The first Rolling Stones live album I know of is Got Live If You Want It (1965), a collection of their pop hits from the early Sixties, performed in front of a typical Stones mania audience where the screams of the teenage girls drown out the music and in essence the band is just playing like a skiffle band with no finesse or power. All that the musicians do is to make a rhythmic noise to accompany Mick's singing. Pretty much a souvenir for those who were there but otherwise not an essential listening experience. One would ever consider the Stones to be accomplished musicians after listening to this anodyne album.
The next one is Get Yer Ya Ya's Out (1970), which is record of shows form the notorious (because of the Altamont disaster) 1969 tour of the United States, the first major Stones tour since about 1966 and the first tour with Mick Taylor and after they'd left behind the pop star thing and became the greatest rock and roll band in the world with Beggar's Banquet (1968) and Let It Bleed (1969) under their collective belts.
At this point the Stones had recorded and released the bulk of the great Stones songs that people still remember and revere to this day. only two good to great Stones followed, Sticky Fingers (1971) and Exile on Main Street (1972). The pulling power of the Stones increased over the years and their notoriety increased as well but this was the tour when the future image was created and set in, um, stone.
Ya Ya's, then, consists of mostly the most recent songs from the two preceding albums, plus one rack from Their Satanic Majesties Request (1967) and some Chuck Berry numbers for really kicking out the good time jams. Presumably it is a compilation of songs from the live set and not the whole set. In the mid-Sixties the band, like the Beatles, used to play for about thirty minutes at a time, as part of a package of bands. In 1969 the concept of a rock concert had changed and a band was expected to play for around 90 minutes and even to stretch out and jam shorter songs into extended workouts. The Stones certainly extend songs like "Sympathy for the Devil" and "Midnight Rambler" to emphasise the groove and menace inherent in the lyrics and loping rhythms.
The live set also showcases the obvious technical abilities of Keith Richards and Mick Taylor who can show off their chops because the band is playing to an adoring, attentive audience who are no longer the teenyboppers of 1965. This for example, is why "Carol" and "Little Queenie" are almost tangible excitement in their high-energy rush. The guitar interplay for which the Stones became famous when Richards and Brian Jones were in the band may no longer be applicable but Taylor's virtuosity lifts the performances and must have challenged Richards into playing at a new level. Being called "the greatest rock and roll band in the world" might have been a bit of tongue in cheek hype but it is credible hype on the evidence of the record of the 1969 tour. The other evidence is from the soundtrack for the Gimmie Shelter movie, with performances from Altamont that are at once more ragged and yet all the more powerful for the circumstances under which these tunes were played.. For all the superhuman rock and roll imagery and larger than life posturing, the Stones were just five guys in a band that made it really big. They were prone and vulnerable to as many of the vicissitudes of life as anyone else even if their money and managerial power and influence could protect them and isolate them from most of the daily mundane shit people have to deal with. No amount of managerial muscle would have saved the Stones from a rioting force of Hell's Angels.
The pacing of Ya Ya's is thoughtful. The first two songs are loud and fast, then the band cools down and slows down and plays the blues, first kind of quietly with "Stray cat Blues" and "Love In Vain" and then with great menace on "Midnight Rambler." The good thing about the Stones and their live albums is that they don't seem to want or need to make the tunes sound exactly like the studio originals and do not get too fussed if the renditions are kind of loose. With so many other bands, and especially these days, the effort goes towards replicating the studio recording instead of having fun with it. At first I had thought that Love You Live, the live album from 1977, was one of the worst, sloppiest live albums I'd ever heard. Over time and after careful listening the performances were illuminated as a bunch of professionals trying to add new life to hoary old tropes and to keep on making their big, over-exposed hits exciting to play and to listen to all over again.
At the time Ya Ya's was recorded the now very well known tunes off the preceding two albums were still quite fresh and beguiling as examples of a band at the top of its form, a songwriters and as performers.
I must say that "Midnight Rambler" is perhaps the most disquieting lyric the Stones ever recorded and one of the most relentless grooves, even more so than "Sympathy for the Devil," the song that follows "Midnight Rambler" on the live set. I prefer the studio version of "Rambler" because it builds and expands with more subtlety and greater slyness than the pile driving live version. This is what I mean by the assertion that the Stones probably want to mess around with the template so familiar from the records. It's no fun replicating; it's lots of fun innovating.
"Sympathy for the Devil" is also taken a tad too fast. Charlie Watts' drumming is about the sole reminder of the cool voodoo groove of the studio track. The brisk pace dissipates, as is the case with "Midnight Rambler", the menace of the song, which would have been better served as a long, slow building set closer.
This live version of "Live With Me" is the most disappointing track. Once again taken too fast and without the signature bass riff of the studio track that gives the song its quirky funk.
From here, though, the band roars through a group of rockers, ending off with a far more electric "Streetfighting Man" than on Beggar's Banquet, that indeed convinces us that this is a rock band playing at full potential and with no eye on heredity, except to provide a rocking good time for the adoring audience.
The Rolling Stones have released a bunch of live albums over the course of their career, and by now also about as many DVDs of live performances, and if I were to rate them, I'd say that Get Yer Ya Ya's Out, Love You Live and Stripped are the top three, mostly because they reflect, on the first two, the feisty, loose, rocking Stones without the professional entourage of the major, record breaking, money making tours of the Eighties, and because Stripped showcases an album's worth of unpretentious, unaffected performances of tunes that seem to have been selected for some kind of fun factor rather than just to trot out yet another set of live renditions of the best known songs in the canon.