With the Stones running around conquering the world 40 years after their first tour, I thought it might be interesting to look back at the formative years when things were still fluid and an institution they were not. I talked to the Stones’ original manager and producer, Andrew Loog Oldham, who has lived in Colombia for many years.
In early-’63 Oldham was hired by Beatles manager Brian Epstein to promote the Beatles and Gerry and the Pacemakers. After promoting “Please, Please Me” for the Beatles and “How Do You Do It?” for Gerry, Oldham was working on the Fab Four’s “From Me To You” when destiny intervened:
“A journalist I was pitching, Peter Jones of Record Mirror, sent me off to see the Stones at the Crawdaddy Club in Richmond, probably to get me off his back. I saw them April 23, 1963, and then I knew what I had been training for. The main thing they had was passion, which has served them to this day,” Oldham says.
At the time the Rollin’ Stones (named for the Muddy Waters song, Oldham added the “g”) – Brian Jones and Keith Richards on guitars, Mick Jagger on vocals and harmonica, Bill Wyman on bass, Charlie Watts on drums, and Ian Stewart on piano – were a ragged R&B cover band, but their run at the Crawdaddy had generated much attention, and with the Beatles on their way up, no one wanted to miss the next big thing.
The Stones took to Oldham’s youth, confidence, and vision, and allowed themselves to be talked out of a verbal management agreement they had with Crawdaddy-owner Giorgio Gomelsky, who was in Switzerland attending his father’s funeral at the time. Oldham’s first act as manager was to demote the shambling Stewart (the “6th Stone,” Stewart recorded with the band until his death in ’85) from the band’s live act for not keeping with Oldham’s image of a lean-and-mean Stones.
“I took the Stones to Dick Rowe at Decca, and I knew he would sign them because he had turned down the Beatles. He had a great track record in the ’50s, including Billy Fury, and he should be remembered not as the guy who turned down the Beatles, but as the guy who signed the Rolling Stones,” says Oldham emphatically.
“In England at that time you had four record companies that controlled everything: EMI, Decca, Philips and Pye,” he continues. ‘The 9-to-5 mentality of the record companies would not have served the Rolling Stones. What I saw in the club, which had to be brought as much as possible onto record, could not have been done with shirts and ties, so I became a record producer to protect my vision of their image: there are always opposites and I saw the Rolling Stones as the anti-Beatles. I didn’t have to be technically proficient. I didn’t play an instrument, wasn’t an engineer or a technician, but I had a vision,” he says.
“I had no idea what I was doing in the studio the first time. I had 40 pounds to spend at 5 or 6 pounds an hour. I was looking at the clock and it was 5:55 PM – time was nearly up. We had recorded three songs so I said ‘Right, that’s it.’ The engineer said, ‘What about mixing’ (we were working on four-track), and I said, ‘What’s that?’ He explained it to me; I said, ‘You do it and I’ll pick it up in the morning.’ A year-and-a-half later I was an ‘expert’ and wouldn’t let anybody else touch anything,” he says.
In June of ’63 the Stones’ first single, a cover of Chuck Berry’s “Come On” was released and went to No. 21 in the UK. The follow-up in November was a cover of the dreaded Beatles’ “I Wanna Be Your Man,” which did even better rising to UK No. 12. By February of ’64, they reached the UK Top 10 with Buddy Holly’s “Not Fade Away,” which also cracked the Top 50 in the U.S.
“Once we got going, we had to keep coming up with a new single every six weeks. We did a couple of singles, an EP [The Rolling Stones], then an album [England's Newest Hitmakers: The Rolling Stones]. One of the keys to production is to pick the right environment for the act to function in. For an example, after the first (largely disastrous) American tour in ’64, as a reward for being pros, I took the Stones to Chess to record at the home of their idols,” Oldham says.
While he was both the Stones’ manager and producer, Oldham’s greatest contribution to the group was “making them write. The Stones weren’t writing yet, and I realized for them to keep pumping out the singles they had to come up with their own material. A group not being able to write is like flying an airplane without a parachute. ‘Tell Me (You’re Coming Back),’ from the first album, was the first song Mick and Keith wrote that the group recorded. It was a great beginning; once they mastered writing singles, there was a period from ’65 to ’67 where we couldn’t go wrong. We would cut four or five tracks a day. There were no prisoners: if a song wasn’t happening after 20 minutes, next case,” he says emphatically.
“From ’64 to ’67 we only recorded in America: 80% at RCA in Hollywood. There’s something to be said for stepping out into sunshine on the Sunset Strip for a break rather than into the drizzling rain of West Hampstead. Environment counts, and the Stones were about – even when they were writing – American music. English music was not about something as honest and personal as ‘Stand By Me.’ Because of their passion for it, the Stones were able to embody American music rather than just play it,” he says.
“Ironically,” Oldham continues,” even though we were playing American music and recording there, it took us longer to get big in America because image wasn’t an issue we could use. The mainstream press didn’t care that much yet about pop culture. It wasn’t until after Monterey and Woodstock that the American press realized that this thing wasn’t going to go away and return to Frank Sinatra, Mantovani, and all things comfortable. Also the fallout from the Vietnam War helped reinforce the seriousness of the counterculture,” he observes acutely.
Oldham’s enduring legacy is the amazing music the Stones and he generated during the two years between the squirmingly lascivious “Satisfaction” – one of the greatest rock songs ever – released in May of ’65, and the hit-filled Flowers compilation, released in July of ’67. In between were the incredibly self-aware narcissism of “Get Off Of My Cloud”; the chamber music gentility and vulnerability of “As Tears Go By”; the bemused urban modernity of “19th Nervous Breakdown”; and the Stones’ first timeless album, Aftermath, with the simultaneously mocking and empathetic drug song “Mother’s Little Helper,” the incredibly groovy and misogynistic “Under My Thumb” and “Out Of Time,” the lovely “Lady Jane,” and the exotic “Paint It Black.”