On Air is a blast from the past in every sense. It’s a well recorded document of a historic rock and roll band making its bones, and it takes you there, baby. And where is there? London, England in 1963, 1964, and 1965 with the Rolling Stones and it’s all live and remastered, for added clarity and punch.
This recording is historical. It’s the penultimate Rolling Stones line up: Mick Jagger, Keith Richards, Brian Jones, Bill Wyman and Charlie Watts. The record is a mix of tracks from the band’s formative years live on TV programs in England.
There’s one foot in the late 1950s — the transitional time after the initial start up blast of rock and roll. That’s when the form was in limbo, sounding weirdly happy and spooky with themes of teen angels, car crashes and deserted beaches. Track one, Come On, is reflective of that but has the push and excitement of the British Invasion in real time. It’s the era of The Beatles on Ed Sullivan and the Rolling Stones in their dream time, primal form.
For all their much-vaunted sloppiness, it’s illuminating to hear how refined they were: the guitars interweave, the vocals are harmonized, the ensemble is telepathically honed in on the arrangement. They’re not doing anything new but in the context of time, it’s groundbreaking. Blues, R&B and rock and roll were there but these guys pulled it together early on in an earthy, tough form that had massive pop appeal, especially in Britain.
On Air shows the elemental Stones at the start. It could be a museum piece but it’s a vital piece of rock and roll still. Play it at a party and see – the genesis version of (I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction and the ringing take of The Last Time are testaments that time doesn’t matter. It can turn back, stand still and rock. In this case 1963, 1964 and 1965. The band sounds loud. The late Brian Jones was the first musician to bring electric slide guitar and harmonica into prominence in Britain (here on Mona, Come On and others). He was also the first inductee into the infamous 27 Club, which plays into their later legend. This album is well before that and almost culturally removed. It shows them at their R&B/Blues purist phase.
There are cheesy moments – white bread versions of Memphis, Tennessee and the schlock of You Better Move on. There are charming gems like the background vocal of Cry to Me that reveal the subtleties of the group. Yeah, they were/are the ultimate rock stars and “The Greatest Rock and Roll Band in the World,” but they worked damn hard to get there. The album shows them doing that.