With 32 tracks sprawling over 90 minutes and two discs, On Air captures the Rolling Stones performing at the dawn of their 54-year – and counting – career.
Recorded on various BBC programs between 1963 and ’65, On Air documents a band still looking for its identity. This early version of the Stones features serviceable musicianship, very little original songwriting – “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction” notwithstanding – and unimaginative arrangements on songs by Bo Diddley (“Mona”), Hank Snow (“I’m Moving On”), Muddy Waters (“I Just Wanna Make Love to You”) and Rufus Thomas (“Walking the Dog”) among others.
Chuck Berry is heavily represented with cuts such as “Come On,” “Memphis Tennessee” and “Roll Over Beethoven” scattered across the album and, of course, “I Wanna Be Your Man,” a gift from Lennon-McCartney to Jagger-Richards, makes an appearance.
Bill Wyman is the most surprising Stone in this collection, as his bass playing on a handful of numbers is simply stunning. Someone – probably Keith Richards – occasionally employs a painful falsetto on background vocals, a habit he thankfully managed to kick. The swaggering Mick Jagger and the rock-solid Charlie Watts, meanwhile, sound much the same as ever, as Brian Jones – still a few years away from the exotica that informed his best work – chips in a lot of harp.
The sound quality varies wildly from nearly pristine to barely worthy of release. Some tracks are live in the studio sans audience; others are accompanied by shrieking British teenagers who probably needed to switch knickers after the sessions ended.
Historically speaking, On Air is a mother lode. From a purely musical standpoint, it’s mostly a curiosity.