Retrospective: Fifty years on from Goats Head Soup, have the Stones’ critics learned anything?
At the end of the day, the Stones rock on.
The history of the Rolling Stones is, in large part, a history of sceptical critics dismissively writing off albums, and interviewers posing the question of when the band will pack it in. 61 years in, they’re still waiting.
Released August 1973, Goats Head Soup received mixed reviews from critics. I suggest that it is the negative feedback that is most notable here, for Goats Head Soup is, in this writer’s view, as exceptional as any Stones album, yielding some timeless classics. More on that shortly.
Writing in Creem following the album’s release, Lester Bangs banged out a derisive take declaring:
“There is a sadness about the Stones now, because they amount to such an enormous ‘So what?’ The sadness comes when you measure not just one album, but the whole sense they’re putting across now against what they once meant”.
Even more scurrilously, Greg Shaw wrote in Phonograph Record that the album has “no redeeming qualities whatsoever.” Hardly words of praise for a band that, by the end of the sixties, had started referring to themselves as “the world’s greatest rock and roll band”.
Just as some critics panned Goats Head Soup (1973), they did the same with other Stones records in the 70s and beyond. Lester Bangs was likewise highly critical of their following album, It’s Only Rock ‘n Roll (1974), with reference to Goats Head Soup (1973):
“The Stones have become oblique in their old age, which is just another word for perverse except that perverse is the corniest concept extant as they realized at inception… Soup was friendly and safe. I want the edge and this album doesn’t reassure me that I’ll get it, what a curious situation to be stuck in, but maybe that’s the beauty of the Stones, hah, hah, kid? This album is false. Numb. But it cuts like a dull blade. Are they doing the cutting, or are we?”
This “old age” obliqueness which the Stones had supposedly reached preceded the widely-acclaimed albums Some Girls and Tattoo You, released in 1978 and 1981 respectively, sources of some of their most popular tracks.
Now onto the record itself.
The album starts with “Dancing with Mr. D.” The song is a pulsating track with a nondescript kind of softness to it. This quality is present throughout the album as a whole, which makes it a fitting listen when trekking home late at night in the cold with light drizzle around you. “100 Years Ago” is a definite banger, which makes numerous transitions from form to form, contemplating themes of growing up or refusing to. This is on point for a band that was already in its eleventh year of existence at the time and still going strong.
“Coming Down Again” is a strong expression of the album’s melancholy, sombre feel. It’s a comforting sort of melancholy, a sentiment one is relieved to relate with. Bobby Keys’ saxophone solo and Nicky Hopkins’ piano-playing perfectly compliment Keith Ricards’ lead vocals, Mick Jagger’s backing vocals, Mick Taylor’s bass-playing and Charlie Watts’ signature no-frills drumming. The lyrics are about Richards’ relationship with actress Anita Pallenberg, who previously dated former Stones bandmate Brian Jones, who died shortly after parting ways with the band in 1969:
Share your thoughts, there’s nothing you can hide
She was dying to survive
I was caught, oh, taken for a ride
She was showing no surprise
Slipped my tongue in someone else’s pie
Tasting better ev’ry time
He turned green and tried to make me cry
Being hungry, it ain’t no crime
The sombre track gives way to the rocking, shocking “Doo Doo Doo Doo Doo (Heartbreaker)”. With Jagger back at the vocal helm, the album reaches the peak of its aggression, railing against injustice and suffering. It is followed by the one-of-a-kind Stones ballad “Angie”, and with it the album returns to a more gentle sound. The soft, melancholy song portrays the end of relationship, with Jagger singing words of comfort: “Angie, Angie; Ain’t it good to be alive? / Angie, Angie; They can’t say we never tried.” “Angie” is well and truly a Stones classic, by far the most recognisable song from the album and the band’s seventh most-popular song on Spotify.
The groovy rocker “Silver Train” gives way to the slower “Hide Your Love” featuring Jagger on piano as well as vocals. “Winter”, a definite deep cut, is a truly incredible song. Anyone who knows what it is to shiver, or stand on the edge of a usually-busy street well after respectable society has gone to bed, or to more metaphorically hope for better days, will surely feel something from this song if they put on their headphones and imagine they’re soaring through the sky. While the song exhibits a longing for a “warm, hot summer,” it also reminisces on the cold winter nearly through, depicting this beauty perfectly with the musical score. The track is followed by “Can You Hear The Music”, another relatively soft tune.
Goats Head Soup (1973) concludes with the vulgar so-called “Star Star,” referred to as such on the track listing despite the band having always called it “Starfucker”. Featuring clear influences from Chuck Berry, it is the epitome of the Stones – sex and indulgence, and blues-based shock-value-infused rock ‘n’ roll.
A perfect end to the album, because at the end of the day, the Stones rock on.
A deluxe edition of Goats Head Soup was issued in 2020, with three entirely new songs – “Scarlet”, “All The Rage” and “Criss Cross”. Each of these is a strong, unique track. “All The Rage” may be my personal favourite of the trio – full of frustration and aggressive guitar, the song seems to mirror the punk rock that would arise within a few years of the album’s original release.
The Stones are set to release yet another album later this year – their 26th studio album – with original members Sir Mick Jagger and Keith Richards, and Ronnie Wood, who has been with the band since 1976. Also featured is former Stones guitarist (featured on Goats Head Soup) Mick Taylor, Sir Paul McCartney and Sir Ringo Starr. One must wonder if the critics will have changed.