It's not a secret that I think the Stones were at their best - live - between 1969 and 1973. Collectively these years are known - by those who know these things - as The Mick Taylor Years. During this period, the Stones sported serious lead guitar muscle to match the chops and riffs of Keith Richard. This really was their live golden era (nothing though can match their recordings 1963-1969. Of course).
I won't get into any nonsense about Mick Taylor being the Stones. Clearly, Mick and Keef are obviously the beating heart of the Stones. They are the songwriters, the visual focal point, the direction, but with Mick Taylor, they now participated in the best live incarnation of “The Greatest Rock ‘n’ Roll Band in The World!”
It's one of the reasons - there are a few - why I don't go to see the Stones now. I'm their Number One fan but, pathetically, I want to see them in 1971 with Mick Taylor and not in 2017. I know, I know - I'm complex, capricious and not a little nuts. Deal with it, ladies.
So, onto Mick Taylor and the magic runs and solos he used to such incendiary effect back in the day when flares and drag queen make up marked a rock band. I'll trace Mick Taylor's development and influence in the band through one song over the years 1969, 1971, 1972, 1973.*
Street Fighting Man. Yes, it used to be the Stones’ powerhouse closer. It’s a riff laden ditty that combined fighting lyrics with punchy guitar. One word of caution though!! As I listen to live versions of this song 69-73, what is most noticeable - apart from the gradual rise in prominence of Mick Taylor's lead guitar - is the concomitant deterioration in quality of Jagger's singing. You can't discount the fact that a sloppy, word shortening, dicking about Jagger screws up the overall ambience of any performance. That is a shame because as Taylor gets better, Jagger gets worse.
So, back in 1969, Singer Mick cares and sings and articulates his words. By 1973, he's fucking about and missing out words and shouting. Frustratingly, whatever Guitar Mick did on guitar - if the lead singer is acting like a tit - the band is gonna sound worse. As it happens, I actually think by ’73 such was Taylor's shy dominance, he was getting too far to the front of the Stones. Yes, some of his stuff started to sound like guitar wank. Yes, you CAN have too much MT. Too many notes as they said of Mozart.
1969 - Get Your Ya Ya's Out
Jagger to the fore – “Get Down, boy!” (though there's more than a suspicion of studio touching up). Taylor sticking to the proscribed and approved lead lines. He often just riffs along with Keith which is no bad thing but that’s not why you have a shit hot soloist in the band now is it? As in all versions, Wyman's bass is awesome - propelling the group, shaking the earth and rooting the group in a solid foundation. The Stones as a group in front of 20,000 at Madison Square Garden.
1971 - Get Your Leeds Lungs Out.
Cards on table, I happen to think this is the Stones' greatest ever gig. They are on fire in this small-scale club setting. Taylor's more experimental on his lead lines than ’69 - his trademark fluidity is now evident. The melody lines he fingers, the vibrato he gets from his axe, all mark this version; it’s still a great group effort but this time propelled forward by MT. Keef’s unusually ‘dirty’ guitar provides a perfect foil to the MT’s lyricism. But as Taylor ascends, Jagger begins to descend, cutting out words, beginning to shout more than sing. But not too much, yet. This is the summit.
1972 - Ladies and Gentlemen...
My it's a close one! The tempo is too quick and Jagger is seriously not singing anymore. But Mick Taylor is kicking guitar ass! Keith gives good backing but it's now the Mick Taylor show. The close is built around MT soloing like a bastard Velvet Underground style. Watch the video below as his fingers - always in control - fly over the fretboard. This is a guitarist knowing he’s the Dog’s Bollocks and beginning to assert himself.
1973 – A Brussels Affair
Too quick and Jagger is now not really giving a fuck about singing – just yelping and swallowing words. I’m sure he looked good but any artistry has gone. However, as Jagger morphs into a Mick Jagger caricature, the music of the Stones has become Mick Taylor and supporting band. I love his sustained note at the end of the final chorus where the live band mimic the clarion ending of the recording. And then we’re into a Sister Ray freak-out fade-out as the group get faster and faster and MT has a completely free hand to solo wherever and however he wants. Distressingly - freed from the discipline and control of the Stones’ format - he seems to distressingly to run out of ideas. The end of this track – to my ears – is welcome. It probably felt better on the night.
And there we have it – the Mick Taylor years with the Rolling Stones told through versions of just one song. What can we conclude from this pub conversation with myself?
He’s clearly talented, dextrous and knows how to add lyrical lead lines to the riffs of the premier rock group of the era. Mick Taylor operates best when there’s a format he has to fit in with. Here, constrained, he can shine, do the unexpected and sound fresh and exciting. By the end of this period though – 1973 – when Jagger had become a parody and Keith retreated into strictly rhythm, MT ever so slightly starts to become annoying. It’s really not the Stones.
So – in what order do I rank the years? I’m sure of the best and the worst. Second and third place are a bit arbitrary and, in another mood, in another place, I’d rank them differently, but here, now and tonight, the 69 tour version beats Ladies and Gentlemen…