The Rolling Stones ‘On Air’ Is A Pivotal Snapshot Of Their Early, Blues-Fueled Rise

Listen To This Eddie is a weekly column that examines the important people and events in the classic rock canon and how they continue to impact the world of popular music.

Late last year, the Rolling Stones shocked their horde of tongue-clad worshippers by dropping their first full-length album in over a decade. Titled Blue & Lonesome, the record eschewed the inclusion of any Mick Jagger/Keith Richards-penned originals, and was instead filled with twelve, newly recorded Chicago blues classics and deep cuts. For many, Blue & Lonesome marked the end-point of a long circle that began all the way back at their inception in the early 1960s when they were sweating it out in tiny clubs like the Marquee and the Ealing around London, raving up over Little Walter and Jimmy Reed tracks. With the release of their latest live collection On Air, the band has decided to give us our clearest picture yet of themselves at the beginning of that same loop in all their Muddy Waters and Bo Diddley-worshipping glory.

Comprised of 32 songs in its expanded, deluxe form, On Air weaves together material culled from a myriad of appearances made on numerous BBC Radio programs between 1963 and 1965. This is the Rolling Stones before they got into psychedelics, heroin or disco. When all that mattered was mastering the most obscure blues ephemera they could get their hands on and regurgitating it to the masses.

“It was a completely different style of music to the kind of saccharine pop that was available,” Jagger explained of the blues’ initial appeal last year to Everything Zoomer. “It was very raunchy compared to most pop music. It spoke to direct experience, and the sounds were more vibrant, the rhythms more interesting and more danceable. It had an instant appeal. For my generation, it’s the equivalent of suburban white kids doing rap. It’s so culturally far away from your own experience.”

To the thousands and thousands of British teens pressing their ears to the speakers of their radio sets during programs like The Joe Loss Pop Show, Top Gear, Yeah Yeah, Blues In Rhythm, or Saturday Club, the Stones were delivering a master text of the most important movers and shakers within the post-war, Chicago-style blues canon. “I Can’t Be Satisfied” by Muddy Waters. “Route 66” by Bobby Troup. “Mona” by Bo Diddley. “Everybody Needs Somebody To Love” by Solomon Burke. “Ain’t That Lovin’ You, Baby” by Jimmy Reed. “I Just Wanna Make Love To You” by Willie Dixon.

The Stones were such blues hounds that On Air ends with a harmonica-drenched original recording, penned under their collective songwriting alias Nanker Phelge, titled “2120 South Michigan Avenue.” For those unaware, that’s the address of the legendary Chess Recording studio in Chicago where Muddy Waters, Willie Dixon, Howlin’ Wolf, Little Walter and just about anybody who’s anybody within the blues laid down the bulk of their greatest hits. The Stones recorded this song, along with another four tracks for an EP titled Five By Five within Chess Records itself in 1964. It’s another important reminder that long before they were smacked-out, anti-heroes, the Rolling Stones were a band of sweater-wearing music nerds, geeked out over the chance to simply breath the same air as their forbearers.

While I’d hesitate to call it a revelation, it’s quite telling that On Air is filled out with six different Chuck Berry covers. In fact, there are more Chuck Berry songs here than there are Stones originals. His influence on the band’s overall sound is paramount. To really understand where the band was coming from on an aesthetic and thematic plane, you have to understand the power and pull of the “Father Of Rock ‘N’ Roll.”

After Chuck’s death earlier this year, Richards penned a lengthy tribute where he drove that message home once again. “For me the world went from black to white to glorious Technicolor when I first heard ‘Little Queenie,’” he wrote. “There was no doubt in my mind: It was obvious what I had to do and I haven’t changed since.”

Richards also cannily noted that, “If I flip the coin and wonder how the f*ck Chuck Berry reacted to me when he first heard my feeble efforts to spread his groove, my guess is a disdainful chuckle and then a gleam as he imagined the royalties roll in.” On Air is a glaring indicator that Richards estimation is most likely true. While the Stones versions of “Carol,” “Come On,” “Roll Over Beethoven,” “Memphis, Tennessee,” and “Around And Around,” are exuberant tributes, they do indeed lack the power and vitality of Chuck’s original recordings.

That being said, the early rendition of their immortal, breakthrough hit “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction,” recorded live on the Saturday Club in September 1965 is inspired. From the second Richards slams into the instantly identifiable, fuzzed-out guitar riff that he supposedly wrote in his sleep, your ears perk up. The sound, the attitude, the relentless, no-frills backbeat; it immediately stands out. Mick whines about being pandered to on television by a man telling him “about how white my shirts can be.” He sulks bout the “useless information” received on the radio. He grouses about the girl who advises him he “better come back next week” while in the midst of trying to make it with her. If the bulk of on this collection feels like it’s mired in a not-too-distant past, “Satisfaction” is the first, and most potent indicator that the Stones were ready to take on the bold new world of the so-called “sixties.”

Though it certainly would’ve been nice had this collection been assembled in a chronological format rather than an inexplicable mishmash of selections from across a three-year span, listen closely throughout On Air and you can hear in real-time the evolution of the Keith Richards, Mick Jagger, Charlie Watts, Bill Wyman and Brian Jones from a band of white boy wannabes into the living, breathing Rolling Stones. Even the self-proclaimed “Greatest Rock ‘n Roll Band In The World” had to start somewhere.