Through the Haze – Goat’s Head Soup 2020
Updated: Sep 17, 2020
It's no surprise that the latest album worthy of reissue treatment by Rolling Stones Inc, arrives after the acknowledged stars of their catalogue – Exile On Main Street, Some Girls, Sticky Fingers, Beggars Banquet & Let it Bleed . Goats Head Soup (GHS) has always been maligned as the start of a mediocre run of mid 70's releases and where a sense of coasting or lack of trying or focus came into play . Given what must have been extraordinary pressures on the individuals at the time and the circumstances of the recording it’s a wonder it is as good as it is.
In late October 1972 when the Stones convened in Jamaica there were ongoing visa and drug issues and a general fracturing of The Stones Mach II machine. The Stones in their prime were always more than the sum of the 5 x parts and with the replacement of Brian Jones by the virtuoso blues guitarist Mick Taylor, additional, crucial elements of the Stones golden era (1968-72) were being bedded down. in the form of pianist Nicky Hopkins, sax player Bobby Keys and mercurial producer Jimmy Miller .
Goats Head Soup was the last involvement by Miller; Keys didn't reappear again substantially until the late 80's (and then only in a bit part) and both Hopkins and Taylor were gone by the time of the next release a year later, It’s Only Rock n Roll (IORR). In fact the last substantial input by both on the next release via “Time Waits for No One” would not have sounded out of place of GHS . It has the same hazy sound combined with the sheer musical brilliance of the pair. The spirit of the times for the Stones in 73 seems to be hinted at in Keith’s weary vocal contribution to the GHS album "Coming Down Again" via the songs refrain “Coming Down Again, where are all my friends?”
So does GHS need to be critically re assessed as part Stones canon ? Well not entirely but if the long shadow of Exile is parked to one side for the moment and GHS were to be compared with 1971's Sticky Fingers there are similarities . The sheer virtuoso contributions from Taylor ( “Winter”, “Hide Your Love”, “100 Years Ago”), Nicky Hopkins (“Angie”, “Coming Down Again”), Billy Preston (“100 Years Ago”, “Heartbreaker”) and a hazy drug referenced slant to the material (on Sticky Fingers you have “Sister Morphine” & “Moonlight Mile” , on GHS “Coming Down Again”, “Can You Hear the Music”) arfe remiciscient of Sticky Fingers. The main similarity however is in the form of none other than Mick Jagger and his seemingly raw emotional investment in the material. He isn’t buried in the mix here as was in Exile much of the time. The vulnerability and commitment he brought to Sticky Fingers is again on display , with even more intensity.
This is the last album before Jagger disappeared into a caricature, adopting different personas and different voices (take your pick in the coming years – “Luxury”, “Fingerprint File”, “Hot Stuff”, “Hey Negrita” , “Faraway Eyes” etc etc) . Coming back to the pressures they must have been under, consider Michael Philip Jagger ,nearly 30 , a strained marriage, 2 x children with different partners and with Keith, his creative twin succumbing to addiction among others in the band. He is almost letting you into his world on this record in a way that he only seldom returned to thereafter (see “Fool to Cry”, “Beast of Burden” , “Waiting on a Friend”in later years ). I would hate to think how many times I’ve heard “Angie”but as remixed here gloriously by Giles Martin you can’t help but be moved once again by his vocal performance underpinned by superb acoustic interplay between Richards & Taylor (the ancient art of weaving indeed!) . Not to mention one of the greatest piano accompaniments ever recorded by Nicky Hopkins (how did he come up with these piano parts?) .
As with Sticky Fingers , the contributions of Keith Richards tend to be in the shadow of his partner over the course of the 10 x tracks. There is the human riff element of the first track “Dancing with Mr D “but elsewhere the spark plug of the Stones engine is absent in a way that it certainly wasn’t on Exile. I can’t say it is to the detriment of the music just that it is different . One example is “Star Star”, one has a sense that if this was recorded on Exile , Keith would fire it up at twice the tempo complete with a horn section and gospel inspired backing vocalists. Unlike Exile which remains untethered to a time, GHS is anchored in the early 70’s via sonic touches such as Taylor’s use of the Wah Wah pedal and Prestons with the Clavinette keyboard. Its doubtful whether anything like the world music , foggy “Can You Hear The Music “could have been done in any other time.
Which all leads me to the “new”tracks and the reissue package. In what seems like an age ago I panned the 2020 l new Stones single Living in a Ghost Town here. As I suspected I haven’t listened to it since it came out and at the time pointed attention towards a previous single release “Plundered My Soul”, a powerhouse Exile era track dusted off for the 2010 Exile reissue. The Stones team deserve some plaudits for releasing 3 x unheard tracks as part of the GHS 2020. “Criss Cross” jumped straight out of the blocks , a classic Stones groove with a riff and feel reminiscent of “All Down the Line” from Exile. For those who think GHS lacks a killer up tempo number one can only listen to this and wonder how it was left out (I could easily imagine this in place of “Star Star”). It truly rocks and the hilarious line “I need a blood transfusion” makes we wonder again what Keith was up to in the Swiss clinic around this time (yes there were rumours that he underwent a blood change (!)).
The most attention has been given to “Scarlet” as it features the pairing of Keith & Led Zeppelin's Jimmy Page though the circumstances of the recording are post GHS . It is interesting to see how Page, no slouch in the guitar riff stakes , conjures up a counter riff to Richards (who seems to be speeding up the riff from the Let it Bleed track “Monkey Man”) It also features the most melodic chorus chord sequence since Jagger/Richards were constructing 60’s classics with Andrew Loog Oldham as the producer (think “Under My Thumb”, “Let’s Spend the Night Together”, “She’s a Rainbow”) . However the rhythm section on "Scarlet" nearly destroy the results It certainly is not Charlie & Bill by any stretch and the recording is way poorer for it - in fact Charlie Watts is the other unsung hero all across the GHS sessions, he is as always impeccable with the beat and inventive with the drum fills.
The reissue package is cheapened further by remixes by the War on Drugs and the Killers (one suspects this is Jagger trying to remain hip and once again trying too hard ).The third track “All the Rage” has a frankly horrible new vocal track by Jagger, apparently the original vocal track was too un PC for 2020. It would have been better left as an instrumental as Mick Taylor does some typical superb country rock string bending against a taut Keith riff that predates the clipped riffing later in the decade (think “She’s So Cold”, “Let Me Go”, “Neighbours”). Of the other tracks there is a great piano vocal demo of “100 Years Ago” and a lively sketch version of “Hide Your Love” that swings more than the final recording. The rest are alternate mixes that don’t add much to the GHS story.
Stones trainspotters will point to what has been left out , in particular embryonic versions of “Tops “and” Waiting on a Friend”, These tracks constitute 1/5 of the bands last truly great release Tattoo You nearly a decade later. Why these are not here is beyond me and one can only hope that a future reissue of Tattoo You might sweep these up amongst the rest of the tracks that were cobbled together by Jagger and engineer Chris Kimsey for the 1981 release . Inexplicably too “Through the Lonely Nights” recorded during the GHS sessions and a B side to IORR has been left out , this is especially galling as it captures perfectly the haze of the Jamaica sessions in a way that “Scarlet” does not. I think it is one of the Stones Mach II greatest recorded performances , channeling Gram Parsons and delivered in a country rock genre that is uniquely theirs.
So, the new tracks & remixes are interesting but aside from “Criss Cross” and Hide Your Love” hardly essential. The real pay dirt kicks in with the Live 73 Brussels show. This is Stones Mach II including Billy Preston & Bobby Keys firing on all cylinders - adopting frenetic tempos and peeling off solo’s in a way that could never hope to be matched by any other version of the band. I’ve also lost count as to how many official Stones live albums there have been but what we have hear is a perfect complement to “Get Yer Ya Ya’s Out” , is great to hear how the live sound evolved over 4 x frenetic years for the band.
GHS was my first Stones album purchase and I’ve always looked on it more favourably than most critics have . Anything recorded by the band during this time was interesting . While the reissue package could have been so much better there is no doubt that the core album content is classic songwriting , great playing and a lead singer giving it all. If you haven’t heard it give it a taste…