Now Spinning: The Rolling Stones – Flowers

While The Rolling Stones 1967 release Flowers is hardly an unknown album, in their intimidatingly massive catalog, the album is an overlooked gem, if also a slight misfit in their discography. Much like The Beatles, The Rolling Stones early albums were issued with slightly altered tracklists, which stemmed from cultural differences between British and American audiences when it came to buying and valuing music. Simply put, in America, hits sold. Over and over again, as American audiences flocked to buy new albums that featured hits they were already familiar with from the radio or 7″ releases. On the other hand, British audiences demanded all new material on full-length LP’s. Flowers was an album crafted deliberately for their American audience, combining readily available single hits with UK album tracks from Aftermath and Between the Buttons unreleased in the U.S. at the time, as well as three new songs, making the album an overall hodgepodge that nevertheless features much of the Stones’ best material from their mid-sixties era and flows surprisingly well.

Flowers also happened to a genius marketing moves by a band famed for their business success, significantly increasing the band’s popularity in the states. Released in June 1967, the album was perfectly framed for the Summer of Love – from the appropriate album title spelled out in boldly psychedelic font on the cover to the increased tinges of psychedelia found in their bluesy rock mix. Despite being released just months after Between The Buttons and doubling up with the hits included on that American release, Flowers soared to gold record status. While travel visa issues related to drug busts prevented the band from joining the year’s defining Monterey Pop Festival (though Brian Jones showed up for fun), Flowers, with its album artwork designed by the Monterey Pop Festival creative team, served as a reminder that The Rolling Stones were still the voice of youth rebellion while marketing the band directly to this suddenly massively influential youth generation. So yes, Flowers was 100% a commercially-fueled product of its era, designed to capitalize on this flash-in-a-pan cultural explosion. And though the influences and legacy of the Summer of Love would continue to endure for a few more years, the peak was indeed a flash-in-the-pan. Just six months later, the Stones would release their lone all-out psychedelic effort, Their Satanic Majesties Request. Full of druggy lyrics and boundless instrumental noise, the album is a strenuously murky and overcomplicated listen.

While Their Satanic Majesties Request has developed a mild degree of a cult appreciation in the years since, it was near-universally panned upon release and, musically, sounds like the Summer of Love spiraling out of control with too much experimentation. In the years since, Mick Jagger has admitted, ‘It’s not very good’ and the always straightforward Keith Richards said, ‘The album was a load of crap.’ In all the ways Their Satanic Majesties Requests sounds stale, overwrought and forced, Flowers, despite its jumbled assembly, feels surprisingly natural and catches the rapidly changing band caught at a one-time musical crossroads between swaggering blues rock, psychedelia led by Brian Jones’ unusual instrumentation and the very beginnings of a country twang influence.

In all, five songs from Flowers would have been familiar to U.S. audiences upon the album’s release – ‘Mother’s Little Helper’/’Lady Jane’, released one year earlier, ‘Have You Seen Your Mother Baby, Standing in the Shadow’, released the previous fall, and ‘Let’s Spend the Night Together’/’Ruby Tuesday’, a pair of hits included on the U.S. release of Between the Buttons just months earlier. The album material was chosen and sequenced by Mick Jagger, Keith Richards and band manager Andrew Oldham, and likely in a direct attempt to tap into Americans’ hit obsession, Flowers opens with four of those previously released singles consecutively. I’ll skip discussing this well-known material, except to say that Brian Jones’ dulcimer on ‘Lady Jane’ is perhaps the best example of his musical imagination and versatility, while the instrumentation on ‘Ruby Tuesday’ and ‘Have You Seen Your Mother, Baby (Standing in the Shadow) further demonstrate their continued expansion into new musical ambitions.

While the hits are some of the band’s finest singles of the decade, the material that was new to American audiences at the time was even more promising and fascinating. Up first comes ‘Out of Time’, a UK album track that I personally find to be one of the band’s very best of the era, on par with ‘Satisfaction’ or ‘Get Off My Cloud’ as a definitive piece of driving blues rock with a swinging beat, crunchy guitar riff from Richards and sneering vocals from Mick on the catchy chorus. But of course there’s a twist, as the song is predominantly based around an irresistible marimba riff by Brian Jones and features a pretty acoustic guitar part from Keith before the tempo and volume pick up to a more classic Rolling Stones feel.

Side two opens with the simply majestic ‘Back Street Girl’, another UK album track. With Richards’ gently picked acoustic guitar and Mick’s carefully delicate vocals leading the way, the song feels like the band’s first foray into country, which they would explore more fully on the following year’s Beggar’s Banquet. But once again strange instrumentation causes the song to defy genre categorization, with vibraphone, harpsichord and accordion adding interesting textures. The snarling blues rocker ‘Please Go Home’ follows, featuring some of Brian Jones’ finest guitar work, with an echo on Mick’s choruses adding a psychedelic touch. While Jones’ precipitous personal collapse that led to his dismissal from the band was not far off, Flowers captures him at an ambitiously creative peak, adding unusual flavors to each song with endless instruments that mesh melodically. The marimba returns on the one-of-a-kind ‘Ride On, Baby’, which also features Jones contributing autoharp and an effective harpsichord break. ‘Sitting On A Fence’ finds harpsichord present again, though the song is dominated by Richards’ and Jones’ acoustic guitar work, and feels like the band’s one-time impression take on the folk-rock sound popularized by The Byrds.

Flowers also represents the peak of The Rolling Stones’ work with David Hassinger, who served as their studio engineer through their classic run of mid-sixties album. Hassinger was eventually driven to quit by the band’s behavior and moved onto producing the Grateful Dead… until quitting in the middle of recording the band’s second album upon being asked to replicate ‘the sound of thick air.’ Poor guy. Headaches aside, Hassinger captures The Rolling Stones fantastically in the studio, particularly on the sessions for Aftermath and Between the Buttons as the band expanded their sound beyond the blues rock beginnings (The unique material from Flowers is also culled from those same sessions). Due to Flowers misfit discography status between a studio album and compilation, the original release in glorious mono as intended to be heard tends to be quite a bit easier to find than original presses of others in their discography that are consistently expensive. Be sure to pick up the particularly alive-sounding mono. A few copies available on Discogs as well.

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