Thursday, July 18, 2013

Review: 'Rocks Off: 50 Tracks That Tell the Story of The Rolling Stones'


Tim Riley’s Tell Me Why was one of the very first books about The Beatles I ever read. It’s a track-by-track analysis that really opens up the unconscious brilliance of Lennon and McCartney by exploring their songs from a music theory basis while never fumbling into off-putting academic speak. Riley examines their performances and production strokes with equal keenness. It is enlightening, unpretentious, and iconoclastic (certainly Riley must have been one of the first writers to actually challenge the quality of some of The Beatles’ best-loved works, including Sgt. Pepper’s). I read Tell Me Why right around the time I was first becoming obsessed with The Rolling Stones. Naturally, I started dreaming someone would write such a book about those guys too.

While The Beatles have a reputation for being four little Mozarts and the Stones are considered masters of three-chord simplicity, there’s a lot more happening in their music than is often acknowledged. Lennon and McCartney certainly never penned a lyric as literary as “Sympathy for the Devil.” There have been track-by-track explorations of the Stones before—Martin Elliott’s The Complete Recording Sessions, Steve Appleford’s Rip This Joint, and most recently, Sean Egan’s The Mammoth Book of The Rolling Stones—but none that ever approached the group’s hefty body of work with all due seriousness and attention to detail.

Bill Janovitz’s new book Rocks Off: 50 Tracks That Tell the Story of The Rolling Stones is frustrating because about one-sixth of that book I’ve always wanted to read is in here. Janovitz has a legit musical background (he was the singer and guitarist of the nineties band Buffalo Tom) and brings his knowledge of working in the studio and writing songs to his analysis of fifty select Stones cuts. The problem is that he limits himself to fifty, filling out the rest of his book with a story told a hundred times before. It probably didn’t help that I read Rocks Off back-to-back with The Mammoth Book, which also uses the Stones’ music as a guiding device to tell their story. Sean Egan’s book also covers all the same historical incidents and even uses many of the same quotes as Janovitz’s. I would have loved Rocks Off if the writer decided to commit to the analytical bits that make his book worth reading and left the history lesson to all the other Stones biographies that came before it. Janovitz conducted a few new interviews with the bands associates to justify his retelling of their story, but there isn’t much to learn from them aside from keyboardist Al Kooper’s fascinating first-hand perspective of the recording of “You Can’t Always Get What You Want.” If you’ve never read another book about The Rolling Stones, Rocks Off certainly isn’t a bad starting place. As for that definitive analysis of their music, keep waiting.

Get Rocks Off: 50 Tracks That Tell the Story of The Rolling Stones at Amazon.com here:



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