The Rolling Stones: A First-Time Listener's Study Guide

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The Rolling Stones photographed in 1965. 

Mick Jagger turns 74 Wednesday (July 26) and to mark the occasion, we've put together a first-time listener's study guide to The Rolling Stones.

The Stones currently have 30 studio albums under their belt, with another 23 live albums and 25 compilations fleshing out their discography. But if you're not already hugely familiar with the band, don’t stress: In this course on the legendary band's back catalog, we will only focus on seven standouts. Each album has a homework assignment (companion videos and songs) to enhance your learning experience. Class is now in session.

In 1964, the Stones were profiled in a behind-the-scenes video before taking the stage at the ABC Cinemas in England. Leading up to the performance, the band was "just another bunch of hitchhikers" that drivers failed to stop for; passing on meeting "five of the most famous young men in show business." Though difficult to hear over all the screaming, the band performs a cover of Chuck Berry's "Around and Around" off their second album, 12 X 5.

Now, let's rewind a bit:

1. The Rolling Stones (England’s Newest Hit Makers (1964)

- The Stones burst onto the scene as part of the British Invasion, which also blessed us with The Beatles, The Who and several other Hall-of-Fame bands. Their debut self-titled album, a.k.a. England’s Newest Hit Makers, gave us a taste of their sound, on an album full of covers, with the exception of one track.

Homework:

- Watch them take on Buddy Holly's "Not Fade Away" on The Mike Douglas Show. "This is the lead vocal right here, Mr. Mick Jagger." We are then introduced to Brian Jones, Bill Wyman, Keith Richard (the "s" was added on later) and "Charlie what?" Charlie Watts. At this point in their career, they had only been a "unit" for 18 months. They are asked if they know The Beatles, and a few fans are invited up on stage to meet them, at which point Gloria Matthews is told to "settle down."

- "Now something for the youngsters." The "five singing boys from England" appeared on The Hollywood Palace where host Dean Martin is clearly not a fan. After a back-to-back performance of "Not Fade Away" and "I Just Want to Make Love to You," he asks the crowd, "Aren't they great?" with some serious eye-roll.

- Listen to "Tell Me," the first of many Jagger/Richards collaborations, and the only non-cover track on the album. The song, which peaked at No. 24 on the Hot 100 chart, was the band's first top 40 hit.

- Listen to Marvin Gaye's original version of "Can I Get a Witness."

- Listen to Nat King Cole's original version of "Route 66."

Extra Credit:

- Find out why Jagger and Richards are referred to as the "Glimmer Twins."

2. Beggars Banquet (1968)

- The album peaked at No. 5 on the Billboard 200 chart.

- The LP art​, a ​photo of a ​dirty ​toilet and bathroom wall full of graffiti (which the band contributed to),​ was banned until the '80s, due to being "terribly offensive."​ Jagger said: “We really have tried to keep the album within the bounds of good taste.” Here's the "clean" version of the album cover art.

- The Stones were on fire recording the album. No really, the roof of the sound studio caught fire. "It was bloody frightening," Watts said, and luckily no one was hurt.

- "Sympathy for the Devil" was originally written with the line "I shouted out 'Who killed Kennedy?'" ​but ​after Robert F. Kennedy's death on June 6, 1968, the line was changed to "I shouted out 'Who killed the Kennedys?'" ​The song also generated buzz about the band being devil worshipers. Jagger told ​​Rolling Stone, "I thought it was a really odd thing, because it was only one song. It wasn't like it was a whole album, with lots of occult signs on the back.​"​

Homework:

- Watch the "quiet, young gentlemen" perform their first televised performance of "Sympathy for the Devil" on The David Frost Show

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- Watch the Italian promo for "​Street Fighting Man." Bruce Springsteen called the lyric, "What can a poor boy do ​except to​ sing in a rock and​ roll band?" one of the greatest rock and roll lines of all time.

3. Let It Bleed (1969)

- The album peaked at No. 3 on the Billboard 200 chart.

- The album was recorded around the same time as The Beatles' Let It Be, so fans enjoy playing with the idea that two albums are somehow connected.

- Graphic designer Robert Brownjohn came up with the album art concept for the record's working title “Automatic Changer,” featuring an old record-changer piled up with a pizza, a tire, a clock face, a tape canister and a cake. The album also came with a full-color poster

Homework:

- Listen to backing vocalist Merry Clayton talk about "Gimme Shelter" in an outtake from the documentary 20 Feet From Stardom. Watch the band perform the song on Ed Sullivan with fans screaming in the background (below), and live with backing singer Lisa Fischer in 1997.

- "They're unique, they're extraordinary. Certainly, they're probably the world's leading rock group." Watch them perform “You Can’t Always Get What You Want” on The David Frost Show. It's also a treat to see the single come to life for 1968's The Rolling Stones Rock and Roll Circus, complete with John Lennon cameo.

4. Sticky Fingers (1971)

- The album hit No. 1 on the Billboard 200 chart.

- The controversial album cover art, designed by Andy Warhol, had an actual working zipper. The album also marked the first time the group's "tongue & lips" logo was used, arguably the most famous band logo in the history of music. The band showed off their sense of humor in an ad promoting the album.

- The controversial -- if partially uninteligible -- lyrics of opening track "Brown Sugar" touch upon slavery, rape, interracial sex, cunnilingus, sadomasochism, lost virginity, and heroin. In a 1995 interview with Rolling Stone, Jagger said, "All the nasty subjects in one go... I never would write that song now. I would probably censor myself." Regardless, it hit No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100

- Richards said the album's classic power ballad "Wild Horses" was "about the usual thing of not wanting to be on the road, being a million miles from where you want to be."

Homework:

- Listen to the extended version of "Bitch."

- Listen to the alternative version of "Can't You Hear Me Knocking."

5. Exile on Main Street (1972)

The album, which hit No. 1 on the Billboard 200 chart, originally included a 12-postcard set.

Homework:

- Watch the song Keith Richards refers to as, "one of the fastest ones of the lot," live. "Ah, let it rock!"

- You don't hear much about Keith Richards as a lead singer, but here he is, sharing the mic with Mick on "Happy."

- Watch the band perform slow, country inspired song "Sweet Virginia" live, featuring Jagger on harmonica and Bobby Keys on saxophone.

- Listen to the original version of "Shake Your Hips" by Slim Harpo (1965).

6. Goats Head Soup (1973)

- The album hit No. 1 on the Billboard 200 chart. 

- While a literal photo of goats head soup was discussed for the album cover (no, really), the idea was ultimately discarded in favor of Jagger wrapped in pink chiffon, shot by David Bailey. But the goats head soup photo idea didn't go to waste – it was included as a poster inside the album.

Homework:

- "Ain't it time we said goodbye." There's been a lot of talk about who inspired "Angie," but Richards revealed he had chosen the name at random. Watch both official promo videos made for the Hot 100 No. 1 hit.

- Some believe "Dancing With Mr D" addresses the devil, death, or both. Watch the official promo video to see Jagger, through a haze, where there's no denying his mysterious allure.

- "Star Star" (originally titled "Starfucker") was banned for obvious reasons. In the video below, the band performs as an inflatable middle finger (or penis) takes shape. The best part is obviously when Jagger jumps on for a ride.

7. Some Girls (1978)

- Some Girls marked the band's first career Grammy nomination for album of the year, and their sixth consecutive LP of the '70s to hit No. 1 on the Billboard 200 albums chart.

- Here we have yet another controversial album cover, this time due to using celebrity faces/likenesses (Lucille Ball, Farrah Fawcett, Judy Garland, Raquel Welch, and Marilyn Monroe) without permission. The album was re-issued with a redesigned cover that removed all the celebrities.

Homework:

- Watch the official promo video for "Miss You," which hit No. 1 on the Hot 100 chart, and was influenced by the band going to the discos. 

- "Don't you know the crime rate is going up, up, up, up, UP!" “Shattered” was a reflection of American lifestyles in 1970s-era New York City. Watch the band perform it live, knowing you won't soon find another song containing the word "shadoobie."

Class dismissed.