The Flowers album was for loners and lovers only. It provided a tight backdrop for a lot of decadent fantasy.
Long dismissed as a cash grab hodgepodge of unreleased tracks and singles hastily released to capitalize on the Summer Of Love US market, Flowers by some band called “The Rolling Stones” has enjoyed a parallel legacy as Mick, Keef, and Brian’s dreamiest, most romantic and bittersweet record. The boys were certainly on one hell of a mid-period role at the time, having fully transitioned from the “Lil Red Rooooostaaahhh” blues bumblings of their earliest years to a string of wickedly clever pop art outlier singles of the kind their Liverpoolian rivals would never quite dare. To say that this run was insane would be an understatement. You had the equal parts romantic and threatening, sonnet-like “Play With Fire”, the swaggering proto rap of “Get Off My Cloud”, the dourly existential full-tilt goth of “Paint It, Black”, the leering and elegant, marimba-driven “Under My Thumb”, the truly horrifying (yet comically presented) speed-addled housewives tale of “Mother’s Little Helper”, the completely off-the-rails lysergic rant of “19th Nervous Breakdown”, and the incestuous avant garde stomper “Have You Seen Your Mother, Baby, Standing In The Shadow”, to this day one of the strangest singles ever unleashed on the public by a famous band. But the boys were also putting out some great albums, from the baroque misogyny of Aftermath to the Marmalade skies psych pop of Between The Buttons, so you could see why so many American fans were gravely bummed to receive a grab bag collection of mostly previously released songs as the first rays of that DayGlo 67 summer began to shimmer. And while Flowers may indeed be the hodgepodge cash grab these crestfallen hippies claimed, it was also, perhaps accidentally, a perfectly executed mixtape of tracks from this clearly unsettled and troubled yet deeply artistically rich period in the band’s growth. They would never sound like this again. The overall vibe captured on the Flowers playlist is one of profoundly heartbroken swagger. Unlike the younger and then the older Stones, however, these tracks leaned heavier on the heartbreak and utilized the swagger only to color in the edges. This was not the world-beating, coked-out, smacked-down gaggle of rockers with the line of groupies down the block that you know from the ’70s. These were five Byron-reading dandies sporting drainpipe trousers, each longing for a different unobtainable, pale-faced Swinging London gal with a troubled past. It was a truly potent sidestep era best captured on this poorly planned but brilliantly conceived 12 track collection.
If you only know the Stones as prancing middle aged dudes with eyeliner climbing atop inflatable penises, then track one will knock you sideways and keep you there for 39 delightful minutes of baroque tearjerkers and disaffected pop culture observances. This one isn’t for the kids in the back of the class, their usual target market, but instead for those alone under the bleachers, crying and sporting chipped black nail polish. Most people will instantly recognize the sweet piano rumble and flute that kicks off “Ruby Tuesday”, but few will have considered the underlying themes of desolation and loss lurking beneath the bright pop surface of this shimmering breakup song.
There’s no time to lose I heard her say, Catch your dreams before they slip away
Dying all the time, lose your dreams and you will lose your mind
When’s the last time you heard a line like “dying all the time” in a Summer Of Love AM Pop hit? It’s one of the Stones’ best executed singles, catchy as hell from the start of each verse through to the thousand-earworm-deep choruses, but it leaves a decidedly anguished aftertaste.
This timid sense of anguish has nothing, of course, on “Have You Seen Your Mother, Baby, Standing in the Shadow?” which the suits at the record company wisely chose as Track 2. Coming off the orange sunshine bliss vibes of “Tuesday”, this rampaging post-rock Nietzschean death march gleefully upends everything you’ve ever thought you knew about Mick and The Boys. Keef Richards as a Chuck berry clone riff machine? Not if these detuned, freeform, chords-be-damned guitar slashings have any say in it. Charlie Watts as a classy jazz man? Well how about that offbeat caveman stomp thing he’s got going on here? Brian Jones as a burned out ghost of his former blues prodigy self? What about that stately piano track he nails here effortlessly? And Mick Jagger as a sexed up old geezer singing about girls so hot they make dead men cum? Well how about you try these lyrics on for size:
Have you had another, baby, standing in the shadow?
I’m glad I opened your eyes
The have-nots would have tried to freeze you in ice
Have you had another baby, standing in the shadow?
Well I was just passing the time
I’m all alone, won’t you give all your sympathy to mine?
Live through the shadow, see through the shadow,
Live through the shadow, tear at the shadow
Hate in the shadow, love in the shadow life
Have they had another baby, standing in the shadow?
Where have you been all your life?
Talking about all the people who would try anything twice
Has she had another baby, standing in the shadow?
You take your choice at this time
The brave old world or the slide to the depths of decline
Sir Mick may very well be an overrated dancer, but he’s certainly an underrated lyricist.
Speaking of piano, the late Brian Jones sure was a jaunty monster on those keys. He Of The Eternal Fringe Bangs kicks off “Let’s Spend The Night Together” with one of the most instantly recognizable Steinway runs this side of Elton John, and to be sure Captain Fantastic would give his most expensive hairpiece to have composed this lusty and unstoppable hit single that has stood the test of the decades and still sounds as fresh and strutting today as it must have on the 67 airwaves. What really tips this ditty into the immortal category is the fact that, for a song of such sexual bravado and gallantry, it’s actually rather jittery and nervous in presentation. Instead of cocksure, Mick sounds absolutely desperate, love struck and horrified that the object of his affection may slip from his thin grasp forever if she doesn’t spend just one night at his velvet-walled Chelsea pad. The musical bed on which the chorus bases itself has a stutter-stop, hesitant delivery that would throw off even the best of hooks. But this right here is the greatest of hooks. “Let’s spend tha’ niii-ghh-ttt to-ge-tha’, no-ow I ne-ee-eed ya’ mooree tha-han eva'”. It’s the type of chorus that hits at an immortal level. No amount of puritan censorship or jaded pop press reviews could have stopped this song. Plus, for a singer only concerned with his own satisfaction just three years prior, this time around Sir Mick cares nothing for himself. He’s all about YOU on this one, and he’ll do anything it takes to get you there. Hours and hours and hours. Until his “tongue gets dry” and his “mouth gets tired”. Now, before you go running for the barf room just look up a photo of Mickey in 1967, a fresh-faced dandy without a leer or a wrinkle in sight. THIS is the Mick you’d want to spend the night with, which fully justifies the song. Giving women pleasure was still a seriously progressive concept in in the mid-’60s, and LSTNT was a truly revolutionary anthem in that time.
“Magisterial” may not be a descriptor that comes readily to mind when thinking of The Rolling Stones, but one spin of “Lady Jane” should set you right on that. There can be no doubt that Mr. Brian Jones was the Stone’s secret weapon during this incredible period in their evolution, coloring in the edges of each track with eastern modal touches, baroque flourishes, and dives into offbeat, decidedly “non-rock” instruments long before the term “world music” even existed. The dulcimer line he lays down here may very well be the most gorgeous thing this Stones ever put down on tape, drifting in like a misty English dawn over a castle moat, allowing for his partner Mick to go full-on Percy Shelly romantic without even the hint of a wink. If you wanted to isolate a distinct location where The Stones transitioned from forward-thinking art pop protagonists to a haggard riff machine, it would be Brian Jones’ swimming pool where he was murde…we mean where he “accidentally drowned”. There are many points of proof that could be cited, but none would be as significant as this dreamily swaying track. While LSTNT honed in on lust, “Lady Jane” addresses its lonely distant cousin: Longing.
One of The Stones’ most underrated songs of the period, “Out Of Time” is what happens when you take an expert Motown swing and, instead of trying to come off as Smokey Robinson, you sing about, well, white people concerns. And the white person concern we’re dealing with here is that Mick’s girlfriend just hasn’t been adapting to the hippie lifestyle like he and his friends have. His “poor old fashioned baby” who left her “social whirl” only to come back “to be the first in line”. What really sells this track is the sense of sorrow and compassion bubbling through in Mick’s voice. On the tracks collected for Flowers, this notoriously nihilist Lothario is at hist most vulnerable and haunted. Check out how he slips in “My poor unfaithful baby” on the last verse, adding a poison hint of betrayal to the song’s already dangerously potent mix. Two years prior this girlfriend dissing track would have been about as subtle as “Stupid Girl” or “Under My Thumb”, but here Mr. Jagger stacks on intriguing layers of compassion and confusion over the ever-present malice.
Side two is where things really pop off on Flowers. This is where you get some essential Stones tracks from the time that got buried deep on import albums or stranded on the B Sides of singles. These include the lovely, country-tinged “Backstreet Girl” with Brian on an unexpected and well-placed accordion. Mick’s verses may be lyrically simple, but they paint blunt and essential truths:
I don’t want you to be high
I don’t want you to be down
Don’t want to tell you no lie
Just want you to be around
“Please Go Home” injects some much-needed Bo Didz riff rampaging into this otherwise somber set of songs. We wouldn’t be the first to point out The Stones’ as unlikely punk influencers, but this cacophony of tumble-down-the-stairs drums and mid-electrocution guitar squalls, not to mention the smash-bang first take sputter-out ending, are far more savage than anything The Pistols ever came up with. Originally stranded on the British version of Aftermath, “Take It or Leave It” is a jilted lover lament that gets over by discarding the playfulness usually front and center when Sir MJ delves into this type of subject matter. Here he lets it hang out there all bare and betrayed and frazzled, paranoid even, and it’s no wonder this one was a fave with high school outcasts who felt left out in the cold from the flower power that was raging at the time.
You can turn off and on more times
Than a flashin’ neon sign
When you want you’re bad
But you can be so kind
Just what you’re gonna do now
You take it or leave it
It’s just my life
While everyone else was spinning a free love utopia, these kids pined away for that carefree hippie gal that smiled their way then vanished into the cultural vacuum.
My favorite ever Stones song. “Ride On, Baby”. That chorus, pining and dismissing and seducing while simultaneously pushing away, a chorus that has no idea what it wants and is all the better for it. Equal parts cruel (“By the time you’re 30 gonna’ look 65, you won’t look pretty and your friends will have kissed you goodbye”) and heartbroken (“A smile on your face but not in your eyes, you’re looking through me and you don’t feel it inside”), “Ride On” is a songwriting masterclass, playing opposites against one another until they land on common ground. There is no resolution here, no definitive decision or release from the tension. This is sheer, unadulterated romantic confusion caught within two minutes and fifty two seconds like lighting in a bottle, coming at you with hooks buried deep within hooks and a harpsichord line (Brian again) riding on in from nowhere over marimbas and a classic Keef “shoulda’ been a horn” riff. It completely blows my mind to think that they left this sparkling jewel of a song, easily one of their best, on the Aftermath outtakes pile. Now that’s some punky self-sabotage right there.
Look, you all know “Mother’s Little Helper”. You know about the “little yellow pill” and the “frozen steak” and “instant cake” and “what a drrrraaaaaggggggggggg it is getting old”. But do you really know MLH? Do you hear how insane this song is with its jarring country break on the bridges and its deranged carnival sitar-clone slide riff bounce? Can you hear how far out ahead of its time it was? Composed well before them big pharma devils made their successful move to create this same scenario in EVERY household? In EVERY mind? This isn’t just a pop ditty on your local oldies station. This is Phillip K. Dick with a rock band.
Oh, and before closing this out, I just wanted to make a desperate plea to all you toiling alt-country singers and strummers out there. When you’re trying to fill out your set with an easy Stones song that fits your twangy vibe, steer clear of “Dead Flowers” and try “Sittin’ On A Fence” why don’t you? It’ll work. I guarantee it. After all, why hang with a dead flower when Flowers is fully in bloom, maaaaan?
A couple of years ago, in a truly savage review of my novel Condominium, this one fucking prick took umbrage with the fact that a character in said novel spoke of “obscure Stones albums”. How could there be such a thing as an obscure Stones album, Fuck Face wondered. After all, isn’t this the most famous rock band in the world? Oh but there ARE obscure Stones records, my friend and fellow critic, and for proof look no further than this underrated, outright maligned piece of vinyl hiding in a crevice of a truly weighty catalog. Sometimes cynical cash grabs just work out, and in this case taking a bunch of tracks that hadn’t had much exposure in America and splicing them together in the name of the almighty hippie dollar produced something marvelous. This is a peek into the romantic and heartfelt side of the Stones that only reared its head on B Sides and once per record for the first five years, never to be seen again. Decadent but frightened, libertine but heartsick, horrified and awed at the world outside its increasingly isolating Chelsea manor walls. Patti Smith nailed it with her talk of decadent fantasy. This is a record for dead-end poets, poor people in expensive clothes, artful dodgers whose luck is fast running out. For a brief, gasping moment in 66/67 The Rolling Stones really were for the lovers. And it’s a good thing Flowers was there to catch their short, thrilling dalliance with uncertainty and louche melancholy before it slipped away.