Hearing the Aaron Copeland orchestration that opens the Rolling Stones‘ Love You Live double album, I thought initially of the “Also Sprach Zarathustra” intros that characterized Elvis Presley’s decline into prepackaged slickness. Had the Stones now also begun to wallow in grandiosity? I wondered. Was the Sex Pistols’ Johnny Rotten right in his assertion that Mick Jagger should have retired in 1965?
The answer to both questions is an unqualified “no.” Certainly, the music and program on Love You Live leave some room for disappointment. But the bottom line is that this third “live” Stones package contains more than enough dynamic, relevant rock and roll to give Rotten a real run for his money. Offering the best representation of the group’s concerts yet captured on vinyl, it fully explains why fans have been shouting its moniker for years.
Culled primarily from 1976 gigs in Paris and the Hague (though the liner notes don’t mention the latter site), the collection also features a four-song set that the Stones delivered at Toronto’s 350-seat El Mocambo Tavern last March 5th. Altogether, the album includes 18 tunes and more than 80 minutes of music.
One of the nicer things about this generous selection is that it spans the Stones’ entire career. The raunchy R&B of the El Mocambo side, for example, finds the group returning fondly to the music that constitutes its first love and primary early influence. Elsewhere on Love You Live you’ll hear “Get Off My Cloud,” the chart-topping “Satisfaction” follow-up, plus late-60s classics like “Jumping Jack Flash,” “Sympathy for the Devil,” and “Honky Tonk Women.” Documenting the group’s contemporary work are performances of such songs as “It’s Only Rock ‘n’ Roll,” “Brown Sugar,” and “Hot Stuff.”
While the set embraces every Stones era, it doesn’t come close to covering all the facets of the band. Songs like “Jumping Jack Flash” and “Get Off My Cloud” may have been primarily responsible for their rise and preeminence, but their softer side has been crucial to the diversification that has kept them on top. It seems fair to ask why they’ve not given us “live” versions of “Moonlight Mile,” “Angie,” “Time Waits for No One,” “Memory Motel,” or anything of that ilk—especially since no fewer than four of the songs on Love You Live can be found on previous concert LPs.
What the album does contain, on the other hand, should be sufficient to make most fans forgive the omissions. Though side one’s “Honky Tonk Women” provides a particularly good showcase for the guitar dialogue between Keith Richard and newcomer Ron Wood, their fiery exchanges pervade the entire package. Opening with a Chuck Berry riff and evidencing as much energy as anything the Stones have done in years, “Star Star” is almost enough to make the Sex Pistols’ “God Save the Queen” sound like “Ferry ‘Cross the Mercy.” (OK, I exaggerate a bit.) Other highlights include a more-manic-than-the-original “Happy”; a well-sung, nearly eight-minute “You Can’t Always Get What You Want”; and “Sympathy for the Devil,” which begins with what sounds like gunfire. (“Just cherry bombs,” Mick has explained.) I also like “Get Off My Cloud,” which boasts a strangely volatile vocal, plus jazzy keyboards by guest artists Billy Preston and Ian Stewart.
The excellence of these tracks notwithstanding, listeners will understandably be most interested in the El Mocambo side. Some may be partly attracted by the preponderance of attendant publicity—the Margaret Trudeau affair, the Keith Richard bust, the note-by-note Rolling Stone coverage—and by the fact that El Mocambo could possibly turn out to be one of the group’s last shows ever. But the tracks here overshadow their neighbors on purely musical terms. Muddy Waters’s “Mannish Boy” and a reggae-spiced version of Bo Diddley’s “Crackin’ Up,” neither of which had ever previously been waxed by the Stones, garner two of the album’s most menacing vocals and expressive backups. Unaffected readings of Willie Dixon’s “Little Red Rooster” and Chuck Berry’s “Around and Around” also help to place the side among the most convincing back-to-the-roots projects yet undertaken by a major rock outfit.
El Mocambo shines from a technical standpoint, too. Although the sound on the Paris/Hague tracks proves crisp and tight, the mix and amplification are tailored to the large halls where the Stones played in those cities. Apparently as a result, “Hot Stuff” seems rather muddled on record, while songs like “Honky Tonk” don’t sufficiently capture Jagger’s vocals. No such problems plague the material from El Mocambo, where size and acoustics appear to have been perfect for recording.
Be that as it may, the entire album captures the group’s ability to play their audiences as well as they play their music. I’m not talking about the way Jagger throws French-language tidbits to the fans there or changes a “Honky Tonk” line to “I met her on a boulevard in Paris.” I am talking about the way the Stones continue to make their presence felt, the way every song transmits credibility as well as energy. After all these years and millions of dollars and gossip-column appearances, in other words, their stance remains as raunchy, vital, and convincing as ever. When Jagger concludes “Crackin” Up” by saying that he “feels like stroking everybody” in the place, you know he means it.