Playing Favorites #1: “No Expectations” – The Rolling Stones (1968)

The other day I was going through my mountain of CDs, trying to figure out which ones to keep (or store digitally) and which ones to toss. This exercise (mostly an exercise in futility) reminded me of a project I started years ago and never kept up with: blogging about my favorite music. I thought it might be fun to revisit some of those entries and maybe create some new ones. This initial entry was first posted in March 2007 on another blog. Here it is:

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I love lists. Don’t know why, but I do. For years I’ve kept a list of my favorite movies and have wanted to do the same with albums and songs, but never got motivated to do it.

But lately I’ve been listening to my collection (partly as an exercise in weeding stuff out), asking myself why I like certain songs, certain albums. So I thought it might be fun to explore some of those songs here. Even though this is the first entry, these songs are in no particular order and future music posts will probably not appear on a regular basis. Just whenever the mood strikes me.

And these aren’t what I consider “the greatest” songs or albums of all time. Just stuff I like. So here’s the first one:

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“No Expectations” – The Rolling Stones (1968)

If you could find someone who had somehow never heard of the Rolling Stones and played them “No Expectations” (the second track from Beggars Banquet), then played them just about any other Stones song, the novice listener would no doubt ask, “That’s the same group?”

Of course it’s the same group. As soon as you hear him sing the first notes, it’s unmistakable Jagger, yet atypical Mick: subdued, reflective, almost tender. Keith Richards quietly strums his acoustic while Brian Jones delivers a great Mississippi Delta blues slide guitar, arguably some of his best work.

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“That was the last time I remember Brian really being totally involved in something that was really worth doing,” Jagger reflected in 1995 in a Rolling Stone interview. Shortly after the release of Beggars Banquet, Brian Jones was found dead in his swimming pool. The song, written by Jagger and Richards, could be seen as a regretful look at life and love on the road or perhaps as Jones’s epitaph.

The slide guitar brings the tune in line with not only the rest of the blues-based album, but also the band’s own blues roots. Aside from Jones’s slide work, the song’s chord structure and lyrics are quite simple. Yet there’s more going on. Nicky Hopkins (who played keyboards on several of the Stones recordings) enters after the third verse with a very unobtrusive, tasteful middle-register piano, changing the mood to something more refined, yet laced with melancholy. Hopkins pretty much stays in the middle register for the next two verses, then closes the song in the upper register with notes so delicate they sound like a stream of water running over rocks. It’s the way this elegant piano line contrasts with Jones’s pain-filled slide that elevates the tune to something truly memorable.

And then there’s the lyrics, reflective of a Robert Johnson-type of blues. This is the clearly the song of a young man who’s seen hardship and heartbreak far beyond his few years. The loneliness, isolation and resignation are almost numbing in the way they’ve seeped into the singer’s DNA. I’ve always loved the way the singer’s pleas have moved from being taken away on a train – a long-standing blues metaphor – to a plane, a more immediate way of travel, although the lines are delivered in a very leisurely manner. It’s almost as if it doesn’t matter if he’s being taken away by train, plane or rocket: the pain will never leave him.

“No Expectations” was also released as a B-side to “Street Fighting Man” in the U.S.

(Photos: Rate Your Music, Feel Numb)

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