Little Red Rooster - the Rolling Stones
From the age of 12 onwards, at the end of the summer or Christmas holidays in Bahrain, I would be put on an aeroplane, at first a Boeing 707, later a VC10, and despatched to boarding school in Scotland via Heathrow. At Heathrow a "BOAC Auntie" would make sure I caught a coach to Victoria Coach Station where I would be collected by my real Auntie, Auntie Val, my mother's sister; I would then stay overnight at her basement flat at 7 Prideaux House, Prideaux Place, just off Percy Circus in Clerkenwell about fifteen minutes walk from Kings Cross Station before catching the sleeper to Aberdeen the following evening, then another train change to my Speyside "prep" school. Auntie Val was one-of-a-kind who early on had made a instinct impression on me as she was so different from other relations of her generation. Way before my sad journeys to school, and with me hardly knowing her, she had sent me annual birthday and Christmas presents by airmail post, but unlike gifts from other relations her missives, carefully packed so as not to break in the airmail post, were 7 inch 45 rpm singles. Auntie Val had absolutely no interest in pop music herself; her preference was, I seem to recall, classical and a bit of Gilbert and Sullivan, but she was wise enough to not let this get in the way of her judgement as to what a 60's youngster would like. Even then, when she could have plumped for a predictable diet of the likes of the "safe" Beatles, Searchers, Dave Clark Five, Cliff Richard or the like, she avoided this, presumably by engaging the attendant at the record shop in a dialogue which included a mention of "something different" or the "latest style". These memorably included Elvis's "Devil in Disguise" and the Four Season's "Let's Hang On" but most interesting of all was "Little Red Rooster" by the Rolling Stones which she sent me for Christmas 1964, when I was nine years old. This was incredibly vivid for me, because out in Bahrain, there was no radio that played current "pop" music, so the only way we could hear new music was via the vinyl brought back by our older brothers and sisters, whose taste was usually conservative in the extreme.
At first I couldn't understand it. Where were the uptempo harmonies of the Liverpool bands? Where was the coffee bar slickness of the guitar licks of the "Summer Holiday" boy scout-like Shadows who were so unthreatening they sounded like a commercial for Sunday School? I couldn't sing along to this. But after a while, with few other options on offer, I did. As I roamed about the house, louchely intoning
"too lay-zy to crow for day"
or sullenly alliterating
"hooounds begin to ho-well"
I could see that it worried my parents ("what's wrong with the boy?"), and I sensed their disapproval, and I liked it. What I realised was, even if they didn't take to Elvis or the Beatles themselves, they heard the tunes and accepted that this was what young people liked so it was relatively okay, the latest fashion. But they just didn't understand "Little Red Rooster" and the sultry slide guitar, Jagger's sullen vocal. And that was the starting point for my, and I'm sure many others' appreciation for the beauty of the blues.
It is the only pure blues record ever to have made number one in the UK and was considered too risky a song to be released as a single in the States. It is also extraordinary that, having just notched up their first number one and second top ten record with "Not Fade Away", the Stones should have risked everything with such a seemingly uncommercial single. But it worked, it established them as the musical rebels of their generation, as different as could be from the goody goody world of Cliff Richard in a way that no other song could have done at that time.
And, perhaps most surprisingly of all, it still sounds as fresh as it did on Christmas morning all those years ago. Here's to you Auntie Val.