Review Summary: Can this patchwork compilation be saved with a little track-juggling?
The bastard step-child of The Rolling Stones’ discography. Generally forgotten or ignored by younger fans (i.e, those under 50), it lingers on in the mind of two types of people: those who were actually around when it came out, and music writers. Every time a Stones song missed the mark for the next two decades after its release, critics would say “sounds like it should have been dumped on Flowers,” or words to that effect.
In the 1960s, U.S. record labels had a cringe-inducing policy of chopping up and altering British albums -- ostensibly as a money-making measure (fewer tracks per album in the U.S. resulted in more albums to sell), but they seemed to go out of their way to put them together in the clumsiest, most haphazard manner possible. It is folly to try to follow the thought processes of these record executives, but it almost seemed a deliberate attempt to make the worst decisions possible regarding song choices and sequencing. Yes, yes, they were clueless “suits” handling “product”, but shouldn’t a little understanding of their product have crept in by 1967, when the practice finally started dying out?
There was a theory that The Beatles’ famous hastily-withdrawn “butcher cover” on just such a hideous American re-packaging (Yesterday And Today) was their protest against the practice. (It wasn’t. It was just a random photo session, and the photographer, Robert Whitaker, had overly-arty sensibilities. The Beatles had little say in what Capitol Records slapped on the covers of U.S. albums)
The Stones’ American label was, ironically, London Records, and was an enthusiastic participant in these practices. On their ‘65 tour, the Stones were stunned to spot a massive billboard in Manhattan advertising an album they had no idea had been put out under their name -- December’s Children (And Everybody’s). A typical collection of leftovers wrapped around a recent hit single ("Get Off Of My Cloud"), but the label didn't even try to politely call it a compilation -- it was presented as their “latest album.” At least by '67, they weren't trying to fool anyone.
So Flowers is generally referred to as a compilation album, but most people’s idea of a “compilation” album is a collection of previously released material (e.g., a best-of, or retrospective), and most of Flowers was unheard, at least in America -- with three absolutely ridiculous exceptions. “Ruby Tuesday” and “Let’s Spend The Night Together” were two sides of a big single -- but also the key tracks from the U.S. version of the album Between The Buttons, released a mere four months earlier. “Lady Jane” was even more puzzling -- it was a non-single album track from their year-old album Aftermath. Why stick it on Flowers? Your guess is as good as mine.
If someone working at London Records in 1967 is reading this (unlikely, but infinitesimally possible), drop me a line and explain yourself.
Flowers was released on June 26, 1967 -- the very height of the “Summer of Love” (which people even back then were sick to death of hearing about before August was over), a mere three weeks after The Beatles' Sgt. Pepper, and "flower power" (gag) was permeating the atmosphere. The title and cover design were cynically concocted to part hippies from their pan-handled money (or “bread,” I guess they’d say), promising a psychedelic head trip -- but there was nary a Mellotron to be heard, and certainly nothing about universal love or peace. It was much more of a piece with the aggressive power-pop of 1966’s Aftermath, which stands to reason because much of the material came from the same sessions, over a year before. Rarely had an album’s cover and contents varied so greatly.
But it is not without redemption, especially in the age of iTunes, and the ability to make songs go where you want them to go. I say, make a NEW Flowers. A useful Flowers. A Flowers that is a collection of songs either unavailable to American listeners at that point, or singles that hadn’t been collected on an album yet. (Era-appropriate singles, that is. For example, their 1963 debut single “Come On” was un-albumized, but would sound comically out of place on Flowers.) Rather than a rip-off, this would be worth your $2.99 (or whatever the hell albums cost in 1967) and would be a true companion piece to Aftermath and Between The Buttons.
Here’s the original track listing for Flowers:
1. “Ruby Tuesday” -- A great song, and the most 1967-sounding (complete with double-bass and recorder)...because it had already been released in 1967, on Between The Buttons. Rip-off #1
2. “Have You Seen Your Mother, Baby, Standing In The Shadow?” -- The last single from 1966, mostly forgotten now, but it’s a winner: A total electric freak-out, awash in feedback, with chaotic mariachi-style horns going crazy in the background.
3. “Let’s Spend The Night Together” -- Again, great song. Again, already on Between The Buttons. Rip-off #2.
4. “Lady Jane” -- Already on Aftermath. Inclusion here a total mystery. Rip-off #3.
5. “Out Of Time” -- Formerly only available on the British version of Aftermath. A sibling to “Under My Thumb,” utilizing the same lead instruments: the marimba (a type of African xylophone), and fuzz bass, and with the same quasi-misogynistic lyrical themes.
6. “My Girl” -- Previously unreleased, and with good reason. It’s terrible. It’s the oldest track here, dating from the May 1965 sessions that also produced “Satisfaction.” Whoever thought it would be a kick for them to do a half-assed run-through of this Temptations classic should be boiled in patchouli oil. I suspect it was their loopy “producer”/manager Andrew Loog Oldham (fired around the time of Flowers' release), because it was he that supervised the hasty overdubbing of a string section in the fall of 1966. It still wasn’t deemed releasable, until London Records, nosing around in the vaults, decided to put it on Flowers. Even though it had never been heard before, I’m going to call this rip-off #4, because no one should have heard it. Ever.
7. “Backstreet Girl” -- From the British version of Between The Buttons, and a highlight of that album, which lacked the one-two punch of “Ruby Tuesday” and “Let’s Spend The Night Together.” Those were only a single in Britain (confused yet?). Gentle accordion flourishes give this a Parisian atmosphere.
8. “Please Go Home” -- Also from the U.K. Between The Buttons. Not much substance here, but it certainly sounds cool -- a Bo Diddley-style guitar shuffle drenched in swirling echo.
9. “Mother’s Little Helper” -- The opening track of the British Aftermath. Even though it had the droning Indian instrumentation found on psychedelia of a slightly later era, its propulsive amphetamine rush and clattering percussion meant it was anything but mellow.
10. “Take It Or Leave It” -- Buried on Side Two of the British Aftermath, it was a universal consensus that this flat, melody-free acoustic lament was the weakest track on that otherwise fine album. Naturally, it was given top priority for Flowers over other more worthy choices. I say, rip-off #5.
11. “Ride On, Baby” -- Previously unreleased track from the Aftermath sessions. Exotic instrumentation included a harpsichord and Japanese koto, both played by multi-instrumentalist Brian Jones, who by the time of Flowers’ release, was already being edged out of the band due to his druggy unreliability. Conspiracy theorists after the fact noticed that Brain’s flower stem on the cover was missing its leaves.
12. “Sittin’ On A Fence” -- Another previously unreleased Aftermath outtake, this dark folk tune with delicate finger-picked guitar work has always been one of my favorite early Stones songs.
So we have three songs blatantly repeated for no reason from recent major releases, two songs that are absolute dreck, and seven songs that are good enough to form the core of a decent album.
If I were an executive for London Records in 1967, here’s the Flowers I would compile:
1. “19th Nervous Breakdown” -- This excellent early ‘66 single had not been included on an original album yet.
2. “Sad Day” -- The B-side to “19th Nervous Breakdown” shares the same feel with the songs cut during the Aftermath sessions.
3. “Have You Seen Your Mother, Baby, Standing In The Shadow”
4. “Who’s Driving Your Plane?” -- The B-side to “Shadow,” this one’s a monster. A heavy, stomping proto-punk blues with session keyboard player Nicky Hopkins murdering his piano keys.
5. “Out Of Time”
6. “Long, Long While” -- The B-side to the British “Paint It Black” single. A less-aggressive, more plaintive piano-based blues.
7. “Backstreet Girl”
8. “Please Go Home”
9. “Mother’s Little Helper”
10. “What To Do” -- I suggest replacing “Take It Or Leave It” with this gently loping country tune, also from Side Two of the British version of Aftermath and unheard in America.
11. “Ride On, Baby”
12. “Sittin’ On A Fence”
Alas, this version of Flowers that wouldn’t be a punchline to old-school Stones fans exists only in my imagination and in my iTunes playlists…