What does it sound like?:
There are two watershed albums in the entire career of The Rolling Stones. The first is Their Satanic Majesties Request. Compare and contrast their musical style pre and post that album. There isn’t just a step change. It’s almost a completely different band. The second is Goats Head Soup.
Goats Head Soup is the sound of men on the cusp of thirty considering the possibility of becoming responsible adults. In the songs, they look back on their Rock’n’Roll lifestyle, reflect on past relationships, and weigh the meaning of adulthood. By 1973, The Rolling Stones were a complex adaptive system bordering on the edge of chaos. The pall of heroin, clinging to them since 1967, incapacitated both Keith and Jimmy Miller. Various drug busts over the years restricted their ability to remain tax exiles. Jamaica was one of the few countries that would allow them all entry but there was no respite from dealers. The Caribbean sunshine couldn’t eradicate the murk and mire of the basement at Nellcôte where they recorded most of Exile On Main Street. Bill felt intimidated by The Stones’ own armed guard and a break-in to his hotel room. Hunter S. Thompson said, “I hate to advocate drugs, alcohol, violence, or insanity to anyone, but they’ve always worked for me.” Hedonism was catching up with The Stones.
Goats Head Soup is known for its ballads. However, they are not in the least schmaltzy, and deal sensitively with complex relationships. Two of them take on from where Wild Horses left off, both essentially written by Keith. In fact, Coming Down Again could be a sour, querulous look at the same relationship described in Wild Horses. Its brittle melody and fragile vocal are held together by the best bass line on the album, played by Mick Taylor, and Bobby Keys’ robust sax solo. Angie is a moving, mature ballad, coming to terms with the end of a relationship, tinged with fondness and regret. It’s grown up, vulnerable and very appealing, feeling much more of a farewell than a hello to a new life. Winter is a step on from Moonlight Mile, a tender, sophisticated piece of music aching for a better place and time, and mainly the work of the two Micks. Jagger’s love-sick reverie, worthy of Van Morrison losing himself in Listen To The Lion, Taylor’s heart-melting solo and Nick Harrison’s string arrangement lift the performance into the transcendent. 100 Years Ago is one of The Stones’ most unusual tracks in which Jagger reminisces affectionately about his relationship with Marianne Faithful. Its finale is a stretched-out musical coda, a furious duel between Taylor’s wah-wah guitar and Billy Preston’s grungy clavinet, refereed by Charlie’s aggressive drumming, until collapsing into an anguish of lost love.
If those four songs are buttercups on an unkempt grave, the rest of the album is where they begin to reveal the bodies. Recording in Jamaica was bound to leave its mark. Dancing With Mr D is all voodoo and no lounge. It has a suffocating, sinister feel, its atmosphere thickened by African percussion. The creepy guitar riff and lurching rhythm are both intoxicating and unsettling. Can You Hear The Music is the kind of adventurous experiment The Stones hadn’t attempted since Their Satanic Majesties Request. Besides the island percussion, there are flutes, finger bells and a guitar drone while Charlie revels in the lazy, hypnotic groove.
Set aside Exile On Main Street, which is the real anomaly in The Stones’ discography, and Goats Head Soup follows Sticky Fingers quite logically. Doo Doo Doo Doo Doo (Heartbreaker) is part of a sequence of social verité songs (Jigsaw Puzzle -> You Can’t Always Get What You Want -> Sister Morphine) but is far more professional, punchy and direct, thanks mainly to Bill Price’s final horn chart for the band, a maddeningly catchy chorus and an impressively impassioned vocal describing disturbing real-life stories of hardship and police brutality. Billy Preston only plays on two tracks but his clavinet is an essential part of the sound of Goats Head Soup. Hide Your Love is a hidden gem, a swampy blues, improvised in the studio as Jagger pounded out the chords on piano. It’s agreeably shambolic in the manner of Parachute Woman, Let It Bleed and Sway. The two most old-fashioned Stones’ style tracks, and the most juvenile, see Ian Stewart’s return to the piano stool. Silver Train is an old song with a favourite topic, an encounter with a prostitute, dusted off from 1969. They joyfully barrel through the song with such vigour you can hear the wind in their hair. It must have felt like 1964. Star Star follows a tradition of smutty rockers (Stray Cat Blues -> Live With Me -> Bitch). It raises eyebrows on Goats Head Soup placed at the end as a middle finger to their encroaching middle age. Steve McQueen was happy with his name-check.
The new remaster sounds as though each element has been removed, cleaned up beautifully, then replaced exactly where they were. The bass stands out and Charlie’s drums clatter and shimmer. You can actually make out what Jagger is singing. There are four keyboard players on Goats Head Soup. Nicky Hopkins was lost in the mix somewhat but now his wonderful touch is more apparent. The acoustic guitar is a real gainer as are the strings on Angie and Winter. This 2020 remaster is almost like déjà vu. Everything is very familiar but seems brand new.
The superdeluxe Exile and Some Girls have taught us a lot about The Stones’ recording practice. They had plenty of songs during this period and they would start developing a large number of them. After a little while, they would concentrate on the dozen or so they thought would make the album, leaving the rest unfinished. As a result, they had a lot of material they could return to at a later date. The Goat sessions yielded rich pickings for future albums. There are just three outtakes in this package, though: Scarlet, featuring Jimmy Page on guitar, All The Rage and Criss Cross. All sound as though they were close to complete in 1973, without excessive touching up in the 21st Century. Criss Cross, a Taylor co-write, almost made the album and was cheekily used without permission for the soundtrack to a 1978 Japanese animation film called Metamorphosis. Lyrically dripping with lust and stylistically funky grooves, all three are more in keeping with Exile rather than Goat, despite the fact that the actual soup is meant to be an aphrodisiac.
There are four early takes. 100 Years Ago is Jagger singing a remarkable guide vocal accompanying himself on piano with Keith playing a counter melody at the high end. It brings a lump to the throat, it’s such a beautiful song. The instrumental of Mr D is completely different to the finished product. The drums are in a spritely 4/4 rhythm, Taylor’s slide is dominant and there is a throaty, prowling sax. The instrumental Heartbreaker is at a nice, steady pace with some gentle guitar and soulful organ but the horn chart is complete. Hide Your Love is billed as a remix but it sounds more of a fascinating alternative take, the piano folded into the background with a full-flowing prolonged bluesy Taylor guitar solo. There are three Glyn Johns 1973 mixes: Mr D, Heartbreaker and Silver Train. His approach is less dense, lighter on the bass, perhaps a bit thin but giving more room for the instruments to be heard, especially the guitars. The whole is a fascinating bonus disc giving greater insight to how the tracks were made, much more so than the Sticky Fingers bonus.
The Brussels Affair is a live recording compiled from two shows at The Forest National Arena on 17th October 1973 during the Goats Head Soup Tour, Taylor’s last with the band. Preston is the keyboardist, Trevor Lawrence and Steve Madaio play horns and Bob Clearmountain provides the mixing. Keith is rejuvenated and back in his pomp, albeit disgruntled with the clear delineation between his rhythm and Taylor’s lead. It’s two thirds of a glorious performance up to an ecstatically received Angie and an imperious You Can’t Always Get What You Want. Thereafter, things get too frantic, a twelve minute Midnight Rambler proving spectacularly desperate. This recording has been available as a download since 2011 but is now getting its first physical release outside of Japan.
There is a sumptuous 120 page book with an appreciation of the album by Ian McCann, a Nick Kent piece on the tour and Darryl Easlea’s story of the cover which was designed by Ray Lawrence and photographed by David Bailey. There are two rolled up posters, a DVD with the videos of Angie, Silver Train and Doo Doo Doo Doo Doo (Heartbreaker) and it’s the first Stones’ album to boast a 5.1 Surroundsound mix, provided by Giles Martin no less. You can even buy Abbey Road half speed masters. The Rolling Stones website will throw in a Goats Head T-shirt for few extra bob. As is often the case with The Stones, prices are high but there is no denying that this is a wonderful product, probably the most appealing deluxe edition of their seventies albums. Nevertheless, many Stones’ fans will feel short-changed. They are likely to already own The Brussels Affair, as a download, and would have been hoping for an outtakes bonus to rival the one in the Some Girls reissue. Imagine 1973 versions of Waiting On A Friend, Tops, Short And Curlies or Through The Lonely Nights. Glyn Johns must have mixed the whole album. The Japanese edition benefits from his 100 Years Ago, for example. Why not include his mix in total?
Keith’s famed rhythm guitar and his blending and weaving with Taylor are largely absent but Goats Head Soup features some of The Stones’ best songs, Jagger’s most impressive vocals and Charlie in top form. In 1973, after Aladdin Sane, Fresh and Mott had stolen their thunder, it felt like progress, a blessed relief after Exile On Main Street, still demonstrating The Stones’ sweaty power and ability to outrage, but moving on from the youngster’s game of Rock and looking forward to a more sophisticated future. Goats Head Soup is unique in The Stones’ catalogue, the point at which they almost made an apology and grew up, proving that Rock can be adult without being soft. It was a commercial success, out-selling its predecessor, with Angie a global smash. As things turned out, their newfound maturity didn’t last and they chose to continue down the path of hedonistic irresponsibility, maintaining their reputation as British bad boys. Soon, they would lose the artistry of Mick Taylor, to be replaced by the functionality of Ronnie Woods. Before it, lay their imperial phase. After, the decadence that had inspired their creativity and innovation became grotesque and tired the more they embraced Stadium Rock.
This updated, refreshed edition is an opportunity to recognise Goats Head Soup for what it is, one of The Stones’ very best albums, a quieter, more reflective, complicated, contradictory older sibling to Sticky Fingers. The minimum purchase for anyone in the least bit interested in The Rolling Stones is the two disc set.
What does it all *mean*?
The Rolling Stones are yet to deliver the perfect superdeluxe box set but they are getting closer.
Goes well with…
A desire to possess luxurious physical product.
Might suit people who like…
Rock music. What’s not to like about Goats Head Soup?