Some dismiss Mick Taylor’s influence and inspiration on the Rolling Stones. Others see his time with the band as exceptional, while others prefer an era when he wasn’t with the band at all. So let’s begin with the Rolling Stones themselves — the band that is ALWAYS on the cover of The Rolling Stone — fact is, the Rolling Stones did have a golden period …just as say, Picasso had a Blue period. And it aligns with Taylor’s tenure in the band. But while the Picasso era is named after an actual colour, what we’re talking about here is perception, a little bit album sales, but not necessarily gold records; but mainly ‘the music.’ Now let’s look at the records produced in this alleged golden era beginning with (in part) Let It Bleed, the bi-polar disorder to The Beatles’ Let It Be (and second highest ever selling Rolling Stones record), through Get Yer YaYas Out (once described as the best live album ever,) Sticky Fingers (the highest ever selling Rolling Stones record,) Exile On Main Street (many believe to be their best record,) Goats Head Soup and finally It’s Only Rock n Roll. Perhaps the first thing that comes to mind about these records is their era: 1969 through 1974. These years almost perfectly line up with the golden era of Rock itself. Go to any record store in this era blindfolded pick ten records and you go home with eight winners. So while Picasso’s Old Guitarist reeks of cobalt blue, the Rolling Stones’ guitarist reeks of a golden hue. Made up in part sales, part music, part era, all feeding on each other (and) overlayed by his guitar playing. And while it would be difficult to prove categorically that he was a major influence and inspiration on the Rolling Stones unless you were Mick Jagger or Keith Richards, there is circumstantial, indeed empirical evidence to suggest that Mick Taylor was indeed such a force. I think at worst Taylor may have been a central inspiration to Keith Richards; and at best a total transforming figure for the whole band.
If you put Mick Taylor’s playing up against Ronnie Wood — you have two distinct styles. Essentially but not exclusively, you have a follower in Ronnie Wood and a leader (improviser) in Mick Taylor. And there is little doubt that Taylor is the one variable that differentiates that golden period of the Rolling Stones with the let’s say ‘silver’ period of Wood’s nascence (’75-‘78) and even the earlier period of Brian Jones — (which could easily claim the ‘silver’ period for itself). Black and Blue, Love You Live and Some Girls are the only albums made later that might start to compete with the Taylor era (even given such a poor recording as the Live one is). These albums were the first released after Taylor’s departure; and it would seem the further away from the Taylor era we progress the more inspiration is drained from the band. These immediate post-Taylor albums serve the purpose of getting the Rolling Stones to the end of the seventies (almost) before the approaching mid-life crisis of the 80s sets in. So immediately following Taylor’s departure, the decline is in progress; and following this set of albums it was never going to be the same again — The Rolling Stones’ edge, along with the 70s, were just about over.
I think the fact that the band members were younger and more flexible when Mick Taylor joined possibly helped them gel with his style of playing better than that of Wood later on. But Taylor himself is more flexible in himself, Woody happily does what he is told. One could imagine Woody having a complete breakdown if he had to leave the band. While he hangs on to his job vigilantly, Mick Taylor on the other hand ups and leaves when he feels like it. Perhaps the inclusion of Ronnie Wood into the band was a schizophrenic move in that he was both an obvious choice in image, he had ‘playability’, was well known, but connected to other music — so not as obvious as first conceived — an inclusion we might now call being too clever by half. Sure he looks like a rolling stone — but does he roll? And while Wood has great knowledge of styles, so has a good ear and can play most things, Mick Taylor is a more melodic, soulful and bluesy player. And his ability to extract the 1959 Les Paul (with Bigsby tremolo) from Richards for a pittance says ample of Mick Taylor to me about his individuality and passion. Richards probably would never have let that go at a later date. And especially given the fact that it was Taylor’s clashes with a drug affected Richards that has been cited as a reason why Taylor left the band. There is also a side of Rock and Blues music where merit can only be decided by hearing its outcome — and so this all falls in favour of Mick Taylor. The proof is in the pudding.
The minute that Mick Taylor arrived on the scene The Rolling Stones had their greatest moment: Let It Bleed. When he fought with them (It’s Only Rock N Roll) their music suffered, and when he left them — their music went into terminal decline. It was also during Mick Taylor’s tenure that they became The Greatest Rock n Roll Band in the World (Get Yer Ya Yas Out). So with Mick Taylor beside him Keith Richard’s playing opened up; and If you listen to examples of Richard’s playing during this period such as the riff in ‘Can’t You Hear Me Knocking’ or the rhythmic punctuation in ‘Monkey Man’ you know Richards is playing with inspiration. Keith Richards is both a thief (‘I Got The Blues’) (Ry Cooder’s alternative tunings) and borrower be (Gram Parson’s ‘country’) So we know he would have been all over Mick Taylor. And of course the shrewd operator that is Mick Jagger misses little.
Another aspect to consider from the Taylor period is that the albums were more thematic (with the possible exception of It’s Only Rock n Roll) whereas prior albums were like ‘collections’ (which just so happened to include gems like ‘She’s A Rainbow’ and ‘Paint it Black’). The two (studio) albums aforementioned post-Taylor may not be collections but neither do they have a feel of oneness as in the Taylor era. And even if Exile on Main Street is a mishmash of ‘genres’ cobbled together, it has a natural synthesis — perhaps the eyewash of combining Mick Taylor and the Rolling Stones (not to mention that myriad of great support). I think the gravity of the album falls in its production — on one hand it is as close to a live recording as most other so-called ‘live’ albums but on the other hand it is augmented by great swathes, even entire tracks, slotted in later. One cannot imagine such a record being made with either Brian Jones or Ron Wood.
With regard to Its Only Rock n Roll — the low point of the Taylor period — there is anecdotal evidence to suggest it could have been much different. Taylor and Richards were often at loggerheads during this period because Keith Richards was always high. So Richards chopped a lot of Taylor’s guitar from the album. Nonetheless Taylor told Nick Kent of New Musical Express just before the album’s release in October 1974 that he had co-written ‘Till the Next Goodbye’ and the classic ‘Time Waits For No One’ only to be shown a copy by Kent with the omission of the Taylor credits; which left Taylor flabbergasted. Taylor has said that without his input certain songs simply would not have existed; he said there weren’t many, but they caused friction between him and Jagger/Richards. Two others named by Mick Taylor are ‘Sway’ and ‘Moonlight Mile’ from Sticky Fingers — which together with ‘Time Waits For No One’ are giants of The Rolling Stones catalogue — the band at their sweetest. Indeed, as an example Gram Parsons said Jagger/Richards wrote ‘Wild Horses’ for him and he actually released his version before The Rolling Stones — but Mick Jagger and Keith Richards never own up to such anecdotal happenings — helping, if anything, to give the Taylor version of events impetus.
There is one further possibility to include, and that is the last of Brian Jones’s input: by slipping The Beggars Banquet into this golden period — that might set the cat amongst the pigeons. (Although Jones did some peripheral work on a couple of tunes on Let It Bleed as well). While not as thematically sophisticated as later albums, Beggars Banquet might give us a glimpse of what was to come. If this is right then (just to be fair) it helps to show that the band was now approaching its zenith just as Mick Taylor was joining. Indeed this zenith was soon to be reached. However, if you compare Beggars Banquet with what succeeded it, it is hard, even fanciful to suggest the zenith could have been breached without Mick Taylor. Summing up the era: while Phil Spector was master of the universe and helping The Beatles Let It Be, Mick Taylor (along with Ry Cooder AND Brian Jones) were helping The Rolling Stones to Let It Bleed. And it could easily be argued that upon Taylor joining the Rolling Stones they immediately produced their greatest album. And this was no fluke, it was to become a trend.
The music and the lyrics of the Taylor period also complimented the Rolling Stones image. Their image up until this period was still evolving but now matured and blurred into the music and lyrics themselves. The commodification of the Rolling Stones had now become complete and the albums became testaments to an era. All being equal the Rolling Stones were at their peak during the Taylor period; but to specifically identify Taylor as being its influence and inspiration would, as I am sure Mick Jagger and Keith Richards would attest, be hard to prove. Something never to be divulged. But something was at play and certainly rubbed off during his stay. As Mick Jagger said in an interview with Jan Wenner of Rolling Stone magazine in 1995 when asked about Taylor: “I think he made a big contribution, he made it very musical. He was a very fluent, melodic player, which we never had, and we don’t have now. Neither Keith nor Ronnie plays that kind of style. It was very good for me working with him — Mick Taylor would play very fluid lines against my vocals — he was exciting, and he was very pretty, and it gave me something to follow, to bang off”. When Jagger was told ‘Some people think that is the best version of the band that existed’ — Jagger closed it down with: “I obviously can’t say if I think Mick Taylor was the best because it sort of trashes the period the band is in now”. Try reading in-between those lines.
As a caveat, I would just like to say that the story of The Rolling Stones is one of nuance, but also one of money. I have seen Jagger, Richards and Wood get up at a Chicago Blues club and deliver a cacophony of missed key, bum notes and poor timing. I have also heard Jules Holland describe them on live TV as essentially not knowing what they’re doing (paraphrasing). And when Mick Taylor joined the band and first heard them he said they sounded like a garage band, wondering how it was possible they could make hit records (also paraphrasing). So what’s the deal? The deal is rock n roll is at its best when you are in a state of learning, trying new things, thus young bands burn bright early only to fizzle as their pretention grows or they try to remain ‘safe’. The Stones got out of the blocks early, and therefore were granted clemency for a poor performance — or the poor performance went straight over the less sophisticated audience’s collective heads. The Stones in all their naivety, were willing to experiment and were granted leniency due to their hard work and success, even though they were less than great. They were able to attract a great backing band and money allowed them to hang on to players — because firstly, musicians want to make money — playing good music is a luxury they can ill afford. The keenness of Richards and the ambition of Jagger coupled with their intelligence and willingness to explore led to some of the best music set down on record in the twentieth century. This is where Mick Taylor comes in and departs because primarily it was not about money to Mick Taylor, he was an outlier — it was about music. And so no wonder Keith argued with him!