Oldham Still 'Rolling' With The Stones

2002 marks the 40th anniversary of the formation of the Rolling Stones. The pioneering U.K. rockers will almost certainly be performing to mark this milestone, and the inevitable media hoopla will ens

2002 marks the 40th anniversary of the formation of the Rolling Stones. The pioneering U.K. rockers will almost certainly be performing to mark this milestone, and the inevitable media hoopla will ensue. But don't be surprised if said coverage will gloss over -- if it mentions at all -- the figure of Andrew Loog Oldham, without whom there would be no Rolling Stones as we know them.

It was he who discovered them. It was he who hit upon the idea of taking them to Dick Rowe of Decca Records on the grounds that Rowe, smarting from turning down the Beatles, was ready to sign anyone. And it was he who molded the bad boy image that saw the Stones become icons for a generation less inclined than their parents to tug their forelocks to petty authority. Amazingly, Oldham started this social and musical revolution while still a teenager.

Oldham caught the Stones' set at the Station Hotel in Richmond, just outside London, one April evening in 1963. For him, even in their raw state, the Stones -- pounding out the songs of their blues heroes -- were a revelation. "I ran into them when I was 19 and when I heard them play I realized that this was what my life was all about and what all the preparation was for," Oldham says. "I was not gonna fall off a diving board into a swimming pool with no water. I finally had water. I could finally breathe because these people needed me and I needed them and we could finally go somewhere together."

Oldham, already a precociously confident publicist, was in no way intimidated by the fact that he was the same age as his charges as he set about securing them a deal with Decca. "You just had to go to the person who turned down the Beatles," he says matter-of-factly. "It was logical. Dick Rowe should be remembered not as the man who turned down the Beatles but the man who signed the Rolling Stones. He was great. He gave me my head. We owned the masters, right from the beginning."

A classic, eponymous debut album dropped in 1964, but Oldham felt in his bones that being the best interpreters of Chuck Berry and Willie Dixon on the scene was a distinction that was beneath the Stones' talents. His insistence -- in the teeth of their own doubt -- that the Stones could generate their own material ensured an accelerated move away from the R&B covers purveyed by groups such as the Animals into the realms of superstardom.

It's part of rock'n'roll folklore that Oldham kickstarted this process by locking Mick Jagger in a room with Keith Richard (as he was then "s"-lessly known) and refused to let them out until they had composed something. Although the story has the smack of the apocryphal about it, Oldham confirms its truth but adds, "In my book ["Stoned"], I fleshed it out into the reality. Into the day-night, day-night: the sequence over which it's been crammed down into one sentence."

Interestingly, Oldham decided that if there was to be a songwriting axis in the Stones, it was those two members who should form it. Many would have gravitated toward guitarist Brian Jones in preference to the non-musician Jagger. However, that Jones was the most effortlessly musically creative member of the band was irrelevant to Oldham. "There were different dynamics already going on with Brian as regards my involvement with the Rolling Stones, basically with where he was coming from as a person," he explains. "He was a split personality. He wanted both the fame and the adulation but he wanted to be authentic. The end result is that he basically looked down on the pop process and you cannot write down to the public. They will not accept it."

Oldham points out that there are many hiccups along the path to becoming confident in one's own abilities as a composer. "You're baring your soul when you start to write songs, and/or you're showing your dirty laundry," he says. "So you will walk into the studio in front of people you play with and you've probably taken the piss out of everybody else, including the Beatles. The chances are that when you start writing songs, the first 25 songs are gonna be soppy ballads. You have to get beyond that. You have to get to the stage of where what you like can fit into what you're capable of writing and it's gonna be daft for a while, then eventually you're gonna nail it on the head. When [the Stones] nailed it on the head was probably 'The Last Time.' That was when all the worlds that counted collided and that's a wonderful moment."

Indeed, 1965's "The Last Time" was the Stones' first self-generated A-side, and significantly, climbed to No. 1 in the U.K., just like their two previous cover job 45s. Though that song was heavily indebted to a Staple Singers number called "(May This Be) the Last Time," five months later the same Jagger/Richards partnership had produced a song unlike any heard before and better than most that would ever be heard again: "(I Can't Get No) Satisfaction." Now there was no question of ever looking back.

Though the Stones made great art, Oldham reveals that it resulted from a brisk and business-like approach. "You turned up in a studio," he says. "You're lucky enough to be independently recording so you had more than the three hours or the five hours, the six hours, the Beatles had. Each song would get 20 minutes or 30 minutes to find its legs in an arrangement and then it got recorded and you were trying to get three or four tracks cut a day."

When it comes to picking favorites from the songs written after his prompting, Oldham lives up to his reputation as a (very avuncular) Awkward Bastard. "I've actually got to be definite about it?," he asks. "I can't let you know that it changes every week or every year? Or on the mood?" He also says he finds it difficult to pick Stones songs from the era in which he was at the management helm (1963-1967).

"[Songs] that they developed of which I didn't have an integral part are bound to have more effect on me. I'm just like another member of the public," he admits. He says would prefer to talk about albums. "I can't pick songs. It's too limiting." However, in the course of conversation, he expresses admiration for the 12-bar recounting of a groupie escapade in "The Spider and the Fly" (the 1965 B-side of "Satisfaction"), the balmy "Waiting on a Friend" (from 1981's "Tattoo You"), and the Richards-sung country-leaning "The Worst" ("Voodoo Lounge," 1994).

One of his favorite Stones albums is, appropriately enough, "Aftermath," the 1966 long player which achieved the milestone of being the first Stones album entirely comprised of original material. Oldham acknowledges that this fact contributes to his high regard for the record despite its considerable aesthetic worth. "That has to be a part of it," he says. "That's a major accomplishment for them in terms of having moved the house totally to not being dependent on material from other people, which was like a ship going down. I wouldn't call it an artistic triumph. It's just, incrementally we were gaining control of our own lives and that was a significant factor in doing that. One breathes a sign of relief: 'Man, don't have to go and dick around in any publisher's office any more looking for songs that usually turn out to be Wankerville'."

Surprisingly, Oldham says he is fond of 1967's "Between the Buttons," a collection of uncharacteristically poppy, even fey material, though leavened with numbers of biting contempt like "Yesterday's Papers" and the drug anthem "Something Happened to Me Yesterday."

"I mean, so what?" is Oldham's reaction to those who reject the record as too un-Stones-ey, among them Jagger himself. "It's the same people that put their hands in their pockets and buy the Kinks. I don't even think it's that pop, most of it. It just happens to be a phase they were going through. They wrote it, they arranged it -- if they want to disown it, that's their privilege. All I did was provide the environment in which they could record what they wanted to do and that one I particularly like. It appeals to my sense of life."

Though the U.K. version of said album contained no hits, it was beefed up in America with "Let's Spend the Night Together" and "Ruby Tuesday," a tampering Oldham exhibits equanimity about. "There's no big deal to that," he offers. "You would have sold no albums in America if you didn't put the hits in it so something had to come off. They weren't recording concept albums. I don't think either version suffers for not having something in it."

It was part way through recording the psychedelic follow-up "Their Satanic Majesties Request" that Oldham and the Stones parted company. It is alleged that the Stones successfully decided to shed themselves of a manager they felt they had outgrown by playing the blues so badly, for so long, at a session for this album that Oldham would storm out of their lives. "I deal with that in my next book and I still don't know whether that's true," he admits. "Look at it this way: why would they play blues very badly to someone who it was agreed didn't even understand and care for the blues in the first place? Doesn't make sense."

While Oldham proceeded to set up the Immediate label and guide the careers of, among others, the newly adult-oriented Small Faces, the Stones promptly entered what was for many their peak era, starting with the back-to-basics musical brutalism of 1968's "Beggars Banquet." Oldham feels it was the logical development of the spirit of that first album. "You could either say they had reinvented themselves in more ways than John Travolta or you could say it's the same album a little while later and a lot more drugs," he says. "Depends on your point of view. It's still a wonderful result."

Despite his differences with group members, Oldham was able to enjoy the acclaim the Stones received for that recording and the subsequent "Let It Bleed" after the ridicule that had greeted "Satanic Majesties." "I was happy that they hit their second cycle," he says. "They came up with 'Jumpin' Jack Flash,' they came up with 'Honky Tonk Women,' and they came up with 'Gimme Shelter.' They came up with blazing national anthems that fit into the time requirements of that day."

Oldham concurs with the view that the Stones' latter years have seen them become a pale imitation of what they constituted in their prime -- up to a point. "Right now, my favorite [album] is 'Stripped'," he says. For Oldham, it is this 1995 live album, where the Stones revisited some of their lesser-known recordings in a deliberately bare bones manner, that blew apart the suspicion that they were forever destined to be a self-parody.

"There was an in-between period where they were but ['Stripped'] certainly redeemed them," he says. "It's a great record. Like a great movie: great writing, great performances, breathing space, room for the public to breathe in. A total experience. Aided by the same way you could say Francis Coppola has an interesting look at the Mafia as a soap opera, the Rolling Stones on that record took a really interesting look at what their own roots had turned them into."

The full story of how Oldham helped make the Stones global superstars will be told in "2Stoned," the follow-up to his first book. Due for release in December 2002, it will be the second of four planned volumes of autobiography. Any bitterness Oldham might once have felt over his acrimonious parting with the band has now long since dissipated. "Why on earth would I have cause to be bitter?," he reasons. "It's kind of like a marriage and that marriage ended in a divorce. They were a miracle for me and I was a miracle for them, from any point of view you look at it."


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