Goats Head Soup: as far as Rolling Stones albums go, it's an outlier. It's not a "landmark album" in the same way as Sticky Fingers, it didn't defy expectations in the same way as Exile. It didn't herald a new sound like Beggars Banquet or Let It Bleed. Now, that's not to say it's not a great album, but it just feels...different.
After the one-two-three-four punches of Beggars Banquet, Let It Bleed, Sticky Fingers, and the magnum opus Exile on Main Street, it makes sense that fans had long considered Goats Head Soup to be a more subdued album, thanks in no small part to the U.S. No. 1 ballad, "Angie." In the intervening decades, the 1973 album has been often overlooked, especially alongside its towering predecessors, even if it did top the charts on both sides of the Atlantic.
Thanks to a new box set that's chock full of delights, Goats Head Soup has finally been given the love and care that it has unfairly missed out on over the years, with all the bells and whistles you'd expect. This deluxe collection brings together new stereo and Dolby Atmos mixes (which down-convert easily to your run-of-the-mill 5.1) alongside alternate mixes and a handful of new tracks recently unearthed from the session tapes. Sonically, it's a fantastic listen. And that's before you get into the elegantly-designed book, the enlightening liner notes, and the beautiful presentation of the box set. Let's dig in for this new helping of Goat's Head Soup.
Upon first glance at the linen-wrapped 3-CD/Blu-ray box set complete with hardbound book, you might wonder: The bad boys of rock and roll being treated with such a graceful design? What's going on here? But opening up the set, it's as straight-ahead, no bull as the band: just a book packed with information and plenty of pictures, and the discs neatly tucked away on the left side. There's nothing to lift off to get to the goods, and no excessive ephemera aside from a clever recipe pamphlet and a few posters inside the cardboard spacer. It's all there clearly laid bare with nothing to hide, stark but subtle, just like The Stones. A good sign. The 120-page book is a marvel, packed with unseen photos from the studio and the stage. It's presented in three parts with essays about the album's evolution, the band's extensive Pacific and European tours in 1973, and the lengthy gestation of the unmistakable album art. Together, they tell the story of a band at a crossroads, eager for a change.
It's 1972. As tax exiles, The Rolling Stones set up shop in Jamaica to begin the sessions for the follow-up to their sprawling Exile On Main Street. Though many wrongfully assumed they'd gone there to make a reggae album, Jamaican culture still influenced the upcoming album's spirit and, of course, its title. And while the band didn't craft expected reggae jams, what they did deliver was a collection of focused, "less freaky" material, as Jagger would describe it. Goats Head Soup features an amalgam of heavy rock, soul, and - with keyboardist Billy Preston on hand - plenty of funk. Yet they could also successfully balance those rock tendencies with more tender, introspective fare.
All this was on display in the first round of Jamaica sessions, which wrapped in December '72. The band then settled in L.A. for further sessions in between rehearsals for a somewhat ill-fated Far East tour. In L.A., they'd lay down five songs including favorites like "Star Star" (originally named "Starfucker"), "Doo Doo Doo Doo Doo (Heartbreaker)," and "Dancing With Mr. D." The latter would open Goats Head Soup, the concise, ten-song album whittled down from the thirty-plus songs they'd accumulated over months of recording.
CD 1 features a brand-new stereo mix of Goats Head Soup undertaken by Giles Martin and Craig Silvey. Across the board, the new mix sounds is well-balanced, offering a certain clarity and subtlety which show that even though The Stones have a reputation for a down and dirty sound, the raw material they laid down is sonically stellar.
Part of the magic of the songs comes down to the band's willingness to explore. The Rolling Stones have never been ones to hide away from their inspirations and a decade into their career, Goats Head Soup sees them melding all of them into one delectable concoction. The album begins with "Dancin' With Mr. D." It's got a spooky, voodoo-inspired vibe with Mick alternating between almost-demonic vocals and Little Richard-like exorcised hoops and hollers. Given its new treatment, these elements blend seamlessly with the eerie combination of sax and slide guitar. The Martin-Silvey mix also demonstrates how integral Charlie Watts' perfectly selected fills and precise grooves are to The Stones' singular sound, as he's brought to the forefront as the glue to the band.
The ambitious "100 Years Ago" sees the band building a striking arrangement that's almost like four songs in one, beginning with a weary Allman Brothers-y chord progression and multitracked vocals, building into a punchy midsection with slinky guitar leads. Then, in a Stones signature, the band falls back about three-quarters of the way through only to build up to a double-time section with dueling clavinet and guitar. All the way through, the mix remains evenly balanced, highlighting both the craft of the band's arrangements and the quality of the original tracks. This is even more apparent on the tender and regretful "Coming Down Again," featuring spellbinding piano by Nicky Hopkins and a winding bass line by Mick Taylor. The song features close harmonies, layers of guitar and floating clavinet, and a supporting vocal from Mick that sounds upfront enough to be in the room. Through to its closing sax solo and building finale, the band gels beautifully.
The album picks up steam with the "rock-funk" showcase, "Doo Doo Doo Doo Doo (Heartbreaker)." It's a dense, sometimes even claustrophobic arrangement perfectly tailored to its lyrics which center around crime, pain, addiction, and inescapable grief in the city. The blend of clavinet, piano, brass, and guitars remains the unified catalyst for the ever-building song, but on the 2020 mix, each element is just a bit more discernible, making the song even easier to get lost in. After a pair of rootsy '50s rock throwbacks in "Silver Train" and "Hide Your Love" comes another absolute stunner, "Winter." It was the first song the band tracked in Jamaica after a stay in Switzerland, and that chilly but inviting feeling - like the first warmth after a frigid and trying winter - comes through in the expansive mix. Here Mick is expressive and emotive, phrasing lines with a pace recalling Van Morrison while layers of alternate-tuned guitars, swirling strings, and some of Charlie Watts' heaviest drumming on the record evoke a respite from what's "sure been a hard, hard winter." The band further demonstrated their talents for orchestrating on "Can You Hear The Music," which features Leslie'd guitar, triangle, penny whistle, and an ethereal vocal, reflecting on the transformative and magical powers of music. It's a subject The Rolling Stones seem to be intimately familiar with, as they turn in song after head-turning song.
Perhaps most head-turning is the closer, "Star Star." It's renown and legend lies not for any wild instrumentation, but for including one of the raunchiest, most controversial lyrics in The Rolling Stones' songbook. So provocative was the song that it required an okay from label head Ahmet Ertegun and the named-checked Hollywood leading man, Steve McQueen as well as a new tiitle - its original too profane for radio - before it could be considered for inclusion. The Chuck Berry send-up with its throwback feel and clever lyrics is the perfect closer on what might be the most concise yet explorative album of the The Rolling Stones' classic era. Trimmed of excesses - including many songs left on the cutting room floor - Goats Head Soup sees the band charting new and interesting territory while also reappraising their own musical journey.
Yet, for longtime fans, it's that unreleased material that is the biggest draw here. While The Rolling Stones have not yet chosen to subscribe to the Dylan method of releasing every take of every song, what we get on CD 2 is a superbly curated, 10-song overview of the creation of the album. It begins with three previously unheard songs: "Scarlet," "All The Rage," and "Criss Cross." These outtakes have become the stuff of legend, particularly "Scarlet" which sees Mick and Keith collaborating with Jimmy Page and Ric Grech for what might be the closest thing we'll hear to a Rolling Stones-Led Zeppelin collaboration. With a catchy chorus and a driving Bo Diddley beat, it's a wonder this track sat in the vaults so long. Meanwhile, "All The Rage" is a '50s-style commentary on fame, consumerism and excess that builds to a surprising 12-string-led midsection. "Criss Cross" (also known as "Criss Cross Mind") comes from the Jamaica sessions, it's a raw and grimy funk number that would have been perfectly at home on the original album. In fact, to these ears, all three of the previously unreleased tracks could have been placed on the album without bogging it down.
Select moments from the recording sessions are also featured on Goats Head Soup 2020. The intimate piano-and-vocal "demo" version of "100 Years Ago" and the stripped-down instrumental takes of "Dancin' With Mr. D." and "Heartbreaker" show the songs in a completely new light - more raw, fewer overdubs, and with emphasis on the interplay between the band. An alternate mix of "Hide Your Love" presents a drum-heavy recasting of the song, with a propelling floor tom, less slap-back echo on the vocal and a fuller sax section. In a similar vein, three mixes undertaken by famed Stones producer Glyn Johns in 1973 - "Dancin' With Mr. D.," "Doo Doo Doo Doo Doo (Heartbreaker)," and "Silver Train" - present punchier, somehow even grimier presentations of the songs. Here the drums have more heft, the vocals are altogether more immediate, and that brass-and-clavinet blend is specially featured. It's an interesting alternate view, a case of what might have been. (Curiously, a Japan-exclusive configuration of the box set features two more Glyn Johns mixes: "100 Years Ago" and "Can You Hear the Music.")
The Rolling Stones' pivotal 1973 concert tours are also well-documented in the box set, presenting a band in transition. Right after the January/February 1973 Far East and Pacific Tours, both keyboardist Nicky Hopkins and sax player Jim Price departed. For the European tour that would stretch from September to October, Billy Preston was recruited to play keyboards, while Steve Madaio and Trevor Lawrence of Stevie Wonder's Wonderlove joined Bobby Keys to become a three-piece horn section. With a reinvigorated band and some fresh material, The Rolling Stones proved once again their prowess on the live stage. Journalist Nick Kent, who covered much of the tour for the New Musical Express, describes the shows in vivid detail in an essay for the book, placing the reader in the crowd with him. Like many Stones fans, he agrees that the penultimate stop of the tour - a pair of shows in Brussels - represents the peak of their power.
Originally slated for release in 1973, Brussels Affair combines absolutely electrifying shows from both the afternoon and evening sets on October 17. Hardcore fans will likely remember the lavish Brussels Affair box set which now fetches astronomical sums on the secondary market. That audio is reprised here and it's simply stellar. It's the band is at their most raw and energized, and over the course of the 15-song set it's impossible not to get swept into the excitement of The World's Greatest Rock and Roll Band. The Rolling Stones turn out amazing performances of fan favorites like "Brown Sugar" and "Happy," which almost fly off the rails! The horn section is the perfect addition to the material, beefing up the entire set with punchy interjections. Even the band's newest songs - "Mr. D.," "Heartbreaker," and "Angie" - are met with a frantic reception. In this slightly more stripped setting, free of vocal processing and overdubbed musical blends, the songs are presented in their purest form and they shine because of it. The "Oh yeah!" call-and-response with Billy Preston and Mick Jagger on "Heartbreaker," the trading electric guitar solos on "Angie," and the transfixing vocal delivery on "Mr. D." prove that The Rolling Stones could thrill an audience with even unfamiliar material.
But it's the second half of Brussels Affair that sees the band kicking it into high gear. Just listen to the stunning, 11-minute "You Can't Always Get What You Want," with Mick leaving the audience hanging on every word, the heavy blend of electric guitars and horns leaning and swinging into the groove, the sax and guitar solos, and the uproarious closing. It's bettered only by a thrilling, constantly shifting "Midnight Rambler" that's been called the definitive rendition of the concert favorite. After that, the band is racing in top gear, blasting through "Honky Tonk Women," "All Down The Line," "Rip This Joint," and a closing medley of "Jumping Jack Flash" and "Street Fighting Man." It's pure adrenaline - the epitome of the wild abandon of rock and roll, the perfection of imperfection.
While many would be happy with the just CDs and the book, The Stones have gone the extra (moonlight) mile and included a Blu-ray disc. It's packaged in a single-pocket sleeve featuring Jagger and Richards' portraits on the front and back (sorry, Mick Taylor and Bill Wyman, no gatefold). Here you'll find a high-resolution cut of the 2020 stereo mix and a new Dolby Atmos surround sound mix prepared by Giles Martin and Craig Silvey. It's here where the album really shines. You won't find elements constantly swirling overhead in this surround mix, just a sound that's at once detailed and enveloping, and altogether intricately balanced. Acoustic elements once buried, like the guitar on "Doo Doo Doo Doo Doo (Heartbreaker)," shine through, with layers of horns or keyboards more discernible than before. The vocals are more immediate and the sonics open and consistently crankable. That includes the bonus tracks, "All The Rage," "Criss Cross," and "Scarlett" (as it's spelled on the Blu-ray menus). If that weren't enough, you also get three music videos from the period ("Dancing With Mr D.," "Angie" and "Silver Train") each restored from their original sources.
In all, Goats Head Soup 2020 is a fantastic look into an album that doesn't deserve to be glossed over. It's also a celebration of an era that saw The Rolling Stones scaling some of their highest highs, proving they could still deliver on stage and in the studio, even after all the successes that had come before. With brand new mixes of the excellent album in stereo and surround, plus a wealth of bonus cuts and a beautiful book, Goats Head Soup 2020 is a must for any fan who's hungry for an extra helping.