Producer Jimmy Miller's Influence on The Rolling Stones
The following article was published by Rolling Stone Magazine on May 24, 2018.
The Rolling Stones' "Jumpin' Jack Flash," released as a single 50 years ago today, isn't merely the greatest song ever written about Keith Richards' gardener (who inspired the tune in name only). It recently came to light that, in the summer of 2016, a phrase from the opening line – "crossfire hurricane" – became the FBI code name for their investigation of President Trump and his ties to Russian meddling in the election. But due to the involvement of producer Jimmy Miller, "Flash" was already a landmark in the band's discographical lore.
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The song arrived five months after the ill-fated Their Satanic Majesties Request LP, which had critics and fans alike questioning whether the Stones were still relevant. Writing for Rolling Stone, Jon Landau said "Their Satanic Majesties Request, despite moments of unquestionable brilliance, puts the status of the Rolling Stones in jeopardy. With it, the Stones abandon their capacity to lead in order to impress the impressionable. They have been far too influenced by their musical inferiors and the result is an insecure album in which they try too hard to prove that they too are innovators, and that they too can say something new." Landau further added that the album "was marred by poor production."
The Stones didn't need a rock critic to tell them they could use some help. Before you could say Jack Flash, they'd hired Brooklyn-born producer Jimmy Miller who, while they were recording Satanic Majesties in studio A at Olympic Studios, had been recording Traffic's debut album in studio B. "Jumpin' Jack Flash" was the first release with the new partnership.
The collaboration would be one of rock's most fruitful, with Miller producing the next five Stones albums: Beggars Banquet, Let It Bleed, Sticky Fingers, Exile on Main Street, and Goats Head Soup. Those first four aren't just four of the best albums the Stones would ever record; they're four of the greatest rock albums of all time (coming in at numbers 58, 32, 64 and 7, respectively, according to Rolling Stone). "Jimmy Miller was one of the most simpatico producers that I've ever worked with," Keith Richards said in According to the Rolling Stones. "He could handle a band – especially this band – and gave everybody the same level of support. ... He had a very good rapport with Mick."
Jimmy Miller brought two major things to the Stones. First, he encouraged experimentation in the studio. To wit: When the band played the demo for "Jumpin' Jack Flash" on a mono cassette, Richards commented how much he liked the distortion his acoustic guitar was getting from overloading the tape. Miller suggested that if they liked the sound so much, they could record the guitar part that way for the song. "You know, there we were, spending good money for time in a top studio," Miller told writer Richard Buskin for his book Inside Tracks, "and recording on a 20 pound cassette machine."
Miller also brought the groove, the roll, to the rock. "Jimmy Miller was a damn good drummer," Keith Richards writes in his memoir, Life. "He understood groove. He made it very easy for me to work, mainly for me to set the groove, set the tempos ..." "Sympathy for The Devil," which started as a folk-inspired dirge, would be nothing without the samba rhythm, which was incorporated under Miller's watch.