Just A Shot Away: Through the Past, Darkly at 50

Second volume of their “Big Hits” series found the Rolling Stones at the crossroads

Source photo for Through The Past, Darkly cover

It was easy to be cynical about Through the Past, Darkly. By the time that Rolling Stones compilation—subtitled (Big Hits Vol. 2)—came out in September 1969, “Ruby Tuesday” and “Let’s Spend the Night Together” had already appeared on two U.S. Stones albums, and most of the other tracks had been on LPs before.

But what did that matter? After all, when High Tide and Green Grass, the first collection of the Stones’ Big Hits, was released in 1966, there were quite a few people, including me, who snapped it up just to have “19th Nervous Breakdown” on an album. Through the Past, Darkly picked up where High Tide… left off, and caught up with the group through “Honky Tonk Women,” and forget that it was the second American LP to begin with “Paint It, Black”; that two of the cuts had just recently been on Their Satanic Majesties Request; that it failed to include such stray tracks as “We Love You” and “Child of the Moon.” It is a perfect album. It’s a summing-up of an incredibly creative period in the band’s history, a punctuation mark, and a memorial to Brian Jones, who started the Stones, who was dismissed in June ’69, and who died on July 3, just prior to the band’s performing a giant free concert in Hyde Park with their new guitarist, Mick Taylor.

Often when critics are asked to list the best albums of all time, the caveat is that greatest hits collections don’t count. It’s considered cheating, somehow. Not so much with artists from the ’50s, when the 45 was the primary format for rock records. But when it comes to the ’60s, you’re supposed to think loftier. Which I get. Aftermath is a terrific album, and for all its flipped-out messiness, Satanic Majesties does have a singular creative mission. But the Stones were a great singles band, and part of the excitement of the decade was watching them and the Beatles try to outdo each other in 7″ increments, and ward off all the other competition from bands like the Beach Boys, the Kinks, and the Byrds. Over the last half-century, the eleven tracks that make up the American version of Through the Past, Darkly (it strays a bit from its U.K. companion volume) have been recycled in countless configurations, but as a compact, in-its-time snapshot of that moment in the band’s life, it’s never been topped.

The Rolling Stones Through The Past, Darkly, ABKCO 1969

When Through the Past, Darkly kicks off with “Paint It, Black,” it’s a reminder of how the stakes kept getting higher: everything about it, from Brian taking the sitar to places it hadn’t gone on a rock record, to Charlie’s slamming drums, to Mick’s more-urgent-than-ever vocal, was a huge step forward. On this album, it leads right into “Ruby Tuesday,” another shining moment for Brian (Marianne Faithfull insists the song started with his melodic notion, but he was always snubbed when it came to getting writer credit), and then to “She’s a Rainbow,” that light-fantastic track from Satanic Majesties, which goes into “Jumpin’ Jack Flash,” and how can any album that starts off with those four tracks—before getting around to the other seven that include one of their loveliest psych-pop excursions (“Dandelion”), the thrilling cacophony of “Have You Seen Your Mother Baby, Standing in the Shadows,” and a “take that!” finish of “Street Fighting Man”—not make anyone’s best-ever top ten? You might believe that the Stones’ Let It BleedSticky FingersExile on Main St. run tops their Aftermath-and-after period, and that’s a defensible position to take. But I’d still grab Through the Past, Darkly first in a hypothetical album-emergency.

Band photo inside the album jacket of Through The Past, Dsrkly

On any given night on their 2019 American tour, at least five songs in the Stones’ nineteen-song set—you do the math—appear on Through the Past, Darkly. Some nights, “She’s a Rainbow,” given new life on TV commercials, shows up as the online-voted fan favorite; others, “Let’s Spend the Night Together” gets dusted off. At every show, you were guaranteed to hear “Street Fighting Man,” “Jumpin’ Jack Flash,” “Paint It, Black,” and “Honky Tonk Woman.” And, honestly, do you think anyone at any stadium anywhere would be crushed if the Stones did all eleven of the album’s songs (how much would I love to hear “2000 Light Years from Home” and “Dandelion” live)? It might have been concocted to get Stones product on the shelves—there hadn’t been a new album since December ’68, quite a stretch in those days, and Let It Bleed wasn’t ready yet—and to promote the upcoming U.S. fall tour dates, the first time the band would play Stateside since the summer of ’66, and to take advantage of “Honky Tonk Women” being such a smash hit. Whatever. As Greil Marcus wrote in Rolling Stone, “Whether or not the songs were chosen with great care or virtually at random, they form an album of tremendous impact, just like any record of Little Richard’s greatest hits.” London Records, the Stones’ U.S. label at the time, knew we’d buy it.

Inside cover art from Through The Past, Darkly

Inside the arresting octagon gatefold cover with the Ethan Russell photos was a poem in remembrance of Brian Jones, and in a way, the whole album is a tribute to his musical contribution during those adventurous years. It’s his sitar driving “Paint It, Black,” his recorder that makes “Ruby Tuesday” so unusually haunting. He’s all over “Mother’s Little Helper,” sharing 12-string guitar duties with Keith, on organ on “Let’s Spend the Night Together, on saxophone and mellotron on “Dandelion,” on mellotron on “2000 Light Years from Home” and “She’s a Rainbow.” The flighty trippyness of Satanic Majesties feels particularly Brian-ish (he was the Stone who went to the Monterey Pop Festival, where he strolled the fairgrounds with Nico and introduced the Jimi Hendrix Experience), so naturally when that album was dismissively reviewed, Mick and Keith made Brian the scapegoat; now that it’s been re-evaluated, and “She’s a Rainbow” given its place in the Stones’ canon, I’m sure their take has been revised.


Through the Past, Darkly is a series of smart segues and abrupt jump-cuts; it has the youthful daring and fragmented energy of a Godard film from the second half of the ‘60s. Unlike a lot of hits-collections, it has a kind of unchronological logic. Side two starts with “Honky Tonk Women,” a song that Brian was around for the early stages of, but on the final version, the hit, it’s his replacement Mick Taylor on guitar alongside Keith, Brian in exile from the band he started. Then the side continues with acid flashbacks – “Dandelion” into “2000 Light Years from Home” into “Have You Seen Your Mother Baby…” (one of the album’s earliest tracks) – before bringing the story nearly up to date with “Street Fighting Man.” This is where the band is going; this is where it’s been; this is where we all are as the decade nears its end, with the sound of marching, charging feet. The Stones came to a fractured America in the fall of 1969 for one of the most anticipated arena tours in rock history, released Let It Bleed at the beginning of December and, that same week, wound up their U.S. visit with a free concert at the Altamont Raceway Park in Tracy, California. A new Stones era was just a shot away.


AUDIO: The Rolling Stones Through The Past, Darkly (full album)










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Mitchell Cohen

RockandRollGlobe contributing writer Mitchell Cohen began writing about music and films for various publications in the mid-’70s, including Creem, Film Comment, Take One, Fusion, Phonograph Record Magazine. He is the co-author of Matt Pinfield’s memoir All These Things That I’ve Done, and a contributor to the website Music Aficionado. Follow him on Twitter @mitchellscohen.

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