At the close of 1963, the Rolling Stones were, for want of a better word, on a -- roll. They'd done okay if not great the previous summer with their debut single, a cover of a Chuck Berry obscurity called "Come On," which was more energetic than 99 percent of its competition, and then roared into the Top 20 in November with a follow up single, a savage rendition of the Lennon-McCartney song "I Wanna Be Your Man," complete with slide guitar and a bass that sounded like its amplifier was cranked up to 12.
And then they were ready to take the next step. No; not an LP, which in those days was reserved for relative elites in the music business, but an EP, an extended-play single, containing four songs and priced accordingly higher. It would presumably generate twice the revenue and show some more of what the band could do. At the time, this didn't include songwriting, which they'd only just started trying to do in earnest (especially after seeing how Paul McCartney and John Lennon had delivered "I Wanna Be Your Man" to them on the spot, as a favor). So the question was, what songs would be on the EP (rather unimaginatively titled The Rolling Stones)? They'd previously struggled to find a second single -- before Lennon and McCartney stepped in -- trying and failing -- with results that were closer to a limp version of "The Little Drummer Boy" than to anything by the Coasters -- to cut one of their favorite American songs, Leiber & Stoller's "Poison Ivy."
This time, with the single still riding the charts and -- as a cover of a new Beatles song at a time when the Beatles were the hottest music act in England -- getting the group lots of television and radio exposure, the solution came a little easier. They didn't have to look beyond their own favorites -- it was back to Chuck Berry and a slashing rendition of his four-year-old "Bye Bye Johnny," a favorite of Keith Richards', rebuilt from the ground up with a tempo that started out in fourth and jumped to overdrive and then threw in the super-charger on the guitar break, Richards and Brian Jones' interlocking guitars propelling the song into space around Mick Jagger's raspy lead vocals; then it was time to cross swords with the Beatles on a Motown number, "Money," which they carried into punkier territory, with more sneer and attitude than John Lennon and company had mustered earlier that year. (And maybe it was here that the seed was planted for that notion that the Stones always seemed to try what the Beatles had done three months earlier, except that this time it worked on the basis of sheer wattage and Mick Jagger's intensity). The real centerpiece was Arthur Alexander's "You Better Move On," another American-spawned favorite that the band had been doing in concert -- this was their chance to show a softer, more lyrical and soulful sound that was every bit as intense as the blues and hard R&B they'd already done on record; and they did it with some exquisite harmony singing by Bill Wyman and Brian Jones (before the latter surrendered the microphone to Keith Richards), showing off yet another new attribute on record -- it was also no accident that the Alexander song was the only one of these four to get a second life in an American release, picked up by London Records in 1965 when the latter was assembling the December's Children LP. And, finally, there was "Poison Ivy," which the band salvaged with a ballsier rendition, sporting a harder guitar sound and a great showcase for Charlie Watts' playing as well. It all worked, as the resulting extended-play release, despite its higher price, reached the singles charts and also became the group's first number one hit, reaching that coveted slot on the EP sales listings for England in early 1964 and riding that chart for 11 weeks. Within five weeks of its release, the group -- still working at songwriting -- would record and release a follow up single, "Not Fade Away" b/w "Little by Little," that took all of the elements in evidence on this EP several steps further.
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