Part I: The Background
Between the Buttons sees the Rolling Stones at perhaps their most experimental, barring their subsequent effort, Their Satanic Majesties Request. The album is easily the stronger of the two projects. It was recorded at the height of mid-sixties experimentation, and the complex backing tracks employed the use of many overdubs and mix-downs. Brian Jones was still heavily involved with the band during this period, and he drove them to explore new sounds through varied textures and instrumentation. This album sees the Stones embracing both psychedelia and their British roots. The American version of the album differed from the UK version in that it included the singles “Let’s Spend the Night Together” and “Ruby Tuesday” in favour of “Back Street Girl” and “Please Go Home”.
Part II: The Music
Yesterday’s Papers: This album’s such an oddity in that it’s very un-Stones-like. Just look at this album opener for example. The steady backbeat, heavy bass guitar, and graceful vibraphone give the song a Motown sort of feel, while the harpsichord, played by frequent Phil Spector collaborator Jack Nitzche, and the falsetto backing vocals add a mid-sixties trippy vibe to the song. Atypical of the Stones, many of the songs on this album aren’t very riff driven. “Yesterday’s Papers” is no exception—Keith Richards’ guitar is just another element that adds texture to the composition rather than calling attention to itself. Lyrically, the song portrays romantic relationships as a transient, fickle thing thing—yesterday’s girl is old news, and the singer moves on to the next girl just as people move on to the latest trends. After all, the sixties were a time of constant evolution and of exploring new and exciting things: “I’m living a life of constant change / Every day means the turn of a page.” RATING: 8.5/10
My Obsession: This one’s a bit more of a straightforward rocker, though Richards’ guitar still isn’t as prominent as it usually is; rather, the song revolves around Charlie Watts’ drumming. The song features some exquisite, drawn-out, psychedelic harmonies. Otherwise, the songwriting here isn’t all that distinguishable from the typical mid-sixties Stones fanfare; the song wouldn’t be all that out of place on their previous effort, Aftermath. I should also probably mention that Brian Wilson claims this is his favourite Stones song. Not a bad choice, but I wouldn’t say it’s one of the highlights of the album. RATING: 8/10
Back Street Girl: This baroque pop waltz, however, is. An accordion adds a little romantic flair to the song, distinguishing it from its gloomier predecessor, “Lady Jane”. Contrasting the beauty of the arrangement are some pretty stuck-up lyrics: now matter how sweetly Jagger sings the song, it’s still a singer addressing a mistress who’s below his station (“You’re rather common and course anyway”) and putting her in her place. There’s a very strong eighteenth-century feel both lyrically and sonically, though the illusion is sort of broken when Jagger sings, “Please never ring on the phone.” Regardless, it’s one of the better songs on the album. It doesn’t feature on the American version, and that’s a real shame. RATING: 9/10
Connection: Connection is danceable rocker with a steady Motown beat. Although the song isn’t very adventurous musically, the melody takes a few unexpected turns, keeping the listener engaged. This song not only has the same energy as “My Obsession”, but it also succeeds in all the places that that song doesn’t. Sonically, there’s not very much that’s psychedelic about this song. There’s a bit of drug-related subject matter when we get to the line “My bags, they get a very close inspection / I wonder why it is that they suspect them,” but that’s about it. Lyrically, the song isn’t that impressive—it prioritizes maintaining its central rhyme scheme over evocative imagery. It’s a good thing, then, that the rhythm is so infectious. RATING: 9/10
She Smiled Sweetly: Jagger employs a more sentimental tone here. Altogether, his vocals come across as a little forced and unnatural. Actually, he sounds congested—perhaps he had a cold during the recording of this song. A solemn church organ rings out in the background (I wouldn’t quite say it’s matrimonial), with the rhythm section filling out the bulk of the instrumental. It’s a pensive tune with a soulful element to it that just further goes to show how varied this album is stylistically. RATING: 7.5/10
Cool, Calm and Collected: A jaunty—and very British—music hall–inspired romp with an Eastern influence during the chorus. Like a handful of songs on the album, it’s bitter towards its female subject; this one’s about a manipulative woman who puts on a façade in order to get what she wants. The third verse, however, provides a hint of redemption: the woman does seem to be a little insecure, but she is determined not to let it show: “But behind she is not without care / But she sweeps it right under her hair.” Oh, and there’s a kazoo solo. It’s songs like these that prove that the Stones were just as capable of expressing British eccentricity as Paul McCartney and Ray Davies. RATING: 10/10
All Sold Out: This is a nice little fusion of old and new. At its core, this song is par for the course for the early Stones, but the psychedelic harmonies and out of tune woodwind (a bit of research seems to suggest it was a recorder) at least attempt to update the rock and roll sound for the psychedelic era. Unfortunately, the stereo mix for this song is absolutely dreadful—it’s congested and imbalanced to the point that it becomes uncomfortable to listen to. Actually, the mono version doesn’t sound much better to me. RATING: 7/10
Please Go Home: A bit of experimental feedback at the beginning of this song doesn’t do much to save it from being a cacophonous mess. Very oddly, the Stones contrast a Buddy Holly inspired rocker with some pretty psychedelic delay effects and guitar tones—and is that a theremin I hear? Still, no amount of studio trickery can make this song anything more than average. RATING: 5.5/10
Who’s Been Sleeping Here?: This is totally a Bob Dylan impersonation (and not a bad one at that). The singer’s under the impression that his girl has been unfaithful to him, and in his attempt to find out with whom, he runs through an extensive (and ridiculous) list of possible suspects, including “the noseless old newsboy” and “the old British brigadier”. It’s a humorous, harmonica-heavy tune with allusions to Goldilocks. RATING: 6/10
Complicated: Now we’re talking. Psychedelic organ, raunchy beat, sinister melody—this really is my favourite era for the Stones. And a little fuzz guitar never hurts. You’d be forgiven for mistaking this song with “Cool, Calm and Collected”; the two songs are quite similar lyrically, though the aggression manifests more so in the music here rather than in the lyrics, I’d say. RATING: 9/10
Miss Amanda Jones: This song begins as a pretty straightforward rocker (albeit with a bit of parlor piano brightening up the sound) before diving into one of my favourite hooks on a Rolling Stones album: “Hey girl, don’t you realize the money invested in you? / Hey girl, you just got to find someone who’ll really pull your family through.” This song’s a much more fleshed-out character sketch—the titular Amanda Jones is supposedly a young lady of nobility who seems to just want to party. She hasn’t yet had her “coming out” (i.e. she hasn’t made her public debut yet), so we can imagine the character as a rowdy youth who isn’t living up to the expectations of her well-to-do family. I’m no usually big on straightforward rockers, but that chorus is just so damn catchy! RATING: 10/10
Something Happened to Me Yesterday: The Stones go full-on music hall for the album closer (recall what I was saying earlier about British eccentricity). There’s not really any way to deny that this one’s a drug song: “It’s really rather drippy / But something also trippy / Something happened to me yesterday.” Brian Jones provides a delightful brass band interlude, while Richards gets his first ever lead vocal during the chorus. Jagger signs off at the end of the song via a brief spoken passage reminiscent of that of a radio broadcast. For a band that spent so much time imitating Americans, the Stones sure were a riot when they embraced their Britishness. This is the most fully-conceptualized song on the album and a perfect closer to one of the most underrated entries in the Stones’ discography. RATING: 10/10
American Version: As I mentioned earlier, the American version of the album swapped out two of the tracks for the concurrent singles. I’m not going to count these songs towards the album’s final score, but since I won’t get to talk about them anywhere else, I may as well take the opportunity.
Let’s Spend the Night Together: Probably one of the best rockers the Stones put out during Brian Jones’ tenure in the band. As a song about sex, it was controversial at the time (when the band performed it on the Ed Sullivan show, they were forced to change the lyrics to “let’s spend some time together”). It’s pretty straightforward in terms of instrumentation, though as usual, Brian Jones’ droning organ really fills out the sound in the back half of the song, improving an already impressive tune (let’s not downplay the talents of Jagger and Richards as songwriters). RATING: 9/10
Ruby Tuesday: This psychedelic/baroque pop piece not only boasts one of the most memorable melodies in the Stones’ catalogue, but also some of the best instrumentation. Brian Jones contributes a fluttering recorder part as while Bill Wyman and Keith Richards play a solemn double bass line. The lyrics are an evocative piece of semi-psychedelic poetry that still manage to convey a clear narrative (the song is about a free spirit that the singer is enamoured with—there are contrasting reports about the real-life inspiration for the song, one of which being Richards’ girlfriend Linda, who had become involved with none other than Jimi Hendrix). It’s the timeless melody and the stunning arrangement that make this song such an emotional trip. RATING: 10/10
Part III: The Album
Aesthetic: The songs were incredibly produced, though occasionally they become a bit muddled, as the band really only had 4-track recorders at their disposal. The new textures and sounds that they tried to capture really make this album stand out from the rest of their discography; I’d say never was Brian Jones’ presence more felt than in this album’s aesthetic. I’ve always liked the album cover; the band appears in a blurry haze, created by a camera filter. I’m not really sure what “Between the Buttons” is supposed to mean, but it winds up being pretty appropriate, as the album lies somewhere in between the more R&B-inspired rock and roll of the band’s previous albums and the chaotic, drug-addled mess that was to follow. SCORE: 4/5
Artistic Merit: Despite being a few years removed from their classic period, this album is surprisingly solid. It demonstrates a versatility that would never again be seen throughout the career. The experimentation here never becomes excessive or indulgent. You might say that this is their answer to Revolver. Even so, there are an abundance of moments where the band slips back into their comfort zone, churning out straightforward rock and roll numbers. SCORE: 4/5
Flow: While the stylistic variation makes for an album that isn’t flawlessly cohesive, I’ve never considered that to be much of a fault. The frequent shifts in tone and atmosphere keep you engaged with the album from start to finish; there isn’t an excess of dull moments on this record, nor do the songs ever really start to feel repetitive (a symptom that would plague many a later day Rolling Stones album). SCORE: 6/10
CLOSING REMARKS: I’m one of the rare Stones fans who prefers their 60s output to their 70s output, and this is the best of the bunch. In combination with singles like “Ruby Tuesday” and “She’s A Rainbow”, this album proves that the Stones were more than capable of playing the experimental/psychedelic game, they just happened to go a little overboard. Between the Buttons is pretty overlooked compared to the band’s more well-known output (of course it is: the UK version of the album doesn’t even have any singles on it!). But it’s definitely an album that’s deserving of your attention, especially if you’re into mid-sixties baroque pop and psychedelia.
FINAL SCORE: 80