The Rolling Stones - On Air album review

Off-the-leash early-60s radio work from the band that ensnared the hearts of the insolent

Cover art for The Rolling Stones - On Air album

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Due to the fact that The Rolling Stones have been playing that live set, with little deviation (for want of a better word), for the last forty years, it’s easy to forget that there’s a rich seam of their back catalogue that’s been pretty much Jumpin’ Jack Flashed out of history. Spool backward past Their Satanic Majesties Request to when Brian Jones was still a going concern and there they are: the band that ensnared the hearts of the born insolent, the antidote to The Beatles, The Greatest Rock’n’ Roll Band In The World. When they actually still played some pure, unalloyed rock’n’roll.

With all due respect to today’s Rolling Stones, they’re a very different proposition to the vital force captured here on these hitherto unavailable (legally) radio sessions recorded between 1963 and ’65 for the BBC’s Saturday Club, Blues In Rhythm, Top Gear, Rhythm And Blues, Yeah Yeah and, oh yes, The Joe Loss Pop Show. These Stones are drilled to perfection, there’s no intuitive intra-guitar weaving going on here, their gig-honed delivery is as tight as Charlie’s snare, and in combining this degree of technical competence with the pent-up fury of an ambitious young band under a barrage of undeserved tabloid abuse, their form is staggering.

The band are off-the-leash, ploughing through unpolished takes of contemporary hit singles (Come On, I Wanna Be Your Man, It’s All Over Now, The Last Time, a quite spectacular (I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction), favourite B-sides and album tracks (The Spider And The Fly, Down The Road A-Piece) and historically sought after exclusives (Chuck Berry’s Memphis, Tennessee and Beautiful Delilah, Buster Brown’s Fannie Mae, Tommy Tucker’s Hi-Heel Sneakers and, the timehonoured bootleggers’ favourite, their remarkable live romp through Bo Diddley’s Cops And Robbers).

As proceedings unfold, you’re struck by certain lost elements: Ian Stewart’s piano locked into an unwavering Watts/ Wyman rhythm section, Brian Jones’s signature blues-wailing harp and the extraordinary vocal performance of the young Mick Jagger.

The passing years have not been kind to Mick Jagger. It invariably seems to be Keith Richards that receives the lion’s share of plaudits for the Stones’ legacy and longevity. Somewhere along the line we got used to Jagger, we ceased noticing what an incredible vocalist he is, or in the case of On Air, was. Mick Jagger is brilliant on here, there’s no other word for it. Expressive, feral, soulful, sensual, explosive… On Air? On fire, more like.

Ian Fortnam

Classic Rock’s Reviews Editor for the last 20 years, Ian stapled his first fanzine in 1977. Since misspending his youth by way of ‘research’ his work has also appeared in such publications as Metal Hammer, Prog, NME, Uncut, Kerrang!, VOX, The Face, The Guardian, Total Guitar, Guitarist, Electronic Sound, Record Collector and across the internet. Permanently buried under mountains of recorded media, ears ringing from a lifetime of gigs, he enjoys nothing more than recreationally throttling a guitar and following a baptism of punk fire has played in bands for 45 years, releasing recordings via Esoteric Antenna and Cleopatra Records.