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'The Rolling Stones in Mono': How 'The World's Greatest Rock 'n' Roll Band' came to be

'The Rolling Stones in Mono': How 'The World's Greatest Rock 'n' Roll Band' came to be
Brian Jones and Mick Jagger in New York, 1966. The Stones' earliest recordings are collected in the new "The Rolling Stones in Mono" 15-CD box set. (Linda McCartney/Taschen)

One of the joys of discovering a band at the beginning is the sense of open-ended possibility—the tantalizing prospect of imagining where raw talent, good fortune and commitment might eventually lead.

It can be equally intriguing to look at that career path in reverse, something the recently released "The Rolling Stones In Mono" box set provides.

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Undoubtedly inspired in part by Capitol Records' reissues of the Beatles catalog in mono, Abkco Records has pulled together the mono mixes of the Rolling Stones' 1960s U.K. and often very different U.S. albums. Mono was the dominant format, particularly in the U.K., well into the late 1960s.

Immediately apparent: the crisp impact of the single-channel mixes.

Mono focuses the potency of the Bill Wyman-Charlie Watts rhythm section and heightens the intensity of Brian Jones' and Keith Richards' guitar work. Then, of course, there's Mick Jagger's deliciously rubbery lead vocals.

The Stones' gloriously raw, sloppy approach to performance under producer Andrew Loog Oldham's guidance provided an alternative for anyone not immediately under the harmonious and sunny spell of the Fab Four.

There's a fair amount of repetition, especially among the first two-thirds of these albums, as there are overlaps between the U.K. and U.S. versions. (The 15-CD box set sells for $189.99 on Amazon.com, while the vinyl comes with a heftier  $389.99 price tag.)

But what's genuinely illuminating about the set is the group's transformation from competent-but-unremarkable blues cover band into the "World's Greatest Rock 'n' Roll Band." This leap occurred over a five-year span between the albums book-ending this set: 1964's "The Rolling Stones" and 1969's "Let It Bleed."

Like so many British musicians who came of age in the 1950s, Jagger, Richards, Jones, Wyman and Watts lived and breathed American roots music—blues, soul and R&B.

The Beatles beat them to the punch commercially, but where the Beatles' tastes in trans-Atlantic music ran more toward Motown R&B and the rock pioneers such as Elvis Presley, Little Richard, Buddy Holly and Chuck Berry, the Stones started out as stone-cold blues enthusiasts.

The ringleader was guitarist Jones, who began the group expressly to play songs by the American blues men he loved: Robert Johnson, Muddy Waters, Howlin' Wolf, John Lee Hooker, Elmore James and others.

But Jagger and Richards quickly followed the lead of John Lennon and Paul McCartney and started to write their own songs.

"Out Of Our Heads" arrived in the U.K. in 1965, at which point the two songwriters were finding their voices in three striking originals: the swaggering "The Last Time," the sensuous "The Spider and the Fly" and the breakthrough rocker "(I Can't Get No) Satisfaction."

Those were mixed in among increasingly convincing versions of more American roots tunes such as Marvin Gaye's "Hitch Hike" and Don Covay and Ron Miller's "Mercy Mercy."

The signature Stones snarl arrives full blown at the end of the same year with "December's Children (and Everybody's)," the U.S. album that included "Get Off My Cloud" in addition to the group's disarming reading of Arthur Alexander's "You Better Move On." There's also one of the act's earliest attempts at covering American country music with Hank Snow's "I'm Movin' On."

The album "Aftermath" brings another step forward in the accomplishment of the Stones' own material, with "Under My Thumb," "Lady Jane" and "Stupid Girl" represented on the U.K. and U.S. versions, with the U.S. edition trading out the tranquilizer-focused "Mother's Little Helper" for the utterly ominous "Paint It, Black."

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With the nascent psychedelia movement swirling around them, the Stones entered the fray fitfully in 1967 on the heels of the Beatles' "Revolver" with the decidedly less assured "Between the Buttons."

Then, following the musical revolution spearheaded by "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band," you could practically hear the Stones tearing the wrapping paper and ribbons off new studio toys they put to work for "Their Satanic Majesties Request," which was enlivened only briefly by "She's a Rainbow" and the spacey "2000 Light Years From Home."

The Stones opted to produce the album themselves, as Oldham was pulling away after getting fed up with their increasing erraticism in the studio.

Clearly prog-rock dalliances were not the Stones' strong suit. Fortunately, they found their blues-rooted mojo again, and as 1968 drew to a close they released "Beggar's Banquet," the album their longtime engineer Glyn Johns has called "the Rolling Stones' coming of age…The material was far better than anything they'd ever done before."

"Beggar's Banquet" brought the world "Sympathy for the Devil," "Street Fighting Man," "Stray Cat Blues" and "No Expectations," among the 10 tracks—songs the group still includes in sets 50 years later. The same cannot be said for the vast majority of songs from the two previous albums.

It also was the first of their highly esteemed collaborations with producer Jimmy Miller, who also produced "Let It Bleed"-- the final studio album in the mono box set--and stayed on board for the string of albums many Stones fans consider their greatest run: "Beggar's Banquet," "Let It Bleed," "Sticky Fingers" (1971) and "Exile on Main Street" (1972). (Miller abandoned the Stones' ship after 1973's "Goat's Head Soup.")

The bonus disc in the mono box set is "Stray Cats," a new compilation of hit singles, non-album tracks, B-sides and other rarities meant to take its place alongside previous compilations such as "High Tide (And Green Grass)," "Through the Past, Darkly," "Hot Rocks (and Fazed Cookies)" and "Forty Licks."

Among its gems are the Italian-language version of "As Tears Go By" (Con Le Mie Lacrime),  two versions of "Poison Ivy," their raucous version of Chuck Berry's "Bye Bye Johnny" and the single mix of "You Can't Always Get What You Want."

Following the breakup of the Beatles in 1970, the Stones assumed the crown of British rock royalty--at least until Led Zeppelin began to fully rear its shaggy mane. But that's a rock 'n' roll evolutionary tale for another day.

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