Mick Taylor Re-Examined
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Mick Taylor may have seemed like an unlikely choice for the Stones at that time, but it is hard to say who might have been the “right” choice. Undoubtedly seeing people like Eric Clapton play heavy blues at the Rock’n’Roll Circus had put the idea in the Stones’ minds that perhaps they needed a bit more lead firepower. The success - critical and financial - of lead-guitar-based bands like Cream and Led Zeppelin could not have been unnoticed. To have pulled in a “name” lead guitarist like Clapton or Beck might have brought a bit too much in; both were virtuosos with their own following and who were certainly expected to want things their way.

Mick Taylor had met the Stones while they were recording Satanic Majesties. John Mayall and the boys were familiar with each other as well, and apparently when Mick Jagger asked Mayall if he would recommend Taylor for Stonedom, the Bluesbreaker leader asserted with a grunt. The switch was ideal; Taylor had indicate a desire to play with a harder-sounding r’n’b group; the Stones were it. He joined the Stones officially on June 13, 1969. Not too much later, Brian Jones was found dead, drowned in his swimming pool.

Taylor’s reaction to the Stones was somewhat tentative. Admittedly, his recollection of it comes thirty long years after the fact. In the British Guitar magazine, “I just couldn’t believe how bad they sounded,” Taylor now says of his first pre-Hyde Park rehearsal with the Stones. “Their timing was awful. They sounded like a typical bunch of guys in a garage, playing out of tune and too loudly. I thought: How is it possible that this band can make hit records? The answer, I soon, discovered, was that they had a lot of help from session men and producers. But having said that, they did have an edge to them in spite of their sloppiness.”

Reaction in the press and among fans was mixed regarding the newest Stone. Much was made of his young age and angelic appearance, not to mention his overwhelming shyness. Bill Wyman, in his autobiography Stone Alone, wrote this: “...described as having Byronic looks, he looked overawed as cameras flashed all around him. Rather like Charlie and me, Taylor was not an extrovert like Mick and Keith, and it showed.” Many noted his “Clairol” hairstyle and his innocent face.

The notion that he was a non-smoker and a vegetarian circulated as well. In fact, he appears with a cigarette in mouth on the cover of Mayall’s Crusade, and is still a very heavy smoker! The vegetarian idea may have come from former Gram Parsons manager Phil Kaufman: “When I first met Mick, he was all meek and wouldn’t even cook vegetables in the same pot meat had been cooked in. He was very organic and very straight...Mick Taylor was Mister Clean. He didn’t even smoke. He looked like the boy next door, a cute blond with long hair. All of a sudden - BOING, he’s got on makeup and being outrageous.” (Paul Laurence) The probable truth of the matter is that, as they say of the Sixties, if you can remember it, you weren’t there...

Others lamented the end of the rude, raw sound of Jones; what was this boogie band/lead/solo player doing with the rough and unpolished Stones? Wasn’t Brian Jones essential to the band’s sound? Hadn’t they begun as Brian Jones’ Stones?

The Stones had actually recorded much of Beggar’s Banquet without a great deal of Jones’ input or playing; it was mainly Keith’s show. The same holds true for Let It Bleed; Brian only plays on two songs, and only performs on percussion and autoharp at that. Let It Bleed marked Taylor’s vinyl debut with the band, also on two songs. The rawness of those two songs - “Country Honk” and “Live With Me” - should have been enough to silence fears that Mick Taylor would remove the Stones’ edge. He lays sweet electric slide licks with country flavor into the first of those tracks; he would work greater changes with it as well. The latter song is marked by his rhythmic energy.

His first live appearance with the group was the famous memorial concert at Hyde Park in London. This is captured on Granada’s video “The Stones In The Park.” Songs included in the show are “I’m Yours, She’s Mine,” the live debuts of “Loving Cup” and “Honky Tonk Women,” and a very extended “Sympathy for the Devil.” The band played somewhat raggedly, but Taylor, in fine playing shape from all of the roadwork with Mayall, shone through enough to let people know that the Stones had a guitarist who could really stretch out. Keith was still more into the Chuck Berry sound; Brian had been too. Mick Taylor brought a sharper British blues sound into the band, adding a level of instrumental finesse that had not been there before.

Though Taylor knew that he was the new boy, he had high expectations. “When I was with John Mayall’s Bluesbreaker’s, I was playing the blues. I’d always been writing music but it wasn’t the kind of music that the group could use. Now I can write numbers that will have a better chance of being used. Since I am a lead guitarist, both Keith and I will be playing lead more or less. A rhythm guitarist is expendable; you don’t really need one, so in effect there will be two leads.” (Stone Alone) He would come to find that getting rid of the rhythm guitar, not to mention his becoming a contributing songwriter, was not necessarily what the other Stones had in mind. It was certainly what his Mayall experience had bred in him; Mayall had always strummed while Clapton, Green, or Mayall had soloed. The division was clear.

However, Rolling Stone magazine, observing the new Stones rehearsals at Apple Studios, reported on July 12: “They sounded a lot fuller than the Stones of old, with some nice solo swapping between Keith Richards and Mick Taylor. Possibly because they’re now a group with two lead guitarists, they seem to be producing more complex rhythm frameworks within the context of a heavy blues rock idiom.”

Taylor took Keith’s “Country Honk” and have it the electric push into becoming “Honky Tonk Women.” Keith told Barbara Cherone “That’s another reason why on Let It Bleed we put that other version of “Honky Tonk Women” (referring to “Country Honk”) on, ‘cause that’s how it was originally written, as a real Hank Williams/Jimmy Rodgers/Thirties country song. And then it got turned into this other thing by Mick Taylor, who got into a completely different feel, throwing it off the wall another way.” Interestingly, debate of recent years has only regarded Ry Cooder’s influence on the song.

Several other songs that the band jammed on with their new recruit would later appear on the odds’n’ends collection called Metamorphosis. Others would only be bootlegged. many of these tracks would continue to be played through time without being recorded. Some unreleased Taylor-era songs that are in heavy bootleg circulation include instrumentals like “Alladin Story,” “Prefab,” “Potted Shrimp,” “Dancing In The Light,” “Leather Jacket,” “And I Was A Country Boy,” as well as full vocal songs like “Who Am I,” “Travelin’ Man,” “Blood Red Wine,” “I Can See It,” and “Stuck Out All Alone.” Collections like the Ultra Rare Trax series and The Trident Mixes highlight these songs. They are listed in various sources under conflicting dates.

The Stones were red hot with a weird energy at this point. Brian’s problems had kept them from playing live for quite some time. Keith had been woodshedding, improving his skills as a player and as a writer. He and the band were burning to put their skills to use; the added energy and talent of Taylor set the torch to the kindling. Jagger reported “It’s more of a band now. It’s definitely a different band. It’s fucking incredibly hard...we’re so hard now...And, with Mick - Mick’s really good...Keith can sort of lay out...and sometimes they’ll get to tossing solos back and forth between guitars, like on “Sympathy for the Devil,” and it’s just great!” (A Visual Documentary)

Keith and Mick lived with Taylor at Steven Stills’ house in Laurel Canyon, where they rehearsed for the U.S. tour. This enabled Keith to evaluate Taylor’s personality: “We call him the kid, but he’s cool, you know. I mean, I’ve been living with him for three weeks now and he’s cool. If you can live with anyone for three weeks he’s cool. You know then.” (L.A. Free Press)

Appearances were made on t he Ed Sullivan Show as well as the David Frost Show, but the real publicity came with the epic 1969 tour, from which sprang the live album Get Yer Ya-ya’s Out. It was recorded in November 1969, but was released in June of 1970, and remains the yardstick against which any live Stones recordings must be measured. The sound of the live disc was tough and lean, without the arid studio aura, and full of a new-found instrumental confidence, stretching out the solos and the codas. “Jumping Jack Flash” shows the twin guitars in full force. The Chuck Berry numbers “Carol” and “Little Queenie” appear also. It is on “Midnight Rambler” and “Sympathy for the Devil” that Taylor really steps forward. “Rambler” features his fat, rich vibrato and smooth leads during the breakdown in the middle of the song, while “Sympathy” reveals the nice exchange that was happening between his and Keith’s lead playing. “Love In Vain” offers his beautiful slide touch, and “Street Fighting Man” is transformed from t he all-acoustic original to an electric blitz that sways and shudders under the band’s furious assault.

An interesting point is that this live release comes from the dawn of rock bootlegging’s influence. Ya-Ya’s was preceded by the release of the well-recorded bootleg LiveR Than You’ll Ever Be. This was recorded on November 6 at Oakland, California, and it is generally accepted that this bootleg’s success was what prompted the band to release their own live album. The entire tour was heavily bootlegged, which is a boon, as many song that were played on the tour did not appear on the official live release. These included “Prodigal Son” and “You Gotta Move,” which appeared in a brief acoustic set.

The concert at Altamont on December 6 ended the 1969 tour. This now-infamous California disaster was captured on film in the movie “Gimme Shelter,” which also included some Madison Square Garden footage. The Maysles Brothers’ film was released in December of 1970. Lamentably, the camera is obsessed with Mick Jagger, and leaves the guitar players - especially the stationary Taylor - off-screen for the most part. The reticent Taylor’s shy nature kept him in the background in many ways throughout his career; he was very comfortable to shut up and play his guitar, as Zappa would put it, while Keith and Mick were the frontmen on stage, in the press, and certainly on film. “Gimme Shelter” bears this out. The playing is wonderful, however, especially on “Love In Vain.” The band also recorded a segment for BBCTV’s “Top of the Pops” on December 12, 1969.

1970 was marked by the band mixing the live album and seeing the release of two Mick Jagger movies, “Ned Kelly” and “Performance.” They started Rolling Stone records, their own label, and saw the debut of two other movies, ones that featured the whole band: the previously mentioned “Gimme Shelter” and also Jean-Luc Godard’s One Plus One” a.k.a. “Sympathy for the Devil,” which showed the Brian Jones line-up of the band. In addition to these projects, the band worked on recording what would be known as “Sticky Fingers.” Some songs would stay in the works until “Exile On Main Street”; others would never be released. Among the songs played were the seven-minute-plus blues work-out “I Don’t Know The Reason Why,” which let Taylor display some of his Mayall-honed chops, and “Ain’t Gonna Lie” (a.k.a. “Mean Woman Blues”).

Taylor met with John Mayall briefly in 1971 to work on a few tracks for the Mayall “reunion” album “Back To The Roots,” released in June of that year (later released on CD with some changes as “Archives To Eighties”). While Taylor and Eric Clapton both appear on the LP and on one of the same songs (“Force of Nature”), it seems that they did not really play together. Instead, Mayall spent much effort carting the tapes all over to get his favorite players involved. The album is thus an overdubbed jigsaw affair, and is not a very strong effort. It sounds especially soft when compared to any of the full studio LPs that Taylor and Mayall had recorded together. The songs themselves seem very hastily assembled, vehicles for solos and not much else, with very weak lyrics.

Taylor also spent some time in the studio playing on two tracks for the creatively-monikered band Tucky Buzzard, whose self-titled album, produced by Bill Wyman, would appear the next year. Taylor was captured again on film with the Stones on March 26, 1971, in their televised Marquee Club gig. The tapes of this show are somewhat frustrating; while the full group is shown, in very tight proximity, and the sound is clear, the very dated “psychedelic” editing detracts from the visual effectiveness. Nevertheless, the band plays very well, with Mick really leaping out to the forefront of the sound. They tear into new tracks like “I Got The Blues” and “Dead Flowers” among others. Keith holds down the rhythm for the most part, with Mick playing leads and interlocking rhythms to great effect.

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