Andrew Loog Oldham: Stones in his pocket

He managed, maybe invented, The Rolling Stones. Andrew Loog Oldham tells Tim Cumming about his 'lost' film of the band
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The Independent Culture

There's a shot of them in 1965 dashing across a railway line in Belfast, young men running for their lives. Brian Jones is bringing up the rear, and there he is, with his shock of hair and dark glasses, sharp-suited and thin as a blade, the one who set light to the whole thing, haring along between Mick and Keith. "Satisfaction" sits atop the charts. For a time, Andrew Loog Oldham, the teenage hustler-manager with the vision thing who walked into the Station Hotel in Richmond to see a young blues outfit and said hello to the rest of his life, was virtually a seventh member of The Rolling Stones (the pianist Ian Stewart, who died in 1985, would have justifiably laid claim to being the sixth). Domiciled in Colombia since 1975, Oldham, now 60, lean and bearded, still with his hair and still with his dark glasses, remains one of the few of the caste of Sixties svengalis to survive the ensuing four decades.

The footage comes from Charlie Is My Darling, the first and perhaps most intimate and unguarded of all the films about the Stones. Forty years after he handed the film-maker Peter Whitehead £2,000 to document the band with one of the first-ever hand-held cameras, the Stones' legendary manager is to introduce three rare screenings of the film - at Scotland's Triptych Festival and in Belfast, where much of the original footage was shot. Made over three days in Ireland in September 1965, it is one of the first road movies, pre-dating Pennebaker's Don't Look Back, and captures the Stones on the rollercoaster of Sixties pop stardom. Days later, they would leave Ireland for LA to consolidate their conquest of an America that they took as miraculously as Cortez took Mexico - and with fewer men.

Though the film was never commercially released, its stark vérité style won high praise from Joseph von Sternberg at its first screening at the Mannheim Festival, in 1966. "When all the other films at this festival are forgotten," he said, "this film will still be watched as a unique document of its time." Unique, and almost impossible to get hold of. The master print disappeared years ago, and the film entered a twilight world of barely viewable nth-generation bootlegs. The first public showing in decades was when Oldham took his one good VHS copy with him to Vancouver last year.

"I made it to get the Stones in the mood, if that was possible," he remembers. "Charlie [Watts] put up with a lot of prodding from Peter, and the interview is a classic. That's why the film is so titled. Keith gave an amazing vaudeville turn on a train at 10.30am, and Mick was good enough to shoot his myth in the foot with a delicious send-up of Elvis. Bill gave a very true and brave interview that explains musicians and the day," he concludes, "and Brian bravely boxed with himself." The doomed guitarist was already talking of the insecurity of his future as a Rolling Stone.

Edited by Whitehead, Oldham and the Stones themselves, the interviews are mixed with live footage that ends in a stage invasion, and scenes of the band on the train between gigs, on the run from fans and at the piano in a hotel room in Dublin. It's frustrating that such a candid view of the Stones remains so obscure, but "anything bigger would, to my mind, be inappropriate and misrepresentative of what it was all about", says Oldham, who dismisses thoughts of an official release. "It's not Help! or A Hard Day's Night. It's a demo - a few days in Ireland that capture the heart of the band at that moment."

As Oldham takes Charlie on the festival circuit, the first of three deluxe box sets of singles from 1963 to 1971 is about to fill the racks. Complete with the original sleeve art, and 12 CDs pressed to imitate the look of vinyl, it is a fetish object first and music box par excellence second. The first set begins with 1 minute 45 seconds of "Come On" and ends with the chiming gospel-metal of "The Last Time", summoned up by Keith Richards in his first incarnation as the riff-meister. In between is the 45rpm story of an R&B band from the clubs of south-west London tuning in to the Sixties pop explosion and finding their own clear signal.

"The miracle of the opportunity," is how Oldham describes the path the band followed in cutting the first singles in the set. They seized that opportunity with both hands. "Keith would come in with the flash, and the rest would add the dash. Charlie had an inherent arranger's mentality that shaped many an arrangement into being very, very special. We all know how good they all were - time just makes a point of it."

Many were done at Regent Sound, a basement studio on Denmark Street with egg-boxes lining the ceiling, a rotten staircase and a booth the size of a small toilet. "We learnt on the job," he says. "We trusted our instincts, interest and ignorance - the three eyes - and wisdom itself, for that short while."

Briskly eschewing the revisionism of the loving backward glance for the hard data of retrievable memory - Oldham turned to scientology to clear himself of 30-year-old addictions in 1995 - his attitude towards his tenure with the Stones is pragmatic and clear-eyed. "The producer's job is to provide the right environment in which the artist can do his job professionally," he says. "The job they both share is to fill up space correctly."

With the combination of teamwork and what he calls "the right ingredient of desperation", Oldham and the Stones did just that. "They had a pretty good idea of what their idols had done," he says, "they just had to work out how to get it onto tape." What the first singles reveal is the sound of a band fashioning their idols in their own image, retooling "Not Fade Away", and, on the likes of "Time Is on My Side", mastering the art of locking down their maddening, mesmerising groove into the fade-out. The Stones have the greatest fade-out grooves in rock, and this one still makes you want to smash up the furniture.

The shine has never faded from the Stones' catalogue, and in its latest format you can almost see the raw, youthful face of this music afresh. By removing them from the crowded field of the compilation CD, these two-track wonders shine even brighter, though no amount of digital cleansing can rein in the sheer energy of "Bye Bye Johnny" or "It's Alright", where the band reaches full throttle as if the fabric of the sound itself is being torn.

The highlights of the set are the comparatively rare EPs, the first released after their second Beatle-penned single, the second recorded at Chess Studios in Chicago, a defining moment in the growth of their sound, and the third a gloriously raucous record of three scream-drenched ballroom appearances in March 1965 at the Regal, Edmonton, the Empire, Liverpool, and the Palace, Manchester. Legend has it that engineer Glyn Johns simply slung a microphone over the balcony on a length of cable, though, as Oldham admits, the result was augmented by a few deft studio overdubs. "You can see one thing on the stage," he says, "but when it's an audio-only experience, you've got to make adjustments."

Out of all their peers, the Stones remain alone in eschewing the middle-age spread of radio sessions, outtakes, demos and live tracks that have fattened the catalogues of virtually every other Sixties legend. So no airing for the infamously X-rated "Andrew's Blues", or for the handful of demos recorded before the signing to Decca. Calling it "none of my daily business", Oldham has no explanation for the enduring leanness of the Stones' catalogue, but his response reveals an enduringly pure pop heart. "I'm not sure that I care to let the public hear everything. Plus, I'm not interested in outtakes. I'm interested in hits."

Singles 1963-65 represents the silver age of the Stones as a singles band, and is another example of the seemingly inexhaustible appetite for the Sixties pop revolution - at least for the record companies. For Oldham, who remastered all these tracks for CD in 1986 but had no involvement in the Singles project, it says more about the state of the business than the state of the public.

"The shine has left the building," he says, of an industry seeing its profits unravel into the download generation. Plundering the back-catalogue is a way of "making up the bottom line for all the awful mistakes and overheads that run the music of today. It's awful out there," he says, fresh from a week of music-business schmoozing in LA, "just chock full of landmines."

Having stepped on several over the years, he can glean some pleasure from the CD release of The Rolling Stones Songbook, as performed by the Andrew Loog Oldham Orchestra, a 1966 curio-turned-cult-object in the wake of The Verve's famous sampling of his orchestral arrangement for "The Last Time". "Bittersweet Symphony" may have built a worldwide hit from a work that Oldham admits sold about 200 copies on release, but while Allen Klein secured writing credits for Jagger/Richards, Oldham's trip to court was less profitable. "Boring, painful and unsatisfactory," he says of it. The CD release was struck as part of a final settlement. "My lawyer insisted on putting a smile on my face about something," he adds drily.

Oldham produced several albums of orchestral pop covers, employing John Paul Jones and Jimmy Page, and the arranging talents of David Whittaker, to fashion a soundscape of drenched colours and kitsch overtones, its influences ranging from Jack Nitzsche's "Lonely Surfer" through Morricone's "A Fistful of Dollars" and Nelson Riddle's settings for Sinatra. What's tantalising is what else may follow. "I've got bass guitar duets recorded between Brian Jones and Jet Harris with my orchestra that have never been out," reveals Oldham, "and a stellar version of Steve Marriott singing "Tell Me". If I'm a good boy and there's a healthy reaction to this one, the other recordings might see the light of day."

Following the Stones' lap of honour with the Forty Licks tour, DVD, and album, their past looms as large as the video screens on stage behind them. The Stones are totemic, trailing their colours from an age that decorates our own with its gilded cage of heroes and casualties.

"You can hang us and we still won't die," Keith Richards quipped in the mid-1990s, around the same time Oldham was loosening the noose of addictions he had carried since the mid-Sixties. In the decade that followed he wrote two of the best books on the era you'll ever need in Stoned and 2Stoned, and continues to work on the last of the trilogy, Stoned Free, describing it as "less biographical and more a look at today through the major players of the first books - the Stones, the Who, the Beatles, Phil Spector."

For Oldham, one senses, the past can look after itself; he has other fish to fry. "In Stoned Free," he says, "I look at the world in which the young songwriter and artist enters, and discuss the old rules that work and what are new that don't." If one thing's certain, the teenage hustler who made the Stones - some say in his own outrageous image - should know the rules by now.

Andrew Loog Oldham introduces 'Charlie is My Darling' at the Triptych Festival in Glasgow on 28 April, Edinburgh on 29 April, and Aberdeen on 1 May (www.triptych04.com)and at the Belfast Cathedral Quarter arts festival (www.cqaf.com) on 3 May. 'The Rolling Stones Singles Vol 1 1963-65' is out on Monday

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