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Album Review: The Rolling Stones’ ‘BBC Sessions’

Back in the 1960s, British broadcasting law required a certain amount of live music to be played on the country’s airwaves, essentially in an effort to prevent musicians from losing work to those dastardly job-stealing things known as records. While this requirement was largely phased out by the early 1970s, as a result there are untold thousands of hours of British Invasion-era acts performing live or quickly-recorded versions of their hits, deep cuts, covers and the like, and nearly every act of note has released a “BBC Sessions” compilation …

… Except, until now, the Rolling Stones. For decades, the group essentially ignored the treasures in its vast vault of unreleased material — presumably out of boredom — and consequently their BBC sessions, comprising several dozen tracks recorded between 1963 and 1965 for such quaintly titled radio shows as “Saturday Club,” “Top Gear,” “Rhythm and Blues” and “The Joe Loss Pop Show,” were available only on usually-dodgy-sounding bootlegs. Yet the group has been excavating their vault at a steady clip over the past several years, and now, some 54 years after their first session, a sonically optimized 2-CD compilation of the material has arrived.

It amounts to nothing less than audio baby pictures of the world’s greatest rock and roll band.

Across these 32 tracks — all previously unreleased, and ranging from standards like “Satisfaction” to eight songs the group never officially recorded or released in the ‘60s — you’ll hear both the explosive, primal energy that made the band so exciting in the first place, and the often-comic naivite of a bunch of 20-year-old Londoners trying to emulate Chuck Berry and bluesmen from the Deep South (witness Mick Jagger’s carefully mannered articulation of the lyrics to Berry’s “Memphis, Tennessee”).

The renditions here of hits like “The Last Time” and “It’s All Over Now” will never rival the official recordings, but things get really interesting with the less-familiar material, much of which was recorded before an audience and is more exciting than the live-in-the-studio tracks. The group blazes through songs like Buster Brown’s “Fannie Mae,” Bo Diddley’s “Cops and Robbers,” Berry’s “Beautiful Delilah” and the Stones’ first major hit, a cover of Lennon/McCartney’s “I Wanna Be Your Man,” with Brian Jones wailing on the harmonica or playing a stinging slide guitar while girls in the crowd scream in finest 1964 fashion. Over the course of the recordings, Jagger’s singing progresses from mannered schoolboy to his world-famous attitudinal snarl almost before your ears, while Keith Richards and the rhythm section perform with a bruising authority that belies their years: At 22 Charlie Watts was playing with the seasoning of a 50-year-old jazz drummer, and the eternally underrated Bill Wyman’s melodic and innovative bass playing, buried in the mix on so many of the band’s records, is thrown into dramatic relief here: On songs like “I Wanna Be Your Man” or the Chuck Berry numbers, he’s often soloing at the same time as Richards or Jones, complimenting their playing with a zooming barrage of notes that simultaneously holds down the band’s bottom end.

Given the circumstances, the sound quality here is nothing short of miraculous, especially to those of us who’ve heard some of these recordings through an ocean of distortion or tape hiss. During the 1960s BBC recordings often were infamously taped over in an effort to save money, so engineers had to use the best copies they could find — in some cases those are transcription vinyl copies or, from the sounds of it, even sessions recorded off of the air. Suffice it to say these sound stunning compared to the bootlegs. Having said that, the album’s non-chronological sequence is a bit odd — the group was performing nearly every night during these years and progressed enormously in a short time, so it’s disorienting to hear them blazing through one song in 1965 and then hesitantly playing another from 1963; similarly, the live tracks are sprinkled throughout rather than sequenced together. But those issues are nothing some artful playlisting won’t fix.

Apart from the “Live 1965” album and its companion video “Charlie Is My Darling,” this decades-overdue album is the closest you’ll get to hearing what those legendary early Rolling Stones concerts actually sounded like.

Album Review: The Rolling Stones’ ‘BBC Sessions’

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