between the buttons” into my room for a listen and I loved it. It felt odd and druggy but it was only when I started reading Andy’s books on the band that I understood the album better.
And here’s the context bit. Late 66 and early 67 is an odd era for pop and rock, and for the Rolling Stones themselves. A look at their contemporaries around that period shows how strange times were. The Beatles had retreated into the studio and nobody knew when they would emerge and when they did emerge they blew everyone out of the water – the “Strawberry Fields Forever” / “Penny lane” single sounded like nothing else. Bob Dylan’s motorcycle accident in July 1966 had caused him to retreat to Woodstock. The Beach Boys may have issued “Good vibrations” in late ’66 but Brian Wilson was getting bogged down in the logistics of his “Smile” project. The Yardbirds had gained Jimmy Page but lost Jeff Beck and were coming under the controlling hand of Mickey Most. Donovan was ahead of the game – in terms of his US releases – but legal problems meant his UK releases were way behind his available material. The Who were still making “super pop” and while consistently creating superb singles, their albums weren’t cohesive. The Byrds issued the excellent “Younger than yesterday” but were losing commercial ground. Steve Winwood’s new act Traffic were getting their heads together in the country. Manfred Mann had yet to recover the momentum lost when Paul Jones left the group. Cream were still a blues power trio, and a new guitarist from the US was going to show them how old fashioned that sounded. New pop acts like the Monkees were infiltrating the charts, as were MOR singers, and the first inklings of proper psychedelia with Pink Floyd’s debut single and the early Move singles. Of course this is from a UK perspective, there was a lot more going on in the American underground in both New York, Los Angeles and San Franscisco but none of these acts were making an impression in the UK, at least not on the mainstream.
As for the Stones themselves… Mick Jagger had ‘dumped’ an it girl (Chrissie Shrimpton) for a singer wife of a friend (Marianne Faithful), Keith Richards lost his partner Linda Keith for Jimi Hendrix, Brian Jones was in Anita Pallenberg’s artistic crowd, and all three were hanging out in the same aristocratic circles of the nouveau riche likes of Tara Browne, Robert Fraser, Christopher Gibbs and various Ormsby-Gores. And all of these people were dressing to kill in Carnaby Street or Kings Road clothes. And all of these people were experimenting with mind altering substances like LSD. How could the Stones’ songs not reflect the life they were living?
“Between the buttons” then kicks off with “Yesterday’s papers” and immediately it doesn’t sound much like the traditional Stones. A rumbling bass and drums lead into harpsichord and vibes with only a little fuzztone guitar popping through the murky mix. And Jagger is singing a bitter riposte to a former girlfriend. There isn’t much of a song really, but Jagger is spitting out lines – “Yesterday’s papers, such bad news, the same thing applies to me and you”. This doesn’t sound like an act or a posture. “My obsession” sounds more rocky, more fuzztone guitar and a piano in a reverb tank and Charlie Watts thumping out a great sounding drum beat, but the song itself is vague. Reportedly Brian Wilson attended the mixing session of this song and was really impressed – and still mentions the song in interviews – but it is an interesting sound in search of some curious rhymes. “Back street girl” has always been seen as more evidence of Jagger’s misogyny, but in the song he’s clearly playing a character – possibly one of the high class Chelsea set he was amongst at the time. The song’s main influence is “Fourth time around” from “Blonde on Blonde” which of course was influenced by “Norwegian Wood”, but the French style waltz is charming, as long as you consider the lyric to be a posture rather than the truth. “Connection” rocks more, Jagger and Richards in harmony – there’s a lot of that on the album – with as many connotations on the title word as possible – connection as in plane connection on a journey or drug connection. There’s paranoia here – “My bags they get a very close inspection…they’re dying to add me to their collection” – and quite rightly under the circumstances when you consider what would happen at Redlands that winter. “She smiled sweetly” is almost tender – the total opposite of “Yesterday’s papers”, here Jagger is singing about a perfect other (as he would on the contemporary “Ruby Tuesday” though that was a Richards song to Linda Keith). In this song she calms him and soothes his fevered brow and maybe she’s helping him recover from a bad trip, or maybe I’m reading too much into the song. It is the most un-Stones-like song – all organ and piano with no guitar at all. Again, very Dylan. “Cool calm collected” was and still is my favourite song on the album. I suppose this is where the vaudeville Kinks element comes in – and isn’t that Nicky Hopkins on piano anyway? – but there is real bile in the lyrics, even if Jagger tends to make light of them. Was this about another debutante within the Stones’ circle? What psychedelic spice the electric dulcimer adds to the mix is instantly removed by the kazoo solo, but once the singing ends the band get into a groove with Jagger back on harmonica while Watts starts to make the magic roundabout spin faster and faster, increasing the tempo until the other musicians can’t keep up, and Andrew Loog Oldham increases the reverb to add to the dizzy disorientation and everyone just flies off the roundabout in the final seconds, the song collapses and someone laughs in the background.
“All sold out” is almost traditional two guitar Stones rock, except that the mix shoves the two competing guitars in a corner and everything else sounds oddly placed – the piano in the distance and some pronounced “hey hey” backing vocals very loud. I often wonder what the mono mix sounds like because in stereo all the power of the song is lost in the mix. “Please go home” takes a Bo Diddley beat and smothers it with psychedelic effects – oscillators whirl in the distance, voices echo, guitars swoon (almost in the manner of Kevin Shields’ ‘glide guitar’ of ’88) and you have to wonder what triggered the song. Why is Jagger so insistent on being alone? “Who’s been sleeping here?” again shows Dylan’s influence, but the rhyme structure for the chorus is too far fetched to be believable, all those brigadiers and all the rest. “Complicated” is an almost straightforward rocker, there’s almost a riff at the start but the verses are carried by a piano and organ combination. “Miss Amanda Jones” is a straight rocker but the lyrics are about a debutante who is clearly on the Stones’ scene, and it’s hard to tell whether Jagger (and Richards, who gets a solo vocal at last) are taking the mickey out of the poor little rich girl. Finally “Something happened to me yesterday” brings all the implied drug references into focus – a song about the confusion after an acid trip, seen through a fog of slightly hazy understanding of what had happened. The Salvation Army style brass band compliments the song nicely, and Richards again gets to sing the chorus. There’s endless in-jokes – “what kind of joint is this?” – and references and I have no idea what the end is about, but in the last two songs the two big influences on the album come to the fore. Does it sound like a classic Stones album? Not really. Does it sound like a typical late 66 early 67 album? Well let’s see what else was around.
The closest comparison was the Small Faces’ debut for Immediate Records in May 67. They had been edging towards a psychedelic sound on their final Decca recordings in ’66, and “Here comes the nice” was a sly single about their dealer but “Small Faces” shows more signs of directions to come. There are some straight soul belters like “Get yourself together” and “My way of giving”, there’s whimsical trifles like “All of our yesterdays” and “Something I want to tell you”. But the real meat of the album shows that the four East End mods had been dabbling in the psychedelic stew. Opener “(Tell me) Have you ever seen me?” almost revels in its sensory overload and has the telling line “Flowers are breaking through the concrete…I can hear them breathing”. OK, if you say so. “Green circles” is a dazed paean to – well – it sounds like an alien visitation, but the murmuring vocals and wash of sound are quite immersive, and there’s an early attempt at phasing at the end which shows their ambition as much as the primitive technology available to them. (Of course they’d get phasing exactly right on “Itchycoo Park” a few months later). Lastly “Up the wooden hill to Bedfordshire” is SO not about going to bed, and uses dreaming as a metaphor for having a drug trip just as “I’m only sleeping” had done on “Revolver”. It’s probably my favourite song on the album and has a lovely queasy quality to it.
Another British album that teeters on the edge of psychedelia without going over the line is “Evolution” by The Hollies. When The Beatles recorded “A day in the life” in January ’67, Ron Richards – the Hollies’ producer – was there in Abbey Road studios with his head in his hands, knowing that his band couldn’t compete. But they did try – and they had The Fool design a cover for them too. “Evolution” is a schizophrenic record, it’s clear that Graham Nash is more “experienced” than Allan Clarke or the other members at this point, and there is pointed experimentation in small doses. Nothing too out-there to startle their regular consumers, but there’s some rich fuzztone guitars and strangely tremelo-d guitars on “Then the heartaches begin” and you could even say “Have you ever loved somebody?” rocks with conviction. Some songs are modelled on previous successes – “Rain on the window” would like to be “Bus stop” but isn’t even close. “Water on the brain” starts promisingly with guitar effects and bongos but turns into a standard Hollies harmony number. “Lullaby to Tim” features a quite ridiculous vocal effect which sounds like Nash is singing through a washing machine on spin cycle, which is a shame as the song would otherwise be a charmer. “Heading for a fall” has a drone introduction and the instrumentation and air of minor key melancholy points in the direction of “Elevated observations” on their next album “Butterfly”. “Ye Olde Toffee Shop” is just daft whimsy about a sweet shop – the sort of thing that would be classed as ‘toytown pop’. When the album is straightforward pop it is quite fine, there are hints of what is to come – the bridge of “Leave me” sounds oddly like the Mamas and Papas, which is ironic considering the part Mama Cass would have in creating Nash’s next project. Finally “The games we play” sounds innocuous with chiming twelve string guitars but is slightly raunchy and implies the singer’s indulging in something slightly dodgy. Ron Richards may have had his head in his hands because he knew what the Hollies were creating – they had made some brilliant forward looking singles in ’66 but “Evolution” is just good pop music mostly. The kind of album that “Sgt Pepper” would blow out of the water.
One more album worth looking at is “Emotions” by The Pretty Things. It was purely a contractual obligation of an record – the band wanted to leave Fontana and didn’t care what they produced and as such there is a surfeit of horns and strings to cover the paucity of some of the material. Of course this ‘cover it in horns’ trick would be used to hide sub-par material by the likes of Moby Grape and The Doors so maybe The Pretty Things were ahead of the game. They were well ahead of everyone by recording a song called “LSD” in early 66 even if it was pretty standard freakbeat fare. Half the album itself barely sounds like The Pretty Things – some of the songs are acoustic ballads, there’s no personality in the music, it could be anyone and all the horns make it sound like a Stax record sometimes. Lyrically though there are subtle and unsubtle hints of what was happening in the London scene. “Death of a socialite” is about Tara Browne, “There may be another day” and “Growing in my mind” hint at mind expansion, “Photographer” is about a David Bailey character, “House of ten” is a touching ballad about a lonely worker in a flat in a ten bedroom house which is almost worthy of Ray Davies. Finally it gets explicit on “Tripping”. Talking about the paintings of Mr L, the books of Mr S and the songs of Mr D (who is clearly Donovan) and wondering how their insights and perceptions are so rich and what is making them this way, are they ‘tripping’? What’s most remarkable for this song is that musically it sounds like it iss a huge influence on “Come down easy” by Spacemen 3, the same loping and lazy rhythm. (As an aside, I’ve only known this Spacemen 3 song on a free cd from 20 years ago where it was mis-titled “Things will never be the same” – it was only by Googling the lyrics today for this piece that I realised it’s not the real song title).
It seems that there was definitely a London acid scene in ’66 which contained the Stones, the Small Faces and the Pretty Things – indeed it is speculated that their drummer Viv Prince left in late 66 due to overindulgence and unreliability, making him one of the first acid casualties. Mention should be made of the Animals, Eric Burden was very much part of that acid scene but soon would be transplanting himself to America. That London scene gravitated towards the same clubs, the same people, the same bookshops, the same boutiques and the same drugs and it only lasted for a short while before the Summer of Love commercialised it. Whether the Hollies were part of it is unclear – perhaps Graham Nash was? – but for the other bands it was all reflected in their music – the adventurous sounds and the lyrical concerns. A fascinating time, and I’ve found the Dandy In Aspicblog to be a useful resource in this article, and a wonderful glimpse into the magazines, the styles and the attitudes of those in that particular crowd.
As for me…well I obviously wasn’t there. On the other hand, the “Strawberry Fields Forever” / “Penny Lane” single is a gateway to that time, or to somewhere else. Lennon daydreams of a half remembered park in Liverpool and tries to reconcile his present confusion with his childhood memories. McCartney sees another ultra-vivid memory of an area of Liverpool with shops here and barbers there… And to me, Victoria Park is my Strawberry Fields and Canton is my Penny Lane. And with that, I’ll head back to the blue suburban skies and do some housework.
Next time…well my ‘next time’ predictions are so frequently wrong that I won’t make any. As I said before, there may be one or two more entries before I retire for the summer. Until then, don’t forget, if you’re on your bike, wear white.