The Rolling Stones – On Air

A door finally opens on the most elusive ’60s archive of all with a trove of BBC recordings.

The Rolling Stones – On Air


A BATTLE OF WILLS between The Rolling Stones and ABKCO, the copyrights empire built up by the band’s one-time business manager Allen Klein, has not served the band’s legacy especially well. 

When ABKCO release perfectly good remasters of the material they control – recordings made for Decca between 1963 and ’69 – the band ignore them, diminishing their impact. When fans clamour for bonus tracks, info-filled packaging or a Beatles‘ Anthology-style vaults series, the corporate stand-off is such that serious discussion is a non-starter. 

And now this: a collection of BBC recordings taped between 1963 and ’65, the first bona fide archive release from the Stones’ golden era, and one over which ABKCO had no control. 

On Air kicks off with a version of debut 45 Come On, which rings with a new-found clarity that belies its 1963 vintage. After that, the 32-track two-disc set discards all sense of historical integrity. Next up is (I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction. Recorded in September 1965, the performance marks the end of the Stones’ association with BBC Radio. It’s the obvious set-closer. But no: sequential chaos ensues. 

Loading up the big-hitters and better-sounding performances on the single disc edition supports the idea that On Air is intended as a companion piece to Blue & Lonesome as much as a purist-pleasing archive release. It may work. But making chronological sense never did The Beatles’ 1 much harm.

Then there’s that sonic upgrade. Each track has apparently been “rebuilt, rebalanced and remixed to achieve a fuller, more substantial sound” using the ‘audio source separation’ method. Initially, this seems to have been well-judged. Come On compares favourably with the official studio version. And the four songs taped at the Camden Theatre and broadcast in May 1964 as an experiment in ‘Stereophony’ are the best we’ll ever get to hearing the early Stones at their blueswailing best. 

Jagger devours the slang with such evangelical zeal it verges on camp.

Yet on performances derived from lesser sources than original tapes and transcription discs, the new technique is less successful. While good for low and high tones, isolating bass, vocals, harmonica and guitar breaks, too often everything else sits stodgily in the middle of the mix. The combined effect is mildly kaleidoscopic.

Happily, the performances – much bootlegged since the ’70s – are pure delight. The Camden Theatre set (which sneaked out on a deluxe edition of the GRRR! compilation in 2012) boasts set highlight Cops And Robbers. A Bo Diddley original, it’s performed as an homage to the young Stones’ spiritual home, a fantasyland of chunky R&B riffery and big screen Hollywood noir. Jagger devours the slang with such evangelical zeal it verges on camp.

Cops And Robbers is one of eight songs across the two discs not released by the Stones at the time. Two titles from that first October ’63 Saturday Club session underline the defining influence of Chuck Berry. Keith Richards’ solo on Roll Over Beethoven remains the template for his breaks to this day, while Jagger’s mimickry of Chuck’s ‘soft’ voice on Memphis, Tennessee was an early glimpse of a gift that’s served him well. 

Another rarity, a version of Jimmy Reed’s Ain’t That Lovin’ You Baby recorded for a July 1964 Top Gear broadcast, is oddly miscredited as hailing from a long-lost overseas broadcast. Conversely, the April ’64 version of Not Fade Away from Saturday Club, a bootleg regular, is inexplicably absent. 

Many of the versions here stick close to the released takes. But when the group starts recording Jagger/Richards singles at RCA in Hollywood in 1965, namely The Last Time and Satisfaction, the lack of US-style reverberations makes for a more revealing listen. At the same time, contemporary US soul, often in the form of a Solomon Burke song (the Stones recorded If You Need Me four times for the BBC), was making inroads into their repertoire. You’ll not discern that from the set’s random sequencing. But don’t let that put you off. This is a hugely enjoyable landmark release. 

Listen to Roll Over Beethoven (Saturday Club, 26th October 1963) and (I Can't Get No) Satisfaction (Saturday Club, 18th September 1965) below: