[Hot Rocks portrays the] evolution of a rock & roll band from superlative interpreters of mostly borrowed R&B in a style that was never far from pop, to being pop artists, philosophers and social commentators couching their vision and fantasies in a style that seldom gets all that far away from R&B….
The crucial thread running through almost all of the Stones' early work, and much of what has followed, is the tension in the alternation of themes of utter arrogance and disdain, and of the sense of ennui and frustration deriving from living, however highly, in these desperate times. "Get Off Of My Cloud" brought the former razzberry to a pinnacle of derisive noise that many, including Jagger himself, found excessive, while "I Can't Get No Satisfaction" was, of course, the primal and perhaps still definitive statement of the latter condition. The balancing of these two senses is at once the strength and limitation of the Stones' strength, because nothing is more universal now than boredom and dissatisfaction and the Stones' particular brand of charismatic swagger has been affected by more adolescents than any other posture of the generation; limitation, since yesterday's outrageous strut is today's cornball signal to get the hook, and keeping a sure grasp on the shifting modes in malaise o' the day is one of the most difficult feats for any artist to maintain in this fast-mutating era.
The Stones have maintained, of course, radiating a semblance of constant change while mainly just reworking the most tried-and-true elements in their arsenal. Along the way, they've juiced up the process by turning now and then from their narcissistic role to cast a caustic eye at the society around them, as in "Mother's Little Helper," and borrowing whatever was handily trendy, from the sitar in "Paint It Black" to the Memphis horns in "Brown Sugar" and Sticky Fingers, to garnish their basic sound. And, in "Let's Spend the Night Together" they brought the stud role to a double-entendre—whether the song is actually about sex or about being too wired to make it and knowing that nothing needs to be proved anyway—as brilliant as the utter sexist dominance of "Under My Thumb" is devastating.
It's on the second record of Hot Rocks, however, that the big thematic shift in the Stones' music becomes unmistakable. Almost all of the previous songs had been in a more or less tangible sense autobiographical, but now the ongoing persona ballooned into something at once stranger, more surrealistic and yet perhaps more universal. "Jumping Jack Flash" was unmistakably Mick Jagger, but also a creature of myth, a new mask to wear. "Sympathy For the Devil" cemented this process, of course, and helped give the Stones the "bad-vibes" patina….
Always theatrical, the Stones had found a way of molding their basic profile into and out of various synonymous figures. We always sensed that they were basically lower-class street-punks who used to get out and mix it up on Friday nights, even if it may not have been entirely true, but not until "Street Fighting Man" did they take the trouble to play out the role in the most overt fashion possible, and what was even better was that the time was ripe for them to do it in the fashionable context of revolution. They can hardly be blamed for not following through politically since, just like Dylan and most of the other giants in this business, they are basically involved in finding roles, playing them out and projecting them, and then moving on to new ones….
So the Stones, beginning with Beggar's Banquet, moved into a strong new phase where they are beginning to let their fantasies run free, and, if something like "Memo From Turner" from Performance is any indication, Jagger may have even darker dreams than "Midnight Rambler" in store. Unhealthy, perhaps, but undeniably pertinent.
The other, and even more important, recent phase is the Stones' interest in songs, the kind of triumphs hinted at in "Satisfaction" and "Mother's Little Helper," that deal in searingly explicit terms not just with sexual conceits and power fantasies, but with the conditions under which all of us are living today. "Gimme Shelter" and "You Can't Always Get What You Want" may be the two most crucial and enduring things ever laid on wax by this band; certainly they demonstrated an unprecedented maturity, a view of the world as it is and a promise that the Stones' most vital work may well lie ahead of them. And even the much maligned "Brown Sugar" is an almost perfect crossbreed song in the new Stones vocabulary, combining a forceful picture of colonial racism with another Jagger fantasy which has offended some people but strikes with undeniable power.
The direction of the Stones' future is clear, though perhaps less predictable than ever before. I doubt if they'll ever stop writing songs like "Bitch" and "Live With Me" any more than they'll ever stop copping licks from Chuck Berry. It doesn't matter. They are the most creative and self-sustaining rock & roll band in history….
Lester Bangs, "'Hot Rocks'," in Rolling Stone (by Straight Arrow Publishers, Inc. © 1972; all rights reserved; reprinted by permission), Issue 102, February 17, 1973, p. 50.
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